Friday, December 28, 2012

Top 10 Physics Buzz Stories of 2012

It's been an eventful year in the world of physics. Curiosity landed on Mars, physicists found a Higgs-like particle, and ponytail physics made its popular debut. We covered these big stories in 2012, but many others proved more popular on our blog.

Here's the list of our 10 most popular blog posts of the year based on pageviews.

10. National Physics Day

Physics departments celebrated the day with fun science experiments for the public. Physics enthusiasts celebrate this unofficial holiday on April 24th.
9.  Zombie Apocalypse Survival Gear: Ham Radios
Shotguns, skillets and shovels may help you battle the undead, but don't underestimate the need for amateur radio.

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Thursday, December 27, 2012

Physicists Explore The Rise And Fall Of Words

Scientific techniques show promise for future linguistics research.
The use of terrific (blue), exciting (red), and outstanding (gold) from 1858-2008.
Image credit: Google Ngram Viewer:

(ISNS) -- Every year the Oxford English Dictionary expands, incorporating freshly coined terms such as "bromance," "staycation" or "frenemy." However, a recent analysis has found that as a language grows over time, it becomes more set in its ways. New words are always being added, according to this study, but few become widely used and part of the standard vocabulary.

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Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Podcast: The Most Important Physics Stories of 2012

We're almost done with 2012, and it's time to look back and figure out which physics stories and breakthroughs were the most important. But how should we rank importance in physics? Is the most important research the kind that influences our everyday lives? The kind that saves the most lives? Or should we give the title to the research that slowly but surely moves technology forward?

In this week's podcast Mike and I try to come up with a definition of "important" when it comes to physics research, while we share some of our favorite physics stories from 2012. We cover the discovery of what is believed to be the Higg's boson (here's our jumbo podcast about it), the room-temperature maser (click for our podcast), the physics of spilling coffee (one of the stories covered in Mike's Ig Nobel podcast), neutrinos encoded with information, and the physics of mosquitos in the fog. Next week we'll be back with our favorite astrophysics and astronomy stories from 2012.

For more physics highlights from 2012, check out Physics World's top ten physics breakthroughs of 2012, top ten multimedia highlights of 2012, and favorite physics pictures of 2012. Physics World also chose How the Hippies Saved Physics as their favorite book of 2012. Listen to our podcast with the book's author, David Kaiser, here. Jennifer Ouellette also made a list of top science books from 2012, which includes The Particle at the End of the Universe—you can listen to our podcast with that book's author, Sean Carroll, here.

Have a happy and safe New Year, everyone!

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Monday, December 24, 2012

A Puzzle of a Cookie Recipe

Yes, its that time of year again where you decorate cookies with you family in the hopes that having something to do stop your parents telling you to find a 'real' job.  Why not prolong the fun even more by having people make cookies from a more difficult recipe.  If you are having trouble figuring this out, maybe the famous "Measuring Things Mug" can help you out.  Unfortunately it has been discontinued, but hopefully the photos will help.  Enjoy!

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Friday, December 21, 2012

The Science of Hitting the High Notes

For audiences that attend the traditional Christmas performances of Mozart's opera "The Magic Flute," a highlight is the aria "Queen of the Night." But sopranos who must sing the aria often approach the performance with more fear than anticipation.

Theatrical stage set created for Mozart's opera "The Magic Flute."
Image credit: Karl Friedrich Schinkel,
The challenging solo requires the singer to reach notes more than two and a half octaves above middle C -- an achievement often followed by voice fatigue and the risk of vocal overuse. Some musicologists have speculated that singers employ a different vocal process when hitting extremely high notes than they do when intoning lower pitches. But a German-Swedish research team using an inventive method of imaging the vocal cords has discredited that theory.

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Thursday, December 20, 2012

Scientists Search for Rudolph's Red Nose, and other great stories.

Dutch scientists journeyed close to the North Pole to pursue a question that has baffled scientists for generations: Why is Rudolph's nose red?

Image Credit: Kia Krarup Hansen
You may recall the most famous reindeer of all, though you might not have realized that a species of reindeer really does have a particularly rosy snout.

In the study, published in the holiday edition of the British Medical Journal, the team of researchers found that reindeer noses contain a dense network of capillaries that are rich in red blood cells.

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Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Podcast: The Particle at the End of the Universe

This week on the podcast I interview Sean Carroll, theoretical physicist and author of the new book The Paritcle at the End of the Universe: How the Hunt for the Higgs Boson Leads Us to the Edge of a New World.

This particle at the end of the universe is none other than the Higgs boson, the particle that gives many elementary particles their mass. I talked with Carroll about why non-scientists should care about the Higgs and what kind of awesome new physics it might introduce us to. Plus, he shares the three most common misconceptions people have about the Higgs boson, and explains why, even though life as we know it would not exist without it, the Higgs is not responsible for most of the mass in your body.
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Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Asteroid Home Movies

Last week, the asteroid 4179 Toutatis made its quadrennial encounter with Earth. This year marks Toutatis's closet flyby, coming about 4.3 million miles away (about 18 times the distance to the moon) on December 12, 2012. As the 3-mile-long asteroid whizzed by, NASA's 230-foot Deep Space Network antenna in Goldstone, California, captured radar images of the oblong asteroid tumbling through space.

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Monday, December 17, 2012

Occupied Christmas: Lasers in the Loo

What happens when a bunch of physicists and science writers compete in the annual holiday office decoration contest? Apparently, they decide to decorate the bathroom.

The Physics Buzz team and a few of our cubicle neighbors did just that during our off-duty time over the past few weeks. The tiny bathroom at the end of our hall was nearly unrecognizable (in a good way) after our flurry of interior designing.

Aptly named the Can of Cheer, our re-designed water closet comes equipped with wallpaper, lights, a Christmas tree, cookies for Santa, and a few physics goodies as well.

The judges took notice, awarding our department the Grand Prize for Best Overall Concept in our society's annual decorating contest. Santa would be proud.

We've got a video tour for you below, and I'll guide you through what makes this physics-themed restroom so festive.
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Friday, December 14, 2012

Communication of Science Through Art

2012 APS Comic-Con International Team

Since 2008 the APS public outreach team has been publishing comic books.  Starting with Nikola Tesla and the Electric Fair as part of the PhysicsQuest program and continuing now with Spectra: Turbulent times, these comics have proven to be more popular than any of us ever thought they would. Recently I (Mathlete and Spectra author) gave a talk at the fall meeting of the American Geophysical Union (AGU) about how Spectra was created and why so many people actually read it.  

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Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Podcast: Winter Physics Round-Up

It's December! The beginning of winter and the heart of the holiday season. Our podcast this week is a round-up of some of the physics you can find all around you this time of year. And boy-oh-boy is there a lot of physics.

Here are some past podcasts for this time of year:

Here's a fun interview that Roger Highfield did about his book, The Physics of Christmas. It's for a show called "The Infinite Monkey Cage" and it's hosted by physicist Brian Cox and actor/writer/comedian Robin Ince.

Here's a video created by some folks at NIST demonstrating just how fast a dry Christmas tree can go up in flames. Note that this was a staged demonstration (not really someone's house) and that sufficiently watering your tree can prevent this.

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Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Bringing Physics to a Bar Near You

Let's talk about beer.

This year, the number of breweries in America has hit a 125-year high, ousting 1887's former claim to the title. The US has over 2000 craft breweries and I don't think that includes the White House. Let's just call it the United States of Good Beer.

U.S. Breweries since 1887. Image Source: Brewers Association

But let's be serious. Brewing is a science and NPR agrees.

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Monday, December 10, 2012

In Hubble's Shadow

The discovery that our universe is expanding certainly ranks among the most important scientific contributions of the 20th century. Only a few years before this discovery, most astronomers believed that our universe consisted solely of our Milky Way galaxy. But we've discovered so much more since then.

So who's credited for this discovery? Most people would say Edwin Hubble — the revered astronomer with a famous telescope bearing his name.

There were several other astronomers, however, who significantly contributed to this discovery. Astronomer Knut Lundmark, for instance, provided some of the first observational evidence for an expanding universe.

Now, an historical analysis has revealed that some of Lundmark's measurements were far more accurate than Hubble's. On top of that, Lundmark conducted these measurements five years before Hubble's expansion discovery.

The Hubble Space Telescope. Image Credit: NASA

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Saturday, December 08, 2012

Art and Physics Collide: Accidental Painting

"Accidental painting" is pretty simple: Drop some paint onto a horizontal surface, wait, then pour a different color of paint on top of it. When done in the correct order, however, the results can be fantastic.

An art historian and physicist decided to find out why after investigating the works of the artist who perfected this technique: David Alfaro Siqueiros

Check out the video embedded below for more on this research. The results are absolutely stunning.

Also, check out our Physics Central article that goes into the detail of the research.

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Friday, December 07, 2012

Leukemia-Killing Plasma Beam Could Offer New Cancer Treatments

A low-temperature 'plasma blowtorch' triggers death of diseased cells.

Image credit: Chuck Thomas, Old Dominion University

Patients battling the blood cancer leukemia could one day receive a new type of treatment that uses a plasma -- a gas of electrically charged particles -- to kill cancer cells while keeping the healthy cells intact, according to new research.

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Thursday, December 06, 2012

What happened to my battery?

If you've ever wondered why the battery life of your iPod or laptop flatlines after a few years, rest assured: scientists are on it.

Physicists at Brookhaven National Laboratory have developed advanced imaging techniques to find out how and why lithium batteries steadily degrade over time. The research, published in the journal Nature Communications, presents real-time videos of the lithium ion reaction in rechargeable lithium batteries.

Lithium ions gradually destroy material in batteries.
In this experiment, scientists used iron-fluoride
nanoparticles and watched as lithium ions separated
the nanoparticle into iron crystals and chunks of lithium-fluoride.
Image source: Brookhaven National Laboratory
"The live, nanoscale imaging may help pave the way for developing lasting, higher-capacity lithium-ion batteries," the lead author Feng Wang told Brookhaven National Laboratory press, "That means better consumer electronics, and the potential for large-scale, emission-free energy storage."

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Wednesday, December 05, 2012

Podcast: Extreme Cosmos

Ever wonder what the fastest object in the universe is? Or the hottest? The oldest? The heaviest? The loudest? You could try checking Wikipedia, but you'll be surprised to find how many of these seemingly simple questions aren't answered by online sources (or are answered incorrectly). Thankfully, there is now a reputable source for all those universal records you're so curious about: "Extreme Cosmos: A Guided Tour of the Fastest, Brightest, Hottest, Heaviest, Oldest and Most Amazing Aspects of Our Universe."

Author and astronomer Bryan Gaensler talks with us this week on the podcast about his book and the many extreme things there in. He shares the story of the fastest object ever measured (not counting light, it's the so-called "Oh-My-God" particle), and explains why astronomers don't always aim to break universal records in their research, even if the news headlines can seem a little over-eager to do just that. 

Dr. Gaensler is an astronomer at the University of Sydney, Australia, and Director of the ARC Centre of Excellence for All-sky Astrophysics (CAASTRO). 

Unrelated to the podcast, astronomers working at CAASTRO are looking for new ways to study the entire sky all at once. I asked him why it's important to look at the entire sky, instead of small patches the way most telescopes do.

"We're starting to hit the limit of the questions that you can answer by peering deeply at one little patch of the sky at the time," said Dr. Gaensler. "The next big questions in astronomy, things like what is dark matter, what is dark energy, how did the first stars form; the answers aren't necessarily in one little patch of the sky but they're subtly written across all the stars. So you're never going to find the answer by staring deeply, you have to gather the signal from the whole sky and you have to look for very subtle statistical signatures to get the answer." 

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Tuesday, December 04, 2012

How Dunes get their Shapes

Image: NASA
Deserts are like seas of sand. The features of the landscape are constantly moving and changing like waves locked in slow motion. Much like the ocean, regular patterns form out of the chaos, which scientists have long sought to understand.

A team from Paris has now developed a new model that can accurately simulate the movements of sand dunes that almost seem to sprint across the surface of the Earth or Mars. It can take years for a sandscape to fully remake itself, so scientists seeking to understand how the wind changes the topography have to rely on simulations and computer models. They found that the formation of sand dunes is surprisingly similar to a fizzy soda.

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Monday, December 03, 2012

Curiosity detects organic compounds, but are they Martian?

Today, scientists working on NASA's Mars Curiosity Rover released some of their preliminary results from soil samples taken on the red planet.

They made a number of intriguing announcements, including the detection of simple organic compounds — some of the building blocks for life. There's a very important caveat, however. These compounds may have hitched a ride from Earth, and scientists don't have definitive evidence that the compounds actually originated on Mars.

John Grotzinger, project scientist for the Curiosity mission at Caltech, emphasized caution and patience during the team's announcement at the American Geophysical Union's Fall Meeting in San Fransisco today.

"It has made this detection of organic compounds, simple organic compounds," said Grotzinger, referring to the mission's Sample Analysis at Mars (SAM) instrument.

Importantly, he added, "We simply don't know if they're indigenous to Mars or not."

Curiosity's first scoop at the "Rocknest" area on Mars. Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS

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Friday, November 30, 2012

Brain Pics Confirm that Einstein was Smart

It's a good thing we still have access to [pictures and pieces of] Einstein's brain. Otherwise, we may never have known how smart he was . . . unless you consider all the stuff he came up with, like the Theory of Relativity and such.


I was a bit snarky with Sanjay Gupta when he helped spread nonsense about cell phone risks a while back. I guess it's only fair to post a link featuring him talking about something that is well within his expertise as a neurosurgeon. Specifically, he took a few moments to tell Wolf Blitzer about the features that made Albert Einstein's brain special.

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Thursday, November 29, 2012

Scientists Build Silk And Then Listen To It

An unusually broad collaboration of researchers from MIT, Boston University, and Tufts University suggest that music theory and composition may shed insight into novel biomaterials.

Musical score derived from the protein patterns
Credit: J. McDonald (Tufts University)

The study, published this week in the journal Nano Today, sought to connect the organizational structure and function of the proteins in spider silk to compositional structure and function in music. The researchers believe that material properties like strength, flexibility, and elasticity, may be apparent in a musical rendition of the protein organization. In turn, the theories of musical composition may help identify structures for novel biomaterials.

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Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Podcast: Lets Go Ride a Bike

On this week's podcast, Calla and I found out how the bikes of yesteryear lost their enormous front wheel when they started using two gears connected by a chain.

Gears let riders get the most out of pedaling. They redirect the force of the rider's stroke over a long stretch of road if they're trying to speed down the highway, or condensed into a small section of road if they're powering up a huge hill. What setting your bike is in is measured in "Gear Inches." A gear setting that moves you really far with one single turn of the pedals is said to have a lot of gear inches, while a setting with only a few gear inches will only move you forward a little bit.

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Tuesday, November 27, 2012

GATTACA Rises: building structures out of DNA

As the 1940's became the 50's, scientists identified the structure and function of DNA as the basic building block of life. Scientists today are using the fundamental ability of DNA to self-organize to engineer nanostructures from IBM microchips to nano-robots. It's the age of DNA origami and with it comes new possibilities for drug delivery, and nanosenors.

Now, physicists at the Institute of Chemistry and Biology of Membranes and Nano-objects at the National Center for Scientific Research in Pessac, France have developed a computer program that describes how DNA strands selectively fold and weave together to form two- and three-dimensional structures.

Program can identify how DNA strands will selectively bind at certain positions.
Source: J.M. Arbona, et. al. Phys. Rev. E 86, 051912 (2012)

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Monday, November 26, 2012

Mach 3 Bubble Shockwaves

What's the best way to recover from a week of overeating, movie watching and napping (all very arduous tasks)? I advise sitting back and watching some cool physics videos.

Today we have another featured video from last week's Division of Fluid Dynamics Meeting in San Diego, CA.

The video below shows what happens when a Mach 3 shockwave slams into a helium bubble. Researchers needed a supercomputer cluster to simulate the phenomenon, revealing how density and vorticity (more on that after the jump) evolve during the process.

Video Credit: Babak Hejazialhosseini, Diego Rossinelli and Petros Koumoutsakos from the Computational Science and Engineering Laboratory, ETH Zurich, Switzerland

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Tuesday, November 20, 2012

The Science Behind Turkey Time

Wild Turkey / Image Credit: Andrea Westmoreland via Flickr
There are 60-foot high balloons floating above packed city blocks, cranberries on the stove, inside-the-turkey stuffing, mashed potatoes, outside-the-turkey stuffing, football, abominably huge turkeys, and one lucky bird.

The best part of Thanksgiving dinner? Leftover Thanksgiving dinner.

But those leftovers take hard work-- that hot, perfect, leftover Thanksgiving dinner Friday lunch sandwich -- that takes precision, dedication, and extra cranberries.

In this Thanksgiving-special post, we present this great video from the American Chemical Society that sheds light on the science behind pop-up turkey timers, mashed potatoes, and those great thanksgiving naps.

Happy Thanksgiving everyone!

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Monday, November 19, 2012

Frozen Powder Drops

The Division of Fluid Dynamics annual meeting has officially begun in San Diego, CA, ending tomorrow. So how should we celebrate? With awesome fluid dynamics videos, of course.

Every year, this physics meeting hosts a gallery of fluid motion, highlighting the beautiful physics behind this field. A panel of judges ultimately selects the best videos and posters based on "artistic value, scientific content, and originality."

Today, we have another great entry for you that was originally posted on the arXiv. In the video, physicists from King Abdullah University of Science and Technology in Saudi Arabia were able to "freeze" water droplets after they impact a layer of super hydrophobic (water-avoiding) powder.

If the droplets hit the surface fast enough, the powder will lock them into some beautiful shapes that resemble bowling pins and ice cream cones. Right after impact, the water droplets seem to instantly transform into something resembling a Sour Patch Kid. Check it out!

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Friday, November 16, 2012

Exploring the Evolution of Musical Instruments

The invention of musical instruments came about accidentally, suggests an Australian physicist. Developing instruments depended on the materials available, and sometimes the stimulus came from the clamor of battle.

Image Credit: Phintias,
No one knows where music came from, or who Elvis' singing predecessors were, or even when the first instruments were invented, but Neville Fletcher, a retired scientist at the Australian National University in Canberra who has made a hobby of studying the physics of instruments, thinks the key to the invention of instruments is the materials available in each civilization. The people used what they had.

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Thursday, November 15, 2012

Building with fractals: when more means less

Researchers are designing ultralight structures using fractal patterns and demonstrating that these fractal architectures require a lot less material to retain the mechanical strength of their non-fractal progenitors.

Fractal patterns can be used to describe everything from the tree branches and snowflakes, the structure of the Eiffel tower, the amyloid proteins associated with Alzheimer's disease, to Jackson Pollock's drip paintings

A fractal describes a "self-similar" pattern, whose component parts have a structure similar to the structure they create-- like a fern frond that's made up of little fronds.

Image Credit: Ian Britton

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Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Podcast: The Accidental Doomsday Machine

The PHENIX detector, under construction, at RHIC.
Photo: Brookhaven National Laboratory
This week on the podcast I'm very happy to welcome Nobel Prize winning physicist Frank Wilczek, who shares a story about a time he suffered for science. Specifically, Wilczek spent two and a half days on the side of a remote New Hampshire highway, using a pay phone to call reporters all over the world and explain to them why the Relativistic Heavy Ion Collider (RHIC) was not going to create a black hole and swallow the world.

For anyone who remembers the LHC doomsday threat of 2008/2009, Wilczek's story will resonate loudly. Walter Wagner, the man behind the patently false claims that the LHC might somehow destroy or devour the world, was making similar claims against RHIC in 1999. When Wilczek composed a reply to a letter Mr. Wagner wrote to Scientific American, addressing Wagner's (unfounded) concerns, Wilczek thought the issue was so cut and dry, that he ventured to add a little "spice" to the reply.

Wilczek is able to laugh at his decision in retrospect, even considering the circus that ensued, both in 1999 and 2008 (for a great retrospective of the events in 1999, check out this Physics World article from 2000). Listen to the podcast to hear the whole story, including the ripple effect it had for anyone working in physics communications at the time.

Frank Wilczek is the author of a number of books, including The Lightness of Being: Mass, Ether and the Unification of Forces. He is a professor of physics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
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Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Scientists use Microsoft Kinect to Control Laser Tweezers

In a science-savvy hack of Micosoft's Xbox Kinect, scientists are putting control of single molecules, cells and even strands of DNA in the palm of your hands.

In a paper published on the arXiv, Craig McDonald, David McGloin and their colleagues at the University of Dundee, are using the Kinect to manipulate optical tweezers-- intensely focused beams of light that can trap, move and rotate microscopic particles. They call it HoloHands. The intuitive Kinect control of optical tweezers and other scientific tools has the potential to make these tools accessible to a broader audience that includes interdisciplinary scientists, schools, and museums, the scientists say.

Frame from video of HoloHands. Image Source: arXiv.
When Microsoft released the software development platform for Kinect in 2011, they opened up the kind of crowd-sourced development that Apple achieved by allowing anyone to develop Apps (see Make's point on why this might not be as successful as the app store here). Pairing an infrared laser and a tiny camera, the Kinect locates objects in three-dimensional space and tracks the movement of specific body parts, repeating measurements 200 times per second. You can read the Microsoft research team's paper here.

Software developers are already writing Kinect apps to control flying robots, as a rehabilitation aid for stroke patients, to dock satellites in orbit, enable surgeons to manipulate images during surgery, and even help you shop at Whole Foods

Now, researchers are using the Kinect to control lasers and make scientific experiments tactile and intuitive.

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Monday, November 12, 2012

Movie Review: The Revisionaries

It seem that everything is indeed bigger in Texas, including the influence of the Texas State Board of Education. That controversial government body is the focus of a new documentary I had the pleasure of seeing this past weekend: The Revisionaries.

The movie focuses on the strong influence of intelligent design proponents and creationists over Texas's state board. In particular, the film presents a personal, in-depth look at the peculiar Dentist/young Earth creationist who headed the board from 2007 to 2009: Don McLeroy.

This film is at once distressing, enlightening, and, at times, hilarious. Condensing days worth of board meeting footage, the filmmakers reveal the frequently ridiculous and seemingly arbitrary decisions that have a major impact on textbooks not only in Texas but also across the U.S.

Because the Texas textbook market is so enormous, the board can exert indirect influence over science education nationwide. After seeing the way some members of the board reviled experts and ignored basic scientific principles, that influence troubled me.

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Friday, November 09, 2012

Podcast: Hiding in the Light

Photo by Matthew Hoelscher
This week on the podcast I chat with Dr. Nicholas Roberts, a former physicist who now teaches in the biology department at the University of Bristol in the UK. Roberts belongs to the Visual Ecology Laboratory, where he and his colleagues try to understand how animals see the world, and how visual information influences how they behave.

Recently, Dr. Roberts and his colleagues solved a decades-old puzzle about how silvery fish like herring and sardines get their mirror-like skin. The basic mechanism behind this camouflage technique has been known for sometime (the secret is layers of guanine crystals in the fish's skin). But according to some basic physics principles, the silvery fish are too silvery: there are physical limits to how much light a normal reflective surface can reflect. The fish skins go beyond those limits and scientists couldn't explain why (humans have made artificial reflectors that also go beyond these limits, but with different techniques than those in the fish skin, and only in the past 10 years). Roberts and his team have found the secret of the flashy fish skin, and the new results may find their way into man-made reflectors and other optical technologies.
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Possible Dark Matter Signal Spotted

Researchers react to telescope's findings with a mix of enthusiasm and doubt.

Image courtesy of NASA

An apparent signal from the middle of our galaxy could be the evidence physicists have long been seeking for dark matter, the mysterious substance thought to represent the missing mass in the universe.

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Thursday, November 08, 2012

Study Reveals Why NBA Players Miss Free Throws

Advanced data collection uncovers the reasons why shooters miss the mark.

 Image credit: Inside Science
Rights information:
Many fans may wonder why so many NBA players struggle with free throws, such as newly acquired Los Angeles Laker Dwight Howard. He made just three of 14 attempts in his Oct. 30 season debut -- and less than one-half of his tries last season. New research may offer Howard and other NBA stars who struggle at the free-throw line a method to identify exactly why their shots go awry.

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Tuesday, November 06, 2012

NASA astronomers measure all the starlight, ever.

Stars have been twinkling across the universe for about 13.3 billion years. Now, NASA astronomers are using gamma rays from distant blazars to sum all the starlight that has ever shone in the history of the universe. 

NASA representation of a supermassive black hole with a jet streaming outwards
If the jet points at earth, it's called a blazar. Image Credit: NASA.

Up in low Earth orbit, the first 100 to 200 miles of space, the Large Area Telescope on the Fermi Gamma-ray Space Telescope takes a picture of the high-energy gamma rays across the whole sky. Taken every three hours for the past four years, these images have summed to the most detailed gamma-ray map of the universe.

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Monday, November 05, 2012

Nature and the ArXiv Revisited

Almost one year ago, several physicists from Imperial College London and the University of London released one of the most highly-praised papers on the foundations of quantum mechanics in recent years. Essentially, the researchers had provided strong evidence that the quantum state is, in fact, real. Furthermore, this suggested that the quantum state is not merely a reflection of an observer's knowledge of a system, as some physicists and philosophers have argued.

Image courtesy Cornell University Library/

Terry Rudolph, one of the authors of the paper, decided to submit his paper to perhaps the most prominent interdisciplinary scientific journal: Nature. Additionally, he posted his work to the popular arXiv preprint server.

After reaching a very late stage in the editorial process, the paper was rejected. The reason, according to Nature, was follow-up research that Rudolph posted on the arXiv which cast doubt on the original research. Rudolph, however, thought there was more to the decision.

In a blog post on Cosmic Variance, Rudolph included excerpts of emails from Nature that, in his mind, showed that the rejection stemmed from scientific "buzz" surrounding his preprint articles.

After seeing this blog post, I decided to investigate.
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Friday, November 02, 2012

Thursday, November 01, 2012

The Mylar Renaissance

Imagine walking into a dark, abandoned, stone church, the air a little damp and the floor echoing as you walk into the chapel, towards a glowing orb sitting on the floor.

In response to your approach, to your movement and to the heat you radiate, hundreds of individual metallic petals bend forward letting light and soft sound stream out.

Lotus Dome is the newest installment of the Lotus series by Dutch architect and tech artist Daan Roosegaard. As the principal behind Studio Roosegaard, a collaborative lab of engineers, artists, and designers, Roosegaard blends nature and technology to make architecture dynamic. His work spans interactive fields of light, sustainable dance floors and energy-generating highways.

LOTUS DOME hundreds of high-tech flowers by Studio Roosegaarde from Daan Roosegaarde on Vimeo.

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Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Mathematical Movement

A few weeks ago, Science announced the winners of the annual Dance Your PhD contest. Graduate students from all over the world send in surprisingly impressive videos of dance performances that explain or represent their research. This week on the PhysicsBuzz podcast, I chatted with the winner in the physics and math category, Diana Davis. Here's her winning entry:

Cutting Sequences on the Double Pentagon, explained through dance from Diana Davis on Vimeo.

Davis loves math. And she has some strong feelings about the way people perceive math. Do mathematics researchers spend all day hunched over calculators? Absolutely not.  What does it mean to do an experiment in mathematics? Davis says it's all about shapes. In fact, the research Davis does contributes to a field that could help us understand the shape of the entire universe. Does the universe have an edge? Or is it more like one of those weird Pentagon things in the video? Tune in and find out.
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Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Halloween Physics Costumes

It's time for (arguably) the best holiday of the year: Halloween. Children will be out trick-or-treating tomorrow, and kids of all ages will don their most inspired (or last minute, thrown together) costumes as well.

Costumes I've seen so far have covered a lot of ground: superheroes, mimes, Mega Sharks, and even binders (for political humor). But one costume department sorely lacks representation: physics costumes.

To help boost physics' Halloween cred, I will be "NASA Mohawk Guy" for Halloween this year. Bobak Ferdowsi -- the NASA Mohawk Guy -- achieved fairly widespread Internet fame during the landing of the Mars Curiosity Rover in August.
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Friday, October 26, 2012

Spider Webs That Get Under Your Skin

What is stronger than steel, tougher than Kevlar, and makes you flail when you walk through it?

Image Credit: Luc Viatour

Cobwebs! This Friday's post is all about how engineers, biologists, and materials scientists are spinning spider silk into biodegradable electronic devices that use silk instead of wire to transmit signals.

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Thursday, October 25, 2012

The One Where NASA Asks for a Tractor Beam

Image Credit: Greg Williams 
David Ruffner wasn't thinking about tractor beams-- until NASA called. 

Last year, a team of researchers at NASA set out to work with scientists to develop a beam of light that could draw objects back along its length.  Affixed to a space-probe, the tractor beam would remotely collect extraterrestrial atmospheric and planetary particles and transport them back to the space-probe for analysis. Now, scientists at New York University have put science-fiction into practice with a device that can pull particles of sand, plastic, and even molecules and cells up a conveyor belt of light.

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Wednesday, October 24, 2012

The Planet Next Door

Representations of Alpha Centauri A (larger) and B,
overlaying a real image of the system.
Credit: European Southern Observatory
Big, big astronomy news announced last week: a new planet has been discovered orbiting one of our closest stellar neighbors. A mere 4.4 light years away, Alpha Centauri Bb is both the closest and smallest extra-solar planet yet discovered. And while the planet is too hot to support life,  it's presence suggests there may be other, Earth-size planets in the same system—possibly in the habitable zone.

To learn more about the new planet, how it was found, and plans to find more planets in the Alpha Centauri system, check out this week's podcast.

Alpha Centauri Bb orbits around the star Alpha Centauri B, a member of the three-star Alpha Centauri system. The two brightest stars in the system, Alpha Centauri A and Alpha Centauri B, are similar to our sun. These two stars exist in a binary system, meaning they orbit very closet together, around a common central point. A third star, called Proxima Centauri, orbits in a wide loop around A and B, at a distance of about one trillion miles. Proxima Centauri is a red dwarf: an extremely small, cool, and thus very dim star. Despite being the closest star to our solar system, Proxima Centaur is not visible with the naked eye.

In many ways the new planet is unremarkable (it's not a planet made of diamonds as far as we can tell) but it's proximity to our own planet is enough to send the imagination soaring. What if there are planets in the Alpha Centauri system that are the right temperature to host life (why do you need liquid water to support life, anyway?)? What if we developed technologies that allowed a probe to reach the system? The discovery of Alpha Centauri Bb is a landmark on our journey to explore world beyond our own.
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Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Nuclear Pasta: Now Available at Your Nearest Supernova

At the end of their lives, massive stars can rapidly collapse onto their core and explode within a matter of seconds. As matter and particles rush toward the star's center, they pack together extremely tightly until they hit the limits at which nuclear forces flex their muscles.

This "bounce" against the nuclear forces leads to the massive explosion and shockwave whose remnants we can see with telescopes. During the bounce, there's some strange physics going on that remains to be fully understood.

Many scientists believe that the collapsing nuclei, protons, and neutrons from the star form strange formations during the bounce: nuclear pasta. The particles form spaghetti, meatballs, and lasagna density formations. Now, physicists can add a new pasta combination to the mix thanks to new research.

Stellini pasta image courtesy add1sun via flickr.

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Monday, October 22, 2012

Italian Court Convicts Seismologists for not being Psychic

Seven people have been convicted of manslaughter in Italy for failing to foretell an earthquake.

Galileo on trial 400 years ago. A new case shows that once again, Italian courts don't understand science.   
It's alright to enjoy a good Tarot reading from time to time. If you prefer palm readers, tea leaves, or goat entrails (wait, scratch the entrails part) then that's your business. Just realize it's entertainment, not science.

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Open Season on Einstein's image?

A California Federal judge has ruled that General Motors didn't violate copyright rules  by using Einstein's image in an advertisement.

Einstein as depicted in a 2009 GMC Terrain ad.
In keeping with the wishes in Einstein's will, the Hebrew University of Jerusalem owned rights to nearly all of his images. The University collected fees for the use of pictures in ads and other materials, and denied permission in cases the University deemed inappropriate.

The image here is from an ad that General Motors placed in People Magazine in 2009. Unsurprisingly, the Hebrew University took GM to court in 2010 seeking compensation for the unauthorized, and highly modified, picture.

In a ruling released today, the judge in the case determined that the rights to Einstein's image expired in 2010, fifty-five years after his death in New Jersey back in 1955, and that the lawsuit was initiated too late for the University to recoup any damages. Incidentally, had Einstein passed away in California, the copyright would still stand because the state allows heirs to maintain their rights up to seventy years after death.

The more significant point is that now, at least according to California courts, anyone can use Einstein's face in any way they like. This is in stark contrast to previous years when the Hebrew University was able to rigorously enforce their copyrights on a vast array of things related to Einstein.

It seems likely that we will see lots more of Einstein in ads very soon (although it's hard to imagine how you could see more of him than in the picture shown here without running up against a few decency laws.)
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Friday, October 19, 2012

Science Abused in Italian Courts Once Again

What is the deal with the legal system in Italy? A new ruling by the Italian Supreme Court has found, despite the lack of credible scientific evidence or even a plausible mechanism, that cell phones cause brain tumors.  

The last time we mentioned Italian courts on this blog, it was in discussing the attempt to prosecute seismologists who failed to predict an unpredictable earthquake. And of course, there was the famous trial of the scientist (and pioneer of the modern scientific method) who had the audacity to argue that the Earth is not the center of the universe - Galileo Galilei.

It's a good thing half of CERN is in Italy. At least that offsets their silly science track record a good bit.
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Thursday, October 18, 2012

Cosmic Rays Might Offer Japan Much Needed Aid in Nuclear Power Plant Cleanup.

On March 11, 2011 a wave almost 100 feet high rose out of a magnitude 9 earthquake centered close to the coast of Japan. As the ground shook in one of the wost earthquakes of the century, the nuclear reactors at the Fukushima Dai-ichi Nuclear Power Plant initiated emergency shutdown: stop fission, turn on backup generators to cool reactors as the heat of radioactive decay gradually abates.

And then the water hit. The generators were destroyed as the tsunami's flood of 40 foot waves washed over the plant. Without the cool water pumped by the generators, heat and pressure inside the reactors continued to build to a series of hydrogen explosions and a nuclear meltdown that damaged three of the plant's six reactors.

Los Alamos National Laboratory Muon Radiography team members on-site
at the Fukushima Dai-ichi Nuclear Power Plant. Courtesy of Los Alamos National Laboratory.

For the past two years, Japan has been trudging through the environmental, health, and safety cleanup but the high radiation levels have prevented anyone from getting close enough to inspect the damage inside the reactors. Now, researchers suggest that cosmic-rays, once used to scour the pyramids of Egypt and search beneath active volcanoes, could expose new information about the damaged reactors.

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Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Diving into the Nobel Prizes

In this week's podcast, I took a look at the work of Serge Haroche and David Wineland, this year's winners of the Physics Nobel Prize. They won for their groundbreaking work into quantum optics, the study of the interaction of light and matter at the smallest scales. Moreover, together their research let scientists play with the confounding world of quantum mechanics at a level once thought impossible.

In January, a few months before he won the most prestigious award in science, Wineland sat down with people at the Institute for Quantum Computing to talk a little more in depth about his research into ion traps, quantum weirdness and what you can do with it all.

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Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Gumby Goes Camo

Last year, the Dancing Gumby Robot moon-walked across news headlines. Inspired by skeleton-less creatures like starfish and worms, scientists built a soft robot that can creep around tight spaces and crawl over uneven surfaces. Now, Gumby's gone camo.

Image courtesy of DARPA.

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Monday, October 15, 2012

Drops on Drops on Drops

Among all of the sub fields in physics, fluid dynamics research consistently generates some of the most beautiful images and videos. In honor of the upcoming APS Division of Fluid Dynamics meeting in San Diego, today we bring you one such example video.

Typically, when a droplet of water plunges into a pool of water, it will bounce slightly and then coalesce with the rest of the water. But there's a way to keep the bounce going indefinitely.

If you put the pool of water on top of a loud speaker, you can vibrate the surface. This vibration can cause water droplets to continuously bounce and levitate atop the liquid surface.

Physicists Pablo Cabrera-Garcia and Roberto Zenit from National Autonomous University of Mexico conducted the experiments and filmed them with a high-speed camera for your viewing pleasure. Check it out!

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Friday, October 12, 2012

Pendulum Army Synchs Up

According to a common story (which may be a sort of physics folk tale as far as I know) the physicist Christiaan Huygens was sick in bed idly watching a pair of pendulum clocks on his wall when he noticed that they were swinging in perfect harmony (anti-harmony actually, because they swung in opposite directions, like mirror images of each other). When he set them swinging out of sync, they would always manage to eventually adjust their periods until they were swinging perfectly together again.

Although Huygens never figured out exactly what was going on, we now know that the two pendulums were coupled through tiny motions transferred through the wall they were both attached to. It's too bad Huygens never thought to do an experiment like the one in the video here.

If you have a little over four minutes to kill, check it out. I'm sure this demo would have totally blown Huygen's mind. I think it's just cool.
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Thursday, October 11, 2012

Why do Nobel Prizes reign supreme?

®© The Nobel Foundation
In this week's podcast we talk to author and science historian Robert Marc Freedman*, one of the foremost authorities on the science Nobel Prizes awarded prior to 1950 (specifically, Friedman studied the members of the award committee and tried to understand how the award winners were selected). We also talk briefly with Martin Perl**, co-winner of the 1995 Nobel Prize in physics for his discovery of the tau lepton.

I got in touch with Dr. Friedman with what I thought was a simple question: why are the Nobel Prizes such a big deal? There is quite simply no other science prize that comes close. But what did the Nobels do to earn this status?
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Tuesday, October 09, 2012

All the Trappings of the 2012 Nobel Prize in Physics

Serge Haroche and David Wineland were honored today with the 2012 Nobel Prize in Physics, for inventing the tools through which scientists can observe as the rules of quantum mechanics governing individual particles give rise to those of the classical world.

Simulated image of ions in a quantum superposition state.
Source: NIST / Bill Pietsch, Astronaut 3 Media Group, Inc.
The work of the two physicists are dazzlingly complementary. Wineland and his colleagues at the National Institute of Standards and Technology at the University of Colorado have devised systems of trapping single electrically charged atoms, called ions, to study quantum phenomena using pulses of laser light. Halfway across the world, Haroche and his team at the Collège de France in Paris Ecole Normale Supérieure have developed a superconducting container that can trap a single photon and, using a carefully timed stream of atoms, gather unprecedented information about the photon's quantum state.

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2012 Physics Nobel for Pioneering Work on Quantum Mechanics of Atoms and Photons

Serge Haroche  and David J. Winerland win the 2012 Nobel Prize “for ground-breaking experimental methods that enable measuring and manipulation of individual quantum systems".

COLLEGE PARK, MD – The 2012 Nobel Prize for Physics has been awarded to two physicists who performed experiments exploring aspects of quantum mechanics of particles and photons.
Serge Haroche of the Collège de France has focused primarily on trapping photons and studying their interactions with atoms, while David Wineland of the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) in Boulder, CO studies the quantum mechanics of atoms trapped and manipulated with lasers.

The prize-winning work is crucial to studying and confirming the often counter-intuitive nature of quantum mechanical systems. The experiments the two physicists performed lay the foundation for technology allowing the construction of quantum computers, which could solve problems far beyond the capabilities of even the most advanced conventional computers. Modern, ultra-precise clocks rely on the techniques developed by Haroche, Wineland and other scientists working on the forefront of quantum mechanical experimentation.

Both Haroche and Wineland are Fellows of the American Physical Society. Wineland has also won two of the APS prestigious prizes: the 2001 Schawlow Prize in Laser Science, and the 1990 Davisson-Germer Prize in Atomic or Surface Physics. 

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