Friday, June 29, 2012

Physics Buzz Podcast: Prometheus

This week on the Physics Buzz podcast we're talking about the summer blockbuster Prometheus!


I love picking out the science in science fiction movies! How much of the science is a reality, how much is still in our distant future, and how much is just plain wrong? This week we'll cover a few of the physics items from Prometheus. And, you can read what a few other scientists had to say about the movie, including Bad Astronomer Phil Plait, Neil deGrasse Tyson, and Sean O'Connor

And, for those who want a little more information after the podcast, here's a really cool video that explains how carbon dating works on Earth. 

Enjoy the summer movies, folks, and don't get too caught up in correcting the science in science fiction films. Just know that when your friends begin to wonder if it's really possible for humans to travel to a moon 30 light years away, you'll have an answer.

Read the rest of the post . . .

Thursday, June 28, 2012

Physicist Contributes Equation Central to Upcoming Spider-man Film

On July 3, one of the summer's hottest blockbusters – The Amazing Spider-man – will hit theaters across the country. There's a lot more to the film than A-listers and special effects, however. Physics and quantitative biology are apparently "at the center of a few major plot points in the film," according to the University of Minnesota.

University of Minnesota physics professor Jim Kakalios instilled some physics in the film by adapting a special equation for the filmmakers to use. Called the "decay rate algorithm," the equation referenced several times in the movie "relates to cell regeneration and human mortality," Kakalios said in a video released today.

But the decay rate algorithm isn't simply a figment of Kakalios' imagination. In fact, it has been adapted from a frequently cited equation connecting the likelihood of death with age: the Gompertz Law.
Read the rest of the post . . .

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

NASA: More Awesome Videos Like This, Please

"When people look at it, it looks crazy. That's a very natural thing. Sometimes when we look at it, it looks crazy."

-Adam Steltzner, NASA engineer working on the Mars Curiosity Rover.

Steltzner's opening lines for NASA's Mars Curiosity rover "trailer" video below may sound hyperbolic, but this video truly captures the scientific drama of this project. The Jet Propulsion Laboratory's news department has combined great visualizations, compelling interviews and an Inception-like soundtrack to sell us on the Curiosity rover.

Do yourself a favor, and watch it!



NASA and NASA enthusiasts have produced a number of beautiful, informative videos over the past couple years like the one above. Here's a glimpse at a few of our other recent favorites.
Read the rest of the post . . .

Monday, June 25, 2012

Science: Good Thing, Bad Thing, or Girl Thing?

The European Commission – the executive body of the European Union – recently launched a campaign to encourage more young girls to study science and engineering in school. Good idea, right? Of course.

Unfortunately, they decided to release a teaser video for the campaign (embedded below) featuring girls doing "science" in stilettos and short dresses, random shots of lipstick tubes, and a seemingly bewildered male scientist onlooker. The "Science: It's a Girl Thing" video, as seen below, has angered a lot of people who have rightfully argued that the sexist video demeans scientists of all backgrounds. The campaign took the video down shortly after the initial wave of criticism.



The video is pretty revolting, but the actual campaign website seems innocuous at worst, and it includes several great profile videos of women in science. Maybe the teaser video was a PR stunt, but generating this much bad press around launch will cast a permanent shadow on the campaign.
Read the rest of the post . . .

Friday, June 22, 2012

Physics brings character to life

Trying to curl hair into perfect spiral curls is difficult enough to do in real life but for the team of scientists and artists at Pixar the quest to create a wild mane of curls for Merida, the redheaded heroine of their latest film "Brave," may have sent them from innocent intrigue to full-blown obsession.

The time and attention to detail in the hair of Merida, the main character in 
"Brave," is more than just about making her look realistic on screen. 
Image courtesy of PIXAR,
© 2012 Disney/PIXAR. All Rights Reserved

"I have become obsessed with curly hair," said Claudia Chung, simulation supervisor for "Brave." "It is truly fascinating; curly hair defies physics in the way it moves and behaves."

Read the rest of the post . . .

Thursday, June 21, 2012

Higgs Boson Soon? Place Your Bets

Over the past few weeks, rumors of a recent Higgs boson discovery have spread rapidly across the internet. If you believe the rumors, there's a good chance that LHC scientists will announce strong evidence (or maybe even a discovery) of the much hyped "God particle" at an upcoming high energy physics conference in early July.

We don't know what's going to happen in July, but we do know what could happen. Thanks to Physics Central's handy Baryon Solenoid/Metric Tachyon Energy Radiometer (BSMeTER), we can predict the likelihood of what might happen at an upcoming press conference.

Our supercomputers have analyzed the data from the BSMeTER and delivered a list of the 15 most likely scenarios. Here's our unbiased, scientific results:

Read the rest of the post . . .

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Science Funding Around the World

Today, Greek politicians are trying to bring a number of disparate parties together to form a new government after recent elections. Meanwhile, the expected leaders of the new government hope to negotiate new terms for a previously arranged bailout from the European Union, the European Central Bank and the International Monetary Fund, according to the New York Times.

The economy has tanked in Greece, and it's certainly affected research spending there as well. In April, Physics Today spoke to many Greek scientists for their thoughts on recent budget cuts and consolidations.

They weren't optimistic, and reading their responses prompted me to look deeper into how much countries fund research and development around the world – and how that has changed in recent years. While the global statistics regarding science funding can be interesting by themselves, visualizing them in graphs, charts and infographics can truly illuminate the situation.


A comparison of research and development spending as a percentage of GDP for the year 2007. The larger red and yellow circles represent more spending, while smaller blue circles highlight less investment in research. Israel and Japan are among the top spenders with 4.8 percent and 3.44 percent, respectively.
Read the rest of the post . . .

Monday, June 18, 2012

Music Evolution and the "Loudness War"

Has music really changed over the past 50 years? Ask anyone who grew up with the Beatles, Elvis or even disco, and you'll hear a resounding 'yes.'

But a group of Spanish physicists wanted to mathematically measure the evolution of popular music over the past 50 years, just to be sure. Somewhat surprisingly, they found that music hasn't really changed that much on a fundamental, quantifiable level, according to their analysis of a million song dataset.

Nonetheless, the researchers did find three key trends in pitch, timbre (or tone quality), and loudness that may help explain the qualitative evolution of music. In particular, they found conflicting evidence of the "loudness war" among recording studios over the past few years – an apparent race for louder music at the expense of quality, according to critics.


Read the rest of the post . . .

Friday, June 15, 2012

To Estonia and Beyond

Last week, a team of 20 incredibly bright high school students descended upon the University of Maryland's physics building for a special kind of boot camp. They were all vying for the opportunity to travel to this year's International Physics Olympiad in Estonia – an Eastern European country just south of Finland. The 43rd annual competition will feature laboratory and theoretical exams for five students from each of the over 80 countries represented.

I had the opportunity to meet with the students and coaches of the U.S. team while they trained for the competition, and I was immediately impressed with the topics they were covering. These students, some of whom were just finishing their sophomore year, were handling Lorentz transformations with the confidence of a college sophomore.

In addition to lectures on topics like special relativity, the students also took exams and practiced in the lab in preparation for the weeklong competition in July. Only five students can travel to the competition, however, so this week also served as the final step in a long selection process.


IMG_5947
The 20 finalists for the 2012 U.S. Physics Olympiad Team. Image Credit: Matthew Payne/AAPT.

Read the rest of the post . . .

Thursday, June 14, 2012

A New Breed of Planet Hunters

Amateur scientists find niche in locating new planets.


The field of view for the Kepler spacecraft, which is collecting data for the search for exoplanets.Image Credit: Carter Roberts

By Brian Jacobsmeyer, ISNS Contributor

(ISNS) -- Over the past decade, scientists have found evidence of hundreds of planets orbiting stars outside our solar system. A group of volunteers has also joined the search, and they have found several additional planets that initially fell through the cracks.
Read the rest of the post . . .

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Powering the World, One Gym at a Time

My blog handle is "The Mathlete" because in addition to physics, I love working out, often to the point of obsession.  Recently we've had a lot of rain here and I've been inside in the gym running on the treadmill and using the stationary bikes (aka torture devices).  I'm sure everyone that has been in a gym has at one point thought that it might be a good idea to take the power people are generating from using these machines and using it to power their house.  Two groups have decided to do just that, use the power from the exercise machines to power parks and houses.  A group in the UK recently created an outdoor gym that uses the workout equipment to light the park lights and a homeless shelter in Detroit has built a "green gym" that recycles the energy back into the power grid.  But how efficient is this type of power really?  Could hooking up every exercise bike to the power grid save our energy crisis? 



Read the rest of the post . . .

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Wildfire Science and Rothermel's Legacy

It's wildfire season in the western U.S., and one fire in particular has taken the spotlight this week. Burning thousands of acres, the High Park Fire has already killed one woman and destroyed over 100 structures near Fort Collins, CO.

Two summers ago, the Fourmile Canyon Fire became the most devastating wildfire in my home state of Colorado's history, generating $217 million in insurance claims. Shortly thereafter, I wrote an article for my school magazine about groups of physicists, IT specialists, and climate scientists who use computer models to predict and track wildfires. Although wildfire modeling has developed significantly over time, its roots still exert great influence thanks to the field's "father": Dick Rothermel.


A view of the High Park Fire from space. Image Credit: NASA

Read the rest of the post . . .

Monday, June 11, 2012

Non-Newtonian Pothole Filler

It's no secret that we're huge fans of oobleck, ketchup, chocolate, silly putty and all manner of other non-Newtonian fluids. Now we can include one really cool application to the list of weird fluid wonders - non-Newtonian filler for potholes.



It's one of those great, yet tantalizingly obvious, inventions. I only wish I'd thought of it first.

Read the rest of the post . . .

Friday, June 08, 2012

The "Perfect" Free Kick and the Magnus Effect

Continuing our theme of sports based posts this week, today we're going to cover the world's most popular sport: football (or soccer for us Yankees). The 2012 UEFA European Football Championship starts today in Poland and Ukraine where top teams from across Europe will face off for the next few weeks.

And physics can explain some of the awe-inspiring plays performed by top players. Bicycle kicks, diving headers, and fingertip saves all exemplify the conservation of momentum, impulse (the change in momentum), and Newton's laws. Perhaps one of the most interesting physics phenomena in soccer, however, explains the curve behind long distance free kicks.

In 1997, Brazilian player Roberto Carlos rendered a French keeper stunned and speechless after curving a 30 meter strike off the post and into the goal. Although the top Youtube comment for Carlos' video below reads, "that dude left Einstein puzzled," the 19th century German physicist Gustav Magnus wouldn't have batted an eye.


Read the rest of the post . . .

Thursday, June 07, 2012

Judo Physics: Ranking Martial Arts Throws

Martial arts films' jaw-dropping fight scenes may leave you wondering if the laws of physics apply to Bruce Lee or Jet Li. Quite the opposite is true in real life, and an entire field of research specializes in understanding the biomechanics behind martial arts moves.

The martial art and Olympic sport of Judo – meaning "gentle way" – pits two competitors against each other in a battle of throwing, takedowns, and grappling maneuvers. Judo's throws rank among its best studied moves, where force and impulse (both the physical and mental property) play a key role. In preparation for the upcoming summer Olympic Games in London, here's a look into some of the physics behind Judo experts' impressive throwing skills.

Image Credit: Australian Paralympic Committee

Read the rest of the post . . .

Wednesday, June 06, 2012

Did Early Birds Exterminate Giant Insects?


An image of a 19-cm-long, 300-million-year-old fossil wing from Stephanotypus schneideri, along with an illustration of the largest relatively recent insect wing for comparison, that of 12-million-year-old 6.7-centimeter-long Epiaeschna lucida wing.
Image credit: 
Wolfgang Zessin, Matthew Clapham



(ISNS) -- Giant insects that ruled prehistoric skies for millions of years may have met their end due to the evolution of predatory birds, researchers say.
Gigantic insects once dominated the Earth. About 300 million years ago, during the late Carboniferous and early Permian periods, the largest flying insects  known, the predatory dragonfly-like griffinflies, had wingspans of up to 28 inches, about the same as the modern wood duck.

Read the rest of the post . . .

Tuesday, June 05, 2012

Taking Evolution out of South Korean Schools

When I visited South Korea last year, I saw firsthand just how much the country valued education. South Korean students have longer school hours than their U.S. peers. Many receive tutoring most days of the week. College libraries in South Korea are littered with touch screens and electronic archives.

Since the late 1970's, higher education in South Korea – especially in science and technology fields – has exploded. Although only 5 percent of young adults attended college in 1977, over 80 percent of students attend college today in South Korea. Higher education is not an option – it's an expectation of almost every student.

That's why I was surprised and slightly troubled to hear that textbook publishers in South Korea will be removing references to evolution from their high school educational materials. Biologists in South Korea claim that no scientists were consulted before the decision was made, according to Nature News.
Read the rest of the post . . .

Monday, June 04, 2012

Venus Transit: How to Watch Safely – and Stylishly

Depending on your location, tomorrow or Wednesday will be your last chance to see Venus pass in front of the Sun for 105 years. There will be a number of watching events across the U.S. tomorrow afternoon and evening, ranging from neighborhood parties to astronomy club viewings.

But you can't look directly at the sun without the right kind of protection, and there's a number of ways to witness this rare astronomical event while preserving your sight.


Venus will transit the sun the evening of June 5 for most North American viewers. Other global viewers will see the transit on June 6. Image courtesy NASA

Read the rest of the post . . .

Friday, June 01, 2012

The Ugly Side of TED talks


TED talks have taken off like wildfire in recent years. Some of them have been indisputably great, with various experts weighing in on everything from creationism to the magic of Google to astronomical doomsday scenarios. Many, many others TED talks are simply tedious. Some are mind-numbingly absurd. Here is the best example of the worst of the TED talks that I know of.






Read the rest of the post . . .