Friday, August 31, 2012

How Should we Celebrate Physics in 2015?

In 2005, physicists, students, and physics buffs worldwide celebrated the 100th anniversary of Einstein's Miracle Year.



In 2010, we reveled in the technical wonders that the laser brought us over the last 50 years.

It may seem a little early to think about it, but we need to start planning for the international physics event we'll be holding in 2015.

Some possible reasons to party come to mind pretty quick:

- X-rays were discovered in 1895, so 2015 will mark the 125'th anniversary of Rontgen's creepy photo of his wife's hand bones.

- Balmer came up with a proto-quantum explanation for the hydrogen spectrum, also in 1895


- In 1965 Penzias and Wilson discovered the Cosmic Microwave Background


- Maxwell showed how electromagnetic theory could explain light in 1864, but that would be odd to celebrate in 2015 (we could move things up to 2014, I guess)

There must be other reasons to celebrate of physics in 2015, or thereabouts. Let us know if you have a preference, or even better a whole new idea, and post it in the comments below. If you make a convincing argument for something really great, we'll give you a prize. (What that prize might be, we don't yet know. But you like surprises, right?).





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Thursday, August 30, 2012

Crib Notes

This week, our podcast is not exactly about physics. It's about how we learn about physics.


Our physical intuition heavily influences how we experience and how we study the world around us. But when and how does this intuition develop? It turns out, this is one of the first things our brains start learning when we are born. Before babies have the motor skills to manipulate physical objects or the ability to talk about them, they are learning principles about the physical world. 

Today on the podcast we'll talk to cognitive psychologists Kristy vanMarle and Susan Hespos about the physical intuition of infants. Research in this field is helping us understand how our brains are wired at birth and, among other things, how much we have in common with dogs.


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The Tasty Physics of Eating Candy

With the Ig Nobel Prizes just around the corner, there's at least one more entry worthy of consideration: research on the physics of maximally satisfying candy consumption. Yesterday, a team of Austrian physicists posted a preprint of their research paper titled, "Sticky physics of joy: On the dissolution of spherical candies."

Don't be fooled by the title, however; candy physics is serious business! As the authors note in their abstract, "Serious questions on the optimal strategy of enjoying a candy will be addressed, like whether it is wise to split the candy by breaking it with the teeth or not."

Read on for some curious confection physics.

Image Courtesy of exper via flickr.

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Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Obama to Redditors: Space Exploration a "Big Priority"

This afternoon, President Barack Obama surprised the internet with an appearance on a reddit IamA. Reddit, a social news site billed as the "front page of the internet," regularly hosts "IamA" threads that allow reddit users to ask the submitter, often a celebrity, anything they want. The submitter then answers a selection of questions live over the internet. As evidence that Obama is truly answering the submitted questions, his campaign sent out a tweet and image of him in front of his computer.

So far, Obama has answered a few questions. Most notably for physics fans out there, here's what Obama said in response to a question from the user ormirian about potential increased funding for the U.S.'s space program:

"Making sure we stay at the forefront of space exploration is a big priority for my administration. The passing of Neil Armstrong this week is a reminder of the inspiration and wonder that our space program has provided in the past; the curiosity probe on mars is a reminder of what remains to be discovered. The key is to make sure that we invest in cutting edge research that can take us to the next level - so even as we continue work with the international space station, we are focused on a potential mission to a asteroid as a prelude to a manned Mars flight."

Maybe this will translate into budget increases in the future. We shall see.

Top image courtesy of Pete Souza via Wikimedia Commons.



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Tuesday, August 28, 2012

251 Years Later: Who Really Discovered Venus' Atmosphere?

Reproducibility forms one of the cornerstones of physics; independent scientists need to corroborate a finding before it's widely accepted in the scientific community.

But sometimes the window of observation only lasts for several hours twice every hundred years or so. That makes reproducibility fairly difficult.

Earlier this summer, Venus passed in front of — or transited — the sun for the last time this century. While the astronomical event amazed viewers across the world, a group of physicists were re-creating an observation from over 250 years ago: the discovery of Venus' atmosphere. At the same time, they've stoked the fire in a debate over who first made this discovery.

The entire Venus transit of 2012 in one image. Image courtesy of NASA.

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Monday, August 27, 2012

Can Math Explain Ideological Conflict?

Oftentimes, history has revealed humans' ever-changing allegiances to certain ideologies regarding politics, economics, fashion and academia. In the U.S., for instance, legislators prohibited the sale of liquor in 1920 only to reverse that decision in 1933. The balance of political power often fluctuates between two majority parties here, especially in recent years. And fashion trends come, go, and resurface years later.

Societies frequently abandon one ideology in favor of an opposite yet equally radical ideology – e.g. from tolerance to prohibition or from bell bottoms to skin-tight white jeans. While these ideological jumps certainly don't define our entire past, radical shifts mark many pivotal moments throughout history.

With the right tools, physicists and mathematicians can begin to model these shifts and better explain their persistence. Most recently, a group of researchers reporting in Physical Review Letters has developed such a model to explain why populations often transition from one extreme ideology to another. Within their model, the team found that very few scenarios lead to moderate ideologies prevailing, but there's at least one way to achieve more balanced public opinion.

Image courtesy of Steve Rhodes via flickr.

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Friday, August 24, 2012

Quieting Supersonic Jet Engines

Image courtesy of NASA
To practice landing supersonic jets on aircraft carriers in heavy seas, U.S. Navy pilots fly over land -- almost always in the early hours of the morning, when the screech of their engines on takeoff and landing disturbs the sleep of local residents.

But technology sponsored by the Navy promises to give the neighbors more peaceful nights. It works by interfering with the turbulence in jet engines that causes the noise.


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Thursday, August 23, 2012

Let Go, Tarzan!

Tarzan may have skillfully swung across the jungle on vines, but the same physics behind his artful motions also explain the worst belly flops at your local rope swing. So whether you're looking to dodge venomous snakes or make a big splash at the lake, you need to know the precise moment to let go of your swing.

For the greatest horizontal distance, you might think a 45 degree angle would always work (when ignoring wind resistance). You'd be wrong, though. Swinging from a pendulum, like a rope swing or hanging vine, is a little more complicated than your classic cannon ball projectile motion. The angle should always be less than 45 degrees, and the precise angle varies among rope swings.

That's why one physicist decided to dig into the physics behind Tarzan to reveal the angle that propels a swinger the farthest. Whether you're trying to impress Jane or your friends, read on for some swing physics.
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Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Former Physicist Tops List of Most Powerful Women

German Chancellor Angela Merkel retained her crown as the most powerful woman in the world this year, according to a Forbes list of the top 100 women from areas including business, politics, entertainment and technology.

As a leader of Europe's largest economy amidst an ongoing debt crisis, Merkel's fifth appearance at the top of this list may come as no surprise. But many people do not know that Merkel holds a PhD in physics and conducted research in quantum chemistry.

She eventually left the academic world for a career in politics, but her scientific roots remain intact as she makes important policy decisions concerning science. Merkel's not alone in this territory, however. Several other prominent women on this year's list have significant scientific backgrounds.

Photo of Angela Merkel courtesy of Aleph via Wikimedia Commons.

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Animals and their Compasses

Fish do it; birds do it; humans do it; even bacteria do it. They all detect the Earth's magnetic field. But we actually know very little about HOW these organisms do it. Humans use compasses, and in some cases, other organisms may take a similar approach—such as microscopic bacteria that rely on bits of rust to point them in the right direction. But in other cases, mother nature seems to have come up with some totally radical techniques for detecting magnetic fields. 

Check out this week's podcast to learn more. My guest on the podcast, science writer Davide Castelvecchi, also wrote a great piece on this topic in Scientific American.
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Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Physicists: The Bane of Batman?

WARNING: Here be spoilers! 

This article contains facts, information, analysis, speculation and references to events in the most recent Batman movie, so if you haven’t seen it yet, go see the movie now so you can finish reading this post. What are you waiting for?! GO! 

Christopher Nolan’s third and purportedly last Batman film, The Dark Knight Rises, pits good against evil, hero against villain, Batman against Bane. What’s often missed is that this great showdown over the future of Gotham City, hinges on the work of a small but important character, physicist Dr. Leonid Pavel.

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Monday, August 20, 2012

Best Majors for GRE Scores: Still Physics and Philosophy

Fall is just around the corner, and that means many college seniors will soon face an enemy more daunting than senioritis itself: the Graduate Record Examinations. Many schools require GRE test scores for admission to their graduate programs, and the tests are supposed to be one of the most objective measures of prospective students.

GRE scores can make or break a graduate school application, so how should students prepare? Although there are a plethora of study books and materials available, decisions made freshman year may determine your score more than your cramming habits weeks before the test.

Ever year, the Educational Testing Service — the organization behind the GRE — releases scores for the general test and categorizes them by the test takers' intended graduate major. Although the GRE made significant revisions to the test this academic year, one fact remains: Physics and philosophy students still rocked the test. Physics majors tied for first in the math section, and philosophy students topped the verbal and writing sections.

Physicists even beat most majors in the verbal and writing sections — a measure of physics majors' stereotypically weak communication skills. Maybe physicists are more well-rounded than pop culture suggests.

The quantitative reasoning section measures mathematical ability and data interpretation skills. The score scale ranges from 130-170. Data from ETS (PDF) for August 2011-April 2012.

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Friday, August 17, 2012

Coming to America: Tesla Museum?

Many science enthusiasts would agree that Nikola Tesla ranks among the greatest underdog heroes in the history of science. His story, particularly his acrimonious relationship with Thomas Edison, has resonated with many.

But there's currently no museum in the United States to celebrate Tesla's great scientific achievements. Serbia's capital, Belgrade, hosts the most comprehensive Tesla museum -- a fitting location because Tesla's parents hailed from Serbia.

But Tesla spent most of his career in the United States and eventually became a citizen in 1891. Also, he reportedly considered his U.S. citizenship to be more important than his scientific successes. So why don't we have a museum for him here?

That's what Matthew Inman, the creator of the popular Oatmeal webcomic asked (note: In addition to being a big Tesla fan, Inman has a penchant for swearing). So he's decided to help a non-profit organization buy the land surrounding Tesla's last laboratory in New York: Wardenclyffe. The land was recently put up for sale, and New York State has promised to match half of the roughly $1.6 million to buy it if someone can raise the other half through fundraising.

In two days, Inman has already raised over $500,000, and he's recruited one well-known Tesla enthusiast to help.
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Thursday, August 16, 2012

Sleazy Science Journalism and Aggregation

Several scandals have rocked the world of journalism this summer with a sharp focus on science journalism in particular. Most prominently, Jonah Lehrer, the popular neuroscience book author and contributor for Wired and the New Yorker, was caught reusing his own content and fabricating quotes that he attributed to Bob Dylan. He resigned from his job at the New Yorker, but Wired has decided to keep publishing Lehrer's work.

While Lehrer has taken the spotlight, journalistic indiscretions seem to be increasingly common outside of such high-profile cases. Most recently, Science News published a story last Friday about a new forensic camera technology that can uncover hidden blood stains. Pretty cool, right?

What's not so cool? A once trusted news service, United Press International, lifted passages from the article without attribution. For instance, Rachel Ehrenberg, the original author at Science News, wrote the following: "Spattered blood intentionally hidden under layers of paint can be detected with a standard digital camera that’s been tweaked to record infrared light."

Meanwhile, UPI -- whose slogan ironically reads, "100 years of journalistic excellence" -- wrote this several days later: "Spattered blood intentionally painted over can be detected with a standard digital camera tweaked to record infrared light, Australian researchers say." Not only did they steal exact words from Ehrenberg's article, but they also incorrectly attributed the phrasing to the researchers. They didn't even link back to the original article. By the way, Rachel Ehrenberg's tweet from this morning brought this case to my attention.

In the past, several websites have aggregated our material or our partners' material, so I've collected some good, bad and "gray area" examples from the past few months. By revealing instances of wrongdoing (and acceptable practices), perhaps we can reverse this seeming trend toward excessive aggregation and dishonesty within science journalism.
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Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Physics and the American Century

In this week's podcast I interview David C. Cassidy about his most recent book "A Short History of Physics in the American Century." We'll discuss the relationship between American physics and the American war effort, and how that relationship boosted America and American physics to the top of the world. But that relationship changed in the 1960's. In the 21st century physics is more collaborative across international lines. How will American physics define success in this new world? Listen to hear what Cassidy has to say.

This is the third podcast about physics history that we've produced in the past few months: hear our other podcast about Enrico Fermi, a physicist who lived and worked in the first half of the 20th century, and How the Hippies Saved Physics, about some of the changes that physics underwent in the 1970's.

BONUS! If you're a fan of physics history, you're in luck: Physics Buzz podcaster Mike Lucibella is prepping another history of physics 'cast about nuclear testing after World War II. Look for it in the coming weeks.


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Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Dark Matter Rap

There's something funky in the universe: dark matter, that is. And now you can learn about its history with some new beats and rhymes. Michael Wilson, AKA Coma Niddy, has been making science music videos for awhile now, and he sent me his latest dark matter rap this weekend.

The rap hasn't reached Snoop Lion status yet, but it could become the next Large Hadron Rap (created by former Physics Central team member Kate Mcalpine). As far as I can tell, the science in the lyrics is quite accurate, and Niddy's ability to condense such a complex topic into a rap is commendable. The song's catchy to boot.

You can watch the video below, and I've re-posted the science-y lyrics from Coma Niddy's Youtube page as well.


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Monday, August 13, 2012

Risks and Rewards of arXiv Reporting

Earlier today, some big names in the world of science journalism started a fascinating discussion on Twitter about reporting from the arXiv preprint server for physics papers. Because these papers usually have yet to be peer-reviewed (or may never be peer-reviewed), several questions naturally arose during the discussion.

How can a journalist trust one of these papers? What steps should reporters take to verify the claims in an arXiv paper, and should the process differ from reporting on a peer-reviewed article? How much faith should reporters place in the peer-review process?

As a writer who frequently writes about papers from the arXiv, I've grown to appreciate this gold mine of often undiscovered physics research. But it can also be a tomb for dubious papers and speculative musings. Consequently, I decided to do a quick (non-scientific) analysis of arXiv articles to see which categories (e.g. astrophysics or high energy physics) may have more articles that are eventually peer-reviewed. This is certainly not the best test of "trustworthiness" for arXiv papers, but it may help us better answer some of the aforementioned questions.

Sometimes, arXiv articles confuse Fry. We're here to help. Image from Futurama.

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Friday, August 10, 2012

What Shape is a Photon

I remember once, a long time ago, wondering what a photon would look like if I could freeze one, or better yet, if I could catch up to one and travel with it. I also recall being completely flummoxed by the question and the answers my professors gave me (when they didn't roll their eyes and kick me out of their offices.)

Stylized map showing the probaility that a photon will be detected at various locations. Image courtesy of M. Bellini/National Inst. of Optics

Our good friends over at Physics (the publication, not the subject) have finally explained it in a way that I can understand - a photon doesn't have a shape. However, you can map out a region where you could find the photon if you placed a detector at various places and took a measurement. That is, you can map out the probability that a photon would appear at any given place. It's a lot like the orbital maps of electrons around the Hydrogen atom.


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Michael Phelps' Secret Catch

In swimming, does the deep catch or sculling technique propel swimmers faster?





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Thursday, August 09, 2012

3-D Tour of the Universe: Like a BOSS

The astrophysicists behind the Baryon Oscillation Spectroscopic Survey (BOSS) have an ambitious goal: Pinpoint roughly 1.5 million galaxies from the past 6 billion years and over one hundred thousand quasars stretching back to the universe's infancy 12 billion years ago.

They're about one third of the way there. With the latest data released yesterday, the team has composed a 3-d map of hundreds of thousands of galaxies and stars surveyed thus far. Additionally, the researchers have unveiled a teaser video, seen below, that allows you to drift through a cosmic sea.

Aside from providing a breathtaking view of our cosmic surroundings, BOSS scientists are discovering more about the dark energy and matter that comprise 96 percent of our universe. Additionally, the survey should reveal more details about our universe's expansion.

Mapping this huge chunk of the universe, while aesthetically pleasing, was motivated by scientific necessity. Artifacts from the early universe have left detectable fluctuations covering vast distances across the cosmic landscape. These fluctuations are only detectable on the scale of hundreds of millions of light years, so BOSS acts as an over-sized measuring tool used to uncover facts about our universe's origins.

In this video, scientists take us on a tour through data from an earlier sky survey that tracks galaxies up to 1.3 billion years old. The latest data refined the locations of the objects in the video, helping scientists map galaxies, stars and quasars in three dimensions.

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Wednesday, August 08, 2012

Science Jokes at Comic-Con 2012

Jokes about the law of cosines and integrals may not be everyone’s cup of tea. However if you’re the kind of person who finds the zeroth law of thermodynamic hilarious (I know I do) then there are comic strips out there for you. I’m always surprised how many science jokesters there are out there.

This year at Comic-Con International I got the chance to talk to two people who find the humor in Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle, poke fun at photonics and laugh at logarithms.


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Tuesday, August 07, 2012

Spandex Spacetime

Every summer, the Society of Physics Students selects a group of physics interns to work in the DC area on a variety of topics ranging from science history to public outreach. These interns aren't simply grabbing coffee and answering phones, however. Instead, you can find them devising new ways to inspire the next generation of scientists or conducting novel research.

The interns presented their final projects today on research, policy and historical science, but we're going to focus on some of the great outreach work a few of the interns have done. We're biased toward outreach here at Physics Central, but you can see highlights of all the interns' work on the SPS website.

For now, let's throw back to the 80's and create some spandex spacetime with a demo some of the interns worked on. Physics never looked so good.

SPS interns Melissa Hoffman and Meredith Woy worked on a spandex analog of spacetime. Using spandex and marbles, the interns could visually demonstrate how celestial bodies alter the geometry of spacetime.

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Monday, August 06, 2012

Venntastic

Logicians, graphic artists and even cartoonists have found many uses for Venn diagrams -- the mathematical figures first introduced in the late 19th century. Standard Venn diagrams have two or three overlapping circles that visually explain the relationships between or among several objects, such as nerds and geeks.

But this is just the tip of the Venn iceberg. More generally, Venn diagrams can include a variety of intersecting curves that form exotic shapes. Now, a team of mathematicians has found the first simple, symmetric 11-Venn diagram. Although the image is technically "simple," the set of 11 curves forms a beautiful visual treat.

Below you can see a teaser 7-Venn diagram that was discovered awhile ago. To see why the newest 11-Venn diagram hasn't been found until now, read on for a blown up image of this mathematical treasure.

This older symmetric 7-Venn diagram, while intricate, pales in comparison to the new diagram. According to the authors of a new Arxiv paper, the new type of Venn diagram has not been discovered until now. Image courtesy Frank Ruskey and Khalegh Mamakani.

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Friday, August 03, 2012

Monster Truck Physics

After Burner Monster Truck in flight
After days of watching the displays of  elegant Olympic athleticism, with soaring gymnasts, unbelievably synchronized tandem divers, chiseled swimmers slicing through the water in hot pursuit of world records, and the many other sports that exemplify the glory and beauty of the human form, I've had about all I can stand.

And there's no better cure for Olympics overload that I can imagine than Monster Trucks!


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Analysis suggests the likelihood of future world-record-breaking performances.

A new mathematical model can estimate which track and field world records are the most likely to be broken.

Image credit: Julian Lim
Brian Godsey, a graduate student in mathematics at the Vienna University of Technology in Austria, recently published a paper including computations of the likelihood of record-setting performances in 48 different men's and women's track and field events during this calendar year.

Godsey's paper did not directly address the likelihood of an athlete setting a track and field world record at the 2012 London Olympics, but his analysis suggests that viewers should keep a close watch on the men's 110-meter hurdles and three women's events, the 5,000-meter and 3000-meter steeplechase races, as wells as the  hammer throw. There is a 95 percent chance that the women's steeplechase record will be broken this year, Godsey wrote in the Journal of Quantitative Analysis in Sports.

Godsey gives competitors a better-than-10 percent chance of besting the world record in 22 events during this calendar year, 18 of which will be contested at the Olympics. Numerous records, however, seem far out of reach.

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Thursday, August 02, 2012

Let's Get Curious

While the Olympic Games continue to dazzle this weekend, the Mars Curiosity rover will perform a perfectly choreographed display above the surface of the red planet. During its hyped "seven minutes of terror," the rover will deploy its parachute, ignite rockets to slow its descent and finally lower itself on a sky crane.

This entire sequence of events is computer-controlled under extreme heat and speeds. Oh, and did we mention that there's a 14 minute delay signal delay between the rover and Earth? That sounds like an Olympic feat to me.

Excitement has been bubbling over this week as scientists have toured the talk show circuit and major news outlets have covered the landing. Although the rover's primary mission is to search for signs of past microbial life on Mars, it has also re-invigorated the public's interest in space science. Here's a quick rundown of some of this week's buzz and a guide to the best ways to watch Curiosity's touch down at 1:31 AM Eastern Time on Monday morning (Sunday evening for earlier time zones).

A great overview of Curiosity's landing maneuvers. We posted this a little while ago, but it's definitely worth a second look as we approach Monday Morning/Sunday night's landing.

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Wednesday, August 01, 2012

A Telescopic Beauty Contest

Physical beauty may lie in the eye of the beholder, but astronomers seem to have a different concept of beauty. Results for the 5th Interferometric Imaging Beauty Contest were announced earlier this summer and detailed in a paper posted to the arXiv yesterday. What kind of beauty contest is this, you ask?

Think less swimsuit modeling and more supergiant stars for starters. Simulating a technique known as interferometry (more on that later), the organizers tested astronomers on their ability to turn raw data into pictures. Using their choice of astronomical software, competitors had to create the most beautiful reconstruction of two test images.

The contestant who created the best match to the original "truth" image won the beauty contest. Now we can reduce beauty to a standard, quantifiable measure: calculating pixel-to-pixel differences. Stargazing truly is romantic.

Image Courtesy ESO/J. Girard

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