Friday, September 28, 2012

Fermi Problem Friday: Sanjay Gupta's Cell Phone Folly

Sanjay Gupta must be smart - for one thing he's doctor, a brain surgeon, in fact. He's also an adviser to Hillary Clinton. And above all, he's on TV! That's why his ignorance about basic physics, along with his eagerness to spread that ignorance, is so troubling.




In this video, Dr. Gupta makes a meager attempt to describe a truly carcinogenic type of radiation known as ionizing radiation, which includes x-rays, gamma rays and other high energy types of radiation. But then he goes about speculating on the dangers of non-ionizing radiation of the type emitted by cell phones. It's guilt by association, and it's just plain wrong.

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Thursday, September 27, 2012

Labor Disputes: NFL Refs, Teachers, and Scientists

Countless Facebook posts, Tweets and comments have bemoaned the "scab" NFL referees who have taken over for the regular refs who have stopped working amidst a labor dispute. The new refs have blown calls, unnecessarily prolonged games and even cost some teams a win depending upon who you ask.

Today, the regular referees settled on an agreement with the NFL that boosts their salaries and benefits (they will now make $173,000 annual salaries in 2013). Everybody seems pretty happy, especially fed up fans.

Meanwhile, the massive teachers' strike in Chicago ended recently, and another strike among hundreds of Canadian nuclear scientists ended earlier this month. Strikes this big among teachers and scientists are quite rare.

With all three of these two strikes and referee lockout resolved, let's take a glance at the final deals and reactions individually. Together, these labor disputes may reveal a little bit about our society's general view of these varied careers.

Image courtesy peoplesworld via flickr.

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Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Photo Highlights from this Year's Ig Nobel Prizes

Every year for the Ig Nobel Prizes highlight science that "Makes us laugh, then makes us think." Research like why leaning to the left makes the Eiffel Tower seem smaller or what the brain scan of a dead fish can tell us about statistical controls. Check out this week's podcast for more highlights and in-depth interviews with the winners.

The presentations are made at prestigious Harvard University's Sanders Theater. Naturally, the presentation ceremony itself is pretty gonzo, a stark contrast to the stodgy atmosphere of the Ivies. It's science's chance to let its hair down for an evening.



Sanders Theater the night of the ceremony. It has no idea what's about to hit it. It's a building, it has no ideas about anything.

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Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Sorry Girls, "Titanic" Doors Were Made of Oak.

Just let him up there, darn it!
Photo courtesy of www.dailynewsdig.com
Unless you have been living under a rock, you have probably seen "Titanic" either when it first came out or in its 3D rerelease.  Spoiler alert.... the ship sinks and lots of people die, one of whom is the extremely attractive Jack.  He dies to save the love of his life, Rose, by placing her on a "raft" made out of what looks like a door as he stays in the freezing water dying slowly of hypothermia.  Through the tears, more than one audience member was wondering why his grand hotness couldn't have fit on the raft too.  It looked like there was plenty of space up there if Rose could have just scooted over a bit. In fact, there is a meme going around about just this.  In a recent interview, director James Cameron answered the question many of us have been asking for the past 15 years.  It wasn't the space on the door, it was the door's buoyancy. So was this true or not? Does physics support the idea that Jack didn't have a chance? Heck, would Rose have been able to survive? Physics can tell us the answer to this age old romance question.



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Monday, September 24, 2012

Zombie Apocalypse Survival Gear: Ham Radios

The zombies are coming! Quick: What should you scavenge together for the impending attack?

Baseball bat, check.

First aid kit, check.

Ham radio equipment? You better hope so.

Earlier this week, Dragon Con — the annual sci-fi, fantasy and comic book convention — hosted a panel covering communication in a post-apocalyptic world. According to Wired's coverage of the conference, several attendees may have been disappointed by the panel's primary topic of discussion: amateur radio.

While amateur radio may not be as exhilarating as fighting zombie hordes, it may be the most effective tool during an apocalypse. So why invest in amateur radio equipment for a potential zombie apocalypse (you can never be too prepared!)? Like most investments, amateur radio's success depends on diversification.

Image courtesy Monitos en la Pared via flickr.

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Friday, September 21, 2012

See-Through Soil Could Improve Crops

Newly developed transparent soil could help shed light on the secret world of plant roots. The new material, developed by biologists, chemists and physicists, could improve crops and identify new ways of preventing outbreaks of food poisoning.

Lettuce plant growing in transparent soil.
Image credit: Lionel Dupuy, Ken Loades, and Helen Downie, http://bit.ly/LDFc85

Plants absorb water and minerals with root systems that can encompass a volume larger than the above-ground parts of plants. Scientists would love to learn more about roots, but much about them remains hidden underground.

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Thursday, September 20, 2012

I For One Welcome Our New Slime Mold Civil Engineers


Slime molds are pretty good at figuring out global trade routes and can do so without the maps and compasses that have guided past explorers. In a paper recently published on the ArXiv, Andrew Adamatzky, a researcher at the University of the West of England, let a slime mold conquer the globe in his lab, and recreated the ancient Silk Road trade route in the process.

A slime mold's tendrils spread across Asia, closely following the ancient Silk Road. Image courtesy of Andrew Adamatzky.
Adamatzky doused the continents on the globe with nutrient rich agar, and placed small oat flakes at points corresponding to modern major cities. He picked 24 major metropolitan areas around the world, including Moscow, London, Istanbul, Seoul, Tokyo, Mumbai and even New York and Mexico City. At the site of Beijing, he placed an oat flake cultured with a slime mold, and let it grow.


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Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Heisenberg in Question

Have you ever heard the story about Heisenberg driving on the autobahn? He's speeding along, and he gets pulled over. The police officer says, "Do you have any idea how fast you were going?!" And Heisenberg says, "No. But I know exactly where I was!"

Some of you may have released a slight chuckle at this clearly fictional story. It's a joke about Heisenberg's uncertainty principle, which says that if you measure a quantum particle's momentum, its position will be overwhelmed by uncertainty. And vice versa. So you can measure properties of quantum particles, but you can't measure all of them.

But it turns out this common explanation of the uncertainty principle, isn't quite true. It is possible, with very advanced methods, to measure a quantum particle such that you do not disrupt it to the point of inducing the uncertainty principle.
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Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Astronomers Identify Sun's Lineage Using Radioactive Metals

Image credit: Ed Schipul. Rights information: http://bit.ly/UbqWae.

Inside Science News Service

By: Larry O'Hanlon, ISNS Contributor

(ISNS) -- Astronomers love to say that we are all made of elements forged in the bellies of giant stars and exploded into vast clouds of stellar debris. But they rarely tell us the details of the solar system's stellar genealogy.

Now a pair of researchers has combined measurements of radioisotopes in meteorites with models to trace the probable lineage of the matter that makes up our bodies and our planet to the mother and grandmothers of the sun.
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Monday, September 17, 2012

A New Way to Measure a Scientist's Impact

Publish or perish. Most scientists know this mantra well. Major academic career milestones, such as earning a postdoctoral position, tenure, or a major grant, depend heavily on a physicist's ability to produce highly-cited research. But are they being evaluated fairly?

Perhaps the simplest way to measure a scientist's research output is the number of citations her papers receive. If more scientists are talking about your research, you'd naturally conclude that it's having a greater impact.

Other factors, however, complicate the matter. Sometimes, for instance, one lucky undergraduate researcher will co-author an influential paper with hundreds of collaborators. If the paper receives significant attention, the undergraduate's citation count will soar. Is that a fair representation of the student's likely modest contribution? Probably not.

To combat factors such as the aforementioned "shot noise" problem, physicist Jorge Hirsch developed a new method of measuring research impact in 2005. The paper that unveiled this widely regarded method — called the h-index or Hirsch index — has well over 2,000 citations. By rudimentary standards, it has certainly made an impact. Nonetheless, more challenges have lingered.

Image courtesy futureatlas.com via flickr.

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Friday, September 14, 2012

Studies Show Wind Power's Massive Potential


There is enough energy for people to reap from the wind to meet all of the world's power demands without radically altering the planet's climate, according to two independent teams of scientists. 

An offshore wind turbine, part of the London Array wind farm site, located in the outer Thames Estuary, about 70 miles east of London.

Wind power is often touted as environmentally friendly, generating no pollutants. It is an increasingly popular source of renewable energy, with the United States aiming to produce 20 percent of its electricity by wind power by 2030. Still, there have been questions as to how much energy wind power can supply the world, and how green it actually is, given how it pulls energy from the atmosphere.


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Thursday, September 13, 2012

Spiders on a Space Station

As astronaut Don Pettit showed us during his Science off the Sphere video series, you can do a lot of cool things in space's microgravity environment. So what science experiments would you conduct aboard the International Space Station, given the chance?

NASA, the European Space Agency and several other sponsors posed that question to high school students from around the world for the Youtube Spacelab Competition. After paring down Youtube video submissions from students, two winning experiments were chosen to be completed on the ISS. Today, the students got to see the results from their experiments beamed down to Earth via a live, streaming broadcast hosted by Bill Nye.

One experiment tested the virulence of bacteria from miles above the surface. But the subject of the second winning experiment might inspire a new Samuel L. Jackson blockbuster: jumping spiders on a space station.

Image Courtesy NASA.

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Wednesday, September 12, 2012

The World's First Room Temperature Maser!

Run*, don't walk to your local laser store to pick up your new room temperature maser!!! (*please be careful) And while you're at it, check out this week's podcast, which about that very subject.

Okay, technically room temperature masers won't be available commercially for some time. It was only a few weeks ago that Dr. Mark Oxborrow and colleagues at Great Britain's National Physical Laboratory built the first operating, room temperature maser. Dr. Oxborrow says this demonstrates that room temperature masers are possible, and now it will be up to the physics community to improve on the design and put these things to work.

If you're curious about WHY you might want a room temperature maser, just picture this: you're trying to send a message from Mars to earth, and you want the signal to come back loud and clear. So, you use a laser to amplify the signal. That is what lasers do, after all. It's even in their name: LASER is an acronym for Light Amplification by Stimulated Emission of Radiation. So a laser will take a weak signal, and turn it into a nice, clear beam of laser light.

BUT, traditional lasers only amplify optical light. What if your signal is in microwaves? Well, that's where you need  MASER! A maser is simply a LASER that amplifies microwave light (so literally, the 'L' in LASER is replaced by an 'M' for microwaves).

BUT, your maser can only operate at temperatures close to absolute zero (this is due to activity among the atoms of a key component in your maser; low temperatures essentially cool the chaos among the atoms and allow them to do their job and amplify that signal). To cool your maser you need a clunky, expensive cooling system, and that can strongly inhibit how and where masers can be used.

BUT NOT ANYMORE! This new breakthrough could mean that masers will grow in popularity as a tool for communication, or a tool for taking sensitive measurements. A maser can take a small, weak signal and amplify it, much like a microscope amplifies the visible light from something very small.

Every laser (or maser) needs a medium, which is a material that copies the signal one is trying to amplify. Dr. Oxborrow couldn't find the medium (pentacene) he needed in any chemistry labs nearby, so he had to make his own. With whatever pieces of equipment he could scrounge up (including insulation from the fabric store and a clock motor) he then built an oven to grow the pentacene into crystals.

Dr. Oxborrow says the task was a matter of stitching together many areas of science: chemistry, materials science, physics and engineering. And that, he says, is what physicists do best.

"As a physicist, I sometimes joke with people here and say that I am somebody who knows almost nothing about almost everything," said Dr. Oxborrow. "It was the ability to pick up fragments of wisdom in various areas that I think enabled us to sew it together; to construct a device that actually worked."
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Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Album Release Party: Network Visualization Edition

Last week, indie pop group The xx released their highly anticipated second album titled coexist. While the album has been available in stores, the band also streamed the album for free on their website — with a twist.

Every time a fan shared the streaming album via Facebook, Twitter, or email, the band tracked the geographic locations of the sharer and new listener. After compiling the data, they created an interactive data visualization tool detailing the album's spread around the globe. While listening to the entire album, you can watch as golden streams dance across the map, showing which regions have been infected with the band's beats and rhythms.

So where does physics come into play? Physics, especially statistical mechanics, has played a strong role in shaping the field of network theory that underlies this album release experiment. But maybe researchers could learn a thing or two from musicians like The xx. Experiments like this combined with social music players such as spotify and last.fm could reveal where the world's most influential tastemakers reside. Just add a pinch of motivated network researchers, and mix thoroughly.

A screengrab from The xx's data visualization tool.

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Monday, September 10, 2012

Can iPads Make a Difference in Physics Education?

Technology fads have pervaded our culture in recent years, even if they are short-lived. Some technologies — such as smartphones, Facebook and Netflix — have endured. Other fads, however, have fallen into obscurity. Don't just take my word for it; go check how many MySpace friends you have left.

Classrooms have tried to keep pace with our increasingly wired lifestyles, adopting what seems like the best technology to engage students. I remember when my high school statistics teacher complemented his lectures with an enormous touch screen TV to combat senioritis and waning interest in students. The touch screen presentations lasted no more than a week.

But some tools may prove their staying power in the classroom. Earlier this year, two physics education researchers equipped high school physics classrooms with iPads, and they recently revealed their promising results online. Simply providing students with shiny iPads isn't enough, though; the key to engaging students is how you implement the technology.
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Friday, September 07, 2012

Sharper Curve, Stronger Egg

Breaking an egg is a lot easier along its side than at its tip, and scientists can now say exactly why -- and by how much.


This new information could help bioengineers better understand the biological structure of egg-shaped cells -- and how those cells might respond to medications.


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Thursday, September 06, 2012

Transporting the Physics Classroom to Biology

At first glance, physics and biology may seem to be worlds apart. Physicists describe the world in terms of particles, waves and fields, relying heavily on mathematical equations. Biologists, on the other hand, represent the world of living organisms through cycles, Punnett squares, diagrams and phylogenetic trees, among other tools.

Nonetheless, both fields of study require similar problem solving abilities. Over the past 30 years, physics educators have refined their ability to instill these skills in students, but biologists have been lagging behind.

"The physicists are ahead of us in this regard," Anne-Marie Hoskinson, a quantitative biologist specializing in biology education at CU-Boulder, told Physics Central.

Hoskinson and her colleagues decided to see how physics education efforts can be applied to biology. They found that biology educators can and should use many of the tools physicists have developed over the past few decades in university and k-12 classrooms.

Image Courtesy of kmakice via flickr.

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Wednesday, September 05, 2012

Bomb-Cast



This week’s podcast tells the story of Operation Crossroads, the first nuclear weapons tests after the end of World War II. During much of the ensuing cold war, a lot of physics research was dominated by the need to develop new and better nuclear weapons for the military. Physicists at the Manhattan Project in New Mexico built and tested the first atom bomb in 1945. Today nine nations possess nuclear weapons and collectively have conducted 2,083 tests since that first early morning explosion. 
To put that in perspective, artist Isao Hashimoto made this short video of all atomic weapons tests up until 1998. It doesn’t include the most recent member of the nuclear weapons club, North Korea, but you get the idea.


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Tuesday, September 04, 2012

Obama vs. Romney on Space Exploration

As the U.S. election season heats up, politicians have increasingly focused on important issues such as the economy, foreign policy, and Clint Eastwood's fascination with empty chairs. Today, the often overlooked area of science policy received its due attention from both President Obama and his opponent, Mitt Romney.

The non-profit ScienceDebate organization posed 14 critical science policy questions to both presidential candidates, and the candidates handed in their written homework today. Members of the public suggested questions before national scientific organizations narrowed down and refined the final list. Dozens of organizations including the American Physical Society, the National Academies of Science, and the American Association for the Advancement of science helped coordinate this year's list.

While the candidates prevaricated on most of the questions, a few of their answers were more revealing. Here's a glimpse at how each candidate responded to questions about the future of space exploration.

Romney image courtesy of Gage Skidmore. Obama image courtesy of Greg Souza.

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