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, http://bit.ly/RbAKlr
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: http://bit.ly/QafmwK
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/Arxiv.org

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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