Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Top 10 Mind-Blowing Most Extreme Physics Buzz Posts for 2013

It's New Year's Eve, and that means it's time for a rundown of our top blog posts last year complete with an unnecessarily hyperbolic headline! Here's our list based on traffic numbers:

Canadian fireworks at the 2007 Malaysia International Fireworks Competition.
Image Credit: SJ Photography

10. Physics Halloween Costumes
Ideas included a Doppler shift dress and Maxwell's Demon.
9. Reinventing the Wheel?
These wobbly skateboard wheels don't live up to the pseudo-physics hype.
8. A Tour of Plasma Physics in Downtown Cambridge
Our writer, Quantum, captured this sweet photo gallery of MIT's Plasma Science and Fusion Center. 
7. The Physics is Clear on Foamy Beer
A perfect combination! 
6. NASA's Cold Fusion Folly
Will cold fusion ever take off? Not likely, says our contributor Buzz Skyline. 
5. Turn Your Phone into a Spectrometer — For Free!
Discover the spectra of colors around you with our SpectraSnapp app.
4. The 5 Most Extreme Atomic Experiments
Experiments ranging from nuclear fracking to bomb-powered rockets.
3. The Best Majors for GRE Scores in 2013: Philosophy Dominates
Physics students fared impressively as well.
2. Bad Physics, Bad Investment
Another de-bunking post. This time, it's about bicycle cranks.
1.  The Most Exciting Video of Nothing Happening: Pitch Drop Experiment in 2013
Scientists had been waiting for years for the next step in this long-running experiment.

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Monday, December 30, 2013

Forest Snow Can Melt Faster Than Flakes In Open Fields

Originally published: Dec 20 2013 - 2:00pm, Inside Science News Service
By: Jyoti Madhusoodanan, ISNS Contributor

(ISNS) -- As fresh snow turns us into grumbling commuters or weekend skiers, consider that those flakes are more than a winter wonder. Melted snow, in many parts of the world, becomes the water people drink year-round.

Seasonal snow replenishes streams, creeks and groundwater when it melts in the spring; how long this frozen reservoir of water lasts strongly influences a region's water supply during drier months, especially in areas like western Washington state.

Tree cover that obscures spring sunshine might be expected to retain snow longer. But recent research, published in the journal Water Resources Research, suggests that in some areas, snow melts faster under forests than it does in open spaces. Though researchers – and snow enthusiasts – have long known forests affect how long the fat wet piles of snow persist, it wasn't clear precisely how trees made a difference.

Image credit: Mayovskyy Andrew via shutterstock
Rights information: http://shutr.bz/1cWTPUh

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Friday, December 27, 2013

Physicists and Archaeologists Tussle Over Long-Lost Lead

Roman mosaic from the 2nd century AD of a ship displaying similar hull shape to the Madrague de Giens wreck.
Image credit: via wikipedia | http://bit.ly/19mo34m,
Rights information: http://bit.ly/1lavRWo

A confrontation among ancient and modern studies is pitting particle physicists seeking concrete evidence of dark matter against marine archaeologists intent on preserving material in centuries-old shipwrecks.

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Thursday, December 26, 2013

Arctic Science: A Post-Christmas Rhyme

Aerial view of the edge of the ice in Nunavut.
Credit: Doc Searls 
from Santa Barbara, USA
Tis the day after Christmas,
all the presents unwrapped.
The North Pole: Santa snoozes
savoring a post-Christmas nap.

Enjoy your slumber, Santa
for soon there will be work,
because near the North Pole
keys to science mysteries lurk.

An ice-covered ocean,
the Arctic region reacts
measurably to changing temps,
which poses global impacts.

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Monday, December 23, 2013

Qubitcoins to Stop Counterfeiting

In October, the Federal Reserve rolled out the newest iteration of the venerable $100 bill. It's colorful and chock full of high-tech anti-counterfitting measures like holograms, microprinting and color changing ink. They're pretty good, and sure to give wannabe counterfeiters a run for their money. However there's always the chance that some nefarious actor will get a fancy enough printer to reproduce convincing fakes.


What if there was some way to use the weird peculiarities of quantum physics to make an un-copyable dollar bill. Physicists have been working on the theoretical underpinnings for such quantum money, but unfortunately for practical reasons we're not likely to see "qubitcoins" in our wallets any time soon.

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Friday, December 20, 2013

Miley Cyrus on Pendulums

A lot of people have wondered why Miley Cyrus would want to ride on a wrecking ball wearing nothing but her underwear, and sometimes even less. We at Physics Buzz took a few moments to chat with Miley* and discovered it's really all about the physics.



PB: Miley, we may be reading too much into your Wrecking Ball video, but you appear to love pendulums.

MC: You're not reading too much in to it at all.

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Thursday, December 19, 2013

Triggering Waves in Antarctica with a Single Penguin Step

Emperor penguins are lords of the cold. They thrive in frigid conditions that would make human popsicles out of anyone relying on only the hair nature gave them for protection. Many researchers have bundled up and braved harsh Antarctic winters to study these fascinating birds and their strategies for survival.

In 2011, a team of international scientists reported that tight-knit huddles of Emperor penguins exhibit wave-like motions. Every 30-60 seconds waves will propagate throughout the huddle, which can consist of thousands of penguins at a time, allowing penguins at the huddle’s chilly outskirts to move inward to the warm center and those at the center to relinquish their turn.



The team’s observations generated more questions than answers. Was there a lead penguin that triggers the wave each time? How do the waves compare with the collective behavior of other masses such as bird flocks, fish schools and traffic jams? And why do the waves move throughout the huddle in the direction researchers observe? Another group of researchers, including two of the four scientists who authored the 2011 paper, have answered some of these questions in a recent paper published in IOP’s New Journal of Physics.

By developing a model that replicates observations in nature, the group determined that any individual penguin, regardless of their position in the huddle, could trigger a wave. Moreover, because the penguins are so closely amalgamated, the simple movement of a single step can produce this phenomenon.

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Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Podcast: Favorite Physics Stories of 2013


2013 has been an exciting year for physics. Voyager left the solar system; a cosmic ray source was confirmed; India launched a mission to Mars and China landed a spacecraft on the Moon; some scientists preserved a quantum state for 39 minutes; there was a carbon nanotube computer!

Listen to this week's Physics Central Podcast to hear more about these stories, and check out these other round-ups of the best science stories of 2013: Discover Magazine's top 100 Science Stories of 2013; Physics World top breakthroughs of the year (number 1 goes to IceCube for discovering new sources of cosmic neutrinos. Learn more about that in our podcast).

Happy New Year, everyone! We'll be back with a weekly edition of the Physics Central Podcast on January 8!
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Tuesday, December 17, 2013

What is More Important: Quality or Budget of a Film?

Featured films are as much of a tradition during the holidays as wrapping paper and eggnog. Classics like “A Christmas Story,” “How the Grinch Stole Christmas,” and “Miracle on 34th Street” juxtapose each holiday season’s new releases like this year’s “The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug,” and Disney’s “Frozen.”

When deciding whether to see this year’s hottest action thriller or heart-warming romance, hundreds of millions will navigate to the Internet Movie Database, IMDb, to read synopses, reviews and ratings. Using IMDb data, including user ratings and film budgets, a team of Northwestern University researchers suggests that a film’s prominence depends more on its budget than its quality.

Credit: IMDb.com

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Monday, December 16, 2013

A Better Way to Find Your New Favorite Subreddit, With Science

Reddit's front page of cat pictures and memes belies its diverse underbelly of subreddits — hundreds of thousands of link-sharing sites within the larger site that cater to interests ranging from movies to My Little Pony.

The sheer amount of subreddits can be overwhelming, making it difficult for a casual browser to find and contribute to the subreddits that match their interests. Seeking a better way to navigate the massive link-sharing social network, computer science student Randal Olson (Mighigan State) and sociologist Zachary Neal (Michigan State) teamed up to map similarities among subreddits.

Their research produced an interactive map called Redditviz detailing subreddits with overlapping participants. You can see a screenshot of the interactive map below.

Image Credit: Randal Olson/Zachary Neal/RedditViz

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Friday, December 13, 2013

Riddles Of A Rippled Icicle

Image by
With the wintry holiday season now upon us, icicles will soon join luminous and festive decorative lights along roofs and rafters. Natural icicles are more than convenient decorations, however, for University of Toronto physicists Antony Szu-Han Chen and Stephen Morris. They are an icy enigma waiting to be solved.

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Thursday, December 12, 2013

Gifts for the Physics Fanatic in All of Us

From the electricity that fuels your holiday lights, to the shape of dancing snowflakes in the wind, down to the red-orange color of crackling flames in the fireplace, physics can explain much of what makes this time of year festive and memorable. More than the decorations, snowy weather or fire-roasted chestnuts, however, gifts are what many look forward to most each holiday season, especially the kids.

So, as you shop for the traditional tally whack and knick-knack, throw in some super magnetic putty or a build-your-own AM/FM radio kit for the voracious, growing minds in your family. Here, we’ve provided a number of links to sites where you can find physics-themed holiday gifts. Along the way, you might even find something for yourself that will give everyone a laugh, like the shirt with a mug shot of Schrodinger’s cat “Wanted dead and alive.”



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Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Podcast: Apollo's Mystery Flashes



The ALFMED, short for the "Apollo Light Flash Moving Emulsion Detector" may go down as one of NASA's weirdest looking physics experiments. Kind of like an Apollo-era Daft Punk.

Image: NASA
Image: NASA




Scientists built it after astronauts on their way to the moon reported seeing mysterious flashes of light, even when their eyes were closed. The experiment was a way to identify these mysterious sprites. You can hear the crew of Apollo 17 using it on this week's podcast.

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Monday, December 09, 2013

Spin Physics, Now in a Board Game

You've likely heard that "spin" is an important property in the world of quantum mechanics, but it's not quite the same as our everday sense of the word "spin." Instead, the spin of an elementary particle (such as a quark or electron) represents its intrinsic angular momentum, which isn't quite the same as the classical sense of angular momentum.

Spin can be tough to wrap your head around, but now there's an interactive way to appreciate what spin means: a board game. Physics professor Alexander K. Hartmann's (University of Oldenburg in Germary) board game, Spin Glasses, aims to bring spin to your living room.

In a style reminiscent of the popular game Othello, Spin Glasses pits two players against each other as they learn about the game's titular material (spin glasses): a complex and peculiar form of magnets. At first glance, the game looks fun yet challenging. And if you don't want to pay for the professional version, you can make your own game for free with a color printer, scissors, and glue.

A picture of Spin Glasses, a new board game focusing on quantum mechanics.
Image Credit: Alexander K. Hartmann

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Friday, December 06, 2013

Voyager May Still Be Inside The Solar System

NASA/JPL-Caltech
NASA announced in September that the Voyager 1 spacecraft became the first man-made object to leave the solar system, although the group noted that the readings were different than what scientists expected. Now, some researchers reviewing the same data think that the space probe might not have crossed that border into interstellar space, but instead was inside a giant magnetic bubble within the bounds of the solar system, and may still be there.

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Thursday, December 05, 2013

Didgeridoos, Yo-Yoes and ZZ Top Tunes in Space

Add “in space” to the end of any sentence and you create a completely different picture full of possibilities. For example, “drinking a glass of water” in space does not require the glass since you can simply suck a floating water blob out of the air.

Astronaut and chemical engineer Don Pettit has conducted a number of engaging experiments in space during his off-duty time aboard the International Space Station, which the American Physical Society has captured in our 14-video series Science off the Sphere.

Fans of Science off the Sphere are in luck. Today, APS released a bonus clip that includes never-before-shown footage of some of Pettit’s experiments, which show what everyday-life activities are like in space. From toying with a yo-yo to watching water dance to the bass vibrations of ZZ top tunes, Pettit offers an entertaining look at his spacey science hobbies that capture and inspire the imagination.



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Wednesday, December 04, 2013

Podcast: IceCube Neutrinos

This week on The Physics Central Podcast I'm talking about Bert, Ernie, Big Bird and Mr. Snuffaluffagus. No, not the muppets: the neutrinos!

In the November 22 issue of the journal Science, the IceCube neutrino experiment announced its detection of 28 very special neutrinos, which the collaboration members then named after characters from Sesame Street (apparently it's easier to remember names than numbers).  There are a lot of neutrinos in the world, but these 28 mean something very special to the astrophysics community. These are the highest energy neutrinos ever detected, and they may be associated with some of the most violent and awesome events in our universe, such as active galactic nuclei (a galaxy with a supermassive black hole at the center), gamma ray bursts (the most instantaneously luminous events in the universe), a pulsar (a super-dense, super-magnetized rotating star), or perhaps some as-yet-unknown phenomenon.

Listen to this week's podcast to learn more about the Sesame Street neutrino gang.
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Tuesday, December 03, 2013

The World's Latest E-bike Begins with the now-available Copenhagen Wheel

Last month we blogged about how regenerative braking might be possible for electric bicycles. Using a crude estimation, we estimated that regenerative braking alone would have a difficult time re-charging the e-bike’s batteries enough to boost a cyclist to high speeds or up hill.

It looks like MIT in collaboration with the Cambridge-based startup Superpedestrian have solved the problem because today they announced that their latest product, the Copenhagen Wheel, is now available for pre-order. Since it was founded in late 2012, Superpedestrian has been working toward untangling the knots and finer details in order to commercialize the Copenhagen Wheel – an MIT design that transforms regular bikes into e-bikes.



The Copenhagen Wheel has now joined the burgeoning e-bike market. What makes it unique, and might give it a competitive edge, is its versatility.

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Monday, December 02, 2013

Science Cheerleaders Help Send Microbes to Space

Originally published: Nov 14 2013 - 3:45pm, Inside Science TV
By: Marsha Lewis, ISTV Contributing Producer

In the air, on the ground, on every wall, every phone, virtually everything we touch, there lurks an invisible world of microbes. Now, a new project at the University of California-Davis will help scientists understand how microbes grow both on Earth and in space.


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Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Earthquakes Statistics Get Help from Forest-fire Models

Natural disasters like forest fires and earthquakes have more than just havoc-reeking, destructive natures in common, according to scientist Eduardo Jagla of the National Atomic Energy Commission in Argentina. In a paper to appear in the APS journal, Physical Review Letters, Jagla found that a statistical model describing the behavior of forest fires could be used to characterize the decay rate of earthquakes.

The number of earthquakes that can occur in a given region over a period of time follows a surprisingly simple logarithmic scale expressed by the Gutenberg-Richter Law. The law takes into account the magnitude of an earthquake, the seismicity rate of the region in question and a constant, called the b-value. Although the b-value hovers around one (give or take 0.5) for most regions, scientists do not fully understand why one is the magic number.

The b-value satisfies observational experiments that follow the GR law, but its origin remains unknown. Jagla proposed that aftershocks are, in part, the reason behind the b-value. This conclusion emerged when Jagla discovered that he could obtain the appropriate b-value by applying the GR model to a scenario of a forest fire spreading from tree to tree.

Credit: Eduardo Jagla who describes: "The attached figure can be interpreted in two different ways: each black pixel can represent a tree in a forest, or intensity of gray can represent the local stress of a tectonic fault."


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Monday, November 25, 2013

Dancing Droplets

The American Physical Society's annual Division of Fluid Dynamics Meeting is well underway in Pittsburgh this week, and it's showcasing a slew of gorgeous videos contending for prizes in the Gallery of Fluid Motion.

We've featured a few of these videos in the past few weeks, and we've got another beautiful example today. Today's video covers the spontaneous motion of dyed liquid droplets as they interact with one another.

Surface tension causes the droplets to dance, kiss, and stride along flat glass surfaces. In the video, researchers Nate J Cira and Manu Prakash (Stanford) show off just what surface tension can do: it can sort different liquids automatically, cause droplets to chase one another in a circle, and much more. Check it out!


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Friday, November 22, 2013

New Evidence Supports Asteroid Origin Of Martian Moon

Study uses reflected light to compare chemical makeup of moon and other asteroids.

Phobos, with Mars in the background. jihemD via wikimedia commons, rights

New research suggests that Mars' larger moon, Phobos, is likely an errant asteroid trapped by the planet's gravitational pull. Astronomers matched the chemical makeup of Phobos' surface to a meteorite that struck Canada, concluding that the Martian moon likely started out as a carbon-rich, "D-type" asteroid that drifted too close to the red planet.


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Thursday, November 21, 2013

Benford's Law: Can it Negate Cheating?

Imagine that you begin your day at an auction, purchasing a myriad of equipment for your laboratory. You then spend the afternoon recording data on the radioactive half-life of uranium, and you end the evening by looking at your tax return. The prices you paid for the auction items, the values comprising your research data and the depressing numbers on your tax return all follow a pattern called Benford’s law.

Benford’s law describes the frequency of leading digits. Lower numbers such as one or two appear as the first digit more often than higher numbers, and the fall-off frequency follows a logarithmic scale. Meaning that more than 50 percent of the prices you paid for the auction items will likely begin with the number one, two or three. Research indicates that the same rule applies to large samples of numbers describing radioactive half-lives, tax returns, statistical physics distributions, geological stream-flow rates and more.

Credit: Alberto G.

Numerous numerical datasets follow Benford’s law. A team of scientists at Trent University and Brock University in Ontario, Canada specialize in multiple-choice test assessment. They began to wonder if Benford’s Law could be used to gain an unfair advantage during undergraduate test taking, specifically in physics. Could Benford’s law offer students the next best strategy to “When in doubt, choose C”?

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Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Podcast: Gauss's Missing Brain



Carl Friedrich Gauss, one of the greatest mathematicians of all time, died in 1855. His brain has been resting at the University of Gottingen for the last 150 years—but under the wrong label.

A mix-up that appears to have taken place in the 1860's put Gauss's brain the wrong jar. It wasn't until this year, when scientists from the Max Planck institute were taking fMRI images of the brain for archival purposes, that neuroscientist Renate Schweizer noticed something was amiss. To most people, human brains all look the same. But Schweizer knows one brain from the next, and she realized this couldn't be the brain of Carl Friedrich Gauss—because she'd seen this brain before.

Listen to the podcast to learn how Schweizer identified the impostor brain, and where they found the real one.
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Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Fascinating Flying Fish

It swims in the ocean, dances on water and glides through air, what is it? Not much of a riddle since the solution is in the title, but how bizarre that a single family of fish evolved to achieve three feats of which most animals can perform only one.

Patricia Yang, a graduate student of mechanical engineering at the Georgia Institute of Technology, raises flying fish in a tank in Taiwan. She is one of the few scientists around the world to study flying fish in a laboratory setting instead of their natural environment. In the lab, she could get a close look at the initial steps any fish must make before taking flight. One being breaking the surface-tension barrier between water and air.

Credit: Theron Trowbridge

While the fish were still in their juvenile state, measuring no longer than two centimeters, Yang and a group of scientists from Georgia Tech and the National Sun Yat-sen University in Taiwan trained them to launch into the air on command. Using high-speed videography, the team examined the speed and angle with which the flying fishlings broke the water’s surface.

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Monday, November 18, 2013

MAVEN Launch Live

At 1:28 PM EST today, the Mars Atmosphere and Volatile EvolutioN mission (MAVEN) will blast off from Cape Canaveral en route to study the evolution of the red planet's atmosphere.

While the spacecraft will launch in a matter of hours, this launch date almost had to be pushed back two years due to the U.S. government shutdown in October.

As Universe Today reported earlier today, NASA administrator Charles Bolden had to make the case that continuing to prepare for MAVEN's launch was critical to protecting life and property – a necessary condition that was required for most employees to continue working during the shutdown.

Instead of touting the mission's science objectives, Bolden focused on MAVEN's role as a communications relay for ground missions on Mars. Without MAVEN, Bolden argued, data coming from the Curiosity and Opportunity rovers may have been lost.

Thanks in part to Bolden's efforts, the MAVEN mission is still on for today. You can watch the launch live on NASA TV in the embedded player below.



Live streaming video by Ustream
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Friday, November 15, 2013

Getting Einstein to Say "I Was Wrong"

Einstein in 1931
Image: Wikimedia Commons
What does it take to convince Albert Einstein he was wrong? According to new scholarship and contrary to popular belief, not even the legendary astronomer Edwin Hubble backed up by photos of distant galaxies could convince the wispy-haired physicist to ditch his now-infamous mistaken cosmological fudge-factor.

Historian Harry Nussbaumer's paper argues that Einstein ignored observational evidence his "Cosmological Constant" was wrong, and instead only admitted he was wrong when he personally came to the conclusion that his model of the universe was unstable. Nussbaumer culled through stacks of the physicist's diary entries, drafts of speeches and even newspaper articles, looking for the source of his conversion.

When Einstein was developing the theory of general relativity in 1915, he was faced with a serious problem; His equations indicated that there was no way the universe could exist. At the time, everyone thought the universe was static, that stars didn't move very much and the idea of galaxies was unheard of. According to his equations based on that understanding of the universe's density, gravity should pull everything in the universe together into a single conglomerated mish-mash.

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Thursday, November 14, 2013

Thor: The Dark World, Does it Pass the Bechdel Test?

This past weekend the sequel to Marvel's blockbuster "Thor," "Thor: The Dark World," hit theaters.  Those who have seen either movie know that Thor's love interest, played by Natalie Portman, is an astrophysicist named Jane Foster.  There are too few women in Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) fields and even fewer in physics specifically.  To use the film's popularity to possibly encourage more girls to go into STEM careers, Marvel launched a contest that asked girls to meet local women in STEM careers and make a video about their experiences.  The makers of the best videos would then be flown to Hollywood to meet Natalie Portman and several successful women in STEM fields.   As someone who does outreach professionally I thought the contest left much to be desired both in terms of advertising and lasting effects.  In some ways it was a wasted opportunity on Marvel's part, but more than that, I have seen women "scientists" in movies like Thor before (Denise Richards, Jennifer Love Hewitt) and they are usually just your average damsel in distress with thick glasses and too few clothes.  How could it be ok to then use that as a model to encourage girls to go into science?  So got myself a huge bag of Sour Patch Kids and took my notebook and book light down to the local movie theater and geared myself up for a long winded rant on the blog about representations of women scientists on film.  Wow, was I surprised.


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Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Podcast: No Sign of Primordial Black Holes

Today on the podcast I talk with Kim Griest, a professor of physics at UC San Diego and professional dark matter hunter.

Griest is exploring the possibility that the mysterious gravitational force acting on all the matter in our universe is caused by black holes that formed in the very early universe. Griest and two of his colleagues recently published the results of a search for these primordial black holes using data from the Kepler space telescope (which was designed to hunt for planets orbiting stars other than our sun). The group did not find primordial black holes, but the new results do set a limit on how big the black holes can be: no larger than about one millionth the mass of the moon. Griests says there is still a chance the black holes could appear in the remaining two years of Kepler data he and his colleagues have yet to analyze.

The Large Underground Xenon (or LUX) dark matter experiment also announced a negative result in its search for a new subatomic particle that could explain dark matter.

These negative results aren't as exciting as, say, finding dark matter—but they are an important part of the quest.

Listen to the podcast to hear more about these ancient black holes and the search for dark matter.



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Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Fluid Dynamics Explains Some Traffic Jams

A popular luxury car option might be part of the solution to unexplained traffic jams.

It happens to everyone. You are cruising down the freeway -- at the speed limit, of course -- when suddenly the traffic thickens and slows to a complete stop. When traffic resumes moving you note there was no apparent reason for the halt -- no accident, no detour, no construction.

The phenomenon has been the topic of countless dissertations and theses -- why does the traffic stop? Can gridlock be avoided?

An MIT professor and expert in computer vision thinks that he has the answer.


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Monday, November 11, 2013

Do Not Shave a Fruit Fly’s Eyes



(Clip of a fruit fly cleaning itself slowed by 33x. Credit: Guillermo Amador at Georgia Institute of Technology.)

From a distance, insects can appear smooth and sleek, but get close enough and hundreds of tiny bristles called setae come into focus. Suddenly what once seemed smooth now resembles a porcupine terror.

For certain insect species, setae cover many parts of the body including the legs and eyes. The tiny hairs contain nerves that signal to the insect when dust, pollen, mold or other particles are on its body. Moreover, insects use setae as combs to clean themselves by rubbing the bristles against each other, which flicks debris away.

These are just two examples of the many applications setae serve insects and there are still more to be discovered. A team of scientists at Georgia Institute of Technology recently found another application of setae on the eyes of fruit flies.

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Friday, November 08, 2013

Creepy Soft Robots Could Get Under Your Skin

Robots tiny enough to fit inside your body might someday deliver your medicine from the inside.




From Inside Science TV.
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Thursday, November 07, 2013

Picking the Perfect Punkin for Chunkin

Credit: Punkin Chunkin Website punkinchunkin.com

Last weekend, thousands watched as competitors from around the country competed for the 28th annual World Championship Punkin Chunkin trophy. Trebuchets, resembling something out of a Lord of the Rings film, flung their pumpkins while air cannons, rivaling some cranes in size, fired the helpless gourds toward their inevitable, squashy doom.

American Chunker Inc. launched this year’s farthest-flying pumpkin at a distance of 4,694.68 feet, about 585 feet shy of a mile. The team sent their winning pumpkin flying on the first day of the event when conditions were more favorable for chunkin than the final two days of the competition. The trick to winning Punkin Chunkin relies more on just the machine.

The machine controls the pumpkin’s launching speed and angle and therefore is a major determinant of how far the pumpkin travels. However, there are other components, which affect distance, that chunking competitors cannot control. Wind velocity is a major one. Although they cannot influence the weather, punkin chunkers can attempt to minimize the effect from air and wind by launching the most aerodynamic pumpkin possible. But what would that look like? It depends.

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Wednesday, November 06, 2013

Podcast: Rescue Radar from Dolphin Clicks

When physicist Tim Leighton saw documentary footage of dolphins using bubble nets to catch their prey, he knew something was fishy. How were the dolphins differentiating the bubbles and the fish? Even the most sophistocated man-made sonar doesn't have that ability.

At least, not until Leighton and his colleagues at Southampton University designed Twin Inverted Pulsed Sonar or TWIPS, which can see through bubbles and focus on a true target, like a fish. Leighton's development of the technique was inspired by his curiosity about dolphin sonar abilities. In the October 23 issue of Proceedings of the Royal Society A, Leighton and his colleagues at the University of Southampton announced that they've successfully done with radar what TWIPS did with sonar. TWIPR (twin inverted pulsed radar), as it's called, is particularly apt at detecting electronic circuits, even amid clutter like scrap metal, soil, snow and concrete. The potential applications include searching for hidden explosive devices, like IED's, or covert listening devices. TWIPR could also be used to locate people in disaster areas (like collapsed buildings) by seeking out the circuitry in their cell phones.

This week on the Physics Central Podcast I talk with Leighton about how TWIPR works it's magic and whether or not he's solved that pesky dolphin problem.


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Tuesday, November 05, 2013

Kepler News Sparks Media Headline Mayhem


It’s all over the news: A team of scientists at UC Berkeley and University of Hawaii used Kepler data to gain one step closer to determining the abundance of potentially habitable extra-solar planets within the Milky Way Galaxy.

In their paper, published yesterday in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, the team states: “We find that 22% of Sun-like stars harbor Earth-size planets orbiting in their habitable zones.”

Although the statistic is simple enough, the media are playing a number flinging game to see who can produce the most earth-shattering headline. Consequently, readers are caught in the midst of confusing, misguiding headlines such as:

“Kepler Space Telescope data suggests up to 40 billion Goldilocks planets”SlashGear

“8.8 billion habitable Earth-size planets exist in Milky Way alone”NBCNews

“Two billion planets in our galaxy may be suitable for life”The Guardian

But my personal favorite is a press release issued by the W.M. Keck Observatory: “One in Five Stars has Earth-sized Planet in Habitable Zone.” To their credit, the authors redeem themselves in the first sentence by specifying Sun-like stars. The University Herald earns no such redemption with their take titled “Kepler Telescope Researchers Estimate One in Five Stars in the Universe Has an Earth-Like Habitable Planet.”

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Monday, November 04, 2013

Pittsburgh’s Abandoned Atom Smasher

The derelict Westinghouse Atom Smasher, one of the oldest (and biggest) artifacts from the dawn of the Nuclear Age, awaits its fate atop a hill outside Pittsburgh. 

The world’s first industrial particle accelerator sits rusting away in the Pittsburgh suburb of Forest Hills, its future unclear. It was cutting edge technology when it was built in 1937, but when the company retired it in 1958, it was a relic of an obsolete technology. Six months ago, a D.C. real estate developer with a penchant for history bought the site and has been doing what he can to preserve the giant silver teardrop. If all goes according to plan, he’ll convert the old atom smasher into an education center while turning the rest of the property into rental units.

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Friday, November 01, 2013

Snakelike Zaps To Flowing Air Can Improve Vehicle Aerodynamics

Serpentine electronics could improve performance of cars and planes
Experiments in wind tunnels can provide insights into aerodynamics that can improve vehicle performance. Image credit: Georgepehli. Rights info 
 
The way air flows over surfaces can slow cars down and make airplanes loud when they fly over homes. Now scientists find that it's possible to reduce this drag by using curved electronic devices to generate electrically charged particles that control the flow of air over the surfaces of vehicles. 

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Thursday, October 31, 2013

E-bike Physics

Image of German-designed e-bike via Wikimedia

There’s a new class of electric bicycles prompting oodles of attention, collecting millions of dollars in funding and providing little more than dust-collecting, spider web-encrusted racks in bike shops.

Within the last five years, Panasonic and MIT unveiled e-bike prototypes, which boast batteries that can re-charge themselves through a process called regenerative braking. A regenerative brake reduces a vehicle’s speed, thus expending energy, but in the process it captures some of that lost energy and stores it in the battery for future use. Contrary to what they claimed in 2008 and 2011, neither Panasonic nor MIT has released their design to markets.

There are many possible explanations, but one that stands out above the rest is simply that the design does not work, or at least does not work well-enough to compete with e-bikes already available for purchase. This post explores some of the physics behind this design and whether it’s capable of acting as an efficient e-bike.

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Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Podcast: Thorium Nuclear Power


A schematic of the  Molten Salt Reactor Experiment
Image: Oak Ridge National Lab
On this week's podcast, we looked at the benefits of a particular kind of nuclear reactor, the thorium molten salt reactor. It's a kind of reactor that uses thorium and uranium suspended in liquified solution that generates heat to boil water and turn turbines. There's a debate in the United States as to whether to fund research into them. Proponents say that the technology could power the world with cheap clean energy, while critics say that it's untested and like all nuclear power has serious downsides. Here's a quick rundown of the main pros and cons:

PRO: Thorium reactors can produce plentiful, cheap power.

CON: Nuclear power industries have been promising that for decades, but the costs have yet to drop dramatically.

PRO: Thorium is plentiful. It's about as common as lead in the Earth's crust, making for cheaper fuel than traditional uranium reactors.

CON: The scarcity of uranium only makes up a tiny fraction, only about two percent, of the cost of electricity.

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Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Flying Machine Mimics Graceful Swimmers

When it comes to the skillful art of flight, insects must be doing something right.
About 350 million years ago, they were the first life on Earth to achieve lift off. Fast-forward to the 21st century and scientists and engineers realize that flying like an insect is harder than it looks.

In particular, the motion of insect wings lends little stability to the object itself. So, many prototype flying machines meant to mimic a flying insect often tumbled through the air like a somersaulting astronaut in zero-g. Attached technological sensory mechanisms can enable stability but also add weight, so the machine must expend more energy to boost itself off the ground.

A pair of mathematicians at New York University have overcome the obstacle of stability in a different way and built the first machine of its kind that is inherently stable. The bizarre part is that the machine moves unlike any insect in nature and instead resembles more of a jellyfish in air.




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Monday, October 28, 2013

Electrical Pulses Could Make Better Wine

Engineers test new technique to get more juice from grapes.

Originally published: Oct 17 2013 - 2:30pm, Inside Science TV
By: Marsha Lewis, ISTV Contributing Producer



The wine industry has come a long way, from exclusively small-scale operations to a multi-million dollar industry that’s booming. As the demand for quality wine grows, so does the thirst for a better way to make it.

To help satiate the palates of thirsty oenophiles, researchers at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles are developing a way to extract juice from grapes more efficiently and effectively.
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Friday, October 25, 2013

New Algorithm Helps Cochlear Implants Detect Music

Advancement allows patients to hear differences in pitch and timbre. 
 

Image by Phil Holmes via Shutterstock.com

People who have cochlear implants placed in their heads had often never heard a sound in their lives before their implant. Once the device is placed, they can experience hearing, and often can even understand human speech. Hearing music, however, has remained out of reach.


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Thursday, October 24, 2013

Dead Birds Adrift and the Killer Source

Two bird species common to parts of the northern U.S. have attracted the semi-morbid attention of scientists and engineers at Florida Atlantic University and the U.S. Geological Survey. Using carcasses of common loon and lesser scaup species, the team conducted experiments to determine how water current, wind velocity and the amount to which the carcass is submerged affect its drift.

USGS is using the results to develop computer simulations to potentially pin point the location of toxic sources in the Great Lakes region. One of the prime threats to birds frequenting the Great Lakes is type E botulism, a neurotoxin-producing bacterium that causes paralysis and death when ingested. USGS estimates that over 80,000 birds have died from botulism intoxication in the Great Lakes region since 1999. The sites of exposure remain unknown.


The team submitted an overview of their work in an abstract for the upcoming 66th Annual Meeting of the APS Division of Fluid Dynamics to be held in Pittsburgh, PA where they will present their results in detail.

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Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Podcast: RHIC

On this week's podcast, I visit Brookhaven National Lab's Relativistic Heavy Ion Collider, a machine that recreates the conditions of the universe a microsecond after the Big Bang. I got a chance to meet the scientists while they were taking data, and see what they see. However that also meat that I didn't get a chance to see any of the detectors in person because they were busy doing what they were designed to do, detecting particle collisions.

An ariel view of Brookhaven National Labs, with the two-mile-long RHIC accelerator tunnel highlighted and the STAR and PHENIX detectors marked. Inside, there are two beam tubes running parallel to each other but in opposite directions. Ions shoot around the beam tubes and collide with each other at the detectors where the tubes cross. 


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Tuesday, October 22, 2013

The Physics is Clear on Foamy Beer

A team of three international scientists has explained the physics behind why beer in a bottle transforms into an overflowing mass of foam when the bottle receives a vertical tap on the mouth, as shown in the video. They will present their work and its applications outside of the bottle at the 66th Annual Meeting of the APS Division of Fluid Dynamics.



The act is colloquially referred to as “beer tapping”: Someone hits a beer bottle on the head, often with the bottom of their own bottle, and within seconds the victim of the prank is left with a small amount of flat beer and a bottle dripping with foamy bubbles of carbon dioxide.

Javier Rodríguez-Rodríguez, assistant professor at the Fluid Mechanics Group of Carlos III University of Madrid and lead author of an abstract about the research, and his colleagues were at a bar discussing the process behind this phenomenon when they realized they did not fully understand it. And according to their unsuccessful search for a solution online and through scientific databases, neither did anyone else.

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Monday, October 21, 2013

Fluid Knots and Smoke Ring Physics

From mushroom clouds to smoke rings, "filamental vortex loops" abound in a number of fluid dynamics applications.

You can create your own smoke rings at home with this cool science experiment, but scientists waited over a century for experimental evidence of an elusive twist on this fluid flow: knotted vortex loops.

Earlier this year, scientists from the University of Chicago gathered that long-sought data with the help of a 3-D printer, lasers, and a high-speed camera. This month, those same scientists, headed by postdoctoral researcher Dustin Kleckner, released an updated video explaining the physics behind these beautiful, twisted fluid flows.

To observe the knotted loops, the research team first used a 3-D printer to create special hydrofoils tied in knots. Next, they accelerated the hydrofoils through a fluid to imprint the knotted structure onto the fluid, generating the vortex knots that they sought. Lasers and a high-speed camera tracked the knots as they twisted and morphed, giving the researchers a 3-D timelapse of the evolving fluid flow.

In the research team's video entry (embedded below) for the 2013 Gallery of Fluid Motion, you can see the beautiful images the team captured during their research.


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Friday, October 18, 2013

When You Gotta Go, You Gotta Go . . . for about 21 Seconds

People are mostly water. So are all mammals. Sometimes, we mammals are made of a little more water than we care for, which is when it becomes time to get rid of some - if you know what I mean.

Treadmill mouse has to go, for about 21 seconds, in this video by New Scientist magazine

I wouldn't have thought there was much a physicist would have to say about urinating, but that's where I would be wrong. At the upcoming APS Division of Fluid Dynamics meeting, a session on biofluids includes two papers dedicated to the physics of fluid elimination in mammals.


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D-Wave Computer's Solution Raises More Questions

Does D-Wave's computer owe its high performance to bizarre quantum effects?
 

Photo courtesy of D-Wave Systems, Inc.

An experimental computer made by a Canadian company has proved its ability to solve increasingly complex mathematical problems. But the question remains — just how much of this calculating power is actually due to the strange properties of quantum mechanics?


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Thursday, October 17, 2013

Explosive Energy of Dry Ice Bombs

Christopher from Salem, OR, USA via Wikimedia Commons
With Halloween around the corner haunted forests, hayrides, houses and more are setting up shop using new and old ways to frighten you. One ever-popular spooky effect is the foggy mist of dry ice – a solid form of carbon dioxide that has been making national news headlines for the last week, and not for the awesome way it looks when shooting out of a jack-o-lantern.

Last Tuesday, officials arrested the alleged dry-ice bomber of LAX airport. Dicarlo Bennett, a 28-year-old who handled baggage and ramp service at LAX, had created four dry ice bombs, two of which exploded within the airport facility. The other two were found and discarded before exploding.

Thankfully, no one was injured and in light of the coming holiday and LAX upset we’ve provided some calculations that indicate just how dangerous dry ice bombs can be and how to safely enjoy the misty aura of dry ice.

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Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Podcast: Weightlessness in Movies

This week's podcast is all about movie magic. How do filmmakers simulate weightlessness when they want to make movies that take place in space? Today I talk about three movies that each tried different approaches to this problem.

Popular Mechanics talks about how Gravity defied gravity. Here's the movie trailer:



Update: Listener Steve very politely pointed out an error I made in the podcast: in my description of a reduced gravity aircraft I stated that the period of "weightlessness" for the passengers ends as the plane turns back down toward the Earth. Actually, that period occurs during the entire peak of the parabola, including a few seconds as the aircraft starts to descend. Check out the graphic below to see exactly what I mean. 

Image: NASA

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Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Fluid Juggling

Fluid dynamics often produces some of the most beautiful, albeit under-appreciated, physics images and videos. To celebrate this field's striking images, the American Physical Society's Division of Fluid Dynamics holds a contest every year for related posters and videos that best display "artistic value, scientific content, and originality."

One promising entry this year features a high-speed capture of fluid jets juggling ping pong balls. It's a gorgeous video, and you can watch it below.



As researchers Roberto Zenit and Enrique Soto (National Autonomous University of Mexico) explain in the video, streams of water can suspend the balls due to a Bernoulli-like effect similar to the one responsible for lift in an aircraft. To levitate the ball for long periods of time, the researchers needed two things: a balance of vertical forces (we'll call this levitation) and horizontal forces (we'll call this stability).
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Monday, October 14, 2013

Ciao!

Hello, devoted readers. I am stoked to introduce myself as the new APS science writing intern and tell you a little bit about the journey that’s led me to this wonderful physics nook in College Park, Maryland. It starts in a place not too far from here at the Ohio State University where I studied astronomy and physics, dabbled in astronomy research and discovered my passion for science writing as an undergrad.

My path then veers south to the land of cowboy boots, BBQ and “Howdy!” greetings at Texas A&M University – the school from which I will earn a master’s in science and technology journalism this December. From there, I launched myself into a series of internships, each one with unforgettable people and invaluable experiences that I will forever carry with me.


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Friday, October 11, 2013

Physics Halloween Costumes

Caufield Novelty's take on an Einstein Costume
We've blogged about physics Halloween costumes in the past, but too late to help anyone come up with ideas in time to actually celebrate the greatest holiday of the year.

We're going to try to remedy that this year by suggesting a few themes for your nerdy trick-or-treating garb well ahead of the big day.

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Wednesday, October 09, 2013

Podcast: Life on Mars?

Is there life on Mars?

Even pop stars want to know. The Mars rover Curiosity (the fourth rover to explore Mars) touched down on the red planet just over a year ago, and scientists are now trying to make sense of the data it is sending back. In September, two groups of researchers published separate findings that may help scientists one day answer the question: are we alone in the solar system?
This week on the PhysicsCentral podcast I talk about those new results: Curiosity found Martian soil containing 2% water, but so far Curiosity can find no trace of methane in the Martian atmosphere.

Water in the soil means microbes that require water for life (like every singe living thing on Earth) could potentially live there. It also means astronauts could potentially harvest water from the soil. But the lack of methane (if it is confirmed) might mean there are no methane-producing microbes on Mars. Almost all the methane on Earth comes from biological entities, including microbes, livestock, and decaying plant matter. There are also microbes on Earth that do not produce methane, so it's absence doesn't mean there is or never was life on Mars. But the results pose a tricky question for scientists. Check out the podcast to hear more.
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Higgs Round-Up

The 2013 Nobel Prize in physics will go to Peter Higgs and Francois Englert, for their prediction of the existence of the Higgs boson. Experiments at the Large Hadron Collider at CERN announced the discovery of the Higgs in the summer of 2012.

The discovery of the Higgs boston was a big freakin' deal for physics (and in the long run, for all of humanity). We've talked about the Higgs and the LHC a lot around here, so if you need a refresher as to why these things are so important (and so cool), check out some of the links below.


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Tuesday, October 08, 2013

The Higgs Boson wins 2013 Nobel Prize in Physics

Englert and Higgs take it!

In other news, water still wet, sky still blue.

Just kidding, it could have gone to all sorts of other deserving people. Still, I don't think anyone was terribly surprised.

Peter Higgs doesn't know yet, though. The Nobel Prize Committee tried to call, but Higgs didn't pick up. If you see him, please let him know.

If you want a little more info, you can read the APS Announcement about the 2013 Nobel Prize for Physics.

Or you can check out APS Associate Executive Officer Alan Chodos' explanation of what the Higgs Mechanism is and why the Higgs Boson is important.


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Monday, October 07, 2013

Source Of 13th Century Volcanic Calamity Discovered

A tale of an Indonesian volcano, a monk, and the mass graves of London.

Originally published: Oct 1 2013 - 3:30pm, Inside Science News Service
By: Joel N. Shurkin, ISNS Contributor

(ISNS) -- The Benedictine monk Matthew Paris knew that 1258 was a really bad year. Winter seemed to last forever. The sky was always dark. There were no crops, he wrote, and hundreds of thousands of people were starving to death. It was the year summer never came.

Scientists, working from bores of glacial ice in Antarctic and Greenland, know that the cause of the atmospheric upset was a large volcanic eruption somewhere, something the good monk could not know.

The mystery was: what volcano, where?

Samalas caldera and Segara Anak lake
Image Credit: Céline M. Vidal, Institut de Physique du Globe de Paris (IPGP)

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Friday, October 04, 2013

And the 2013 Nobel Prize for Physics goes to . .

Simulated Higgs signature in the LHC's CMS detector. Rights
The Higgs Boson is the most talked about possibility for the 2013 Nobel Prize in Physics. We'll know for sure on Tuesday by about 5:45 AM EST. But the Nobel Committee has surprised us many time in the past so there's no guarantee they'll go with (or actually "have gone with," considering the choice was made some time ago) the popular expectation.

There are, in fact, a few problems with awarding the Nobel for the Higgs.

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Thursday, October 03, 2013

Big Stars Don't Need Siblings

There are some giant stars out there. Our sun is more than 300,000 times more massive than Earth. That's pretty big, but there are stars much larger. One particularly big one, imaginatively named WR 102ka, is located near the center of the galaxy is 100 times larger than our sun. Ever since scientists started noticing these behemoths near the galactic core, they've wondered where they came from. Now a team of scientists from the University Potsdam in Germany think they have an answer.

The Peony Nebula, which lies between us and WR 102ka. The nebula blocks out all but the giant star's
infrared light. The yellow circle indicates WR 102ka location behind the dust and gas. Image:NASA.

Stars form when vast clouds of gas and dust coalesce together, growing denser and denser, until its atoms start fusing together and set off a nuclear reaction. Sometimes they form by themselves with  no other stars nearby, and sometimes they're created within vast star cluster full of other newly formed stars and the ingredients for more.

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Wednesday, October 02, 2013

Podcast: Does Einstein Deserve More Credit?

Albert Einstein is hands-down the most famous scientist who ever lived, and one of the most famous people in history. His contributions to physics sparked one of history's greatest scientific revolutions, and fundamentally changed the way we look at the world. He has set the bar for what we consider a "genius."

That said, "under appreciated" seems like the last thing that would describe Einstein; and yet, it seems that most people, including most physics, aren't quite aware of just how great Einstein was. A new book by Douglas Stone, a professor of physics at Yale University, shows that Einstein made even more contributions to science than we give him credit for, particularly to the field of quantum mechanics. Stone, a quantum physicist himself, argues that many of those contributions are Nobel Prize worthy.

Perhaps the strangest part of this tale is that it was Einstein himself who wanted to downplay his work.

Listen to the podcast to hear my interview with Stone about his book Einstein and the Quantum: The Quest of the Valiant Swabian

Correction: The podcast states that Einstein's theory of relativity was tested during an eclipse. It is the Sun's gravity, not the Earth's, that is responsible for bending the light. In addition, the photoelectric effect involves an atom's absorption of light and emittance of an electron—not more light. 
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