Friday, May 31, 2013

GPS 'Junk' Data Reveals Volcanic Plumes

Scientists may be able to track dangerous ash-filled clouds by using information similar to the bars showing signal strength on a cell phone.

Volcanic ash plume covers the sky outside of Reykjavík, Iceland after Grímsvötn erupted in 2011.
Image credit: Flickr user Matito
The new technique analyzes the GPS’s “signal strength” -- the intensity of a GPS signal – as it attempts to cut through a volcanic plume.

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Thursday, May 30, 2013

The Future of Deep Space Travel is RAD

In the hour of descent as the Mars Space Laboratory dropped toward martian soil a small gadget whirred. The gadget was a particle catcher.

Mars Science Laboratory approaching the martian atmosphere (artist's concept)
Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech 

The size of a coffee pot, NASA's Radiation Assessment Detector (RAD) hitched a ride on the Mars Space Laboratory to measure the radiation of the martian atmosphere. RAD is the first instrument to measure the radiation on the way to Mars from inside a spacecraft that is similar to one future human astronauts could fly to Mars. The results will be published in the May 31 issue of the journal Science. Today, four members of the research teams reported the results at NASA's press conference in Washington, D.C.

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Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Podcast: SESAME

On this week's podcast, I talked to Herman Winick of SLAC, who's been helping build a Synchrotron light source in Jordan, the first one in the Middle East. He said that there are more than 60 synchrotrons around the world operating right now. These machines generate bright flashes of intense X-ray light for all kinds of scientists to use to use to look at things as small as a molecule. They're tremendously versatile tools for researchers to study everything from the structure of proteins to the manufacture of microelectronics.

This schematic of France's Synchrotron Soleil gives a good idea of what the completed SESAME synchrotron might look like. Image: EPSIM 3D/JF Santarelli, Synchrotron Soleil.

Their economic significance is just as important to a country as their scientific value. These machines are big and expensive, so countries can usually only build them once they reach a level of economic development. They draw a lot of power so they need reliable electricity and their upkeep requires a certain level of technical expertise.

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Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Calling All Aliens: One Man's Search for Romance

"While extraterrestrial civilizations may be rare," Peter Backus wrote in 2010, "there is something that is seemingly rarer still: a girlfriend. For me."

Backus's paper, in which he humorously applies the Drake equation to his dating prospects.
For Backus, dating and alien civilizations had a thing or two in common. "The idea occurred to me," Backus said in an interview with Today, "that you could do the same thing with any population."

Backtrack to Green Bank, WV in 1961, on the eve of the search for extraterrestrial intelligence (SETI), when astronomer Francis Drake came up with a ballpark estimate of the number of communicative alien civilizations in the Milky Way Galaxy.

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Sounds Of The Sea: Stones Clanging

Tide-borne pebbles on the seabed can drown out other ocean noises.

Originally published: May 21 2013 - 10:00am

By: Joel N. Shurkin, ISNS Contributor

(ISNS) -- The oceans are very noisy places: Shrimp crackle, fish bark, dolphins click, humpbacks sing, and many species talk to each other. Humans steer loud ships through the waters.

According to research by a graduate student at the University of Washington, even the gravelly seabed contributes to the cacophony, particularly when the tide is strong. Indeed, the noise of the gravel can be so loud it often drowns out the other noises, making it impossible for scientists to hear the other sounds of the sea if the animal is not close to the microphone.

A still capture from "Dynamic Earth: Exploring Earth's Climate Engine," showing an underwater view of ocean currents at different depths off the continental shelf of North America. The full video can be seen here:

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Friday, May 24, 2013

A Smartphone App for the Living World

Imagine holding your smartphone up to the sky and detecting pollen in the air or bacteria in the water. It's like SpectraSnapp for the living world.

University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign researchers developed the handheld hardware and smartphone app that transforms the camera and computing capabilities of the iPhone into a sensitive biosensor. The researchers envision scientists, physicians, or even backpackers will be able to use the App, the iPhone GPS software, and holder for in situ air pollution analysis, to find clean groundwater, or to inexpensively and quickly detect toxins, viruses and bacteria at field clinics. The research was published on April 3, 2014 in the journal Lab on a Chip. 

Smartphone Biosensor Demonstration / University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign News

The crux of the work lies in the powerful combination of spectroscopy hardware and app software development.

The hardware holds the optical components not found in ordinary smartphones. Released from the binds of optics tables in dark labs, the handheld cradle aligns the lenses and filters with the smartphone's camera.

The secret players in the hardware are specially prepared microscope slides and a photonic crystal that can be designed to reflect one color of light, and allows all the others to pass through. Using different microscope slides prepared react to different biological agents, the researchers coat the slides with a photonic crystal. If a biological agent attaches to the surface of the photonic crystal, the color of light reflected off of the slide will shift towards the red.

To test for a specific biological agent, like E. coli on a spinach packaging plant, the user would slip an "Test-for-E. coli" slide into the cradle and compare the light spectrum when the smartphone is pointed at the spinach to the control spectrum. The degree to which the color of reflected light shifts (which appears as the movement of the black bar in the light spectrum) indicates the amount of E.coli is in the sample.

In the paper, the team tested their design by detecting immune system protein. In theory, the microscope slide could be prepared to detect any biological molecule or cell.  The cradle holds only about $200 of optical equipment but provides data comparable with laboratory spectrophotometers hundreds of times the cost. The researchers hope the device will prove effective for on-location analysis in developing countries and hope to make the hardware cradles available next year.
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Thursday, May 23, 2013

Scientific Ruins: The Defunct Atom Smasher Next Door

There's a derelict atom smasher nestled in the middle of suburban Washington DC. The old Atomic Physics Observatory sits in the middle of the Carnegie Institution's Department of Terrestrial Magnetism, a scientific research campus in the city's Chevy Chase neighborhood. 
The APO was named and likewise designed to look like an astronomical observatory, in hopes that the nearby residents wouldn't put up too much of a fuss when the Department of Terrestrial Magnetism built a particle accelerator in the well-off suburb. 
When it was built in 1938, it was one of the most powerful particle accelerators in the the world. Less than a year after it was first turned on, it played an important role in confirming the nuclear fission of uranium, the discovery that directly lead to the atomic bomb. Today, it's mostly used to store garden tools. The maintenance staff let us look around at what's left of the old machine.

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Wednesday, May 22, 2013

PODCAST: The Physics of NASCAR

This week on the podcast I chat with Diandra Leslie-Pelecky, a physicist at West Virginia University and the author of The Physics of NASCAR. What on earth does NASCAR have to do with physics? Everything. From the banking of the turns to the design of the rear-view mirrors, physics is what makes NASCAR possible.

And NASCAR has also proved to be a laboratory for new physics insights. Take the phenomenon of drafting, in which one car driving behind another can get a boost in speed from the front car's wake. Cyclists take advantage of this, as do birds. Drivers and team members spotted the change immediately, although they couldn't explain exactly why it was happening (and the exact explanation was left up to physicists to figure out). They started testing this phenomenon in practice, and worked out how they could use it to their benefit during races. This practice of observation and testing is also the basis of the scientific method.

To hear more about the physics of NASCAR, listen in to this week's podcast. You can also hear Diandra on the radio show SiriusXM Speedway, where she appears regularly to help debunk myths about the science of NASCAR (like whether or not the cars speed up when they go from the track to the grass).
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What Stresses Gorilla Glass Makes It Stronger

Theory tackles how glass remembers earlier forces.

Alterations to the usual glass production process, such as putting the material under stress, can introduce effects that linger even after the material hardens. While manufacturers have long exploited this phenomenon to strengthen glass, a new theory aims to get closer to understanding why it happens.

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Monday, May 20, 2013

How to Sell a Particle Accelerator: Positron-Electron Love Explosions

While the discoveries and excitement surrounding the LHC have started to cool down, a new contender in particle physics is emerging. Over 2000 scientists are currently working on one of two competing particle accelerator proposals: the International Linear Collider (ILC) and the Compact Linear Collider (CLiC). Both projects would smash electrons and their antimatter counterparts — positrons — at speeds nearing the speed of light. The LHC, on the other hand, primarily smashes heavier particles together including protons and lead nuclei.

Several countries aim to host one of these international physics collaborations, and two regions in Japan have created marketing videos to garner support for a future ILC site. With the same goal in mind, both regions took radically different approaches to their video projects.

Below you can see the more popular video created jointly by the Saga and Fukuoka prefectures. The video combines anime, lab coat raps, and a burgeoning friendship that culminates in a positron-electron collision of love as symbolized by two Japanese girls. At least, I think that's what happened.

Be sure to turn on the English subtitles for the full story.

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Saturday, May 18, 2013

A Carbon Signature Revealed

Imagine diving into the placid surface of a painting by Vermeer, parsing apart Klimt's bejeweled surfaces, or untangling Jackson Pollock's knots of paint. Art historians, collectors, and restoration scholars have long sought to uncover the methods of great painters.

Over the past decade, scientists have peered with light beneath the varnished surface of paintings to discover the chemistry of pigments, to identify the authors of unsigned works, or probe the crack depths from damage or age.

Now, researchers at the University of Barcelona in Spain have used light at terahertz frequencies to uncover the hidden carbon signature of a painting previously thought to be unsigned. Though unsigned, the painting has been studied by art historians and confirmed to be painted by the Spanish artist Goya in 1771. Such secondary validation made the piece an apropos choice by the researchers, who published their findings May 14, 2013 on the arXiv

"Sacrifice to Vesta" at three different levels of imaging at visible and THz frequencies.
Image Credit:

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Thursday, May 16, 2013

Mosh Pit Mechanics, Chattering Gazelles, and Bouncing Baby Shampoo

Physics Phun in the Phorthcoming Physical Review

What do gabby gazelles, mosh pits and jumping shampoo jets have in common? They're all covered in upcoming Physical Review papers. (This image is a mash up of pictures from Wikimedia Commons. Details and rights info are here, here and here.)
Week after week, the American Physical Society journals are chock full of some of the most important physics papers published anywhere. Importance, of course, doesn't necessarily make something interesting to anyone outside the field. Every once in a while, though, we get a handful of papers that are significant enough to get into the Physical Review journals, including the flagship Physical Review Letters, as well as appealing to people who don't necessarily spend their days hunkered down in a lab or scribbling away on an equation-covered blackboard.

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Wednesday, May 15, 2013

PODCAST: Red Rover

Basic Books
This week on the Physics Central podcast we're talking about an awesome new book called Red Rover: Robotic Space Exploration from Genesis to the Mars Rover. The book's author Roger Wiens talks with us about his career working on robots that are sent to explore space.

Wiens worked on the Genesis space mission, which launched back in 2001, and he is the principle investigator on the ChemCam instrument aboard the Curiosity Rover. In his new book he talks about the ups and downs and successes and failures that come with trying to design and build these instruments, not to mention navigating political hurdles and the curve balls that life throws at all of us. I love that Wiens isn't a dramatic kind of guy—he really loves the science—but a story like this one can't help but be full of drama.

But in case you're more one for the science, let me tell you a little about the projects Wiens has worked on.

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Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Physics of Bubbles: supercomputer needed.

It took one of the world's most powerful supercomputers five days to model a simple childhood past time: popping bubbles.

Image credit: Andreas Bastian

Researchers at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory and at the University of California Berkeley have mathematically described the evolution of a cluster of bubbles. The research was published May 10, 2013 in the journal Science.

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Monday, May 13, 2013

Dancing on the Ceiling

While choreographed dances are bound by the laws of physics, certain tricks can make the seemingly impossible a reality. In the video below, you can see two dancers walking on walls, dancing on ceilings, and adapting to changes in the direction of gravity. Or so it seems.

Choreographer and dancer Derek Hough performed those feats about a week ago on the popular Dancing with the Stars TV show. Although Derek added modern flair to this trick, the method to his dance has been used in performances for over half a century. Surprisingly, this seemingly physics-denying method has even been used to simulate real physics principles in iconic movies.

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Friday, May 10, 2013

Superhydrophobic Cicada Wings Are Self-Cleaning

Image credit:  Pmjacoby via Wikimedia Commons
Rights information:
As 17-year cicadas wriggle out of the ground all over the northeastern U.S. this spring, they'll be reemerging into a world that understands them a little better. Researchers now find the design of their wings can cause filth to jump right off of them with the aid of dew, findings that might help lead to better artificial self-cleaning materials.

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Thursday, May 09, 2013

The Rocketman Triathlon Video: Racing Through the Kennedy Space Center

After the finish.  Bike, t-shirt, finisher's medal and TARDIS towel

This past Sunday, the day after Star Wars Day, I competed in the world's nerdiest triathlon, The Rocketman. Smooth Running teamed up with NASA to set up a race through the Kennedy Space Center. Of the 30 triathlons I've done this was the coolest. As is probably the case for many children of the '80s, my concept of "science and technology" was defined by the shuttle program. Instead of dreaming of being an astronaut, I was always in awe of the scientists that made it possible to launch the astronauts into space. So, when I heard there was a race that not only would bring me up close and personal with shuttle history, but would let me race in a special "rocket scientist" division, I had to sign up. These seemed like my kind of people. The race didn't disappoint. Thinking ahead, I wore a camera on my helmet during the ride through KSC. What follows is the geekiest race report ever with a biker's-eye video of Launch Complex 39.

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Wednesday, May 08, 2013

PODCAST: Listening to the Earth

On this week's podcast I talked to people who listen to the Earth. Scientists monitor seismic waves that bounce through the planet's crust, sound waves too low for the human ear to hear reverberating through the atmosphere and hydroacoustic waves moving through the oceans. These signals carry with them lots of information about the sources of the disturbances, like where they happened and whether they're from an earthquake, a volcano or a large explosion.

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Tuesday, May 07, 2013

Scientists at Play During Wartime

Ever wondered what life was like for scientists at a lab that didn't officially exist?

Physicist Robert Serber soaks up some rays at Los Alamos. (image: Harold Agnew) 

In 1943 the United States Army established a top secret research facility in Los Alamos New Mexico to build the world's first atomic bomb. It was the greatest assembly of the physicists the world had ever seen. Hundreds of the country's top scientists came together to win World War II by splitting the atom. Early morning on July 16, 1945, the Manhattan Project detonated Trinity, the world's first atomic bomb.

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Monday, May 06, 2013

Cracked Windshields Reveal Impact Physics

Many commuters can relate to the common plight of cracked windshields. The ride may be going smoothly until a pop signals a small crack in the corner of the windshield — a small crack that will soon radiate into a spider-like obstruction.

Recently, researchers from Aix-Marseille University in Marseille, France published research on this topic, and they revealed a relatively simple relationship between the velocity of an impacting object and the number of radial cracks in the glass. Nicolas Vandenberghe and his colleagues found that the number of cracks is proportional to the square root of the impact speed for small steel projectiles hitting samples of plexiglass.

For example, quadrupling the speed of a small rock would double the number of triangular cracks emanating from the impact site. While this may provide little solace for an angry motorist, the research may prove useful in ballistics testing, forensics, and even protecting spacecraft from the dangers of the cosmos.

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Friday, May 03, 2013

Exploring the Secrets Of Hearing Sighs And Whispers

 Bullfrogs' hair cells yield clues on how humans detect faint sounds.

Image credit: Voronin76 |

Rights information:

Scientists don't fully understand how we detect faint sounds, because they should be drowned out by the background noise that the ear itself produces. Now, however, researchers at UCLA have produced clues to the process that allows us to hear a pin drop, or understand a whispered comment. They did so using hair cells taken from bullfrogs that they studied in laboratory glassware.

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Thursday, May 02, 2013

Fun With Science Leads to an Arrest store
As soon as I heard about Kiera Wilmot's science experiment gone wrong I thought "wow, that so could have been me when I was her age." For those of you that have not yet read about it, Ms. Wilmot was a curious science student and decided to do an experiment outside of class.  She mixed household chemicals in a water bottle and screwed the top back on just to see what would happen, thinking they would produce some smoke.  The bottle then exploded, with a "pop", and Wilmot was then expelled from school and arrested for discharging a weapon on school grounds.  No one was hurt, no property was even damaged, it affected no one.  I'm not saying her choice of venue wasn't monumentally stupid, but I am very upset that doing an unauthorized science experiment on school grounds ended in arrest and expulsion.  She can no longer attend her school and her college plans are possibly in jeopardy all because she was curious.  As someone who spends their life trying to get people excited and curious it really ticks me off when these traits are rewarded with an arrest warrant. 

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Wednesday, May 01, 2013

PODCAST: Super Sticky Gecko Adhesive

Photo: Steve Evans
This week on the Physics Central Podcast we're talking about an adhesive material that could soon find its way into your home. The sticky stuff is super strong: a segment as big as your hand can support up to 700 pounds. Of course, most items around the house aren't quite that heavy, so more importantly, the the adhesive peels off easily, is totally reusable, and doesn't leave behind any sticky residue.

For now, this adhesive material only exists in a laboratory at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. At the APS March Meeting I talk to Michael Bartlett, a graduate student who worked on the new material (and who says it is ready for market). Bartlett explained the physics that went into this sticky stuff, as well as the biology: it was largely inspired by the adhesive toe pads of geckos.

Geckos are the largest animals in nature with an adhesive structure that can support their entire body weight. The gecko's toe pads can stick to most surfaces, but like the new material by the UMass group, they don't leave behind any sticky residue: the adhesive ability of the gecko is entirely mechanical. Scientists have successfully created materials that imitate the gecko toe pads (which contain very tiny, hair-like structures), but they only work for very loads of about 1 pound. The UMass group has created a material based on that same gecko adhesion structure, but which can scale up to larger surface areas and significantly heavier objects.

Tune in to the podcast to learn how the group solved this puzzle and created this awesome new material. You can find us on the Physics Central website and on iTunes.
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