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Showing posts from July, 2013

Podcast: Comic-Con 2013

On this week's podcast, I met a few science fiction authors at Comic-Con International to see how they turn exotic science concepts into whole new universes, or just use basic science to make their work feel more realistic.

I also talked to Keir Dullea and Gary Lockwood, the two stars of 2001: A Space Odyssey, a film that stands out as one of the most scientifically grounded sci-fi movies of all time.



Nanoscale Device Detects if Cells Are Alive

Originally published: Jul 26 2013 - 4:00pm, Inside Science News Service

By: Ranjini Raghunath, ISNS Contributor

(ISNS) -- A heartbeat, or a pulse, is a standard indicator of whether a person or any other animal is dead or alive. But for a single biological cell, checking its viability – its state of being "alive" – is not that simple.

Knowing a cell's viability is valuable information in studying how an antibiotic works, how toxic substances kill cells and how an infection spreads. However, most viability tests for cells involve invasive procedures – such as injecting a dye into the cell. The tests are expensive and afterward, scientists have to dispose of the cells.

But now, a group of South Korean researchers have developed a non-invasive device that uses the cell's heat conductivity – its ability to act as a conduit for heat – to determine its viability.

Best Majors for GRE Scores in 2013: Philosophy Dominates

The peak of summer has passed, and many students are slowly turning their minds to the upcoming school year. As back to school specials start hitting stores, many prospective students are hitting the books for graduate school entrance exams or poring over their scores from spring tests.

The most pervasive general graduate school exam in the U.S., the GRE, recently released its scoring data for the 1.5 years since a major overhaul of the test in late 2011. Within the dataset, the ETS has grouped average scores by the test-takers' intended graduate major, inevitably contributing to the bragging rights of "major" elitists.

So which majors reign supreme on the GREs? Let's have a look at the data for the test's three main sections: verbal, quantitative, and analytical writing.

Verbal Reasoning
The verbal section measures a student's critical thinking ability, reading comprehension, and vocabulary mastery through a series of multiple choice questions. The questions …

Comic-Con 2013 Photo Gallery

The Physics Central team had another successful year at Comic-Con International in sunny San Diego, CA. We distributed thousands of our Spectra comic books, reaching an audience that may otherwise miss out on the fun and excitement of physics.
We've collected some of our favorite photos from our time in the booth and exploring the weirdness of the exhibit hall. Take a look!



Podcast: "Game of Thrones" Weather

The HBO show Game of Thrones (based on the Song of Ice and Fire book series) takes place in a fictional world where magic and dragons make life a little more interesting for the people who live there. Set largely on the continent of Westeros, one notable characteristic of this world is it's seasonal cycle: winter and summer are of unpredictable duration. People there never know if a season will last for a few months or ten years.

Thankfully, here on Earth, the seasons run on a regular schedule. But astronomers are now finding that there may be planets in our universe where the seasonal cycles are more like that of Westeros. There are planets with highly eccentric orbits that could experience long, hard winters, and very brief summers; there are planets that orbit two (or more) stars, which may experience highly chaotic temperature fluctuations.

Today on the podcast I talk to two astrophysicists who are studying some of these odd planetary orbits. Veselin Kostov, a graduate studen…

If A Network Is Broken, Break It More

Making small adjustments can improve an entire system's stateOriginally published: Jul 16 2013 - 1:00pm, Inside Science News Service

By: Sophie Bushwick, ISNS Contributor

(ISNS) -- From the World Wide Web to the electrical grid, networks are notoriously difficult to control. A disturbance to just one part of the system can spread quickly and affect the whole thing. But this problem is its own solution: by selectively damaging part of the network, we can bring the entire system to a better state.


Why is it so important to manipulate networks? These complex systems pervade our everyday lives, from telecommunications systems to the connected neurons that form memories in your brain.

Unfortunately, nudging just a few nodes of a network can cause the entire system to malfunction. Take the electrical grid: A few downed power lines can trigger widespread blackouts. And it takes a lot of work and expensive materials to fix the broken components.

Podcast: Glass

Glass is such a unique substance, scientists are still learning a lot about its fundamental nature even though we've been making it for thousands of years. On this week's podcast I talked to Douglas Allan a researcher at the Corning glass company. He and his teammates recently published an article in Physical Review Letters where a big piece of glass shrank by about 10 microns. He told me why that tiny change is such a big deal.

Cold War Nuclear Radiation Creates Anti-Poaching Tool

Radioactive carbon atoms created during 20th-century nuclear bomb tests could help save elephants and other endangered species.

A new study, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, shows that carbon-14, a radioactive version of the common carbon atom, can be used to determine when an animal died to within about one year.

Physics Invasion at Comic-Con 2013

The varied worlds of comic books, fantasy, cartoons, anime, video games and blockbuster movies will converge in San Diego later this week for Comic-Con International 2013. We'll be there too, adding a little physics to the chaos of the convention.

During the school year, we distribute our educational (yet fun!) comic books and demo kits to middle schools across the U.S. After receiving great responses from teachers and students alike, we decided to extend our reach to the annual Comic-Con audience.

For the past few years we've been bringing our comic books, buttons, stickers, LED lights, and physics know-how to the busy San Diego Convention Center — the host of Comic-Con International. When we're not promoting our physics goodies at the convention, you can find us fighting crime and saving the day as evidenced by the image below from last year.

Nanotubes Could Help To Detect Lyme Disease Earlier

Inside Science News Service

Originally published: Jul 9 2013 - 2:45pm

By: Peter Gwynne, ISNS Contributor

(ISNS) -- A group of physicists and biologists has developed a nanotechnology-based technique that promises to increase the speed and sensitivity of diagnosing Lyme disease, a bacterial condition that infects more than 30,000 Americans each year.

The method, still in the research stage, uses nanotubes – tiny threads of carbon barely visible to the human eye – attached to antibodies that react with particular proteins carried by the bacteria responsible for the disease.


"We're looking directly for the Lyme organisms," said physicist A. T. Charlie Johnson, who led the multidisciplinary group at the University of Pennsylvania with bacteriologist Dustin Brisson. "This could be very useful in detecting early-stage infection."

Podcast: Man-Made Earthquakes?

This week on the podcast I talk with seismologist and geophysicist Katie Keranen about a troubling trend: man-made earthquakes.

Scientists have known for at least 50 years that human activities can lead to seismic events. Potential triggers include anything that might change the pressure or the friction between portions of the earth's crust, such as removing large reserves of oil and gas, building artificial lakes, and injecting wastewater into the ground.

In March, a paper published in Geologycreated a stir when it implicated waste-water injection as the likely cause of a 5.7 magnitude earthquake that occurred in Oklahoma. The November 2011 quake (one of three in a series) was the largest earthquake on record in the state. It destoryed 14 homes and injured two people.

The Oklahoma earthquake is also the largest seismic event to be linked to human activity, but unfortunately, that link remains tentative: the scientists who investigated the quake can't say for sure if the waste…

Inside-Out Pyramids Triple a Solar Cell's Efficiency

When sunlight hits a solar panel, a lot of it bounces right back off and its potential to be turned into electricity is lost. However a team of researchers in China and Sweden designed a simple but effective new solar cell design that captures much of that reflected light, potentially tripling the amount of energy that could be captured per square foot.


The team's design essentially turned a small pyramid inside-out, and coated its inside with a kind of flexible solar cell. They built and tested four different pyramids with progressively sharper "peaks" to measure how they compared to traditional flat solar cells.

The 51-Star Flag

As the fireworks and festivities of this long fourth of July weekend have faded, many Americans are either trudging back to their offices with a food coma or embracing the week with a fervor that only a patriotic afterglow can provide. For the latter group, we've got some patriotic math research to report.

Although no new states have joined the U.S. for over half a century, there's been a renewed push to induct Puerto Rico as the 51st state. This fact coupled with the ongoing campaign for D.C.'s statehood raises the possibility of a new state and, consequently, the need for a new U.S. flag.


So what would a 51-star flag look like? Mathematician Skip Garibaldi (Emory University) answered that question with a computer simulation, revealing several possibilities. So what's the best 51-star flag? That depends upon your aesthetic preferences.

Stars can be arranged in a rectangle, circle, star, or some combination thereof. Check out the video below to see just a few of the o…

Podcast: Fibonacci Patterns in Nature

Today on the podcast I'm talking with Matthew Pennybacker, a mathematician who studies patterns in plants. In his most recent work, Pennybacker and his colleague Alan Newel have provided a mathematical description of the beautiful, swirling patterns that we see in sunflower heads.

Notice that the spirals on the sunflower head go in two directions: clockwise and counterclockwise. The number of spirals going in either direction usually differs on a single flower, and the number of spirals certainly varies from flower to flower; BUT the spirals still follow a regular pattern*: the number of spirals are almost always variables from something called the Fibonacci sequence.

The Fibonacci sequence starts with numbers 1 and 1, and then proceeds as such: each new number is the sum of the last two numbers. So the sequence goes: 1, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13, 21, 34, 55, 89 and so on. Now why on earth would plants want to exhibit such a pattern in the way they organize their seeds? And how does the s…

Shark Power

Scientists have developed a way to harvest energy generated by a swimming shark and turn it into electricity. A team of researchers at New York University stuck a strip of material that converts mechanical stress into electricity onto the tail of a robot shark and extracted usable energy from the simulated sea creature.

There's a whole family of materials that generate small amounts of electricity when crushed, flexed or knocked about. The most well known are piezoelectrics, which researchers have recently been looking into for ways to harvest otherwise wasted energy. A relative of piezoelectrics are electroactive polymers, which is what the scientists at New York University used.

Quantum Mechanics Board Game

An ongoing Kickstarter project has come up with the perfect recipe for a fun-filled, nerdy evening: quantum mechanics and board games. The people behind indie game company Elbowfish are trying to reach their $33,000 crowdfunding goal to distribute their physics-inspired board game called Antimatter Matters.

In the game, 2-6 Antimatter Matters players assume the roles of scientists in the not-too-distant future trying to assemble matter from stray elementary particles. The standard version of the game pits the scientists against one another in a race to create a hydrogen atom by collecting fundamental particles: electrons, quarks, gluons, and even photons.

You can see the creators describing their game in the video below.