Friday, August 30, 2013

Comedy and Physics Collide at the LHC

The great George Carlin was no Albert Einstein, but he was a comic genius
Some physicists at the Large Hadron Collider are about to embark on a completely different sort of experiment. What they will discover today may rival the detection of the Higgs particle in, well, in no way whatsoever.

Unlike most high energy physics experiments, you won't need countless hours on a massive server farm to tell if the experiment is a success. You should know pretty quickly by tuning into CERN's After Dark Stand-Up Comedy Evening taking place today at 2:00 PM Eastern time.


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Thursday, August 29, 2013

Technology May Enable Texting After Your Phone Dies

Originally published: Aug 23 2013 - 11:15am, Inside Science News Service

By: Joel N. Shurkin, ISNS Contributor

(ISNS) -- In Shyamnath Gollakota’s dream world, every object can talk to every other object, which is particularly useful if you have misplaced your keys.

Imagine that your keys dropped out of your pocket and fell between the cushions of a couch. You ask your cellphone to find them. The keys tell the couch where they are, and the couch relays the information to your cellphone. If you also have misplaced your cellphone, your computer will find them both.

The transmitters for all this information are minuscule because they do not require outside power--no batteries, no wires plugged into a socket. They draw their power seemingly out of thin air.

Researchers demonstrate how one payment card can transfer funds to another card by leveraging the existing wireless signals around them.
Image credit: University of Washington

The devices, developed by Gollakota and his colleagues at the University of Washington in Seattle, make use of ambient backscatter -- converting the electromagnetic waves that surround us, from television broadcasts to cellular signals, into the power necessary to send the 1s and 0s of computer language.

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Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Podcast: Bicycle Physics; What Makes a Smooth Ride?


On this week's podcast, we used physics to get to the bottom of an old bicycling myth. A bike made out of aluminum isn't guaranteed to give you a rigid, rough ride, while a bike made of steel isn't always going to be smooth and compliant. The different metals have their own unique properties to be sure, but the design and engineering of a bike has much more to do with how it feels than just what it's made of.

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Monday, August 26, 2013

Free Physics Games and Simulations

Want to conduct a variety of physics experiments but don't have a high-tech lab at your disposal? That's no problem; just check out the hundreds of free, online PhET simulations to test your physics knowledge and discover something new.

These simulations have been around for awhile, but the PhET team at the University of Colorado Boulder has recently migrated several of them into HTML5. This means you can experiment with physics on just about any browser on your laptop, tablet, or phone – all for free.

Previously, the simulations required both JAVA and Flash – a platform that Apple has officially rejected for use on its mobile devices although workarounds do exist.

Here's a sample of the new HTML5 simulations:

Orbits and "Star Ballet"



In this sim, you can create your own solar system complete with a sun, planets, and moons. Just set the starting mass, position, and velocity of the planets around a central (more massive) star.

If you need some inspiration, try the various preset conditions in the top right. "Star Ballet" and the binary star look especially cool.

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Friday, August 23, 2013

Physics Video Roundup

It's been a good month for physics videos. Two recently posted animated vignettes will let you learn all of physics in less than eleven minutes. Well, maybe you won't quite learn everything, but you can get a pretty darn good introduction in less time than it takes to wash the dishes.

The first is this delightful short by animator Asa Lucander produced for BBC Two's Science Club. It's a good concise history of physics from Galileo's gravity experiments to Einstein's general relativity. It covers a lot of ground in four minutes.

 BBC Science Club - Physics from Asa Lucander on Vimeo.


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Thursday, August 22, 2013

The Cloudy Science Of E-Cigarettes

Originally published: Aug 22 2013 - 4:15pm, Inside Science News Service
By: Benjamin Plackett, ISNS Contributor

(ISNS) -- In recent years a new type of cigarette has begun to repopulate our restaurants, our subway trains and our movie theaters. It doesn't burn tobacco, it doesn't emit smoke and it lasts a lot longer than a traditional cigarette. It's currently unregulated, but that may soon change, and experts are already debating the best approach.

The Food and Drug Administration can't currently regulate electronic cigarettes because they don't technically contain tobacco -- even though the nicotine in them is derived from tobacco -- something that has angered e-cigarette opponents.

"A lot of people feel like [the e-cigarette manufacturers] are exploiting a loophole," said the director of Smoking Cessation Services at Columbia University Medical Center, Daniel Seidman.

Close up of a woman inhaling from an electronic cigarette
Image credit: Shutterstock | http://shutr.bz/186zuWz

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Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Podcast: Physics for the Blind



This week on the Physics Central podcast I talk with John Gardner, a retired physicist and founder of the company ViewPlus. When Gardner was 48, an operation left him completely blind. While he managed to continue on with his physics career, he was struck by the lack of technology that could make complex graphs accessible to blind persons. So Gardner started working on a technology of his own, and in 1996 he co-founded ViewPlus in order to commercialize it. While the combined tactile/audio technology will certainly open doors for the blind community, Gardner says it has uses for sighted individuals as well. It could make scientific graphs more searchable, easier to categorize and and re-analyze, and it could provide a fantastic learning tool for students of all ages. Listen to this week's podcast to learn more about Gardner's story and the ViewPlus technologies.

Read more about Gardner's work with APS here and here.
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Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Zooming In on the Birth of a Star

Young Stars are bursting with energy. During their early years, many stars will shoot streaming jets of plasma from both of its poles, and this plasma will collide with surrounding gas, creating a spectacular light show for telescopes back on Earth.

One such telescope, the Atacama Large Millimeter/sub-Millimeter Array (ALMA) in the high Atacama desert of northern Chile, recently captured one such star birth in unprecedented detail. Scientists working with soon-to-be-published data from the telescope released several beautiful images of this young star in action.

The excited gases surrounding the jets emanating from young stars are called Herbig-Haro Objects, and the image below shows one such striking example.

Herbig-Haro Object 46/47, including its bipolar flow of ejected material. Measurements from ALMA (orange and green in the lower right) are combined with visible wavelength measurements from the ESO's New Technology Telescope.
Image Credit: ESO/ALMA (ESO/NAOJ/NRAO)/H. Arce. Acknowledgements: Bo Reipurth
ALMA's press office also included an awesome video that slowly zooms in on the object from a wide view of the Milky Way Galaxy. Check it out below.


Video Credit: ESO/ALMA

For more information and images, check out the press release from ALMA.

You can also read the latest research article on this Herbig-Haro Object on the arxiv.
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Monday, August 19, 2013

Test Your Astronomy Knowledge with 6 Questions

Astronomy research often beats out other physics fields for headlines in the popular media, but does the general public understand these articles? A recent survey conducted at a science museum aimed to answer that question with six true/false questions.

The M-74 spiral galaxy.
Image Credit: NASA, ESA, and the Hubble Heritage (STScI / AURA)- ESA / Hubble Collaboration


Overall, the museum goers scored pretty well. We'll go over the results later, but for now it's your turn to take the test. Here's the six true/false questions that researchers recently presented to attendees of the Franklin Institute, a science museum in Philadelphia:

Questions: True or False?


1. Scientists have discovered planets going around other stars.

2. Scientists know pretty much all there is to know about the Universe.

3. Scientists have found life on Mars.

4. Scientists can calculate the age of the Earth.

5. Scientists can calculate the age of the Universe.

6. Science (peer-reviewed) journals are very similar to the NY Times or National Geographic.


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Friday, August 16, 2013

New Technique Analyzes Shadows to Spot Photo Fakes

A new algorithm can spot fake photos by looking for inconsistent shadows that are not always obvious to the naked eye.

Nina Matthews Photography via Flickr, rights info
The technique, which will be published in the journal ACM Transactions on Graphics in September, is the latest tool in the increasingly sophisticated arms race between digital forensics experts and those who manipulate photos or create fake tableaus for deceptive purposes.

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Thursday, August 15, 2013

Underground Andes Lab to Tackle Unresolved Dark Matter Mystery

High up in the Andes mountains, civil engineers are laying out plans to build an almost nine-mile-long tunnel connecting Chile and Argentina. Once completed, the Agua Negra tunnel will be the sixth longest underground road in the world. There will be points along the way where cars will be driving more than a mile below Earth's surface. It's going to be an amazing engineering achievement to build.

It's also going to be the perfect place for a new underground physics laboratory that could resolve one of the biggest outstanding mysteries of dark matter.

The three-chambered ANDES underground laboratory would split off from the subterranean roadway.
Image: Xavier Bertou  
South American scientists have been putting together a proposal to build a lab at the tunnel's deepest point. There, under more than 5,700 feet of natural radiation shielding, the Agua Negra Deep Experiment Site, aka ANDES, will be filled with sensitive detectors looking for ghostly neutrinos and dark matter particles.


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Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Podcast: Cosmic Broadcasts

Everyday, we humans send radio waves out into the world, and many of them go up and out into the cosmos. But did you know that the cosmos are broadcasting back at us? Today on the podcast we'll hear the bird-like radio waves that come from the Earth's magnetosphere, as well as the super creepy broadcast coming from Saturn. Listen in!

Go here to hear/read more about Earth's chorus vaves.

Here's a whole bunch of cosmic sounds, including the chorus waves from Jupiter.

And check out Saturn's super creepy radio waves.

More sounds from the universe: Physicist Jana Levin talks about the sound the universe makes; physicist Mark Whittle has taken and extensive amount of data from his studies of the early universe and made it audible.
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Write for the Buzz

We're looking for a Science Writing Intern. The intern will contribute regularly to this blog and will work to promote physics news with APS Media Relations.

It's a paying internship that comes with benefits and a bit of cash to cover moving expenses, in case you don't happen to live near our offices in College Park, MD.

Check out the position announcement below or click the link at the top of the post to find out more.


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Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Elon Musk: "I think of the future as branching probability streams"



Elon Musk, billionaire founder of PayPal, Tesla, and SpaceX, is in the news again and this time his innovative mind must have been working overtime. He introduced his concept of the Hyperloop this week, a pneumatic-like chamber that he envisions could transport humans between LA and San Francisco in about 30 minutes. 
While others have certainly suggested similar ideas, both in sci-fi stories and in sci-fact forums, Musk’s announcement, if anything, gives the public a slight insight into how a corner of his brain functions.

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Monday, August 12, 2013

Why Students Choose Majors

We ask a lot of 18-year-old students. Upon entering college, students weigh advice and expectations from parents, teachers, and administrators when choosing a major to study for the next few years. On top of that, they're supposed to decide as quickly as possible, ideally before the end of the first semester. For a "major" life decision, that's not a lot of time to weigh the options.

Over the past few decades, a growing body of research has been teasing apart the reasons why people choose certain majors. Career prospects and financial concerns have emerged as some of the defining criteria for this decision, as you might expect.

However, new research has identified a different deciding factor: the instructors of introductory courses.

A 2008 physics demo from Snead State Community College.
Image Credit: Larry Miller

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Friday, August 09, 2013

Tiny Collisions Power Sandstorms

Sandstorms can sweep up millions of tons of soil and send dust whirling away for thousands of miles. Although these storms seem enormously powerful, some of their strength actually derives from the tiniest of sources: the midair collisions between individual grains of sand or dust.


Image credit: squeaks2569 via flickr
Rights: http://bit.ly/c34Awz
When airborne particles smash into the ground during a sandstorm, they throw land-based particles into the atmosphere, like water splashing out of a lake. This process, called saltation, drives even more dirt and debris into the atmosphere. Some of those particles will fly into the air as saltons, while so-called reptons fall back down and ultimately remain earthbound. 

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Thursday, August 08, 2013

The 5 Most Extreme Atomic Experiments

During the early days of the Atomic Age, it seemed like a healthy dose of nuclear power could make everything better. From 1945 until the late sixties, a bold new world powered by the unlimited cheap energy of the atom seemed perpetually just around the corner.

Image: A is for Atom, Sutherland Productions

Of course, reality fell a bit short of expectations, but it wasn't for a lack of trying. There were some pretty outlandish experiments that went on, often at secret labs in far-away places. In the middle of it all was the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission, now the Department of Energy. They were in charge of the country's nuclear materials, and played a central role in all of the big atomic experiments of the time. Some of the experiments got pretty extreme.



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Wednesday, August 07, 2013

Podcast: Acceleration Secrets of the Van Allen Radiation Belts

Looking up at the night sky, our eyes can see stars and planets and other distant objects. This transparency sometimes gives the impression that Earth is surrounded by emptiness. In reality, the area around our planet is teeming with activity.
This week on the podcast I talk with astrophysicist Geoff Reeves about some of the activities going on just above our heads; specifically, the acceleration of particles in a region known as the Van Allen radiation belts.  Extending from as low as 60 miles, to as high as 60,000 miles above the surface of the Earth, the Van Allen belts are regions of high-energy, fast moving particles, that follow the lines of the Earth's magnetic fields (so they look like a donut-shaped shell around the earth).

NASA/Van Allen Probes/Goddard Space Flight Center
The belts have caused problems for humans in the last few decades, as they can occasionally damage satellites, particularly during solar storms (when the sun sends even more high energy particles careening toward us).

Scientists have been interested in understanding how the particles in the Van Allen belts are accelerated, in hopes of one day being able to predict when and where the belts will be most harmful to satellites. In 2012 NASA launched the Van Allen Space Probes to study these peculiar regions. In the July issue of the journal Science, Reeves and a group of colleagues published an analysis of some of the earliest data sent back by the Probes. The results confirm the presence of a previously unobserved mechanism for accelerating the particles.

Listen to the podcast to find out what Reeves and colleagues uncovered, and what it tells us about the universe.
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Tuesday, August 06, 2013

Liquid Droplets Reveal Clues To Quantum Behavior

Originally published: Aug 2 2013 - 11:00am, Inside Science News Service

By: Charles Q. Choi, ISNS Contributor

(ISNS) -- After a droplet falls onto a vat of vibrating liquid, what it does next could help solve fundamental mysteries in quantum physics. Now, scientists have mapped out the behavior of such drops to more detail than ever before, discovering new ways in which they can move.

If a vat of fluid throbs with too little force, the droplet falling onto it will merely disappear into the liquid. With just the right amount of force, however, the drop will bounce in place or even walk across the surface of the fluid. It can also behave even more unusually. Depending on how the liquid is shaken, it might regularly switch the sizes of its jumps, or zigzag about in unpredictable ways.

Increasingly, scientists find the way these walking droplets behave uncannily mimics strange effects previously only seen on a microscopic level in the quantum realm, where objects can apparently exist in two or more places at the same time or spin in two opposite directions simultaneously.

A drop of fluid striking the surface of a fluid bath produces waves that in turn propel the droplet across the bath.
Image Credit: Dan Harris

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Monday, August 05, 2013

The Future of High Energy Physics

The High Energy Physics (HEP) landscape has changed significantly over the past few years. Fermilab's Tevatron — once the king of particle accelerators — ceased operations two years ago as LHC scientists cranked up the energy at the world's highest-energy particle accelerator. Months later, scientists there announced conclusive evidence that they'd seen an elusive Higgs-like boson for the first time.

Much of HEP research now revolves around the LHC, and young particle physicists face different research priorities, career prospects and opportunities compared to what their older advisers faced years ago.

Consequently, at a recent annual meeting of HEP physicists, organizers polled their peers on where HEP research is headed and what will happen to physics jobs in this field. In particular, they focused on the views of young physicists facing a nebulous funding environment with shifting priorities.

A computer simulation of particle collisions leading to the emergence of a Higgs Boson.
Image Credit: Lucas Taylor/CERN

The organizers from a variety of universities divided their survey into four categories: demographics, career outlook, physics outlook, and non-academic career paths. Over 1100 physicists weighed in (including a high percentage of young postdocs, non-tenured faculty, and graduate students) for the online survey, including about 75 particle physicists who had abandoned an academic career for other lines of work. Let's take a look at some of the results.

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Friday, August 02, 2013

Citizen Science: Testing the Fairness of US State Quarters

As we were sitting around gambling our lunch money away today (note: we don't endorse gambling or take part in it during work hours), one of us happened to wonder whether one coin or another might be better for pitching pennies (note: see previous note about how we don't gamble at work).

The three possible results of flipping a quarter: tails, edge, heads.
That naturally led to the question of whether the many different designs of new US quarters might affect the balance or aerodynamics of a flipped coin in ways that would make them more likely to land on one side than the other.


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Thursday, August 01, 2013

The Origin of the Russian Meteor Found


Scientists think they might have pinpointed where the infamous Russian meteorite of 2013 came from. Astronomers Carlos de la Fuente Marcos and Raul de la Fuente Marcos from the Complutense University of Madrid calculated that it likely originated as a piece of a near-Earth asteroid named 2011 EO40.

On the morning of February 15, the skies above Chelyabinsk, Russia lit up as an enormous fireball streaked out of the sky and exploded overhead. Scientists estimate that the meteorite was about the size of a six-story building. It's one of the biggest meteor impacts in recorded history, but it's a pretty small rock compared with some of the ones out there. It exploded 14 miles above the Earth's surface with the force of about 25 Hiroshima bombs, injuring about 1,500 people.




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