Monday, December 22, 2014

Solstice, Shmolstice – Why The Coldest Days Are Still To Come

Originally published: Dec 22 2014 - 11:45am, Inside Science News Service
By: Katharine Gammon, Contributor

(Inside Science) -- Residents of the Northern Hemisphere, don’t worry about the winter solstice – it’s not the middle of winter, and in some places, it’s not even the start of wintry weather.

So why exactly is the shortest day of the year so distant from the coldest temperatures? It’s usually another month before the bone-aching freezes of winter hit their worst.

That gap is what’s known as the seasonal lag, said Anthony Arguez, a physical scientist with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's National Climatic Data Center in Ashville, North Carolina. The lag occurs primarily because the earth’s land and oceans absorb some of the sun’s energy and release it slowly over time.

“There’s not a good answer for why people say that December 21 is the beginning of winter,” he said. “There’s nothing magical that says that winter has to happen after the solstice.” While the temperature of soil more than 30 feet below the surface remains basically constant, the soil higher up holds in heat, even while the air temperatures drop off. Arguez pointed out that summertime temperatures have a similar lag – the hottest day of the year in the Northern Hemisphere is typically in July or August.

Image credit: weegeeboard via flickr | http://bit.ly/16AuFvy
Rights information: http://bit.ly/1haBUhX

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Friday, December 19, 2014

The Mystery Object

The other day, a mystery showed up at the door of the PhysicsCentral offices. The inimitable Buzz Skyline discovered this mystery object in his neighborhood and brought it to H.Q. We have no idea what it is, other than really cool looking, so we decided to do what CERN did a few weeks ago and ask our loyal readers to weigh in.

There aren't a lot of clues that go along with it either. A few of the guesses we floated are that it has something to do with astronomy or something to do with crystallography. Maybe it was used in an educational setting or a laboratory. In short, we have no idea.

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Thursday, December 18, 2014

Black Hole Fingerprints: Help Radio Galaxy Zoo Reach Its 1 Millionth Classification


















The long winter nights are upon us — what better way to pass the evening than by doing your bit for science? Best part is, you can still watch that favorite holiday movie.

Last week we featured a podcast all about the power of citizen scientists helping to analyze very large datasets.

This week, I want to highlight one such citizen science project that just celebrated its one year anniversary! This project is known as Radio Galaxy Zoo, a title that you might recognize from the very successful Galaxy Zoo.

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Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Podcast: Manh(a)ttan Brings Nuclear Physics to Primetime



This fall, a new primetime drama appeared on the television network WGN America, featuring scientists at Los Alamos working tirelessly--desperately, even--to develop nuclear weapons during World War II, all while maintaining utmost secrecy. Manhattan draws on the rich underlying history of its namesake, the Manhattan Project, but steers clear of documentary tendencies. Whereas the premise of the show and several key figures are largely based on their real-life counterparts, the main cast is populated by fictional characters, whose personal and scientific struggles acquaint us with the broader themes of privacy, government surveillance, and trust. Today on the podcast, we discuss how Manhattan brings nuclear physics to primetime TV, and what’s gained or lost along the way.

A replica of the Fat Man bomb detonated over Nagasaki during WWII.
Image Credit: US Department of Defense

Jennifer Ouellette, science writer and former director of the Science and Entertainment Exchange, is impressed with Manhattan’s creative and dramatic storyline, and notes that the on-screen science, vetted by several technical consultants, is not only presented accurately, but also motivates much of the narrative and character development. While she acknowledges that the central conflict of the first season--a rivalry between two different designs for the atomic bomb--was magnified for dramatic purposes, Ouellette maintains that it makes for “more powerful storytelling, and there’s always going to be that tradeoff.” In reality, both bomb designs, the gun-type Thin Man and the implosion model, were developed into working weapons, and one of each type, Little Boy and Fat Man, were dropped on Japan in 1945.

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Tuesday, December 16, 2014

An Offer You Can't Refuse: How Extortion Can Enhance Cooperation in Society

Cooperation is a hard behavior to explain. Often it involves making at least a small sacrifice for the benefit of the whole, which superficially seems to be at odds with evolutionary pressures that encourage individuals to maximize their benefits at the expense of their competitors.

Lots of theories exist to explain why cooperation arises in society, but a relatively new one examines how extortionists can lead to complete cooperation in a society. It's an idea I'm sure Mafia Don Vito Corleone of the movie The Godfather would have considered trivially obvious.




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Monday, December 15, 2014

Brain-Like Circuits Can Mimic Pavlov's Dogs

Originally published: Dec 15 2014 - 1:45pm, Inside Science News Service
By: Charles Q. Choi, Contributor

(Inside Science) -- Artificial electronic circuits that mimic the pathways connecting neurons in the brain can learn, unlearn and store memories, researchers have reported. These inventions could not only help researchers better understand how the brain works, but could also lead to advanced new computers.

Brains are the most powerful computers known. This is due in large part to their complexity — the human brain has roughly 100 billion neurons, with about one million billion connections known as synapses wiring them together.

Scientists have long strived to mimic the brain electronically using either software or hardware. However, current software simulations of the brain, such as the IBM Blue Gene project, require lots of energy as well as dozens of cabinets of computers, while conventional hardware imitations of the brain are limited by the lack of components that can adequately mimic the way synapses behave, said researcher Shriram Ramanathan, a materials scientist at Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Image credit: Singkham via shutterstock | http://shutr.bz/1wTo36X

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Friday, December 12, 2014

Why Plug-In-Hybrid Vehicles May Be The Car Of The (Near) Future

Don't bet on all electric cars taking over for more than a decade, researchers indicate.
Image credit: 
Tom Wang via shutterstock
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
rights:
http://shutr.bz/1zvu9Yj

This story follows a story published November 25, 2014 on electric vehicles and how the driving range customers want may differ from what is best for their budgets.

Owning a car provides freedom. Drive hundreds of miles if you want. When you're low on gas, fill up in five minutes. Electric cars don't work that way. Most modern models can travel fewer than 100 miles on a full charge, and gas tanks fill much faster than batteries charge. But one type offers a compromise that combines the benefits of an electric car with the convenience of a combustion-powered vehicle.
"I come to the conclusion that the main competitor of electric cars is the plug-in hybrids because they offer the best of both worlds," said Ricardo Daziano, who studies the way engineering and economics affect the adoption and improvement of new technologies at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York. "So you can go electric on your daily commute and then you feel good about the environment."

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Thursday, December 11, 2014

Walking On Water: Physics of Clear Ice

A video went viral yesterday showing two hikers in Slovakia walking across a frozen lake. What is amazing about this lake is the fact that it froze crystal clear such that the hikers appear to be walking on calm water.

In cased you missed it, here is the video:



Now, like any self-respecting scientist, I tried to get APS approval to repeat their hike, you know, just to verify the experimental results, but sadly no can do. The stark and beautiful scenery of the Slovakian mountains will have to wait until another day.

While I was daydreaming, I wondered what caused this particular lake to freeze clear? What's special about its conditions? And can I make clear ice at home? As usual, physics has the answers.


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Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Podcast: Citizen Science Answering the Call



Over the past decade, citizen science projects have been popping up in every conceivable discipline, evolving with the internet to bring the power of the public to bear on increasingly large datasets. Astronomy has a long history of amateur involvement, and many projects are now up and running to process piles of data from space telescopes, sky surveys, and planetary orbiters. Today on the podcast, we take a look at a few of these projects to find out why they’re so useful and what drives citizen scientists to volunteer.

Dr. Andrew Westphal of Berkeley’s Space Science Laboratories is the project director and principal investigator for Stardust@home, an effort to find rare interstellar particles embedded in the aerogel detector returned from NASA’s Stardust mission in 2006. In part, volunteers (or “dusters”) are motivated by competition, as their pattern recognition chops are evaluated and reported in real time. 

An aerogel collector for the Stardust mission. The Stardust mission is one of several science projects that has enlisted the help of volunteers to comb through large amounts of data.
Image Credit: NASA

Even more alluring to dusters, Westphal maintains, is the chance to participate in cutting edge scientific investigations, and to know that their help is actually making a difference. And it is! So far, the project has identified three interstellar particles in the aerogel (and, unexpectedly, another four particles hitching a ride on the foil-like aluminum aerogel mounts) and their discoverers have named them Orion, Haylabook, and Sorok.
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Tuesday, December 09, 2014

Hearing the Pianist's Fingers: The Importance of Touch in Piano Music

Credit: Lecates via Wikimedia Commons
Can you tell the difference between the two tones played in this recording?

I'm not convinced that I can, but a group of trained musicians were able to listen to a series of tones like this and consistently distinguish between the two. This is important because there is actually a difference in the tones: in this particular recording, the first tone is an E note played such that the piano key does not hit the bottom of the wooden frame that holds the keys in place (known as the key frame), and in the second tone, the key does hit the key frame. Otherwise, the tones are identical.

From this experiment and others, a team of musicians and acoustic scientists have concluded that touch can be heard in piano music, addressing a century-old debate. Their work has been recently published in the November issue of the Journal of the Acoustical Society of America.

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Monday, December 08, 2014

Weird Arctic Weather Causes Near-Disaster In Northernmost Town

Originally published: Dec 2 2014 - 3:00pm, Inside Science News Service
By: Joel Shurkin, ISNS Contributor

(Inside Science)—What happens when it gets too warm in the dead of an Arctic winter? As residents of Norway's northern islands found out in January 2012, it could become a disaster.

The snow and ice on the islands melted. It rained for days and the high temperatures lasted for two weeks. Permafrost, the frozen soil that can reach hundreds of feet deep, started to melt. Then it got cold again and everything froze over. Snow collected in potentially deadly avalanches. The remote islands were cut off from the European mainland. Wildlife died.

Although Norwegian scientists believe this was a once-in-500-year event, climate change may bring more winters like the winter of 2012, and it is happening elsewhere.

A view of Longyearbyen airport
Image credit: sian_meades via flickr | http://bit.ly/1w10Saw
Rights information: http://bit.ly/NL51dk

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Friday, December 05, 2014

Fermi Problem Friday: Quantifying Miracles

Lazarus rising from the dead,
as did Janina Kolkiewicz and Walter Williams earlier this year.
It's a rare event, but is it miraculous?
The holiday season is upon us, and we will soon be inundated with stories of miracles from Frosty the Snowman to 34th Street and religious celebrations of one kind or another.

Talk of miracles, of course, is not limited to the holidays. A quick search of the the news shows that the word comes up with amazing frequency, often used in connection with medical stories, and shockingly often by doctors.

I usually think of doctors as applied scientists, so it seems strange to me that they would use the word "miracle" so often. There are certainly other words that they could choose when something unusual happens. Words like anomaly, stroke of luck,lucky break, or beat the odds. But when you enter these words in Google Trends, which can show you the frequency of words searched on the internet, they all lose out to "miracle" in popularity.

So I started wondering, what does it take for something to be "miraculous" in the way the word is often used?

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Thursday, December 04, 2014

The 29 Best Retro Photos From CERN's Vaults

In recent weeks the European science lab CERN has been uploading gobs of photos from their archives onto their publicly accessible document server. It's part of their 60th anniversary celebration and is a fascinating window into how fundamental science was done during the groovy '60s and funkadelic '70s.


There are literally tens of thousands of photos, with dozens more uploaded each day. The shutterbugs in Geneva took pictures of everything, from scientists working to construction projects and experimental equipment. The archivists at CERN are having a hard time identifying everybody and everything in the photos and have started calling on the public to write in with the names of any as yet unidentified people, equipment and experiments.

I've spent the last few days sorting through the huge collection of photos to pick out the best, weirdest and most retro ones uploaded so far.

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Wednesday, December 03, 2014

Podcast: Solar Winds and Hot Plasma Experiments



What is the nature of the solar wind, and how is it so powerful as to affect us here on Earth?

This is an artist's rendering of solar wind -- plasma from the sun that is always blowing, causing space weather -- hitting the Earth's magnetic field. Usually, Earth's magnetic shields us from the solar wind, directing the sun's plasma to the poles, which we see as auroras such as this one from above Bear Lake, Alaska.

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Tuesday, December 02, 2014

Watch Live as NASA Launches a New Human Spacecraft this Thursday

The Orion spacecraft atop a Delta IV rocket waits at the Kennedy Space Center for Thursday's launch.
Credit: NASA/Kim Shiflett
NASA's brand-new human spacecraft, Orion, launches this Thursday December 4th for its first test flight. The launch window opens at 7:05 a.m. EST so if you are based in the U.S., be sure to set an early alarm to watch it live.

The unmanned mission will last four and a half hours as Orion orbits twice around the Earth before splashing down off the coast of Baja California. During this flight, Orion will travel farther than any human spacecraft has in more than 40 years — 15 times higher than the International Space Station. In the future, Orion plans to carry four astronauts on extended, deep space missions, eventually reaching the asteroid belt and Mars.

Credit: NASA
Following a rough month in which an unmanned Orbital Sciences Antares rocket exploded on the launch pad and a pilot was killed in the crash of Virgin Galactic SpaceShipTwo, the space travel community will no doubt be watching the Orion launch closely. A tried-and-tested Delta IV Heavy rocket will be used in Thursday's launch, but with a heavy and untested payload aboard, and slightly uncertain weather conditions at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida, the launch could be delayed. By 9:45 a.m. EST when the launch window closes, we will know for sure the status of the launch.


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Monday, December 01, 2014

Schrodinger's Cat and the Raiders of the Lost Quark

Last week's Black Friday officially ushered in this year's holiday shopping season. Undoubtedly, there are a few Physics Buzz readers seeking gifts for their physics-minded friends and family.

Here's one possibility: a quantum mechanics-themed platform/puzzle video game. Schrodinger's Cat and the Raiders of the Lost Quark comes loaded with plenty of physics humor, eccentric characters, and quirky yet attractive art design. Although the game may not appeal to every gamer, it provides a fun introduction to plenty of quantum mechanics concepts while deviating (intentionally) from the realm of strict scientific facts.

The game takes place in and around the "particle zoo" — an enclosure for the varied elementary particles ranging from quarks to gluons and everything in between. The game's creators at italicpig game studios took some artistic license with the various particles, however, giving them eyes, odd shapes, and even a bit of personality.

While the particles are typically locked up safely within the zoo, someone or something has allowed all of the particles out of their enclosures. Now, gluons, leptons and bosons are running amok. As the protagonist, Schrodinger's Cat, you are tasked with rounding up the rowdy particles with the help of some friendlier particles: the top, bottom, up and down quarks. The roles of the two remaining types of quarks — strange and charm quarks — become more clear as the game progresses.


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Tuesday, November 25, 2014

5 Reasons Why Radio Galaxies Are the Coolest Places You Would Never Want to Visit

There is no disputing the fact that radio galaxies are the most extreme objects in the universe.1

Radio galaxies are recognizable by their enormous jets and lobes of radiating plasma, driven outwards at nearly the speed of light by supermassive black holes harbored in galaxy cores. Pretty amazing right? But I wouldn't want to get anywhere near one.
Cygnus A, the classic view of a radio galaxy, showing the tiny central host galaxy and the enormous jets and lobes which punch through the gas environment at nearly the speed of light. Credit: NRAO/AUI


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Monday, November 24, 2014

Artifacts From the Archives

The Niels Bohr Library and Archive opened its doors last month to show off some of its hidden gems. In addition to its exhaustive book, photographic and oral history collections, the library hosts a repository of a range of old physics documents and artifacts. Much of what it stores are the historical documents of the American Physical Society, the American Institute of Physics and some of its member societies. But hidden amongst board meeting minutes and old society declarations are some real treasures.

Richard Feynman's high school notebook. Feynman used it during his sophomore or junior years while he was teaching himself calculus from the book Calculus Made Easy. From Feynman's oral history:

My father and I went to Macy’s and he bought me a book, CALCULUS MADE EASY, and I took it home and studied it and wrote a notebook which I still have, and can give you, of this book, that tells me the stuff in it. That was a way to try to get it into my head this time, instead of forgetting it. So I had learned calculus.

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Friday, November 21, 2014

Can We Eavesdrop On E.T.?

Simulation assesses odds of intercepting interstellar communications.


Image credit: Yellowstone National Park via flickr | http://bit.ly/1uREyxx
Rights : http://bit.ly/NL51dk
It may the biggest and oldest question in science: Are we alone in the universe?

If the answer is no, a second question arises: Who else is out there?

Such questions have motivated a decades-long search for radio and light signals from intelligent beings on other planets. In a recent paper, Duncan Forgan, an astronomer at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland, analyzed how likely we are to intercept light beams sent between advanced civilizations in our galaxy. The short answer is: not very likely.

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Thursday, November 20, 2014

Gecko-Style Climbing Becomes a Reality


"... it doesn't feel like you should be gripping glass. You keep expecting to slip off, and when you don't, it surprises you. It's pretty exhilarating." — Elliot Hawkes

Humans have a long (and fascinating) history of climbing, and the history of climbing-specific gear is nearly as long. Ropes, harnesses, pitons, and ascenders all help climbers safely reach new vertical heights. Now there's a new technology on the block. A team of Stanford engineers and physicists has created a gecko-inspired climbing apparatus that gives humans the ability to climb glass walls like never before.

Stanford engineer, Elliot Hawkes, climbs a smooth wall using gecko-inspired pads.
Credit: Reproduced with permission from Hawkes et. al. 2014.


























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Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Podcast: Listening for Black Holes and Neutron Stars



Gravitational waves: what are they, and what can they tell us about our universe?

From pulsar timing arrays to ground-based interferometry, there are currently many strategies and instruments in the works to capture gravitational waves over a range of frequencies. Direct detection remains a highly-anticipated--and potentially imminent!--outcome of these vast projects, but what does it really mean? On this week’s podcast, we take a look at a range of instruments and techniques designed to capture these elusive signals. First, theoretical astrophysicist Dr. Chiara Mingarelli explains how watching distant pulsars for tiny changes in the timing of their flashes can tell us about supermassive black hole mergers and the gravitational waves these violent “spacetime storms” produce.

A NASA simulation of two merging white dwarf stars and the gravitational waves they produce.
Image: NASA



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Tuesday, November 18, 2014

The Bartender and the Barista: How Physics Makes Beer Easier to Carry than Coffee

Anyone who has ever carried a tray full of pint glasses without getting their feet wet knows that such a feat is hard work, but perhaps our sympathies should go out to the baristas in coffee shops instead. New research has concluded that carrying coffee without spilling is harder than beer since the foam on the surface of beer dampens sloshing.

Credit: Julius Schorzman via Wikimedia Commons




















A team of physicists at Princeton and NYU Polytechnic School of Engineering set up an experiment which jolts three identical pint glasses carrying Guinness, Heineken, and black coffee, and measures the resulting oscillations.

This video is the team's entry to the annual APS Gallery of Fluid Motion competition and explains their whole analysis.




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Monday, November 17, 2014

Ancient Meteorite Reveals New Evidence On The Solar System's Beginnings

Originally published: Nov 13 2014 - 2:00pm, Inside Science News Service
By: Charles Q. Choi, Contributor

(Inside Science) -- An ancient meteorite has now yielded the first physical evidence that intense magnetic fields played a major role in the birth of our solar system.

Shortly after the sun formed about 4.6 billion years ago, a rotating disk of gas and dust that surrounded the newborn star coalesced into the planets that children now memorize. Astronomers peering at young distant stars find these protoplanetary disks usually disappear relatively quickly, in 5 million years or less.

Most of the solar system's protoplanetary disk spiraled into the sun, leaving the star with 99 percent of the solar system's mass. However, it was a mystery how all this material could have swirled into the sun as fast as it apparently did. A number of theories for how this might have occurred involve magnetic fields.

"Magnetic fields can introduce viscosity into the disk, essentially making the gas in it more sticky," said lead study author Roger Fu, a planetary scientist at MIT in Cambridge, Massachusetts. "This means gas of differing orbits interacts more strongly with each other, and more gas falls toward the star."

Artist depiction of a protoplanetary disk consisting of a central star surrounded by a gas cloud permeated by magnetic fields. Objects in the foregrounds are millimeter-sized rock pellets known as chondrules, which are the subjects of this study.
Image Credit: Hernán Cañellas, MIT Paleomagnetism Laboratory

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Friday, November 14, 2014

Slip-Sliding Away

Two Massachusetts teams develop slick coatings to keep ketchup, other items from sticking to surfaces.

Image by Quinn Dombrowski | http://bit.ly/10QLP4L
Rights : http://bit.ly/1dWcOPS

Research teams at Harvard University and MIT have independently developed methods of making super-slippery surfaces by creating stable mixtures of liquids and solids. Both teams have founded companies to exploit applications of their patented technology.

The developments promise consumer applications such as toothpaste tubes that release the last portions of their contents without the need to roll them up and bottles that deliver ketchup as soon as they are tilted, eliminating the need to squeeze or shake them.

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Thursday, November 13, 2014

What does a journey through a wormhole actually look like?

A simulated wormhole. Credit: Corvin Zahn licensed under cc-by-sa/2.0/de/
Let's talk about wormholes. I won't be spoiling anything to say that the plot of Christopher Nolan's latest film, Interstellar, hinges on the existence of a large wormhole allowing intrepid astronauts to travel through in search of new worlds to colonize.

In the film, the wormhole is basically just a deus ex machina — a simple plot device to get the main characters out into deep space. Nevertheless the film's brief depiction of this theoretical concept left me intrigued to know what a trip through a real wormhole might actually be like.

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Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Podcast: Journey to the Center of the Earth



What do earthquakes, the moon, and the earth’s magnetic field have in common? They’re all connected to the iron core deep inside our planet.

On this week's podcast, join me on a journey to the center of the earth. First, Planetary Science Professor Raymond Jeanloz from the University of California Berkeley will guide us through the iron catastrophe, the event that formed the earth’s core. Surprisingly, it has a lot of do with the planetary impact that chipped the moon from early earth.

A simulation of the magnetic field created by liquid convection in the earth's core.
Image Credit: Dr. Gary A. Glatzmaier/Los Alamos National Laboratory/U.S. Department of Energy.

Then, Professor Jennifer Jackson at Caltech’s Seismological Laboratory will tell us how scientists study the core. Because the core is 4,000 miles down, and the deepest humans have drilled is only seven anda half miles, scientists use indirect methods to study the core. We’ll find out how studying the deep rumblings of earthquakes provides details about the material that makes up the core and how scientist sare recreating more than 3.6 million atmospheres of pressure in the lab.

Finally, Jeanloz will hint at happenings in the core that might flip our world upside down.

-Podcast and post by Jenna Bilbrey


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Tuesday, November 11, 2014

One for the History Books - Rosetta Mission Lands on Comet Tomorrow

Impression of Rosetta mission landing. Credit: ESA/ATG medialab; Comet image: ESA/Rosetta/Navcam
History will be made when Rosetta's lander Philae makes a soft touchdown on a comet tomorrow. ESA's Rosetta spacecraft first captured the world's imagination back in January when it reawakened from hibernation, and tomorrow's landing will mark the crowning achievement in an already scientifically-rewarding mission.

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Monday, November 10, 2014

How the "Interstellar" Spaceship Compares to the Real Thing

Christopher Nolan's new space epic Interstellar opened in theaters late last week. The film follows a team of intrepid astronauts in the not too distant future as they traverse a wormhole to the distant corners of the universe. They navigate black holes and hostile planets in a desperate attempt save the people of Earth from an all consuming, planet-wide dust bowl.

Matthew McConaughey as astronaut Cooper, exploring a frigid planet surface. Image: Paramount.

Legendary physicist Kip Thorne of Caltech was the science advisor and wrote one of the earliest treatments of the movie. General relativity and its weird effects like time dilation, warped space and gravitational singularities are integral to the plot, and we'll have a full rundown of the physics of it all soon.

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Friday, November 07, 2014

Getting it Backwards: Thinking Locally and Acting Globally on Climate Change

Maybe it's cold in your neighborhood, but that doesn't mean the planet isn't warming over all.

It's a little like standing on top of a small hill, and just because you're the highest thing around as far as you can see, assuming you've climbed to the top of the tallest mountain in the world.  That would be true for precisely one spot - the peak of Mount Everest.

So if you want to know how climate change is affecting the world, don't just look out your window. Do a little research.  Unfortunately, as you will see in the Inside Science video below, too many people are using local conditions to decide how to act on issues that have global effects.






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Thursday, November 06, 2014

The Theory of Everything: New Stephen Hawking Biopic Released

Tomorrow a new film which chronicles the personal life of astrophysicist Stephen Hawking is released to US audiences. The Theory of Everything is an adaptation of a memoir by Hawking's first wife, Jane Wilde, and centers around their time together in Cambridge during the 1960s as Hawking begins his PhD research and struggles against the onset of ALS (i.e. Lou Gehrig's disease).


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Wednesday, November 05, 2014

Podcast: Recreating Isaac Asimov's 'Nightfall' Solar System

Sunset on a four star world with a nearly invisible gas giant. Artwork courtesy of Dirk Terrell
What would life be like on a planet with six suns? What if darkness only fell once every 2000 years due to the complex orbits of this fictional solar system? Would the people go mad?




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Tuesday, November 04, 2014

To Neutralize Bioterrorism Just Add Tiny Motors To Water

Originally published: Oct 31 2014 - 2:45pm, Inside Science News Service
By: Alexander Hellemans, Contributor

(Inside Science) -- Researchers around the world are studying how to destroy chemical and biological warfare agents without anyone getting hurt. A research group at the University of California, San Diego has demonstrated the ability to destroy dangerous agents, such as nerve gas and anthrax spores, with a recent new invention: self-propelled micromotors.

Micromotors can act as tiny nanotorpedoes that propel themselves through fluids using chemical energy. Ordinary micromotors consist of double layers of iron and platinum rolled up into tubular structures. If a dangerous agent was detected in a liquid, scientists and decontamination crews could add the motors to that liquid, along with the chemical that serves as their fuel, hydrogen peroxide. The peroxide reacts with iron within the motors, and through a series of reactions also involving water, produces a jet of oxygen bubbles that propel the micromotor in a whirling motion. The tube is coated on the outside with a catalyst or active chemical compound that destroys the dangerous agents. Because of their stirring action the decontamination rate is much higher.

Image credit: William Murphy via flickr | http://bit.ly/1G2VA0p
Rights information: http://bit.ly/1dWcOPS

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Friday, October 31, 2014

The Ghostly Glow of St. Elmo's Fire

Adapted from Wikimedia Commons

"Everything is in flames, — the sky with lightning, — the water with luminous particles, and even the very masts are pointed with a blue flame."
— Charles Darwin, 1832
"... sometime I'ld divide,
And burn in many places; on the topmast,
The yards and bowsprit, would I flame distinctly,
Then meet and join."
— William Shakespeare, The Tempest 
"About, about, in reel and rout, The death fires danced at night; The water, like a witch's oils, Burnt green and blue and white."
—Samuel Taylor Coleridge, The Rime of the Ancient Mariner 




The tale of a blue-white ghostly glow appearing on a dark and stormy night is littered throughout our history and story books. What's remarkable is the uniformity of the account: often during a thunderstorm, an eerie blue flame would appear and disappear on the tips of ship masts and yet would not burn.


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Podcast: October Physics News Roundup



October was a big month for physics with Chinese rockets to the moon, new particles at CERN's Large Hadron Collider, physicists modeling the feel of cities and of course, the Nobel prizes. Catch this month's top physics stories condensed into thirteen minutes of podcasting goodness.

Also, on a bittersweet note, the PhysicsCentral team is saying goodbye to the podcast's co-founder and long-time contributor Calla Cofield. She got scooped up by Space.com and we want to wish her all the best.
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Thursday, October 30, 2014

Scientists and Activists Call for the Release of Imprisoned Iranian Physicist

Thirty-one physics Nobel laureates called for the release of an Iranian scientist jailed for refusing to work on his country's weapons program.

Elise Auerbach of Amnesty International shows off copies of the petition signed by 31 Nobel laureates.

For nearly four years, physicist Omid Kokabee has been imprisoned in Iran for a crime he didn't commit. Without seeing the evidence against him or even being allowed to defend himself in court, the Iranian government convicted him of "communicating with a hostile government" and receiving "illegitimate funds" in the form of his student stipend while a graduate student at the University of Texas at Austin.

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Tuesday, October 28, 2014

A Leafy Curse: The Physics of Leaves on the Track

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It's that time of year again. The colors of the trees are beautiful and vivid oranges, reds, and purples.

But autumn leaves are a nightmare for train operators, affecting anywhere with heavy deciduous tree growth — places like New England, the mid-Atlantic states, and the United Kingdom.
In the UK, delays due to leaves are so disruptive that the colloquial phrase of 'leaves on the line' has emerged, often jokingly referred to as a fictional excuse for delays. But the innocuous leaf is in fact no laughing matter.

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Monday, October 27, 2014

Early Universe's Room Temperature Could Have Supported Life

Originally published: Oct 20 2014 - 4:15pm, Inside Science News Service
By: Ker Than, Contributor

(Inside Science) -- Life in the universe could be much older than previously thought, forming as early as fifteen million years after the Big Bang, according to a provocative new idea proposed by a Harvard astrophysicist.

In this scenario for the early universe, rocky planets born from the dregs of massive, primordial stars would have been warmed by the heat of a radiation that permeated all of space, which was much hotter back then than it is now. One of these ancient worlds could have supported liquid water on its surface irrespective of its distance to a star, and thus been habitable to primitive forms of Earth-like organisms, said Avi Loeb, who chairs the Harvard astronomy department.

With the discovery of exoplanets, Loeb said, scientists are beginning to seriously consider that life-as-we-know-it exists in other places.

"What I’m saying here is that it can also be extended to other, earlier, times," he said.

A new paper suggests that planets from the remnants of the universe's earliest stars could have supported life on dim, warm planets.
Image credit: NASA/WMAP Science Team

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Friday, October 24, 2014

Quantum Mechanics from a Classical Multiverse

Quantum mechanics can be hard to grasp, even for the physicists who use it every day. As a result, people have argued from the very birth of the field about what's really going on in quantum mechanical systems. To some extent, it doesn't really matter how you interpret things, provided everyone gets the same answers when they solve a physics problem

The plot of the movie Hot Tub Time Machine relied on the Many Worlds physics view of time travel. A new quantum mechanical approach may let us check to see if we really are surrounded by infinitely many universes.
In a paper published in Physical Review X, physicists  Michael Hall, Dirk-André Deckert, and Howard M. Wiseman have proposed a new view of quantum mechanics that may be testable in a way that could prove that it alone is the correct interpretation. They call it the Many Interacting Worlds approach to quantum mechanics.

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Thursday, October 23, 2014

Podcast: The Infinite Universe

Is the universe infinite? Or is it confined to a finite amount of space? Is it shaped like a donut, or does it stretch on forever as an infinite plane? A lot of people wonder about these questions, and a few people are actually trying to answer them. Like astrophysicist and cosmologist David Spergel of Princeton University. He and his colleagues are looking for clues about the shape of the universe, because they think it could help them determine if the universe is finite or...something else.

Listen to this week's podcast to hear Spergel talk about why even some cosmologists find "infinity" to be a tricky concept, and what they're doing right now to try and find the end of the universe.
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How Fidel Castro Helped Bring Us the Hubble Space Telescope

Fifty two years ago this week, the world was gripped by the unfolding drama of the Cuban Missile Crisis. Most of the world remembers it as a showdown between President John F. Kennedy and Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev to remove newly installed nuclear missiles from Cuba, a crisis that was probably the closest the world got to World War III.

President Kennedy and other members of his cabinet ponder their next move during the Cuban Missile Crisis.
Image: JFK Presidental Library and Museum

In the middle of it all was a physicist working for the CIA. Albert "Bud" Wheelon played an important but often overlooked, behind-the-scenes role in helping to mitigate the crisis. Recently released CIA documents highlight how after the crisis, he put the U.S. on course to revolutionize spy satellites and ultimately space telescopes.

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Tuesday, October 21, 2014

10 Nerdy Science Costumes for Halloween

Halloween is only 10 days away and maybe you need a cool (and easy) costume. Because you're reading this, I'm guessing you have more than a casual interest in science. To celebrate this awesome love, here are 10 very nerdy science costumes.

Credit: 3268zauber via Wikimedia Commons

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Monday, October 20, 2014

Nobel Prize Winners Infographic

In the wake of the Nobel Prize announcements earlier this month, we found this great infographic from our friends at Inside Science detailing the demographics of Nobel Prize winners. Winners for the prizes in physics, chemistry, and medicine were included for the infographic.


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Saturday, October 18, 2014

55 Years Since the World Sees the Moon's Far Side

55 years ago today mankind first glimpsed the far side of the Moon. You're looking at that first grainy image of an unknown landscape.

The first photograph of the far side of the Moon, taken on October 7th, 1959 by Soviet spacecraft Luna 3.
Credit: Wikimedia Commons

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Friday, October 17, 2014

Grassroots Campaign to get a Physics Nobel for Vera Rubin

Now that the 2014 Nobel Prizes are done, it's time to start looking forward to next year. Why so soon? Because I'm hoping that we can start a grassroots campaign to help Vera Rubin win the physics Nobel in 2015. The nominating process for 2015 began in September and ends in February 2015. So the time to make some noise is now!

Please like the Facebook page lobbying for Vera Rubin's prize next year.

In case you haven't heard of Rubin, she made the first compelling discovery that implies the existence of dark matter. The identity of dark matter is one of the most important questions in modern physics. But thanks to Rubin, we know it's there, and that there's way more of it in the universe than there is of the regular matter we're made of: less than 5% of the mass in the universe made up of regular matter, but more than a quarter of it is dark matter.

That's why Rubin deserves the Noble Prize. And I'm hoping that if enough of us make enough noise about it, we might improve her chances in 2015. (Did I mention that you should like the Facebook page lobbying for Vera Rubin's prize next year?)


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Thursday, October 16, 2014

A Close Encounter of the Martian Kind

A comet on express delivery from the Oort cloud of rock and ice that surrounds our Solar System makes a close approach of Mars this weekend. Martian satellites are already hunkering down against the potential onslaught of debris.

Comet C/2013 A1, aka Siding Spring, shown as the reddish central object in four snapshots by NASA's NEOWISE mission in July 2014. Credit: NASA/JPL
On Sunday October 19th, comet C/2013 A1, familiarly known as comet Siding Spring, will fly within 87,000 miles of the Martian surface and NASA is determined not to miss the show. Check out their slick animation of how the close encounter will go down. The closest approach distance is tiny on astronomical scales — roughly equal to 1/3 the distance between us and the Moon.

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Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Podcast Repost: Game of Thrones Weather

For this week's podcast, we've dug up an old podcast that we published last year (originally published July 24, 2013). For those that missed it, the podcast covered the physics behind a world like Westeros: the setting for the hit HBO show Game of Thrones. Westeros has highly variable seasons that come at differing times, most notably the impending winter (it's coming!). We spoke with an astrophysicist to see if there could be exoplanets that exhibit similar seasons to this fictional world. Enjoy!


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Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Robot Sand Snakes

If you had no arms and no legs, just how would you propose to climb up a hill? Slither straight up like a snake? Ah, but what if the hill were made of sand?

Physicists have unlocked the mystery by studying the mesmerizing motion of sidewinder rattlesnakes on sandy inclines and successfully mimicking this motion in a robot snake nicknamed 'Elizabeth'.

The robot snake developed by researchers at Carnegie Mellon University climbs a tree. With modifications inspired by the wave motion in sidewinder snakes, this robot is now able to navigate sloping sand as well.
Credit: Carnegie Mellon University. Courtesy of John Toon.


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Monday, October 13, 2014

Massive Study Shows How Languages Change

Originally published: Sep 30 2014 - 7:00pm, Inside Science News Service
By: Joel N. Shurkin, Contributor

(Inside Science)-- More than 100 years ago, the playwright Oscar Wilde had one of his British characters say that England and America "have everything in common nowadays except, of course, language.” It turns out, according to linguists, he was almost right. But lately, the two languages are getting closer.

Languages change over time -- some faster than others. Some reflect changes in the world around them, according to a new paper published by The Royal Society in London. There are universal and historical factors at work, and languages change at varying rates, the scientists found.

The researchers used the Google Books Ngram corpus to monitor word and phrase usage in the past five centuries in eight languages. They drew from 8 million books – roughly 6 percent of all the books ever published, according to Google's own estimates. The books were scanned into a database by Google.

While linguists have always known that the changes vary, this use of the gigantic Google database is by far the largest.

The researchers were an international group that ironically had its own language difficulties.

Image credit: Magdalena Roeseler via Flickr | http://bit.ly/1rDZfLH
Rights information: http://bit.ly/NL51dk

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Friday, October 10, 2014

A Quantum Walk Toward Artificial Intelligence

From the cover of Robot Visions by Isaac Asimov
Your Android phone (or iPhone, if that's how you roll) is an impressive machine, with computing speeds and storage capacities thousands of times those of desktop PCs from only years ago. If Moore's Law holds up, your smart watch may outshine today's phones the way today's phones eclipse old PCs.

But no matter how powerful these machines become, they may never develop true intelligence if we continue to rely on conventional computing technology. According to the authors of a paper published in the journal Physical Review X last July, however, adding a dash of quantum mechanics could do the trick.


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Thursday, October 09, 2014

Finding Resolution in Astronomy and Biology

You may have caught a glance of yesterday's Nobel Prize in chemistry — the science community was awash with the news. Three scientists won the award for pushing the limits of microscope resolution far beyond what was ever thought possible. But you may not know that one of the winners, American physicist Eric Betzig, has continued to push the boundaries of biological imaging by incorporating elements from astronomy.

The Very Large Telescope in Chile using a laser guide star. Credit: Yuri Beletsky (ESO) via Wikimedia Commons


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Wednesday, October 08, 2014

Podcast: The Simpsons and Their Mathematical Secrets


This week on the Physics Central Podcast, I'm talking with science writer Simon Singh, about his latest book, The Simpsons and Their Mathematical Secrets. In it, Singh reveals that one of America's favorite cartoon families has been infiltrated by mathematics for the last 25 years. From the very start of the show in the late 80's, multiple members of The Simpsons writing staff have held advanced degrees in math, science and engineering. Listen to the podcast to hear how one of the writers for The Simpsons wrote a computer program to find near-miss solutions to Fermat's Last Theorem, and planted it in the background of an episode. Or how the writing staff contacted a pi expert at NASA, in order to learn the 40,000th digit of everyone's favorite constant (the answer also appeared in an episode of the show). And while many people are surprised to learn about the presence of mathematics and The Simpsons, there are fans who have been aware of the connection for years.

Listen to the podcast to hear more!
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3 Scientists Share Chemistry Nobel Prize For Nanoworld Microscopy

The 2014 Nobel Prize in chemistry has been awarded to an American neuroscientist, a German biochemist and an American chemist "for the development of super-resolved fluorescence microscopy."

Image credit: Fabian Göttfert, Christian Wurm via Wikimedia Commons
The prize goes jointly to Eric Betzig, from the Howard Hughes Medical Center in Ashburn, Virginia, Stefan W. Hell, from the Max Planck Institute for Biophysical Chemistry, in Göttingen, Germany, and William E. Moerner, from Stanford University in Stanford, California.

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2014 Chemistry Prize for Optical Physics Advance

William Moerner (Stanford), Stefan Hell (Max Planck Institute) and Eric Betzig (Howard Hughes Medical Institute) have won the 2014 Nobel Prize in Chemistry for “for the development of super-resolved fluorescence microscopy”.



Wow, physicists win the Chemistry Nobel Prize again! The last time this happened was scant 3 years ago when Dan Shechtman won the 2011 Chemistry Nobel for his discovery of quasicrystals.

Including the three physicists who won the Physics Prize yesterday, that's six physicists who have become Laureates this year. And (not to rub it in) zero chemists.

Don't worry chemists, you have a few more chances - provided a chemist picks up the Literature Nobel tomorrow, a Peace Prize Friday, or the Economics Prize on Monday. Good luck!
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Tuesday, October 07, 2014

Set Your Alarms: Total Lunar Eclipse Tomorrow Morning

Rise and shine early tomorrow morning to catch the last total lunar eclipse of 2014. The Moon will be visible from nearly all of North America as it passes through the shadow of the Earth and 'blushes' red in the early hours of October 8th.
Animation credit: Tomreun
Viewers in the western United States and Canada will be able to witness all 59 minutes of eclipse totality, when the moon is fully-contained within the shadow of the Earth. On the eastern side of North America, the partial and total eclipse phases will be visible just as the Moon is setting in the west tomorrow morning, starting at 5:15AM Eastern Time, according to NASA.

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Three Scientists Share Physics Nobel Prize For Blue LEDs

The 2014 Nobel Prize in physics has been awarded to two Japanese citizens and one U.S. citizen, all born in Japan, "for the invention of efficient blue light-emitting diodes which has enabled bright and energy-saving white light sources."

The prize goes jointly to Isamu Akasaki of Meijo University in Nagoya, Japan, Hiroshi Amano of Nagoya University in Japan, and Shuji Nakamura of the University of California, Santa Barbara. Starting in the 1990s they produced blue LEDs, an energy-efficient, environmentally friendly source of blue light, which could be mixed with LEDs of other colors to produce what the eye sees as white light.

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