Monday, March 31, 2014

Meteorites Help Reveal How Mars Lost Its Water

Originally published: Mar 28 2014 - 1:00pm, Inside Science News Service
By: Marcus Woo, ISNS Contributor

(ISNS) -- Mars was once a wetter world, and according to a growing body of evidence, could have had water gushing through rivers, pooling in lakes and possibly even oceans. But the water somehow vanished, leaving behind the parched planet it is today.

Now, a new analysis of Martian meteorites is helping to reveal the history of Martian water, suggesting that large amounts of water escaped into space within the first half-billion years of Mars' existence. Most of the remaining water -- as much as one tenth of the Earth's oceans -- then froze, forming vast, yet-to-be-discovered reservoirs of ice still hidden below the surface.

Scientists have long known that there's water ice at the poles and previous observations have hinted at the presence of subsurface ice at lower latitudes. The new study now strengthens the case that huge amounts of ice remain hidden on Mars today, said study-leader Hiroyuki Kurokawa of Nagoya University in Japan. The paper describing the results has been accepted for publication in Earth and Planetary Science Letters.

The north pole of Mars according to Mars Global Surveyor data.
Image credit: NASA via wikicommons |

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Friday, March 28, 2014

I Got a Fever, and the Only Prescription is More Particles!

Particle Fever is a new documentary that brings viewers inside the home stretch of the decades-long hunt for the so-called "God Particle."

Image: PF Productions
CERN's search for the Higgs boson has everything a film could ask for; amazing visuals of the alien-looking Large Hadron Collider, the dramatic anticipation of whether it works, the heartbreak of near disaster and ultimate triumph of discovery. A Hollywood screenwriter couldn't have come up with a better story of science.

Particle Fever follows the lab's top scientists in the months leading to the completion of the LHC and the discovery of the Higgs boson, four years later. The theorists and experimentalists are the film's stars and seeing their contrasting approaches to understanding the elusive particle is the most interesting dynamic of the film.

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Thursday, March 27, 2014

First Virtual Reality Game for Physics Fanatics

A video game where you immerse yourself into the game's world is where the next generation of virtual reality video gaming is headed. Now that Facebook has purchased the company Oculus VR, the prospect of widely-available, next-gen virtual reality gaming is one step closer.

Oculus VR includes the developers and creators of the virtual reality headset called the Oculus Rift. Oculus Rift has come a long way since its Kickstarter campaign in 2012. The Rift headset takes virtual gaming to an entirely new level with a large field of view that makes users feel like they're part of the world of the game. With the help of Facebook’s deep pockets, Oculus designers could usher in the next generation of affordable, in-home virtual reality gaming.

In light of this news, it’s only natural to start thinking about the gaming possibilities. What are some video games currently out that cater to physics fanatics and would also make for great gameplay with a device like Oculus Rift? A few come immediately to mind.


Particulars is a game of subatomic proportions. You will learn a good deal of particle physics while playing as a down quark particle that you move through a world filled with other subatomic particles like up quarks and neutrons. One of the game’s goals is to create as many subatomic explosions as possible by smashing bosons with their anti-matter counterparts.

The two-dimensional game might not be the best format for Rift. One of the perks of virtual gaming with headsets like Rift is that they immerse you into the world of the game. So, three-dimensional games can be incredibly realistic and lead to a more intense gaming experience.
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Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Podcast: Beating the Game of Go

This week on The Physics Central Podcast we're talking about the ancient Chinese game of Go. Researchers in France want to model the game as a complex network. Other examples of complex networks include airplane flight plans, social networks, neurons in the brain, and fungal communities, to name a few. By modeling Go as a complex network, the researchers hope to find patterns and symmetries that could assist scientists who are working on Go-playing programs, that they hope will some day beat the best human Go players (something that already been accomplished in Chess).

To learn more about the game of Go check out Sensei's Library and Go Game Guru; here's an article about a computer program that beat a master Go player, but only because the computer played with a handicap; an article about computers trying to beat humans at go and some of the science related to the game; here's the clip from A Beautiful Mind I referenced in the podcast; and here's some info about the computer programs that have beat humans at chess (there's even a documentary about it).
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Tuesday, March 25, 2014

How Inmarsat Hacked Their Data to Find Flight MH370

The mystery behind the missing Malaysian Airlines flight MH370 is no more. Engineers working out of the British company, Inmarsat, have used a “groundbreaking but traditional mathematics-based process” to conclude that the plane landed in a remote region of the southern Indian Ocean. Plane wreckage has yet to be found to support this notion.

Yesterday afternoon, the Malaysian Prime Minister, Najib Razak, announced in a press statement that the investigation was completed with a never-before-used analysis. However, few news articles are getting their hands dirty with the details of this mystery-solving method.

From most of the articles you’ll get a sense that it has something to do with the Doppler effect, trigonometry, a satellite and a magical mathematical equation that ties everything together. But how do these elements coalesce into a single, coherent story?

If you look at a general equation of the Doppler effect, you’ll notice that nowhere does it offer information about an object’s position in space. But you can still get an idea of an object’s location and direction of travel from the Doppler effect.

If you have an object that emits a signal, like a train blowing its horn, the frequency of that signal depends on the speed and direction the object is traveling and also on the speed and direction of the instrument measuring the signal.

Malaysian Airlines lost touch with Flight 370 on March 8. After that, the plane’s only form of communication was brief “pings” indicating that the plane was still operational. An Inmarsat satellite detected a handful of these electromagnetic signals, which turned out to be key to solving the mystery.

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Monday, March 24, 2014

Top Five Films about the Higgs Boson

I just got my tickets for tonight's showing of Particle Fever, the new documentary about physicists at CERN looking for the Higgs boson. I'm pretty stoked, I'll post a review of it tomorrow Friday.

Particle Fever (2013)

It got me thinking about how over the last couple of years, there's been a whole mess of full length features and short films released featuring real particle physicists talking about and doing real science. It's been an exciting time in the field, and moviemakers have really picked up on it. Not only that, but it's easier than ever for scientists to make their own shorts about their science. So I came up with a list of the top five movies about the Higgs boson. In no particular order...

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Friday, March 21, 2014

How Long Does it Take to Print the World's First 3D-Printed Kayak?

Print, print, print your boat
with ABS plastic.
Twenty-eight pieces
And no gaping creases,
3D printers are fantastic!

Jim Smith of Grass Roots Engineering has built the world’s first 3D-printed kayak. It rocks nearly a dozen different colors, floats like a dream and is relatively inexpensive to make.

Granted, you first need your own 3D printer, but after that you just need some screws, silicone caulk and roughly 60 pounds of the same plastic used in Lego bricks, acrylonitrile butadiene styrene (ABS).

This is not the first 3D-printed boat that floats. In 2012, University of Washington students entered the very first 3D-printed boat in Seattle’s annual Milk Carton Derby. The students dumpster dove for milk cartons, which they then melted and fed into a 3D printer to create the 7-foot long boat.

Judging from images, the UW students printed the boat in a single go. Smith, on the other hand, printed 28 separate pieces over 42 days that he then assembled with machine screws, brass threaded inserts and finally some silicone caulk, which he applied in between the pieces to ensure an air-tight seal.

Smith’s 17-foot long Kayak weighs in at 65 pounds and is catered for optimal performance based on his height and weight. The home-based project cost him about $500 to make, which is comparable in price to some commercial kayaks.
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Thursday, March 20, 2014

Control a Live Physics Experiment Remotely From Your Computer

The Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory's (PPPL) new experiment appears to be operated by a ghost: It will turn on by itself and emit a purplish glow without any researchers flipping a switch.

In fact, physicists at the lab aren't even using the experiment. Instead, people from around the world now have direct control of the experiment through their laptops, and you can too.

PPPL's Remote Glow Discharge Experiment is housed in New Jersey, but you can turn it on, tweak its voltages and control its pressure with your web browser from anywhere in the world.

As you conduct your own studies, a live webcam will show how your adjustments influence the experiment. If you do it right, you'll be able to make the experiment glow like in the picture below.

As PPPL's Head of Science Education Andrew Zwicker told me at the APS Division of Plasma Physics meeting last November, "It's just really cool."

A screengrab of the experiment's webcam I took earlier today.
Image Credit: RGDX/PPPL

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Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Podcast: Truth From the Skies

On this week's podcast, John Amos, founder of SkyTruth, shares just how satellite images help tell some of Earth's most important stories.

Image: NASA

Mountaintop removal mining, where the tops of mountains are blown away to harvest the coal underneath, leaves unmistakable scars across the landscape. Satellite images of coal country are dotted with the grey smudges that indicate a mountain used to be there, and Amos has been tracking their growth and proliferation. This Landsat image shows the Hobet mine in Boone County, West Virginia in 1984...

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Physics Fail in Record-Setting Car Jump Attempt

Physics doesn't forgive - you obey the laws or you fail. It's a tough lesson that rally car driver Guerlain Chicherit learned as he tried to set a new record for the world's longest car jump. Check out the video below to see if you can tell what went wrong after he launched his modified Mini Countryman off the ramp.

Everything seems to be fine for the first two thirds of the flight. But then the sound of the engine dies and the car starts to rock forward. Those two things are intimately connected.

As the engine and the wheels slow, their angular momentum decreases. But angular momentum has to be conserved, so if the engine and wheels rotate slower, something else has to rotate faster. That something, unfortunately in this case, is the car.

It's possible Chicheritlost lost his nerve and let off the gas. The more likely problem, I'm guessing, is the setting known as the rev limiter. In many cars, including regular road-going Minis, if the engine spins too fast it can cause major problems. In order to prevent that, engineers program the engine management system to cut power above some set limit. Because Chicherit's wheels were spinning madly at the beginning of the flight, with nothing to slow them, there's a good chance the engine essentially cut off.

One way or the other, either the driver or the engineers overlooked some really basic physics of rotation, and the result was disastrous.

Fortunately, Chicherit, walked away with only minor injuries. At least they got the physics of the safety systems right.

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Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Taking Back the Night Sky

The next time you’re taking a nightly stroll downtown, take a minute to count how many people are looking up at the sky. Chances are the number will be small, if it’s not zero.

Light pollution drowns the brilliance of the night sky, leaving city and town dwellers little reason to look up. Meanwhile, technology is providing an incentive to look down at our screens. As a result, we are losing touch with the cosmos. Have you ever seen the star-lit band of the Milky Way Galaxy?

Below is a trailer for the award-winning feature documentary released in 2011 addressing the many effects of light pollution.

A waning, underlying sense of connection with nature is harder to quantify than the threat that light pollution poses for astronomers’ work. In order to extract information from the light of stars and galaxies within our universe, astronomers need clear, dark and preferably light-pollution-free skies.
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Friday, March 14, 2014

Cosmic Experiment Aims To Close Loophole In Quantum Theory

Distant quasars could help confirm "spooky action" between particles.

Image credit:  ESO/M. Kornmesser |
An experiment of cosmic proportions, looking at some of the most distant visible corners in the universe, could help close what may be the last major loophole in quantum physics, or shake it to its very foundations.

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Thursday, March 13, 2014

Dino Dining Versus Speed

Could you outrun a dinosaur? Well, it depends on the dinosaur. According to Scott Lee, a professor of physics at the University of Toledo in Ohio, herbivorous dinosaurs moved more slowly than predatory dinosaurs that often chased down their prey and could reach up to 30 miles per hour. Plant eaters, on the other hand, moseyed along at about 3 miles per hour.

This means you could easily outrun, and even out-walk, some herbivorous dinosaurs. But if you caught the attention of a ravenous raptor, chances are high that it would be the last race you ever ran.

It’s no surprise that predatory dinosaurs evolved to move faster than their prey. Otherwise, they would be hard pressed to find a decent meaty meal most days. But it would also make sense, from an evolutionary standpoint, if herbivorous dinosaurs at least gave predators a run for their money in the cat-and-mouse chase.

By studying 56 sets of distinctive fossilized footprints, or trackways, belonging to herbivorous dinosaurs that paleontologists have uncovered over the years, Lee determined that not a single set resulted from running. Lee calculated the ratio of the dinosaurs’ stride length to foot length and found that all of the footprints were likely made at a walking pace. So, how did the plant-eating dinosaurs protect themselves?

Two slides taken from a PowerPoint presentation Scott Lee offers to explain how he estimates the speed of dinosaurs based from their fossilized footprints. Credit: Scott Lee.

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Podcast: Phase Transition and Bull Sperm

Greetings, podcast listeners! This week's Physics Central Podcast is a short story I heard about at the APS March Meeting that just wrapped up in Denver, Colorado. A physicist at Cornell University is studying bull sperm, and is looking at a phase transition that the sperm undergo. Basically, in a relaxed fluid, the sperm are disorganized: they all point in different directions. But when the flow of the fluid is turned up to a certain "critical flow rate" the sperm spontaneously point upstream. This type of order/disorder transition is a physics specialty: learn about the transition, look for commonalities with other systems that also undergo transitions, learn something new about bull sperm. Listen to the podcast to hear more!
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Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Physics Offers New Look at T. rex Arms: Weapons not Waste

With a gargantuan head flaunting the largest teeth of any predatory dinosaur, Tyrannosaurus rex embodies the ideal nightmarish horror. So, what was such a ferociously large animal doing with such tiny forelimbs that look more like a humorous afterthought than an evolutionary tool?

“Some people think T. rex forearms are just vestigial organs which evolved away, but I claim no,” said Scott Lee, a professor of physics at University of Toledo, who argues that a T. rex could move its forearms quickly enough to prevent a struggling prey's escape. Therefore, the arms were an integral part of the predator’s hunting tactics, he said, and not useless stubs.

Dinosaur sculture in Germany. Image provided through Wikimedia

One of the key pieces of evidence supporting Lee’s notion are the stress fractures paleontologists have found on the handful of wishbones they’ve recovered from fossilized T. rex remains. Today, birds are the only animals with a wishbone, which helps them achieve flight. The boomerang-shaped wishbone, also called the furcula, of a T. rex comprises part of the forelimb, and its purpose is less understood.

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Monday, March 10, 2014

The British Invasion in Space

Originally Published: Feb 7 2014 - 10:00am on Inside Science News Service
By: Inside Science News Service and Amanda Page

Last month, our friends over at Inside Science put together this fantastic infographic about the "evolution" of the Beatles' first television broadcast in 1964. Upon the initial broadcast, the video recording of the Beatles' tunes was sent outward at the speed of light, and those high frequency waves are still traveling through space.

Below you can see a timeline of events on Earth coupled with the position of those waves in space. Check it out!


Amanda Page is a multimedia guru specializing in web content ranging from animations to infographics. Follow her publications on Twitter: @AmandaPage_. Thank you to Seth Shostak from the SETI Institute and Rick Fienberg from the American Astronomical Society for lending their astronomical expertise to this project.
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Friday, March 07, 2014

Can You Dig the RoboClam?

Anchor technology hasn't changed too much since Blackbeard's heyday. They're really not much more than gigantic hunks of steel with hooks. Now, scientists are working on building a smart, robotic anchor inspired by a clam that buries itself into the seabed.

Burrowing is something that the clams figured out the best way to do long ago. The Atlantic razor clam in particular is one of the planet's best burrowers.

Image: Arne Hückelheim via Wikimedia

"It has a digging efficiency that is more than ten times any existing technology," said Kerstin Nordstrom, a researcher at the University of Maryland.

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Thursday, March 06, 2014

The Misappropriated Marie Curie

This photograph of Marie Curie can be found on postage stamps all over the world. But there's one problem, this isn't a picture of Marie Curie.

Image courtosey of Frontczak
It's actually a photo of Susan Marie Frontczak, taken by Paul Schroder in 2001. Frontczak is a professional storyteller, writer and actor who for 13 years has made a living portraying Marie Curie on stage.

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Wednesday, March 05, 2014

Podcast: Volcanic Eruptions Stymie Global Warming

This week's physics central podcast is about hot and cold. Volcanoes—which spew material that reaches thousands of degrees Fahrenheit—can actually cool the planet. Volcanoes eject aerosols that reflect sunlight, and climate scientists have observed the cooling effects of major volcanic events in 1991 and 1982. Those effects can sometimes take years to reverse. New research in the journal Nature Geophysics has shown that the combination of minor volcanic events between 1998 and 2010 had a measurable cooling effect on the Earth.

This is a big deal because it partly explains the so-called global warming slow-down: a decrease in the acceleration of rising global temperatures. For the most part, climate models have not been able to replicate the slow-down. But most of those models do not include recent volcanic activity as a cooling factor.

In 2011, Susan Solomon and colleagues at MIT wrote a paper showing that the volcanic contribution from 1998 to 2010 was likely large enough to have a significant cooling effect on the earth. The new work by Ben Santer and colleagues at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory provides the quantitative evidence to back up Solomon's conjecture.

Using satellite data going back to 1998, Santer and his team measured the extent to which volcanic aerosols blocked sunlight and moonlight coming through the atmosphere. They estimate that volcanic activity may be responsible for 15 to 20% of the global warming slow-down.

The results counter the notion that climate models do not predict the slow-down because they are "oversensitive" to greenhouse gasses. Santer emphasized that this logic is flawed for multiple reasons, but the new results offer more clear evidence against it.

This new information will help scientists make better predictions about future climate conditions (it is already being incorporated into climate models), but it don't be mislead by the title of this post: these cooling effects do not reverse the effects of climate change. If volcanic activity and other cooling effects are reduced in the future, temperatures will once again start to soar.
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Tuesday, March 04, 2014

Physicists Mistaken for Hackers at APS March Meeting

A precious resource has been returned to thousands of physicists attending this year’s APS March Meeting. Yesterday marked the start of one of the largest physics conferences in the world, but the security settings on arXiv did not know this. The arXiv is an online repository for preprints of scientific papers covering studies in mathematics, physics, astronomy, computer science, quantitative biology, statistics and quantitative finance.

When over 9,000 scientists using the meeting’s complementary WiFi tried accessing their trusty scientific paper repository, the arXiv’s security turned on and denied them access. Luckily, developer of arXiv, Paul Ginsparg, was notified of the problem and earlier this morning scientists at Cornell University lifted the block.

One of the ways that websites identify hacking attacks is when a large number of requests from a single Internet Protocol (IP) address attempt to access the site over a short period of time. Such was the case on Monday, March 3 at the Colorado Convention Center where this year's APS March meeting is taking place.

Page that appears in place of 

Instead of recognizing its devoted users, the arXiv identified the many requests as an attack attempting to shut down the site or illegally download information. As a result, when users tried to access the site with the meeting’s complimentary WiFi, they came face to face with a daunting “Access Denied” page.

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Monday, March 03, 2014

Could Sugar Power Cell Phones Of The Future?

Originally published: Feb 28 2014 - 4:30pm, Inside Science News Service
By: Emily Lewis, ISNS Contributor

Researchers are charged up about biobatteries, devices able to harness common biological processes to generate electricity. Most biobatteries are unable to generate large amounts of power, but researchers recently developed a prototype version that has the potential to be lighter and more powerful than the batteries typically found in today's portable electronic devices, including smartphones.

In the body, sugar is converted into energy in a process called metabolism, which decomposes sugar into carbon dioxide and water while releasing electrons. Biobatteries produce energy though the same conversion process by capturing the electrons that are generated in the decomposition of sugar with the same tools that the body uses. Because biobatteries use materials that are biologically based, they are renewable and non-toxic, making them an attractive alternative to traditional batteries that need metals and chemicals to operate.

Image credit: mattwalker69 via flickr |

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