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Showing posts from April, 2014

Podcast: The Askaryan Radio Array

There's more to the South Pole than just some ice and a pole. A lot more. In fact the bottom of the world is a veritable hot bed of international scientific experiments. Like the Askaryan Radio Array, subject of this week's podcast.


Tree Acoustics Identify Rot and Decay

On the outside, trees can look perfectly healthy, but on the inside they might be rotted to the core. One type of tree rot, called heart rot, is the result of a fungal infection that enters the tree through wounds in the bark. Once inside, the fungus then begins eating away at the center of the trunk and branches killing the tree from the inside out.


Because certain rot occurs deep within trees, scientists, carpenters and others cannot know if a tree is healthy by appearance alone. And looking inside the tree would involve invasive methods, like drilling and coring, which might harm or destroy the plant. Therefore, a nondestructive, noninvasive approach is ideal.

One of the oldest methods for identifying internal infection in trees, and also wooden planks, was to hit them with a hammer. An attuned ear could distinguish between different tones of the resulting sounds, whether they were a dull or hollow sound and what that said about the tree’s health. However, hammering does not offe…

Sea Level Shifts Helped Shape Galapagos' Biological Diversity

Originally published: Apr 23 2014 - 12:45pm, Inside Science News Service
By: Ker Than, ISNS Contributor

(ISNS) -- The birds and reptiles that inhabit the Galapagos Islands famously provided Charles Darwin with key insights into evolution by natural selection, but there's been little research into how the animals came to be distributed across the different islands.

Now a new study suggests that rising and falling sea levels played a key role in the distribution of species across the Galapagos by repeatedly connecting and then isolating the 16 equatorial islands.

The findings, published online in the Journal of Biogeography on April 23, suggest that over the last half million years, major fluctuations in sea level have regularly reconfigured the Galapagos' geography. This has in turn fundamentally shaped biological evolution on the islands.

Is Bringing a Spacecraft Back from the Dead Worth the Cost?

Right now, the International Sun-Earth Explorer (ISEE-3) spacecraft, which was launched in 1978, is floating in deep space. Its fate will depend on the success of a recent crowdfunding project called “ISEE-3 Reboot Project”.

If the project can raise $125,000 by the end of March, then there’s a chance that scientists will be able to revive the spacecraft and send it on a trajectory that will bring it into orbit around Earth where it can begin collecting data, again. So far, the project has collected about $36,000.



The big question is whether the project is worth the price, or not. The cost of $125,000 is certainly cheaper than starting from scratch on Earth and then launching it into space. On average, to launch a satellite costs $27,000 per kilogram. ISEE-3 weighs 390 kilograms.

In order to revive the spacecraft, scientists say they need to develop software that can communicate with the satellite. This is because NASA decommissioned the satellite’s communications equipment in 1999, …

Your World is Your Lab: More to MOOCs than Seen on Screen

Last summer, a group of scientists from Georgia Institute of Technology initiated one of the few Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) of its kind. Their approach has inspired other physics educators locally and internationally.

Michael Schatz, a professor of physics at Georgia Institute of Technology, along with a group of colleagues is now nearing completion of the third class of their MOOC on introductory physics. The course, called “Your World is Your Lab” and offered through the education technology company Coursera, offers its fair share of recorded lectures, discussion boards and problem sets, but in order to pass the class students must also complete a series of lab assignments.



Most professional scientists can recall their undergraduate days and the many hours spent with Bunsen burners, microscopes and diffraction gratings. However, many who enroll in MOOCs do not have the same access to lab materials in a safe environment compared to students on a college campus.

This can p…

Podcast: The Science of Shakespeare

This week on the podcast I chat with science writer Dan Falk about his new bookThe Science of Shakespeare. William Shakespeare lived in the thick of what we now call The Scientific Revolution: so did the scientific ideas taking root during this time influence the Bard's work? Scholars are still debating this issue, as Shakespeare never said anything definitive about the science of the day. Falk explores some of the theories, which range from casual mentions of infinity, to the idea that the entirety of Hamlet is an allegory for the historical debate about whether the sun or the earth lies at the center of the solar system. Listen to the podcast to hear more!

A Physics Course Through Time: Students Retrace the Steps of Albert Einstein, Niels Bohr, Max Planck and Many More

Think back to those fundamental physics classes you took in college. For most, those memories involve a large lecture hall, a chalk board decorated with numbers and letters and a voice explaining how they all connected. For a handful of other students, however, their memories are very different.



In 2008, physicist Gerd Kortemeyer and historian of physics Catherine Westfall, associate professors at Lyman Briggs College at Michigan State University, took a trip overseas with a group of undergraduate MSU students. Over the course of five weeks, the groups visited Germany, Switzerland and Denmark where they not only learned, but experienced first-hand the sights and sounds out of which modern physics grew. Kortemeyer and Westfall offered the course again in 2011.



“I reflect on my experiences in Europe all the time,” said Joel Adelsberg, an astrophysics major at the time of the trip who took the course in 2008. He is now in his second year of medical school. “I made some great friends on …

Supernovae and Indigenous Cultures

Stars have been exploding for billions of years, and some of those explosions are so massive that we can see them with the naked eye here on earth. Novae and supernovae (novae's more explosive older sibling), are the result of runaway nuclear fusion at the heart of white dwarf stars, and their brightness often outshines entire galaxies.

Despite their size and brightness, supernovae are relatively rare — especially those bright enough to be seen with the naked eye — and they often fade within weeks or months. Records of supernovae visible to the naked eye crop up roughly every 250 years, and several cultures with written histories have recorded the dozen or so such events over the past 2,000 years.


But some supernovae are only visible in the southern hemisphere, where many cultures have passed down oral traditions instead of written histories. Consequently, there may be evidence of more historical supernovae lurking in the oral traditions of indigenous cultures.

Although some oral …

Wait for it, Watch for it and You Could Make History

When it moves, Tens of thousands tune in to watch.
People invented the term pitch-black for it, Because black was not good enough.
If it touched you, you might end up in a hospital.
It generates viral videos on YouTube by doing absolutely nothing.
It is the most exciting experiment of nothing happening.
“I don’t always drip, but when I do the crowd goes wild,” the University of Queensland’s Pitch Drop Experiment would say if it could speak.
There are a handful of pitch drop experiments around the world, but none as old as the one at the University of Queensland in Australia. In fact, theirs is the world’s longest running laboratory experiment. Now in its 86th year of existence, the pitch drop is at it again, generating headlines.

You should know that this might be the most anticlimactic thing you ever watch. The experiment consists of a funnel filled with a black substance called pitch. About once every decade the pitch will drip.

Last year, the world tuned in to watch the ninth drip form.…

Kepler's Latest Results Offer Most Habitable Exoplanet Yet

Exoplanets that are most likely to host life have eluded detection, until now. As far as we understand, the most likely place to find extraterrestrial life outside of our solar system is on a planet that is similar in size to Earth and located within the habitable zone of its host star where temperatures are just right for the abundance of liquid water.


Today, a group of scientists announced that with Kepler they have discovered the very first Earth-sized planet in a habitable zone. Before now, scientists have observed Earth-sized exoplanets that were too close to their host star and therefore too hot for liquid water. Scientists have also observed a healthy amount of planets within their habitable zone, but the planets are too large to likely contain a rocky surface on which life could exist.

Up to this point, either exoplanets were the right size but too close or they were the right distance but too large. But Kepler 186f is both the right size and distance to potentially harbor l…

Tune in Friday for a Webcast on BICEP2 Images of Gravitational Waves in the Cosmic Microwave Background

From the Kavli Foundation announcement . . .

"THE FIRST DEFINITIVE PROOF that the universe underwent an almost unimaginably fast expansion when it was only a trillionth of a trillionth of a trillionth of a second old has taken the world by storm. This sudden growth spurt was first theorized more than three decades ago. Yet only last month did astrophysicists reveal "smoking gun" evidence that the universe swelled from microscopic to cosmic size in an instant — an announcement that's being compared to the discovery of the Higgs boson.

"On April 18, two of the scientists who made this groundbreaking discovery will come together for a conversation with two of the pioneering leaders of the field. Together, they will examine the detection of a distinctive, swirling pattern in the universe’s first light, what the swirl tells us about that monumental growth spurt, and the many implications on the way we understand the universe around us."

Stadium Acoustics Pump Up the Volume

At sports venues designed to maximize crowd atmosphere, beware of hearing loss.Originally published: Apr 14 2014 - 2:45pm, Inside Science News Service
By: Brian Owens, ISNS Contributor

(ISNS) -- The roar of the crowd is a major part of the excitement of attending a sporting event. A noisy, engaged crowd makes for a better experience for fans, and is often credited with helping the players on the field, too.

"The players love it," said Carl Francis, director of communications for the NFL Players Association. "Fan support definitely has an impact on the players."

Stadium designers know this, and the new generation of stadiums now incorporate design features that help boost fan support by trapping and amplifying crowd noise. The most important aspects are to keep the size of the stadium as small as possible, and to provide reflecting surfaces that can turn the noise back to the crowd, said Jack Wrightson, a Dallas-based acoustical consultant who has worked on the desig…

A Non-Newtonian Side to Jack White

Jack White, former lead singer of The White Stripes band, recently released a music video of “High Ball Stepper” – a song off his new solo album Lazaretto – that takes advantage of the alien-like properties of non-Newtonian fluids. Although you won’t learn how the science behind the music video works from watching, you can certainly see the cool effects of non-Newtonian fluids while listening to White rocking out on his electric guitar. If, however, you do want to learn the science behind the scenes, then keep reading.



In the video, a gelatinous mixture is poured over speakers. The fluid then begins to bubble and dance to the beat of White’s tune. The volume and subsequent vibrations of the speaker increase as the song progresses, reaching max volume at about two minutes in. The variation in the strength of the speakers' vibrations gives you a nice look at both the liquid and solid-like properties of non-Newtonian fluids.

Toward the beginning of the song, the fluid looks as if it…

Look Up Tonight: The Tetrad Lunar Eclipse Explained

If you're living in North or South America, look toward the sky tonight for a total lunar eclipse. Beginning around 2 AM Eastern Time tonight (technically April 15th), the moon will pass into the Earth's shadow, and the eclipse will peak between 3 and 4 AM Eastern Time.

Lunar eclipses (varying from total eclipses to barely noticeable ones) are fairly common — typically two to three occur each year. Tonight's eclipse, however, is just the beginning.

After tonight, three subsequent lunar eclipses will all be total eclipses as well, each separated by about six month intervals. This "tetrad" of lunar eclipses occurs infrequently; in fact, only about 16 percent of lunar eclipses ever belong to a tetrad such as the one beginning tonight.

Australia Rejects Homeopathy

Australia's National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC) has determined that homeopathy is utterly, totally, glaringly useless. It's nice when governmental organizations get things right.

You could read the NHMRC statement about their homeopathy ruling, or just watch the infinitely more entertaining send up on homeopathy by the comedy duo Mitchell and Webb


You should enjoy the whole thing, but the key message comes at about 1:40 into the clip.

Flex Your Vector Skills in the New Game Sector Vector

Some unexpected things are happening at Wentworth Institute of Technology in Boston, MA. First-year engineering students are spending nearly three times longer in the classroom and senior industrial design students are taking an interest in physics.

This is due to the ingenuity of WIT faculty members James O’Brien, assistant professor physics, Greg Sirokman, assistant professor of chemistry, and Derek Casio, assistant professor of industrial design.

The game that is engaging student learning in novel ways and bringing WIT students from different fields of study together is called Sector Vector. It is a board game that the three creators say takes learning of basic vector concepts to a fun, new level that improves the overall learning experience. The results speak for themselves.

Before James O’Brien introduced Sector Vector into his introductory engineering lectures, students were spending an average of 40 minutes in class. Afterward, they were voluntarily spending around 116 minutes…

Podcast: Lucky Planet

This week on the physics central podcast I talk with David Waltham, a geologist at the University of London and the author ofLucky Planet: Why Earth is Exceptional—and What That Means for Life in the Universe. In the book, Waltham presents the evidence supporting the idea that Earth is a very rare, very lucky planet, and that there may not be another life-supporting planet in our galaxy or even in the visible universe. Waltham doesn't think we're totally alone in the universe—but he does think we are effectively alone. This debate includes information from biology, geology, astronomy, cosmology and even history. Listen to the podcast to hear some of the evidence that supports this side of the argument—and a few of the things that could prove it wrong.

Also, there are rumors flying that scientists have detected an Earth-like planet and will announce it soon.

What Can You Actually Do with Newly-Released NASA Code?

This Thursday, NASA will unveil a catalog of different software that their employees have designed over the years. The code from a total of 1,000 software projects will become available for free and will be copy-right free, too.

Judging from some of the stories about this exciting news, one might get the impression that any person in the general public can take this newly-released material and design their very own rocket project.

This would be a fallacy. The code will likely become an invaluable resource for professional scientists and engineers. But those of us who do not speak the coding vernacular of computer-programming languages like JavaScript and Fortran will have little use for this new mountain of NASA code.


Piecing together bits of code from various sources is similar to creating Frankenstein’s monster. In the end, the different styles of arguments you have amalgamated into your finished project will make it slower and harder to understand and read for others.

Yet, this…

Predicting Where Water Will Go In A Hurricane

Originally published: Apr 2 2014 - 4:00pm, Inside Science News Service
By: Joel N. Shurkin, ISNS Contributor

(ISNS) -- In most hurricanes the greatest damage is done not by the wind but from the storm surge, the mountain of water pushed by raging winds from the ocean to deluge the land.

There is always a level of unpredictability when dealing with Mother Nature, but knowing where the water would go when a storm is bearing down on the coast would be useful, particularly in densely populated coastal cities such as New York, which maintains complex systems of houses, office buildings, sidewalks, basements, alleys, subway stations, and streets clogged with parked cars.

Scientists at the College of William & Mary’s Virginia Institute of Marine Sciences at Gloucester Point, Va., reported they have a computer model that may do that, starting about 30 hours before the storm comes ashore. At least it worked in retrospect with the Hurricane Sandy, which devastated the East Coast in 2012.

Was Comet ISON's Eulogy Premature?

According to a new image, scientists jumped the gun when they announced Comet ISON’s death last December. A recent paper that reveals the first image of Comet ISON in visible light indicates that the comet remained intact shortly after its signals in the extreme-ultraviolet ceased upon approaching perihelion on November 28.


“We took the image after the comet had gotten to its closest approach point to the Sun,” said Shadia Rifai Habbal at the University of Hawaii and an author of the paper, which appeared in The Astrophysical Journal Letters this month. “We took the image at 19:12 UT” -- 27 minutes after the comet reached perihelion, when reports had announced it as good as gone.

The image is proof that the comet survived its perihelion passage, the international team reported, albeit for a short period. At the time that Comet ISON was approaching the Sun, Habbal and her colleagues were patiently waiting in Hawaii.

Shocking Study from the Largest Cosmic Ray Physics Experiment in the Northern Hemisphere

There’s a chance that the mystifying phenomena we call lightning would not exist without cosmic aid. The same high-energy particles that light the night sky with colorful auroras, scientists think could also explain a longstanding problem in the process of lightning production.

When you shock yourself after reaching for a metal doorknob, you’re experiencing a similar process that leads to lightning. As long as the extra charge you accumulate from, for example, rubbing your feet across a carpeted surface reaches a minimum value, called the breakdown voltage, a shock will travel from you to the doorknob.

Storm clouds can also build up extra charge, which must go somewhere. Often times it will either strike the ground or branch outward across the sky in the form of a lightning bolt. However, scientists have yet to find a way to explain how storm clouds build up enough extra charge to electrically illuminate the sky.

“The cloud has to charge to a certain amount so spontaneous discharge…

Podcast: The Science of Self

This week on the Physics Central Podcast, I interview acclaimed physics writer Jennifer Ouellette. Her latest book is called Me, Myself and Why: Searching for the Science of Self. The book delves into various aspects of "self" including genetics, psychology, and neuroscience. But never fear—the book also features some awesome physics. Neuroscientists are using ideas like emergent properties and network theory to explain how things like wakefulness emerge out of the lump of cells we call our brain. Also, what does a unicorn with bunny ears have to do with self? Listen to the podcast to learn more.

You can find more from Jennifer Ouellette on her website. Her Twitter account is a great place to find cool science stories from all over the web. Ouellette's first book, Black Bodies and Quantum Cats, is an expanded version of her "This Month in Physics History" column for APS News (APS is the parent organization of Physics Central).

National Ignition Facility Won't Start

Scientists at Lawrence Livermore national Labs reported a new problem at the National Ignition Facility. Despite many repeated attempts, the central core of the machine, known as the "starter," won't engage, rendering the laser facility inoperable.

"It's a potentially serious problem," said lab scientist Theresa Nancer. "We're hoping we don't have to replace the whole unit. That could get expensive."

The NIF uses 192 high-powered lasers to compress and detonate a small pellet of nuclear fuel in hopes of harvesting the energy it generates.

The problem at the facility was first noticed late yesterday when the machine started inexplicably losing power during some of the longer runs. This morning, when scientists tried to turn it on, they reported it only made a sort of grinding noise.

Close Encounters of the Undead Kind

Two hefeweizen-fueled scientists have completed what might be the most important scientific effort since the discovery of the Jovian-Plutonian gravitational effect. Yesterday, Stephen R. Kane at the Center for Global Extinction Pandemic Control in San Francisco and his colleague Franck Zelziz in the Zombie Division for the Planetary Defense Institute in Bordeaux, France reported that not only might we, in our search for extraterrestrial life, uncover an alien race overrun with the fatal disease Spontaneous Necro-Animation Psychosis (SNAP), or Zombie-ism, but that the numbers are unnervingly high.

“We have shown that there is a significantly non-zero probability that in the search for life in the universe we will also encounter large amounts of undeath [sic],” the authors report in their paper, which they have submitted for publication in the prestigious journal Necronomicon.

What you are about to read may disturb you.