Monday, September 29, 2014

Archaeology's Enemy Number One: Salt

Originally published: Sep 26 2014 - 12:00pm, Inside Science News Service
By: Joel N. Shurkin, Contributor

(Inside Science) -- The enemy of archaeology everywhere is salt. It destroys buildings, disassembles art works, and can turn ancient pottery into piles of dust.

How salt lays waste to these artifacts is well known, but scientists in Switzerland have monitored the process in a laboratory. Their observations could help preserve the buildings, art, and treasured relics of humanity.

The salts in question are not just sodium chloride, the salt on your dining room table or in the sea, but substances such as fluorides, sulfates, and acetates -- substances formed when acids and bases interact. It can affect sites in the desert or along the coast, or anywhere with high humidity, said Robert Flatt, professor of building materials at ETH Zurich, an engineering institute in Switzerland. Even the Sistine Chapel can be affected.

The Monastery in Petra, Jordan
Image credit: Charlie Phillips via flickr |
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Friday, September 26, 2014

Ocean Waves Could Power Homes

As energy needs increase, scientists are constantly on the hunt for new ways to meet the demand. They may have found a new source: the ocean.

Check out the video below courtesy of Inside Science News Video

From Inside Science News Video
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Thursday, September 25, 2014

You've Got Some Nerve!

Hint: If it looks anything like this, you're in a spot of trouble.
Image courtesy BBC.
Studying the physics that lies at the heart of neuroscience means getting an up-close look at what’s actually happening when a thought crosses your mind; it’s a little “meta”, to say the least. But research from the Niels Bohr institute, published this month in Physical Review X, hope to bring about a serious change in how we think about, well, how we think.
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Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Podcast: The Ig Nobel Prizes 2014

The annual Ig Nobel Prizes honor science that "makes you laugh, then makes you think." It recognizes the quirky, silly, unorthodox and far-out research that has real science behind it. It's also, hands down, the most fun you can have at an award ceremony all year.

Natasha Rosenberg, aka "The Human Spotlight" illuminates the way for an Ig Noble aficionado before the ceremony.

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Monday, September 22, 2014

Astronauts May Grow Better Salads On Mars Than On The Moon

Simulated Martian soil supports plant life, but questions about extraterrestrial plant growth remain.

Originally published: Sep 11 2014 - 2:45pm, Inside Science News Service
By: Patricia Waldron, Contributor

(Inside Science) -- Any explorers visiting Mars and the moon will have to boldly grow where no man has grown before.

Setting up lunar or Martian colonies will require that explorers raise their own food. New research finds that simulated Martian soil supported plant life better than both simulated moon soil and low-quality soil from Earth. But many problems must be solved before astronauts can pick their first extraterrestrial eggplant. The study appears in the journal PLOS ONE.

"Research like this is needed to fine-tune future plans for growing plants on Mars, which I think is going to be a very useful thing if we want to have colonization or even a shorter-term stay on Mars," said John Kiss, a plant biologist at the University of Mississippi in Oxford, who did not participate in the research. "It's hard to carry all the food with you."

No one has ever grown plants in Martian or moon soils, but scientists from the Apollo project rubbed and dusted moon materials on plants to see if the soil was toxic. More recently, a Russian group showed that marigolds could grow and flower in simulated moon soil.

Researchers planted 4,200 seeds in soils expected to mimic those in potential greenhouses on Mars and on the moon.
Image Credit: Photos are courtesy of Wieger Wamelink |

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Thursday, September 18, 2014

Falaco Solitons: Particles at the Pool

While the season for swimming has already passed in most of the country, it’s still not too late in the year for some physics fun in the pool! If you’ve got a sunny day, a dinner plate, and access to a calm body of water, you can explore one of the coolest (and coolest-sounding) phenomena in fluid dynamics: vortical (or “Falaco”) solitons.

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Podcast: The Venus Zone

This week on the Physics Central Podcast, we take a trip to the Venus Zone. You've heard of the Habitable Zone, yes? That's the region around a star where scientists think a planet would receive just the right amount of radiation to support life. The planet would still need an atmosphere and probably some water, but in the Habitable Zone there's a good chance it would also have a reasonable surface temperature.

Now, a group of researchers have defined a Venus Zone, which lies inside the Habitable Zone. The theory goes that a planet in the Venus Zone will receive too much radiation from the home star: with an atmosphere like Earth's, it would cause a runaway greenhouse effect, causing temperatures to soar. That's what happened on the surface of Venus, where temperatures average about 850 degrees Fahrenheit.

That's the theory, anyway. To find out for certain, scientists need to get a look at some planets beyond our own solar system. Stephen Kane, an astronomer at San Francisco State University, and his colleagues have already identified 43 planets in the Venus Zone, using data from the Kepler Space Telescope. Today on the podcast I'll talk to astronomer Kane about the work he and his colleagues have done defining the Venus Zone, and when they'll know for sure if those 43 planets have similarly inhospitable atmospheres.

Learning about planets that look like Venus would also help in the search for planets that look like Earth. And, it might help us better understand our own climate here at home.

Kane has a great website all about the Venus Zone, so be sure to check it out.
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Friday, September 12, 2014

Pebbly Space Particles May Kick-start Formation Of Planets And Stars

Curiously large dust grains may contribute to development of bodies in space.
The Orion Nebula, courtesy of NASA
Interstellar space can be a dusty place, filled with tiny flecks no bigger than a bacterial cell.

But now astronomers have detected particles as big as pebbles, possibly a previously unknown type of dust that may kick-start the production of planets. The presence of these big particles may also suggest that star formation is more efficient than previously thought.

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Thursday, September 11, 2014

Galaxies Writ Small

Courtesy imgur user ScienceLlama

At a glance, it’s easy to tell that something’s not right with the galaxies and clusters in these images from deep space, but it might sound silly when it’s put into words: they’re little! The photographic technique of miniature faking takes advantage of the way light is focused by a lens to trick your brain into perceiving something that’s thousands of light-years across as being small enough to fit into the palm of your hand. 

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Podcast: The History of the Helium Crisis

In the 1990's, the US Bureau of Land Management unintentionally became the worlds largest supplier of helium. Last year, the world faced a potential helium cliff, when the US government had to decide whether to keep selling helium or exit the market as they'd originally planned. 

Thankfully, the crisis was averted; this last July the US started auctioning off large chunks of its helium to other suppliers, in an effort to keep the helium market healthy. 

Today on the Phyiscs Central podcast, we're talking about helium and the very important role it plays for many physicists around the world. We'll talk about how the helium market got to the edge of that economic cliff, why some physicists rely so heavily on helium, and what they're doing now to survive in the helium market.

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Monday, September 08, 2014

Breaking Beautiful

Researchers have found out how orderly patterns of cracks form atop electronics.

Originally published: Aug 29 2014 - 3:00pm, Inside Science News Service
By: Gabriel Popkin, Contributor

(Inside Science) -- Repeating crescents, snail shell-like spirals and a jumble of shapes resembling a Keith Haring painting: These patterns and more can start to adorn old paintings, pottery glazes and even electronics under the right conditions. Now, a team of scientists from France and Chile has revealed the potentially useful mechanism that causes these beautiful but often damaging cracks.

“I think it’s very creative work,” said John Hutchinson, a mechanical engineer at Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts. “These crack patterns are extraordinary.”

The research team first learned about crescent-shaped cracks from a physicist at the Ecole Normale Supérieure de Cachan in France; she noticed the cracks forming on tiny optical devices she had designed. The team then discovered other examples of unusual, highly ordered cracks in previously published papers by different research groups. Some of these patterns had apparently gone unnoticed even by the authors of those studies.

High resolution photograph of cracks in thin layer of glass atop a silicon wafer. The colors come from optical interference between the thin wafer and the glass above.
Image Credit and Copyright: Joël Marthelot (ESPCI) et al./PRL

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Thursday, September 04, 2014

Build Your Own Time-Warp Tube!

If you spend much time browsing home-science channels on youtube, you’ve probably seen videos of what happens when you drop a magnet through a metal tube. If not, enjoy this mind-bending display of Eddy Current Braking

While it might be difficult to get your hands on such a large magnet and pipe, the phenomenon will occur with a tube of any size, as long as it’s made of a sufficiently conductive material and your magnet is powerful enough. While magnets will ordinarily only stick to metals that contain one of the three ferromagnetic elements, Iron, Nickel, or Cobalt, this effect has nothing to do with that “stickiness”; it arises from a different property of electromagnetism known as Lenz’s law, which is related to Faraday’s law of induction. Faraday’s law states that a changing electromagnetic field creates an electric current, and vice versa; a changing electric current creates a magnetic field.

Image courtesy of Bored of Studies
If you’ve ever used a shake-powered flashlight, you’ve seen these two laws in action; the motion of a magnet back and forth through the spiraling copper coils inside the device creates an electric current, which can charge a battery or power a small LED. It may be tempting to think of it as the magnet “dragging” a small number of electrons through the metal back and forth with it, but the reality of the situation is slightly different. The change in magnetic field strength as you shake the flashlight back and forth induces a circular current perpendicular to the direction of the magnet’s motion; that is, around the barrel of the flashlight. This is why the spiral shape (and insulation) of the conductive coils is necessary; in trying to travel around the magnet, the current is also forced toward one end of the wire.

If you apply this principle to a copper tube, though, the electrons can make a full circuit without moving one way or the other. As the magnet falls and its field grows stronger in the portion of pipe below it, a “ring” of current is generated around the tube. That increase in electric current, correspondingly, creates a magnetic field, which repels the magnet and slows its fall. Trailing the magnet, the current grows weaker, but since it’s the change in electric current that creates magnetic effects, this too acts to slow the magnet’s fall, this time by attracting it from above.

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Wednesday, September 03, 2014

Podcast: Entangled Photons Illuminate an Object Without Touching It

This week on the podcast, things get a bit bizarre. I'm talking with physicist Gabriela Barreto Lemos about a new imaging technique where the photons that "see" an object are never collected by the camera; and the photons that create the image never interact with the object. Here's another way to think about it: imagine I want to see an object, so I shine a flashlight on it. But I don't look at the flashlight beam. Instead I shine a second light in the opposite direction, and that second flashlight shows me the object. (*This is a rough analogy, even though the experiment is equally weird).

How is such a thing possible? This counterintuitive set up utilizes two properties of quantum mechanics: entanglement and indistinguishability. Ours is a strange, strange world when quantum mechanics is involved, and this is no except.

Listen to the podcast to hear more.

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