Monday, June 30, 2014

Did A Cosmic Fluke Make Life On Land Possible?

Originally published: Jun 26 2014 - 1:30pm, Inside Science News Service
By: Ker Than, Contributor

(Inside Science) -- Terrestrial animals may owe a special debt to the sun and the moon. It may have been their combined pull on ancient Earth's oceans that helped primitive air-breathing fish gain a toehold on land, new research suggests.

In a new study, published in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society A, physicist Steven Balbus argues that the gravitational forces generated by the sun and moon would have been conducive to the formation of a vast network of isolated tidal pools during the Devonian Period, between 420 to 360 million years ago, when fish-like vertebrates first clambered out of the sea.

Image credit: supersum via flickr | http://bit.ly/1rDLJFJ
Rights information: http://bit.ly/c34Awz


“By the end of the Devonian, there were vertebrates that were quite at home moving around on land,” said Balbus, who is at the University of Oxford in the United Kingdom.

According to Balbus, a rather remarkable confluence of cosmic, geological and biological events occurred during the Devonian period that helped jump-start life on land. First, when viewed from the Earth, the sun and the moon appeared to be almost the same size, as is true today. This is called having the same angular diameter.

“The sun is much bigger than the moon, but it’s also much farther away, so the two bodies look to be about the same size to us. This is extraordinary,” Balbus said. He added that it's very unusual for an Earth-sized planet to have such a large moon.

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Friday, June 27, 2014

Revisiting a Disastrous Car Jump Attempt


Last month, we took a look at a spectacular crash that came about during Guerlain Chicherit's attempt to set the world's longest car jump record. A new video detailing some of the back story, preparations, and shocking in-car footage of crash is now available. Although Chicherit talks at length about the complex calculations he and his team performed in preparation for the jump, he doesn't explain why he thinks things when so wrong. There is, however, a fleeting clue at the 7:54 mark in the film.


The clip is slowed quite a bit at that point, but it appears that the left rear tire is not turning.

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Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Podcast: Stuff Matters


Image: Mark Miodownik
Materials scientist Mark Miodownik's book Stuff Matters: Exploring the Marvelous Materials That Shape Our Man-Made World was recently published in the United States. It's a great look at the science and stories behind the seemingly mundane substances that make up almost everything, and the subject of this week's podcast.

But what exactly is a materials scientist, and what do they do? Answering that is actually tough. There's countless ways to develop a new material because really, almost anything can be a material. When I was talking with Miodownik, he pointed out that when a baker bakes bread, that's taking one material, dough, applying a process to it and turning it into something with totally different properties, bread. That's the essence of materials science.


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Tuesday, June 24, 2014

The Science of Ice Cream

Even though it's been a warm couple of months already, it's officially summer. A delicious, science-filled way to beat the heat? Making homemade ice cream.

Image Credit: St0rmz via Flickr
Over at Physics@Home there's an easy recipe for homemade ice cream. But what kind of milk should you use to make ice cream? And do you really need to chill the ice cream base before making it? Why do ice cream recipes always call for salt on ice?

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Monday, June 23, 2014

7 Public Domain Physics Comics Worth Reading

The Golden Age of comic books stretched from the 1930s through the 1950s and overlapped with a time of unbridled optimism about the progress of science. People wanted to know about how the latest technology worked, and LOTS of people wanted to read comic books, so putting the two together seems like a no-brainer.
Comic Book Plus is an amazing archive of public domain comics from this era. sprinkled amongst long forgotten titles like Lars of Mars and The Adventures of Captain Havoc and The Phantom Knight are a plethora of scanned comic books about real science. They run the gamut. Some are illuminating, funny and really helpful while others are just weird, wildly inaccurate and are terribly dated. So, my list of the top seven public domain science comics worth reading are...

7- How Atomic Energy Works 


Golly wilikers! Who wouldn't wanna learn how atomic energy works from a man in a fedora?! In all seriousness, this Bill Cosmo character is a bit over eager to tell little Johnny more than he actually knows. His explanation of nuclear fission is pretty muddled, his metaphors don't make a lot of sense and he has a hard time telling the difference between weight and mass as well as speed and velocity. He claims to work in a physics lab, but I have my doubts.

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Friday, June 20, 2014

Fermi Problem Friday: Is World Cup Fever Killing People Who Watch Too Much Futbol?

According to recent stories coming out of China, at least three soccer-obsessed fans have died after seeing too much of the world's favorite sport.

Dead Card by Mike Lucibella

The news should probably make me a little nervous, I suppose. I've seen every game of World Cup, either live or recorded. The articles about Chinese deaths suggest that the problem stems from the time difference, which exhausts futbol-addicted fans who are forced to watch games in the wee hours. I'm in the US eastern time zone, which isn't far removed from Brazil time, but I still watch at least two games very late every at night because I can't sit at my desk screaming "goooooooooooool" all the time.

The scary thing is, while I don't know the specifics, I'm pretty sure that around 27 deaths in the US were associated with the game between team USA and Ghana alone!


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Quantum Math Could Explain Irrational Reasoning

 How does the order of questions influence people's answers?

Image credit: wavebreakmedia via shutterstock
Rights information: http://shutr.bz/1iBPwOy

Quantum theory, developed about a century ago to explain the puzzling behavior of elementary particles, could also help explain seemingly irrational aspects of human reasoning.

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Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Podcast: June News Roundup

We're starting a new tradition here the Physics Central Podcast: once a month we'll be bringing you a roundup of our favorite physics news stories from the past 30 days.

June has been a rocky month for science news: an asteroid that made a drive-by past earth; scientists made a new discovery about rocks brought back from the moon; and the earth's most abundant mineral just got a name. And then there's the fact that frogs eyes can see single photons.

That's this week on the Physics Central News Podcast.
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Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Moving Particles with Sound Waves

Sound waves can be powerful - powerful enough to move large groups of particles. Recently, scientists at the Chinese Academy of Sciences announced an acoustic sieve that can sift, move, trap, or align large groups of particles by size and density under water.

They began by focusing an ultrasound beam on a flat plate. The brass plate has a grating on top made of materials (phononic crystals) specifically for manipulating acoustic waves. Below the plate is a container of glass spheres of various sizes and densities. When the ultrasound beam turns on, it creates a localized field underneath the plate that can trap the particles.

The experimental setup used, where an ultrasound beam is focused on a plate to trap particles. Image Credit: Phononic-Crystal-Based Acoustic Sieve for Tunable Manipulations of Particles by a Highly Localized Radiation Force

The plate moves closer to the particles, and scientists can manipulate the particles as they wish.

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Monday, June 16, 2014

Invisible Light Can Reveal Bad Paint Jobs, Perhaps Skin Cancer

Originally published: Jun 13 2014 - 10:00am, Inside Science News Service
By: Joel N. Shurkin, Contributor

(Inside Science) -- If the paint job on your car is not applied properly, rust happens. If a cell in your skin behaves improperly, cancer can happen.

An instrument developed by a father-son team in Pennsylvania can measure whether the layer of overcoat meant to protect the paint on a car was sprayed properly. The same technology can be used to analyze archaeological artifacts and perhaps detect skin cancer, the inventors said. It can also help manufacture microchips without defects.

Anis Rahman, and his son, Aunik, founders of Applied Research and Photonics, Inc. in Harrisburg, work in a relatively new field of optics that makes use of terahertz frequency radiation, the invisible electromagnetic radiation between infrared and microwave radiation.

"It solves a number of problems," said Anis Rahman. None of the current technologies make precise measurements as well, he said, since technologies using infrared or visible light can only see the surface.

Rahman and Rahman have created a device that can measure and analyze layers of paint or living tissue for defects using electromagnetic radiation.
Image credit: calebkimbrough via Flickr | http://bit.ly/1hSfeUe
Rights information: http://bit.ly/NL51dk

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Friday, June 13, 2014

Fermi Problem Friday: Cars and Lightning

To hear Al and Betty Perry tell it, they were lucky to survive the direct hit from a lightning bolt that struck their pickup. It's true that it provided for one heck of a dramatic video.




 How much danger were they really facing?


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Thursday, June 12, 2014

Benny and the Jets: How I Ended Up Inside Elon Musk's Latest Spacecraft

At a little past 7:30, just as the light of the day was beginning to fade, I walked up to the tables outside the Newseum in Washington, DC. House music thumped from inside the tents erected around the door, and through their sides, billowing in the hot humid wind, I could see about a hundred people in suits and dresses, champagne in hand. It was the unveiling of the Dragon V2, SpaceX's new 2-in-1 landing and escape pod.

SpaceX's Dragon spacecraft (first version) grappled by a robotic arm on the International Space Station.
The Dragon Version 2 prototype was on public display in Washington, DC earlier this week.
Image Credit: NASA/ISS

"Hi, I think I'm on the list — I should have just been added." I said to the man at the table, trying to mask my nerves and the flush in my face. I had practically sprinted there in full suit and tie.

"Name?"

I gave it, mentioning that I had just run into my friend an hour ago and been invited along. This was a bit of an exaggeration; I had, in fact, just met Benny, but he had invited me nonetheless. That made him the best friend I'd met so far in this city. The attendant ruffled through a few sheets of paper, first on a clipboard that said VIP at the top, then one that said Press.

"Yeah, not seeing you. Who did you say your friend was?"

"errr...Benny." I replied, saying a silent prayer to whatever gods look after coattail-riders and hangers-on. Those gods are popular in Washington, and must keep close watch over their supplicants here; the man's face lit up.

"Oh, Benny! Sure, yeah. Let me get you a tag." He wrote my name down, handed me one of the VIP badges littering the table between us, and pointed me inside. I stepped through the entrance to the tent, and was greeted by a welcome blast of cool air from the portable climate control towers in the corner of the room. Waiters in black bustled back and forth with plates of hors d'oeuvres, while televisions lining the walls ran graphic simulations of Dragon V2's docking and landing procedures. Christ, I was at a SpaceX party.

My eyes were immediately drawn to the Dragon, as I'm sure was the intent. The capsule towered over the crowd, bearing a striking resemblance to a giant egg, squashed at one end. Three fin-like white protrusions housed the module's SuperDraco thrusters, giving way below to the black heat-shielding that would prevent the powerful engines from incinerating the sides of the capsule. These were the defining feature of the Dragon V2, allowing the incredible precision of the landings being depicted on the wall displays.

Standing outside the Dragon V2 prototype at the Newseum on June 10, 2014.

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Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Podcast: A Trip to the Quark Zoo

If you're up for an outing, but don't want to leave the couch, how about a trip to the quark zoo? Scientists at CERN, working on an experiment called LHCb, have found substantial evidence for a particle made of 4-quarks. The protons and neutrons that make up atoms are made of 3 quarks, and plenty of other 3-quark particles have been found; 2-quark pairs are also quite common. But if 4-quark states exist, it could indicate a whole zoo of increasingly larger quark particles. This isn't the first time such a thing has been spotted, but scientists are still investigating the weight of those findings. Tomasz Skwarnicki, one of the scientists who worked on the new result from LHCb, says this is one of the strongest pieces of evidence yet for the existence of a 4-quark state.

Oh, and if you do visit the particle zoo, be sure to check out the glueballs.

Listen to the podcast to hear physicists Eric Swanson and Tomasz Skwarnicki talk about the new results.
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Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Chile's Volcanic Lakes May Hint At Where To Look For Life On Mars

Originally published: Jun 6 2014 - 12:15pm, Inside Science News Service
By: Ker Than, Contributor

(Inside Science) -- Collecting samples from the volcanic lakes of northern Chile, scientists have discovered microscopic organisms preserved in long, narrow blades of gypsum salt. The discovery, according to researchers, suggests a new way to examine Mars for evidence of life.

It might not just be fossils encased in the Martian salts, either: The gypsum salts from Chile contained tiny bubbles, or “inclusions,” filled with water and air. If these imperfections exist in salt crystals found on the Red Planet, they could harbor “a living, yet isolated and likely dormant, microbiological community on Mars today,” researchers write in a new study that will be published in an upcoming issue of the journal Geology.

The two Chilean lakes, Salars Gorbea and Ignorado where the crystal-bound organisms were found, are a good analog for some of the environments on Mars, said study coauthor Kathleen Benison, a geologist at West Virginia University in Morgantown. The lakes are nestled in the high Andes amidst several active volcanoes.

“There’s no vegetation. You look around, and it’s this lifeless place. When you’re visiting there, it feels like you’re on another planet,” Benison said.

Single celled organisms can be trapped as crystals of gypsum grow, giving scientists a new place to look for life on other planets. The gypsum crystals shown above are from "the Cave of Crystals" in Chihuahua, Mexico.
Image Credit: Crisco 1492 via Wikipedia | http://bit.ly/1i8XZs4

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Monday, June 09, 2014

A New Player in the War of the Currents

In the ongoing battle between alternating and direct current, there may be a new player. Timothy J. Sommerer presented research at APS DAMOP 2014 on a more efficient way to marry alternating and direct currents. Using self-healing materials, Sommerer's new cathode would allow for greater and more effective conversion.

In alternating current, the direction the current travels along the line reverses (or alternates). In the US, the current coming out of your wall reverses 60 times per second. Direct current is a high powered, constant, and direct flow of current. The American power grid runs off of alternating current, but how that came to be was a contentious battle.

Thomas Edison (left), Nikola Tesla (middle), and George Westinghouse (right) were the three main figures in the War of Currents. Image Credits: Wikipedia
The early days of power distribution used direct current (DC), developed by Thomas Edison. But direct current wasn't easily transmitted over long distances, and there was no way to regulate the voltage. As houses began using more appliances that pulled different voltages, regulated voltage became necessary. Nikola Tesla and George Westinghouse (who bought many of Tesla's patents) stepped in with the theory of alternating current (AC), and the 'War of the Currents' began.


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Friday, June 06, 2014

Physics of Yo

I've seen some good yoyo-ers and I've seen some young yoyo-ers, but 6-year-old Kazuya Murata really stands out in both categories.




The yoyo has sure come a long way since I was a kid. I remember learning a lot about physics from my old Duncan Butterfly - including the difference between static and dynamic friction.


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Thursday, June 05, 2014

Podcast: Fresnel and the Lighthouse


The painting you see here is called The Raft of the Medusa. It was completed in 1819 by the French artist Theodore Gericault, and it's based on a true story. The ship the Medusa ran aground off the coast of Africa in 1816 and more than 100 people found themselves stranded on a makeshift raft. 15 people made it out alive, after surviving on the raft for nearly two weeks. Later, the survivors would tell one of the most grisly tales of shipwreck the world had ever heard. The first night on the raft people were swept away by bad weather, or crushed between the raft's planks. There were no supplies on the ship, save a few casks of wine, so the cannibalism started quickly. At one point, the stronger half of the survivors thought the weaker half were going to die anyway, so they decided to murder them.

The world watched with fascination and horror as the story unfolded, and at least one person thought to himself: "This has got to stop."* So the physicist Augustin Fresnel, who had fought his way from obscurity to a position as one of France's leading theoretical physicists, committed himself to building better lighthouses.


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Monday, June 02, 2014

Higher Ground: Pitchers Keep on Pitchin'

At dinner recently a friend asked, “With pitchers having more Tommy John Surgeries, would making the pitcher’s mound higher change the torque on their elbows?” The fast answer: "In theory. But in practical application? Probably not."

Major League pitcher Cy Young, in 1908. Image Credit: Wikipedia
Altering the height of the pitcher's mound is an interesting idea, especially given that the height of the pitching mound hasn't been consistent in the history of Major League Baseball. From the early 1900s until 1968, the pitcher’s mound was 15 inches (depending on the park). 1968 was a a particularly abysmal year in hitting, and MLB changed the rules to lower the pitcher’s mound to 10 inches.


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