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 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

Photo by author  

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 |
Rights information:

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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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Watch the 2014 Nobel Prize in Physics Announcment Live

For those of you up in time, here's the live webcast of the 2014 Physics Nobel Prize announcement. Just click play below to see who won this year! While many predicted last year's Nobel Prize for the Higgs boson, this year's award seems to be a little more up in the air. There's plenty of discoveries worthy of the prize, but only one person or group can win.

You're welcome.
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Monday, October 06, 2014

The Initial Conditions of a Pendulum

Hello readers!

I would like to introduce myself as the new APS science writing intern, starting work this gloriously sunny and autumnal day in College Park.

I have just landed back in the States after completing my PhD in astrophysics at the University of Cambridge across the pond. In the week since I've been back in the US, it's been bizarre to experience culture shock in my home country. The cars are so big and the people are so friendly! Please excuse any future 'British-isms' in my posts - I'll do my best to keep the references to 'aluminium' and 'maths' to an absolute minimum.

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Thursday, October 02, 2014

Fermi Bubbles: Remodelling the Milky Way

Image courtesy NASA.
If someone asked you what the galaxy looks like from afar, you might tell them it’s a spiral. You’d be half-right. If you thought to include dark matter in your answer, you might say that it’s a disk or a cloud, but you still wouldn’t get full credit. Don’t feel bad, though—there’s more to the Milky Way’s structure than meets the eye, and much of it was completely impossible for us to see up until very recently. When data from the Fermi Gamma-ray Space Telescope, launched in 2008, was analyzed, researchers were startled by an unexpected feature: two tremendous, bubble-like clouds of plasma stretching perpendicular to the galactic plane, which seem to originate in the vicinity of the supermassive black hole at the galaxy’s nucleus. The gamma rays shimmering from these bubbles tell us that the particles in them are extremely energetic, and explain why we hadn't seen them until so recently; the earth’s atmosphere filters out most of the light they cast. Their origin, however, remains mysterious.

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Podcast: September Physics News Roundup

School has started and Halloween's just around the corner: that mean's it's time for our September news podcast! First up: do you know how old your water is? New research shows that some of the water on Earth predates the birth of the sun (paper here; story in Nature News here). Second story: researchers have detected the faint signal from neutrinos born in the heart of the sun (paper here; story in Scientific American here). And finally, a spintronic flashlight (paper here; story in Physics World here) demonstrates new possibilities for future electronics.

Listen to the podcast to learn more!

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