Monday, December 22, 2014

Solstice, Shmolstice – Why The Coldest Days Are Still To Come

Originally published: Dec 22 2014 - 11:45am, Inside Science News Service
By: Katharine Gammon, Contributor

(Inside Science) -- Residents of the Northern Hemisphere, don’t worry about the winter solstice – it’s not the middle of winter, and in some places, it’s not even the start of wintry weather.

So why exactly is the shortest day of the year so distant from the coldest temperatures? It’s usually another month before the bone-aching freezes of winter hit their worst.

That gap is what’s known as the seasonal lag, said Anthony Arguez, a physical scientist with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's National Climatic Data Center in Ashville, North Carolina. The lag occurs primarily because the earth’s land and oceans absorb some of the sun’s energy and release it slowly over time.

“There’s not a good answer for why people say that December 21 is the beginning of winter,” he said. “There’s nothing magical that says that winter has to happen after the solstice.” While the temperature of soil more than 30 feet below the surface remains basically constant, the soil higher up holds in heat, even while the air temperatures drop off. Arguez pointed out that summertime temperatures have a similar lag – the hottest day of the year in the Northern Hemisphere is typically in July or August.

Image credit: weegeeboard via flickr | http://bit.ly/16AuFvy
Rights information: http://bit.ly/1haBUhX

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Friday, December 19, 2014

The Mystery Object

The other day, a mystery showed up at the door of the PhysicsCentral offices. The inimitable Buzz Skyline discovered this mystery object in his neighborhood and brought it to H.Q. We have no idea what it is, other than really cool looking, so we decided to do what CERN did a few weeks ago and ask our loyal readers to weigh in.

There aren't a lot of clues that go along with it either. A few of the guesses we floated are that it has something to do with astronomy or something to do with crystallography. Maybe it was used in an educational setting or a laboratory. In short, we have no idea.

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Thursday, December 18, 2014

Black Hole Fingerprints: Help Radio Galaxy Zoo Reach Its 1 Millionth Classification


















The long winter nights are upon us — what better way to pass the evening than by doing your bit for science? Best part is, you can still watch that favorite holiday movie.

Last week we featured a podcast all about the power of citizen scientists helping to analyze very large datasets.

This week, I want to highlight one such citizen science project that just celebrated its one year anniversary! This project is known as Radio Galaxy Zoo, a title that you might recognize from the very successful Galaxy Zoo.

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Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Podcast: Manh(a)ttan Brings Nuclear Physics to Primetime



This fall, a new primetime drama appeared on the television network WGN America, featuring scientists at Los Alamos working tirelessly--desperately, even--to develop nuclear weapons during World War II, all while maintaining utmost secrecy. Manhattan draws on the rich underlying history of its namesake, the Manhattan Project, but steers clear of documentary tendencies. Whereas the premise of the show and several key figures are largely based on their real-life counterparts, the main cast is populated by fictional characters, whose personal and scientific struggles acquaint us with the broader themes of privacy, government surveillance, and trust. Today on the podcast, we discuss how Manhattan brings nuclear physics to primetime TV, and what’s gained or lost along the way.

A replica of the Fat Man bomb detonated over Nagasaki during WWII.
Image Credit: US Department of Defense

Jennifer Ouellette, science writer and former director of the Science and Entertainment Exchange, is impressed with Manhattan’s creative and dramatic storyline, and notes that the on-screen science, vetted by several technical consultants, is not only presented accurately, but also motivates much of the narrative and character development. While she acknowledges that the central conflict of the first season--a rivalry between two different designs for the atomic bomb--was magnified for dramatic purposes, Ouellette maintains that it makes for “more powerful storytelling, and there’s always going to be that tradeoff.” In reality, both bomb designs, the gun-type Thin Man and the implosion model, were developed into working weapons, and one of each type, Little Boy and Fat Man, were dropped on Japan in 1945.

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Tuesday, December 16, 2014

An Offer You Can't Refuse: How Extortion Can Enhance Cooperation in Society

Cooperation is a hard behavior to explain. Often it involves making at least a small sacrifice for the benefit of the whole, which superficially seems to be at odds with evolutionary pressures that encourage individuals to maximize their benefits at the expense of their competitors.

Lots of theories exist to explain why cooperation arises in society, but a relatively new one examines how extortionists can lead to complete cooperation in a society. It's an idea I'm sure Mafia Don Vito Corleone of the movie The Godfather would have considered trivially obvious.




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Monday, December 15, 2014

Brain-Like Circuits Can Mimic Pavlov's Dogs

Originally published: Dec 15 2014 - 1:45pm, Inside Science News Service
By: Charles Q. Choi, Contributor

(Inside Science) -- Artificial electronic circuits that mimic the pathways connecting neurons in the brain can learn, unlearn and store memories, researchers have reported. These inventions could not only help researchers better understand how the brain works, but could also lead to advanced new computers.

Brains are the most powerful computers known. This is due in large part to their complexity — the human brain has roughly 100 billion neurons, with about one million billion connections known as synapses wiring them together.

Scientists have long strived to mimic the brain electronically using either software or hardware. However, current software simulations of the brain, such as the IBM Blue Gene project, require lots of energy as well as dozens of cabinets of computers, while conventional hardware imitations of the brain are limited by the lack of components that can adequately mimic the way synapses behave, said researcher Shriram Ramanathan, a materials scientist at Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Image credit: Singkham via shutterstock | http://shutr.bz/1wTo36X

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Friday, December 12, 2014

Why Plug-In-Hybrid Vehicles May Be The Car Of The (Near) Future

Don't bet on all electric cars taking over for more than a decade, researchers indicate.
Image credit: 
Tom Wang via shutterstock
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
rights:
http://shutr.bz/1zvu9Yj

This story follows a story published November 25, 2014 on electric vehicles and how the driving range customers want may differ from what is best for their budgets.

Owning a car provides freedom. Drive hundreds of miles if you want. When you're low on gas, fill up in five minutes. Electric cars don't work that way. Most modern models can travel fewer than 100 miles on a full charge, and gas tanks fill much faster than batteries charge. But one type offers a compromise that combines the benefits of an electric car with the convenience of a combustion-powered vehicle.
"I come to the conclusion that the main competitor of electric cars is the plug-in hybrids because they offer the best of both worlds," said Ricardo Daziano, who studies the way engineering and economics affect the adoption and improvement of new technologies at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York. "So you can go electric on your daily commute and then you feel good about the environment."

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Thursday, December 11, 2014

Walking On Water: Physics of Clear Ice

A video went viral yesterday showing two hikers in Slovakia walking across a frozen lake. What is amazing about this lake is the fact that it froze crystal clear such that the hikers appear to be walking on calm water.

In cased you missed it, here is the video:



Now, like any self-respecting scientist, I tried to get APS approval to repeat their hike, you know, just to verify the experimental results, but sadly no can do. The stark and beautiful scenery of the Slovakian mountains will have to wait until another day.

While I was daydreaming, I wondered what caused this particular lake to freeze clear? What's special about its conditions? And can I make clear ice at home? As usual, physics has the answers.


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Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Podcast: Citizen Science Answering the Call



Over the past decade, citizen science projects have been popping up in every conceivable discipline, evolving with the internet to bring the power of the public to bear on increasingly large datasets. Astronomy has a long history of amateur involvement, and many projects are now up and running to process piles of data from space telescopes, sky surveys, and planetary orbiters. Today on the podcast, we take a look at a few of these projects to find out why they’re so useful and what drives citizen scientists to volunteer.

Dr. Andrew Westphal of Berkeley’s Space Science Laboratories is the project director and principal investigator for Stardust@home, an effort to find rare interstellar particles embedded in the aerogel detector returned from NASA’s Stardust mission in 2006. In part, volunteers (or “dusters”) are motivated by competition, as their pattern recognition chops are evaluated and reported in real time. 

An aerogel collector for the Stardust mission. The Stardust mission is one of several science projects that has enlisted the help of volunteers to comb through large amounts of data.
Image Credit: NASA

Even more alluring to dusters, Westphal maintains, is the chance to participate in cutting edge scientific investigations, and to know that their help is actually making a difference. And it is! So far, the project has identified three interstellar particles in the aerogel (and, unexpectedly, another four particles hitching a ride on the foil-like aluminum aerogel mounts) and their discoverers have named them Orion, Haylabook, and Sorok.
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Tuesday, December 09, 2014

Hearing the Pianist's Fingers: The Importance of Touch in Piano Music

Credit: Lecates via Wikimedia Commons
Can you tell the difference between the two tones played in this recording?

I'm not convinced that I can, but a group of trained musicians were able to listen to a series of tones like this and consistently distinguish between the two. This is important because there is actually a difference in the tones: in this particular recording, the first tone is an E note played such that the piano key does not hit the bottom of the wooden frame that holds the keys in place (known as the key frame), and in the second tone, the key does hit the key frame. Otherwise, the tones are identical.

From this experiment and others, a team of musicians and acoustic scientists have concluded that touch can be heard in piano music, addressing a century-old debate. Their work has been recently published in the November issue of the Journal of the Acoustical Society of America.

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Monday, December 08, 2014

Weird Arctic Weather Causes Near-Disaster In Northernmost Town

Originally published: Dec 2 2014 - 3:00pm, Inside Science News Service
By: Joel Shurkin, ISNS Contributor

(Inside Science)—What happens when it gets too warm in the dead of an Arctic winter? As residents of Norway's northern islands found out in January 2012, it could become a disaster.

The snow and ice on the islands melted. It rained for days and the high temperatures lasted for two weeks. Permafrost, the frozen soil that can reach hundreds of feet deep, started to melt. Then it got cold again and everything froze over. Snow collected in potentially deadly avalanches. The remote islands were cut off from the European mainland. Wildlife died.

Although Norwegian scientists believe this was a once-in-500-year event, climate change may bring more winters like the winter of 2012, and it is happening elsewhere.

A view of Longyearbyen airport
Image credit: sian_meades via flickr | http://bit.ly/1w10Saw
Rights information: http://bit.ly/NL51dk

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Friday, December 05, 2014

Fermi Problem Friday: Quantifying Miracles

Lazarus rising from the dead,
as did Janina Kolkiewicz and Walter Williams earlier this year.
It's a rare event, but is it miraculous?
The holiday season is upon us, and we will soon be inundated with stories of miracles from Frosty the Snowman to 34th Street and religious celebrations of one kind or another.

Talk of miracles, of course, is not limited to the holidays. A quick search of the the news shows that the word comes up with amazing frequency, often used in connection with medical stories, and shockingly often by doctors.

I usually think of doctors as applied scientists, so it seems strange to me that they would use the word "miracle" so often. There are certainly other words that they could choose when something unusual happens. Words like anomaly, stroke of luck,lucky break, or beat the odds. But when you enter these words in Google Trends, which can show you the frequency of words searched on the internet, they all lose out to "miracle" in popularity.

So I started wondering, what does it take for something to be "miraculous" in the way the word is often used?

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Thursday, December 04, 2014

The 29 Best Retro Photos From CERN's Vaults

In recent weeks the European science lab CERN has been uploading gobs of photos from their archives onto their publicly accessible document server. It's part of their 60th anniversary celebration and is a fascinating window into how fundamental science was done during the groovy '60s and funkadelic '70s.


There are literally tens of thousands of photos, with dozens more uploaded each day. The shutterbugs in Geneva took pictures of everything, from scientists working to construction projects and experimental equipment. The archivists at CERN are having a hard time identifying everybody and everything in the photos and have started calling on the public to write in with the names of any as yet unidentified people, equipment and experiments.

I've spent the last few days sorting through the huge collection of photos to pick out the best, weirdest and most retro ones uploaded so far.

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Wednesday, December 03, 2014

Podcast: Solar Winds and Hot Plasma Experiments



What is the nature of the solar wind, and how is it so powerful as to affect us here on Earth?

This is an artist's rendering of solar wind -- plasma from the sun that is always blowing, causing space weather -- hitting the Earth's magnetic field. Usually, Earth's magnetic shields us from the solar wind, directing the sun's plasma to the poles, which we see as auroras such as this one from above Bear Lake, Alaska.

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Tuesday, December 02, 2014

Watch Live as NASA Launches a New Human Spacecraft this Thursday

The Orion spacecraft atop a Delta IV rocket waits at the Kennedy Space Center for Thursday's launch.
Credit: NASA/Kim Shiflett
NASA's brand-new human spacecraft, Orion, launches this Thursday December 4th for its first test flight. The launch window opens at 7:05 a.m. EST so if you are based in the U.S., be sure to set an early alarm to watch it live.

The unmanned mission will last four and a half hours as Orion orbits twice around the Earth before splashing down off the coast of Baja California. During this flight, Orion will travel farther than any human spacecraft has in more than 40 years — 15 times higher than the International Space Station. In the future, Orion plans to carry four astronauts on extended, deep space missions, eventually reaching the asteroid belt and Mars.

Credit: NASA
Following a rough month in which an unmanned Orbital Sciences Antares rocket exploded on the launch pad and a pilot was killed in the crash of Virgin Galactic SpaceShipTwo, the space travel community will no doubt be watching the Orion launch closely. A tried-and-tested Delta IV Heavy rocket will be used in Thursday's launch, but with a heavy and untested payload aboard, and slightly uncertain weather conditions at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida, the launch could be delayed. By 9:45 a.m. EST when the launch window closes, we will know for sure the status of the launch.


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Monday, December 01, 2014

Schrodinger's Cat and the Raiders of the Lost Quark

Last week's Black Friday officially ushered in this year's holiday shopping season. Undoubtedly, there are a few Physics Buzz readers seeking gifts for their physics-minded friends and family.

Here's one possibility: a quantum mechanics-themed platform/puzzle video game. Schrodinger's Cat and the Raiders of the Lost Quark comes loaded with plenty of physics humor, eccentric characters, and quirky yet attractive art design. Although the game may not appeal to every gamer, it provides a fun introduction to plenty of quantum mechanics concepts while deviating (intentionally) from the realm of strict scientific facts.

The game takes place in and around the "particle zoo" — an enclosure for the varied elementary particles ranging from quarks to gluons and everything in between. The game's creators at italicpig game studios took some artistic license with the various particles, however, giving them eyes, odd shapes, and even a bit of personality.

While the particles are typically locked up safely within the zoo, someone or something has allowed all of the particles out of their enclosures. Now, gluons, leptons and bosons are running amok. As the protagonist, Schrodinger's Cat, you are tasked with rounding up the rowdy particles with the help of some friendlier particles: the top, bottom, up and down quarks. The roles of the two remaining types of quarks — strange and charm quarks — become more clear as the game progresses.


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