Wednesday, December 30, 2015

Podcast: Lava in the Lab

From prodding streams of lava, to molten rock poured in the lab, to miniature flows made of analogue materials, there are many ways to study this red-hot force of nature. Today’s podcast joins planetary scientist and volcanologist Dr. Elise Rumpf on a deep dive into the physics of lava flows, from the field to the lab.

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Tuesday, December 29, 2015

Ask a Physicist: Wind Farms and Weather

Foster, from the USA wants to know:
Could the tens of thousands of windmills across the United States be at least partially responsible for the recent change in weather patterns, and particularly the drought in California? I know energy is conserved, so I have to wonder what effect it has on weather patterns when we start introducing massive energy sinks in high-wind areas. Wouldn't it cause more air to flow around the farms?

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Monday, December 28, 2015

Scientists Find Method to Pinpoint Candidate Catalysts for Carbon Fixation

While gaseous carbon dioxide has been a harmful byproduct of human industry—it is the main greenhouse gas emitted through human activities, according to the Environmental Protection Agency—it is an essential ingredient for plant life. Artificially fixing carbon to use as an energy source, by converting carbon dioxide into liquid fuel, could not only provide power but could also cut carbon dioxide emissions and therefore help reduce the effects of global warming.

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Tuesday, December 22, 2015

Stunning Visuals From 2015's Fluid Dynamics Meeting

Every year, the American Physical Society’s Division of Fluid Dynamics publishes the Gallery of Fluid Motion, a repository of the most striking, awe-inspiring, and illuminating experiments presented at the annual meeting. This year’s submissions are just as spectacular as ever, showcasing everything from a water droplet being blown apart by a laser pulse to new ways of controlling the rainbow patterns on soap films.

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Tuesday, December 15, 2015

Singaporean Professor Develops Energy-saving Algorithm

A researcher at Singapore's Nanyang Technological University (NTU) has developed a new technology that provides real-time detection, analysis, and optimization data that could potentially save a company 10 percent on its energy bill and lessen its carbon footprint.

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Friday, December 11, 2015

Ask a Physicist: Slingshot Blueshift

Bruce, from the Netherlands, wants to know:
When manmade probes are sent out into our galaxy, they are sent in such manner that they take advantage of the 'slingshot' gravitational effect of large orbiting masses (planets) in order to accelerate. We know that that same gravitational force impacts upon light rays, bending them as they pass those large orbiting masses. Therefore, why is the velocity of light not also accelerated by the same 'slingshot' effect?

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Wednesday, December 09, 2015

Podcast: Fluids and Flocks

Birds often travel in flocks, and fish in schools — but can physics help us understand why?

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Tuesday, December 08, 2015

Ask a Physicist: Gild the Moon

Dr. Madhav Pakare from Mumbai wants to know:

How much gold would it take to cover the moon in a layer one atom thick?

Gold has been renowned for its malleability since ancient times and, while we've yet to create graphene-like structures that are a single atom thick, you can come close with tools no more complex than a hammer and some parchment; it's possible to expand a gold nugget to 20,000 times its initial surface area, creating sheets less than a thousandth of a millimeter in width. Right now, scientists working on the construction of the James Webb Space Telescope are using innovative manufacturing techniques to produce ultra-thin gold coatings for the telescope's mirrors, a process that you can learn more about in NASA's "Behind the Webb" series.

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Tuesday, December 01, 2015

Seeing Photons in a New Light

If I asked you to picture a photon, an electromagnetic wave, I’d expect the image that popped into your head to look something like the one below, with the characteristic intertwined sine curves of the electric and magnetic field vectors.
Image Credit: Wiki user P.wormer, CC BY-SA 3.0

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Monday, November 23, 2015

Hot and Cold, All at Once

New research slated for publication in Physical Review B shows that “cold spots” can be localized within a molecule, leaving single atoms with temperatures near absolute zero, while other parts of the molecule rest around a comparatively balmy 100 Kelvin.

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Tuesday, November 10, 2015

What Can a Blob-eating Game Teach Us About Biblical Plagues?

Swarming behavior has always fascinated physicists, biologists, and behavioral scientists alike—as well as anyone who’s seen a sky-darkening flock of starlings twist into its mesmerizing shapes. It’s hard not to wonder how such elegantly concerted behavior arises on the fly, or how on earth the birds keep from running into one another. But birds aren’t the only things that swarm like this, and while the idea of The Birds acting as a collective is scary enough to merit a Hitchcock film, this might just be a psychological sublimation of the instinctive fear of a very real and far-more-threatening swarm: Locusts. Now, research from the University of Bath gives us some understanding of how this swarming behavior happens in insects, and how we might disrupt it.

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Friday, November 06, 2015

Ask a Physicist: FTL Communication With a Very Long Stick

Amy from Hull, England asks:

"Imagine a tube structure stretching a large distance (say a light year) encasing a row of ballbearings that are lined up inside the full length of the tube. If I push one more ballbearing in from one end, would a ballbearing at the far end instantaneously drop out? Or for millions of years until the information is transferred would there be more ball bearings than the tube would normally fit? Or would it simply take me millions of years to push an extra ballbearing in the tube?"

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Tuesday, November 03, 2015

Two by Two

For close to a decade now, two of the hottest buzzwords in technology have been “Quantum Computing”—the promise of storing a information by manipulating the spin of a single electron, and the associated prospect of harnessing quantum entanglement for faster computation has captured the imaginations of physicists and computer scientists alike. As exciting as the theoretical possibilities are, much of the nitty-gritty work of constructing a functional quantum computer has yet to be done.

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Thursday, October 29, 2015

What's in a (Martian) Name?

If you’re a fan of The Martian, then you’re familiar with the alien landscape of Acidalia Planitia and Arabia Terra. But you may be wondering: Where did these strange names come from? On this week’s podcast we set out to answer that question, in a fun (spoiler-free) romp through fictional astronaut Mark Watney’s Martian neighborhood. Behind every name, there’s a story, and many of them are tied to the history of physics and astronomy down here on Earth. Here’s a taste of what we uncover in the podcast:

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Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Slippery Lipids Give Snakeskin its Slither

Snakes can slither smoothly over almost any surface, from jungle branches to desert sands, without damaging their skin – an ability that has fascinated researchers.

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Thursday, October 22, 2015

Scaling Down the Solar System

“I sort of missed the science boat entirely,” says Wylie Overstreet, one of the creators behind the new short film To Scale: The Solar System. “It was only a couple of years ago that I discovered science as a story...and it was transformative. I suddenly became totally sucked into the story of nature, and in doing so, in reading more about it, learning about it, I discovered that there's this massive discrepancy between our notion of where we are in the universe...and the reality of it.”

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Wednesday, October 21, 2015

Back to the Present

It's here, folks: today is the day we officially enter "the future", at least according to a certain wildly-popular 1980s film trilogy. The movies in question are much-beloved here at PhysicsCentral, so after ascertaining that today is in fact Marty McFly's "destination date" in "Back to the Future Part II", it seemed a special tribute post was in order. (We had to double-check, because there's a blog that's been churning out photoshopped screen captures claiming that "today's the day!" every single day for the past two years.)

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Thursday, October 15, 2015

One Small Step for Kinesin

Adenosine triphosphate, or ATP for short, is the universal currency of energy among living things. It’s the gasoline that drives our cellular motors, the necessary intermediate step between chemical and kinetic energy. By and large we’re still figuring out the details of how that conversion process works, but a new result from the Polish Academy of Sciences, slated for publication in PRL, brings us one step closer to understanding the mechanics of motor proteins called kinesins.

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Tuesday, October 13, 2015

Move Over, Lithium!

Over the past twenty years, as more and more technology has become incorporated into our daily lives, we’ve become increasingly reliant on the little lithium-ion miracles that keep our gadgets running while we’re on the run. Laptops, smartphones, electric vehicles—if it makes the modern world feel futuristic, it probably uses a rechargeable battery. While that’s not likely to change any time soon, the technology inside is about eighty years overdue for an overhaul: research from Oregon State indicates that lithium’s reign as the end-all of battery technology could soon be coming to an end. The next big thing? Potassium.

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Monday, October 12, 2015

Christopher Columbus Steals the Moon

While today is federally recognized as Columbus Day, that name has become controversial in recent years, as public awareness grows that its namesake and his crew did some absolutely abominable things to the people who lived on this continent before he “discovered” it. In remembrance of what an abhorrent character he was, and in honor of the people whose trust he betrayed, it’s worth recounting the tale of Columbus’ final voyage to the Americas, and the cleverest trick he ever pulled.

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Friday, October 09, 2015

Equation Works Out Kinks In Knot Math

Image credit: 
fdecomite via flikr |

Knots are everywhere, from laces of shoes to stitches that seal cuts. Sailors and others have known since antiquity that some knots are stronger than others, but such knowledge came largely from intuition and tradition, rather than a fundamental understanding of what makes knots strong.

Now, experiments with wires have helped scientists develop an equation explaining the forces involved within one of the simplest knots around, the overhand knot. Such work could one day lead to a better idea of what knots work best for given applications, such as the stitches used in surgery and the steel cables used in construction, the researchers said.

"Now we can understand the basic principles underlying overhand knots, which are the most basic type of knots used in our everyday life," said study lead author Khalid Jawed, an engineer at MIT in Cambridge. "This can serve as a starting point to investigate the mechanics of more complex type of knots."

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Thursday, October 08, 2015

"Cancer Glasses" Help Surgeons See Tiny Tumors

Some people need them to see, others just to read, but a new pair of high-tech glasses could save your life.

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Wednesday, October 07, 2015

Meteorite Markings Offer Clues to Their Past

Most iron meteorites are thought to be the remnants of planetesimals that grew large enough to differentiate very early during the formation of the solar system. Later destroyed by violent collisions, the parent body broke into pieces, some of them fragments of the nickel-iron core at the center, and others parts of the silicate crust and mantle. Some of these fragments were perturbed in their orbits enough to careen into the inner solar system, and a lucky few have ended up on Earth.

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Tuesday, October 06, 2015

Two Physicists Share Nobel Prize For Detecting Changes In Neutrino Identities

Courtesy of Kamioka Observatory, ICRR (Institute for Cosmic Ray Research),
University of Tokyo, rights:
The 2015 Nobel Prize in Physics has been awarded to a Japanese physicist and a Canadian physicist for discovering that abundant subatomic particles known as neutrinos can undergo changes in their identity, a process that requires the particles, once thought to be massless, to possess mass.
The prize goes jointly to Takaaki Kajita of the University of Tokyo in Japan and Arthur B. McDonald of Queen's University in Kingston, Canada "for the discovery of neutrino oscillations, which shows that neutrinos have mass." The two recipients were leaders of two major underground neutrino observatories on opposite sides of the world. Kajita was part of the Super-Kamiokande collaboration in Japan, and McDonald led a group at the Sudbury Neutrino Observatory, or SNO, in Canada.

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Monday, October 05, 2015

The People's Choice for a Physics Nobel: Dark Matter

The Bullet Cluster is one astronomical object that proves the existence of dark matter.
The Nobel Prize committees don't seem to worry much about popular opinion (or at least my opinion), but if they did I'm pretty sure Vera Rubin and Kent Ford would win the 2015 Nobel Prize in Physics for their measurements that were the first to strongly imply the ubiquitous existence of dark matter in the universe.

I'm basing this on things like the buzz I've been hearing from science journalists and the Sigma Xi bracket to pick this year's winner (they find dark matter and planets beyond our solar system to be the two to watch for). There's also a modestly active Facebook page that's been pulling for Vera Rubin since just after last year's Nobels, but since I made the page I don't put much stock in that as a predictor.

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Friday, October 02, 2015

Moonshine and Lunacy

I got an email from a reader yesterday asking for help in understanding a video that she’d seen, in which a citizen-scientist performs an experiment with a very surprising result: moonlight makes things colder! How could this be? To find out, I took a dive into the well-intentioned but deeply problematic world of Youtube science.

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Thursday, October 01, 2015

A Rough Neighborhood

Once every century or so, a supernova occurs somewhere in the Milky Way, blasting out as much energy in one event as a sun-like star emits over billions of years. According to a paper recently accepted for publication in Physical Review Letters, the level of antimatter in the vacuum of our solar system makes it look like one of these supernovas happened pretty close to home, and not too long ago.

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Friday, September 25, 2015

The Math Of Brewing Coffee Can Model Anesthesia

Mathematics that can describe coffeepots, forest fires and flu outbreaks may also underpin the brain’s response to anesthesia, a new study suggests.

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Wednesday, September 23, 2015

Ask a Physicist: Cold Light and Negative Work

It's been a while since we got around to opening up the "Ask a Physicist" inbox, but we've had some great questions recently, and you can look forward to Ask a Physicist being a more regular feature on the Buzz Blog. Let's get to it!

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Friday, September 18, 2015

Papers in the Pipeline: Simulating New Materials

Designing things like LEDs and transistors has, for a long time, been an arduous process of trial and error, but that could be changing soon, thanks in part to a technique developed by physicists at SUNY-Buffalo.

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Thursday, September 17, 2015

The Science of Star Trek: Accidental Prophecies

Last night, I sat down to dinner and an episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation. (I prefer the original series, but there’s only so many times you can watch Kirk & Co. fight the space-nazis before it starts to get old.) I picked one in the first season, called “Home Soil”, where Picard and his crew beam down to a desert world that’s being adapted to support life, only to discover that there’s already a strange form of intelligent life living in the subsurface water table. Terraforming an already-inhabited planet violates the Federation’s “prime directive”, creating all sorts of drama for the episode, but we’re not here today to focus on the moral quandaries of xenobiology. Rather, the episode contains some tidbits that sound at first like technobabble plot-spackle, but upon closer examination make you start to wonder if someone in the writers’ room had access to a time machine.

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Wednesday, September 16, 2015

Podcast: A Time Capsule of the Universe

Harvard’s Center for Astrophysics hosts the world’s largest collection of glass photographic plates, and thanks to the efforts of DASCH — which stands for Digital Access to a Sky Century @ Harvard — all of the information they contain will soon be at your fingertips. We caught up with Principal Investigator Dr. Josh Grindlay to find out how the digitization project works and what they hope to accomplish by making all of the data available to the public.

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Tuesday, September 15, 2015

Quantum Locked: Physicists Demonstrate “Weeping Angel” Effect

A team of physicists from Cornell has shown that rapid, repeated measurements can freeze matter in place, in a paper recently accepted for publication by Physical Review Letters. The phenomenon, called the quantum Zeno effect (after the Greek philosopher famous for posing tricky questions about arrows and tortoises), limits the quantum tunneling ordinarily exhibited by confined particles.

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Monday, September 14, 2015

Surprises from the LHC's "Beauty Factory"

In an attempt to unravel how matter and antimatter differ—and why we seem to have more of one than the other in our universe—scientists at the Large Hadron Collider have been studying the production and decay of particles called B mesons. Baryons, (from the greek barus, meaning heavy) such as protons and neutrons, each contain three valence quarks, but mesons (as in meso, or middle) are two-quark systems—one quark and one antiquark. They’re much less stable, contain equal amounts matter and antimatter, and tend to decay quickly into other particles, so they’re a promising tool for trying to ferret out the decay asymmetries that might have led to the state of the universe as we know it today. B mesons in particular are so-named because they contain a “bottom” antiquark, also known as a “beauty” antiquark, leading to the LHCb experiment’s name. However, as so often happens, the result the LHCb researchers found was not the one they were looking for.

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Friday, September 11, 2015

The Not-So-Silent World

In 1956, the French adventurer and SCUBA inventor Jacques Cousteau published a book called The Silent World about Earth’s oceans. Cousteau’s book is widely credited with giving rise to a new awareness of the seas’ beauty and fragility.

"He picked a bad title," said Arthur Popper, professor emeritus in biology at the University of Maryland in College Park. The oceans are not silent. In fact, they are louder than ever. And that, scientists believe, is a problem.

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Thursday, September 10, 2015

One Winning Move

What happens when you gather four thousand distinguished physicists in the nation’s gambling capital for a conference? A bad week for the casino, but for a somewhat surprising reason.

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Wednesday, September 09, 2015

The Solar-Powered Telegraph

The year was 1859 and, nearly six decades after the creation of Volta's battery, humans were really starting to get the hang of this electricity thing. Alternating current and low-loss power transmission lines were still a long way off, but the foundations of a communication infrastructure had emerged as telegraph cables began to crisscross the globe.

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Friday, September 04, 2015

NASA's Microgravity Hoax II, The De-Pedanting

A lot of people disagree with my characterization of NASA's use of the word "microgravity" in lieu of "free fall" as a hoax. The chief objection seems to be that I am being pedantic. Well, here's what I have to say to people calling me "pedantic" --

Here are a few more (not at all pedantic) reasons why "microgravity" sucks and and "free fall" rules.

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Thursday, September 03, 2015

Escape From a Black Hole

The black hole: the inner boundary of the known universe, the point of no return. This is the region in the vicinity of a gravitational singularity which, once entered, cannot be left.
Or can it?

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Tuesday, September 01, 2015

Coriolis Effect Provides Clue on Moth Navigation

Like sailors putting a finger to the wind, migrating moths check the atmospheric conditions around them and adjust their headings accordingly, a new study finds. They do it by sensing turbulence, which helps them determine whether the wind is blowing them off course.

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Monday, August 31, 2015

More Than a Statistic: Social Science and "Physics Envy"

In a recent think piece from Drexel University's The Smart Set, author Michael Lund boldly proclaims that it's time for western academia to throw in the towel on a decades-long failed experiment: "hard" social science.

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Friday, August 28, 2015

NASA's Microgravity Hoax

Yes, astronauts landed on the moon. But that doesn't mean NASA has been completely honest.

Free fall aboard NASA's vomit comet, where gravity is anything but micro.
Starting in the 1970's, for some reason I have yet to discover, NASA started lying to us about the basic physics of space flight -- that is, they invented the word microgravity.

OK, maybe they didn't invent it. I'm not sure if it's possible to figure out exactly who coined the term. Still, some time in the late seventies or early eighties, NASA (and a lot of other scientists) enthusiastically embraced the the idea of microgravity. The problem is, NASA is using it wrong - and I believe that's a very bad thing.

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Wednesday, August 26, 2015

On Pi and Tau

In 2010, physicist and educator Michael Hartl published something he called The Tau Manifesto, a piece of writing which put forth arguments for a surprisingly controversial assertion: π is wrong.

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Monday, August 24, 2015

Danger! High Voltage

A few weeks ago, we put up a "Fermi problem Friday" post about the odds of being struck by lightning. That post was met with some criticism in the comments section, so it's currently down while we revise it to reflect our readers' concerns. But last Friday, we made a discovery here at PhysicsCentral headquarters: your odds of getting zapped go up exponentially if your boss brings her old Van de Graaff generator to work!

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Wednesday, August 19, 2015

Liftoff: Hydrophobic Fibers Fling Condensation From Their Strands

I recently moved to the DC area in the middle of the summer where, on a bad day, being outdoors is a lot like being inside a rice cooker; sometimes I wish I could stop sweating, because evaporative cooling doesn’t really work when the air is already practically saturated with moisture. As such, the dehumidifier has become my new best friend. This miracle of modern technology that keeps the mildew out of my apartment works by blowing air over a refrigerated mesh of wires, where the water condenses and falls into a bucket, sometimes at the surprising rate of a few liters per day.

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Monday, August 17, 2015

The Heavyweight Champion of the Universe

About 3.4 billion light-years away, in the general direction of the constellation Draco, lies one of the heaviest singular objects in the known universe. Designated H1821+643, it has roughly 30 billion times the mass of the sun, with an event horizon that could swallow our solar system—28 times over.

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Friday, August 14, 2015

What's more radioactive than a nuclear power plant?

A lot of things, it turns out. But the one you'd probably least expect? Waste from a non-nuclear power plant, by a factor of 100.

Would we feel different about fossil fuels if this 
warning were mandatory on coal-fired power plants? 
Image courtesy Torsten Henning, Public Domain
On Wednesday, we published a Physics+ article about radiation, written in memory of the bombing of Hiroshima, 70 years prior. While the author did a fantastic job in describing the state of the art on low-dose radiation research, I was troubled by a line where he cited "widespread deployment of nuclear power" along with medical scans and air travel as a potential contributor to chronic low-dose radiation. I took issue with the line because, counterintuitive as it might be, widespread deployment of nuclear power is acting to decrease the radiation burden of the average individual. To understand how, we'll need a smidge of radiation biophysics knowledge, along with a touch of nuclear engineering. If that sounds scary, don't worry; I promise to keep it simple.

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Tuesday, August 11, 2015

The Disappointing Truth About Lexus' New Hoverboard

By now you've probably seen the latest video of Lexus' hoverboard technology, a two-minute spot produced as part of their "Amazing in Motion" advertising campaign. The board itself is incredibly cool—literally—the technology relies on superconductors, cooled using liquid nitrogen to somewhere below -200°C, and as a result it emits a trail of futuristic-looking fog (actually condensing water vapor) wherever it goes. Unfortunately, the video, which shows a number of skateboarders trying out their favorite sport sans wheels, is more than a little misleading.

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Wednesday, August 05, 2015

Blue Smoke, Red Sun

I was living in Indiana back in June when I got a surprise lesson in optics, simply by looking out my window to see the golden-orange glow of sunset bathing our lawn. That’s odd, I thought to myself, seems like the day just flew by.

I checked my watch; it was 3 P.M. I blinked hard, wondering to myself what could be going on. I checked my phone; still 3 P.M. I stepped outside for a better look around.
There was no mistaking it; this was the kind of color scheme I was used to seeing an hour or two before the last light of the day, but the sun was hanging stubbornly far above the horizon, at its usual 3 o’clock position.

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Tuesday, August 04, 2015

String Theory (No, not that kind!)

Creating a slow-motion effect in real life takes some creativity, but with the help of a few strobe lights and a frequency generator, the folks at Pasco put together one that’s truly mesmerizing, on top of being educational. Watch the video of it below, and then read on to find out how it’s done!

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Friday, July 31, 2015

Allotropy: Why Winter Spells Trouble for the Tin Man

Tin is a commonplace metal that’s used industrially in a thousand different ways. From the solder that holds your computer’s motherboard together to the PVC plumbing under your sink, tin compounds are everywhere. In spite of its versatility, tin possesses an interesting physical property which is responsible for its tendency to wear down over time outdoors. This phenomenon, known as “tin pest”, is certainly not due a biological organism, but is widely mistaken for an oxidation reaction. Instead, tin pest happens thanks to something called allotropy—the metal’s atomic lattice can take on multiple different shapes, depending on the temperature it’s kept at. 

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Thursday, July 30, 2015

How Insects' Legs Can Improve Man-Made Materials

In an effort to improve materials used in aviation and medicine, a team of Irish researchers is studying the legs of certain insects. Some features that appear to contribute to the legs' sturdiness don’t actually do so, they found, while others that would be expected to weaken the legs don’t have that effect.

These null results provide fresh insight into the surprising ways that nature works. But the new understanding also has the potential to contribute to applications of engineering materials shaped like the insects’ legs.
David Taylor’s team examined how the insects’ legs, which consist of light, thin, tubelike structures of cuticle material, buckle and bend in response to pressure.
“Many materials in nature have evolved to perform some mechanical purpose. So my research group is looking at insects, crabs, plant stems, eggs, etc.,” explained Taylor, a professor of mechanical engineering at Trinity College, Dublin.
In addition to studying how the natural materials work, said Taylor, engineers must also be sure they understand how they might fail.
Long, thin-walled tubes tend to maintain strength despite weighing less than other types of structures.
That provides an obvious benefit for designers of aircraft parts and hospital equipment such as catheters. But the tubes’ tendency to buckle, in the way that a drinking straw gives when bent, counters that advantage.
Taylor’s team set out to understand how differences in the detailed structure of insects’ legs influence their buckling behavior. They began with locusts, which are large and easy to work with, before moving on to other largish insects that live different lifestyles, including bees, stick insects and cockroaches.
Those insects not only use their legs in different ways in their natural environments; they also have different leg structures.
“The interesting aspect I found [in the Taylor group’s work] was the observation of the different cross-section shapes of the insect legs,” said Ahmer Wadee, a professor of nonlinear mechanics at Imperial College, London, who studies why metals and other materials buckle.
Stick insects have five ridges running down their legs. Bees’ legs have triangular cross-sections, with one large, flat surface used to carry pollen. And the legs of locusts and cockroaches have almost circular cross-sections.
Taylor and his team obtained their subjects locally. “We buy our locusts from a pet shop where they are normally used as food for the snakes. So we feel they get a slightly nicer and longer life with us,” he said. “In our care they live much longer than they normally would, even in the wild. And at the end of our work they are euthanized in a humane way."
To test the buckling behavior of a leg, on a living insect or detached from it, the team fixed one end by putting it in quick-drying polymer cement.
“We held it horizontally and pressed down on the other end using a testing machine which can record the applied force,” Taylor noted. “You can do something similar for yourself with a drinking straw or, better still, those tubes of plastic foam that are used to insulate water pipes.”
Timing was critical. “We needed to test the legs within a few minutes of cutting them off because they quickly dry out and become more stiff and brittle,” Taylor recalled.
The team found that buckling is a complex process that can occur in several different ways. Under a growing force, a leg suddenly becomes unstable, said Taylor, which can quickly lead to deformation and failure. In addition to experiments with the actual legs, they use computer simulations.
The experiments and simulations revealed that two types of buckling occur more or less simultaneously. These are local buckling, which is what happens when you press on the ends of a beer can, and ovalization buckling that occurs when the circular tube becomes oval and bends more easily.
Further investigation showed that different tube shapes confer no apparent advantage or disadvantage on insects’ legs.
“The ridges running along a stick insect’s legs look as if they are there to make the leg stiffer and more resistant to bending; we expected them to make the tubes about two-and-a-half times stronger,” Taylor said. “But we found out that they don’t; the leg would be just as good without them. So those ridges must have evolved for some other purpose that we don’t know about yet.”
The team also expected that pollen baskets might make bees’ legs weaker and more prone to buckling. “But we found they were just as good as if they had been circular,” Taylor said. “This shows that it’s possible to design non-circular cross sections that work well.”
A related piece of research compared the forces that insects’ legs experience with those that predictions indicate will cause the legs to break. Graduate student Eoin Parle found that when locusts jump, their legs experience more than half the failure force.
“That means there is a safety factor of less than two,” Taylor said. “That’s much smaller than you will find in most engineering structures.”
However, locusts have a safety mechanism, according to recent research by Malcolm Burrows, emeritus professor of biology at the University of Cambridge. “This is a specialized region in the tibia which buckles if the leg over-extends, but which contains the elastic protein resilin that returns the leg to its original shape,” Burrows said.
What does the Trinity College team’s research, which it presented at a meeting of the Society for Experimental Biology, suggest for the design of man-made structures?
“We’ve made a small contribution there by showing how certain types of buckling can be predicted using computer programs, and by showing that non-circular cross sections can be effective,” Taylor said. “Certainly a possible future application of this knowledge could be in the development of new designs for aircraft and other fields.”
--Peter Gwynne, Inside Science News Service

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Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Paranormal (AC)tivity

Engineering designer Vic Tandy had just seen a ghost.  That, or he was losing his mind, he thought.

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Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Party of Five! Physicists Discover Long-Sought ‘Pentaquark’ In Stroke of Luck

One week ago, an international team of scientists announced that they had discovered the pentaquark, an exotic, short-lived chunk of matter that had long eluded researchers. Its serendipitous discovery fills in one of the remaining gaps in the Standard Model, the prevailing but incomplete theory of particle physics, and it potentially points the way to weird “subatomic molecules” and other exotic forms of matter.

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Friday, July 24, 2015

The Aftermath of 'Con

Greetings, science fans!
I know you missed us during our recent hiatus, but we’re back to bring you the latest and most exciting stories from the world of physics!

If you read our last post, you might have guessed that the Physics Central team has been doing some flying lately. A career in physics can take you all over the world (our resident Mathlete just returned from Taiwan) but this month’s adventures took us to beautiful San Diego, for the 46th Comic-Con International!

Asking yourself how on earth a bunch of physicists get sent to a comic book convention? You must not have heard of Spectra, the Laser Superhero! Spectra is an original comic series that follows the exploits of Lucinda Hene as she learns to use the powers of the laser and save the world from villainous plots, with the help of her friends! Written by a PhD physicist on staff here at APS, the comics are shipped to middle schools around the country with the aim of entertaining students, teaching some basic physics, and inspiring a passion for science. Since 2010, we’ve gone to SDCC every summer to talk about science outreach and get the word out about Spectra’s latest showdown against baddies like the evil Miss Alignment, or Lucy's nefarious swim coach Henri Toueaux. You can read all of Spectra’s adventures free online, along with our other PhysicsQuest comics, or order hard copies along with activity kits if you know a budding scientist! Who knows--if they learn to love physics, maybe someday they'll have a job that takes them to such a crazy and magical place!
Enjoy the comics, and check out some of our photos from Comic-Con 2015 below.

How many physicists does it take to put together a booth?
Miss Alignment is back in Spectra 7: High Intensity!
After a nightmare of PVC and duct tape, the Physics Central team is proud of their booth.

Dave, our illustrator, hands out comics to some new fans,
with the help of Emily, APS News' science writer!

Cosplayers abound, as James explains who we are and what we do.
You're never too young to start learning about physics!

The crowd inside the convention hall is pretty intense.

The crowd outside is even worse!

Doctor Yi Suchong shows off his genuine Edison Wax Cylinder record.

Sims love science comics!

So do delivery witches...

...and knights...

...and princesses!

I met a Left Shark...
...and saw some weird recursions...
...along with some folks trying to get their live-action Thundercats movie off the ground.
Becky, the author of Spectra, was on a few panels about science and outreach,
and Dave revealed his superpower to us! What, you think they give Legion rings to just anybody?
Hope you liked the gallery, and we hope to see you next year; same time, same place! (Booth 2207, as all our loyal fans know)

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Tuesday, July 21, 2015

Clearing the Air: Why You Get Gassy on the Plane

Surprisingly, it's not just the food.

If you've ever gotten unusually bloated on an airplane, you might have chalked it up to the stress of traveling, carbonated drinks, or the fact that you wouldn't really think twice about passing gas if not for the person sitting right next to you. But fasten your seatbelts and lock your tray tables; we're exploring the physics behind the very real phenomenon of airplane flatulence, and by the time we land you'll have an indisputable excuse for your seat-mate. It may ease the social turbulence some to point out the irony of the situation: our increased tendency for in-flight flatulence is largely due to something called the ideal gas law.

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Friday, June 26, 2015

Of Mice And Magnets

Image credit:mouse: Baggie Bird 1, compass: wikimedia commons, illustration by Michael Greshko
Quantum mechanics governs the quirky, counter-intuitive way the world works at the small scales of atoms and subatomic particles. It might also be important for helping animals understand their place in their surroundings. New research suggests that wood mice, commonly found in Europe, have a built-in compass that exploits quantum processes, the first seen in a wild mammal.

According to a study in Scientific Reports published on April 29, wood mice placed in a container prefer to build their nests in the parts of the container closest to magnetic north and south. When researchers created an artificial magnetic field, the mice nested in line with the new north-south orientation. Scientists suspect that this compass sense comes from electrons dancing around in the mice's eyes.

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Wednesday, June 24, 2015

When Science and Entertainment Work Together

“We’re here to inspire filmmakers,” says Rick Loverd, Program Manager of the Science and Entertainment Exchange, a program of the National Academy of Sciences. “We’re here to provide mainstream media content creators with great science.” Launched in 2008, the Exchange works to connect writers, producers, and industry executives with scientists and engineers, both to improve the overall quality of science in mainstream entertainment and to break down negative stereotypes of scientists themselves. On this week’s podcast, we delve into the world of science consulting, exploring what it takes to pull off a successful collaboration. According to Loverd, the key is to put the story first and try to find organic ways to ground it in science. “I don’t think you can steer Hollywood creatives toward something. You can just give them a better idea.”

That’s how the 2011 Marvel blockbuster Thor ended up with a backstory grounded in theoretical physics. When Caltech physicist Sean M. Carroll suggested that the title character travel to Earth via an Einstein-Rosen Bridge — a wormhole — the character of Jane Foster, originally a nurse, became a particle astrophysicist instead. That gave her a plausible reason be out in the desert of New Mexico when Thor arrives, explains UCLA postdoctoral scholar Kevin Peter Hickerson. Thinking through the physics to flesh out the backstory, Hickerson helped Marvel producers construct Jane Foster’s laboratory, which (in the movie) relies on high energy physics to detect signatures of dark matter coming from Thor’s hammer. “That was the sort of way in which, very organically to their creative process, a scientist was able to drop some facts and help the filmmakers make something feel slightly more plausible,” says Loverd.

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Friday, June 19, 2015

Wrinkle In Time Divides Quantum World From Everyday Reality

Image credit: Alan Cleaver via flickr |
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The world becomes a fuzzy, surreal place at its smallest levels, according to quantum physics. It has long been a mystery why strange quantum behavior is not seen at larger scales in everyday life. Now researchers find that the way Earth warps time could help explain this division.

One mind-boggling consequence of quantum physics is that atoms and subatomic particles can actually exist in states known as "superpositions," meaning they could literally be located in two or more places at once, for instance, until "observed" — that is, until they interact with surrounding particles in some way. This concept is often illustrated using an analogy called Schrödinger's cat, in which a cat is both dead and alive until beheld.

Superpositions are very fragile. Once disturbed in some way, they collapse or "decohere" to just a single outcome. As such, they often involve objects just a few particles large at most — the bigger an object in superposition is, the more difficult it is to keep it unperturbed. However, it is a mystery at what scale the realm of quantum physics ended and the one of classical physics begins, and why such a boundary exists in the first place.

Now researchers suggest that Einstein's theory of space and time could help explain this shift from quantum to classical physics.

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Thursday, June 18, 2015

How to Plan a Physics Party

It's June, the academic year is over, it's time to celebrate! For those of you mad about physics or graduating with a physics degree at any level, how about a physics-themed party? We've compiled a few ideas below, but feel free to get creative and let us know your ideas in the comments. The world has far too few physics parties.

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Tuesday, June 16, 2015

Physics in Verse: A Musical Ode to the Sun

Here's a third and final Physics in Verse poem for you. It's technically the lyrics of a song, but I love the fun and memorable way it presents science about our Sun. The Sun Song is the only way I can remember trivia like "a million Earths could fit in the Sun" or "it's six thousand degrees at the photosphere".

This song hails from a nerdy music group called The Chromatics, and features on their astronomy-inspired album, AstroCappella - "an astronomy class set to music" according to Sky & Telescope magazine. You can listen to their groovy recording here.

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Monday, June 15, 2015

Brain Programmed To Anticipate Sounds

Scientists find the route to listening is more complex than they thought.

Originally published: Jun 10 2015 - 8:00am, Inside Science News Service
By: Joel N. Shurkin, Contributor

(Inside Science) -- You are sitting in a concert hall about to hear Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, anticipating, among other things, the famous first four notes. When it comes, it sounds just like you thought it would.

Man with headphones credit to Warren Goldswain via shutterstock  | composite image credit Michael Greshko
That anticipation may not just be the fact you know intellectually what’s coming, but something quite physiological: your brain is anticipating some essential properties of the sound and may even be adjusting what you will hear toward what you are expecting. According to research in Germany and the United Kingdom, sound perception is often “top-down”--ear to brain and back down to midbrain in the auditory system. Conventional theory has been fundamentally focused on bottom-up, ear to brain.

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Thursday, June 11, 2015

Physics is Least Popular in July

Google Trends tracks the popularity of a search term over time and throughout the world. Type in the word "dog" and you get back a whole set of graphs, charts, and maps that show that the English-speaking world really loves "man's best friend" (unsurprising perhaps since non-English speakers presumably search for dog in their own language).

As a physics blog, we're interested in the online popularity of physics, and when we can expect the largest number of readers. This graph shows the relative popularity of the term "physics" in worldwide Google searches from January 2010 to January 2015. Just a quick glance at the data shows that the popularity of physics is cyclical, with an annual peak interest every October when the Nobel Prize in Physics is announced.

Data from Google Trends. Annotations by Tamela Maciel

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Tuesday, June 09, 2015

Life Lessons from The Martian (it's not all about physics)

Everyone's talking about The Martian, a nerdy novel (and soon-to-be film) about a stranded astronaut's self-reliance on Mars. The story is a whirlwind of adventure and its science is spot on. Unlike your typical superhero, the hero of this novel is equipped with scientific and practical know-how that allows him to (just) scrape through many disasters in the unforgiving Martian environment.

More than any other story I've read, this book emphasizes the need for a broad scientific literacy that lies deeper than a Google search (no internet on Mars), as a matter of life and death.

When I was a kid I thought that all I needed to do to be an astronaut was to become physically fit and learn some astronomy. After all, out in space they'd need an astronomer, right? I pored over the list of basic astronaut requirements, took up running, worried incessantly about my eyesight, and took my first astronomy course when I was 16. Ten years later, I have a PhD in astrophysics but this certainly won't land me a spot on the first manned mission to Mars.

Had The Martian, been published ten years ago instead of last year, I might have taken a few more engineering and biology classes along the way. Silly me for forgetting that the primary challenge for astronauts on another world is keeping themselves alive.

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Monday, June 08, 2015

How Science Helps Golfers Drain Those Tricky Putts

Tips from physics, physiology, and maybe even music can help you improve your score.

Originally published: Jun 5 2015 - 2:30pm, Inside Science News Service
By: Peter Gwynne, Contributor

(Inside Science) – "Drive for show and putt for dough."

In the world of professional golf, this catchphrase means that a perfect drive down the middle of the fairway has little value if the golfer can't complete the hole by sinking a sinuous 10-foot putt into the cup.

As they prepare for the U.S. Open championship, starting on June 18 in Chambers Bay, Washington, players will devote at least as much practice time to reading the greens, pacing their putts, and maintaining a steady hand with what they call their "flat sticks" as they do to those 300-yard drives.

Image credit:  University of the Fraser Valley via flickr |
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"Putting is 43 percent of the game," said Ty Waldron, director of instruction at Pelz Golf, a company that offers golf schools and clinics. "It's something that separates recreational golfers from the best in the world."

In recent years several studies have revealed the underlying scientific principles of good putting. Elite and weekend golfers alike can use the principles to improve their chances of sinking those tricky 10-footers.

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Friday, June 05, 2015

The Tour de France—In Terms of Jelly Donuts

(Inside Science Currents Blog) -- With today being National Donut Day, and this year’s Tour de France coming up in the next month, I recalled how a late MIT physicist known for his work in the Manhattan Project once combined donuts and the famous bicycle race to teach a lesson about energy. Count on science to mash together two different things in unexpectedly fun ways.

Photos by Mavis via flickr |

So in honor of National Donut Day, we present to you a slightly updated version of one of the very first Inside Science News Service articles I wrote with Rory McGee Richards all the way back in July 22 1999:

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Thursday, June 04, 2015

How The Brain Avoids Blurry Vision

Scientists have discovered how nerve cells stabilize visual images.

Originally published: Jun 2 2015 - 10:45am, Inside Science News Service
By: Lisa Marie Potter, Contributor

(Inside Science) -- Thank goodness for autostabilization, the digital camera feature that compensates for movement to achieve that crystal-clear, spontaneous selfie. But even more importantly in daily life, our eyes have an ancient form of autostabilization that prevents the world from blurring by. Skinny nerve cells called axons connecting the eye and the brain trigger tiny eye movements that stabilize our field of vision.

Image credit: See-ming Lee 李思明 SM via flickr |
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For the first time, scientists have identified the molecules that make sure these axons are wired to the exact regions of the brain. The findings could help us understand eye movement disorders and could one day help regenerate damaged nerve cells to restore sight.

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Tuesday, June 02, 2015

Cheetah Robot Sees, Runs, and Now Leaps Over Hurdles

A cheetah-inspired robot can now spot and jump over hurdles all while running autonomously at 5 miles per hour.

Researchers at the MIT Biomimetic Robotics Lab have been developing this four-legged robot, named MIT Cheetah, for the past three years. First it could run on a treadmill, then it could gallop at speeds of 14 miles per hour, then it could run untethered outside. Now the group has released a video showing MIT Cheetah running untethered on an indoor track and leaping over random hurdles without breaking a stride.

Adaptive Leg "Muscles"

The key to MIT Cheetah's agility is a set of custom-built motors that precisely control how much force is delivered to each leg as it touches the ground. To gain speed, the legs push off the ground with more force so that the robot spends a greater fraction of the time flying through the air. The robot continually monitors its gait and the length of time its feet touch the ground in order to adjust its leg force to match.

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Monday, June 01, 2015

Electronic Tongue Identifies The Correct Beer — Every Time

Robot taste testers are becoming part of the food industry.

Originally published: May 19 2015 - 2:15pm, Inside Science News Service
By: Lisa Marie Potter, Contributor

(Inside Science) -- Machines mimicking a human's sense of taste are going on a beer-tasting binge. Despite being called electronic tongues, these devices aren't party robots, pouring beer onto wagging, mechanical tongues.

Image credit: via flickr |
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"It's just a bunch of wires and buttons and computers," said María Luz Rodríguez-Méndez, a professor of inorganic chemistry at University of Valladolid in Spain. "It's an ugly thing full of cables."

However it looks, Méndez and colleagues developed an electronic tongue that accurately distinguished between four styles of lager beer 100 percent of the time. A variety of screen-printed sensors "taste" electrochemical compounds in the beer to predict the brews' color index and alcoholic strength 76 percent and 86 percent of the time. The new robot taster contributes to a growing field of electronic tongue and nose development meant to improve quality control in the food industry.

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Friday, May 29, 2015

24,882 Ways To Tie Your Necktie

Until now, scientists thought there were only 85 different ways to tie a typical necktie. Now researchers inspired by the Matrix trilogy of movies have discovered thousands more.
"There are far, far more knots than were previously known," said researcher Mikael Vejdemo-Johansson, a computational mathematician at the Swedish Royal Institute of Technology in Stockholm.

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Thursday, May 28, 2015

Why Physicists Love Super Balls

They may be child's play, but some serious physics makes them bounce so well.

Originally published: May 22 2015 - 11:00am, Inside Science News Service
By: Joel N. Shurkin, Contributor

(Inside Science) -- Super Balls are toys beloved by children because of their extraordinary ability to bounce. Physicists love them for exactly the same reason.

Drop a baseball on the floor and it will hardly bounce at all. Drop a Super Ball from shoulder height, and it will bounce back 92 percent of the way to the drop-off point. Super Balls also are just as bouncy vertically as they are horizontally, and they spin oddly.

Image credit: Beao via wikimedia |
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"Physicists love it because it has interesting physical properties," said Rod Cross, retired professor of physics at the University of Sydney in Australia, whose latest paper on Super Balls appears in the American Journal of Physics. His research also demonstrated the odd way all balls roll.

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Tuesday, May 26, 2015

"Slinky" Lens Could See Cancer and Other Tiny Objects

Looking like a miniature Slinky, a new lens can manipulate and resolve light in ways impossible for traditional lenses. Researchers say this "hyperlens" may help detect early-stage cancer and identify single molecule sequences. 
This "Slinky" hyperlens measures a few micrometers across. The light-colored, grainy layers are made of gold and the darker, smoother layers are made of a transparent thermoplastic, PMMA. The two slits in the gold at the bottom of the arch create a 250-nanometer-wide object to image. Credit: Sun et al. 2015.
Resolving two points near the diffraction limit
as the spacing between them decreases.
Eventually the two points merge in a blur.
Credit: Public domain
Traditional lenses can only resolve so much detail. A fundamental "diffraction limit" prevents microscopes from imaging features smaller than about half the wavelength of light used. For yellow light with a wavelength of 780 nm, this limit is about 390 nm. Any object or feature smaller than this, including viruses, proteins, and many molecules, would simply be a blur in traditional microscopes.

Now researchers at the University at Buffalo have engineered a new type of lens that breaks this barrier and resolves objects to at least 250 nm using yellow light, as they describe in a recent paper in Nature Communications.

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Friday, May 22, 2015

Good Vibrations For Computations

Image credit: Stefan Kontur|
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Electronic computers, like the one you're using to read this story, are a fantastically successful technology, having grown in just 70 years into a bedrock of the global economy. But within the next decade, experts say computer and personal electronics designers will start to reach the physical limits of how small and fast such devices can get.
Some physicists are now trying to put a new spin on the technology, by building computers that would store, move and process information using vibrations in solid materials.

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Thursday, May 21, 2015

Physics in Verse: Maxwell's "I come from fields of fractured ice..."

Here's another lovely bit of physics poetry. Last week it was John Updike on neutrinos. This week it is Scottish mathematican and physicist, James Clerk Maxwell, who is most famous for his theory of electromagnetic radiation (commonly known as Maxwell's equations).

James Clerk Maxwell and his wife, Katherine,
circa 1869. Credit: Public domain
Maxwell was the first person to realize that magnetic and electric fields are intimately related, and that light (ranging from radio waves to visible light to gamma rays) is the result of oscillating electromagnetic fields.

On the side, Maxwell enjoyed reading and writing poetry, and many of his poems survive in a collection published by his life-long friend, Lewis Campbell, in 1882.

This poem, "To The Chief Musician Upon Nabla: A Tyndallic Ode", describes the magic and allure of physical phenomena. Maxwell composed it for his friend and fellow-physicist, Peter Guthrie Tait, and first published it anonymously in Nature in 1871, during the final decade of Maxwell's life.

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