Friday, February 27, 2015

Building An Earthquake Resistant Home

Earthquakes are unexpected, terrifying and can hit at any time, causing major destruction and even death.

More than 1.3 million earthquakes of varying magnitudes rattle our world each year destroying homes and changing the landscape of cities around the world.

"I saw my city destroyed because of this earthquake," said Eduardo Miranda, a structural engineer at Stanford University in California.

Miranda was in Mexico City when a magnitude 8.1 earthquake hit.

"I've seen firsthand the impact big earthquakes could have," he said. "There were more than 10,000 people killed and hundreds of buildings collapsed."

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Thursday, February 26, 2015

The First Colorblind, Ultrathin Lens Is Developed

A new kind of flat, ultrathin lens has been created by Harvard physicists that can focus multiple colors of light in the same spot.

Traditional lenses and other optical devices focus different colors in different places, requiring multiple lenses to create a sharp, multicolor image. By developing one flat "colorblind" lens that can focus many colors in the same way, the researchers hope their device can be used in fields where miniature, low-cost lenses are key, such as photography, optical communication, astronomy, and microscopy.

An argon laser beam of multiple colors (blues and greens) is reflected off of a diffraction grating mirror. Each color follows a different path after reflection, something that Capasso's group is working to avoid.
Credit: adapted from Lazord00d via Wikimedia commons

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Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Podcast: The Physics Behind the Silver Screen

Have you ever sat in a movie theater and wondered how the projector gets an image onto the screen? It turns out there's a lot of physics that goes into it, whether you're using a traditional film projector, digital, or the latest laser technology. On today's podcast, we take a look at the physics of the movie projector and how changing technologies are affecting the movie-going experience.

A DLP chip — a component of digital projectors.
Image Credit: Andrew Hitchcock via Wikimedia Commons

First we check in with Steve Seid, who, until his retirement this past December, had been the Video Curator at Berkeley's Pacific Film Archive for 26 years. We also chat with Ryan Hufford, a Senior Systems Engineer at Vulcan, Inc., who recently installed a brand new laser projector at Seattle's Cinerama Theatre. After many decades of relatively stable projector technology, we're suddenly in a "tumult of innovation" as Seid calls it, and prospects for the future of movie-watching are bright and varied.
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Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Hunting Language Sounds Through History

All languages evolve over time, but finding how and when certain changes happen is a daunting task for linguists faced with an overwhelming amount of data. Now researchers from the U.S. and the U.K. have used a statistical technique popular in physics to let the computer do the hard work. Their research traces the pronunciation of words over thousands of years, with more precision than ever before.

Language tree of European and Uralic language evolution. Not associated with the work by Mark Pagel and Tanmoy Bhattacharya. Credit: Illustration by Minna Sundberg. Available via creative commons from flickr.

Led by Mark Pagel from the University of Reading and Tanmoy Bhattacharya from the Santa Fe Institute, this work was published last month in the journal Current Biology.

Language shifts often occur because the way a vowel or consonant is pronounced changes in many different words at once. For example, early Germanic languages used a p sound in words like "pater" or "pedis", but this later changed to an f sound creating the more familiar words "father" and "foot".

A sound change in many different words at the same time is known as "concerted evolution", and allows linguists to track the history and relationship of languages. From this type of study, a language tree can be constructed, similar to a family tree in genealogy.

But for researchers, finding these language shifts in words can be a very tedious task, made more complex if individual sounds within words are studied.

"Computers so far have mainly used the presence or absence of words with a common origin in various languages to stitch together trees that describe the descent of the various languages from a common ancestor," said Bhattacharya in a Santa Fe Institute press release. "This has left out the vastly richer data residing in sounds".

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Monday, February 23, 2015

A More Finely Tuned Universe

Could life as we know it have developed if fundamental physics constants were different?

Originally published: Feb 20 2015 - 12:15pm, Inside Science News Service
By: Gabriel Popkin, Contributor

(Inside Science) -- For all the progress physicists have made in figuring out the universe, they still don't know some pretty basic things. Why, for example, do fundamental particles possess the specific values of mass that they have? Presently, physicists have no explanation for this and similar questions.

They do know something pretty significant, however. If the masses of particles or the values of fundamental constants were much different from what physicists have measured, carbon-based intelligent beings might not be here to measure them, because fundamental particles might not assemble into stable atoms, atoms might not form rocky planets and dying stars might not produce the chemical elements we find in our bodies.

These observations have led some physicists to describe the universe as "fine-tuned" for carbon-based life. Imagine the universe is like a machine with dials used to set the properties of each important piece -- from the masses of the constituents of protons and neutrons to the rate of expansion of the universe. If many combinations of dial settings yield conditions in which complex life can evolve, physicists would say the universe is not fine-tuned. But if some of the dials have to be set very precisely to values that are not readily explained by theory, physicists would consider these parameters to be fine-tuned.

The Eagle Nebula’s Pillars of Creation as seen from NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope
Image credit: NASA, ESA/Hubble and the Hubble Heritage Team
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Friday, February 20, 2015

Zealots Help Sway Popular Opinions

Enthusiasts can greatly influence the adoption of new ideas.

Image credit: Gabriel Saldana via Flickr |
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Opinions rarely form in a vacuum. People are heavily influenced by the opinions of others in their social networks, whether they be real or virtual. Some people are not open to new ideas. These are the zealots, who proselytize an opinion -- the superiority of Apple products, for example, or skepticism about climate change -- in the hopes of convincing others, while stubbornly resisting being influenced themselves.

Researchers studying the evolution of sentiments in a society, a field called opinion dynamics, have long been interested in the effects of zealots on the dissemination and adoption of ideas. One way to study this is to use a mathematical model such as the so-called naming game.

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Thursday, February 19, 2015

Controlling Water Drops on the Space Station with Legos and Electricity

What do you do when you've got free time on the International Space Station and a bunch of legos? Build a Van de Graaff generator out of lego bricks, a rubber band, and a drill of course! In 2012 astronaut Don Pettit did exactly this when he was on board the ISS; he then searched around for objects to electrify, little knowing his fun experiments would lead to a full research paper on charged water droplets (published this month in the Physical Review Letters journal) and some very real-world applications.

International Space Station in 2010. Credit: NASA / public domain
"We work about 14 hours a day and when you're not working, you can do whatever you want to," said Pettit about his astronaut duties on the ISS. "I would do science experiments of my own design on things that just tickled my imagination, basically for no more reason than I was there and I could."

Pettit threw away the instruction book of an educational lego kit and put together a simple drill-powered Van de Graaff generator, which collects charge built up from a spinning rubber band. "It was real fun and it was a real piece of scientific equipment," said Pettit. "This thing would throw 80 millimeter sparks." Pettit documented his generator in a video for Physics Central's Science Off The Sphere back in 2012.

"Once I had the Van de Graaff generator, it became a question of what can I do with a Van de Graaff generator in a weightless environment?" said Pettit. "I'd put our deionized water on the collector of the generator and you could see all these delightful charge effects on the water."

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Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Podcast: The Impending Intergalactic Cloud Collision

Not too far away, there's a giant gas cloud drifting towards the Milky Way galaxy. Known as the Smith Cloud and made up mostly of hydrogen, it should merge with our home system in about 30 million years. On this week's podcast, I spoke with Jay Lockman, the lead scientist at the NRAO's Green Bank Telescope in West Virginia who told me about this mysterious object.

A false-color image of the Smith Cloud, showing it's comet-like appearance.

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Monday, February 16, 2015

Science Dispatches from San Jose

San Jose, California was the place to be for science this week. The American Association for the Advancement of Science held its annual meeting there, featuring talks and lectures and exhibits from across all fields of science. There was even ice cream.

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Friday, February 13, 2015

UV-Reflecting Wings Settle Damselfly Disputes

Image credit: kaiibara87 via flickr |
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Winners of insects' territorial contests have brighter UV-reflecting wing patches.

In late April, rain begins to pool in the hollows of trees on Barro Colorado Island in Panama. The water-filled tree holes may seem insignificant, but they're prime real estate – and the sites of intense battles – to giant damselflies (Megaloprepus caerulatus) seeking mates.

Male damselflies find their puddles early in the season and guard them from other males. Females travel until they identify the best of these tiny pools to lay their eggs, then mate with the male who "owns" the spot. Since the males with the best digs are likelier to land better mates, territorial fights ensue.

Not surprisingly, researchers had previously found that brawnier males win these contests more often. But a new study published in Animal Behaviour suggests that when males face-off over a puddle, they may pay less attention to size and focus instead on one patch of iridescent color on their opponent's wings.

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Thursday, February 12, 2015

Physicists Ask: How Many Licks Does It Take to Get to the Center of a Lollipop?

Physicists at New York University have measured and modeled how a lollipop dissolves in flowing water, and they can now address the age-long question: "How many licks does it take to get to the center of a lollipop?" Their answer is about 1000 licks.

The research, supervised by Leif Ristroph, appears in this month's issue of the Journal of Fluid Mechanics.

Flowing fluids dissolve things faster, as is clear from watching rivers and wind erode stone on geological timescales. "How flowing fluids generate unique shapes through erosion or dissolution is complex and fascinating, and our research at NYU’s Applied Math Lab uses laboratory experiments to carefully witness and speed along these geologically-slow processes," said Ristroph in an email.

The goal is to better understand how the dissolving shape of a body in turn alters the flow patterns around the body and its further dissolution. And a candy lollipop is the perfect simple shape to experimentally measure this feedback process.

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Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Podcast: Quantum Mechanics in the Minecraft Universe

At Minecon 2013, the annual convention for players of the staggeringly popular video game Minecraft, representatives from Caltech, Google, E-Line Media, and MinecraftEDU announced a new mod for the game aimed at introducing a few key principles of quantum mechanics.

It’s called qCraft, and it’s been downloaded more than 100,000 times since then (millions, if you count the major mod packs that include qCraft). Even better, it’s been used in hundreds of classrooms already to explore fundamentals of quantum physics and computing, and a curriculum aimed at the middle school level and higher can be accessed on the mod’s website.

Today on the podcast, we catch up with qCraft co-founder Dr. Spiros Michalakis of Caltech’s Institute for Quantum Information and Matter (IQIM) to find out how the game incorporates aspects of quantum behavior into the Minecraft world and what he hopes kids will get out of playing the game. According to Michalakis, qCraft isn’t so much about training future physicists as allowing kids to develop an intuition for fundamental quantum principles like probability.

In Minecraft, users can build structures out of blocks made of different materials. The qCraft mod adds to the toolbox by allowing players to create (or “craft”) blocks with special quantum-like properties. Observer-dependent blocks can be crafted to appear as different materials when you view them from different angles. Quantum blocks represent the principle of superposition.

When you look at one, you might see one material and you might see another (or nothing!), according to a certain probability that’s programmed into the block. The third principle — entanglement — allows users to synchronize the behavior of multiple blocks. These properties are tools that players can manipulate to their advantage in outsmarting zombies and building ever more epic structures. Along the way, they’re also learning to think intuitively about a probabilistic universe.
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Tuesday, February 10, 2015

76 Years Ago Lise Meitner First Described Nuclear Fission

"I love physics with all my heart ... 
It is a kind of personal love, as one has for 
a person to whom one is grateful for many things."

- Lise Meitner, 1915 

On February 11th 1939 Austrian physicists Lise Meitner and Otto Robert Frisch published a one page note in Nature describing the impossible: the splitting of a uranium atom into two lighter elements, barium and krypton. They coined this process "fission" as an analogue to biological fission process of cell division and ignited immediate interest in nuclear physics labs around the world.

But the discovery came at exactly the wrong time for Meitner, and her primary role in both the experimental and theoretical discovery of nuclear fission would never be properly awarded.

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Monday, February 09, 2015

Measuring The Earth With A Wire

Originally Published: February 6, 2015 2:15 PM, Inside Science
By: Sara Rennekamp, Editor

(Inside Science, Currents Blog) -- Henry Cavendish was an odd man. He never addressed strangers directly and was petrified of women. He had a staircase built into the back of his house to avoid any encounter with the ladies he employed. When it came time for his final oral exams to complete his natural philosophy degree at Cambridge University – that's what they called a science degree before the advent of modern science and specialized degrees – he dropped out of school all together rather than talk in public.

Cavendish torsion balance and Cavendish Signature image via Wikimedia Commons | composite image by Lalena Lancaster

But, beneath these eccentricities, Henry Cavendish was among the most brilliant minds of the 18th century. He was an accomplished chemist and physicist and made major contributions to electrical research.
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Friday, February 06, 2015

The Science Behind Oscar's Award-Winning Trees And Tresses

This year's Sci-Tech awards include improvements in appearances of trees and hairstyles for movies.

Originally published: Feb 5 2015 - 11:00am, Inside Science News Service
By: Emilie Lorditch, Editor

(Inside Science) -- From a tree's exquisitely textured trunk, up to its diverging branches and finally, fluttering leaves, it can be easy to see the complex work that lies ahead for the movie artists and computer programmers tasked with recreating the intricacy and beauty of nature. This Saturday, scientists, engineers and artists will celebrate the recent advances in technology that create realistic worlds on screen from imaginary visions.

DreamWorks Animation Foliage System "trees" in "How To Train Your Dragon."
Image credit: Courtesy of DreamWorks Animations

The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences will hold its annual Scientific and Technical Achievement awards ceremony on February 7, at the Beverly Hills Hotel, in California. This year, the ceremony will be co-hosted by Margot Robbie, who recently appeared in "The Wolf of Wall Street" and Miles Teller, who starred in "Whiplash." The two will recognize 58 recipients for 21 scientific and technical achievements that have become standards in the film industry. Members of the awards committee and some of the award winners spoke to Inside Science.

"People are passionate about making new art and the advances in science and technology for making films is moving at a breakneck speed," said Doug Robel, co-chair of the Academy's Sci-Tech Awards Digital Imaging Technology Subcommittee and the head of software research and development at Digital Domain a visual effects and digital production company in Playa Vista, California. "The Academy really recognizes innovation because there are lots of people doing really cool and clever things."

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Thursday, February 05, 2015

Ultrastiff Material Is Light As A Feather

Originally published: Jan 30 2015 - 10:15am, Inside Science TV
By: Marsha Lewis, Contributing Producer

(Inside Science TV) -- They may look flimsy, but the materials printed with 3-D printing technology are one-of-a-kind, light-weight and super-strong.

Materials engineers at LLNL have created a material with a special 3-D printer that mixes hard metal, tough ceramics and flexible plastics.

“It can hold more than 100,000-times its own weight. In fact, even more than that," said Chris Spadaccini, a materials engineer at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California.

“One of the benefits of this methodology is the ability to work with a wide range of materials," said Josh Kuntz, a materials engineer at LLNL.

“These are things that are generally not available in 3-D printing today,” Spadaccini commented.

The engineers create the materials with a sophisticated technology that creates 3-D parts layer by layer.

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Wednesday, February 04, 2015

Podcast: Hunting for Dark Matter

A whopping 85 percent of the matter in the universe is missing, unknown, invisible, and rather fittingly known as dark matter. Since the 1930s, the nature of dark matter has eluded our most sensitive telescopes and underground detectors, but as we hear in this week's podcast, that may all be about to change, thanks to some tantalizing data from telescopes in orbit.

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Tuesday, February 03, 2015

Exploring Quantum Weirdness at the JQI

Before visiting visiting one on Thursday, I had no idea that quantum physics labs are such a maze of lasers, mirrors, lenses and vacuum chambers. The Joint Quantum Institute is a cooperative venture between the University of Maryland and the National Institute of Standards and Technology to study the weirdness of quantum particles. Research in the field promises to totally revolutionize computing, but playing with particles smaller than an atom is fiendishly difficult and we have a long way to go. Some of the most cutting edged research in the world is going on at the lab, and I along with a couple of fellow science writers were lucky enough to get a tour of the facility.

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