Friday, March 06, 2015

Zombies, Lasers, Jungle Gyms for Cells, and a Rockin' Sing-along at the Biggest Gathering of Physicists of the Year

For five jam-packed days, physicists from around the world gathered in San Antonio, Texas to share their research with colleagues. The American Physical Society's annual March Meeting featured over 8,600 presentations and posters, and brought together more than 10,000 physicists and physics students.

Most of the talks were highly technical, and of interest only to people deeply involved in their respective subjects. But others were appealing to people beyond the physics community. Here are a few stories about the March Meeting talks that you might spot in recent news outlets.

The Best Place to Hide for the Coming Zombie Apocalypse

The spread of a hypothetical zombie outbreak in the United States. (Courtesy of Alexander A. Alemi/Cornell University)
Where is the safest place to be in the event of a fictional zombie outbreak? A statistical analysis performed by Alex Alemi and his colleagues at Cornell University suggests that it's best to head for the hills — ideally the Northern Rocky Mountains. In a simulation of an outbreak across the United States, the majority of the population would be infected within 28 days, except in small remote pockets such as the Rocky Mountains. While a zombie outbreak is of course fictitious, this same approach can be used to model the outbreak of any disease, using statistical physics techniques.

This research received quite a bit of press attention during the March Meeting, including local TV crews and interviews with NPR.

Washington Post article: Scientists determine the nation’s safest places to ride out a zombie apocalypse

Magical Properties from Designer 'Metamaterials'

A nanoscale ceramic lattice which can flex under pressure. (Courtesy of Lucas Meza/California Institute of Technology)
'Metamaterials' was the the hot buzzword in many sessions, describing a growing field where researchers create novel mechanical properties by changing the interior structure of materials. From ceramics that bounce instead of break to rubber "sponges" that have programmable mechanical properties, we may soon be seeing a lot more metamaterials in our everyday lives.

BBC article: Magic 'metamaterials' storm physics

Laser-etching a Human Hair

(Courtesy of IBM Corporation)
James Wynne from IBM demonstrated extreme precision from a powerful type of laser known as an excimer laser that he helped pioneer back in the 1980s.

This image shows a human hair heavily decorated with fine etchings and the letters "IBM", using an excimer laser.

At the March Meeting, Wynne presented a history of lasers and his career work with IBM.

Business Insider article: This laser etching on a human hair will blow your mind

Silicon "playground" for cells.
(Courtesy of John Rogers/
University of Illinois
at Urbana-Champaign)

Jungle Gyms for Cells

Soft, stretchy electronics have a huge range of potential medical applications within the human body, from health monitors that take the form of temporary tattoos to sensors that wrap around a heart.

John Rogers from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign showcased his work making "pop-up" 3D scaffolds in a variety of shapes using device-grade silicon. He hopes this work can help bridge the gap between traditionally-rigid silicon electronics and the soft nature of biological scaffolds.

BBC article: Tiny pop-up "cell playgrounds" fold themselves

(Credit: Meclee/Wikipedia)

Smoothing Oil Flow in Pipelines

Huge energy savings could be gained simply by applying an electric field to oil at intervals along a pipeline. Rongjia Tao from Temple University has tested this idea on various oil pipelines around the world, including a section of the Keystone pipeline near Wichita, Kansas and has shown that the electric field aligns oil particles into chains that have the effect of reducing the thickness and turbulence of oil. A smoother oil flow means much less energy is needed to pump the oil from point A to point B.

IEEE article: Electric Field Would Improve Flow in Keystone Pipeline

Novel Bank for Research Funding Proposed

(Credit: Andrew Magill/flickr)
Funding for basic scientific research has been stagnant in the United States in recent years and some physicists, including Michael Lubell from the City College of New York, proposed a new method for generating research funding at the March Meeting this week. They suggest that the bipartisan push to reform corporate tax laws could mean extra hundreds of billions of dollars for the federal government, some of which could be used to set up a 100 billion dollar endowment that would be invested and awarded to basic scientific research projects, a so-called "Research Bank" for physicists.

Science News article: Physical scientists offer outside-the-box idea for funding U.S. basic research

Why is the Eyeball Reverse-Wired?

(Credit: Samuel Johnson/flickr)
The human eye has photoreceptors in the back of the eyeball, counterintuitively obstructed by nervous fibers and the retina in front. Erez Ribak from the Technion - Israel Institute of Technology has now explained the strange reverse-wiring of the eyeball, showing that certain cells which cross the retina actively direct and concentrate light onto the photoreceptors, rather than simply getting in the way.

Science World Report article: Secret of the Mysterious Reverse-Wired Eyeball Solved

Physics Sing-along

Finally, I'll leave you with this short clip of the popular Rock 'n' Roll Physics Sing-Along from Wednesday night. A nerdy rock band led the audience of about 200 physicists in singing covers of songs with the lyrics appropriately modified for physics.


The stand-out song of the night was a cover of Britney Spears' "(You Drive Me) Crazy", newly entitled "(You Got Me) Lasing". Here's the genius chorus, lyrics courtesy of APS Head of Public Outreach Becky Thompson-Flagg:

"You got me lasing! Electrons leap, releasing photons so I can keeeep lasing, and it looks so bright. Baby turn me on you got coherent light." Physicists were dancing in the aisles.

Top image credit: Tamela Maciel. Images from the APS March Meeting 2015 Image Gallery, Mike Lucibella, Tamela Maciel, Emmanouela Filippidi, and Daniel Schwen via Wikimedia commons


  1. Plenty of interesting subjects. Do you know if the presentations are available from the meeting?

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