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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