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Showing posts from 2016

Raising a Glass to Vera Rubin & Dark Matter

“Fame is fleeting. My numbers mean more to me than my name. If astronomers are still using my data years from now, that’s my greatest compliment,” astronomer Vera Rubin told Discover in 1990. In honor of her passing on Christmas day, this post will focus on her data.

Crowdsourcing Discovery: Meet the Massive Binary System Detected by Einstein@Home

As fingertips and keyboards cool off from the flurry of online shopping and term papers, it’s time to relax and let device processors do the work. Did you know that while you binge on TV shows and holiday leftovers, your laptop and smart phone could help discover an exotic astrophysical system? Just ask the Einstein@Home volunteers whose otherwise idle devices discovered two neutron stars locked in a tight orbit. The massive binary system could inform the search for gravitational waves and may turn out to be a unique cosmic laboratory.

Ask a Physicist: Exploding Coffee

Nick, from the US, wants to know:
"After retrieving my medium sized ceramic cup of coffee from the microwave that had been in for 2 minutes, I quickly stirred the coffee with a thick straw. Immediately bubbles started to rise and overfilled the half full cup, unfortunately burning my thumb. Could you please tell me what reactions caused this to happen? Thank you very much."

Electron “Leapfrog” Could Lead to Low-Power Nanoscale Devices

Remember leapfrog? Not the electronic tablets currently in Santa’s bag, but the outdoor, no-equipment-required game where your friends crouch down in a line and you vault over each person until you reach the front? It turns out that electrons play a variation of this game too.

Drag-Racing CubeSats for NASA's CubeQuest Challenge

In 2014, NASA announced the CubeQuest Challenge: a contest for homegrown teams to build their own small satellites—cubesats—and compete against each other by demonstrating technological feats. Five million dollars in prize money will be divided among teams who can get into orbit around the moon, maintain a stable orbit for a long time, or make it almost all the way to Mars’ orbit while still communicating with Earth.

Nuclear Power Saves Lives

Would you believe it if I told you that nuclear power saves thousands of lives every year? You will—there's math to back it up.

Shining a Light on Antimatter: The First Spectroscopic Measurement of an Antimatter Atom

Antimatter doesn’t just fuel science fiction, it fuels cutting-edge physics research into the heart of our very existence. In a paper published today in the journal Nature, a 54-member team of researchers from the ALPHA experiment at CERN announced an exciting achievement in antimatter research. For the first time, scientists have measured the spectrum of light given off by a particle of antimatter.

The Light-Matter Interaction: Calling Theory into Question

Despite its reputation for social awkwardness, physics is fundamentally about interactions. Physics textbooks are filed with forces, fields, orbits, motion, and other concepts that describe things by the way that they interact with other things. Of all of the interactions, one of the most fundamental is how light interacts with matter. In research published in Physical Review A last week, a team of researchers called into question some generally accepted assumptions about this interaction.

Preparing for the Worst: Studying the Impacts of Impacts

A potentially hazardous object headed straight for us. Little time to prepare. Possible mass extinction. Perpetual winter. The rekindling of life. It sounds like, and it is, the stuff of movies. It’s also the stuff of the American Geophysical Union (AGU) Fall Meeting, taking place this week in San Francisco.

Reaching for New Levels of Precision with the First Molecular Fountain

There’s an old saying that’s popular in science departments:

If it moves, it’s biology.
If it smells, it’s chemistry.
If it doesn’t work, it’s physics.

The Quarter That Defied Physics

Recently, a video landed in my inbox, sent in by a reader who observed what seemed to be an impossible phenomenon: He spun a quarter and, in flat defiance of the law of conservation of angular momentum, the thing spontaneously switched the direction that it was spinning halfway through.

Take a look for yourself and see if you can figure out what's going on:

Robot Parkour: Powerful Jumping Robot Inspired by Search-and-Rescue Needs

Meet Salto, a cute robot with unprecedented jumping skills. Don’t be fooled, though—Salto is more than a fun experiment and something most kids (ok, and adults) would like to own. He’s an incarnation of new research that could help address critical search-and-rescue needs in urban areas. Built in a lab at the University of California at Berkeley, Salto was inspired by galagos (also called “bush babies”), which are small, nocturnal primates that can reach great heights with numerous powerful jumps in quick succession.

Ask a Physicist: Introduction to Cavitation

Talitha, from Australia, writes:
My boyfriend insists that if something moving fast underwater, the water wouldn't be able to move behind the object at the same speed and would create an air bubble. This doesn't seem right to me—please help!

So here's the deal: your boyfriend is almost right, but it's not quite an air bubble—the process he's describing is called cavitation, a name which comes from the word cavity.

9 Awesome GIFs from 2016's Gallery of Fluid Motion

It's that time of year again! The American Physical Society's 2016 Division of Fluid Dynamics meeting has wrapped up, and the most striking, visually appealing graphics from it are on display in this year's Gallery of Fluid Motion. The GFM's offerings are always somewhere between art and science, so enjoy the clips!

Learning to Sniff from Man’s Best Friend

They sniff out drugs, cadavers, missing people, explosives, and even cancer. Dogs are more than man’s best friend, they are some of the best chemical detectors in existence. They are so good that by modifying a commercially available explosives detector to act like a dog’s nose, researchers were able to make the detector much more effective. That’s great news for most of us, not-so-great news for drug smugglers.

Towards a safer, better nuclear energy future

Compared to most industries, nuclear power looks like (and often is) one of the slowest to innovate. Advances in batteries, solar cells, and biotech hit the news every day, while the phrase “nuclear innovation” rarely makes headlines. Look a little closer though, and you’ll see that researchers are making exciting, innovative, and rapid progress toward a better and safer nuclear energy future.

Futuristic “Photon Sails” Fail in Simulation, Shredded by Laser

Imagine a spaceship, coasting silently through the dusty void of our solar system, outward-bound on a journey away from both our sun and the pale blue dot that is Earth. Slowly, with mechanical precision and a slight whirr that’s inaudible anywhere but inside the ship, telescoping arms deploy from their hatches positioned around the circumference of the craft. Each close to a mile long, they give the impression of a shining asterisk gliding away in the endless night, or a very leggy spider.

The Truth About Star Names

This is the highlight of the holiday shopping season for bargain shoppers. Deals and steals await those willing to sacrifice sleep on Friday and click at lightning speed on Monday. Sometimes the quest for the perfect gift can be as difficult as searching for new planets among the stars. If you’re looking to the heavens for gift ideas this season though, keep in mind that stars aren’t really available for purchase. Neither are their naming rights.

Heavy Lights at America's Oldest Lighthouse

Boston Light, America's oldest lighthouse station, turned 300 this year. Built on a small, rocky island near the entrance to Boston Harbor, it draws visitors not only for its age, but for the chance it offers to view a piece of technology that some argue changed the course of the 19th century: a massive lens made from hundreds of sparkling glass prisms.

Your Friday Reading: Magic

It’s Friday afternoon! Let’s look into the archives of physics and pretend we’re still working.

Action! New Insight on Mysterious Radio Signals

If the story of fast radio bursts inspired a movie, you might find it in the mystery category. Or science fiction. Maybe comedy. Action would probably work too. I don’t know about gangster or western, but the right director could probably make it work. It’s the story of fleeting, mysterious, space-based signals reaching the Earth from unknown objects in unknown locations. You can see the broad appeal.

Keeping Skyrmions on Track: the next (next) generation of electronics

The day after Halloween, gift guides started hitting mailboxes and inboxes. One of my favorite categories to browse is “For the tech-lover.” These lists feature the latest phones, smartwatches, and random novelties (like a wrist-band controlled BB-8). But even as people scan Black Friday ads for the best deal on the latest fitness trackers and virtual reality headsets, scientists are looking much further ahead—to the next, next generation of electronics.

Your Friday Reading: "Talking Rubber"

It’s Friday afternoon! Let’s look into the archives of physics and pretend we’re still working.

A Reason to Look Up

Life is busy and complicated, but can I request one small favor? Make a note to at least glance at the moon on Sunday or Monday night.

Factoring Quantum Mechanics into Encryption

Recent cyber-attacks have left many people convinced that there is no real way to keep anything secret, at least not anything connected to the grid. You can strengthen your passwords and antivirus protection, but if the systems that send and receive your data are vulnerable, so are you. And the reality is, no one actually knows just how secure our encryption systems are.

What Do We Really Know About Our Universe?

In October alone, scientists published papers in reputable journals questioning what we think we know about the expansion of the universe, galaxy formation, the number of galaxies in the universe, and the number of planets in our solar system.

The Wrinkling Nature of Flames

Many people are mesmerized by the dancing flames of a fire, watching them flicker and evolve through half-glazed eyes. Flames may be relaxing and comforting in a fireplace or campfire ring, but don’t forget that fire is also a powerful tool that can drive jet engines. The more we understand about how flames behave at a fundamental level, the better we can use them to our advantage.

A New Style of Power Generation

Fashion has a way of circling back to earlier times, although often with a twist. From bellbottoms to bootcut and stretch pants to leggings, styles often seem to move forward and backward simultaneously. In one aspect, however, we are always moving forward. With smartwatches that can alert you to an incoming call, dresses adorned with LEDs, and bracelet fitness trackers, the market for wearable technology seems to be expanding right along with our capabilities.

Everything Old is New: Kickstarter Campaign to Reissue Newton's Principia Gains Momentum

On any list of famous names in science, Sir Isaac Newton's is always near the top. Sure, he had his crazy side, but his contributions to mathematics and physics changed the world of science forever. The law of gravity, the foundations of calculus—we owe so much to Newton's work that the fundamental laws of mechanics and motion bear his name. Now, neophyte publisher Kronecker Wallis is hoping to bring Newton's work to a new generation of readers by creating a new edition of the Principia Mathematica, the foundational text where Newton's laws of motion were codified for the first time.

That's No Space Station: How Mars' "Death Star" Moon Got its Crater

With its signature crater, the largest of Mars' two moons, Phobos, is sometimes called the Death Star, calling to mind the “technological terror” prominent in the Star Wars films. The moon has not only spurred the public's imagination, but that of astrophysicists as well. Many had wondered how the impact that created such a huge crater could have done so without destroying the entire body. At nine kilometers in diameter, the crater, Stickney, takes up a huge amount of the moon's surface—for scale, the entire moon is only 70 kilometers around.

"Is This Phone Vegan?": Blood Component May Double Battery Life

Just about everything that's considered a "gadget" these days—from your phone to your laptop to the wireless earbuds Apple's forcing you to buy—runs on lithium-ion batteries. They're cheap, powerful for their weight, and can go through a few thousand charge cycles before wearing down, properties which have earned them their title as the champion workhorses of the portable digital age. New and better technologies are always on the horizon, though: lithium-oxygen batteries promise to be the next big thing, with the potential to store fifteen times the energy of their lithium-ion counterparts. There are still some kinks that need to be ironed out before the technology is viable, but scientists may have just overcome one of the biggest hurdles between us and this exciting new tech. The discovery comes from a ubiquitous but surprising source: red blood cells.

Manipulating Light by Checkerboard

From Vans shoes to Pinterest cakes and the 2020 Olympic Games logo, checkerboard patterns draw us in. Their contrasting colors have symbolized duality, co-existence, and harmony throughout history. They cover floors, flags, and furniture. In work that puts a 21st century spin on checkerboards, a team of Japanese researchers recently demonstrated that a special kind of checkerboard can be used to create state-of-the-art optical tools.

Is Planet Nine Pulling Us Closer?

It’s not time to update the posters, rulers, books, felt sets, lollipops, and mnemonics just yet, but astronomer Michael Brown anticipates that it will be by the end of next winter. Planet Nine, a predicted gas giant orbiting the sun far beyond Neptune, explains so many mysteries of the solar system, he says, that’s it’s hard to believe it doesn’t exist. The latest of these is the curious case of the six-degree tilt of the sun.

How Much Does it Cost to Blow Up a Planet?

A curious reader wrote in today with an odd and ominous inquiry—how much would it cost to power the laser of the Death Star? We're by no means the first ones to turn an analytical eye to everyone's favorite space opera, but outlandish questions like this are always a good opportunity to bring a bit of fun to mathematics.

Your Friday Reading: "Obscurantism"

It’s Friday afternoon! Let’s look into the archives of physics and pretend we’re still working.

From Urinals to Printers: Enough with the Splashing

My local beaches and swimming pools are closed until next year, but in bathrooms, kitchens, and operating rooms worldwide, it’s always splashing season. Whether it’s a spray of liquid from raw meat thrown hastily on the cutting board or body fluids from a surgical tray going airborne, splashes aren’t just annoying—in some cases they can cause real damage. They can compromise health, safety, and the effectiveness of pesticides, along with printing techniques, forensic interpretations of events, manufacturing processes, and more.

Intriguing Data

Why do theoretical physicists write papers explaining preliminary results?

Untangling the Mystery of Cosmic Ray Sources

The north star indicates north. Seeing the moon overhead means...that the moon is overhead. It sounds obvious, right? But not everything works this way. Cosmic rays are high energy particles produced in astronomical events. They careen through space at very high speeds, some eventually making their way to Earth. Studying the cosmic rays that hit Earth and our atmosphere can tell us a whole lot about what’s happening out there, but there is a big challenge: unlike light, cosmic rays don’t travel through space in a straight line.

A Natural Law for Rotating Galaxies… What Does This Mean for Dark Matter?

Distant galaxies, black holes, exotics worlds…these are not just the stuff of science fiction; they are also the stuff that makes up our reality. Our quest to understand the universe is thrilling, challenging, and often confusing. Even the basic question “What is the universe made of?” isn’t easy to answer.

"Flatland Physics" Wins 2016 Nobel

To the surprise of almost everyone, this year's Nobel prize in physics went to a trio of scientists who made pioneering advances in the field of topologicalphysics, exploring the unusual properties that emerge in matter when it's confined to 2D surfaces or thin layers and then cooled to extreme temperatures. David Thouless received half the prize, while Michael Kosterlitz and Duncan Haldane shared the other half. This somewhat unusual distribution comes from the fact that Kosterlitz and Haldane each worked on different problems in the field, while Thouless had a hand in both.

Mission Complete: Rosetta’s Journey Ends, Her Story Continues

It’s the beginning of a story that draws you in, but it’s the ending that leaves you lingering, forever connected to the characters. At least if it’s a good story. The fairy tale of Rosetta and Philae, the first spacecraft and lander to rendezvous with a comet and travel with it in orbit around the sun, came to a close early Saturday morning (EDT) in a well-crafted ending.

Mathematical Divination: Finding Pi With Nothing But Matchsticks & Graph Paper

As a beautiful fall day rustles by outside, a physics student stands in the classroom with an arm held out over his lab table, clutching a fistful of matches. He holds them tight, palm upward, over a sheet of graph paper, on which he's painstakingly drawn a series of parallel lines, separated by a distance just larger than the length of the matchsticks. With an uncertain frown, he looks around at his peers, some of whom are already hunched over the tables, busy counting. With a shrug, the student tosses the fistful of matches up into the air, trying desperately to strike a balance between control and chaos—he's got to land as many of them on the page as he can, while still ensuring that they end up oriented at a suitably random scatter of angles.

A More Fun Way to Pass Kidney Stones?

Who hasn’t wished the doctor would prescribe a week of vacation or a trip to Walt Disney World to cure an ailment? For patients with kidney stones, that might be just around the corner.

Fish, Feathers, Phlegm, and Fluid

How many years have we been coming to the shore? How many trips? Why do we keep coming back… the air in the sky? The sand? The water?

So familiar and yet constantly changing. We feel the same excitement every time we come. Fluid flows under us, around us, over us -- constantly blurring, constantly refreshing.

Could Europa be Spewing Signs of Life?

In an eagerly anticipated announcement, NASA just revealed new evidence that plumes of water are intermittently expelled from the surface of Europa, one of Jupiter’s moons.

Ask a Physicist: Conservation of Mass Violation...In a Bowl of Couscous?

Cal, from Italy, wants to know:
"When I add hot water to couscous in a bowl, and then zero out the scale it sits on…
…it magically starts increasing in weight over time as it absorbs the hot water!
I can understand it increasing in volume, but not in weight. How does this happen?" Cal,
I love questions like this! It's like a puzzle, where sometimes there's an opportunity to use physics and logic to peer into the inner workings of things and figure out a solution from thousands of miles away. It's a magical, second-sight kind of feeling.

When the Brain Bulges: The “Stressful” Impact of Removing Part of the Skull

Physics is usually associated with frying the brain rather than saving it. Unfortunately, students often leave introductory physics classes wondering more about the relevance of physics than the world of possibilities it opens. Whatever you wonder about, one thing is clear. The part of you that does the wondering is fundamental to who you are.

How Pollutants Navigate Manhattan Streets

Imagine that a highly-toxic pollutant is released in the middle of Manhattan on a windy day. What is the appropriate response? Evacuate one square block? Ten square blocks? The whole city? How much time do patients at a hospital five blocks north and 20 blocks east have to get out before the concentration is dangerously high?

Spider Silk Lets Scientists See Like Never Before

Scientists who use conventional light microscopes—like the one you probably peered through in high school science class—face a limit on the size of objects they can view. Basic properties of light prevent them from focusing on anything smaller than the tiniest known bacteria.

Ask a Physicist: How Much Energy is in Me?

"Game Maker" wants to know:

I'm designing a fire-wielding superhero who uses his own body as fuel for his powers. How much heat energy would be created if a person were to burn off 50-100 lbs of fat in the span of 5 minutes? (Assuming he has the requisite "secondary superpowers" to avoid dying in the process).

How Quantum Mechanics Can Help Protect Your Secrets

Most of us aren’t very comfortable thinking about randomness. People like five-year plans and the comfort of “everything happens for a reason.” Even the messy among us claim there’s order in their chaos. Despite this, many processes that are fundamental to our way of life rely on random numbers.
Random numbers are key to stock market predictions, the security behind online shopping, and the integrity of clinical research trials. Last week in The Optical Society’s journal Optica, a team of scientists introduced a new device for generating random numbers that is based on the quantum mechanical properties of light. It is a record-breaking combination of security, size, and speed.

Why Modern Football Will Never Be Safe

Preseason is over and, if last night's game is any indication, we're in for another season of epic passes and bone-crunching takedowns. More and more, however, there's been talk of the most serious problem in modern American pro football. It lurks at the backs of our minds during the game, brought to the forefront whenever we wince sympathetically at a hard tackle—you can practically hear the players' brains rattling around in their skulls. Concussions can be devastating to a person's quality of life no matter what their profession, but almost no other job involves taking hits the way football does—as evidenced by the memory, mood, and mental health disorders that beset NFL retirees at an extraordinary rate.

Stronger and Lighter Than Frosted Glass, Translucent Wood Reflects the Future of Construction

This is not frosted glass. It’s translucent wood.

Moving to the Music

Composers usually arrange musical notes to express emotion. To set a mood. To get people dancing. To give life to inspiration. To sell records. A team of scientists at Aalto University in Finland is arranging notes for a totally different purpose—to move objects. Their work isn’t likely to top the charts, but it could bring us closer to game-changing medical technologies like lab-on-a-chip devices and new drug delivery systems. It could also be a means for sorting objects and characterizing materials.

"Growing" a Solution to a Complex Biological Problem

Like a complex highway system, a network of vessels carries blood from the heart to all corners of your body and back again. This “distribution network” is not only complicated, it is also huge and astoundingly efficient. Even when one part of the body is injured, flow to and from the rest of the body is rarely interrupted.

Ask a Physicist: Life Without a Sun?

Gonçalo, from Portugal wants to know:
"Can a planet, theoretically, manage life without a sun?" Gonçalo,
Your suggestion is surprisingly plausible! To understand how, we'll have to explore some of the darkest places on Earth, where life is as close to "alien" as you're ever going to find.

A Few Cosmic Distractions

If you need a break from the day-to-day struggles of life on the blue planet, here are a few recent astronomy developments that will send your thoughts drifting into space.

Spaceship Simulations Create Psychedelic Spiral Artwork

About 350 years ago, as the story goes, an apple fell near British physicist Isaac Newton and planted the seeds of the laws of motion. Now, in celebration of the anniversary, retired math teacher Stan Spencer has borrowed what Newton learned to create art from simulated rocket motion and get others interested in understanding science.

Resolving Starlight with Quantum Technology

Light is one of the most powerful tools we have for exploring the unknown. From a flashlight in a dark cave to starlight from distant galaxies, light illuminates the things and physical processes that surround us. In an article published yesterday in the American Physical Society’s Physical Review X, a team of scientists from the National University of Singapore describe how we can learn even more from light, using measurement techniques rooted in quantum mechanics. Their work could lead to dramatic improvements in the images we can resolve with microscopes and telescopes.
Imagine looking out into the dark sky and focusing on one pinprick of starlight. How do you know if you’re looking at a single star, two stars, or a billion stars? Zoom in with a powerful telescope and what looks like one star can transform into a star cluster, nebula, or even a galaxy. But what if the pinprick still looks like a single star? How can you be sure that it is one star and not, for example, a binary sta…

Why You Shouldn't Have Fallen for That "Helium Beer" Video

A little over a year ago, a video of two giggling, drinking Germans started making its way around the internet. As they take sips of their beers, the giggles rise sharply in pitch, thanks to the helium that's taken the place of the CO2 which ordinarily gives beer its carbonated bounce. Each burst of laughter sounds more ridiculous than the last, and the two lose themselves in a chain-reaction of such high-pitched hilarity that it's impossible not to be drawn in and find yourself laughing along. You can check out the video below.

The Dark Side of Ghost Imaging

Displays of candy corn and costumes may soon be replacing sunscreen and beach towels, but this post isn’t meant to detract from what’s left of the summer. Ghost imaging is a technique for imaging something that you can’t see directly. It does seem a bit spooky—imagine getting detailed images of the ground from a satellite-based optical system even when clouds or smoke obscure the line-of-sight. However, ghost imaging isn’t a supernatural feat. It’s just another strange and mind-bending application of quantum mechanics.

In Combat and Car Accidents, Nanoparticles Could Fight Internal Bleeding

Injury is the number one cause of death in Americans ages 1-44. Resulting from violence and accidents, injuries claim nearly 200,000 lives per year in the United States alone. A team of researchers from the University of Maryland, Baltimore County is fighting back with a simple, nanoparticle-based technology to reduce blood loss from internal injuries.

Ballistic Fungi Use Surface Tension to Create Extraordinary Accelerations

Put a droplet of water on the table. Wet your finger and then, observing closely, touch your finger to that water droplet, and watch as the water on the table joins the droplet on your fingertip. It's a mundane process, but this humble mechanism is powerful enough to create some of the strongest accelerations on Earth.

The Forces in Spilled Coffee Awaken

Like much of the world, scientists thrive on coffee. It’s not just because of the caffeine though, it turns out that even spilled coffee fuels research.

Captured Lightning: Electrons Follow Fractals Through Insulators

Fractals, shapes that look similar to their parts no matter how much you zoom in, are everywhere from broccoli to seashells. Now, a new study of an old physics problem has found more: Electrons inside some conductive materials may be hopping around atoms in fractal patterns.

Escaping a Black Hole: Strongest Evidence Yet for Hawking Radiation

The exotic cosmic objects we call black holes aren’t truly holes, and it turns out that they may not be totally black either. In an article that appears today in the journal Nature Physics, Jeff Steinhauer from the Israel Institute of Technology (Technion) outlines the strongest experimental evidence yet that energy can escape from a black hole.
Black holes are extremely dense areas of space defined by an event horizon, a boundary beyond which nothing that gets sucked in can escape—not even light (hence the “black” in “black hole”). Theory predicts that black holes can be the size of an atom or millions of times as massive as the sun, although smaller ones are less stable. As strange and unique as they seem, there are likely millions of black holes in the universe, including at least one at the center of each galaxy.

Nearly 50 years ago, bold work by then-graduate student Jacob Bekenstein inspired black hole expert Stephen Hawking to take a closer look at the theoretical physics gover…

This is Your Brain on Physics

Like the physics engine in a video game that brings to life car crashes, nosedives, touchdown passes, and other physical events, humans may have a kind of “physics engine” in the brain that helps us survive. After all, even non-physicists quickly swerve to miss an oncoming car, duck to avoid being hit, and reflexively catch falling objects.

PhysicsCentral Welcomes its Newest Contributor!

Eran Moore Rea grew up in Sioux Falls, South Dakota and recently graduated from Yale University with a Bachelor’s degree in Physics (Intensive) and American Studies (Intensive, cultural history). At Yale, she researched with the ATLAS experiment at CERN, working on optimizing and implementing the Run 2 Monte Carlo simulation of the Higgs boson produced in association with a vector boson and decaying to a tau lepton pair. Always alert to the absurdity of life, she created the comic Midwestern Nerd at Yale for the Yale Daily News. She previously wrote for the University of Washington’s technology transfer department. At APS, she is excited to find the story (as well as the humor) in physics research, new technology and unexpected innovation. Currently melting in the DC heat, she eagerly waits for the winter again.

Physicists Put "Backspin" on Laser Light

Like a pool shark developing trick shots, scientists are always finding ways to bend the rules. Now, physicists from the Shanghai Institute of Optics and Fine Mechanics (SIOM), part of the Chinese Academy of Sciences, have demonstrated a technique that lets them change the dynamics of reflection. By using an intense vortex beam—a special arrangement of photons superimposed on one another to create a rotating, hollow "tube" of light—the researchers coaxed the reflected beam out of the plane of incidence, a rather extraordinary trick. Their work is slated to appear soon in the American Physical Society's journal Physical Review Letters.

Ghostly 4th Neutrino Most Likely Doesn't Exist

An international team of researchers from the IceCube Neutrino Observatory just announced with 99% certainty that a proposed particle called a sterile neutrino doesn’t exist. Why is the fact that something doesn’t exist big news? This ghost particle may have helped explain several mysteries of the universe, such as the origin of dark matter and why matter exists at all.

On Propelling Swarms of Underwater Robots

Underwater construction, salvage, rescue, and scientific exploration can be dangerous, difficult tasks even for highly trained individuals. They can also be expensive. Enter the underwater robot. Controlled by remote or autonomously, robots explore volcanoes under the surface of the ocean, install sensors on the sea floor, search for the wreckage of missing planes like Air France Flight 447, collect military intelligence, and map the seafloor for oil and gas companies, and they do it all without threat to human life.

Apollo Astronauts Help Prepare for Future Space Travel, Even in Death

The impact of the Apollo space program runs deep. Aside from the vast technological and scientific advancements it brought to life, footsteps on the moon left a legacy of hope, wonder, inspiration, and unity. The Apollo astronauts took humanity on a crazy journey of discovery. Now it seems that, even in death, Apollo astronauts are helping us prepare for future journeys that involve deep space travel.

Accelerating Electrons by Slingshot

You load a rock into a small pouch, pull it back until the bands are stretched tightly, and let the rock fly. A few seconds later, a window shatters into a million pieces.

Diamonds Lead to Ultra-High Pressure Situations

Trying to find the perfect diamond has always been stressful, especially in a high-pressure environment. However, recent experimental results take the relationship between diamonds and pressure to a whole new level. An ultra-high level, in fact, that could expose new secrets of matter.

Winding Light Takes New Paths

Light travels in a straight line. If that ceased to be the case, reflections, shadows, and really the whole world would make a lot less sense. During the past several years, however, scientists have created beams of light that curve as they travel, called accelerating beams. This crazy-sounding development could have wide ranging applications in fundamental research and practical technology, such as allowing visible light or information to be sent around obstacles.

Experimental Results Hint at Fifth Fundamental Force

Last week, we reported on a new theory by Dr. Jonathan Feng and collaborators, slated to appear in Physical Review Letters, which postulated a fifth fundamental force of nature. Exciting as this work is, our piece contained some errors and gave altogether the wrong impression, suggesting that the experimental work that served as the basis for this new theory might not be reliable. PhysicsCentral would like to apologize to our readers for this miscommunication, and in particular to Dr. Feng, as well as to the Atomki research group whose discovery of unusual features in the decay of Beryllium-8 atoms laid the groundwork for the new theory.

Microwave Technology Heats Up

Microwaves provide more than just a quick meal. The transmission of information via microwaves (the type of light, not the appliance) is fundamental to technologies such as Bluetooth communication, mobile phone networks, satellite televisions, radar, and GPS. A team of scientists from Aalto University in Finland recently created a tiny detector that could lead to big advances in microwave technology and have applications at the cutting edge of science.

Did Rembrandt "Cheat"? Optics Paper Weighs in on Art History Debate

Works of art by masters like Rembrandt may have harnessed the power of light to create awe-inspiring, realistic paintings. This being Physics Buzz, artistic techniques are not really our specialty. However, it’s worth a look at the way that the scientific and artistic side of light merge in an article that just came out in the Journal of Optical Physics, published by the Institute of Physics.

Ask a Physicist: Time Warp Brain Teaser

Bill, from the US, wants to know:
Would a satellite with a perfectly circular orbit around the center of a circle experience time dilation relative to an observer at the center of the circle? What if the observer were spinning to always be looking at the satellite making them both seem at relative rest? If the satellite does experience time dilation, is it due to the non-inertial acceleration due to centripetal force?  This is a really insightful question—it applies the concepts of relativity in a very tricky way to create an apparent paradox which might not be obvious at first glance. For those less well-versed in relativity, we'll do a quick breakdown of what this question is getting at.

Putting a New Spin on Sound Waves

It's already possible to do some really extraordinary things with sound waves, like levitating small particles and manipulating them in-air (useful for caustic chemistry reactions) but we're about to see another tool added to the sonic utility belt: spin. Scientists from Nanjing University in China have recently created a passive device that, for the first time, easily allows planar sound waves to be converted into corkscrew-shaped spiral waves without requiring elaborate geometric arrangements of sound sources.

What Most People Get Wrong About Einstein's Famous Equation

It’s practically the most famous formula in history. Every student knows it by heart, and nearly anyone can tell you who came up with it—with good reason: it’s as profound as it is widely known, communicating a fundamental truth of the universe in a mere five characters. Everyone say it with me, it’s:

My Three Suns: Our First Look at a Triple-Star System

2016 has been an exhilarating year for space enthusiasts, and we’re only in July. Actually, this is an exhilarating year for anyone interested in where we came from and what else is out there. So far we’ve seen the first (and second) detection of gravitational waves, a rapidly expanding list of exoplanets, and Juno’s successful arrival at Jupiter’s doorstep, to name a few highlights. Today in the journal Science, astronomers announced another crazy milestone, the first image of a planet with three suns.

Surprising Resonance Result Yields Record-Breaking Heat Insulation

This is an exciting time. Cutting-edge technology enables us to zoom in on individual atoms and take pictures and measurements. Theoretical models and computer simulations that describe how atoms interact on different scales are becoming more powerful. These tools are teaching us more and more about the complicated forces at work inside of materials.

One of the ultimate goals of this work is to be able to create materials by design—to decide upon the properties you want in a material for a specific application and then build it atom-by-atom or molecule-by-molecule. We aren’t there yet, but we are on our way.

How to Build a Heat Engine With Guitar Strings and Levers

To most of us, a heat engine is the thing that makes our car run. A refrigerator is the appliance that keeps our milk cold. Scientists, however, tend to think about things on a much more fundamental level.

This week, a new paper by scientists from the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology (ETH) demonstrates how to build a heat engine and refrigerator using a couple of guitar strings and a lever. Their work, published in Physical Review Letters, could pave the way for new ways to produce energy and help us learn more about heat and energy on the microscopic scale.

Asteroid Day: Reflecting on the Solar System's Past and Preparing for Earth's Future (Destruction?)

When I heard June 30 was Asteroid Day, I wasn’t sure whether I was supposed to celebrate, duck and cover, or listen to Aerosmith. Asteroids seem to be walking (okay, barreling through space) contradictions. They are simultaneously common rocks and a wealth of new information. They could destroy us, but they may have enabled life. We like them close, but not too close.

Simulation Offers Tips on Creating Element 120

If you caught our TETRIS! post a couple of weeks ago, you’ll know that the seventh row of the periodic table is officially complete and that earlier this month the International Union of Pure and Applied Chemistry disclosed recommended names for the four elements discovered most recently. Identified by atomic number, which gives the number of protons in an atom, the new elements are 113, 115, 117, and 118.

When Morality and Automobiles Collide

 A woman is the sole passenger in an autonomous self-driving vehicle traveling at the speed limit down a main road. Suddenly, 10 pedestrians appear ahead, in the direct path of the car. The car could be programmed to: SWERVE off to the side of road, where it will impact a barrier, killing the passenger but leaving the ten pedestrians unharmed, or STAY on its current path, where it will kill the 10 pedestrians, but the passenger will be unharmed. 

 What is the moral course of action?

Vapor Explosions: Magic and Metallurgy

It is New Year's Eve and, somewhere in Scandinavia, a family sits around a small table, illuminated by candlelight, speaking to one another in subdued tones. On the table, an ornate spoon rests in a small silver stand, its head sitting above an open candle flame. Next to it, a stainless steel bowl of cool water seems to be full of shadow in the dim and directional light coming from the candles. As a light snow begins to fall outside the windows, an ingot of metal is placed in the spoon, and a small child stands on his chair to watch it melt while the rest of the family looks on with an air of pleasant expectancy. Before long, the ingot is a small molten pool of lead and tin in the spoon. In this family, tradition dictates that the youngest goes first. With gentle encouragement from the rest, the child reaches out to grab the spoon by its handle. His mother's hand hovers around his, not touching but following, ready to grab the handle in case he slips or loses his grip, but his…

Physics Book Club: The Hainish Cycle

The Hainish Cycle, a loosely interconnected science fiction series by author Ursula K. LeGuin, is everything sci-fi ought to be. Set in a universe where humanity was “seeded” across the galaxy long ago from an ancient spacefaring homeworld, each book explores new worlds of humans and their cultures, and in doing so takes a magnifying lens to aspects of our own culture here on Earth. Some of the differences between the various worlds’ inhabitants are only skin deep, but those are the least of the differences between the Urrasti and the Anarresti in one of the Cycle’s most famous books: The Dispossessed.

Gravitational Waves Explained: Feynman's "Sticky Bead"

With yesterday's report from the LIGO collaboration indicating that they had observed a second black hole merger event, the 'net is once again abuzz with talk of gravitational waves, but some of you might still be struggling to understand precisely what a gravitational wave is, and what's so significant about it. Fortunately, way before anyone even dreamed of building a project as ambitious as LIGO or LISA, famous physicist Richard Feynman came up with an excellent way to explain gravitational waves.

LIGO Does it Again! Second Black Hole Merger Recorded

It’s a good day. This morning, scientists from the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO) Scientific Collaboration and Virgo Collaboration announced that late on the evening of December 25, 2015, LIGO detectors observed gravitational waves from a black hole merger that happened 1.4 billion years ago. They made the announcement from the 228th American Astronomical Society meeting, and the work was published today in Physical Review Letters.

Scientists Shine a Spotlight on Photons Produced in Neutron Decay

Studying decay might seem like a job for the biologists, but not so when it comes to particles. The strange, but common process through which particles decay, or change from one type into two or more other types, is fundamental to the way the universe works. After a year-long experiment and analyzing terabytes of data, a team of scientists has just published in Physical Review Letters the first precise measurements of one of the byproducts of the decay of a neutron—light.

Ask a Physicist: Phone Flash Sharpie Shock!

Lexie and Xavier, from Orlando, FL want to know:
"What's going on in this video? Our science teacher claims that the pain comes from a small electrical shock, but we believe that this is due to the absorption of light. Please help us resolve this dispute!"

TETRIS! Seventh Row of Periodic Table Completed

What do the nation of Japan, the state of Tennessee, and the city of Moscow have in common with Russian nuclear physicist Yuri Oganessian? If you hadn't guessed, all four just had elements named after them, marking the observation and naming of all elements in the seventh row of the periodic table.

Gravitational Wave Dress = WANT!

When the LIGO Scientific Collaboration decided to make their data freely available for anyone to use, I kinda doubt they had this in mind. I'm guessing most of the collaboration members will approve, and some of them may be wearing one soon.

The Gravitational Waves dress is made by a company called Shenova. And the only thing that gives me pause before clicking purchase is the amazing array of other great designs they offer.

But how awkward is it going to be when you go to some snazzy soiree and you see someone else wearing the exact same data set? Here's hoping we have lots of new LIGO detections soon to keep the social strife to a minimum.

Do you know anyone cool enough to appreciate this dress? I sure do. Time to place an order.

Ask a Physicist: Wormholes and Time Travel

Keegan from Normal, IL wants to know:
"I have heard a few theories about using wormholes in space to travel from one place to another almost instantly, and I have heard that by doing that you can also travel through time in a similar way. In theory, how does time travel with wormholes work?"

LISA Pathfinder: The Freest Fall

A key component of a future gravitational wave observatory passed a series of tests with flying colors, while coming closer to experiencing true free fall than any other human-made object ever has. At the heart of the experiment is a two-kilogram cube of a high-purity gold and platinum alloy that is currently sailing through space almost completely free of any force other than gravity.

New Terahertz Imaging Technique Reveals Tiny, Hidden Objects

In an article published today in Science Advances, a team of UK researchers revealed a new way to see small or hidden objects using a technique known as terahertz imaging. This could lay the foundation for a new kind of imaging device with a wide range of applications from studying bacteria to performing quality control in electronics manufacturing.

Seawater as a Solar Fuel Cell Source

A team of Japanese and South Korean researchers has pioneered a way to use seawater to obtain hydrogen peroxide (H2O2) instead of using pure water as a solar fuel. Their paper, “Seawater usable for production and consumption of hydrogen peroxide as a solar fuel,” was published in the May 4 edition of Nature Communications. “It is highly desired to utilize the most earth-abundant seawater instead of precious pure water for the practical use of H2O2 as a solar fuel,” the researchers said in the paper.

Critical Collapse and Tiny Black Holes

In life, a critical point might describe the time you said yes (or no) to a life-changing opportunity. In physics, a critical point also describes a kind of crux—you can think of it as a point beyond which things change significantly. Critical phenomena is a phrase that describes physical processes close to a critical point.

"Couture in Orbit": High-tech & High Fashion Take the Runway

If you weren’t at the Science Museum in London on Wednesday night, here’s some of what you missed…
Couture in Orbit was a high-fashion show inspired by high tech. A welcome by ESA astronaut Tim Peake beamed from the International Space Station set an appropriately space-themed atmosphere before models took futurist designs to the runway. Their unique clothes incorporated of state-of-the-art materials technology—wearable sensors that track movement, fabric made from recycled water bottles, materials that are highly insulating, absorbent, and reflective, and other high performance and smart fabrics.

The designers were students at top fashion schools in Denmark, France, Germany, Italy, and the UK. These countries were chosen because Couture in Orbit highlighted the 2014-2016 International Space Station (ISS) missions of five European Space Agency (ESA) astronauts—one from each of these countries.

Designed to celebrate the “inspirational face of space exploration,” the program was a join…

New Study Shows Rich Physics in Models of Hypothetical Boson Stars

Studying something you’re not sure exists may seem strange to a non-scientist. But when you’re dealing with things so large or so small or so weird that no one even knows what to look for, theoretical predictions can be more than informative, they can be essential.

Nanostructures Yield New Form of Hologram

By relying on scientific advances that recently helped develop invisibility cloaks, scientists have created a new kind of hologram that they suggest could be used in virtual reality and augmented reality headsets, and prevent counterfeiting of cash and credit cards.

A New Way to Stop & Store X-rays

X-rays reveal broken bones and objects hidden in airport luggage. They detect abnormalities in breast tissue, examine blood vessels while arteries are being repaired, and kill cancer cells. X-rays illuminate structures in crystals and stars. Although x-rays are an extremely useful tool already, the future looks bright for new applications. Among other projects, scientists are working on ways to control the movement of x-rays more precisely in order to use them for next generation methods of storing and transmitting information.

Fractal "Superlens" Defeats Diffraction Limit

New advances in the design of metamaterials—specially engineered substances which have properties not found in nature—may have just overcome one of the major challenges in designing compact optical devices. The breakthrough, reported in Physical Review B, could allow scientists to study nanoscale structures using visible light: a task that was, until now, thought impossible.

Kepler Confirms Nearly 1300 New Planets

Yesterday, scientists from NASA’s Kepler team added a whopping 1,284 planets to the official list of planets we’ve found outside of our solar system. Credit for the large number of new exoplanets being added at the same time goes to a new, automated technique for analyzing planet-like signals and verifying that they actually are from planets.

Ask a Physicist: Nuke the Sun?

Sharon from Pittsburgh, PA wants to know:
Would it be a bad thing to shoot our nuclear waste into the sun?
It's a fun idea, and at first blush you might think it'd be a great way to get rid of something toxic—after all, what's more "gone" than something incinerated in a giant fusion reactor, ninety million miles away? But let's dig a little into how such a proposal could work, along with some potential pitfalls.

Why You Probably Shouldn't Buy a Wearable "Air Purifier"

Not too long ago, I went on a trip with my family. We were leaving the country, taking a ten-hour flight that left way too early in the morning for my taste. Sitting at the kitchen table, munching on some fruit and squinting at the light, I heard the low rumble of a suitcase being rolled down the hardwood floor of the hallway, accompanied by the tap tap tap of my mom's heels. She strode into the kitchen through the open doorway, beaming with excitement about the coming vacation.

Untangling Knots in Heart Arrhythmia Model

A study on knots recently revealed a surprising feature of the mathematical system describing the electrical activity that plays a role in some heart attacks. This work could help us better understand the physical context of these heart attacks, and also demonstrates a new approach to one of the fundamental goals of knot theory.

Testing the Physics of BB-8

Though it's spoiler-free, if you still haven't seen Star Wars: The Force Awakens, you may want to click away from this post and go take some quiet time to reflect on your life choices. I've uploaded very short clips from the first 30 minutes or so of the movie.

If you don't count stormtroopers, and I don't, BB-8 is the first character we are introduced to in Episode VII. It's a unit astromech droid operating approximately thirty years after the Battle of Endor, and currently the lovable companion droid of Resistance pilot Poe Dameron. He also has the first closeup and line, with "Bwao boooop. Beepbeepbeepbeep." Just a minute into the movie, it's apparent that at least as far as merchandising goes, BB-8 will easily be the cute little star of the show, the belle of the ball (droid).

May the Fourth Be With You!

Happy "Star Wars Day" from PhysicsCentral! In a case of seriously excellent timing, the European Southern Observatory recently released a photo of their telescope being calibrated. Is it just us, or does it look suspiciously familiar?

New Developments in the Quest for Metallic Hydrogen

Scientists have recently added key details to a kind of map that could lead to the ultimate prize in high pressure physics: the creation of metallic hydrogen.

Like Parent, Like Child

In honor of yesterday's Take Our Daughters and Sons to Work Day, here is a look at some important scientific advancements made by parent-child collaborations. Just imagine the dinner conversations…

*Please note that each person mentioned is an esteemed scientist in his or her own right, with many other important contributions that aren’t mentioned in these brief highlights.

Star-chaeology: The Next (Stellar) Generation

“We are looking back in time by simply studying the grandfathers and all our stellar ancestors.” Dr. Anna Frebel is an Assistant Professor of Physics at MIT and the author of Searching for the Oldest Stars, and she looks for and studies stars that are almost as old as the universe itself. “That's why we call this kind of work stellar archaeology.”

Studying Dark Energy...With Light

The universe is teeming with galaxies, but gravity distorts our view of them. Astrophysicists with the ongoing Dark Energy Survey have now collected giant catalogs of the distorted shapes of 24 million distant galaxies, making it possible to probe the underlying structure of the rapidly expanding universe.

Questions to Consider on Earth Day

For most of human history we have searched for our place in the cosmos. Who are we? What are we? We find that we inhabit an insignificant planet of a hum-drum star lost in a galaxy tucked away in some forgotten corner of a universe in which there are far more galaxies than people. We make our world significant by the courage of our questions, and by the depth of our answers.”—Carl Sagan in Cosmos.

Scientists Observe Plasma Waves That Could Help Prevent Space Debris Collisions

Scientists at the Institute for Plasma Research have observed a phenomenon in the lab that could help predict collisions between satellites and space debris in the Earth’s ionosphere. Bits of dead and disintegrating satellites, spacecraft, and spend rocket stages clutter lower Earth orbit. The amount is growing at an alarming rate. Traveling as fast as 17,500 mph, even a piece the size of a penny could cause serious damage in a collision with a live satellite. The serendipitous story of new research that could help detect, and therefore prevent such c