Friday, December 30, 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.

Read the rest of the post . . .

Wednesday, December 28, 2016

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.

Read the rest of the post . . .

Monday, December 26, 2016

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."

Read the rest of the post . . .

Saturday, December 24, 2016

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.

Read the rest of the post . . .

Thursday, December 22, 2016

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.

Read the rest of the post . . .

Tuesday, December 20, 2016

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.

Read the rest of the post . . .

Monday, December 19, 2016

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.

Read the rest of the post . . .

Friday, December 16, 2016

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.

Read the rest of the post . . .

Wednesday, December 14, 2016

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.

Read the rest of the post . . .

Tuesday, December 13, 2016

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.

Read the rest of the post . . .

Friday, December 09, 2016

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:

Read the rest of the post . . .

Thursday, December 08, 2016

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.

Read the rest of the post . . .

Monday, December 05, 2016

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.

Read the rest of the post . . .

Saturday, December 03, 2016

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!

Read the rest of the post . . .

Friday, December 02, 2016

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.

Read the rest of the post . . .

Wednesday, November 30, 2016

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.

Read the rest of the post . . .

Monday, November 28, 2016

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.

Read the rest of the post . . .

Friday, November 25, 2016

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.

Read the rest of the post . . .

Monday, November 21, 2016

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.

Read the rest of the post . . .

Friday, November 18, 2016

Your Friday Reading: Magic

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

Read the rest of the post . . .

Thursday, November 17, 2016

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.

Read the rest of the post . . .

Tuesday, November 15, 2016

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.

Read the rest of the post . . .

Friday, November 11, 2016

Your Friday Reading: "Talking Rubber"

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

Read the rest of the post . . .

Thursday, November 10, 2016

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.

Read the rest of the post . . .

Monday, November 07, 2016

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.

Read the rest of the post . . .

Wednesday, November 02, 2016

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.

Read the rest of the post . . .

Tuesday, November 01, 2016

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.

Read the rest of the post . . .

Friday, October 28, 2016

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.

Read the rest of the post . . .

Thursday, October 27, 2016

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.

The reissue of Newton's Principia promises a minimalist design to contrast 
with the complexity of its content.
Image Credit: Kronecker Wallis

Read the rest of the post . . .

Wednesday, October 26, 2016

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.

Read the rest of the post . . .

Tuesday, October 25, 2016

"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.

Read the rest of the post . . .

Friday, October 21, 2016

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.

Read the rest of the post . . .

Thursday, October 20, 2016

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.

Read the rest of the post . . .

Wednesday, October 19, 2016

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.

Read the rest of the post . . .

Friday, October 14, 2016

Your Friday Reading: "Obscurantism"

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

Read the rest of the post . . .

Wednesday, October 12, 2016

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.

Read the rest of the post . . .

Tuesday, October 11, 2016

Intriguing Data

Why do theoretical physicists write papers explaining preliminary results?

Read the rest of the post . . .

Monday, October 10, 2016

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.

Read the rest of the post . . .

Wednesday, October 05, 2016

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.

Read the rest of the post . . .

Tuesday, October 04, 2016

"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 topological physics, 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.

Read the rest of the post . . .

Monday, October 03, 2016

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.

Read the rest of the post . . .

Friday, September 30, 2016

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.

Read the rest of the post . . .

Thursday, September 29, 2016

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.

Read the rest of the post . . .

Wednesday, September 28, 2016

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.

Read the rest of the post . . .

Monday, September 26, 2016

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.

Read the rest of the post . . .

Thursday, September 22, 2016

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?"

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.

Read the rest of the post . . .

Wednesday, September 21, 2016

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.

Read the rest of the post . . .

Tuesday, September 20, 2016

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?

Read the rest of the post . . .

Monday, September 19, 2016

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.

Read the rest of the post . . .

Friday, September 16, 2016

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).

Read the rest of the post . . .

Wednesday, September 14, 2016

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.

Read the rest of the post . . .

Tuesday, September 13, 2016

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.

Read the rest of the post . . .

Monday, September 12, 2016

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

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

Translucent wood from the lab of Dr. Liangbing Hu.
Image Credit: Eran Moore Rea, American Physical Society

Read the rest of the post . . .

Friday, September 09, 2016

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.

Read the rest of the post . . .

Thursday, September 08, 2016

"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.

Read the rest of the post . . .

Wednesday, September 07, 2016

Ask a Physicist: Life Without a Sun?

Gonçalo, from Portugal wants to know:

"Can a planet, theoretically, manage life without a sun?"
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.

Read the rest of the post . . .

Thursday, September 01, 2016

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.

Read the rest of the post . . .

Wednesday, August 31, 2016

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.

Read the rest of the post . . .

Tuesday, August 30, 2016

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.

Two Brown Dwarfs in Our Backyard. This image highlights the resolution problem. At first, the central light in the larger image, taken by the NASA's Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer (WISE), appeared to be from a single object, but a sharper image from Gemini Observatory in Chile revealed that it was from a pair of cool star-like bodies called brown dwarfs.
Image Credit: More NASA/JPL-Caltech/Gemini Observatory/AURA/NSF.
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 star system in which one star orbits a nearby star?

If two stars are close enough that their light overlaps on the path toward Earth, this can get really hard to determine. Computer programs do better than our eyes, but even image processing software is limited in its ability to resolve one light source from another. It all comes down to optics. Light diffracts as it travels through a telescope (or the lenses of your eyes) and this leads to blurring. If two objects are really close, diffraction limits our ability to resolve them. There are a few ways to get around this limit, but it becomes impossible as the distance between the stars approaches zero. At least it did until recently.

Last October, Mankei Tsang started thinking about the problem of resolving binary stars and other light sources. Tsang and his group study how quantum mechanical systems can help us measure things. Quantum metrology, as this field is called, explore ways to define units and make measurements based on the properties of photons and atoms. Quantum metrology is an emerging field that holds the promise of more precise, reliable, and sensitive measurements.

Tsang applied a quantum metrology approach to the problem of resolving two light sources. He sought help from postdocs Ranjith Nair and Xiao-Ming Lu and the work progressed quickly. They soon realized—after double and triple checking their calculations—that light coming from two stars (or other sources) contains more information about their separation distance than anyone realized. It turns out that the ability to resolve two sources isn’t limited by diffraction at all.

In the paper, the group outlined a way to measure the separation distance more accurately than ever before. The technique is based on cutting-edge quantum optics technology. Before the article was peer reviewed and published, Tsang posted a draft on arXiv, an online repository of physics papers (this is pretty standard practice). The preprint attracted a lot of interest—as of yesterday, when the final version of the paper was published, four groups based in three different countries had already experimentally demonstrated this technique.

Through this work we can learn more about our surroundings, both by looking outward and by looking inward. The technique Tsang’s team developed could also be applied to improving how well a microscope resolves fluorescent samples like biological molecules, drugs, or toxins. As both scales of this work moves forward, it reminds us that light is not only a tool for exploration, but also a rich source of information to explore.

Kendra Redmond

For more on optics & astronomy, see our post on tilt-shift photography & miniature-faking: Galaxies Writ Small
Read the rest of the post . . .

Monday, August 29, 2016

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.

Read the rest of the post . . .

Friday, August 26, 2016

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.

Read the rest of the post . . .

Thursday, August 25, 2016

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.

Nanoparticles (green) help form clots in an injured liver. The researchers added color to the scanning electron microscopy image after it was taken.
Image Credit: Andrew Shoffstall, Ph.D

Read the rest of the post . . .

Wednesday, August 24, 2016

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.

Read the rest of the post . . .

Friday, August 19, 2016

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.

Read the rest of the post . . .

Thursday, August 18, 2016

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.

Read the rest of the post . . .

Monday, August 15, 2016

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.

Professor Jeff Steinhauer in his lab.
Image Credit: Nitzan Zohar, Technion Spokesperson's Office
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 governing black holes. In the process, a surprised Hawking discovered that quantum mechanics enables some energy to escape from black holes. Hawking realized that over time this could cause black holes to shrink and evaporate.

Experimentally verifying or ruling out this “Hawking radiation” might seem like just a scientific curiosity, but it is actually an important test of our understanding of the universe and its behavior. Its existence would answer some questions, but raise others.

One of the biggest unsolved problems in physics is how general relativity merges with quantum mechanics. Gravitational effects and quantum effects meet head-on in black holes, so they are an ideal place to study this. However, the Hawking radiation escaping from a cosmic black hole is so small that we aren’t able to detect it directly, at least not yet.

If you can’t study Hawking radiation from a cosmic black hole, why not build your own black hole? Okay, how about a system with similar properties? The experiment reported in the Nature Physics article involved an analogous system called an acoustic black hole. Acoustic black holes don’t occur in nature, but they can be built out of a fluid whose flow changes from subsonic to supersonic. The idea was proposed in 1981 by William Unruh.

An acoustic black hole is similar in many ways to a cosmic black hole, but it traps sound instead of matter and light. It turns out the equations that describe how gravity affects light are the same equations that describe how a flowing fluid affects phonons, which you can think of as a kind of particle that makes up sound waves.

Like the event horizon of a black hole, the event horizon of an acoustic black hole is the point of no return. Any sound that goes in will not come out—unless the hole emits the phonon equivalent of Hawking radiation. The systems are so similar that if you detect phonon radiation coming from an acoustical black hole, Hawking radiation most likely exists too.

Confirming Hawking radiation goes beyond detecting radiation outside of a black hole. The particles emitted by Hawking radiation are quantum mechanically connected or “entangled” with partner particles that are pulled into the black hole. Finding evidence of this is key to verifying its existence.

Steinhauer’s work is the first experimental evidence of such entangled particles. In 2009, he and his colleagues created the first acoustic black hole. They did so in a Bose Einstein condensate (BEC), a special, quantum state of matter in which many very cold atoms behave like a single atom. Using a laser, the researchers created an event horizon at which the flow of atoms in the BEC goes from subsonic to supersonic.

Since 2009, the researchers have improved the system and developed high-resolution imaging techniques for studying phonons and their partner particles. Today’s article presents their exciting results, which include observations of entangled phonons emitted by the acoustic black hole. The characteristics of these phonons are consistent with what you’d expect from Hawking radiation.

This isn’t the only experimental attempt to detect Hawking radiation. Through a variety of experiments based on several different analogous systems, scientists around the world are searching for signs of Hawking-like radiation even as you read this. Together with Steinhauer’s work, these experiments should help us build a more complete picture of just how “black” black holes are.

Kendra Redmond
Read the rest of the post . . .

Friday, August 12, 2016

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.

Read the rest of the post . . .

Wednesday, August 10, 2016

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.

Read the rest of the post . . .

Tuesday, August 09, 2016

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.

Read the rest of the post . . .

Monday, August 08, 2016

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.

Read the rest of the post . . .

Thursday, August 04, 2016

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.

Read the rest of the post . . .

Friday, July 29, 2016

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.

The emblem of the Apollo program.
Image Credit: NASA

Read the rest of the post . . .

Thursday, July 28, 2016

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.

Image Credit: Stephanie Sicore (CC BY 2.0)

Read the rest of the post . . .

Sunday, July 24, 2016

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.

An image of the pressure chamber in a diamond anvil cell, taken under an optical microscope through the diamond window.
Image Credit: Dubrovinskaia, et al. Sci. Adv. 2016; 2 : e1600341

Read the rest of the post . . .

Saturday, July 23, 2016

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.

Read the rest of the post . . .

Friday, July 22, 2016

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.

Read the rest of the post . . .

Wednesday, July 20, 2016

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.

Read the rest of the post . . .

Thursday, July 14, 2016

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.

Read the rest of the post . . .

Tuesday, July 12, 2016

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.

Read the rest of the post . . .

Monday, July 11, 2016

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.

Read the rest of the post . . .

Friday, July 08, 2016

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:

Read the rest of the post . . .

Thursday, July 07, 2016

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.

Read the rest of the post . . .

Wednesday, July 06, 2016

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.

Read the rest of the post . . .

Tuesday, July 05, 2016

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.

Read the rest of the post . . .

Thursday, June 30, 2016

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.

Read the rest of the post . . .

Friday, June 24, 2016

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.

Read the rest of the post . . .

Thursday, June 23, 2016

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?

Read the rest of the post . . .

Monday, June 20, 2016

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 hand is steady, suspending the spoon over the water basin. He begins to pour, hesitantly at first, then upends the spoon, dumping the rest of the molten metal into the water all at once. It hangs together, sliding easily and completely off the spoon as a single large droplet, but when it hits the water it deforms with a quick hiss into a pitted and bubbled structure, shaped by steam at the same time that it hardens and solidifies thanks to the water's absorption of its heat.  The child's grandmother reaches into the bowl and retrieves the tiny lump of metal, holding it up between the candle flame and the wall, where it casts a bizarre and enlarged shadow. The grandmother, well-practiced at this divination, rotates the metal piece, bringing a long protrusion into view near the bottom of the image. She pauses, shifts the shape along another axis, and its shadow takes on the vague appearance of a horse in profile.
"A horse!" She exclaims in Finnish, and the family erupts in peals of laughter.
"A new car for the little one, this year!"

Read the rest of the post . . .

Friday, June 17, 2016

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.

Read the rest of the post . . .

Thursday, June 16, 2016

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.

Read the rest of the post . . .

Wednesday, June 15, 2016

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.

Numerical simulations of the gravitational waves emitted by the inspiral and merger of two black holes. The colored contours around each black hole represent the amplitude of the gravitational radiation; the purple and blue lines represent the trajectories of the black holes, and the green arrows represent their spins.
Image Credit: NASA/Ames Research Center/C. Henze. Public Domain.

Read the rest of the post . . .

Tuesday, June 14, 2016

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.

This photo of the RDK II experiment was taken looking in the direction of the neutron beam source. The three rectangles in the center are detectors for the lowest-energy photons.
Image Credit: Herbert Breuer.

Read the rest of the post . . .

Monday, June 13, 2016

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!"

Read the rest of the post . . .

Friday, June 10, 2016

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.

The periodic table of elements, complete with its latest additions.
If the universe is a game of Tetris, we definitely just beat a level.

Read the rest of the post . . .

Thursday, June 09, 2016

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.
Read the rest of the post . . .

Tuesday, June 07, 2016

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?"

Read the rest of the post . . .

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.

Read the rest of the post . . .

Friday, June 03, 2016

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.

Read the rest of the post . . .

Wednesday, June 01, 2016

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.

Read the rest of the post . . .

Tuesday, May 31, 2016

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.

Read the rest of the post . . .

Friday, May 27, 2016

"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…

Image Credit: Science Museum/Barry MacDonald
Image Credit: Science Museum/Barry MacDonald
Image Credit: Science Museum/Barry MacDonald
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 joint effort of ESA and the Science Museum. This unique form of science outreach engaged a group of students and professionals (and probably audience members) that aren’t traditionally part of the science and technology scene. I’m sure that it expanded the minds of the science geeks in attendance as well.

Back in 2014, the fashion schools* were challenged to envision the future of fashion with desirable and practical garments that incorporated technology and showcased national culture. Each school had a different theme: technology, environment, innovation, health, or sport.
Image Credit: Science Museum/Barry MacDonald
ESA provided space-certified materials and the schools worked with local companies to secure sensors and other high-tech fabrics for their garments, along with technical expertise. Several schools met with their local astronaut for inspiration and to hear about life in space. From among the many inspired designs developed over the last year, a team of judges chose six from each school to grace Wednesday’s runway.

The fashion show was presented as one of the Science Museum’s after-hours Lates programs. Sponsors included Bionic Yarn (you may have heard about their jeans made from recycled plastic found in the ocean), Sympatex (which makes a material that's simultaneously waterproof and breathable), Xsens (3D motion tracking technology) and several other companies. It featured a performance by Jordan Gray from the 2016 season of the Voice UK and was emceed by actor and presenter George Lamb.

Image Credit: Science Musem/Barry MacDonald
Recent years have seen an exciting array of developments in the field of wearable technologies and smart materials, including nanowire fabric, stretchable electronics, 3D printed clothes, and much more. From the everyday to the extreme environment, potential applications abound. Just last month the US Defense Secretary announced a $75 million investment in a new initiative for smart fabrics, recognizing their potential for sensing, power-generating, protecting, and even communicating. How these developments will play out in everyday fashion remains to be seen, but Couture in Orbit is a fun exercise in speculating.

To see more of the space-inspired looks and hear about the experience from designers, students, and ESA, check out this event video, the Couture in Orbit tumblr page, and this post from the Science Museum.

Image Credit: Science Museum/Barry MacDonald
*Participating schools: Fashion Design Akademiet (Copenhagen), ESMOD (Paris), ESMOD (Berlin), Politechnico di Milano (Milan), and Ravensbourne (London).

Kendra Redmond
Read the rest of the post . . .

Tuesday, May 24, 2016

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.

Read the rest of the post . . .

Tuesday, May 17, 2016

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.

Read the rest of the post . . .

Monday, May 16, 2016

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.

Read the rest of the post . . .

Thursday, May 12, 2016

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.

Read the rest of the post . . .

Wednesday, May 11, 2016

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.

Read the rest of the post . . .

Tuesday, May 10, 2016

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.

Read the rest of the post . . .

Friday, May 06, 2016

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.

Read the rest of the post . . .

Thursday, May 05, 2016

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.

Read the rest of the post . . .

Wednesday, May 04, 2016

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).

Read the rest of the post . . .

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?

Read the rest of the post . . .

Tuesday, May 03, 2016

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.

Read the rest of the post . . .

Friday, April 29, 2016

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.

Read the rest of the post . . .

Thursday, April 28, 2016

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.”

Read the rest of the post . . .

Monday, April 25, 2016

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.

Read the rest of the post . . .

Friday, April 22, 2016

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.

Read the rest of the post . . .

Wednesday, April 20, 2016

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 collisions takes place at the intersection of basic research and practical need. A good place to start is back in 1834.

Read the rest of the post . . .

Tuesday, April 19, 2016

Hoverboard Redux

The “Hoverboard”: simultaneously one of the most popular and irritating gadgets to emerge in recent memory. From the misleading name (unlike other hoverboards we've encountered, they don’t even hover!) to their tendency to go up in flames, the meteoric emergence of hoverboards is a case study in the dynamics of fads…and patent infringement. But we’re not here today to talk about the sociological aspects of this goofy-looking invention—rather, we’re discussing the technical ones.

Read the rest of the post . . .

Monday, April 18, 2016

“Giant Leaps” Mean Changes to Superconductor Theory and New Magnetic Opportunities

Experimentally verifying a prediction can be ground-breaking and extremely important, like the recent detection of gravitational waves. But finding something that disagrees with a generally accepted prediction? That can be the science of game-changing discoveries…assuming, of course, that there isn’t a problem with the experiment. As University of Houston physicist Roy Weinstein puts it, “When something new is found, the first suspect is always ourselves.”

Read the rest of the post . . .

Friday, April 08, 2016

Testing Einstein's Relativity With a Cosmic Neutrino

The arrival of a tiny cosmic particle from a distant, extremely energetic place in the universe enabled researchers to test key principles of general relativity and special relativity. Their results will be especially valuable for scientists attempting to merge quantum physics and general relativity through “quantum gravity” models.

Read the rest of the post . . .

Thursday, April 07, 2016

Nano-powered Superheroes Take On Crime & Cancer

“Spider-Man, Thor, the Hulk, the X-Men. . . Okay, so I’ve created a whole caboodle of superheroes. But the important thing is, now it’s your turn.” —Stan Lee

Read the rest of the post . . .

Monday, April 04, 2016

Scientists Uncover Bubble-Trapping Vortex Rings With Environmental Applications

Watching ocean waves crashing on the beach is a relaxing, almost restful experience for many people. But for others, the oceanfront is a better place to study climate change than have a lazy getaway. The air-water interface is teeming with interesting physics—vortex rings forming, gas bubbles bursting, gas bubbles being trapped, and drops bouncing, floating, and splashing. All of this activity has a direct impact on the climate.

Read the rest of the post . . .

Thursday, March 31, 2016

Of Ice Cores & Isotopes

Earth’s atmosphere has a history — not just in terms of temperature and composition, but also in the dynamics of its motions and chemistry. By tracing ultra-rare molecules in the present-day atmosphere and back into the past, Laurence Yeung, Assistant Professor of Earth Science at Rice University and recent Clarke Award recipient, is setting out to trace that dynamic history. “In the same way you'd tag a shark to figure out what its migration patterns are,” he explains, “you can exploit the natural tags that Mother Nature gives us in these stable isotopes.” Stable isotopes are atoms of the same element that differ slightly in mass thanks to an extra neutron or two, and they act as passive tracers in the atmosphere. A heavy isotope’s extra bit of mass can affect the physical and chemical processes it undergoes, concentrating or diluting it with respect to its lighter siblings. As a result, the ratio of these isotopes, like typical oxygen-16 (which has 8 protons and 8 neutrons) to heavier oxygen-17 (8 protons, 9 neutrons) or oxygen-18 (8 protons, 10 neutrons) can hold clues to a given reservoir’s past.

Yeung is at the front lines of the field, pioneering a technique that takes oxygen isotope analysis one step further. Atoms of oxygen-18 (18O) make up only 0.2% of all of the oxygen atoms on Earth. Even more rare are oxygen molecules (O2) that contain more than one of these heavy isotopes, and it’s these 18O-18O molecules that Yeung and his group are after. By taking measurements of the present-day atmosphere at different altitudes above the surface, and comparing those values to a detailed model of atmospheric chemistry and circulation, the amount of mixing going on between different parts of the atmosphere can be sorted out. “There's a little bit less 18O-18O in the troposphere than there is in the stratosphere,” says Yeung. “So when those two reservoirs mix...then you establish some characteristic proportion of stratospheric air vs. tropospheric air.”

These measurements and calculations can be compared against many other methods for getting at the same question, calibrating the 18O-18O technique before using it to look at similar quantities in samples of past atmosphere. Where does one come across these secret stashes of ancient air? One key place to look is in the ice deep under the glaciated regions of the Earth, where layers of snow that accumulated and compressed into ice hundreds or even thousands of years ago trapped atmospheric gases in tiny bubbles. “These bubbles end up trapping gases from the ancient atmosphere, and it tells you something about the recent past, up to something like a million years at this point.”

Yeung’s search for ultra-rare oxygen molecules brought him to the National Ice Core Laboratory in Denver, CO, which houses 17 kilometers of precious ice collected from Greenland and Antarctica. Measurements of the oxygen isotopes in the layers of ice themselves, as well as the gases contained in the bubbles, have established a detailed record of past climate, revealing quantities like global temperature and atmospheric composition over the past several hundred thousand years. By extending this research into the 18O-18O realm, Yeung hopes to shed light on some of Earth’s dynamical history as well — a subject of great interest today. “There are thermodynamic aspects of climate, things like temperature, chemical composition,” Yeung explains, “but then there are all these dynamical aspects of climate in Earth's atmosphere that aren't nearly as well constrained…How often do the lower and the upper atmosphere overturn, how often do they talk to each other, how rapidly or vigorously do they mix? How strong are storm systems in the past?” These are questions get to the heart of how the atmosphere works as an Earth system, and thanks to these ultra-rare molecules, we have a new promising way of getting answers.
—Podcast & post by Meg Rosenburg
Read the rest of the post . . .

Wednesday, March 30, 2016

Mountains Made of "Magnetic Honey" Lead to New Insights

What do physicists do when they get stuck on a problem? In the case of magnet mountain growth rates, they chill and stick with it.

Read the rest of the post . . .

Tuesday, March 29, 2016

Leidenfrost Effect Puts Perpetual Bounce into Hydrogel Beads

Not all great ideas come in the shower. Sometimes inspiration strikes when you're whipping up a stack of pancakes.

Read the rest of the post . . .

Monday, March 28, 2016

Updated Neural Model for Working Memory

Neuroscientists at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology have provided evidence opposing the current model for how working memory operates at the cellular level. The current model says the cellular basis for working memory lies in consistent, sustained activity by brain cells, or neurons. Results from the MIT study, published in the March 17 issue of the scientific journal Neuron, shows the story is more complex, that brain cells involved in working-memory tasks are activated discretely and sporadically.

Read the rest of the post . . .

Thursday, March 24, 2016

Biosphere 2

Just outside the town of Oracle, Arizona, nestled between the seemingly endless plains of the Sonaran desert and the cactus-pocked foothills of Mount Lemmon, stands an enormous glass ziggurat: Biosphere 2.

Read the rest of the post . . .

Monday, March 14, 2016

Pi Day: Musings on a Constant

Happy pi day, Physics fans! This 3/14 is a particularly special one, as 3/14/16 is as close as we're going to get to the actual value of pi using our current date format (at least for the next hundred years!) While some here at PhysicsCentral are adherents of the Tau philosophy, there's no reason we can't celebrate again on 6/28! In my book, any excuse to eat pie or pontificate a bit on the nature of transcendental numbers is a good one.

Read the rest of the post . . .

Thursday, March 10, 2016

Hail Hydra! Mysterious Sea Creature Revealed to Have Mouth That Functions Like a Pupil

Named after the mythological beast slain by the Greek demigod Heracles, the Hydra is a genus of freshwater animal related to jellyfish and sea anemones, best known for its ability to regenerate whole individuals from parts of another. And until recently, the way it opened its mouth—the animal's only orifice—was a mystery.

Read the rest of the post . . .

Monday, March 07, 2016

Bigger on the Inside? Scientists Trap Light in "Whispering Gallery" Microspheres

In a vacuum, light moves fast enough to travel all the way around the earth in about a tenth of a second. In recent years, though, scientists have found ways to slow and even stop light in its tracks by using new states of matter and other specially engineered materials. Now, researchers in France are reporting that they’ve devised a new way to tackle the challenge, one which circumvents many of the technical difficulties associated with previous techniques.

Read the rest of the post . . .

Friday, March 04, 2016

Physics Brain Teaser: Bee in a Jar

Imagine you've got a jar on a scale, sealed so that no air can escape. Inside this jar, there's a bee hovering in place. Does the scale read more, less, or the same as when the bee is resting at the bottom of the jar?

Read the rest of the post . . .

Tuesday, March 01, 2016

The Beauty of the Sea Butterfly's "Flight"

Flight has evolved independently at least three times, by three different animal groups: birds, bats, and insects. Now, a team of researchers at Georgia Tech has confirmed that a species of aquatic snail, the "sea butterfly" Limacina helicina, flaps its wing-like appendages the same way that some small insects use their wings to fly.

Image Credit: Russ Hopcroft, Institute of Marine Science, University of Alaska Fairbanks (UAF); and NOAA

Read the rest of the post . . .

Tuesday, February 23, 2016

Blowing in the Wind

"When there is a storm, and you stand in front of a tree—if you look at its branches, you swear it will fall. But if you look at the trunk, you will see its stability."

Read the rest of the post . . .

Monday, February 22, 2016

The Truth About Gravitational Waves

For the first time ever, gravitational waves have been detected directly, and the news — broken by the LIGO team on February 11, 2016 — has made some waves of its own. To sort out some difficult-to-explain points that have made their way into the media this week, we turn to the experts: Lynn Cominsky, Professor and Chair of the Physics Department at Sonoma State University, who joined Physics Central recently for a live Q&A following the announcement, and Rana Adhikari, Professor of Physics at Caltech.

Read the rest of the post . . .

Tuesday, February 16, 2016

Scientists Propose "Death Star" Laser Defense Against Asteroids

Lasers mounted on robot spacecraft or giant satellites could deflect asteroids away from Earth, suggest new orbital simulations exploring this defense strategy.

Read the rest of the post . . .

Friday, February 12, 2016

A New Ninth Planet?

For most of human history, our solar system had 6 planets (counting the Earth), the ones that could be observed by eye, wandering across the night sky. In 1781, William Herschel’s telescope revealed a seventh — Uranus — but it was the eighth planet that became the great triumph of nineteenth century Newtonian celestial mechanics. In the 1840s, unexplained perturbations in the orbit of Uranus led French mathematical astronomer Urbain Jean Joseph Le Verrier and English astronomer John Couch Adams to independently predict the existence and approximate orbit of a distant as-yet-unseen planet. Armed with his calculations, Le Verrier convinced two German astronomers to look for his planet, they almost immediately found it, right where it was predicted to have been.

Read the rest of the post . . .

Thursday, February 11, 2016

LIGO: What You Need to Know

For weeks now, rumors of big news in physics have swirled through the scientific (and science-enthusiastic) community. As it turns out, the rumors are true—LIGO and Virgo, the worldwide scientific collaborations dedicated to directly detecting gravitational waves, have just announced this morning that they've observed the signal that scientists have been looking for since Einstein's theory of general relativity was postulated a full century ago! While it's still going on, you can watch a live stream of the announcement here! To help you understand what the discovery means and how it could shape the future of physics, we've put together this page as a sort of "one-stop shop" for physics enthusiasts and aspiring physicists alike.

Read the rest of the post . . .