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Showing posts from September, 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.

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.