Monday, August 28, 2017

Snowstorms on Mars and Diamond Rains on Neptune

Two separate discoveries this week show how spectacular the weather can be on other planets in our solar system. First, a paper from Nature Geoscience explains a mechanism that can create snowstorms on Mars. A separate paper from Nature Astronomy discusses how diamonds can rain down on giant icy planets such as Neptune and Uranus.

Read the rest of the post . . .

Friday, August 25, 2017

Coffee Ring Science: What’s in Your Water?

As the Flint water crisis so vividly highlights, those of us lucky enough to live in places with clean tap water often take it for granted. The problem is that when something goes awry, it’s usually discovered after people have already started getting sick. Even without criminal negligence and cover-ups, like those in the Flint crisis, contaminated water can have devastating consequences.

Read the rest of the post . . .

Sunday, August 20, 2017

Tales of Totality: The Great American Eclipse, part IV

It's almost here...the first total solar eclipse to grace the mainland US in close to 40 years! While this is a big one for the USA—visible as a total solar eclipse in 16% of the country and as a partial eclipse everywhere else—we know that not everyone is going to be able to make it to the path of totality.

Even for those of us who've traveled to see this astronomical phenomenon in its full glory, chancy weather and the threat of clouds mean that nothing is a guarantee. To that end, the Physics Buzz team is deployed across the country to bring you coverage of totality—from our home base's (College Park, MD) Eclipse at the Ellipse event to the relative wilderness of Idaho Falls, selected for its relatively low incidence of cloud cover this time of year.

Because of course we were nerds about this.
Image Credit:

That means that our readers on the east coast will hopefully get a preview of the eclipse, roughly an hour and a half before it comes their way courtesy of Dr. Becky Thompson. PhysicsCentral editor Stephen Skolnick is in northwestern Tennessee, and contributor James Roche is in South Carolina—and all three of us will be bringing you firsthand accounts of our travels and experiences on the way to the path of totality.

SS: It's Sunday afternoon and our party just got settled at a coffeeshop in Nashville after driving past the city last night to Clarksville, TN—a projected drive of ten hours from College Park, MD that ended up taking close to a full sixteen hours, landing us there squarely at 2 AM. Traffic was worse than expected, but nowhere near the disaster levels expected for people making the journey today.

A friend has family that just bought a house in Clarksville, so we're staying in a house that until very recently appears to have belonged to a sweet old woman with a taste for kitsch, and which may or may not now be haunted. Pictures to follow.

Although we're already in the path of totality, the duration of a total eclipse here is only around two minutes—although the whole event including partial eclipse will be much longer from beginning to end. Tomorrow, the current plan is to drive north into Kentucky, to a city called Hopkinsville, where the total eclipse will stretch out to a full two minutes and forty-one seconds. An alternative that's on the table is to get to one of the state or national parks in the area, where we can be around nature to see the famous "pinhole camera effect", as leaves cast strange crescent shadows. I know BT has similar plans that she'd love to talk about! We may get caught on the road, we may miss seeing totality because of clouds, but whatever happens it's sure to be an unforgettable time tomorrow. Check back on this page for updates from me and our other contributors! In the meantime you can check out parts I, II, and III of Physics Buzz's eclipse coverage—for now, we're going browsing in Nashville's various used record stores to try and find a copy of "Total Eclipse of the Heart".

JR: I’ve spent the day at Falls Park, eating, drinking, and navigating swarms of out-of-towners posing for selfies in the middle of the sidewalk while effectively blindfolded by cheap eclipse glasses. Next to us at the Mexican restaurant was a Floridian group in matching “I blacked out… in Greenville, South Carolina” shirts. Spirits are high.  My friend’s one-year old daughter has no patience for the extraordinary, so she will be left in daycare for the event itself.  The rest of our group will be at City Scape Winery from noon til the end of the eclipse around 4 pm. I’ve got my Solar Eclipse Timer app synced to my location, I’ll be setting up my GoPro to capture the scene and snapping a few shots during totality, but for the most part, I’m leaving the photography to the professionals, as I encourage you to do as well. I’ll be busy enjoying the spectacle while keeping an eye out for Lizard Man. I will update this post with any identifiable pictures of either. Have fun out there and be safe!

The Lizard Man thing reminded me—I was doing a little research today on Hopkinsville, where we're hopefully headed tomorrow, and one of the first things that came up was "Hopkinsville Goblins"—so we'll keep an eye out for some of them as well. We're planning on getting on the road around 7 AM, to hopefully avoid getting caught in traffic.

BT: Made it to Rexburg Idaho! There are so many places selling eclipse glasses and t shirts. Many people offering their front yards for "camping" and parking is a steal at $50. We drove around and checked out our original idea of a spot, Beaver Dick County Park. A local astronomer was giving a lecture to all those camping there tonight. We heard that seeing it from one of the two local buttes would be cool so we drove around to check them out. We found a small parking lot and a trail head up to Mennan Butte. The current plan is to get to the parking lot at 5:30am and hike to the top of the Butte. Supposedly from that high you can see the shadow moving across the lower land. Weather looks sunny and beautiful. I'm posting from my phone in the middle of nowhere so please excuse the terrible formatting. Here's hoping this goes well!

BT: On the top of Menan Butte after getting the last parking spot at the trail head. Quite the hike to the top. Now sitting here with about 1000 of my new best friends waiting for the show!

SS: Okay so it turns out the "Hopkinsville Goblins" were supposedly aliens, and this is in fact the cultural origin of the phrase "Little Green Men". So every year, on the anniversary of the day these aliens apparently landed, there's a festival to commemorate the event—the "Little Green Men Days"—that just happen to coincide with the solar eclipse this year. We have found ourselves, and I never thought I'd type this phrase, at an alien fair in rural Kentucky during an eclipse. What?!
SS: We're something like 20 minutes into the partial eclipse here in Kelly, KY—just outside of Hopkinsville. Still an hour 'til totality; pictures of the sun on a digital camera still come out round, rather than the crescent that a glance through eclipse glasses reveals.

SS: It's about 4:30 Eastern, 3:30 our time, and the sun has been back to its old self for a while now. The totality phase is long over, but it was a visually arresting sight while it lasted, to say the least. The sunlight's intensity didn't start to dim noticeably until the moon was about halfway across the disc of the sun, but in the minutes leading up to and following totality, it was an uncanny effect. Ordinarily, when the sun sets, the light of day fades as sunlight streams through more atmosphere, growing redder when higher-energy wavelengths are scattered. Here, though, it faded without reddening, as if the sun was on a dimmer switch. Soon, the clouds on the horizon did take on a reddish cast as the land around us was plunged into darkness.

I was a little shocked when Matt, the friend who drove us all out to the "Little Green Men Days", began to pack up almost immediately after me, it felt like leaving a show at intermission! But Matt had a friend who'd gotten stranded around Nashville by the traffic—a megabus never showed—and who he needed to go pick up. Fearing gridlock, he felt we had to get moving, so we ended up watching the sun return through the window of the car.

Matt's friend lucked out in that he never quite made it to Nashville, though—apparently a cloud moved across the sun ten minutes before totality. By the time it passed, the height of the eclipse was over.

JR: We arrived at the winery at 11:45am, sweltering in 93 degree heat. After picking up our drink tickets and eclipse glasses, the 300-strong crowd settled wherever they could find shade around a central field. A few photographers spent the first half hour setting up expensive-looking equipment, and I made a makeshift tripod for my GoPro out of chopsticks and an alligator clip. Clouds threatened early, but cleared completely with about an hour and a half to totality.

When the sun was about half-covered by the moon, we noticed the Cicadas chirping and the temperature dropping to somewhat manageable levels. I turned my binoculars around to make a projector, which drew a spattering of people interested in my ramblings. As you can see in the video, a sliver of sun was enough to keep the surroundings bright until totality covered us in shadow. Even in totality, the sun's corona washed out the camera's image of the dark side of the moon, but it was clear to the naked eye. When it hit, all I could say was "wow." (about 30 times.) I took one quick pic holding my phone up to the binoculars, and enjoyed the show. It was nothing short of amazing. My advice: DO NOT MISS THE NEXT ONE IN 2024!

Read the rest of the post . . .

Friday, August 18, 2017

Ask a Physicist: Balancing Gravity

Greyson wrote in this week to ask:

What would happen if you put a metal object in between the earth and a magnet that had the same pull as gravity?

Read the rest of the post . . .

Wednesday, August 16, 2017

Get Your Science On: The Great American Eclipse, Part III

The 2017 total solar eclipse is almost upon us, and we’re sure you’ve been hearing a lot about it over the past few weeks (including our eclipse posts Part I and Part II). Whether it’s your first solar eclipse or one of many you’ve witnessed, the event promises to be a show-stopper—weather permitting, of course.

Read the rest of the post . . .

Tuesday, August 15, 2017

Getting to the Heart of Circuit Breaker Arcs

If you want to see a stunning demonstration of nature colliding with modern technology, do a simple image search for lighting strikes a power line. A chance strike can wreak havoc on the daily lives of those nearby and on the wallets of those responsible for restoring power. Most of us lucky enough to live with stable electric grids take for granted the traffic lights, internet connections, refrigerators, air conditioning, lights, coffee makers, and credit card readers that are essential to our way of life. A major interruption to the grid is a serious and often dangerous issue.

Read the rest of the post . . .

Monday, August 14, 2017

Dark Days Ahead: The Great American Eclipse, Part II

Are you ready? We* are just one week away from a total solar eclipse, an event NASA calls “one of nature’s most awe inspiring sights.” Considering all of the inspiring sights NASA has unveiled over the years, that’s saying a lot! The total solar eclipse will be visible from a narrow band of the United States stretching from coast to coast on August 21. Weather permitting, everyone in the United States (including Hawaii and Alaska) along with people in regions of South America, Africa, and Europe will have the opportunity to see at a least partial solar eclipse. For more on logistics and geography, check out The Great American Eclipse, Part I.

Read the rest of the post . . .

Tuesday, August 08, 2017

Primordial Particle Soup Smashes Spin-Speed Record

The particles in your body, the device you’re reading this on and everything else around you once swam in a primordial soup that existed just after the universe came into being. This bizarre fluid is the hottest, densest and freest-flowing substance ever known to exist. And the physicists who recreated it believe it can claim a new record: fastest-spinning.

Read the rest of the post . . .

Monday, August 07, 2017

Fractal Retinal Implants Could Restore People's Sight

From the gecko’s sticky feet to the sophisticated sniffing ability of dogs, nature often provides inspiration for new materials and technologies. Recently, nature has inspired something that could help many people see life a little more clearly; in research recently published in the journal Scientific Reports, researchers from the University of Oregon show that fractal-inspired retinal implants could be the first viable approach to helping people with retinal diseases regain sight to the point where they can navigate without assistance.

Read the rest of the post . . .

Friday, August 04, 2017

Perspective: Why Don't Sunbeams Look Parallel?

Not too long ago, I had an internet run-in with a "flat Earth" type who hit me with an argument I'd never heard before: the sun, they insisted, is actually only a few hundred miles from Earth, as can be proven with some simple mathematical analysis of sunbeams. By measuring the apparent angle between sunbeams striking the opposite sides of a valley that they knew the width of, they could trace back and use geometry to calculate how far away the source must be! I want to share this little anecdote because it's a great reminder of how important a diverse and well-rounded education is: someone with training in visual arts would never have missed the error that this person made.

Read the rest of the post . . .

Tuesday, August 01, 2017

Measuring the Very Real Pressure of Virtual Photons

Under some conditions, quantum fluctuations of light can put real, physical pressure on an object. In new research that came out just yesterday in the journal Physical Review Letters, a team of scientists from the RIKEN research institute in Japan show that it’s theoretically possible to “see” and study the virtual photons that make up these quantum fluctuations.

Read the rest of the post . . .