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Showing posts from 2018

Hear the Roar of the Grid in the High Voltage Explosion that Lit Up NYC's Sky Last Night

The world is ending. The aliens are here. That's what some New York City residents thought last night when the sky over Queens lit up with a bizarre blue glow. For a few minutes, the eerie, flickering light was bright as day.

A New Model for How Wrinkled Organs Get Their Shapes

You might think wrinkles are only skin deep, but there’s a lot more to the topic than anti-aging cream and laundry. The brain is a wrinkly object for a reason, as are flames, fingerprints, raisins, elephants, and the ridges in your teeth. Understanding how and why wrinkles emerge in developing biological organs like the brain could inform treatments for conditions like lissencephaly (the absence of wrinkles in the cerebral cortex), and possibly even diseases like Alzheimer’s and macular degeneration.

Ask a Physicist: Rudolph the Redshifted Reindeer

Visiting every house in the world in one night is a tough job, even when you don't count the difficulty of squeezing down a chimney after eating a few million Christmas cookies. Just from a logistics perspective, it's a nightmare: finding the most efficient route between a bunch of points on a map (the so-called "Traveling Salesman" problem) is such a notoriously difficult nut to crack that it seems we've got no shot at doing it efficiently without quantum computing.

Why (Almost) Everything on Earth is Solar-Powered

This week, Nathan from Europe wrote in:
I have a question about the theory that energy can neither be created nor destroyed.
If you have two waterfalls, and one has a turbine and the other doesn't, yet the water eventually hits the ground with the same volume and force on both, have you not created energy with the turbine?

Want to Build a Nanobot? This New Shrinking Technique Could Help

Researchers from MIT have come up with a new way to fabricate nanoscale structures using an innovative "shrinking" technique. The new method uses equipment many laboratories already have and is relatively straightforward, so it could make nanoscale fabrication more accessible.

We're Nowhere Near the Limit on Telescope Resolution, According to New Physics

What fundamentally limits our ability to see planets, stars, and galaxies through a telescope? To differentiate between one star and a galaxy that contains 100 thousand million stars?

How to Move a Single Electron

Every time you brush your hair, hundreds of trillions of electrons jump from your hair onto the brush. These particles are so small and sensitive that it is almost impossible to handle them individually, but a group of scientists from Canada have figured out a way to do it using an atomic force microscope. This newfound approach to manipulating individual electrons may one day find applications in future nanoscale electronics.

Inside DESI, an Ambitious Project to Map the Universe in 3D

DESI, the Dark Energy Spectroscopic Instrument, aims to map the universe in three dimensions and shine a light on the mysterious force of nature we call dark energy. Its five-year sky survey will begin in 2020, but the project achieved an important milestone this fall when collaborators started assembling key pieces of equipment at Kitt Peak National Observatory in Arizona. A picture may be worth a thousand words, but exploring DESI by pictures and numbers offers an in-depth glimpse into this unique, ambitious instrument—and a peek at the excitement to come.

Princeton Physicists Design Light-Twisting Plasma Chamber

It was my first day at the cyclotron, and I stood in an underground lab area that smelled like sawdust and solder, sectioned off behind the heavy black vinyl of a laser safety curtain.  I squinted at the chunky piece of glass held delicately between my fingers—the lab chief had called it a quarter wave plate. From certain angles, its translucent surface gleamed like a tinted mirror, reflecting a bizarrely yellow-green hued world.

Star Light, Star Bright: Measuring All the Starlight (Ever!)

If you made a wish on every star in the universe, you’d need to make about a trillion trillion wishes—that’s a 1 followed by 24 zeros. Of course, you can’t see all of those stars from your bedroom window. You can’t even see them all from the Hubble Space Telescope, and you won’t be able to with the James Webb Space Telescope either.

Physics Has an Obvious Gender Problem—So How Does Someone End Up Thinking the Field is Biased Against Men?

Few pursue a career in physics expecting it to be a smooth ride; the subject is notoriously challenging, the playing field competitive. For women, though, the road can be downright treacherous. Feelings of not belonging or imposter syndrome, rampant among physics students at the best of times, are compounded by the frequent lack of female faculty members (women held only 14% of physics faculty positions in the U.S. as of 2010) and the harassment women face, leading many to give up or change majors early into their physics careers. So when, earlier this year, a physicist named Alessandro Strumia took the stage at CERN's first workshop on high-energy theory and gender only to launch into a tirade alleging that the field is biased against men, the community responded swiftly with what can only be described as a logical and statistical beatdown.

Peering into the Chaos at the Cores of Colliding Galaxies

Astronomers predict that in about four billion years, our very own Milky Way Galaxy will collide with its neighbor, the Andromeda Galaxy. Although the thought of galaxies running into each other brings visions of havoc and fiery collisions, the truth is that since galaxies are mostly empty space, not a whole lot is likely to happen to stars like our Sun, comfortably housed on the periphery of the galaxy. The galactic centers though—that’s another story, and one that work by Dr. Michael Koss at Eureka Scientific, Inc., is helping to shed light on.

Scientists Reveal How "Molecular Boxes" Self-Assemble, Stretch to Fit Contents

Think back to your high-school biology class, where you learned about DNA. Deoxyribonucleic acid is the building block of life. It is present in each of our cells and determines countless physical traits. But this incredibly complex molecule is impressive for another reason: single strands can spontaneously connect with each other to form the familiar double helix structure.

Meet the Scientists Using Swarms of "Remote Control" Bacteria to Study Collective Behavior

“It's unbelievable to be able to move a joystick and watch an organism that is 10x smaller than the width of my hair move across a screen,” says Christopher Pierce, a doctoral student at The Ohio State University (OSU) working with Dr. Ratnasingham Sooryakumar.

These Fluid-Filled Tiles Could Help Keep the Buildings of the Future Cool

Sunlight is the power source for nearly all life on Earth, but it can be destructive, too. When too much radiation—particularly the heat rays of the near-infrared—hits manmade structures, it can cause them to overheat, warp, and even fracture.

Now You Can Listen to the Moon Landing

On July 20, 1969, just before 11 p.m. Eastern time, Neil Armstrong planted the first human footprints on another world. It was a defining moment in a journey that had transfixed the planet.

Surprising Discovery Gives "Plasma Lenses" a Clearer Future

It might surprise you that scientists at CERN—the home of the world’s largest particle accelerator—don’t always think bigger is better. At 17-miles in diameter, CERN’s Large Hadron Collider (LHC) is the biggest and most powerful particle accelerator in the world. It’s the hub of high energy physics research, drawing scientists from around the globe and managing to make the Higgs boson a household name. But as CERN researchers look to the future, some of them are thinking small. Well, small in size, not small in impact.

Next-Gen Satellites May Use Lasers to Part the Clouds

Scientists of the future huddle around a computer, waiting for an HD live stream of the incoming asteroid. As the probe that will provide the crucial communication slowly moves into view of the asteroid, they know that every second counts. In a surprising move, they tune their receivers not to radio frequencies, like we do today, but to a much higher frequency—somewhere in the near-infrared. But they think nothing of it—infrared and visible light allows for a much better transmission of data, and all of the leading satellite producers have switched over by now. But at the last minute, a cloud rolls in above the station, scattering the message from the relay satellite in all directions and cutting off the receiver.

That’s where the work of Dr. Jean-Pierre Wolf comes in.

Smashing (Frozen) Pumpkins: Celebrate Halloween with Triboluminescence!

Pumpkins have a very important role this time of year. Not only can they be used as decorations, jack-o-lanterns, and in pumpkin pies, but we can use them for some unique autumnal science, to demonstrate the phenomenon of triboluminescence: when solid objects emit light under physical strain. This isn’t like putting a candle inside a jack-o-lantern, mind you—the pumpkin itself can glow...but only for a split second, before it stops being a pumpkin altogether.

The Surprising Behavior of "Whirlpools" of Light

The fastest timescales. The highest pressures. Absolute zero. The nanoscale. These conditions are far from our everyday experience, but studying how things behave in different situations can reveal a more complete picture of their nature—and can lead to revolutionary breakthroughs.

How Dandelion Seeds Float Seemingly Impossible Distances

A single breath from a playing child can send dozens of fluffy dandelion seeds floating into the air. Now scientists find these seeds can keep themselves aloft by generating a type of vortex previously thought too unstable to exist, helping explain how these flowers have dispersed across the planet.

What Everyone Gets Wrong About Newton's Apple

As someone whose job it is to help people understand and appreciate physics, I absolutely hate the way most people talk about Isaac Newton and how he developed his theory of gravity. It's not the apple bit that I have a problem with; that's an important part of the story, and even historically accurate! The thing that kills me is the way the idea is framed, and the gulf that it creates between his observation and his insight. What do I mean by that? Let's unpack the story, as I remember first being told it.

Exotic "Ice VII" May Form on Ocean Worlds

Ice VII (or "ice-seven") is an exotic form of ice that grows so rapidly it could, under the right conditions, freeze an ocean-world's worth of water in just a few hours. A team of researchers from Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory (LLNL) has recently uncovered the unusual process by which that freezing takes place. Their results were published in the American Physical Society’s journal Physical Review Letters.

"Ricequakes": How Breakfast Cereal is Helping Scientists Understand the Physics Behind Collapsing Dams

The crackle of wet rice puffs is more than snappy advertising strategy: Pouring milk into a bowl of cereal might help shed light on the collapse of ice shelves and dams of compacted earth, a new study finds.

Raising Spiders in a Physics Lab Reveals There's More than Strength Behind a Spiderweb's Sturdiness

Spider silk has been seen as "the material of the future"...for about 300 years now. Since the 1700s, people have been so anxious to harness its strength, durability, and flexibility that they’ve coordinated massive spider-catching operations, painstakingly harvested threads from hundreds of spiders in silk factories, and even genetically modified goats to produce it in their milk. We're wooed by images of Spiderman and giant helicopter-snaring nets, or bridges supported by pearly white cables stronger than steel. The New Yorker claims, “In the Future, We’ll All Be Wearing Spider Silk”. We love the stuff, even if making use of it has turned out to be a practical impossibility.

Will Sprayable Antennas Give us "Smart" Everything?

It’s called the Internet of Things—the collection of health trackers, household gadgets, smart phones, next-generation appliances, and other technologies that connect to the internet and transmit information. The “IoT” is changing our world. And if the predictions of tech experts are right, we’re only in the early stages of that revolution.

The 150-Year-Old Art of the US Capitol Gives a Glimpse of Scientific History

Every year, over 3 million visitors pass through the doors of the United States Capitol building. For many, a highlight of this historic building is the Rotunda, the enormous chamber underneath the building's iconic dome. The floor of the Rotunda is filled with statues of American notables and paintings depicting pivotal scenes in United States history—not to mention gawking tourists and their guides, along with the occasional Congressperson.

Flawed Crystals are Beautiful in the Eyes of Scientists

Jewelers may disagree, but flaws in a crystal can be a good thing. Recently published research suggests that crystals with specific defects can be useful for making future computers more efficient.

Tiny Water Droplets Self-Propel on Sizzling Surfaces

Many cooks have experienced this—sprinkle a few drops of water on a searing hot skillet, and watch them roll around like a couple of glass beads. Scientists had previously thought that this phenomenon is solely due to the cushions of steam that form underneath the droplets, but now researchers find these drops also propel themselves, with the churning fluid inside them acting like engines. This discovery could lead to new kinds of self-propelled devices, they add.

"Tools Made from Light" Take Home 2018 Physics Nobel

At its core, physics is the study of matter and energy—the fundamental fabric of the universe. It's a field seemingly full of paradoxes: accelerator rings 15 miles around help us examine the smallest things imaginable. The faster something moves, the slower time passes. So maybe it’s no wonder that in seeking to understand the core of reality, physicists discover knowledge and create tools that start to sound like the province of fantasy. This year’s Nobel prize in physics was shared by three scientists—Arthur Ashkin, Donna Strickland, and Gérard Mourou—who laid the groundwork for two such tools: optical tweezers and chirped pulse amplification.

As Above, So Below: Asteroid Motion on an Atomic Scale

Physics stories often highlight the strangeness of the quantum realm in comparison to our everyday world, the difference between what we experience and what happens at the nano-scale. Sometimes, though, you can gain more insight by focusing on the similarities between two situations than on their differences.

Fighting Ice With...Ice?

If you live in a part of the world with cold winters, you probably know the awful feeling that comes with an unexpectedly early frost or snow—one that covers your car in a layer of ice before you’ve pulled out your gloves and ice scraper for the season. The one that makes your fingers freeze in anticipation as you blast the defrost and pull out a credit card so that you can begin chipping away at the windshield.

New Positron Accelerator Design Could Put Antimatter Beam Source on a Desktop

Giant "atom smashers" like CERN and SLAC are famous for their ability to accelerate matter to very nearly the speed of light. By slamming together particles like protons and electrons at extremely high speeds, physicists can gain a better understanding of their fundamental nature—and even uncover new particles, like the now-famous Higgs boson. Their wide range of applications and their place in the spotlight mean that an ever-increasing amount of effort is being devoted to making proton and electron accelerators cheaper and more accessible to scientists.

Simulating the Sun, Researchers Pinpoint a Fruit Fly's Neural Compass

When you think of fruit flies, many words likely come to mind: buzzing, hovering, annoying...but navigating probably isn’t one of them. As it turns out, these tiny insects are known to travel up to nine miles per evening in search of food. Since they often live in barren deserts, Dr. Ysabel Giraldo reasoned that they must have some way of keeping a straight course—there’s just no way they could survive otherwise. It’s been shown that without the presence of external cues, most insects and animals—humans included—tend to wander in circles, so Giraldo wanted to uncover the secret to the fruit fly’s navigation. “Even though there have been so many studies on Drosophila, surprisingly no one really knew much about how fruit flies navigate,” she says.

"Fool's Gold" May Hold Value After All

Famous for raising hopes of riches beyond imagination—and then dashing them—the mineral pyrite is better known as fool’s gold. Its metallic yellow luster has fooled many over the years, with consequences that helped shape the modern world, along with the fortunes (and misfortunes) of individuals: According to one story, a fool got what he deserved by marrying a woman for the “hills of gold” on her land that—as you might have guessed—turned out to be hills of pyrite.

Scientists Reveal "Lensless" Camera

Cameras have come a long way since the days of photographers hiding under a cloak amidst a startling puff of smoke. At any camera store, you can find video cameras that can record underwater, devices that takes photographs with breathtaking clarity at incredible distances—or even ones that do both. However, regardless of how advanced they get, every digital camera currently in existence is constrained by one thing: the need for a focusing lens.

Numbers In the News: The Physics of a Flying Tesla

A few months ago, Elon Musk famously launched his own car into space on top of SpaceX's Falcon Heavy rocket. It was an unprecedented stunt, and one that's unlikely ever to be repeated, but last week the world saw another Tesla launched skyward . . . this one didn't go nearly as well.

The World’s Fastest-Spinning Object Could Lead to Quantum Insights

What's the world record look like for RPMs? One of the fastest-spinning objects in the world is a tiny, levitating dumbbell created by a team of American and Chinese researchers—a nanoscale rotor that can spin more than a sixty billion times in just one minute.

What Wind Farms Can Learn from Football Teams

Winning football teams are composed of members that work well together, capitalizing on each other’s strengths and compensating for each other’s weaknesses. But that mindset can be applied in a lot of different circumstances—it turns out that wind farms can benefit from this strategy, too. New research shows that by incorporating cooperation, wind farms could output as much as ten times more power per area than they do now...and that would be a win for all of us. The research will be published in an upcoming issue of the American Physical Society’s journal Physical Review Fluids.

Numbers in the News: Can I Really Have a Set of Artificial Gills?

According to a story in CNN, you may soon be able to slip into a set of artificial gills, and take to the water without having to haul along a pressurized tank of the atmosphere.

From the Military to Mars: 3D Printing with Whatever you've Got

Prosthetics, tools, homes, cars—the possibilities of 3D printing are vast and exciting, even more so as researchers develop ways to use on-site materials in remote locations for printing.

Becoming the Noise, Part II: Putting Humans into the Physics Equation

Read part I of this story here.
When I set out for Orfield Labs, I expected the anechoic chamber to capture my full attention. After all, so many people come to experience the quietness that the lab had to start charging for tours, to compensate for lost productivity. As I talked with founder and president Steve Orfield about the evolution of his career and his lab, though, I started to appreciate that the chamber is a tool. And eventually I concluded that, like all tools, the true value lies in what it can do in the hands of an artisan.

Numbers in the News: How Big is that Lake on Mars?

In case you missed it, last month NASA announced the discovery of what looks like liquid water on Mars: a 20-kilometer (12.4-mile) wide lake hiding under 1.5 km (~1 mile) of ice. A lake 20 kilometers across sounds like a lot of water, even if it is deep under the ice. Why did it take so long to find if it is such a large feature? Let’s put this into perspective and compare the size of the lake on Mars to the size of a dot on a basketball. The comparison might surprise you.

Are Gravitational Waves the Key to Nailing Down the Universe's Expansion Rate?

Just over a century ago, Einstein sat scratching his head over his own theory of general relativity. Although the equations seemed to fit all of astronomers' observations of the universe to date, there was one little detail he couldn’t seem to shake: the universe ought to be contracting over time, scrunched together by the pull of gravity.

NASA is About to Launch a Sun-Skimming Solar Probe

Imagine yourself standing comfortably in front of a warm, cozy fire. Suddenly, you start to feel just a little too toasty, so you take a few steps away. But wait—now that you’re farther from the fire, it’s even hotter! Huh?

Manipulating Light May Hold the Key to Quantum Computing

It’s one of technology’s hottest (and most elusive) goals for the 21st century: quantum computing. You’ve probably heard talk of these powerful machines, which have the potential to completely transform our computing capabilities and upend modern data security. Although the foundations of this technology have already been laid down in research labs, we haven’t yet been able to develop quantum computers that can overtake their classical counterparts. However, some recent research from a group at the University of Maryland and NIST’s Joint Quantum Institute may bring us one step closer.

Numbers in the News: Sand, Sand Everywhere

This past Sunday NPR’s Weekend Edition interviewed Vince Beiser about his new book The World in a Grain. During the interview, Beiser made a mind-boggling claim. If you take all the sand used commercially every year, all 50 billion tons of it, you would have enough sand to cover the state of California. To which Californians might ask: “Well, how deep are we talking?”

"Looking Cool" with an Infrared Invisibility Cloak

Who among us hasn’t dreamed of owning an invisibility cloak? Now, a team at the University of Wisconsin-Madison thinks they have one figured out. There's a catch, though: It only works for infrared light. Although infrared is already invisible to human eyes, it’s extremely useful in security and defense, making this an exciting development.

A Physicist's Take on Online Hatred and Extremism

“Do we really have to live with this?”

Like many of us, that’s what Dr. Neil Johnson wondered when the news highlighted yet another seemingly random violent terrorist attack back in 2014. But unlike many of us, he and his colleagues turned to science in search of an answer.

Becoming the Noise: A Visit to One of the Quietest Places on Earth

Scratchy. My ultra-smooth gel pen made a distracting and mildly irritating sound that I can only describe as scratchy with each stroke. I became acutely aware of the process involved in forming each letter. I flipped a page in my memo pad to make room for more notes, but the loud, prolonged crinkling of the page only left me more distracted and further behind.

Liquid Droplets May Help Unravel the Secrets of Quantum Mechanics

Strange as it may sound, bouncing liquid droplets are changing our ideas of what happens at subatomic levels. By studying their movement across pools of liquid, Prof. John Bush from MIT is discovering how these droplets can help us understand the tiny particles that make up everything in our universe. But how can small droplets tell us about what’s going on at microscopic levels of matter? Don’t tiny, quantum particles act differently than anything in classical mechanics? Maybe not.

Simple, Inexpensive Magnetic Levitation: The Flight of the Humble “Flea”

From flying broomsticks to floating cities and container-less storage, levitation has a tendency to capture the imagination. Among the impractical and impossible ideas, there are some good ones that have already taken hold. Maglev trains now carry passengers in Japan, South Korea, and China, and have been proposed in countries across the world. Fun (but less useful) hoverboards operate on similar technology, as do magnetic bearings used in industrial machinery.

A Bright Future: Quantum Dots and the Quest for Energy Efficient White Lights

From stadium lights to night lights, the modern way of life runs on artificial illumination. This lighting is costly—in both environmental and economic terms—but last week in the journal Optica, a team of researchers from Koç University in Turkey introduced a new kind of white light source, based on blue LEDs and quantum dots, that could lower the costs of lighting up our world.

Scientists Identify Likely Source of High-Energy Cosmic Neutrinos

An international team of scientists has found compelling evidence that some the tiniest, most elusive particles we know about—neutrinos—are produced by one of the brightest, most energetic events in the universe. The key to this evidence? A single neutrino, detected by the IceCube NeutrinoObservatory on September 22, 2017.

Watch: How Does a Dead Fish Swim Upstream?

Take a quick look at this trout swimming upstream. Notice anything unusual?

Big Bangs and Squibs: A Physicist Turns Pyrotechnician for the Day

Last week, I got to watch a great fireworks show from pretty close up—because I was part of the team that made it happen! By the end of the day, I had broken all of my nails, was covered in dirt from origins unknown, and had ash in my ears. It was awesome.

What Happens When You Plug a Wire into a Lightning Bolt? Electrical Instability Caught on Camera

“It’s easy to forget, looking at a lightbulb filament, that electricity is still untamed and dynamic,” says Trevor Hutchinson, a graduate student in the physics department at the University of Nevada, Reno (UNR).

These "Microlasers" Turn Infrared into Laser Light, and May Play a Role in Next-Gen Medical Tech

The biggest, brightest lasers make for good headlines, but this isn’t a story about those. This is a story about lasers so tiny you need a microscope just to see them—lasers smaller than red blood cells. These tiny lasers could play an important role in next-generation medical care (among other technologies), and that makes them a big deal.

Oak Ridge Cuts the Ribbon on the World's Most Powerful Supercomputer

When you think of a scientist, do you imagine some lone figure, wreathed in a meticulous lab coat, furtively working late into the night, combining strange ingredients in a beaker or measuring something with a set of calipers? While it’s certainly true that many physicists engage in some sort of hands-on research, in the era of modern science that’s only half of the picture.

These Exotic Fish Use an Electric "Sixth Sense" to Communicate

Ghost knifefish use electricity as a sixth sense. Now scientists exploring tropical jungle streams have unearthed secrets regarding how these fish use electric signals to communicate in the wild. This work could shed light on how nervous systems in general process weak, ambiguous sensory data, which could help improve the design of bionic devices that interact with the nervous system.

The Twinkle in Mother Earth’s Eye: Laser Blasts Produce Promising Fusion Advances

What if you could have a miniature star powering your house, your computer, and your car? How cool would that be! Stars produce a lot of energy, and they get that energy through a process called fusion. Thanks to recent research at the National Ignition Facility (NIF), we’re now one step closer to using fusion as a power source—unlocking a virtually infinite supply of clean energy.

A Cleaner Cosmological Ruler Could Shed Light on Dark Energy

A 12-inch ruler isn’t much help when you’re trying to trying to measure the universe. To handle the enormous distances between planets, stars, galaxies, and groups of galaxies, astronomers have developed a whole set of measuring tools and units of measurement. In an upcoming issue of the American Physical Society’s journal Physical Review Letters, a team of scientists is proposing a pristine new tool that could help us unravel the nature of dark energy.

Fifth State of Matter May Defy the Second Law of Thermodynamics

Why does food stay solid in your freezer? Why does your tea cool down if you leave it out? Why is your dining room table a uniform temperature, instead of concentrating all its heat in a tiny corner?

A Japanese Spacecraft is Closing in on a Mineable Asteroid

Is humanity on its way to mining asteroids?

Black Holes, Galaxy Mergers, Quasars: A Quest to Understand the Ordinary

There are more than 100 billion galaxies in the universe, according to most estimates. Some estimates go as high as 2 trillion (a “2” followed by 12 zeros). Whether hundred billion or trillion, the fact is that there are a lot of galaxies. Most of us, on this tiny planet orbiting a random star in an average-sized galaxy, imagine black holes and galaxy collisions to be rare and exotic. They’re not.

Questioning Assumptions: Have Binary Stars Been Tricking us into Overestimating the Age of Clusters?

For decades, astronomers have puzzled over the age of globular clusters, heavenly objects made up of hundreds of thousands of stars, living and dying together as they travel through their galaxies. They tend to shine red, indicating that their stars are ancient; in fact, their accepted age is somewhere between 10 and 14 billion years. This is only slightly younger than the Universe itself (13.7 billion years)—which begs the question, how could such complex objects form so soon after the Big Bang? Stars need time to form and drift together into clusters, and gravity works slowly at large scales.

This Next-gen Material Can Only be Made in Zero-G

It sounds crazy, but one company is trying it...and it looks like it's going to work.

Research Revisited: Knotted Hearts, Boson Stars, and Magnetic Particles

Sometimes, science news coverage can package research a little too neatly—with a clear beginning, middle, and end. In reality, research is a messy process with lots of back-and-forth, frustrations, and surprises. Scientists publish journal articles that highlight their results, but these are more like trail markers than final destinations. With this in mind, we’re introducing a new occasional feature on Physics Buzz, getting back in touch with scientists whose work we’ve profiled to see the twists and turns their research is taking.

European Space Agency Sponsors "Graffiti Without Gravity" Contest

On a cold day in Holland last week, 12 of the top street artists in Europe took their places in front of a chain link fence. Each artist faced a 2x2-meter canvas, and the possibility of being the first street artist to experience zero gravity. Not actually in space, but the first to experience weightlessness on one of the European Space Agency’s (ESA) parabolic flights—and to create art in that environment.

Listening for a Tornado's Infrasound Roar May Provide Better Warning Systems

In May of 2013, an EF5 tornado—the most powerful class—devastated the city of Moore, Oklahoma and the surrounding area, killing 24 people and wounding more than 200. The tornado leveled entire blocks of houses, destroyed schools and medical buildings, and tossed cars around, wreaking havoc on the city.

Art Meets Science and Light Turns Liquid at ARTECHOUSE's "Naked Eyes"

In the southwest corner of Washington DC, just across the river from the Pentagon, you'll find the unassuming entrance to one of the city's most fascinating places: ARTECHOUSE. Descend the seemingly endless staircase inside, and you'll emerge into a cavernous underground space where light and sound are twisted into dazzling, dynamic displays. This is Naked Eyes.

Physicists Introduce "Quantum Fraud" Detection Tests

It’s hard enough to identify a knockoff Louis Vuitton bag. When quantum computers hit the market, how will buyers know they’re not getting duped...or settling for something that isn’t quite as “quantum” as they think?

Laser Blasts Clear a Path Toward Clean Energy

“Fusion is the ultimate goal of energy research. It is clean, abundant, and safe,” says Dr. Luke Ceurvorst, a researcher at the University of Bordeaux in France. Recently, Ceurvorst and a team of collaborators from around the world reported new research results in the American Physical Society’s journal Physical Review E that will help scientists working to achieve nuclear fusion using a technique called fast ignition.

Using Springs to Bypass Traditional Speed Limits

Carnivorous trap-jaw ants clamp down on prey in a split second, with jaw speeds approaching 145 mph. Like a bullet from a gun, a chameleon's tongue shoots out with amazing accelerations to capture flies in midair. Animals like these are fascinating studies of physics and biology. How do these little guys pack so much speed compared to the rest of us?

Ask a Physicist: Is Time Travel Possible?

Luke, from California, wrote in last week:
I'm writing a research paper on time travel. Do you think time travel is possible?

Sports Science: How Much Energy is in a Record-Breaking Fastball?

A recent article on rookie Jordan Hicks claims he is the new hardest thrower in Major League Baseball (MLB). This piqued my interest for several reasons. The admittedly out-of-touch baseball fan in me immediately wanted to know who he is playing for (St. Louis Cardinals). The physicist in me started asking questions like what exactly does it mean that he’s the “hardest thrower?” How much energy does a ball thrown by Jordan Hicks have? How does this compare to other sports?

Scottish Scientists Just Made a Contact Lens That Lets You Shoot Lasers from Your Eyes

There's an old one-liner: "Laser eye surgery isn't nearly as cool as it sounds". Now, I don't know if this is fair—in my opinion, blasting a person's cornea back into shape so that they can see without glasses is one of the most awesome applications of laser tech. But as cool as that is, it's still not as cool as a surgery that gives you the ability to shoot lasers from your eyes—something that may be on the horizon thanks to researchers at Scotland's University of St. Andrews.

Spiders can Fly—Why Can't Spiderman?

Imagine you’re a spider marooned on a post in the middle of a large lake. A human might fret over escaping such a trap, but as a spider, you know just what to do. You raise your rear end to the breeze, shoot out a spray of gossamer threads, and wait until a rising air current carries you up, up and away.

Not So Noble? Under Pressure, Helium Helps Atoms Come Together

Helium is the most chemically inert element in the universe, but last year, scientists proved it could successfully form a stable compound with another element. Now researchers suggest they know why—helium can act much like a peacekeeper, helping otherwise unruly atoms keep civil. These new findings also suggest that helium may form compounds more often than previously thought, including perhaps deep within Earth.

In Search of New Worlds—Meet TESS, Humanity’s Newest Exoplanet Scout

A new voyage is hopefully setting sail tonight; one that could lead to the discovery of many new worlds, some of which may even harbor life. Guided by the moon and pointed toward the stars, the goal of TESS—the Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite—is to identify rocky planets around nearby stars by detecting and analyzing distinctive dips in starlight.

The Suspense in Failure: A Simple Model of Breakage Goes Universal

It’s a classic scene in action movies: The hero is dangling from a rope, staring down at certain death. Just as he starts climbing, a fiber snaps above his head. A suspenseful score swells as a hidden clock begins to count down until the final fiber breaks. We see another snap, and then another. Just in the nick of time, the hero lands safely on a ledge as the rope plummets into the depths.

A Physics Video Game: Kirchhoff's Revenge

I remember the day I came to truly understand the concept of orbit—and why astronauts in the space station seem to be in zero-g, even though they're only 250 miles from Earth's surface, experiencing a gravitational pull close to 90% of what we feel here on Earth. It wasn't during a physics class, or during my time here at PhysicsCentral. I was in my friend's basement, probably 12 years old...playing Super Mario Galaxy.

How Far Can Laser Light Travel?

Have you ever played with a pocket-sized laser, wondering how far its light would travel? Could you, a naughty student inside a classroom on Earth, annoy a poor substitute teacher on Mars by waggling your laser pointer at him?​

Stealing Design Secrets from the Unexpected Master of Origami

According to folklore, earwigs like to crawl through the ears of sleeping humans, burrow into their brains, and lay eggs. Perhaps for this reason, or maybe because of their large rear-end pinchers, these insects tend to fall in the “creepy” category. Don’t be fooled through, earwigs are more sophisticated than they look: they're record-holders in the ancient art of origami.

Physicists Get to the Root of Randomness in Financial Markets

Unfortunately, no matter how much you know about a stock, you still can’t know for sure how its price will change next. In the same way, no matter how much you know about a coin before it’s flipped, you still can’t predict which face it will land on next. The common factor? Randomness.

A Galaxy Without Dark Matter

Update: The study's authors have provided us with a link to a free .pdf version of the full paper!

In a revolutionary development, a team of astronomers has discovered that a faint smudge of a galaxy called NGC1052-DF2 (or DF2, for short) may have no dark matter at all; the group's results show that DF2 has less dark matter than predicted by a factor of at least 400. That’s a big deal. Astronomers have never seen a galaxy like this before, and it raises intriguing questions about galaxies and dark matter.

Meet the Undergrad Helping to Make Ultralight, High-Performance Metals a Reality

Adam Shaw is still working toward his degree, but he’s also working toward the creation of next-gen materials that could change the world of modern manufacturing. A senior at Harvey Mudd College in California, Shaw is part of an international team of physicists and materials scientists whose research could hold the key to making an entirely new class of durable, lightweight alloys—mixtures of metals that can crystallize together to be greater than the sum of their parts.

Helping Soldiers Disappear in a Burst of Smoke

When an imminent threat means troops need to move, sometimes the most powerful cover is a smokescreen. Not a figurative smokescreen, but an actual burst of smoke that hides soldiers—and even tanks—from enemy eyes. Commonly created by smoke grenades, these bursts are valuable only as long as the enemy can’t see through them.

Instruments of Wonder: As one observatory prepares to make history, another seeks to preserve it.

About two weeks ago, in the coastal town of Redondo Beach, California, engineers at the headquarters of Northrop Grumman Aerospace Systems unpacked one heck of a box. Transported via the Space Telescope Transporter for Air Road and Sea, the contents were unwrapped with extreme caution by workers sporting cleanroom bunny suits. Inside were intricate pieces of the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST)—the space-bound observatory expected to revolutionize our understanding of the universe over the next decade.

Physics society releases 55 previously paywalled Stephen Hawking papers

As long as his ideas continue to spread and inspire people, Hawking's mind will live on.

Want to Win? What physics has to say about teamwork

Even Michael Jordan needed teammates. Makeshift stands selling Bulls merchandise inhabited every corner of Chicagoland after “Air Jordan” led his team to their third straight championship in 1993—and all the stands were busy. People were caught up in the excitement and inspiration of watching Jordan, Pippen, Armstrong, Grant, and their teammates take on the world.

Edible Electronics? Lasers are Bringing "Super Material" Graphene to Everyday Surfaces

This may be the only photo you’ve ever seen of researchers proudly displaying a university-branded potato and coconut.

Quick Physics Fix: Why Metal Feels Colder

I want you to try something: Find an object nearby that's made of metal, and something else made of wood or plastic. Put a hand on each. Which one is colder?

Fighting Fire with Physics

On average, about 8 million acres of land burns each year from wildfires. Big fires can reduce forests and grasslands to ash and can destroy homes and lives. Sadly, up to 90 percent of wildland fires in the United States are caused by humans’ carelessness, like unattended campfires, burning trash or waste, tossed-out cigarettes, and arson. The remaining 10 percent are usually started by lightning. Controlling and fighting fires isn’t easy. But knowing the science behind a burning blaze helps firefighters tackle the heat and flames to help save property, land and lives.

A Step toward Computing at the Speed of Light

Researchers have come up with a blueprint for a small and tunable device that can control the flow of light. Because it’s much tinier than existing technology, the invention could help shrink optical equipment to the nanoscale, and even enable superfast computers that run on photons instead of electrons. The results will be published in the journal Physical Review Letters.

What Happens Beyond "Absolute Hot"?

Can temperature drop below absolute zero? What happens then? Does it pop out at the other end of the thermometer like Pac-Man and become infinitely hot? Well, kind of, and the seemingly wacky concept is actually surprisingly common in physics.

The Joy of Physics: Kitchen Mysteries

As regular readers of the site know, we try to take time each week to answer an interesting or informative question that lands in our "Ask a Physicist" inbox. Part of the reason why we do this is to make sure that we're addressing your urgent questions and wild what-ifs, but it's also to demonstrate the amazing things you can do with physics. It's almost a superpower, a kind of "second sight" that lets us understand things that would otherwise be frustrating puzzles.

Suddenly Springtime: the Nonlinearity of Seasons

Why does a change in the seasons always seem to creep up on us? Winter has a way of seeming like it'll never end, like every day closer to springtime brings only another minute of sunlight—and then, nearly all at once, you're enjoying a sunset at 7 PM in nothing more than a light jacket.

Just What IS a "Quantum"?

Quantum is one of those words that's a godsend if you're a lazy science-fiction author in need of a plot device, or someone trying to scam people into buying your crappy, overpriced jewelry. It evokes scientific knowledge and mystery all at once; it lets things be in two places at the same time, or jump to alternate universes.

Ask a Physicist: How Many Calories are in that Sunbeam?

Last week, Joe from Massachusetts wrote in to ask:
Life is possible through the transfer of the sun's energy, through photosynthesis, and animals eating and us eating them. Is it possible to measure how much energy a person receives from the sun in order to live an average life, say 85 years being the average? Tall order, yes?

Wrestling the Demon: the Physics of Free Will

At the intersection of physics and philosophy, there's a question that's weighed on the minds of great thinkers for centuries: Is there truly such a thing as free will? When we make a choice, are we fundamentally any different than a calculator "choosing" which segments of its display to light up when the = button is pressed?

Introducing the Newest Member of the PhysicsCentral Team

Allow me to take a moment to introduce myself and tell you a bit about my background. I am the new APS science writing intern. Currently, I hold four bachelor's degrees and am working on a master's.  My first bachelor's was in English from Florida Gulf Coast University. Last May (2017) I graduated from Florida State University with three Bachelor of Science degrees in astrophysics, meteorology, and biomathematics. This past fall I started my master's degree in space studies through the University of North Dakota.

Cutting-Edge Science Applies Ancient Advice

Chemistry, in one form or another, has been practiced for thousands of years—but for most of that time, it was more akin to wizardry than the hard science we know today. The alchemists of old wielded a strange and marvelous power, to mix two substances and create something entirely new, something that couldn't be separated back into its original parts...except by more alchemy. Through trial and error, mixing up ingredients that seemed like they might be powerful—smelly sulfur, or metals like mercury—we slowly gathered enough pieces of the puzzle that clever people began to see the outlines of the whole shape: the Periodic Table.

Ask-a-Physicist: Pulling "Juice" Out of Thin Air

This week, Andrew from Quincy, WA wrote in to ask:
I'm writing a book, and trying to think of small-scale power sources—I want the ideas to be at least theoretically possible. Is it theoretically possible to slightly compress an atom to cause the electrons to vibrate? Also could that cause heat as well, and could you harness either of those to produce electricity?

I Want to Believe

Many physicists have a moment they can point to as the moment they decided to study physics. Often it is a teacher, or an experiment, or a demo show that made them think physics was the most interesting and fascinating subject. Others might be inspired to follow the path of a favorite author or television character. For me, Dana Scully was that character. I grew up watching the X-Files and for the first time I saw someone like me (well, not exactly like me, I'll never be that well put together or able to walk in heels) as a scientist. For many from my generation she was the first time we saw a female lead on TV that was not a sidekick and was treated as a full and engaging character. She also happened to be a physicist. This made me feel like I could do that, too.

The Physics of a "Blood Moon"

Once in a rare while, the moon turns red—because the sky is blue. That might sound like nonsense, but it's the simplest accurate way to explain what happened early this morning, when the moon disappeared from view before returning with an eerie, rusty cast to it.

Ask a Physicist: Which Falls Faster, a Brick or an Elephant?

Last week, reader James from Melbourne wrote in:
I was having a discussion with a colleague about what would hit the ground first if it fell from a plane (let’s say 15,000 ft). An elephant (let’s say African) or a standard brick. Curious to know your thoughts. Thanks! 

Waves & Whirlpools: on Energy, Structure, Matter, & Antimatter (Part IV)

With the first parts of this series (read part I, part II, and part III), we've built up the idea that the electric charge of a particle is very closely analogous to the angular momentum of an eddy in a fluid. Alike-spinning whirlpools repel, while opposite-spinning ones attract and, when they meet, annihilate one another—with the energy they contained radiating away as waves, just like matter and antimatter. But the surface of a pond is only two-dimensional, so to find out just how far this analogy goes, we're going to have to stretch our imaginations into higher spaces. Let's dive in.

The Hidden Rule that Shapes Trees, Lightning, and Cracks in the Earth

Seeing bare tree branches silhouetted against a sunset sky is one of the best things about winter. Bereft of leaves, the trees reveal their intricate skeletons—almost fractal, reminiscent of neurons, or the network of blood vessels that perfuse the body. These complex patterns of growth and branching are produced by an invisible algorithm—less a blueprint than a computer program—encoded in the tree’s DNA, optimized over millions of years of evolution. Taking data on sunlight, airflow, and proximity to other branches, the tree regulates the expression of growth hormones to ensure that it’s making the most of its space. With all the care that goes into their creation, it’s no surprise that the patterns they produce come out so marvelously complex.

A Window Into the Heart of the Sun

When magnetic fields clash, they can rapidly unleash powerful explosions. Now scientists may have solved the decades-old mystery behind how these outbursts can happen so quickly. The findings could one day help explain the origins of the most powerful explosions in the universe and point to ways to build stable nuclear fusion reactors.

Waves & Whirlpools: on Energy, Structure, Matter, & Antimatter (Part III)

This post is part of a series, (read Part I and Part II) introducing a heuristic method for thinking about spacetime and charge that I like to call "the pond". Electromagnetic waves are often described as being similar to waves on water, and it turns out the analogy can be extended—if photons are waves, charged particles are like whirlpools: excitations with a little bit of angular momentum to them which allows them to persist.

Meet the Scientist Using Physics Techniques to Solve Linguistic Mysteries

"A good idea is useless if does not convince others. An idea that is only convincing to oneself is dead."

These wise words represent a hard-learned lesson for Dr. Ramon Ferrer-i-Cancho, a scientist in the Complexity and Quantitative Linguistics lab at the Universitat Politècnica de Catalunya. Ferrer-i-Cancho has spent nearly two decades fleshing out a mathematical theory to describe the natural elegance of languages, fighting skepticism and intellectual inertia every step of the way. Now, with a publication in the American Physical Society's journal Physical Review E, he hopes to both refute and convert his dissenters once and for all.