Friday, May 18, 2018

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?

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Monday, May 14, 2018

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.

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Monday, May 07, 2018

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?

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Friday, May 04, 2018

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?

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Thursday, May 03, 2018

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?


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Wednesday, May 02, 2018

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.

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Wednesday, April 25, 2018

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.

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Monday, April 23, 2018

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.

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Wednesday, April 18, 2018

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.

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Tuesday, April 17, 2018

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.

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Monday, April 16, 2018

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.

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Thursday, April 12, 2018

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?​


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Tuesday, April 10, 2018

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.

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Wednesday, April 04, 2018

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.

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Wednesday, March 28, 2018

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.

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Tuesday, March 27, 2018

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.

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Monday, March 26, 2018

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.

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Wednesday, March 21, 2018

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.

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Monday, March 19, 2018

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.

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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.

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Friday, March 09, 2018

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.

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Wednesday, March 07, 2018

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?

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Tuesday, March 06, 2018

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.

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Thursday, March 01, 2018

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.

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Tuesday, February 27, 2018

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.

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Friday, February 23, 2018

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.


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Wednesday, February 21, 2018

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.


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Tuesday, February 20, 2018

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.

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Friday, February 16, 2018

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?

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Thursday, February 15, 2018

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?

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Tuesday, February 13, 2018

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.

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Tuesday, February 06, 2018

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.

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Friday, February 02, 2018

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?


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Thursday, February 01, 2018

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.

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Wednesday, January 31, 2018

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.

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Friday, January 26, 2018

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! 


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Friday, January 19, 2018

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.

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Thursday, January 18, 2018

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.


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Tuesday, January 16, 2018

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.

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Friday, January 12, 2018

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.

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Wednesday, January 03, 2018

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 Polit├Ęcnica 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.


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