Thursday, September 20, 2018

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.

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Wednesday, September 19, 2018

"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.

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Wednesday, September 12, 2018

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.

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Tuesday, September 11, 2018

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.


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Monday, September 10, 2018

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.

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Friday, August 31, 2018

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.

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Thursday, August 23, 2018

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.

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Tuesday, August 21, 2018

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.


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Thursday, August 16, 2018

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.


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Wednesday, August 15, 2018

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.


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Tuesday, August 14, 2018

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.


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Friday, August 10, 2018

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?


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Thursday, August 09, 2018

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.

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Wednesday, August 08, 2018

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?”

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"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.


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Wednesday, August 01, 2018

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.

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Tuesday, July 31, 2018

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.

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Friday, July 27, 2018

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.

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Tuesday, July 24, 2018

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.


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Wednesday, July 18, 2018

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.

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Thursday, July 12, 2018

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 Neutrino Observatory on September 22, 2017.

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Wednesday, July 11, 2018

Watch: How Does a Dead Fish Swim Upstream?

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

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Sunday, July 08, 2018

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.


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Monday, July 02, 2018

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).

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Wednesday, June 27, 2018

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.

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Tuesday, June 26, 2018

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.


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Friday, June 22, 2018

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.

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Thursday, June 21, 2018

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.

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Wednesday, June 20, 2018

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.

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Tuesday, June 19, 2018

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?

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Wednesday, June 13, 2018

Tuesday, June 12, 2018

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.

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Friday, June 08, 2018

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.

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Thursday, June 07, 2018

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.

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Thursday, May 31, 2018

Dig in to the Physics of Donuts for National Donut Day!

Before you ingest your annual delicious (possibly free) treat for Friday's annual celebration, why not learn about the physics of donuts? From topology to nuclear fusion, donuts are the physicist's breakfast pastry of choice. Not just because they’re tasty, but because their shape, the torus, is the subject of fascinating physics. Let's dig in to some of the multitude of donut sightings in physics, and answer the age-old question: Which rolls downhill faster, the holed donut or the filled doughnut?

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Tuesday, May 29, 2018

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.

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Friday, May 25, 2018

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.

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Thursday, May 24, 2018

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.

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Wednesday, May 23, 2018

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.

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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 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.


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