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Showing posts from 2019

Astronomers Illuminate Giant Magnetic Ropes in the Sky

This time of year, people in many parts of the world are digging out boxes of holiday light, untying and untwisting the strands to create beautiful, sometimes tacky, glowing displays. Throughout the season, people will gather in front of the best displays, maneuvering around one another to get a better view of the twinkling shows.

25 million light-years away, astronomers have captured another brilliant display. We can’t see it with our eyes, but astronomers with the international CHANG-ES* collaboration have maneuvered telescopes and carefully processed data to make it visible. What they’ve found could shed light on the behaviors of galaxies like our own Milky Way, and might help us better understand some mysterious large-scale features of the universe.

The whale galaxy is a spiral galaxy, although it looks like a long smudge through Earth-based telescopes because we see it from the side. Like all spiral galaxies, the whale is surrounded by a glowing halo–a less dense region of gas an…

Cancer-preventing pizza, deceased magnetic cockroaches, and cube-shaped poop discoveries honored in the 2019 Ig Nobel Prizes

The 2019 Ig Nobel Prize Ceremony was held in September at Harvard University, where the world’s top thinkers gathered to celebrate the year’s strangest scientific advances. The competition was fierce. The particles in the air were ionized by the sheer dynamicity of it.

 Science, at times, can be a little stuffy. Scientists, on the other hand, can be exceedingly ridiculous people. In recognition of the latter, the Ig Nobel Prizes recognize achievements that make people laugh...then think. Sometimes science answers questions about the fundamental wonders of our galaxy, but other times, it answers far smaller and weirder questions. Every year, 10 prizes are awarded to scientists with discoveries that are exceedingly eccentric.


 The ceremony itself is a rather strange affair. It begins as all distinguished ceremonies do, with a paper airplane competition, where audience members must aim for a helmet-clad human target on stage:

 Let’s take a closer look at this year’s winners:

 Medicine: P…

“Walkers” Go Super

Without context, you might think a “superwalker” is an extra-fast power walker, topnotch zombie, or even a high-tech mobility device. But this is a physics blog, so that’s your first clue that we’re headed in a different direction. The superwalkers in this story don’t even have legs—they are small drops of liquid with surprising capabilities that were serendipitously discovered by researchers at Monash University in Australia.

Before we get into the details of superwalkers, let’s start with regular walkers. About 15 years ago, researchers discovered that if you vibrate a small, open container of liquid in the right way and under the right conditions, a droplet of the same liquid will “walk” horizontally across the liquid surface.

Sáenz, et alSpin lattices of walking dropletsAPS Gallery of Fluid Motion
When a droplet hits the liquid for the first time, it bounces upward and creates waves in the liquid. When it falls back down again, the droplet interacts with the waves it created p…

Scientists Discover a Mechanism Behind Jupiter’s Mysterious Winds

When the astronomer Galileo Galilei first set his sights on Jupiter through his telescope in 1610, he noticed two strange things: First, there four small moons orbiting the planet, and second, planet had these strange alternating bands of color. Now, over 400 years later, we’re looking at these stripes on the Solar System’s largest planet in a way we never have before.

 Fast forward to the year 2011: NASA has launched the Juno spacecraft (who’s name has a strange origin story) towards Jupiter, and after a lengthy four-year trek, it finally began its orbit of the gaseous planet. The Juno mission’s overarching goal is to understand how Jupiter formed, which could tell us about the enigmatic origins of our solar system. Equipped with a magnetometer, an energetic particle detector, a UV spectrograph, and a host of other analytical devices, Juno is transmitting a boatload (or spaceshipload if you will) of data back to earth. With that data, scientists aim to unlock the secrets of this mass…

A Classic(al) Story of the Creation of the Universe

In his 1980 book Cosmos, Carl Sagan famously wrote, “If you wish to make an apple pie from scratch, you must first invent the universe.”

 If you follow their threads back in time, the ingredients for a deliciously satisfying apple pie - apples, flour, cinnamon, heat, etc. - wind their way back to before the observable universe. Existence was contained in a vacuum then, a void empty except for quantum fluctuations. 
 According to leading cosmological models, the vacuum was fairly stable and may have existed in this state for a very long time, but it had a weakness. When quantum fluctuations caused a region of space to spontaneously become more stable (to have lower energy) than its surroundings, a “bubble” of greater stability formed. According to cosmological models, this “bubble” of stability rapidly expanded at nearly the speed of light. Multiple bubbles may have occurred at the same time, coalescing and bringing the entire vacuum into a more stable existence. An existence in wh…

The New Playground of an Unexpected Bose-Einstein Condensate

Most playgrounds feature slides, swings, and other structures that encourage visitors to explore cause-and-effect, test their physical limits, and try new things. Scientists like to engage in these activities too, although their playgrounds don’t look quite the same...


In new research published in the American Physical Society’s journal Physical Review Letters, a team of researchers from the US and Canada have discovered what looks like a Bose-Einstein Condensate (BEC) in an unexpected place—a magnet based on the rare-earth element ytterbium.
 “This discovery provides a new playground for understanding Bose-Einstein condensation in magnetic systems, as well as how ytterbium breaks our expectations at low-temperatures in condensed matter systems,” says Gavin Hester, a graduate student working with Kate Ross at Colorado State University and one of the project leaders. 
 BECs are often called the fifth state of matter. It’s a state that can only be reached when a very dilute gas is coo…

Snow in the Western U.S. is Rapidly Disappearing, Here’s Why that’s a Huge Problem

“The snow is melting into music” -John Muir’s Unpublished Journal (1938)

The ethereal melody of melting snow is certainly peaceful, but if the famed naturalist were alive to hear it right now, that music might sound faster than he remembered. Listening to that sound today, it doesn’t exactly give me the same chill vibes.

How has nuclear power changed since Chernobyl?

Poignant and bleak, the critically acclaimed HBO series Chernobyl revisits a difficult chapter in history to tell an important story about the role of science in society. While portions of the plot and characters have been embellished for TV, its an exceptional portrayal of what can happen when a community ignores the signs of an impending disaster (i.e. climate change) and includes surprisingly accurate and accessible explanations of nuclear physics. 

On twitter, the show has also reignited an important discussion on nuclear power and its associated hazards. It is necessary to acknowledge that while some risks will always be there, nuclear power is actually safer than ever, and importantly, it could help curb our insatiable appetite for fossil fuels.

To learn more about this funky world of radioactive physics, we’re going to answer some questions about how our nuclear landscape has changed since 1986 (I’d say spoiler alert, but that’s not really applicable to historical events that hap…

Clarity from Chaos: How Climate Models Could Be Better than We Think

Chaos theory encompasses large swathes of mathematics and physics, but it was Edward Lorenz who immortalized it in popular culture. His now-famous 1972 presentation, which summarized his decade-long work in the field, focused on a single provocative question: Can the flap of a butterfly's wings in Brazil set off a tornado in Texas? Although he declined to definitively answer the question, his “butterfly effect” changed the way climatologists and meteorologists view causality in atmospheric science.

Researchers Image Current Flowing through DNA

“What’s it like to see something that no one has seen before?” I asked Tatiana Latychevskaia, a physicist at the University of Zurich.

“You’re always puzzled, trying to look for something similar,” she says. She explains that you talk to colleagues, search the literature, and think back to conference presentations… Usually, you don’t know in the moment that what you’re seeing is new. “Only later do you think that maybe this is something really being seen for the first time,” she tells me.

10 Science Podcasts You Should Listen to Right Now

It seems like there's a podcast for everything these days, and everyone (and their dog) is making a podcast. Whether you’re into beekeeping or bigfoot, there’s a pod out there for you. In the U.S., 33% of people report listening to a podcast in the past month; and 16 million Americans would call themselves an “avid podcast fan”.


With all these shows and listening platforms around, it can be difficult to know where to turn. To help you find the best science podcasts for whatever you're into, we’ve collected a list of our staff picks. While the PhysicsCentral podcast is our personal, unbiased favorite (you can listen to all 110 episodes on SoundCloud), these programs are nice too.

Inspired by Electric Eels, Scientists Create Wearable Underwater Generators

Its been over three years since my first triathlon, but I still cringe thinking about that initial dive into the water. See, I can’t really swim. If you were to watch a race between me and a housecat, I’d strongly suggest putting your money on the cat. In spite of my poor technique, I came out on the other side, as excited as one can be when they’re facing miles of biking and running ahead of them. When the race was finally over, my internal science-nerd monologue resumed, and I thought, “Wouldn’t it be awesome if all that kinetic energy I just used could be converted into electricity?”

Unbeknownst to me, researchers at the Beijing Institute of Nanoenergy and Nanosystems were working on just that, and they’ve invented flexible underwater nanogenerators (Bionic Stretchable Nanogenerator, BSNG) that can harness electricity, as you swim.

Searching for Ultralight Dark Matter with a Supermassive Black Hole

They say a picture’s worth a thousand words, but very few are worth 5 million gigabytes. In April 2019 the Event Horizon Telescope collaboration, an international team of over 200 scientists, unveiled the first-ever picture of a black hole (or more specifically–the event horizon around it). Capturing an image of M87* was a supermassive accomplishment in astrophysics, but research in Physical Review Letters shows how it could change our perceptions of dark matter.

The Science of Ice Cream, Redux

Even though it's been a warm couple of months already, it's officially summer. A delicious, science-filled way to beat the heat? Making homemade ice cream.

(We wrote this article a few years ago, but since then we've learned a LOT about ice cream, so we're re-releasing this article, with expanded ice cream science and a wider range of dairy-free options. Enjoy!)




50 Moon Facts to Celebrate the 50th Anniversary of the Apollo 11 Moon Landing

July 20th, 2019 marks the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 mission, a small step for man, but a giant leap for humankind. In the past 50 years we’ve learned so much more about our planetary satellite neighbor, and to celebrate this anniversary, we’re sharing some OUT OF THIS WORLD facts about the moon:

1. Our moon is the 5th largest moon in the Solar System

2. The moon is not part of Mars. 

3. The moon used to be part of the Earth, until a Mars-sized planetesimal hit our planet, sending a cloud of hot rock into space that eventually cooled, consolidated, and turned into our moon



4. Earth’s tilted axis is likely a result of this collision. 

5. Katherine Johnson, one of only a few black “human computers” employed by NASA for 33 years, calculated the Apollo 11’s trajectory to the moon and many other missions involving human space travel.



6. The moon used to look much, much bigger, because it was closer to Earth. Research suggests the moon could have been up to 12 times closer to Earth than …