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The Year of Blogging Shamelessly


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All the cool kids seem to be doing it so I figured I’d compile a year-end list of my own favorite posts from this past Year of Blogging Shamelessly.

I Like Coffee, I Like Tea. All about interactive coasters, the physics of coffee rings, how to make siphon coffee (basically using pressure to create a vacuum during the brewing process), and how Fick’s laws of diffusion apply to brewing the perfect cup of tea.

Dueling Dualities. We tend to think of dualities as two different polar opposites, but in theoretical physics, it represents the notion that two seemingly different things might just be two different ways of looking at something. I was responding to Amanda Gefter’s wonderful Edge essay responding to the question, “What scientific concept would improve everybody’s cognitive toolkit?” As she wrote,

Embracing the physicist’s meaning of duality… can provide us with a powerful new metaphor, a one-stop shorthand for the idea that two very different things might be equally true. As our cultural discourse is becoming increasingly polarized, the notion of duality is both more foreign and more necessary than ever. If accessible in our daily cognitive toolkit, it could serve as a potent antidote to our typically Boolean, two-valued, zero-sum thinking — where statements are either true or false, answers are yes or no, and if I’m right, then you are wrong. With duality, there’s a third option. Perhaps my argument is right and yours is wrong; perhaps your argument is right and mine is wrong; or, just maybe, our opposing arguments are dual to one another.

Ticket to Ride. All about the “Euthanasia Coaster” invented by Julijonas Urbonas, a designer, artist, engineer and PhD student specializing in “gravitational aesthetics.” Yes, a coaster designed in such a way probably could kill you.

And the Oscar Goes To…. A fond look back at some of the best nods to physics in the films of 2010.

Driven to Diffraction. The physics of diffraction gratings, or why your DVDs work.

Babble-Onia. How nifty new speech recognition algorithms might one day solve “the cocktail party problem.”

Rubber Band Man. The physics of “shrinkage” in rubber, whether it be dildos or space shuttle o-rings. Special video appearances by the late Richard Feynman, and the very present Brian Cox giggling at a tabletop LHC model built entirely out of adult “toys.” [Mildly NSFW]

Bring Back Your Dead. The physics of cryogenics, and why it’s the unthawing process that’s the real killer when it comes to reviving cryogenically frozen folks.

Thrown for a Curve. Responding to a terrific post at Wired by my pal David Dobbs, I explore the physics of the curve ball, including the seminal experiments conducted at NIST by a man named Lyman Briggs.

So You Want to Be a Science Consultant. Advice for scientists with stars in their eyes about consulting on Hollywood movies and TV series. tl;dr: Don’t quit your day job.

Drunken Masters of Lingua Franca. At an acoustics conference in June, Abby Kaplan, who works in the linguistics department at the University of Utah, had some interesting things to say about drunken speech patterns — namely, whether it’s harder to pronounce certain sounds or words when intoxicated. I’m betting she had a lot of volunteers for the drunken group. Bonus: why it’s harder to understand foreign accents, and a bit of drunken boxing, courtesy of Jackie Chan.

What Woody Woodpecker Can Teach Us About Football. The high incidence of concussion and long-term brain damage in professional football has scientists lining helmets with high-tech sensors to better understand the forces at work in producing such injuries. They’re also looking into new materials to reduce the impact of those forces, and drawing inspiration from Mother Nature — specifically the humble woodpecker and why it never gets a headache.

Yodel All the Way. Why yes, there’s a science as well as art to yodeling. Features “Lonelly Goatherd” plus a video duet of “Nessun Dorma” between a human tenor and an operatic robot called Pavorobotti.

Flushed With Pride. The sound of one toilet flushing can be very loud indeed. That’s why acoustics researchers study how to reduce toilet flushing noise in adjacent offices. It’s science!

I also blog about the latest space, astrophysics and particle physics research over at Discovery News. Here’s a few of my favorite posts from the past year in that venue.

Solving the Mystery of Frankenstein’s Moon. An astrophysicist and “forensic astronomer” at Texas State University named Donald Olson has concluded that there is no good reason to doubt Mary Shelley’s account of being inspired after experiencing a “waking dream” as moonlight streamed through her bedroom window.

Physicists Bid Farewell to the Tevatron. After a spectacular 28-year run, Fermilab’s Tevatron is shut down, signaling the end of an era in particle physics.

Reality Check: What are Those Naughty Faster-Than-Light Neutrinos Really Up To? “I’m sorry to report that, for all the hoopla, the general consensus that has emerged over the last couple of days is that (a) it’s a really interesting, potentially exciting result, but (b) it probably won’t hold up over time.”

Einstein’s Anti-Gravity Underwear and Other Weighty Matters. An 1879 issue of The London Punch credited Thomas Edison with the invention of antigravity undergarments. It was satire, of course, but prompted a blog post looking at some of the most infamous anti-gravity schemes in recent history.

Higgs Field Makes a Cameo on SyFy’s Eureka. One of my favorite sci-fi series on TV had a bit of fun with anti-gravity, too, thanks to a fictional “Higgs field disruptor” that causes various objects in Eureka start to lose mass and float away. I indulge in a bit of nerd-gassing and examine the underlying science.

Oh Pioneer! Mysterious Anomaly May Finally Be Solved. A flurry of recent papers could lay to rest once and for all a longstanding mystery in astrophysics: the so-called “Pioneer anomaly,” an as-yet-unexplained deceleration of NASA’s Pioneer 10 and Pioneer 11 spacecraft in their wanderings beyond our solar system. A follow-up post offered further evidence that the culprit is more likely to be heat than something more exotic (like modified gravity).

Physicists Observe Neutrino “Quick Change” in Japan. In June, the Japanese T2K (Tokai to Kamioka) experiment announced the first evidence (PDF) of a rare form of neutrino oscillation, whereby muon neutrinos turn into electron neutrinos. And this, in turn, gives physicist a potential clue to a critical mystery in cosmology: why there is something in the universe, rather than nothing. Fermilab’s MINOS experiment confirmed the observation the next month.

The Soviet Particle Accelerator that Time Forgot. Back in the late 1980s, the USSR started building what would have been the largest particle accelerator in the world in a town called Protvino. And an enterprising group of urban spelunkers rediscovered it and took some pretty impressive photographs.

Fermilab’s Bump Hunters See Hints of New Particle. Okay, it wasn’t the Higgs boson, but in June there was a flurry of excitement over a slight bump in the data from Fermilab’s CDF experiment that offered compelling evidence for a possible new particle. Alas, the sister detector, D-Zero, weighed in shortly after and put the kibosh on all the excitement: they didn’t see the same signal.

What Happens to Snails in Space? A new paper by a team of US and Russian scientists that appeared in April on PLoS investigated the effects of microgravity on, well, snails.

On the Trail of Magnetic Monopoles. In the season 2 finale of The Big Bang Theory everyone’s favorite socially challenged physicist, Sheldon, accepts an invitation to spend three months at the North Pole searching for magnetic monopoles. He figures finding a magnetic monopole would put him on the fast track for a Nobel Prize. And he would be right. But he shouldn’t count on finding one right away; magnetic monopoles have eluded our best scientists for centuries.

Finally, a propos of nothing in particular, here’s one of my favorite physics-y songs, by The Cat Empire. Enjoy! And here’s to another year of bloggy goodness in 2012.

Jennifer Ouellette About the Author: Jennifer Ouellette is a science writer who loves to indulge her inner geek by finding quirky connections between physics, popular culture, and the world at large. Follow on Twitter @JenLucPiquant.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.





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  1. 1. CriticalWitPodcast 7:48 am 12/30/2011

    Yup, I’ve read and enjoyed most of these articles. Thanks for your great science writing! I particularly enjoyed “What Woody Woodpecker Can Teach Us About Football” and have shared that both on my personal blog and with co-workers and friends.

    Link to this

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