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Physics Week in Review: February 16, 2013

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


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We’re re-introducing a weekly feature, offering links to the most interesting physics-ish stories around the Web. (Follow us on Twitter @JenLucPiquant to get the links as they appear.)

Earlier this month, everyone’s favorite astrophysicist, Neil de Grasse Tyson, speculated on Twitter that Thor’s hammer, Mjolnir, would weigh as much as a herd of 300 billion elephants (assuming it’s made of the same uber-dense matter as neutron stars). That was tantamount to throwing down the gauntlet to nerd-gassers everywhere. Matt Shipman explored an alternate viewpoint, as did Kyle Hill, who extended his discussion of Thor-centric physics beyond mass, to momentum.

Jen-Luc Piquant and a pipe-smoking Jim Kakalios in Second Life

On Virtually Speaking Science, I chatted with University of Minnesota physicist Jim Kakalios in Second Life about what might be a better explanation for the mass of Thor’s hammer,  with segues into what it’s like to consult for Hollywood, and the amazing worlds of quantum mechanics and materials physics. Kakalios is the author of The Physics of Superheroes and really knows his comic books; give it a listen and see what he has to say.

There were some eye-popping space-based pyrotechnics this week. First, an asteroid passed wicked close to Earth. Which would have been exciting all on its own, had a large meteor not exploded over Russia with the force of a nuclear explosion — quite the sonic punch.

Dr. Skyskull dug into history for this fascinating look at Étienne-Gaspard Robert (1763-1837), “a Belgian physics teacher who was also a pioneer of ballooning and … a stage magician known as ‘Robertson.’ Using his knowledge of physics and optics, Robertson perfected the optical stage illusion known as ‘Phantasmagoria,’ which he used both to educate and terrify the Parisian public.”

There’s a nifty new documentary on YouTube about the people and science of Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory.

Welcome to the Chinese Year of the Snake! National Geographic takes a look at the science of the serpent behind the horoscope.

Over at Dot Physics, Rhett Allain (our modern day Archimedes) covered the physics of buoyancy to answer the burning question: What would happen if everyone really did jump in a lake?

Swiss physicists are looking for magnetic monopoles in polar rocks. (Why yes, that was featured on an episode of The Big Bang Theory.)

The search for chemicals in the universe reveals that the center of our galaxy tastes of raspberries and smells of rum.

The infamous pitch-drop experiment — the world’s longest-running experiment — is about to let another one drop.

Ever wondered how many physicists are on Twitter? Lucretius has compiled a list.

The story of the SETI discussions during the discovery of pulsars has never been fully told—until now. Also: the crowd-sourcing project Einstein@home has discovered 24 new pulsars, six that are part of binary systems.

Sure, the physics was a bit questionable, but we all loved the loopy time travel thriller Looper. Writer/director Rian Johnson shared a scene that was ultimately cut, where Bruce Willis’s character explains the intricacies of time travel to his younger self using straws.

It was a big week for J.S. Bach, beginning with mathematician Vi Hart’s video explaining space-time using Bach, a music box and a Mobius strip: (via Brain Pickings)

Also check out this amazing video: a visualization of Bach’s “Crab Canon” by mathematical image-maker Jos Leys. Per the folks at Open Culture: “You can follow the score, note for note, and then watch as the piece reverses itself, running back across the staff in the other direction. So far, so easy, but another layer appears: Bach wrote the piece to then be played simultaneously backwards as well as forwards. But prepare yourself for the mind-blowing coup de grâce when Leys shows us at a stroke just what the impossible shape of the Möbius strip has to do with the form of this “crab canon,” meaning a canon made of two complementary, reversed musical lines.”

Do-It-Yourself science fiend George Musser, Jr. has been blogging about how to build your own quantum entanglement experiment. In Part I he scrounged around for cheap parts, and this week he weighed in with Part II: his first trial run of the rudimentary experiment, with some thoughts on making improvements in the future.

February 10 would have been physicist Leo Szilard’s 150th birthday, and The Curious Wavefunction celebrated with a look at the man’s many accomplishments, and the tale of why a humble traffic light is currently in the British Museum.

Check out this ferrofluid climbing a spiral steel structure with the help of an electromagnet! Also, io9 explains what ferrofluids can teach us about the multiverse.

It was Valentine’s Day, this week, which apparently brings out the math in people. Brain Picker gave us a means of calculating the odds of finding our soul mates. I re-tweeted this classic post on The Calculus of Saying ‘ Love You.’ And Evelyn Lamb at Roots of Unity confessed: “I’m not going to try to woo you with cardiods and heart-y Sierpinski triangles. Instead, prepare to be amazed by continued fractions, the dreamiest new way to celebrate a mathematical Valentine’s Day!”

Poison Queen Deborah Blum expounded on the chemistry of chocolate, specifically a potentially poisonous compound from the plant alkaloid family called theobromine. We all know they’re beautiful (and, with the right special someone, romantic), but Ethan Siegel enlightened us on some of the physics behind sunsets. And Marcelo Gleiser offered an intellectual valentine to Johannes Kepler.

The Large Hadron Collider shut down on February 13 for a well-deserved break after discovering the Higgs (technically a “Higgs-like particle”). So it seems appropriate to mark the occasion with a tune from Nick Cave’s latet release, the “Higgs Boson Blues” (h/t Sean Carroll):

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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