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Physics Week in Review: March 1, 2013


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There was a lot going on in the physics corners of the Internet this week, including one of the finest examples of  spontaneous public communication of science in the wild that I’ve seen in recent months.

Remember when baseball superstar Jose Canseco took to Twitter to lay out his theory for why dinosaurs were big and launched a tsunami of rather mean-spirited snark? (tl;dr: gravity was different back then.) Brian Switek went beyond the snark and brought the science, talking about why the 100-foot supersaurus was so big — and no, it wasn’t the gravity. Matthew Francis tackled the gravity question. And in an equally classy move, Canseco himself responded on Twitter and even posed a follow-up question on dinosaur blood pressure, which Brian also answered. And then Matt Francis ended up in a Twitter exchange with Canseco answering his questions about general relativity.

See? Sincerity works. To all those who lobbed cheap shots at the baseball player: that is not how good science communication is done. Thanks to Canseco’s public wondering, a meaningful (and respectful) dialogue took place, and we all learned new things about dinosaurs. And gravity. And blood pressure. And relativity. Group hug, everyone!

As a resident of Los Angeles’ Eastside, this Los Angeles Times tribute to the founder of the Griffith Observatory warmed my heart: “Col. Griffith J. Griffith had a life-changing experience when he peered through a telescope on Mt. Wilson. It inspired him to fund an observatory for the people of L.A.”

Awwww. A physicist proposed to his physicist girlfriend with a one-page paper entitled, “Two-Body Interactions: A Longitudinal Study.” And a University of Sydney blogger tracked the romantic scientist down.

Aatish Bhatia has one of the best physics blog around, and he proves it yet again with this post on the universal laws behind growth patterns, or “what Tetris can teach us about coffee stains.”

The SpaceX Dragon launch on Friday — part of the second of 12 planned missions to bring supplies and equipment to the International Space Station (ISS) — initially got off to a rocky start, but things stabilized and the mission is moving forward, with a few tweaks of the plan. Bad Astronomer Phil Plait was on hand for blow-by-blow coverage.

io9 looked back to the invention of the rapatronic camera, which enabled nuclear physicists to capture the first millisecond of a nuclear bomb blast.

Scientific American‘s Robin Lloyd reviewed Lucas Hnath’s play, Isaac’s Eye, a comedy currently being performed at the Ensemble Studio Theater in Manhattan through March 10.

In 1956, Walt Disney partnered with USC physicist Heinz Haber — also personal science consultant to Disney — to produce a beautifully illustrated book, Our Friend the Atom, emphasizing the promise of atomic power (as opposed to its destructive power in the form of atomic bombs).

Ann Finkbeiner dug up a bit of forgotten physics history: “In April, 1945, the Alsos mission run by American scientist/spies scooped up the German atomic scientists, imprisoned them for six months in an English country house called Farm Hall, bugged their rooms and taped their conversations. … In 1992, the transcripts were made public.” And science writer David Cassidy is totes writing a play about it!

Ever hear of the Lycurgus Cup? It’s an ancient Roman artifact from the 4th century AD that  changes color in different lighting. And now it’s the inspiration for a new nanoplasmonic biosensor that also changes color in the presence of certain molecules (DNA, proteins and the like).

How strong is spider silk? Strong enough to stop a train!

You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means. Mark Chu-Carroll took on new dimensions of crackpottery: “A dimension is neither a place nor a state of being: it is a direction.”

Spin up, spin down, spin all around…. Joel Taylor penned an excellent guest post at Scientific American taking a simple look at two-state quantum systems.

I am not making this up: Researchers at Carnegie Mellon University and the University of Electro-Communications in Tokyo stuck a tiny camera inside a toy football to watch the game from the ball’s point of view.

Does he look like Feynman to you? Hitler learns Jackson E&M, encounters spherical Bessel functions. “It’s just a constant reminder of how bad I am at physics.” [Fair warning: there is "language."]

Fan Art of the Week: Someone drew the fictional floorplan of Leonard, Sheldon and Penny’s apartments on The Big Bang Theory. Because, that’s why!

Check out this nifty video of spontaneous unmixing of two ball chains. Per the YouTube description: “The two chains are each 176cm long and identical except that they are colored red and blue. After a while, they exhibit a kind of phase separation in which they each occupy non-overlapping regions of the plate. They sometimes form spirals and occasionally cross themselves. This separation is supposed to be an entropic effect: there are more separated configurations than mixed ones.”

Why have so few studies been done on the mechanical properties of skin? Irish physicists set out to right that particular wrong, with “a detailed analysis of the mechanical properties of 56 pieces of skin removed from dead humans. In the process, these guys have settled a debate about the nature of skin strength that has puzzled anatomists since the 19th century.”

Over at Dot Physics, Rhett Allain went a little bananas and ponders whether it’s possible to exploit their natural radioactivity to power a generator. Patent pending.

Harnessing the power of peacocks: Nano material reflects light to display pictures without chemicals or electricity.

What would happen if you jumped into a (hypothetical) bottomless pit that starts at one point on the Earth, goes all the way through the center, and back out the other side? Per Ethan at Starts With a Bang: “It’s only a matter of time (and, surprisingly, a few dozen kilometers) before you find that you’ve smashed into the wall of your cylindrical tube, since the Earth is still rotating — with the interior rotating more slowly than the surface — after you jump.”

BYU physics professor Tadd Truscott gave a primer on the physics of rock skipping, including some high-speed video of the impact and rebound.

Hyperspace Pty Ltd, proud purveyor of pseudoscience, offers a blueprint for — wait for it — the electromagnetic structure of space. There are patents and everything. Per the folks at Improbable Research: “The invention not only provides unique insights regarding the multi-dimensional topology of electromagnetic fields but also touches on the Theory of Everything, dark matter, and the elusive Higgs bosun [sic],” adding, “Inherent complexities make it hard for Improbable to succinctly summarise the text.”

Finally, let Henry Reich and Minute Physics wow you with “How big is the universe?”

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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