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Physics Week in Review, March 9, 2013

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


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Welcome to another rich round-up of the best physics stuff on the web this past week. Let’s get the shameless self-promotion out of the way quickly, shall we?

*Be sure to check out my Slate profile of Caltech chemical engineer Frances Arnold, who figured out how to use “directed evolution” to breed all kinds of exciting new proteins and enzymes.

*On Wednesday, I moderated a panel discussion at the Petersen Automotive Museum here in Los Angeles on “How Much Does Math Matter,” organized by Zocalo Public Square. Perhaps you recall an infamous Op-Ed last year by political scientist Andrew Hacker arguing that algebra was completely unnecessary and we should make it a requirement for high school graduation anymore. Massive uproar ensued; you can read my own bloggy response here (with links to a lot of other relevant discussion on the subject). Our panel included Washington Post education columnist, Jay Matthews, Sarah Armstrong, a math teacher from Orange County, and Caz Pereira, a workforce expert with the nonprofit Growth Sector.

*Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: Lonely aging physicist meets young bikini model online, then travels to South America to meet her in person and bring her back to the US as his wife. He just needs to bring her this one suitcase. Suitcase turns out to contain drugs, the actual model has never heard of him, said physicist is arrested and tossed into an Argentine jail, all the while proclaiming his innocence.

This actually happened to University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill physicist Paul Frampton, who was ultimately convicted of drug smuggling. Maxine Swann has penned a masterful account in the New York Times Magazine of the whole affair. Is Frampton the innocent victim he claims to be, just a lonely man with poor social skills who fell prey to an online scam? Or was he privy to the plan all along?

*The Ocarina of Time Travel, Extra Dimensions and Branching Universes. Who says there’s no physics in The Legend of Zelda? Not Kyle Hill!

Over at Quantum Frontiers, Iram Parveen Bilal says, “That’s right, I did say, ‘A High Fashion Shoot for Geeks!’”

*Check out these lovely (and impossible!) wallpaper designs that appear to have five-fold rotational symmetry, created by mathematician Frank Farris, of Santa Clara University in California.

*Suddenly my poky little red Prius feels inadequate. Ferrari unveils all-new hybrid supercar — and calls it LaFerrari.

*io9 lists The 10 Least Competent Time Travelers.  #6: Everybody on Lost. “If your plan is ‘Let’s explode an atomic bomb and hope for the best,’ you seriously need to think up a better plan.”

*Attention gamers! Researchers at Edinburgh’s Royal Observatory used percolation modeling to predict which StarCraft race will conquer space. “Will it be Zerg? Terran? Protoss?” Make science the core of your gaming strategy.

*German researchers have been studying the “stretchiness” of blood (or rather, blood plasma). It flows like a liquid, but blood is also similar to the consistency of ketchup.

The always relevant Randall Munro's witty take why physicists struggle with threesomes.

*For three centuries, physicists have only been able to devise three solutions to the so-called three-body problem: Can you predict how three objects will orbit each other in a repeating pattern?

This week, a couple of physicists announced their discovery of 13 new families of solutions, thanks to computer modeling (they reverse-engineered an existing solution, tweaking the parameters until the model produced a new kind of orbit). This is a big deal, because the three-body problem dates back to Isaac Newton and the 1680s. Let Jon Cartwright of Science explain:

Newton had already shown that his new law of gravity could always predict the orbit of two bodies held together by gravity—such as a star and a planet—with complete accuracy. The orbit is basically always an ellipse. However, Newton couldn’t come up with a similar solution for the case of three bodies orbiting one another. For two centuries, scientists tried different tacks until the German mathematician Heinrich Bruns pointed out that the search for a general solution for the three-body problem was futile, and that only specific solutions – one-offs that work under particular conditions—were possible.

It’s an excellent piece that makes an arcane topic easily accessible.

*Dennis Overbye and the New York Times put together a stunning multimedia feature (online exclusive!) on the Higgs boson; at Download the Universe, Sean Carroll gives his assessment on how well it worked.

*Speaking of which: the latest data analysis on the “Higgs-like particle” discovered at the Large Hadron Collider last year hints that it might, indeed, be a bona fide Higgs boson, and that its properties (most notably its spin) fit nicely with the predictions of the Standard Model. So why aren’t physicists happier about this? They’re all, “Eh, it’s kind of vanilla, and we were hoping for something more exotic, like Chunky Monkey.” Ian O’Neill explains this “strange juxtaposition — a profound discovery that’s also an anticlimax.”

*Not everyone’s griping. Sarah Demers argues that high-energy physics is still a worthwhile investment.

*The Case for Curiosity: Mario Livio’s TEDx MidAtlantic talk is worth your time. “Curiosity doesn’t kill cats, it’s the best remedy for fear.”

*”Looking at a good physics lab is like staring at an explosion seconds before it happens.” Stephen Granade tells the entertaining tale of this one time that physics tried to kill him.

*Swimming with spacemen: Ars Technica has a terrific feature on training for spacewalks at NASA’s giant pool.

*The geology of sinkholes. “What is karst? It’s what you end up with after rocks spend a lot of time dissolving.” The unfortunate Florida man who was swallowed by a sinkhole in his bedroom inspired not one, but two SciAm blog posts about the underlying science.

*Physics and Green Beer Bottles. Rhett Allain has a new beer rule: Avoid beer in green bottles.

Glowing neon skull by Portland Artist Eric Franklin

*I was blown away by this trio of neon glass skulls lit internally by ionized neon, krypton, and mercury, by Portland artist Eric Franklin. Per the folks at This Colossal: “The structure of each human skull is deviously complex, made from a network of glass tubes that have to be perfectly sealed to create the vacuum necessary to light them, a process that leaves the figures somewhat misshapen and admittedly a bit creepy.”

*The Secrets of Black Holes: Meet NuSTAR, NASA’s New X-Ray Mission. The Atlantic‘s Rebecca Rosen on the new space telescope that is going to look at black holes and the power they have over the objects around them.

*The webcomic Scenes from a Multiverse hits another home run. “Enchanting is for weenies who can’t handle tech.” Generate a pocket universe instead.

*The acoustics of elephant trumpets: “it is quite easy to imitate elephant trumpet calls with a trombone” (except for the infrasound!). And check out these videos of a trombonists’s mouth, seen from without and within.

*Roll Over, Galileo: A new generation of citizen scientists takes discovery out of the ivory tower and onto the street.

*The Atlantic‘s Megan Garber uncovers a fantastic bit of history in Tower of Light: “Before streetlights became the standard way to light cities, town leaders looked to “moonlight towers” to provide mass illumination.”

*”With a little work, you can make a penny glow – but only if it was minted before 1982.” Want the details? “Modern pennies are mostly zinc, with only 2.5 percent copper. Earlier pennies were 95 percent copper with just a little extra zinc added. And copper is indispensable for this reaction.”

*Finally, Wired tells you (with video!) How Your Blender Uses Physics to Make a Smoothie– It’s all about the cavitation, baby!

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. ianlib 3:43 pm 03/9/2013

    Jennifer, as usual an excellent compilation. My favorite was studying black holes with NuSTAR and how the astronauts are trained for spacewalks with the use of the pool. You have a knack for choosing some of the most stimulating and educational stories.

    Link to this
  2. 2. tala1 6:32 pm 03/9/2013

    Hi Jennifer,
    always enjoy these. Now that I’ve sufficiently buttered you up I have a request. I “play” fantasy baseball and came across an article that used Pascal’s Wager as a main motive for constructing your team to win. It was relatively simple enough (fortunately for me) to understand. It was framed as the first recorded modern example of game theory. Naturally I became curious about Pascal himself. Checked for any mention in your book Calculus Diaries, found just a few including his early demise. Was wondering if you have blogged about him and if not would you pretty please? Or if you’ve covered him before would you be able to provide a link to it? I suppose I could go to Wikipedia but this blend of physics & history is without a doubt right in your wheelhouse. Thanks in advance…

    - dave

    Link to this

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