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Physics Week in Review: April 6, 2013


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This week kicked off with April Fool’s Day, when I normally stay off the Internet until all the silliness subsides. But props to Fermilab for its April Fool’s joke, “announcing” its new director. Hint: “have TARDIS, will (time) travel.” And Evelyn Lamb celebrated the day with a look at pseudoprimes.

April 1 is also the birthday of astrophysicist Joan Feynman, the lesser-known sister to physicist Richard Feynman. This seemed especially pertinent in light of the continued blowback from the infamous New York Times obituary for rocket scientist Yvonne Brill, which inexplicably focused on her beef stroganoff. For those who still don’t get what the fuss is all about — *cough* the NYT obituary editor and reporter *cough* — check out Melanie Tannenbaum’s excellent two-part blog post on “benevolent sexism”: Part I and Part II.

Jennie Dusheck of The Last Word on Nothing brought it all home with this fantastic example of how ridiculous the same standard sounds when applied to, say, Albert Einstein: “Family Man Who Invented Relativity and Made Great Chili Died.” As physicist Matt Buckley noted on Twitter, “I hope I get interviewed by the New York Times someday. Then the world will know how awesome the pizza I make is.”

The big physics news this week came from the Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer (AMS), a massive particle detector mounted on the International Space Station that may have detected dark matter particles. To wit: AMS detected some extra positrons that seemed to fit the energy ranges predicted by models for dark matter particles. This finding is consistent with earlier results from the PAMELA experiment, although far from a definitive “discovery.”

Many in the online science-minded community felt the initial press release and early media coverage, in particular, were, shall we say, “over-hyped.” A number of prominent science bloggers quickly weighed in with a more measured take on the AMS result, including Matthew Francis, Rob Knop, Jester at Resonaances (who declared the results “nice but not game-changing”), Matt Buckley (at MetaFilter) and Ethan Siegel of Starts With a Bang, who was especially displeased with the press coverage, noting, “[B]ased on what AMS has presented, there is nothing to suggest that they have detected any evidence whatsoever for particle dark matter.”

For several years now, the APS March Meeting has held an annual Physics Singalong hosted by Haverford College physics professor Walter Smith, who prompts participants to belt out fave tunes — with lyrics reconfigured into a physics twist — and Physics Central has the podcast of this year’s singalong. (Smith maintains what he describes as the premiere online collection of physics songs in the world.) If you want even more details, I blogged about this back in 2006 on the occasion of the very first such event.

Check out “A is for Ampere”, the first episode of a new Webseries called Circuit Playground; this episode explains the basics of electrical current:

These portraits were drawn with mathematical equations (specifically parametric functions), and they are AWESOME!

Another home-run from Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal: “If too many Planck-kitties are near each other, the ‘purr frequency’ shreds local space-time.”

All the fashion forward geekerati are wearing these Curiosity Rover dresses and DNA leggings by Shenova — or at least they should be!

Not an April Fool’s joke: IBM Seeks a Superefficient Computer Using Fluids.

Astrophysicist Mario Livio posted some thoughtful musings on perfect numbers. “[W]e only know of 48 perfect numbers! The last of these, which has 34,850,340 digits, was discovered in February 2013 through the Great Internet Mersenne Prime Search (GIMPS) project, which has been running for 17 years.”

Female posing (1968), Richard Feynman. Source: Brain Pickings.

Think physicist Richard Feynmann’s only artistic hobby was playing the bongos? Surprise! He also dabbled in art. This week, Brain Pickings featured “The Art of Ofey” (his artsy nom de plume), a selection of Feynman’s sketches and drawings. “I wanted very much to learn to draw, for a reason that I kept to myself: I wanted to convey an emotion I have about the beauty of the world.”

io9 editor Annalee Newitz toured the Molecular Foundry at the University of California, Berkeley, where “tomorrow’s material world is being built.”

Admittedly, I’m a little biased, since I write for the site occasionally, but the newly launched Simons Science News has been posting some pretty excellent articles, like this one on phase transitions and quasicrystals by Natalie Wolchover: Solid or Liquid? Physicists Redefine States of Matter.

Cosmic rays reveal a surprisingly direct connection between you and a supernova 1000 light years away.

Astrophysicist and cosmic-tie collector Neil de Grasse Tyson fields ten questions, including, who he likes better from the Star Wars franchise — Luke Skywalker or Han Solo. Not to be outdone, Caltech physicist John Preskill answers three questions, including “Just what is quantum entanglement?”

An unexpected benefit of turning off Japan’s nuclear reactors: physicists can see a flood of geoneutrinos from deep within the Earth, yielding insight into the planet’s deep mantle processes.

Discovery News asks a provocative question: Is An Alien Message Embedded In Our Genetic Code? Grant Jacobs has an answer. (tl;dr: “No.”)

Learn about the True Science of Parallel Universes, courtesy of Minute Physics:

It’s the physics paradox that’s not dead yet! Both Nature and New Scientist (subscription required) featured very nice stories on the black hole firewalls debate this week. You can also check out my own article for Scientific American/Simons Science News, and the accompanying blog post, from last December.

Take The Atlantic’s quiz: Is NASA or the Museum of Modern Art (MOMA)? The Universe as Art or Art of the Universe?

Introducing the Paper-and-Pencil Cosmological Calculator, for all those who struggle with converting redshift into parsecs

Via John Ptak of Ptak Science Books comes this fascinating look at Atomic- , Solar- and Vacuum-Powered Airport-Laden Dirigibles and Other Wild Ideas of Future (circa 1920s) Flight.

You had me at “Thermal imaging of emperor penguins in Antarctica.” And those images show that, for instance,

“the heads, beaks, eyes, and flippers … are the warmest while much of their feathered surface remains several degrees colder than the temperature around them. Not only does this indicate that the penguins’ skin and feathers are extremely effective insulators—the core temperature of each penguin is roughly the same as a human’s—but it means that the penguins are losing heat via radiative cooling toward the sky, the same way your car does when frost forms.”

These stock photographs of “scientists” are way more hilarious than you ever imagined — far worse than anything on The Big Bang Theory.

Japanese artist Fujiko Nakaya is the world’s foremost sculptor of fog — a most ephemeral medium. Per The Finch and the Pea: “Working with engineers, she developed a system to create and disperse water vapor through pipes to create fog. For her first fog sculpture, she covered the entire Pepsi pavilion at Osaka’s Expo ’70 in fog. Since then, using the same technology, she has created more than 50 fog sculptures in environments ranging from art galleries to bridges to forests.”

Finally, the Internet was made for cats. And science. And the Science of Cats:

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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