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Physics Week in Review: April 20, 2013

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


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Let’s face it: this was an unbelievably crappy week, what with the horrific events at the Boston Marathon. People deal with tragedy in many different ways. Jen-Luc Piquant takes comfort in the resiliency of the human spirit, evinced not just in the swell of support for the people of Boston, but in the fact that everyone still managed to go about their business and soldier on through the chaotic aftermath and emotional upheaval. Science, also, marches on.

The biggest news out of this week’s April meeting of the American Physical Society in Denver was the announcement of possible evidence for a dark matter particle in the latest data from the CDMS collaboration. A note of caution is in order. It’s what’s called a three-sigma result, and while certainly worthy of note, these kinds of signals turn up in particle physics data all the time. Most of them disappear upon subsequent analysis. In fact, at the same meeting, others on the CDMS collaboration reported on a 2.7-sigma result from last year, that did not withstand additional analysis and disappeared. Matt Francis opted for a message of hope: “If these results are real, they correspond to a WIMP mass around 8.6 GeV.” [NOTE: This and the next paragraph edited slightly to clear up confusion between two different dark matter experiments; see comments.]

There were also new results from the AMS experiment on board the International Space Station. These, too, do not constitute a discovery. Yet. Per Katie Mack: “What AMS has done is measure, to very high accuracy, the amount of antimatter the galaxy is bombarding us with. It might be coming from dark matter… but really there’s no compelling evidence that it is. And it’s certainly too soon to break out the champagne.” As Katie said, it’s far too early to make a definitive declaration. Keep cool! We’ll find those sneaky particles eventually!

As if the Boston bombings weren’t tragedy enough, there was also an explosion at a fertilizer plant in Waco, Texas, this week, with many more fatalities. Discover dug into the archives for a 1996 article (in the aftermath of the Oklahoma City bombing) on why fertilizer explodes. And Kyle Hill explained how analyzing mushroom clouds can tell us quite a bit about such explosions.

Northern cardinal's call represented by wavelet transform. Image credit: M. Fischer/Aguasonic Acoustics.

So very cool: Mark Fischer uses wavelet transforms to visualize the acoustic signatures of the calls of whales, birds, and insects — many of which lie outside the range of human hearing — into colorful images. They’re like Fourier transforms, only instead of using sinusoids, he uses wavelets. The results are stunning. Now we can see the calls of animals, even if we can’t hear them.

Did a physics professor inspire Alfred Jarry to create the character of Père Ubu, the anti-hero of his plays?

It all began with the “classroom martyrdom” of one Félix-Frédéric Hébert (1832–1917), a physics teacher at the lycée in Rennes. Possessed of a large stomach, short legs and an air of bluff pomposity, Hébert was ragged mercilessly by his pupils. “What made him unique and inspired a plethora of ingenious inventions aimed at stirring him up”, recalled one, “was that we could look forward to beautiful tears, noble sobs and ceremonious supplications.” Two brothers, Charles and Henri Morin, began writing and illustrating a series of satirical sketches recounting the exploits of the ridiculous Père Hébert, and these stories were added to by other boys. The “Hébert cycle” consists of long poems, plays, mock newspapers and fantasy adventures.

Fun bit of historical trivia: A hydrodynamical effect first described by Thomas Young was exploited in the 1950s to build frisbee-shaped military aircraft.

As Don Lincoln explained at Symmetry this week, when a scientific result fails the test of “naturalness,” it can point to new physics.

More evidence that Nature is an awesome materials scientist. Parasitic Worm Inspires Better Sticky Medical Tape.”

The New York Times multimedia team knocks it out of the park again with this amazing interactive animation of all the Kepler planetary systems, including Kepler 62.

Via Steven Strogatz, Jen-Luc Piquant discovered Why Do Math, a terrific multimedia website for undergrads exploring the mathematics sailing, voting, and cochlear implants among other topics.

The Physics Buzz podcast explores the future of fusion energy with a look at the National Ignition Facility and ITER.

It’s short, sweet, and a wee bit silly, but this (non-dialogue) stop-motion animation of Albert Einstein schooling Darth Vader on why he shouldn’t use the force is fun — and impressive, given how much work went into it. Big Al, the Force is with you!

The LHC passed the ping-pong ball test! Physicists sent an ultra-clean, miniature ping-pong ball through part of the Large Hadron Collider beam pipe to test for hidden defects.

A Second Higgs Boson? Physicists Debate New Particle at the APS April Meeting. Per LiveScience: “A secondary spike in Higgs data presented in December 2012 led to speculation that physicists had perhaps found a second Higgs boson of a different mass. However, that spike showed up in only one LHC experiment. Other lines of evidence produced at the collider have failed to show similar anomalies.”

Flapping flight, despite being utilized by creatures of many sizes, remains remarkably difficult to engineer.

Is Your Entire Life Really Encoded in Digits of Pi? Well, yes and no, as Evelyn Lamb explained this week at Slate: “If you look at it the right way, pi really does have it all.” However, Lamb added a clarification in her accompanying blog post about what this really means for human creativity: “No one with any sense will be switching to a pi-mining strategy to write the next great American novel.”

Judges announced the winners of the 2012 Global Particle Physics Photowalk, showcasing the modern beauty of science.

Inside Science interviews JPL planetary scientist Kevin Grazier on his role as technical consultant for the new SyFy series Defiance.

From the How Did I Miss This Department: The world’s greatest buildings provide a window on great math and great design. Eg, the Sydney Opera House provides an illuminating example of a challenging architectural — and mathematical — problem to create its signature soaring vaulted roofs.

 

Courtesy of the Materials Research Society Science as Art Competition and Mulmudi Hemant Kumar, Nanyang Technological University.

Science as Art: Nanoscale Materials Imitate Everything From Flowers to Frost. Wired showcases the best of the best from the Material Research Society’s annual competition.

Last week it was tears in zero gravity. This week astronaut Chris Hadfield once again brings the awesome with a demonstration of what happens when you wring out a washcloth in space.

It’s no secret that we are huge fans of San Francisco’s Exploratorium here at the cocktail party. Honestly, if we lived in San Francisco, they would have to arrest us for stalking because we’d be there nearly every damn day. The Exploratorium has just opened its doors in a shiny  new location, prompting a nostalgic trip down memory lane for the old site at the Finch and the Pea.

Physicist Sara Callori uses Punnett squares to try to figure out who Sophie’s father really is in Mamma Mia? Sure, it’s middle-school level genetics and the reality is far more complicated. Disclaimers duly noted. It’s still a fun analysis.Basically I wanted to know that given the men’s eye and hair colors, what was the chance that a daughter they had with Meryl Streep would end up with blue eyes or blond hair.”

Per io9, “Refractographs are eye candy brought to you by physics.” And thanks to this handy video tutorial, it’s easier than you think to create beautiful colorscapes.

“In the beginning, there was a righteous bass.” This is what the Big Bang really sounds like, according to physicist Jon Cramer.

Evan Bianco on math and reason. “Reasoning backwards is the process of solving an inverse problem: estimating a physical system from indirect data. Straight-up reasoning, which we call the forward problem, is a kind of data collection: empiricism. It obeys a natural causality by which we relate model parameters to the data that we observe.”

The First Book of Space Travel: How a Female Author and Illustrator Got Kids into Science in 1953. That author was Jeanne Bendick, who authored and illustrated more than one hundred mid-century children’s books about science and technology.

What Should We Wear? Advice from Scientists about Clothing and Fashion. Meanwhile, Scicurious ponders bench-friendly hair, and whether, when it comes to fashion and being taken seriously as a scientist, there might be a bit of a double standard for men and women in science.

MIT physicists find that variations in population density may accurately reflect the population’s risk of collapse.

Think the sequestration doesn’t affect science? Think again. The Jet Propulsion Lab has canceled this year’s annual free open house – a hugely popular event drawing +40,000 Southlanders every year — because of budget cuts. Outreach is one of the first things to go when finances get tight.

Abstraction is crucial in science and poetry: “take a look at Tycho Brahe’s 16th century astronomical data, and see if you can make sense of it without math.”

Symmetry sits down with Fabiola Gianotti, who recently finished an eventful four years as spokesperson for the ATLAS experiment at the Large Hadron Collider.

NASA’s cold fusion folly. Excellent commentary on NASA’s ill-advised venture into low-energy nuclear reactions (LENR), with the agency making some  speculative claims about its potential to solve all our energy issues. “The one hitch in the plan, unfortunately, is that they’re going to have to violate some very well established physics to make it happen.” Cuing comments from the Cold Fusion Propaganda Posse in 3…2…1….

Finally, as io9 observed, “It’s not every day you get astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson, evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins, theoretical physicists Brian Greene, executive director of the World Science Festival Tracy Day, Science Friday’s Ira Flatow, acclaimed science fiction author Neal Stephenson, and Bill “The Bowtie” Nye under one roof chinwagging about the science of storytelling and the storytelling of science.” When you do, you record that discussion and make it freely available to everyone:

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. zosiakrusberg 7:42 am 04/20/2013

    Thank you for this extensive post! But, are you mixing up the AMS results with the CDMS results in the second paragraph? It looks like you are writing about the CDMS results but you include a quote about the AMS results.

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  2. 2. Buzzskyline 9:35 am 04/20/2013

    Hi Jennifer, Katie Mack was talking about the experiment aboard the International Space Station, and she is completely correct. The CDMS detector, however, is attempting to directly detect dark matter in an underground mine. You are also correct that 3 sigma is far short of a discovery, but it seems much more compelling to me than the indirect search being done by AMS.

    -JR

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  3. 3. Jennifer Ouellette 10:59 am 04/20/2013

    Both points well taken…. yes, there was confusion in my post between two different collaborations. That’ll teach me to proofread a bit more carefully prior to posting. :)

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