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Physics Week in Review: May 4, 2013

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


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This week saw the launch of a new science-and-culture magazine, Nautilus, with both print and online versions. I’ll be contributing regular blog posts to the site. First up: the psychological necessity of storytelling. To find out more, Matt Shipman talked to digital editor Amos Zeeburg.

We’ve Got Data. A bunch of high school physics students came to Six Flags. They rode the roller coasters. They took data on the G-Forces. Here’s what they found.

It was a killer week for materials physics. Imagine downloading an app that can change the shape of your mobile phone, thanks to the unique properties of shape-memory alloys.

Simple Trick Turns Commercial Polymer Into World’s Toughest Fibre — using a mechanism based on a slip knot.

Materials Science for Cosplay, Part 1: Steel. “You can weld it, cold-work it, and forge it.” But it will rust.

The 3 Little Pigs Never Thought of This Building Material: an apartment covered in layer of living, breathing algae.

Credit: Pierre Carreau. http://www.pierrecarreau.com/

Wow. Just — wow. Photographer Pierre Carreau loved waves as a child, and his latest photographs tap into that early fascination by seeming to freeze ocean waves in time. Per This Colossal. Carreau “shoots waves with a variety of high speed cameras using various macro and wide angle lenses, capturing water shapes that appear more sculptural than liquid.”

Isaac Newton:  The Last Lone Genius? Physics historian ThonyChristie is cranky about the historical inaccuracies in the BBC’s new documentary film biography of Newton, The Last Magician.

Is Time Real?  Astrophysicist Adam Frank reviews Lee Smolin’s new book, Time Reborn.

Quantum Biology Comes of Age. Fifteen years ago, Johnjoe McFadden proposed  that quantum tunneling of protons in hydrogen bonds in DNA might play a role in mutogenesis — and this could explain adaptive mutations in E Coli, for example, .”whereby the bacteria mutates preferentially as a direct response to selective pressures from its environment, and which it can only make use of after it has mutated.” It was met with considerable skepticism, but physicists are now starting to warm to the idea.

How do we hear a pin drop? UCLA scientists used hair cells from bull frogs to find out.

The Oxford Electric Bell has been ringing for 137 years and shows no sign of stopping any time soon. It’s the Energizer Bunny of bells. Per io9: “The batteries [a classic Volta dry pile] have a lot of power, and the bell discharges a tiny part of that power with each ring, so the experiment has staying power. Its makers clearly wanted it to keep going, because they coated the batteries with sulfur to keep them insulated. They neglected, however, to leave a record of what’s inside the coating.”

A most profound math problem: Alexander Nazaryan takes a look at whether P = NP.

The Slow Mo Guys place a lit firecracker in a LEGO house and capture the destruction at 2,500 frames per second (h/t Laughing Squid):

Sometimes physics messes with your head. Take antimatter. Does it fall? Physicists at CERN and Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory went all Isaac Newton on antimatter and, well, dropped some to find out.

A new dark-matter detector hears first particle pops — okay, it’s mostly from cosmic rays and similar mundane things, but COUPP-60 is up and running and hoping to detect its first dark matter particle.

Confused about all those seemingly contradictory dark matter experimental results? Physicist Matt Strassler gives a great overview to help you keep everything straight.

For the First Time Ever, You Can Now Hear What Alexander Graham Bell Sounded Like. Listen to the voice of the man who brought our modern age of long-distance communication into being.

Wind turbulence may have a greater impact on power output than previously thought.

Granted, it’s blurry, but could this be the only photograph of Einstein’s derivation of the mass-energy equivalence? i09 has more, including a link to the relevant 2007 paper deciphering the physicist’s scribblings.

That condensation on your beer can might not be a good sign. Because SCIENCE! It’s the opposite of evaporative cooling. And it has one of the best back stories ever:

The experiment started in the bathroom of co-author Dargan Frierson, where the pair used a space heater and hot shower to vary temperature and humidity. After confirming Frierson’s back-of-the-napkin calculations (the heating effects of condensation are well-known, albeit untested with beer cans, specifically) the pair turned to more rigorous experimental methods. “You can’t write an article for Physics Today where the data has come from a setup on the top of the toilet tank in one of the author’s bathrooms,” said Durran.

Tunguska Meteorite Fragments Discovered: Nobody knows what exploded over Siberia in 1908 but this could help solve the mystery.

Moebius Noodles and other Adventurous Math For the Playground Set: “Kids don’t dream of becoming mathematicians because they already are mathematicians. Children have more imagination than it takes to do differential calculus. They are frequently all too literate like logicians and precise like set theorists. They are persistent, fascinated with strange outcomes and are out to explore the “what-if” scenarios.”

“If we knew which projects would produce useful things, we would have to have a time machine to look into future.” In response to proposed changes by Rep Lamar Smith (R-TX),  Rhett Allain asks, should we change the way NSF funds projects? And answers: Not that way. And the Curious Wavefunction sadly concludes that “the head of the House Committee on Science does not understand how science works.”

Fantastic piece on what it feels like to be bad at math. “My hazy, anxious, defensive procrastination made me a better teacher.”

Over at the New Yorker‘s Elements blog, Gary Marcus waxes philosophical in a thoughtful post ruminating on the vexatious relationship between science and religion.

Can science constitute a felony? A young high school student was expelled — and slapped with felony charges — after attempting an informal science experiment on school grounds that went badly — as in, it exploded. It prompted some interesting discussion about how to encourage student curiosity while preserving safety. D.N. Lee had an especially sharp, insightful take on the matter: “A system that values obedience over curiosity isn’t education and it definitely isn’t science. Her expulsion and arrest sends a very clear and striking message to students, especially urban students of color: Don’t try this at home, or school or anywhere. Science exploration is not for you!”

Finally, IBM made major waves this week with “A Boy And His Atom”: The world’s smallest stop-motion movie made by manipulating carbon atoms on a copper surface.

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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