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Physics Week in Review: May 18, 2013

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


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So much science-y goodness this past week! First up: I have a post at the newly launched Nautilus on the physics of the blues, focusing on the work of J. Murray Gibson. It’s all about the development of the “blue note” and how music, and our perception of musical notes, can shed light on the mysteries of particle/wave duality in quantum mechanics.

Ah, Kepler Space Telescope, we hardly knew ye. Everyone’s favorite planet-hunting telescope suffered a hardware malfunction this week that looks to end its mission. Wired took a look at Kepler’s greatest hits: Water Worlds, Tatooines, and Earth Twins.

Star Trek: Into Darkness opened this week. Ian O’Neill looked at various concepts for warp drives. Over at Boing-Boing, there’s a cool post on the tricorder technology that links taxonomy and Star Trek – “A portable tool that could quickly identify any species anywhere.” Phil Plait, everyone’s favorite Bad Astronomer, indulged in a bit of nerd-gassing about the top six science mistakes portrayed in Star Trek, thereby channeling his inner Lawrence Krauss, who literally wrote the book on it (The Physics of Star Trek). And Kyle Hill gave us an outlet for our frustration with director J.J. Abrams’ overuse of lens flares: Q: What if you took a sip of alcohol every time you saw a lens flare in Star Trek: Into Darkness? A: Death by Lens Flare.

Credit: Xavier Cortada. Via Symmetry Breaking.

It was a banner day at the Large Hadron Collider: Artist Xavier Cortada honored the people and science of the CMS collaboration with five vividly colored banners draping the walls. “Each of Cortada’s five banners artistically interprets a different combination of particles into which theorists predicted the Higgs boson would decay—two photons, two Z bosons, two W bosons, two bottom quarks and two tau leptons.”

Mathematician Yitang Zhang of the University of New Hampshire in Durham claims he has made a breakthrough towards solving centuries-old problem, providing the first proof that infinitely many prime numbers come in pairs.

Speaking of unsolved mathematical conundrums, Harald Helfgott of the École Normale Supériure in Paris posted a proof of one of the oldest open problems in number theory to the arxiv. Evelyn Lamb has the scoop: “The ternary Goldbach conjecture … is easy to state but hard to prove.”

What Stresses Gorilla Glass Makes It Stronger: Theory tackles how glass remembers earlier forces.

Physicists Find Way to Measure Earth’s Rarest Element via the ionization potential of astatine.

Confused about supersymmetry? Ethan Siegal of Starts With a Bang offers this handy primer on the rise and fall of SUSY.

DIY physics experiment: Backyard Roller Coaster Physics. All you need is a light bucket with a sturdy handle, some rope, and some water to explore centripetal force.

The Hofstadter Butterfly-shaped energy spectrum exists in the quantum realm. Photo : University of Oregon.

Back in 1976, physicist Douglas Hofstadter predicted that there would be a fractal butterfly-shaped energy spectrum lurking in the quantum realm. Now, 40 years later, scientists at the National High Magnetic Field Laboratory (MagLab) have proven its existence in graphene.

Per Nature: “The Hofstadter butterfly emerges when electrons are confined to a two-dimensional sheet, and subjected to both a periodic potential energy (akin to a marble rolling on a sheet the shape of an egg carton) and a strong magnetic field.”

“I’m a middle-aged physics professor and I love heavy metal. There, I said it.” Philip Moriarty explores what happens when the uncertainty principle goes up to 11. DON’T JUDGE HIM! It’s both harmonically sophisticated and rhythmically complex.

Iron Man—Extreme Firmware Update 3.0. Paul Zehr on the science of neuroprosthetics in Iron Man 3.

Einstein’s BEER Planet Discovered: what is this beaming effect and how can it help in the search for exoplanets?

Researchers from Uppsala University in Sweden have figured out the mechanism behind the curved path of a curling stone: microscopic roughness. “As the stone slides over the ice the roughness on its leading half will produce small scratches in the ice. The rotation of the stone will give the scratches a slight deviation from the sliding direction. When the rough protrusions on the trailing half shortly pass the same area, they will cross the scratches from the front in a small angle. When crossing these scratches they will have a tendency to follow them. It is this scratch-guiding or track steering mechanism that generate the sideway force necessary to cause the curl.”

Why the free market is like quantum mechanics (and both are unrealistic constructs).

Here’s a fascinating behind-the-scenes look at the making of that jaw-dropping video,  “A Boy and His Atom” — the world’s smallest movie made by moving actual atoms frame by frame.

It took one of the world’s most powerful supercomputers 5 days to model a simple childhood past time: popping bubbles.  This physics simulation is one of the most accurate you’ll ever see of what happens when foamy soap bubbles pop:

“When you’re talking about probability, there are two fundamental schools: frequentist and Bayesian interpretations.” Mark Chu-Carroll gives an excellent primer on discrete probability theory.

Is It Quantum Computing Or Not? DWave based their processor on an effect called quantum annealing. “We have a system that can do useful computations based on quantum effects. It may not be a quantum computer as some purists might define it, but it does have one huge advantage: it exists and is available to do meaningful work.”

Dropping in on Gottfried Leibniz: fantastic post by Stephen Wolfram on the co-inventor of calculus, inspired by a visit to the Leibniz archives in Hanover, Germany.

Commander Chris Hatfield, who produced some of the most entertaining videos evah while on board the International Space Station, returned to Earth this week. He went out with a bang, though, performing his rendition of David Bowie’s “Space Oddity” as his final bow. Here’s a look at Hatfield’s greatest video hits.

Quantum Mechanical Words and Mathematical Organisms. Are thoughts more fundamental to our reality than particles? It could be that the reason mathematics is so effective in describing reality because “reality is a mathematical thing.”

Alice E. Kober: The overlooked woman who cracked one of the greatest mysteries in history, Linear B. “It is now clear that without Dr. Kober’s work, [Michael] Ventris could never have deciphered Linear B when he did, if ever. Yet because history is always written by the victors — and the story of Linear B has long been a British masculine triumphal narrative — the contributions of this brilliant American woman have been all but lost to time.”

Terahertz imaging reveals Goya's hidden signature. Source: paper by C. Seco et al. http://arxiv.org/abs/1305.3101. Via Technology Review.

Terahertz imaging reveals Goya's hidden signature. Source: paper by C. Seco et al. http://arxiv.org/abs/1305.3101. Via Technology Review.

Terahertz Image Reveals Goya’s Hidden Signature in Old Master Painting. Darkened varnish obscures Goya’s signature in a 1771 masterpiece, according to a new analysis using terahertz waves.

Speaking of nifty high-tech imaging, Ciudad Blanca (“White City”), Legendary Lost City, Has Possibly Been Found In a Honduran Rain Forest. The archaeologists used a laser-based technique called LIDAR (LIght Detection And Ranging) to image the topography beneath the thick rainforest canopy.  For more about LIDAR, see my March 2012 post.

Barns Are Painted Red Because of the Physics, Chemistry of Dying Stars. “Red ochre—Fe2O3—is a simple compound of iron and oxygen that absorbs yellow, green and blue light and appears red. It’s what makes red paint red. It’s really cheap because it’s really plentiful. And it’s really plentiful because of nuclear fusion in dying stars.”

Simanek’s Perpetual Futility: a short history of the (futile) search for perpetual motion.

The Game Of Thrones Car Paradox: How Magic Makes People Stupid — technologically, that is (although I think we can all agree that various members of the Stark family habitually make very bad choices). Over at Jalopnik, Jason Torchinsky wonders “why they have no cars, or, for that matter, any post-medieval technology at all,” and concludes that it’s because with magic, there’s no need for a scientific process if all you have to do is mutter incantations . “Muggle pride, bitches!”

Check out this blueprint for a SteamMegaPunk Flyer dating back to 1868, the creation of Joseph M. Kaufmann of Glagow

Athanasius Kircher and the Hieroglyphic Sphinx: “More than 170 years before Jean-François Champollion had the first real success in translating Egyptian hieroglyphs, the 17th century Jesuit scholar Athanasius Kircher was convinced he had cracked it. He was very wrong. Daniel Stolzenberg looks at Kircher’s Egyptian Oedipus, a book that has been called ‘one of the most learned monstrosities of all times.’”

The laser shooting Soviet Polyus-Skif satellite launched (and failed) this week in 1987. Amy Shira Teital tells the tale at Ars Technica.

“To become a scientist is hard enough. But to become one while running a gauntlet of lies, insults, mockeries, and disapproval—this was what my mother had to do. If such treatment is unthinkable (or, at least, unusual) today, it is largely because my mother and other female scientists of her generation proved equal to every obstacle thrown in their way.” An amazing story from the son of Joan Feynman.

Speaking of la famille Feynman, this past week, we celebrated Richard Feynman’s birthday, and Robin Ince hosted a “Happy birthday Mr Feynman” gig at the Bloomsbury Theatre in England. Among the highlights: Grace Petrie’s performance of a song about Feynman and his first wife Arline, who died of tuberculosis in 1945 at age 25. Petrie’s lyrics are based on Feynman’s famous  (and heart-rending) love letter to her written some 16 months after her death:

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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