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Physics Week in Review: July 6, 2013

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


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Holy cow, there was a lot of physics-related news this week! Don’t you people realize it’s a holiday? Speaking of which, the Fourth of July holiday celebrating U.S. independence spawned the usual round of sciency angles.

Popular Science offers a festive science lesson to mark the 4th of July: What would happen if you shot off fireworks in space? Need a science of fireworks refresher? Check out this awesome graphic that’s chock-full of ‘BANG!’ and ‘OOOOW.’ For some celestial pyrotechnics, a comet the size of a mountain, called ISON, chose this week to put on a fireworks show in space.

Over at Rosetta Stones, Dana Hunter explains Why Fireworks Depend on Geology.  For a historical twist: Do Fireworks Resemble the True Sights and Sounds of the U.S.’s Key Historical Battles?  Related: A look back at the role weather played in the Battle of Gettysburg, which marked its 150th anniversary this week.

National Geographic offers some handy tips for photographing fireworks.

Credit: David Ian Johnson/Davey J Photography. http://www.daveyjphoto.com/

Meanwhile, by refocusing during long exposure, photographer David Ian Johnson takes the most unusual fireworks photos you’ve ever seen (h/t: Steve Silberman). As Johnson told This Is Colossal: “Each shot was about a second long, sometimes two. I’d start out of focus, and when I heard the explosion I would quickly refocus, so the little stems on these deep sea creature lookalikes would grow into a fine point.”

Grilling Over Charcoal Is Objectively, Scientifically Better Than Grilling Over Gas. Science says so! Because flavor and taste aren’t the same thing.

Via io9, here’s a list of Independence Days from across the Multiverse: “Where there’s society, there’s a foundation story.”

Walt Whitman Reads “America”: Only Surviving Recording of Poet’s Voice: 36 seconds on a rare wax-cylinder capsule.  Bonus: Listen to Aaron Copeland’s “Fanfare for the Common Man.” [h/t: Karen James] And NPR explores why the bells and cannons of Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture plays every July 4th.

A biophysicist shares some of her insights on the science of an apple pie.  The Guardian‘s Alex Bellos offers a Geometry bake-off: sconic sections, toast tangrams and the Möbius bagel. Related: How does competitive eating represent us as Americans?

Apparently Cosmic ‘Booze’ has been created in a sort of  quantum brewery. The Mythbusters ask: Wine Not? “There’s no better way to solve a wine myth, than to head to a winery.” And Parks and Recreation pokes good-natured fun at the phenomenon of molecular mixology: “This is the wrong way to consume alcohol.”

Debating Dark Matters: Technology Review‘s Physics arXiv blog ruffled a few physicists’ feathers this week with this post, asserting that “Astrophysicists believe that our galaxy must be filled with more dark matter than ordinary matter. Now astronomers say they can find no evidence of dark matter’s gravitational influence on the planets. What gives?” No sooner had I tweeted the link, when an irritated Katie Mack (a.k.a. AstroKatie), who knows a little something about dark matter (it’s her field), responded with a series of Tweets. A sampling: (1) “This @TechReview post is INCREDIBLY misleading. Result not at all in conflict w #DarkMatter theory.” (2) “It’s a common misconception that #DarkMatter should be important in our Solar System. There’s a lot in Galaxy in total, but little nearby.” (3)  “There’s no mystery, astronomers are not confused, & this result is totally unsurprising. Bad job, @techreview.” Eventually Ethan Siegel of Starts With A Bang brought the official bloggy smackdown with an in-depth look at the paper in question. Good times!

This week also marked the one-year anniversary of the discovery of the Boson We Call Higgs. Brian Greene wrote a nice reflective piece in the Smithsonian: “Before the particle was discovered, it had to be imagined.”  For explain-y Higgsy goodness, check out this cool Tumblr, Understanding the Higgs Boson, or the links in this post by theoretical physicist Matt Strassler.  As for current Higgs-related news, Strassler gives the lowdown on rumors of a second Higgs particle, concluding the answer is — Very Probably Not. “You see a bump in CMS data.  You don’t see a bump in the ATLAS data.”

The Mathematics of Home Run Records. “Babe Ruth x Hank Aaron = the product of the first seven primes multiplied in succession.”

Starry Starry Night: Mario Livio on Munch, van Gogh and the long tradition of fusing science and art.  Related from the Royal Society: A crossroads between science and art: historically they’ve been closer than we think they are today.

A nation mourned the deaths of 19 firefighter battling a blaze in Arizona — a testimony to the brutal science and physics of wildfire, according to the Los Angeles Times, which continued its coverage with a follow-up on how difficult it is to predict the behavior of wildfires.

The late Sci-Fi Author Iain M. Banks Gets an Asteroid Named after Him (“and will be referred to as such for as long as Earth Culture may endure”). Seriously, how cool is that?

Hubble photo by NASA/ESA/M. Showalter, SETI Institute

Meanwhile, The Planet Formerly Known as Pluto’s Two Newly Discovered Moons Get Hellish Names. William Shatner mourned on Twitter: “They didn’t name the moon Vulcan. I’m sad.” But it’s in keeping with the longstanding naming tradition for Pluto’s moons. Per Phil Plait:

All the moons are named after characters associated with the Roman god of Pluto, god of the underworld Hades. Charon was the riverboat driver who brought the dead to Hades. Nix is named after Nyx, the goddess of the night, sometimes depicted as a mist that comes from the underworld. … Hydra was a nine-headed dragon that lived in a cave near the entrance to the underworld (and the nine heads were a sly reference to Pluto being the ninth planet). Kerberos is the name of the three-headed dog guarding the underworld, usually spelled Cerberus…. Styx was the river separating the underworld from the realm of mortals and also a 1970s rock band. That last bit may be coincidence.

Explainer of the Week: Ask a Physicist: Where does the Standard Model of physics come from?

Gravity, Einstein saw, is what happens when you take away forces and let things go with the flow—the flow of space.

Scientists have developed a way to harvest energy generated by a swimming shark, and turn it into electricity. Someone alert Dr. Evil!

Secrets of the early universe. Planck, the space telescope that this year revealed unprecedentedly detailed information about the early universe, is just getting started.

Imaging the near invisible with TEM (transmission electron microscopy): a master class.

X-Rays Tell Story of Ancient Greek Soldier’s Wound: “x-rays of the bone showed that the arrowhead had a barb at its end, and that a bony spur had grown around it.”

The Next Big Thing for Exploring the Distant Universe: Balloons provide a way to get 99 percent of the way into space, at 1 percent of the cost of a satellite.

Women do better on math tests when they fake their names. “[U]sing another person’s name is a kind of hack to overrule the self-reputational threat — the fear some women have of doing poorly when they’re concerned that it’ll be taken as proof of a stereotype. But removing this pressure seems to alleviate the fear and the distraction.”

So very awesome: 130 years of global temperature data, converted to music. University of Minnesota undergrad Daniel Crawford composed a unique cello piece called “A Song of Our Warming Planet.” [h/t: io9]

Is missing “partial” neutrino a boson in disguise? Goldstone bosons could be masquerading as fractional cosmic neutrinos. Sneaky little devils.

A Quantum of Solace: Timeless Questions About the Universe. The New York Times‘ Dennis Overbye asks: “Is there solace to be found in the vision of places and people we can never know or reach?”

Physicists Discover the Secret of Quantum Remote Control: controlling one quantum particle by manipulating another.

Monopoles passing through Flatland: magnetic monopoles and three-dimensional bosonic topological insulators. “Let’s not be so dogmatic as the Sphere. The lessons learned from the quantum Hall effect and the topological insulator have prepared us to take the next step, envisioning our own three-dimensional world as the edge of a higher-dimensional bulk system.”

Big data and the X-ray laser: experiments at SLAC’s LCLS require data systems adapted from particle physics.

July 5, 1934 Obituary: Mme. Curie Is Dead; Martyr to Science. “Few persons contributed more to the general welfare of mankind and to the advancement of science than the modest, self-effacing woman whom the world knew as Mme. Curie.”

The Guardian‘s Leo Hickman mused on how algorithms rule the world: “The NSA revelations highlight the role sophisticated algorithms play in sifting through masses of data. But more surprising is their widespread use in our everyday lives. So should we be more wary of their power?”

Source: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/23743771

Robust computational beard identification: Your beard can run, but it can’t hide from the power of the SparCLeS algorithm!

Valves and Values: Another Story of Technological Transition — the emergence of the valved horn.

Open Waters: Simon Winchester on seamanship, the sea, and its mysteries.

What Really Happens When Lightning Strikes Sand: The Science Behind a Viral Photo.

Animated Music Video Filmed Through a Band’s Breath in Freezing Temperatures by Wriggles & Robins

Signs of a Stranger, Deeper Side to Nature’s Building Blocks: New findings suggest that beneath the surface of quantum theory lies a vibrant string theory world where some matter corresponds to black holes in higher dimensions.

“Before he died physicist Isidor Rabi got an MRI. ‘It was eerie.’ he said ‘I never thought my work would come to this.’ Terrific piece in Nautilus by neurobiologist Stuart Firestein on how questions — not answers — are the key to scientific progress.

Science writer Erin Biba is taking a closer look at various International Space Station Experiments. In this installment she looks at phase transitions: Metal changes from liquid to solids differently in micro-gravity.

A mathematical model of Gone with the Wind: “This study is an exercise about using math to describe a love story”.

Explore The Blurry Line between Small and Quantum Small.

Scientists confirm D-Wave’s computer chips compute using quantum mechanics.

Glas is a 1959 Oscar-winning short subject documentary by Bert Haanstra about glass making. Worth a watch!

Cool Kickstarters of the Week. First up: a Kickstarter campaign recently launched for quantum mechanics board game. Per Physics Buzz: “Antimatter Matters players assume the roles of scientists in the not-too-distant future trying to assemble matter from stray elementary particles. The standard version of the game pits the scientists against one another in a race to create a hydrogen atom by collecting fundamental particles: electrons, quarks, gluons, and even photons.”  Bonus: Periodic TableWare by Marshall Jamshidi, a line of drinkware based upon the iconic look of laboratory glass.

A Note on Luther and Copernicus. “Luther in 1539 took a dim and critical view of Copernicus…”

Could spiders be using physics to catch (or at least help catch) their next meal? A case of fatal attraction.

The Flap over Roof Flaps: they help keep cars on the ground because of Bernoulli’s law. “A wing develops lift because the air flowing under the wing moves slower than the air going over the wing. That creates more pressure under the wing than over the wing, which generates a net force upward.  That’s a good thing for an airplane.  Not so good for a race car.”

Here are two takes on new research demonstrating how atomic bomb blasts from the Cold War could help put ivory poachers in jail, one from the Los Angeles Times, and the other from  Ed Yong at Not Exactly Rocket Science.

Apparently the Mururoa nuclear test fallout was worse than first thought. “Newly declassified French military documents have revealed that nuclear tests at Mururoa Atoll were far more deadly than has previously been admitted with plutonium fallout at much higher levels and over wider areas.”

15 Year Old Girl Levels Up In Science Bossitude, Invents a Flashlight Powered By Body Heat. You go, girl!

Manually Cranked Wood Automaton Performs Sleight-of-hand Magic: three cups and ball seem to teleport.

Gravity-Defying Particles Travel Up A Waterfall: The expected rules of physics are no match for determined tea leaf.

White Dwarf Star Morphs into Massive Pulsing Crystal.

Check out these awesome new TED-ED videos explaining the physics of superhero powers.

“It’s practically a law of technology that if something is programmable, someone will make Tetris for it.” Tetris, Pong Clones Hit Pebble Smartwatch.

Energy storage, rare metals and the next ice age. “Replacement of liquid fossil fuels is still in far reach.”

Inside the Mind of an Alchemist: science historian Larry Principe digs into ancient alchemical manuscripts.

I <BLANK> Science. Nicole Gugliucci, a.k.a. the Noisy Astronomer, is dismayed: “Those who hate science, according to Twitter, are frustrated students. As an educator, I find this disheartening”

Why Does the World Exist? Sit back and relish this taped hour-long conversation between Caltech physicist Sean Carroll (a.k.a. the Time Lord) and Jim Holt.  Also: on his blog, Carroll muses on the question of what counts as “science.”  And over at Physics Focus, Alex Brown insists that anyone dedicated to curiosity, experimentation and evidence can call themselves a scientist.

“So Science…Might Have Gotten It Wrong. Now What?” asks The Last Word on Nothing’s Virginia Hughes. And JHU microbiologist Ken Witwer responds: “I think that science can be self-correcting, but it requires people to do that correcting.”

PBS Idea Channel asks: does math even exist? Is Math a Feature of the Universe or a Feature of Human Creation?

Aatish Bhatia provides a closer look at the physics behind that awesome gravity defying (or at least perceived that way) chain of metal beads, with a geeky afterword.

Soon-to-be Caltech grad student Nicole Yunger Halpern connects her one-shot thesis with her one-shot life.

Credit: Sue Beatrice, All Natural Arts. http://allnaturalarts.wordpress.com/

Jaw-droppingly gorgeous! Steampunk Watch Part Sculptures. “Using the smallest components from repurposed antique pocket watches and other time pieces, New-Jersey based artist Sue Beatrice of All Natural Arts assembles curious sculptures of animals and human figures.”

The Perfect Data Set: Why the Enron E-mails Are Useful, Even 10 Years Later. Per Technology Review: “Because it is a rich example of how real people in a real organization use e-mail—full of mundane lunch plans, boring meeting notes, embarrassing flirtations that revealed at least one extramarital affair, and the damning missives that spelled out corruption—it has become the foundation of hundreds of research studies in fields as diverse as machine learning and workplace gender studies.”

Genderswapped: new comic book will set The Odyssey In Space. Matt Fraction continues to be awesome.

How IceCube Observes Neutrinos From The Sky; the simple workings of a giant particle detector.

Former Secretary of energy and Nobel Laureate Steven Chu talks innovation, energy, climate change and awareness.

More ISS Experiments: Re-Thinking How Fire Burns. “Astronaut scientists studying how fuel burns in space found that heptane ignited in a strange way in space.”

Annals of Little-Known History (h/t: Paul Halpern): Einstein’s secretary once called Sid Caesar to try to arrange a meeting between the physicist and the comedian.

Scrabble Sends One Man Scrambling for Meaning: A certain word game sometimes leaves Scientific American‘s Steve Mirsky drawing a blank.

Finally, for your listening pleasure, via Laughing Squid: “Kim Boekbinder, also known as The Impossible Girl, has released the music video for “Stellar Alchemist” from her space album The Sky is Calling. The song is about the process of fusion that takes place in the heart of stars, and even integrates the actual sound of star HR 3831.” She also has a whimsically playful tarot-inspired video for her tune “Gypsy,” if stellar physics isn’t  your thing.

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. Adrian Morgan 8:55 am 07/7/2013

    I am making my way through the list…

    The Luther/Copernicus article seems to have been deleted. I scanned the author’s Twitter feed to find out why, and found this:

    https://twitter.com/rmathematicus/status/351437477698994177

    Mystery solved, I think.

    Link to this

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