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Physics Week in Review: July 13, 2013

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


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There is much to celebrate this week. For instance: Happy Manhattanhenge! Celebrate with Neil deGrasse Tyson’s hand-drawn love letter to the urban miracle. It was also Nikola Tesla Day, which The Oatmeal commemorated by reminding us of his classic comic on the great late 19th century inventor.  It was also Buckminster Fuller’s birthday this week, which Brain Pickings celebrated by highlighting his Scientific Prayer: “A secular definition of divinity as a curiosity-driven love of truth bent through the prism of our subjective experience.”

This week in shameless self-promotion: I have a new blog post up at Nautilus: Reading the Tea Leaves: How Particles Can Travel Upstream. Thankfully, this is one question we can use bourbon to answer.

“As a child I fell in love with technology, but I have to admit I never fell in love with science. ” Such were the opening lines of the column — entitled “Why I Am a Creationist” (link bait alert!) — that launched what Jen-Luc Piquant calls L’affaire Heffernan. Heffernan is a former New York Times technology and culture columnist (and a former fact checker at the New Yorker), who is bizarrely anti-science. Jen-Luc was dismayed to learn that she holds a PhD in English from Harvard. One expects a bit more from an Ivy League education than the sloppy thinking on display in this column. Gawker naturally brought the skewering snark, concluding that Heffernan’s column “amounts to a very specific guide as to why Virginia Heffernan should no longer be taken seriously.”  Colin Schultz went for a visual skewering on Tumblr.

Also weighing in with thoughtful commentary were Razib Khan, Janet Stemwedel, and Jerry Coyne, who pronounced the piece “a celebration of willful ignorance,” concluding (a bit unfairly): “This is what comes from postmodernism. Forget the facts, who’s got the better narrative?” Carl Zimmer engaged with her via Twitter [Storify here] and explained why he bothered in the first place, “Heffernan’s column is not very important in itself, but it speaks to broader attitude that is worth taking on.”

Jen-Luc Piquant sincerely hopes that the science-minded community does not take Heffernan’s superficial ponderings as representative of the field of humanities as a whole. She stands with Adam Frank: “Science — in all its glory — is just too beautiful to be walled off. Perhaps it is some future union of art and science that will allow these truths and this beauty to become fully accessible to everyone.”  The revolution is already happening. A guest blog post at Scientific American this week opined that artists and scientists are more alike than different.  And with the opening of her new show “Transience,” English printmaker Susan Aldworth proves herself to be at the forefront of artists working side by side with neuroscientists. See? The “two cultures” need not be at war.

Here’s Chad Orzel on how to think like a physicist. “[P]hysicists, even more than other scientists, are inclined to abstract things away to get to the simplest and most universal principles. Even when that means that we end up working mostly with idealizations and first-order approximations.” Many times, “an approximation is good enough.”

Math, Science Popular Until Students Realize They’re Hard.

On the importance of choosing a convenient basis: “Why does a Disney animator care about spherical harmonics?”

Artist's concept shows exoplanet HD 189733b orbiting its yellow-orange star, HD 189733. Credit: NASA, ESA, and G. Bacon (STScI)

Hubble telescope spies a cobalt blue planet. NASA says it’s caused by glass raining sideways.

The Time Lord and I totally geeked out over Pacific Rim, and we were not alone! Wired marked the occasion by exploring the question of how you might carry a Jaeger from Pacific Rim.  io9 checked out the method behind the monsters, i.e., the design process behind their appearance, while editor Annalee Newitz boldly declared Pacific Rim to be “the greatest fairy tale of the 21st century.”

And Martians Shall Save the University: the liberal arts gave us science fiction. Huzzah!

Modest Debut of Atlas May Foreshadow Age of ‘Robo Sapiens.’ Per the New York Times: “The robot — which is equipped with both laser and stereo vision systems, as well as dexterous hands — is seen as a new tool that can come to the aid of humanity in natural and man-made disasters.” BUT WILL IT FIGHT THE SPACE MONSTERS FOR US?!? Bonus: The First Robot, Created in 400 BCE, Was a Steam-Powered Pigeon.

The History of CTRL + ALT + DELETE. Back in 1981, David Bradley “created a keyboard shortcut that triggered a system reset without the memory tests. He never dreamed that the simple fix would make him a programming hero, someone who’d someday be hounded to autograph keyboards at conferences. And he didn’t foresee the command becoming such an integral part of the user experience.”

An unlikely material may trump diamond as best thermal conductor.

How to wash your hair in space: Continuing the tradition of Commander Chris Hadfield, Expedition 36 Crew Member Karen Nyberg gives rundown of hair hygeine aboard the ISS.

Ask a physicist: When car accelerates, why do you get pushed back but a Helium balloon goes forward? Physics Central has the answer.

Nanotubes could help to detect lyme disease.

The hardest thing to find in the universe? “A” is for Astatine!

Night Stroll: Geometric Lightscapes Animated on the Streets of Tokyo by Tao Tajima.

Which Would You Choose: Nuclear or Coal? “Can the old green guard and this newer breed of eco-pragmatists find common ground?”

Check out the SpaceX vertical takeoff/landing video. Per Phil Plait: “They’re testing a very old idea with a new type of rocket: a Vertical Takeoff/Vertical Landing (VTVL) prototype they’ve nicknamed Grasshopper.”

Aliens and the Internet. A “Galactic Internet” among aliens may rely on gravity-boosted radio signals, one expert suggests.  Also, this week Google Doodle marked the 66th anniversary of the Roswell incident, the flying saucer story that refuses to die.

If human beings are going to live on Mars, we need to deal with space gardening. “The first ‘Martians’ will be two species — plants and humans.”

Wolverine’s Claws and the Future of Metal Alloys. Snikt! (You might just get those claws someday.)

Shhh! The lemurs might be listening! Eavesdropping Lemurs Tune Into the Forest Soundtrack to Survive

Unraveling the Pollinating Secrets of a Bee’s Buzz. Bees are basically biological tuning forks.

Credit: Thomas Wright, 1754. Public domain.

The Endless Immensity and Finite View of the Infinite of Thomas Wright, 1754. “In his book, An Original Theory or New Hypothesis of the Universe, Founded upon the Laws of Nature, he described a version of the universe that was influential in the thinking of Kant and Herschel, finding a rectangular/squashed ‘finite infinity’ of stars, ‘a vast infinite Gulph, or Medium, every Way extended like a Plane, and inclosed between two Surfaces.’”

Straighter grain on baseball bats makes them less likely to break, research finds.

“Move Over Economists; Time to Give Physicists a Turn.” The Wall Street Journal offered a provocative take on econophysics and econophysicists  It was kind of a theme this week, echoed in a guest blog post at Scientific American: Revolutionizing Economics by Evolutionizing It – “this time with fewer unnaturally selective ideas.”

Game on! Scientists find link between quantum physics and game theory.

Redesigned window exploiting exotic acoustic techniques stops sound but not air, say materials scientists.

American Society of Parasitologists member Ryan Hechinger uses the metabolic theory of ecology to predict how much energy parasites take from hosts.

Tiny Robotic Cubes Could Rule the Solar System.

Primal Madness: Mathematicians’ Hunt for Twin Prime Numbers.

What Ant Colony Networks Can Tell Us About What’s Next for Human-Engineered Ones.

The Foul Winds of Sakurajima, 1998. One of various close calls experienced by infrasound hunter Milton Garces, and why remote acoustic monitoring is better. Related: A new lava dome was spotted in the crater at Mexico’s Popocatepetl over the weekend after a busy week of eruptions.

Albert Einstein’s time card when he was punching the clock as a Federal employee.

The Making of LightSpin, A 360-Degree Light-Painted Dance Video: “half a million photos were taken during the production.”

Sculpting flow: making waves at the microscopic level.

Mass-ive Source of Confusion. Matt Strassler grapples with the concept of mass because “scientific language and concepts are often frustratingly confusing.”

The Godless Particle: “Take everything we know about the universe, throw in X, and nature adds up after all.”

Human Motion Will Power Internet of Things, Say Engineers. “Most people generate enough power to continuously transmit data at a rate of 1 Kb/s, say researchers who have audited the harvestable energy from human motion.”

Scientists have successfully tested superconducting magnets needed to increase LHC collisions tenfold.

A beautiful celebration of the unknown at the intersection of art and science: 75 scientific mysteries, illustrated by some of today’s most exciting artists.

Science Slams – how do they work? Physicist Herbi Dreiner gives the lowdown on the Dortmund (Germany) champions.

Could our galaxy live on top of a shadow dark matter galaxy without us even knowing it?

Fire eater and scientist Dr. Tim Cockerill explains the science of fire breathing.

Photo credit: L. Bocquet et al.

Two spheres of the same size, shape, and material are dropped into water. One splashes, the other doesn’t. What gives? “It all comes down to the surface treatments. The glass sphere on the left is hydrophilic, but the right one has been treated to be hydrophobic. As a result, the water-fearing molecules of that sphere push the water away, allowing air to be entrained below the water’s surface instead. This creates a big splash that’s absent when the water moves smoothly around the hydrophilic sphere.”

Businessman Gunnar Maehlum retains the innovative and critical thinking he learned in particle physics.

The teenage radio enthusiasts who helped win World War II. There were about 1,500 so-called voluntary interceptors during WWII – civilians helping to intercept secret Nazi codes.

The black-hole information paradox, complementarity, and firewalls: let Stanford’s Leonard Susskind be your guide. (Caveat: The talk is technical; for lay-language background, see my article from last December.) Related: Juan Maldacena’s new wormhole could take us a step closer to quantum gravity.  And within a few years, perhaps the Event Horizon Telescope will snap a photograph of a black hole.

Inside-Out Pyramids Could Triple Solar Cell Efficiency.

Have you always wondered about the physics of donkey carts? MIT-TV thought so. Here you go!

The Venturi Didgeridoo (new patent): produces lower tones, converts into walking stick and monopod camera support. -

How Does a Transistor Work, A Video Explaining the Science Behind Much of Modern Technology:

Physics and the birth of the emoticon: tracing the origin of the smiley to computer scientists in 1982.

Dramatic solar tsunamis reveal magnetic secrets in the sun’s “quiet corona.”

The Dark Depths of the Universe. Why is the night sky dark? Ethan Siegel thinks that’s a good question, and offers three great answers.

Astrophysicist Saul Perlmutter in the Guardian: “Science is about figuring out your mistakes.” The man who discovered that the universe is expanding at an accelerating rate reveals why he isn’t afraid to fail.

“One of the dictaphone’s earliest prototypes was sent to Leo Tolstoy. The novelist politely approved of the machine.”

Visualizing Carbon: You can transform the mass of C02 emissions into volumetric representations, and then show it in familiar landscapes.

Wildfires wreak havoc across forests and fields, but what toll do they take on the atmosphere? The Biomass Burning Observation Project (BBOP) will conduct observations from this Gulfstream-1 aircraft to study the near-field evolution of changes in chemical, optical, and microphysical properties of aerosols generated in biomass burning events.

Incredible X-ray video captures a bat in flight.

Why The Flash is the Only Human Living In the Present: “Reality is on a delay. For you, nothing is now.”

Here’s a nifty video explanation of how that $150 optical cloaking device works.

Rules of quantum theory shine light on the brain and how people make decisions. Wolfgang Pauli “proposed that the interaction between consciousness and unconsciousness is analogous to one of the central ideas in quantum physics, called complementarity – that it is impossible to distinguish between the behaviour of an atomic object and its interaction with the instrument observing it.” [Sub required; go on, support good science writing!]

Grandma Got STEM: blog counters notion that your grandmother can’t understand science.

Speaking of cool blogs, we are besotted with Poetry With Mathematics. Check out Pool — a game of geometry? or  “Family Math” a poem that “begins in the style of a typical word-problem from Algebra.” Bonus from the AMS blog: The Poetry of Calculus (The Calculus of Poetry?).

How a Piezo Electric Generator Works: presented by “Marie Curie” (courtesy of the Mütter Museum):

Passive links and The Science of Familiar Strangers: Society’s Hidden Social Network. “The familiar strangers we see every day on the bus and in the supermarket form an important hidden network at the heart of society, according to the first city-wide study of these passive links.”

Over at Backreaction, Sabine Hossenfelder considers a new paper comparing and contrasting various inflationary string theory models in light of the latest data from the Planck mission, and ponders why physicists must consider such complicated models in the first place. “Occam’s razor isn’t always helpful… [W]e might have to pass through stages of inelegant models.”

John Stapp subjected himself to the most extreme g-forces ever voluntarily experienced by a human being multiple times.

Making babies in space: hard to conceive? Featuring sperm rockets and giant mutant lampreys.

Over at the Edge, physicist Carlo Rovelli expounds on free will, determinism, quantum theory and statistical fluctuations. “Free will has nothing to do with quantum mechanics. We are deeply unpredictable beings…”

Science Goes Ballistic: Eight Guns for Hunting Knowledge.

Finally, we leave you with The Lonely Dodo, a charming short animation narrated by Stephen Fry, which tells the story of the last lonely dodo on Mauritius.

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. David Cummings 5:17 pm 07/13/2013

    L’affaire Heffernan

    I love it!

    Link to this
  2. 2. David Cummings 6:52 pm 07/13/2013

    “I suspect that we will only succeed in reducing minds to atoms when we have revolutionized our understanding of atoms in some way presently inconceivable.”
    — Lee Smolin, in his comment to the Edge piece by physicist Carlo Rovelli

    It’s an excellent piece by Rovelli and an excellent comment by Smolin. Thanks for pointing it out.

    Link to this

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