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Physics Week in Review: July 20, 2013

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


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I’ve got a new article up at newly relaunched Quanta magazine (it was formerly Simons Science News) on the ongoing hunt for dark matter — the stuff that makes up roughly one-quarter of all the mass in the universe. Also check out the excellent piece by Carl Zimmer: Galloping toward complexity through a meandering fitness landscape. And speaking of dark matters, Matt Francis has a message for you: Please don’t use “dark matter” to mean “something we don’t understand.”

There was some great stuff over at Nautilus this week, which is currently all about Transport. Traffic Ghost Hunting: Phantom traffic jams are when the biggest problem with traffic is nothing at all. Things you can call “rogue”: vagrants, wandering rabid animals, Sarah Palin, pirates. Things you can’t: exoplanets. Tracking Honeybees to Save Them – Can outfitting bees with tiny radio transmitters solve colony collapse disorder?

It’s about time! The drip finally dropped! Trinity College experiment succeeds after 69 years — not to be confused with a similar experiment in Australia. “So far, technical glitches have meant that the Australian experiment has never been caught dripping on camera.”

Fourth-string Jaegers: Earth’s last hope? “Let’s hope it doesn’t come to that.” Also on the Pacific Rim front, Deep Sea News explored a couple of pressing questions: How may people does a Kaiju need to eat every day? (“The short answer is not as many as you think.”), followed by  How much urine can a Kaiju produce? And Fact or Fictional Discussed Pacific Rim and the Reality of Giant Robots. Related: Why do we nitpick superhero movies so damn much?

Someone actually bothered to debunk the idea of a Sharknado. “‘Shark-Spout’ doesn’t have quite the same ring to it.” Smosh.com brought the satire,  asserting that Sharknado teaches vital scientific lessons: “Sharks swallow you whole since their rows of teeth are for decoration only.”

The Science Behind Discworld’s Flat Earth on the Back of a Turtle.

Astronomers want to fire giant life-hunting bullets at Jupiter’s moon Europa. Watch out aliens, science is coming!

Credit: Bezos Expeditions. Via NBC News.

Amazon’s Jeff Bezos: We got Apollo 11′s engines! Markings on one of the rocket engine components recovered from the bottom of the Atlantic in March confirm that it came from Apollo 11′s first stage. “One small serial number on salvaged hardware, one giant leap for space history.”

Spacewalk Aborted When Water Fills Astronaut’s Helmet.

Danger! This Mission to Mars Could Bore You to Death! “A number of scientists say that — of all things — boredom is one of the biggest threats to a manned Mars mission, despite the thrill inherent in visiting another planet. ”

Why a blaring car horn can tell you something about the size of the Universe.

Listen to a Volcano Scream Just Before It Erupts. Seismic scream portends violent volcanic eruption. “If you ever happen to be near an active volcano and feel the ground humming, you might want to take cover”

What Is 10 Trillion Times More Powerful Than Heartbeat? “Turning sound up or down is tricky because decibels are logarithmic; a small change makes a big difference.”

Better understanding of how surfaces attract or repel water could improve power plants and ketchup bottles.

These shape-memory alloys (plastics) can change from one shape to another and then back again when temperatures fluctuate.

Credit: Arvin Rahimzadeh. http://500px.com/photo/40357406 (Via This Is Colossal)

Fibonacci’s Spiral: A Logaritmical Spiral Appears Around a Wet Tennis Ball Photographed by Arvin Rahimzadeh. Pretty!

From the folks at Mental Floss, here are Five Scientific Theories on What Aliens Might Look Like.

Why it’s an exciting time to be a physicist.

“A pellet of glass the size of an apple seed”: When GPS fails, this speck of an electronic device could step in.

Will we ever… create a black hole in the laboratory? A hotly-anticipated black hole feast has begun at the center of the Milky Way. Why should you care? Per New Scientist, it’ll answer some puzzling questions like “Who blew the Fermi bubbles?

Force carriers: Particles communicate with one another through force carriers.

Spidernauts: thousands of kids followed a a red-backed jumping spider called Nefertiti’s journey into space.

Tigers in the Desert: The Mysteries of Vegetation Patterns. “From above, it looks like the fur of a big cat.”

Mathematical Model Reveals Counterintuitive Way to Beat Multidrug Resistance.

Elon Musk Thinks He Can Get You From NY to LA in 45 Minutes with his proposed design for a Hyperloop — an updated version of a pneumatic transport tube. But is it just hype? Gizmodo thinks the Biggest Obstacle for Musk’s Hyperloop Might Be Tunnels. Then again, Musk has a pretty solid track record for making innovative advances — including shortening the time to recharge an electric vehicle in just five minutes, on a par with how long it takes to fill up a standard gas-powered car. Here’s a bonus video: How a Tesla Model S Electric Car is Made (via Laughing Squid):

No need to put a spin on this science: the physics of slowly spinning soccer ball flight.

Physics at Comic-Con: Stephen Hawking Surprises with a Video Appearance At the Big Bang Theory Panel. Says he couldn’t make it in person because he had a flat tire.

The Zero Gravity Coffee Cup: How to drink coffee in space without burning your face off. “This may be what future space colonists use.”

Driving the solar system is a lesson in space and time. Planets in potato fields and asteroids in gravel.

Simple fun with polarizers: “Learning about the nature of light doesn’t always require the use of expensive tools and precision equipment.”

What is the optimum thickness of meat? “Way to optimize the schnitzel experience!”

This is what it would look like if you dropped Manhattan into the Grand Canyon. Gently.

Fun with photonic crystals. Nature’s nanostructures could inspire new hue-changing materials.

Credit: Livia Marin. http://liviamarin.com/portfolio/nomad-patterns/

Melting Ceramics by Livia Marin: “Inexplicably, each piece seems to melt onto a surface while strangely retaining its original printed pattern.”

Rescued: The Victorian Observatory Where Early Moon Pictures Were Shot.

Inventing Aged Tone in New Violins, 1903. Patent #190303723  issued in Great Britain to R.H. Payne and T. Broadbent.

Dear Pluto fans: You Haven’t So Much Lost a Planet, as Gained Five Dwarves… or maybe a few hundred.

Sound waves have brought us closer to a levitation machine.

Take a moment to mourn the loss of the purveyor of Bose noise canceling headphones: Amar Bose passed away last week.

In case you were wondering: Sex With Creatures from the Future Is a Bad Idea. Researchers test sexual adaptations in time-traveling brine shrimp.

Controlling friction by tuning van der Waals forces: friction at a material’s surface is influenced by structure of sub-layers.

On the foundations of physics: Q&A with philosopher of physics Tim Maudlin.

The Story of Energy: The Physics of an Atom, Part 1. (For what it’s worth, Robert Gilmore’s Alice in Quantumland is a favorite of mine.)

Carbon monoxide snow line detected in exosolar system: lines where molecules freeze help control planet formation.

Searching for quantum physics in all the right places. Improved method for measuring quantum properties offers new insights.

Credit: Kamioka Observatory, Institute for Cosmic Ray Research, The University of Tokyo.

T2K experiment catches neutrinos in the quick-change act: has observed neutrinos that have changed from one type to another. Per the Guardian: “For the first time ever the ghosts of the particle world, neutrinos, have been explicitly seen to actively change personality. ”

The 110 MPG V8 engine Looks Like Snake Oil Bullshit.

In early 1950s, Mary Sherman Morgan was the only female analyst among 900 rocket scientists at North American Aviation.

How to hasten the birth of a child: In 1965, George and Charlotte Blonsky filed a patent for a device to assist in birthing a child, by applying centrifugal force.

Just what is the nuclear physics done at TRIUMF (the Tri-Universities Meson Facility/Factory)? Tom Swanson of Swans on Tea explains.

Fukushima plant boss hailed as hero dies. Masao Yoshida defied management of power company Tepco by cooling nuclear reactors with seawater to staunch meltdown. It was Japan’s worst nightmare: an earthquake, a tsunami, and a nuclear meltdown. Two years on, Henry Tricks tells the tale of a single survivor.

How San Onofre’s new steam generators sealed nuclear plant’s fate: San Onofre’s replacement generators were supposed to extend the nuclear plant’s life and save money. The opposite ensued.

Just Like Van Gogh, Ocean Waves Paint Clouds In The Sky. “They are called Kelvin-Helmholtz clouds. They don’t last long, but they remind us that we live in a turbulent ocean of air.”

Object of Interest: The History of Rube Goldberg Machines and of the Mad Inventor Himself.

The Large Hadron Collider sees a rare decay, but no signs of new physics. Related: Undiscovered particles could boost or suppress a newly observed process—but LHC scientists see no such effect.

Quadratic Bezier curves. Credit: Brie Finegold.

“In 1960′s France, Bezier popularized his eponymous curves (actually invented much earlier) by using them to design cars for Renault.  Around the same time and place Picasso drew his famous line drawings. ” That’s mathematician Brie Finegold reminiscing about her teenaged fascination with drawing curves and their relation to Picasso’s art: String Art, Bezier Curves, Picasso, and me. And here’s the original post by Jeremy Kun that inspired it: “There is one obvious way to consider Picasso-style line drawings as a mathematical object: the Bezier curve.”

Robert Hooke – The Last Virtuoso of Silly Science. “Hooke had studied the weight of air, observed the decay and putrefaction of flesh, even how lungs work (in a living dog, an experiment he later would regret to have done).”

Soap foams represent an interplay of gravitational, capillary, interfacial, and viscous forces.

MIT’s Silk Pavilion explores the relationship between digital and biological fabrication.

Nobel laureate physicist Steven Weinberg discusses his current research and new quantum textbook.

Will future battery parts be grown on a rice field? Rice husks can be source of silicon for lithium battery anodes.

Uncommon Measure: Acoustic Result Could Change Definition of Temperature.

I ♥ Ultraviolet: “The universe starts to look pretty messy in the deep violet part of the spectrum.”

Stretchy Gold Electronics Could Someday Live Inside Your Brain.

Museum analyses ashes for proof they are paintings by Picasso, Matisse, Monet stolen from Rotterdam gallery.

That time President Lincoln patented “water wings” for boats. “His invention wasn’t any good. But it was hilarious.”

The Sense of Old Numbers and the Geometry of Squirrel-Shooting. Rosell C. Smith,’s Practical and Mental Arithmetic, on a New Plan, in which Mental Arithmetic is Combined with the Use of the Slate (1829) “claimed to make math more useful by using calculations for problems to be figured in terns of dollars and cents, thus giving the exercises the chance of direct application to the daily grind.”

“Jedis and Indians”: Star Wars Gets Dubbed into Navajo: a Fun Way to Preserve and Teach a Fading Language.

“A protein found in the membranes of ancient microorganisms that live in desert salt flats could offer a new way of using sunlight to generate environmentally friendly hydrogen fuel.”

“But it’s such a good story!” Ten Urban Legends about Famous Scientists, eg Einstein didn’t fail fourth grade math.

Get a Virtual Tour of Mauna Kea’s Monster Telescopes.

Horrible Histories Goes Out with a Bang, Explains the Space Race in Four Minutes:

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. ianlib 11:45 am 07/20/2013

    I do receive some of the articles mentioned through FB friends with some of the authors e.g. Carl Zimmer but your compilations of science news and articles are nowhere to be matched. I am amazed at the sources that are available to you and the interesting comments that you make regarding the postings. You are on of the most important contributors to Scientific American and please continue doing this beyond the singularity.

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  2. 2. Adrian Morgan 5:38 am 07/21/2013

    The Bezier curve article takes me back to one of my undergraduate university assignments … we had to write a B-spline drawing tool in Java that enabled the user to add, move and delete control points, change the colour and thickness of the line, and apply various other functionality … we didn’t take anywhere near so mathematical an approach, as the point of the exercise was about graphical interface design/implementation … I don’t still have a working executable, but I do have the hardcopy of my original code.

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