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Physics Week in Review: July 27, 2013

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


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There was tons of interesting transport-related stuff at Nautilus this week, including my own post on The Time-Honored Quest to Find the Rules of Time Travel — in which I squee about my favorite new TV series, SyFy’s Continuum. There was also  Space Travel for Everyone: The Intergalactic Travel Bureau; a post about a possible Roadmap to Alpha Centauri with a focus on technology (“pick your favorite travel mode—big, small, light, dark, or twisted”); a post on Where Could You Find the Best Surfing in the Universe? And finally, there was Mystery in Motion, Beauty in Battle: “If the conditions are just right, you’ll see three halos on a military helicopter—the Kopp-Etchells Effect.”

Happy Birthday, Vera Rubin: The Pioneering Astronomer’s Timeless Commencement Address on Science and Success.

He must be some kind of superhero: The Physics of Usain Bolt’s World Record 100-meter Dash.

Look, we’re huge fans of science with cool pop culture tie-ins, but Jen-Luc Piquant is calling it: enough with the science of Pacific Rim posts already! This week, Kyle Hill weighed in with posts on the physics of the blockbuster film: A Rocket Punch is a Boeing 747 to the Face and A Nuclear Explosion Bubble at the Bottom of the Ocean. Meanwhile, Tetrapod Zoology gave us  The Tet Zoo Guide to the Kaiju. All three posts are great, but, yanno, are we done now?

There’s been a lot of media buzz over the last year on the possibility of NASA scientists — with the help of one Harold White — building a potential warp drive with “a laser, a camera, some small mirrors, a ring made of ceramic capacitors,” according to the New York Times. But maybe we shouldn’t believe the hype just yet. Dump the Warp Core, advises physicist Richard Easther: “is this the start of our journey to the stars? Probably not.”

Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute.

Our Pale Blue Nano-Dot: NASA released images of Earth by distant spacecraft (Cassini and MESSENGER).

Check out this Slide Show on Fermilab: High Energy Physics on the Prairie.

Are flavor-flipping neutrinos the key to understanding how matter to beat out antimatter shortly after the big bang?

Are Dark Matter Particles Lighter Than We Thought? Sean Carroll (a.k.a the Time Lord) breaks it down for you.

The ‘Hubble Cantata‘. Composer and collaborative artist Paola Prestini to astrophysicist Mario Livio: “I would like to create a Hubble song cycle or contemporary cantata for the mezzo soprano Jessica Rivera and the amazing International Contemporary Ensemble.” And then she did.

Oooh! Sculptor Conrad Shawcross has a new light installation that will turn the Roundhouse into a vast sundial.

Collectively, scientists love adverbs. Here are the ones they love most (“interestingly”, “finally” top the list).

Wolf howl identification technology. Individual wild wolves can be recognized by just their howls with 100% accuracy.

Beautiful introduction to curves that are so crinkly they fill up a 2-D space.

Inside a lab in Pisa, forensics pathologist Gino Fornaciari and his team investigate 500-year-old cold cases.

If a network is broken, break it some more. Making small adjustments can improve an entire system’s state.

Bill Nye Explains How We Could Stop an Asteroid On AsapScience (via Laughing Squid):

Fresh from Comic-Con, the American Physical Society offers Free Comic Books to Turn Kids Onto Physics. Open Culture suggests you Start With the Adventures of Nikola Tesla.

Ann Finkbeiner is inspired by an Abstruse Goose comic and asks: Are physicists really just proto-philosophers when they start in with the implications of quantum mechanics?  Related: The New York Times has an answer. Sort of. Nothing to See Here: Demoting the Uncertainty Principle. Why exactly is the uncertainty principle so misused?

Making big ‘Schroedinger cats‘: “”We are still very far from being able to do this with a real cat.”

Pressure-Sensing, Light-Emitting Electronic “Skin”: one of most complex electronic systems ever built on plastic.

What would happen if clock time no longer tracked the Sun? Dava Sobel on the leap second and more.

The Lesser-Known Women of the Starship Enterprise.

Source: The Illustrated London News, 10 September 1910.

Massive Six-Person Tandem Airplane, 1910, composed of molded steel tubes in the place of wires for its framework.

Surviving in Extreme Conditions. First-year Caltech PhD candidate visits Mt Wilson Observatory, offers her own radio frequency survival guide, including tips on how to unlock your car at the top of the mountain.

Physicists Debate Whether the World Is Made of Particles or Fields or Something Else Entirely.

Wired Science says that The Best Space Images Ever Were Taken by Apollo Astronauts With Hasselblad Cameras. Bonus: Check Out These Beautiful Photos From The Apollo 11 Moon Mission.

Mmm. Chocolate! All-chocolate life-sized astronaut provides unique tribute to anniversary of moon landing.

Physicists Detect Radio Waves With Light by bouncing that light off a vibrating nanomembrane.

LHC Discovery Maims Supersymmetry, Again. “LHC scientists have confirmed the detection of an ultra-rare subatomic decay for the first time, a decay that is predicted by the Standard Model. Unfortunately for supersymmetry proponents, that’s one hefty blow against their theory.”

The Hearst Collection, A Live Action Art Heist Laser Maze Game.

The ferromagnetic Kondo effect in a quantum dot system.

Ferrofluids Bust a Move.  Like we needed any more evidence that ferrofluids are awesome, now you can watch ferrofluids dance and multiply over a water-repelling surface.

Why do caterpillars swarm? “What if each caterpillar was just behaving selfishly, and only trying to overtake the caterpillar ahead of it? With that simple rule, would such harmonious, collective behavior emerge?” Aatish Bhatia and his pal Deepak Iyer built a game to find out.

From base-running to brawls, here are nine things science has revealed about baseball. including statistical insight into base-running, the lefty advantage, and bench-clearing brawls.

Baseball and Gender Bias: Chad Orzel digs into the latest study on the “Number of Women in Physics Departments:  A Simulation Analysis.” No statistical gender bias was found, but there are nuances, needless to say. Per Chad:

“This does not mean that there is absolutely no sexism anywhere, and that’s not what they claim. All they can and do say is that the distribution we see in reality is no worse than you would expect from a purely random distribution. This does not rule out the possibility of bias in any individual department, or even some large number of biased departments, provided they are balanced by some number of unbiased or oppositely biased departments.”

Why do physicists gravitate towards jobs in finance? The City might not seem an obvious destination for physics graduates, but there are some surprising links between the two.

Safety Takes Flight: A Notable 1920s Aviatrix (Ireland’s Lady Mary Heath) once opined on Preventing Airplane Accidents.

Credit: Sergio Albiac, http://www.sergioalbiac.com/wall/stardust.html

We are all starstuff.  “Now’s your chance to see your face drawn with galaxies, reimagined in a celestial form.”

University of Leicester leads scientists in bid to understand Universe – using X-rays.

An Illustrated Gazetteer of Nuclear Mega-Death: depictions of American cities in imaginary destruction, desolation  Related: Richard Rhodes on the need for nuclear power.

Shapeshifter: A new translucent crystal, made from gold, zinc, and cyanide, Expands Under Pressure.

Gaze Inside the Enormous Space Toolbox that Lives on the ISS.

Backreaction ponders a fascinating question: How stable is the photon? Yes, the photon. Are photons forever? New research aims to find out. Per Physics World:  “The idea that photons have a finite lifespan, and therefore mass, is difficult to imagine.”

The Physics Buzz podcast takes a closer look at the weather on Game of Thrones: “there may be planets in our universe where seasonal cycles are more like that of Westeros.”

Whoa. Physicists demonstrate magnetism inside a single molecule.

Red Planet, White Christmas: It Once Snowed on Mars.

Giant electromagnet arrives at Fermilab. The 50-foot-wide electromagnet for the Muon g-2 experiment has completed its five-week journey from New York to Illinois.

New survey finds that Australians seem to be getting dumber – but does it matter? “Surveys of this type are blatant concern trolling.”

Credit: Cristian Vasile. Created with Circos. Via http://mahir.tumblr.com

Jen-Luc stumbled across two nifty math-related Tumblrs this week. First up: check out these New Visualizations of the digits of Pi (see image, right).  Next up: Geometry Daily. Every day German graphic designer Tilman Zitzmann posts “minimal geometric composition.”

As Machines Get Smarter, There is Growing Evidence They Learn Like Us. Studies suggest that computer models called neural networks, which are used in a growing number of applications, may learn to recognize patterns in data using the same algorithms as the human brain.

Swedish researchers create ‘an impossible material’ by mistake. The new magnesium carbonate material exhibits some remarkable properties.

Is the study of astrophysics self-indulgent?  Emily Lakdawalla does some soul-searching. “My study of the tectonics of Venus seemed almost frivolous — what did it really matter why the mountains on Venus had the shape they did? Was it worth the contentious fights I saw at conferences? Did anyone care about the results of the work that consumed my life, often 12 hours a day?”

South Pole Telescope detects polarization in the ripples of the big bang.

Why observatories shoot lasers at the Universe: “this is our attempt to compensate for the atmosphere.”

Stony Brook physicists test new detector. Using a new test-beam facility at SLAC, Stony Brook researchers are working to develop the next generation of cutting-edge particle detectors.

The Physics of What Love Looks Like: A Visualizing Metaphor. Per Popular Science: “This video, the first in a six-part series, shows different kinds of relationships as different solubility of a liquid in water–the people that become a part of you, the people you’ll always remember and those who don’t matter at all.”

Playing Lego on an atomic scale with graphene.

Fascinating bit of science history. The Hawthorne Effect: An Old Scientists’ Tale Lingering in the Gunsmoke of Academic Snipers. “It’s easy to see a “cause and effect” relationship where there isn’t one. Or overlook one that should be as plain as daylight.”

Scientists can learn a lot about neutron stars and quark stars without understanding their internal structure in detail, thanks to “universal relations (known as “I Love Q” in a classic paper) among three intrinsic properties of these highly compressed stars.”

How big is our solar system? Joe Hanson shrinks the solar system to a relatable scale in the latest episode of “It’s Okay to be Smart.”

Chinese Cuisine Patterns Revealed By Food Network Analysis: recipes and ingredients are viewed as a kind of web.

Why lost civilisations under the waves still fascinate us.

Here’s astrophysicist Brian Cox on Why Science Is Essential to Modern Democracy.

Making Science Matter: Why Cosmos Is More Important Than Ever . Wired Science reflects on the reboot of Carl Sagan’s classic series. Check out the trailer, which debuted last weekend at Comic-Con:

The Mechanics of Wonder: Awe = feeling of vastness + desire to interpret that vastness by learning more about the world.

Quantum of sonics: Bonded, not stirred. A new way to bond particles using ultrasound to form new materials.

Helpful Hint: When you tell someone you’re a physicist, explain what you actually do. Because there’s lots of different kinds of physicists.

The Physics of High-Speed Trains: “rails must be designed to handle multi-ton trains moving at high velocity.”

How Math Helped Forecast Hurricane Sandy.

Mike Lazaridis invented the BlackBerry and founded the Perimeter Institute in Waterloo, Canada. Now he wants to create an industry around quantum computing.

What if quantum physics worked on a macroscopic level? Researchers entangled optic fibers populated by 500 photons.

It’s Easier for Aliens to Visit Us Than Previously Thought if they just use slingshot dynamics, argues new paper.

Speaking of aliens, the comic strip Wondermark makes an interesting observation: “if you read the writings of the historian Josephus you can see lots of references to things that we would now, with our more discerning modern eye, describe as alien laser attacks.”

Credit: Wondermark, http://wondermark.com/952/

 

Will we ever … have reliable nuclear fusion power?

Phil Plait explains how the terrifying new trailer for the film Gravity gets the science of space right. “Note that the debris all passes silently—no air means no noise in space. All we hear are the voices of the astronauts, controllers on the ground, and the music.”

The Bartender With a Lab Coat: Tony Conigliaro is one of the world’s most notable mixologists: “I like to tell a story through flavors and creating bespoke ingredients.”

Finally, we at the cocktail party were delighted when this week saw the debut of the very first (and likely only) episode of Drunk Science, inspired by the popular Drunk History Webseries, courtesy of Boing Boing. “On the night of February 1st, 2013, science writer Charles Q. Choi drank 5 Irish car bombs, 5 doubles of Jameson, 2 beers and a good swig from a hip flask. Then, he tried to explain the concept of speciation.” Somehow the question of Orc sex came up, specifically whether they could mate with humans. (Charles slurred that he thought it could totally happen.) The video is below. (Caveat: NSFW language. Also colorful speculation about human-on-Orc sex.)

It was all in good fun, filmed during last year’s Science Online conference. And Charles was the perfect choice to do the actual experiment — he is beloved by many of us in the science writing community for his whimsical sense of adventure, as well as his talent — and I’m told that even when plastered, he was far too coherent when discussing physics to have that portion make it into the final video. But both Charles and Maggie Koerth-Baker of Boing-Boing said emphatically that they would never produce another episode of Drunk Science again.

That’s because things got a bit intense. Jen-Luc likes to savor a well-made cocktail or two at the end of a long day, but Charles drank a lot. I mean, a lot. His on-screen inebriation is genuinely funny, but consuming huge amounts of alcohol in a short period of time is also potentially dangerous. Charles blacked out and remembers almost nothing about the actual filming once the alcohol kicked in. Per Maggie, apparently this is a common occurrence when filming Drunk History, whose producers always have a medic on-site — just in case. Because he is Charles, he wrote honestly about how harrowing he found the experience.

No doubt there will be some self-righteous tsk-tsking in certain quarters, but we science writers are by nature a curious bunch, fond of pushing boundaries, and loving science doesn’t mean we squelch our fun-loving adventurous impulses. Sometimes you just have to do the experiment — like climbing Everest because it’s there. Sometimes we do the experiment and it works. Sometimes it fails. Sometimes it works, but that success comes at too high a personal cost, as in this case. That doesn’t mean the experiment wasn’t worth doing. Jen-Luc Piquant tips her beret to the folks behind Drunk Science for a risky job well done — and she is very glad Charles emerged unscathed.

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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