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Physics Week in Review: August 17, 2013


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Welcome to another eclectic collection of physics-ish links. This week on Nautilus, I wrote about how that Quirky Muon Just Might Spur a Physics Breakthrough—Again.

I also hosted a great conversation with JPL planetary scientist Kevin Hand on Virtually Speaking Science in Second Life. Kevin was the science consultant for the awesome new film Europa Report, and he dished on the behind-the-scenes details of how the filmmakers worked real science into their fiction. We also chatted about his own research recreating the conditions on Europa in the lab (“Europa in a can”), and his experience joining director James Cameron on the latter’s dive to the bottom of the Mariana Trench.

JPL planetary scientist Kevin Hand stands next to his "Europa in a Can" experiment, August 2010. Credit: me!

Incidentally, Kevin was featured in Cameron’s IMAX film several years ago, Into the Deep, and also consulted on Avatar. Plus, he founded his own charity to bring science education to kids in Kenya. So, you know, he’s pretty damn awesome. You can listen to the taped podcast on Blog Talk Radio here.

The geekerati have wasted no time weighing in on the science aspects of the film. And NPR’s Robert Krulwich is kinda bummed to find out that the “top predator” on Europa is likely to be a “fearsome creature with the mass of one gram.” Or 3/100ths of an ounce.

Elysium also earned high marks on the bringing real-world science to science fiction scale. This film by the same dude who made District 9 contains quite a bit of perfectly plausible technology. And Kyle Hill explained How Elysium is a Carnival Ride, and Why its Atmosphere is a Bucket of Water.

Also in Nautilus this week: In some fields of science, finding things by accident happens all the time. Particle physics is not one of them.  Also: Chasing Coincidences with Statistics: Why it’s hard to recognize the unlikely.

This week on Quanta: In Natural Networks, there is Strength in Loops.”Loop architectures, like redundant computer networks or electrical grids, make structures resistant to damage. “  Also, George Hart is back with an amazing new video: Making Music With a Möbius Strip, the surprising connection between topology and musical chords.

This was also the week that Elon Musk — of Tesla and Space X fame — announced he’d be revealing his schemes for something called a Hyperloop: a super-fast commuter train using pneumatic tubes that would be able to go from San Francisco to Los Angeles in a breathtaking 35 minutes. We like Musk; so does Physics Buzz, in part because he says cool stuff like, “I think of the future as branching probability streams.” Also? Rockets, baby!

But it didn’t take long for the skeptics to weigh inTechnology Review warned that we should Expect a Long Wait for Musk’s Hyperloop to become a reality, while over at Jalopnik, Stephen Granade outlined the  three biggest challenges facing the project. Even The Daily Show’s John Oliver weighed in with his trademark skewering of the hype. In contrast, Slate offered a refreshing counterpoint to all the buzzkills, insisting that the Hyperloop is not as crazy as it seems, along with Scientific American: We Could Make Elon Musk’s Hyperloop Real. That’s the spirit! Dare to dream!

It’s all very steampunk, as retro as it is futuristic, in Jen-Luc’s humble opinion. Several people pointed out that the notion of a pneumatic tube transport system isn’t all that new. I blogged about Alfred Beach’s plans for such a system in New York City back in 2011. Bloomberg News was more belligerent: New York Had a Hyperloop First, Elon Musk. (Subtext: Take that, Mr. Genius Billionaire Guy! Pbbt!) The Guardian reminded us that a Hyperloop between London and Edinburgh was proposed in 1825. Curbed LA pointed out that back in 1909 there was a plan for a superfast elevated transit between Los Angeles and San Francisco.

Related: “The Cat in the Canister.” The Atlantic remembers that time people sent a cat through the mail using pneumatic tubes. “As a general rule, it seems, humans will always find ways to join cats and series of tubes.”

So Is the Internet Really Just Cats? It involves toxoplasmosis, metonymy and the transitive property of congruence:

With all the Hyperloop hype, maybe you didn’t notice that the Perseids Bombarded Earth with Comet Dust this week.  There were some impressive photographs making the rounds, as well as this incredible footage showing a Perseid meteor exploding. The Guardian‘s Gavin Extence says that science has not diminished the awe and primordial pleasure human beings feel when looking up into the night sky.

“That’s totally photoshopped, you can tell by the shadows.” New algorithm analyzes shadows to spot fake photos.

“Listening” to black holes form with gravity waves.

After a successful trial run, a CERN antimatter experiment plans to use crowdsourcing to analyze its data.

If you can’t see it, it doesn’t exist.” Belief in the multiverse requires exceptional vision, according to this article by Tom Siegfried citing the ideas of Frank Wilczek. But the Curious Wavefunction begs to differ with Siegfried’s take.

The Making of a Mathematical Mind, One Step at a Time. Related: How to Teach Long Division through Guided Discovery.

They Do It With Mirrors: Maybe we can Build a Time Cloak with Mirrors: this simple arrangement of switchable mirrors creates “holes in time” of almost any length.

Detail of mural by Josef Kristofoletti adorning the ATLAS detector at CERN

Physics Hasn’t Looked This Hot Since The Big Bang. A really cool mural adorns the ATLAS detector at CERN.

Years of particle physics study helped shape immunologist Judy Lieberman’s unusual approach to disease prevention.

The Doctor is in! Google Maps Easter Egg Lets You Explore The TARDIS.

Google also celebrated Erwin Schrödinger’s birthday this week with a special Google doodle. The late Nobel prize-winning Austrian physicist gave his name to the equation that lies at the heart of quantum mechanics as well as that that durned Schrödinger’s cat paradox.  And what better way to celebrate than with your own Schrodinger paper doll  with cat experiment, courtesy of the folks at Mad Art Lab?

What’s nanotechnology good for? How about making windows that can block heat, reduce glare or add warmth?

The Time Lord found this nifty map of physics papers on the arxiv — Color-coded and zoomable!

Physicists investigate the formation of defects during phase transitions in crystals of ions.

Sigmo (Bluetooth device) brings Star Trek-style universal translator closer to reality.

LOVE! BBC Science Club’s Dara O’Briain tells the story of physics from Galileo’s work to Einstein’s theory of relativity

The Science of the 1919 Great Molasses Flood: a wave of syrup swept through the streets of Boston.

Vibrating particles or granular materials can produce many fluid-like behaviors.

Art experts are using X-rays, scanning electron microscopy and mass spectrometers to probe a Jackson Pollock mural.

Princeton researchers, using a 3-D printer, have built a bionic ear with integrated electronics. “Lab-made organs could do more than just serve as ready options for patients in need: with the right blend of biology and materials science, they might even be able to endow people with superhuman abilities.” That could totally be a TV series!

These spiky runway dresses are created from iron filings and magnets. Fashion designer Iris Van Herpen “created a material out of iron filings and resin, experimenting to create just the right texture and pearlescent colors, and then guided the material over sections of fabric” with magnets.

Alexander Graham Bell and Mabel kissing within a tetrahedral kite, October 1903. Via http://natgeofound.tumblr.com/post/44756975727/alexander-graham-bell-and-mabel-kissing-within-a

Via Brain Pickings, “the sweetest thing ever: Vintage photo of f Alexander Graham Bell kissing his wife inside a tetrahedreal kite.”

Walking on water may be stuff of legend at human scales, but it’s a fact of everyday life for many smaller species.

The New Yorker celebrates Tom Stoppard’s classic play Arcadia at Twenty: “The play is…  a sort of Dance to the Music of Time.”

Many online dating sites use algorithms to match you with the right mate. They may be on to something. Or not.

Pushkin Poetry, Markov Chains. “If the current letter is a vowel, what is the probability that the next letter will be a vowel?”

A spot of math-y history (PDF). Why Grassmann’s approach to vector calculus lost out (initially) to that of Gibbs and Heaviside.

Mathematics: Means to an End. A collection of mathematicians who died under unfortunate or unfitting circumstances.

Pretty! Liquid Jewel, High-Speed Photography of Paint-Covered Balloons Bursting.

Geologist Arthur Sylvester gives a driving tour of “Jurassic LA.” Behold! The rocks of the I-405!

Nifty senior thesis: “The Transmission of medieval mathematics and the origins of gothic architecture.”

Physicist’s Dream Machine: meet the Fermitron, a hypothetical accelerator that goes around circumference of Earth or exists in stable orbit.

Graphic math: A Los Alamos mathematician recently proved a new theorem in graph theory that may benefit data security.

Tom Kibble, whose 1964 work helped lead to discovery of the Higgs boson, was profiled in the Guardian: “It didn’t seem that special at the time.”

The Magic Ratio That Wasn’t: “in that equation there is no connection between the data and the math.”

Astronomers have found 12 near-Earth asteroids that could be captured with today’s rocket technology.

Good, Early Review of Some of the Fine Work of Claude Shannon.

Researchers optically levitate a glowing, nanoscale diamond. Check it out:

In honor of Geek Week, YouTubers Explain How the World Is Awesome With 60 Scientific Facts.

Primed: The smashing science behind particle accelerators. “as massive colliders seem ready to land on the endangered species list, it seems as good a time as any to explain what a particle collider is, how it works and what we as a society have to gain from the research.”

How Do Students Choose Majors? New research has identified a deciding factor: the instructors of introductory courses.

A Black Hole Mystery Wrapped in a Firewall Paradox: Dennis Overbye tackles a tough topic in the New York Times.  And over at Slate, a timely critique appeared.

“Science is not a particular set of facts or institutions, science is a process,” insists Chad Orzel.

On being ‘right’ in science. “it didn’t matter whether I was right; nobody was listening to me anymore.”

Why Stephen Hawking has a lot to teach us about celebrity culture.

How Einstein Thought: Fostering Combinatorial Creativity and Unconscious Connections.

created by Taiwan design house JL Design and KORB. Via Colossal, http://www.thisiscolossal.com/2013/08/human-movement-converted-into-digital-sculptures/

Yowza. Human Movement Converted into Digital Sculptures.

We will finally have, beginning next month, an official female scientist LEGO minifigure!

New Techniques Make Math Fun for All: The secret is carefully guiding their adventure in numbers.

How the squid and octopus might point the way to nanotechnology-based stealth coatings.

Puffed: “Used to produce puffed cereal—think Golden Crisp—the Puritan puffing gun is a mid-century relic.”

Spoofers used fake GPS signals to knock yacht off course. Yacht Captain’s Dare to Researchers Gets Unwelcome Result.

An underground laboratory in the Andes aims to tackle dark matter mystery.

Two cultures? Bah. Here’s a list of useful things that writers can learn from science.

The Magnifying Glass Ceiling: The Plight of Women in Science.

Discover Alexander Calder’s Circus, One of the Beloved Works, at the Whitney Museum of American Art.

On the Rebound: Scientists revive search for new rubber sources. Fascinating look at the history and future of rubber.

The Truth is Out There! CIA Finally Admits Area 51 Is Actually A Thing In Declassified Report. Fox Muldur must be feeling pretty smug right about now.

Here’s a list of the Coolest and Weirdest Spaceship Designs From Before The Space Age.

Mars Food Scientists End Mock Space Mission. ‘Journey’ to study best ways to feed astronauts during a trip to Mars.

Ah, Kepler, we hardly knew ye. NASA announced that Kepler is officially kaput, and it’s moving on to alternative missions.  Here’s the Atlantic‘s Ode to Kepler, the Planet Hunter.

Was that blue world the first time astronomers measured the color of an exoplanet?

Pan Planets, Realistic Planet Photos Created With a Frying Pan -  my frying pan never looks like this, so kudos!

Rochester-based artist Andy Gilmore turns math into art, creating hypnotizing and kaleidescopic patterns.

How to take a punch: videos demonstrate the momentum involved when one person punches another.

Finally, we got your jet pack right here. Now stop your whinging. Human test flights begin on a commercial jetpack prototype, going on sale in 2015. Apparently some sort of pilot’s license will be required. Jen-Luc Piquant is sure it’s completely safe.

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 7:37 am 08/19/2013

    I just read the Quirky Muon. I like the “who ordered that” quote and I love the practical applications of muon detectors.

    Link to this
  2. 2. David Cummings 7:44 am 08/19/2013

    From the Discovering the Unexpected article (http://nautil.us/issue/4/the-unlikely/discovering-the-expected)… wow. That’s a lot of Dell servers.

    http://static.nautil.us/918_1e056d2b0ebd5c878c550da6ac5d3724.png

    Link to this

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