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Physics Week in Review: August 24, 2013

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


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There was an embarrassment of riches this week over at Nautilus. We learned that An Arguably Unreal Particle Powers All of Your Electronics.   Tom Siegfried explored Science’s Significant Stats Problem: Researchers’ rituals for assessing probability may mislead as much as enlighten. Also featured: Revisiting “Moneyball” with Paul DePodesta – Shattering preconceptions about players isn’t all about the numbers.  Finally, True story: An expert witness once handed out calculators to the jurors to help them through some Bayesian stats.

The Proof in the Quantum Pudding. How do you know if a quantum computer is doing what it claims?

Latest Daya Bay result precisely measured neutrinos’ oscillation behavior at different energies.

Physicist says he’s proven the impossibility of quantum time crystals. Noooo! I was rooting for the time crystals.

Check out these new high-resolution maps of Earth’s surprisingly inconsistent gravity field.

Pioneering 19th-Century Astronomer Maria Mitchell on Education and Women in Science.

We Cannot Change Physics. Lovely piece by Hillary Rosner on “energy, forces and phenomenons,” specifically “the physics behind power,” and how we can harness natural energy as a sustainable resource.

Image: NASA/JPL-Caltech.

Postcard to Saturn: A Big-Hearted Mosaic of Earthlings. On the same day that the Cassini spacecraft took a picture of our pale blue dot, “People from more than 40 countries and 30 U.S. states snapped pictures of themselves as they waved back at Cassini and posted them to Twitter, Facebook, Flickr, Instagram, etc. Now, using these images, the Cassini mission has assembled a brand new mosaic.” Big zoom-able version is here.

Zen Pencils created this wonderful version of Carl Sagan’s pale blue dot passage in comic form.

‘UFO’ Flies Past ISS: Space Junk or Tribble Invasion?

It’s baaaack! Could this NASA engineer’s Quantum-Thruster Physics Propel Warp Drives?  White Says He Has Secret Warp Drive Technology. According to Matt Francis, Physics Says He Doesn’t.

The Baffling Simplicity of Black Holes: “Want to know what life looks like inside a black hole? Look around.”  Wormholes May Save Physics From Black Hole Infernos.

Scientists Capture Rare Photographs of Red Lightning.

This is kind of awesome. Timelapse Video of Hundreds of Snails Tagged with LEDs at Night.

A star is born — literally. This is what it looks like. Images of the birth of a star around 1,400 light years away from Earth were captured by scientists at the European Southern Observatory, Chile.

The Weirdest-Looking Time Machines in All Science Fiction.

Sigh. The algebra debate just won’t die. Should math really be a required subject? Novelist Nicholson Baker makes a case against algebra.

You Get Calculus! And You Get Calculus! Everybody Gets Calculus! Check out the Open Calculus blog.  Related: Batman comic or calculus textbook? “Would you say it was a local maximum of trickery?”

Would you like to buy my data? The equation that shows how much Facebook owes you for using your personal data. “The more you buy, the more you know! And remember, no refunds!”

Apparently Hubble Space Telescope made movies of a “space Slinky” — actually a jet from M87′s black hole.

Massive mirror to be cast for Giant Magellan Telescope — to be 10 times sharper than Hubble.

Into thin air: The story of Plutonium Mountain.

The Polchinski Paradox: Research the grandfather paradox without murdering your grandfather.

Teleportation just got easier. Thanks to two studies published in Nature, the chance of successful teleportation has considerably increased – but not for you, unfortunately.

Theoretical physicists are both fascinated and intimidated by (2,0) theory, so there’s little hope for the rest of mere mortals grasping it. Still, a string theorist tries to explain in a series of posts.

IBM researchers unveil TrueNorth, a new computer architecture that imitates how a brain works.

Space Alphabet, An Art Print Full of Intergalactic Goodness From A to Z.

Long Distance Operator, The History of Communications Technology Told With a Remix of Iconic Sounds.

You know what the rest of the world has figured out? The metric system. It’s time the US got on board.

Check out this incredible six minute animated introduction to the quantum world, created by Jorge Cham of PhD Comics fame in conjunction with Caltech’s Institute for Quantum Information and Matter, (via the Quantum Frontiers blog):

Astronomers used Kepler data to analyze target star “song” that relates to the star’s mass, spin, surface features.

Insect inspired super rubber moves toward practical uses in medicine.

How to Build an Ice Wall Around a Leaking Nuclear Reactor. Believe it or not, it’s what Japan is planning to do to prevent further contamination at Fukushima. Can it really be done?

The Higgs Boson vs. Boltzmann Brains. New arxiv paper suggests that the mass of the top quark might be heavier than most people think, and that our universe will decay in another ten billion years or so.

Science is harnessing shock waves similar to those generated by meteorites striking the Earth to create new materials. Wired takes you inside NASA’s vertical gun range: simulated meteorite explosions and high-impact science.

The cloudy science of E-cigarettes. “A lot of people feel like [the e-cigarette manufacturers] are exploiting a loophole,” said the director of Smoking Cessation Services at Columbia University Medical Center, Daniel Seidman.

Vortices in the South Atlantic are mathematically equivalent to black holes, say physicists.

Photo by: Andre Salles, Fermilab

The Flash invades Jefferson Lab: 13 visitors in superhero attire visited as part of an international scavenger hunt.

Interview with William Binney, mathematician who worked for the NSA for over 30 years as top analyst and code-breaker.

A Mathematical Anti-Triumph from Beyond: Lewis Carroll’s Last Work, on Long Division.

There may be something funny going on with the stuff covering the Moon; new NASA mission aims to solve the mystery.

Is The Universe Expanding Or Just Getting Heavier?

Atomic clock achieves record stability, holds promise for technology.

Nifty explainer: Why Do Solids Expand When Heated?

How to Save The Troubled Graphene Transistor. Unlike conventional semiconductors, graphene cannot be switched off, a problem that threatens to scupper its use in future generations of transistors. Now physicists think they’ve found a solution.

Check out this high-speed footage of a peregrine falcon and a raven in flight.

Frank Wilczek: “‘Yesterday’s multiverse is today’s universe’… my philosophy of life..” Check out the FQXI podcast for the full interview.  Meanwhile, Matt Francis shares how he learned to stop worrying and tolerate the multiverse. “The title is a lie: I still worry about the multiverse.”

Mind and Cosmos. “Nagel and other consciousness mysterians should appreciate that the laws of physics aren’t to be trifled with.” The Time Lord takes on that irritating Weekly Standard cover story.

A Great Letter to the Editor and a Major Advance in Particle Physics (1932). “James Chadwick–the discoverer of the neutron and leading Brit investigator in the Manhattan Project–announced his great discovery in the form of a letter-to-the-editor.”

The Periodic Table of Booze is science everybody (over 21) can use.

The Fermi Gamma-ray Space Telescope’s first five years: a retrospective.

How to Open a Bottle of Champagne With a Saber.

A simple, direct account of near-death on Space Station. Clear reminder to not take things for granted.

Stray Wireless Signals Power Battery-Free Devices; Technology may enable texting after a cell battery dies.

From the Friday Weird Science archives of Scicurious: Truly applied physics: how you hold up a strapless evening gown. Hint: tape is involved.

Speeding Towards Birds In A Car… For Science!

Particle physicists give short explanations of why they do what they do. You can vote for your favorite video.

For those who haven’t been following particle physics, but have become vahuely aware of this thing called the Higgs boson at the Large Hadron Collider: How Do Particle Accelerators Work? Physicists Explain.

Inspired by nature: textured materials to aid industry and military.

“Instrumental Bodies,” in which wearable prostheses turn dancers into musical instruments.

Craftsperson Kat Young has made a replica Alethiometer from Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy.

The EYESHOTS project successfully built prototype robot capable of achieving awareness of its surroundings.

What makes the ouija board move. “The mystery isn’t a connection to the spirit world, but why we can make movements and yet not realise that we’re making them.”   Related (kind of): We love Torafu’s Haunted Art Gallery for Kids at the Tokyo Museum of Contemporary Art. Siri would never fall for such nonsense (although she does write Babylon 5 spec scripts), as evidenced by this skit in which Nick and Siri play Dungeons and Dragons: “Your spell fails because magic is not real” … “You die of the plague.”

The Quantum Mechanics of Love: “The crucial step is to map people’s personalities to waveforms.”

This Ancient Egyptian Jewelry Came from Space (i.e., chunks of meteorites).

Johnny and Oppie. “Physicists, like the ancient Greeks, like to gossip about the gods.”

Bugging Nature: How You Can Record Insect Sounds for Science.

After This, Veritasium Will Saw a Woman in Half. The Bullet-Block experiment is physics sleight-of-hand.

“Permit me to lay before you the bladder of Mr Gardiner”: Medicine in public in eighteenth-century London.

Guitarist (and physics PhD) Brian May Explains the Making of Queen’s Classic Song, ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ — worth spending 27 minutes.

So this happened: Neil Gaiman (lyrics), Amanda Palmer (piano, vocals), Ben Folds (drums) and Damian Kulash (bass and synth) collaborated on a song about Nikola Tesla. A sampling:

I’ve been waiting here for decades, just a dusty afterthought
I’ve been waiting for Nikola to come back
It is painful and ironic not to mention electronic
That he’d vanish in a crackle, into air and fade to black

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 9:55 am 08/24/2013

    I made my own improvement to long division a while back, when I was doing some Khan Academy exercises for the fun of it. But my improvement is not algorithmic — it is simply a more organised way to lay out certain intermediate calculations.

    Say we’re calculating 2468/37. The first task is to determine the greatest integer multiple of 37 that is less than 246, and the way I was taught long division in school, I would find somewhere off to one side to either test what happens when I multiply 37 by various candidate values, or else to write out the 37 times tables in full. Both are wasteful.

    My innovation was, instead of writing these test calculations haphazardly, to do the following. Off to one side, write the number 37, and draw eight lines radiating from it. Label the downward-pointing line “5″ (in small writing, as though it were an exponent), and clockwise from there, label the seven other lines “6″, “7″, “8″, “9″, “2″, “3″ and “4″.

    Now when we want to test what happens when 37 is multiplied by a particular integer, we write the result of that calculation where it is pointed to by the line labelled by that integer. This layout leaves space for all multiples, so you can jump straight to the calculations that seem most promising, and it is also compact, so the workpage is not covered in disorganised scribbles. Also, since multiplicand and multiplier are written right there, it’s easy to keep track of them.

    I wonder what comparable tricks other people have stumbled upon, or perhaps, on rare occasions, were taught.

    Link to this
  2. 2. notmebug 8:13 am 08/26/2013

    The link is currently broken for “A star is born — literally.”
    The working link is:
    http://www.latimes.com/science/sciencenow/la-sci-sn-the-birth-of-a-star-photos-20130820,0,3492846.story

    Link to this
  3. 3. David Cummings 9:18 am 08/26/2013

    Adrian, that does sound like a neat trick.

    One of the things that at least some schools are trying to teach these days is the art of estimating an answer to a problem that is too difficult to do in your head. It’s a good thing to teach for 2 reasons, 1) on the practical side, it makes you less vulnerable to keypad errors on your calculator. If you know what general size number to expect, you’ll spot errors more easily. 2) on the theoretical side (and the side of getting a well-rounded education) it behooves the student to have a deeper understanding of what is going on.

    On the subject of should students learn algebra, I can only shake my head in sadness. Luddites are sad creatures, in whatever form they come in. Anti-mathematical Luddites are some of the worst.

    Link to this

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