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Physics Week in Review: August 31, 2013

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


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This week at Nautilus, I wrote about two recent papers aimed at unwinding the Mystery of Namibia’s Natural Crop Circles. And while the official publication date isn’t until January 28, Jen-Luc Piquant was psyched to receive the bound galleys of my new book: Me, Myself and Why: Searching for the Science of Self.

The Onion is actually spot on with this fake Op-Ed by a CNN news director. Let Me Explain Why Miley Cyrus’ VMA Performance Was Our Top Story This Morning. “You want to know how many more page views the Miley Cyrus thing got than our article on the wildfires ravaging Yosemite? Like 6 gazillion more. That’s on you, not us.”  A blog post on the physics of twerking would have been a huge traffic magnet, and I could have included this awesome comic. “I made a video of myself hitting the fifth harmonic!’

A strange antimatter signal gets stranger… but may dash hopes that dark matter has been found at last. Around the world with dark matter: New Scientist provides the only infographic you need to keep the experiments straight.

Ultracold Big Bang experiment successfully simulates evolution of early universe. “Physicists have reproduced a pattern resembling the cosmic microwave background radiation in a laboratory simulation of the Big Bang, using ultracold cesium atoms in a vacuum chamber at the University of Chicago.”

Discover the Ladder Paradox, relativity’s greatest thought experiment: why you can fit objects into spaces that are too small for them. And also why you can’t, depending on your perspective.

It was Ernest Rutherford’s birthday this week. “Along with Michael Faraday, Rutherford was the greatest experimentalist in modern history and the twentieth century’s experimental counterpart to Einstein.”

Video showcases interplay of surface tension, diffusion, and immiscibility in soy sauce, oil, ink, soap, and gasoline

Japan plans to stop leaking radioactive groundwater at Fukushima with an underground wall of ice. Here’s how it would work.

Local lensing: Milky Way gas cloud causes multiple images of distant quasar. For the first time, astronomers have seen the image of a distant quasar split into multiple images by the effects of a cloud of ionized gas in our own Milky Way Galaxy.

Decoding Flu Viruses Before an Outbreak: “Armed with rapidly growing databases of virus sequences, scientists are now using sophisticated machine learning techniques — a branch of artificial intelligence in which computers develop algorithms based on the data they have been given — to identify key properties in viruses like H7N9.”

Randomized Treatments May Be More Effective at Stopping Disease Outbreaks: Mathematicians have found that by varying the timing of treatments, doctors may be able to increase the odds that a disease outbreak will die off suddenly.

Maxims Are Fitter Than Maximization. “Much in life isn’t quantifiable, much less numerically maximizable.”

Ultimate Tic-Tac-Toe: it’s kind of a boring game, but  mathematicians play a more sophisticated version, according to my new favorite blog, Math With Bad Drawings. Bonus: Math Experts Split the Check. “Numbers are for children, half-wits, and bored cats.”

See the Sizzle of Summer’s Last Gasp: Infrared Photos Reveal the Brutal Urban Heatscape.

Pitch-drop custodian dies without witnessing a drop fall. “John Mainstone had been looking after the pitch drop experiment at the University of Queensland in Brisbane, Australia since he arrived at the university as a physics professor in 1961.”

Part of a Penrose diagram depicting the causal structure of a black hole spacetime.

What’s inside a black hole? A multiple choice question from Quantum Frontiers:

A) An unlimited amount of stuff.
(B) Nothing at all.
(C) A huge but finite amount of stuff, which is also outside the black hole.
(D) None of the above.

Hint: It might not be as simple as “None of the above.”

Darkside: New Tom Stoppard drama to celebrate 40th anniversary of Pink Floyd’s The Dark Side of the Moon.”

Element 115 might earn an official spot on the periodic table.  In honor of the new element, ununpentium, announced today, here are 20 things you didn’t know about the periodic table.

Continuum‘s Simon Barry answers our deepest time-travel questions (SPOILERS).

Ancient Romans’ Color-Changing Goblet Was Feat of Nanotechnology. The Lycurgus Cup is a 1,600-year-old glass chalice housed at the British Museum. Under normal light it’s a washed-out green color—but magically transforms to a blood-red vessel when lit from behind.

Burning Man offers parallels to—and welcome departures from—the scientific endeavors of physicists who attend.

The Curse of Being a Sole Survivor. “Every day, 2 million passengers board 30,000 flights. An American’s annual risk for dying in a plane crash is 1 in 11 million. The chance of being the only one not to die is even tinier. And it is perhaps these events’ unlikeliness that makes them so difficult to live with.”

Can You Solve This Physics Brain Teaser of the Bullet-Block Experiment? A wooden block is shot, first dead center and then off-center, which imparts a spin on the block. Which goes higher, and why?

University of St Andrews scientists create ‘fastest man-made spinning object.’ They were able to levitate and spin a microscopic sphere at speeds of up to 600 million revolutions per minute.

What Would Happen If You Ate A Teaspoonful Of White Dwarf Star? Hint: nothing good, starting with trying to scoop it up with spoon.

Dipping into the ice cream tub to find a little science: That familiar, pleasure-giving treat wouldn’t be the same without control of some basic facts about crystals.

Arthur C. Clarke Narrates Film on Mandelbrot’s Fractals; David Gilmour Provides the Soundtrack (via Open Culture):

The moon probably had water when it first formed four and a half billion years ago, according to a new study.

Quantum Computing Disentangled: A Look behind the D-Wave Buzz.  Related: With NEMS, Quantum Machines Become Reality.

Physicists Test Quantum Cryptography For Handheld Mobile Devices. Quantum cryptography has only ever been possible between places equipped like quantum optics laboratories. Now physicists have worked out how to do it with handheld mobile devices.

How to make glowing Jell-O: A little black light, some tonic water, and some Jell-O = a glowing dessert.

A mathematical model of how to tackle Vicodin abuse reveals that Benjamin Franklin had the right idea 200 years ago.

Keep It Simple, Stupid: Math Doesn’t Have to Be “Complex.”

Simulating The Cosmos With AstroBEAR: development of advanced supercomputer tools for simulating astrophysical flows. the adaptive mesh refinement and magneto-hydrodynamics  computer code.

Noooo! Exploratorium Forced to Cut Back staff to plug $9 million hole in operating budget.

Jacob Tonski, Balance From Within. http://www.jacobtonski.com/balance-from-within/

The Art of Science: Grandma’s Sofa meets Satellite Technology. “Jacob Tonski, an artist who teaches at the University of Miami, Ohio, found a broken-down sofa from the 1840s, took it apart and installed a reaction wheel, a rotating device often used to reorient satellites or telescopes.  He then added a second axis to the reaction wheel, which allowed the sofa to balance, as if by magic, on one leg.”

The Art of NASA: Andy Warhol, Annie Leibovitz, Norman Rockwell, and Other Icons Celebrate 50 Years of Space Exploration.

The Wikipediafication of Fine Art. “Quick access to knowledge begat livelier paintings with more mystery and depth.”

Hands-On Math Lessons (No Homework Required). “We’re not apologizing. We’re saying math is cool and we’re going to show you it’s cool.”

Information Theory Reveals Size of Whale and Dolphin Communication. A re-analysis of various animal communication datasets reveals the length of the “words” they use and the size of their repertoires.

Technology may enable texting after your cell phone dies.

Size matters as nanocrystals go through phases. “A team of researchers at the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE)’s Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (Berkeley Lab) has demonstrated that as metal nanocrystals go through phase transformations, size can make a much bigger difference than previously believed.”

“Whatever else you might say about the early experiments with electricity, they were certainly rough on birds.”

Observation of neutrinoless double beta decay suggests Standard Model Higgs alone can’t give mass to neutrinos.

A Composite Photo of “American Scientific Men”, 1885 (Or: Imaginativeness vs. Comb-overs?).

Isaac Asimov’s 1969 letter: “The people of the United States spend exactly as much money on booze alone as on the space program.”

Science, Religion, and the Big Bang: An Animated Clarifier from Minute Physics:

Robotic Doorknob Disinfector: “Machine learning algorithms were created to help identify door-handles.”  Related: Welcome your new robot overlord! MIT Robotics Team Unboxes Its Humanoid Atlas Robot Created by Boston Dynamics. Also: Researcher controls colleague’s motions in first human brain-to-brain interface; here’s a great in-depth feature in the Washington Post by Charles Q. Choi.

Crazy galaxies and other delights of amateur astronomy. How io9 editor Annalee Newitz spent her summer vacation.  “Along with about fifteen other students, I took a unique hands-on class called Practical Observational Astronomy, taught at the San Francisco State Sierra Nevada Field Campus high in the California Sierras near Truckee. ”

I could swear I saw this movie. NASA plans to put an astronaut on an asteroid: This is how.

Science proves cost of grading is your very soul — “Unless you have a teaching assistant, you lucky bastard.”

Comedy comes to CERN with scientists’ standup night: Six research scientists at Large Hadron Collider facility hosted comedy night in bid to broaden science’s appeal.  Who says physicists aren’t funny?

A tour of physics, Angry Birds style, by Dot Physics’ Rhett Allain (book review).

How colour-changing technology could revolutionise the medical industry. From chameleon syringes to self-expiring packaging, designers are turning their hands to graphic medical applications.

Nanotechnology T-Shirt to replace batteries? Flexible cotton threads can be used as a platform to fabricate a cable-type supercapacitor.

The regular hexagonal structure of honeycomb may owe more to fluid dynamics than the engineering of the bees that build it.

Bicycle Physics: What Makes a Smooth Ride? Give a listen to the latest Physics Buzz podcast. Related (kind of): An Ingenious Bicycle-Powered Treehouse Elevator Lifts a Rider 30 Feet in Seconds.

Credit: Eshel Ben-Jacob, http://tamar.tau.ac.il/~eshel/gallery.html

Tel Aviv University Physics Professor Dyes Bacteria to Create Trippy, Psychedelic Photographs. “Science and art both present to the world a model of nature, but when I study bacteria as a scientist, all my experiments must be reproducible. When I do it as art, I have the freedom to come up with all kinds of conditions without having to worry about another scientist needing to verify my work. But the art can help inspire the science, and vice versa.”

Canadian national treasure Chris Hadfield Explains How Astronauts Pee and Poop on the International Space Station.

An iconoclastic theory of gravity scores a  victory in the war with dark matter (but still faces big doubts).  Related: MOND predicts dwarf galaxy feature prior to observations.

Are the Milky Way’s biggest stars made in violent collisions? Our current theory of star formation can’t make big stars.

How to read and understand a scientific paper: a guide for non-scientists. Hint: read the dense abstract last.

Entertaining, (reasonably) accessible blackboard talk by Stanford’s Lenny Susskind on the puzzle: What’s inside black holes?

How “gastrophysics” could help us eat better [pdf].

Have a difficult problem to solve? Try vodka. Drinking alcohol can help us creatively solve problems.  Related: Prohibition-era note found in FDU wall: “Have a good drink on us.”

“When one becomes a notorious lady miscreant riding the 1930s Midwestern crime wave, it’s hard to stay off the grid.” The rise and fall of Vivan Davis, bank robber.   …

Richard Dawkins on Evidence in Science, Life and Love: A Letter to His 10-Year-Old Daughter.

To appreciate and/or make Martian wine: The Martian Terroir project. “Is wine as sweet (or as dry, or as whatever) if the grapes are grown in Martian soil?”

Finally, via the Bad Astronomer, Phil Plait, Jen-Luc Piquant digs the latest video from Symphony of Science, featuring black holes:

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. jtdwyer 1:31 pm 08/31/2013

    Good work – thanks again!

    I really appreciate http://physicsworld.com/cws/article/news/2013/aug/23/pamela-reasserts-positron-excess

    and especially http://quantumfrontiers.com/2013/08/29/whats-inside-a-black-hole/ and its link to the Kavli Institute for Theoretical Physics, UC Santa Barbara seminar agenda http://online.kitp.ucsb.edu/online/fuzzorfire_m13/ along with its many links to program recordings.

    Link to this

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