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Physics Week in Review: September 14, 2013

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


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In case you missed it, you can listen to my Virtually Speaking Science conversation in Second Life with biorobotics wizard Malcolm MacIver (Northwestern University) at Blog Talk Radio. We talked about weak electric fish and how they have inspired some of MacIver’s ingenious robotic designs, as well as neuroprosthetics, avatars and identity, and his ideas about the evolution of consciousness. Also by me this week at Nautilus: Finding the Concept That Is Jennifer Aniston in My Brain.

Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: NASA’s Voyager 1 spacecraft officially is the first human-made object to venture into interstellar space.  Just don’t say it “left the solar system,” because then you would be Wrong On the Internet, which is not a good place to be wrong. As Emily “Buzzkill” Lakdawalla tweeted: “Voyager is much closer to Sun than any other star, well inside Oort cloud. It hasn’t left solar system.” Given that we’ve heard this fanfare before, it’s no wonder some folks were a bit blase, at least until we heard that recording of the sound of interstellar space — yowza.

Here’s a handy map of our solar system that puts it in proper perspective.  Mashable pointed out that Voyager 1 Got to Deep Space on Less Memory Than Your iPhone 5.  And our favorite Voyager-related Tweet was from James R. Davenport: “@NASAVoyager changes relationship status from “With Sol” to “It’s Complicated.”"

Meanwhile, the ISS Expedition 36 crew landed safely back on Earth on a cushion of fire.

Concerned about a nuclear apocalypse? You might be interested in this 1970s 5000-square-foot Las Vegas house that’s for sale, built 26 feet underground in case of a nuclear blast. There’s two hot tubs, a sauna, a pool, a putting green, fake trees, and a grill housed inside a fake rock. Decor needs some serious updating, but it’s yours for a cool $1.7 million.

An unfortunate frog at the launch of LADEE. Credit NASA/Wallops/Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport.

Also, NASA’s moon mission LADEE spacecraft blasted off successfully, on a month-long journey to reach lunar orbit. The achievement was quickly overshadowed by a photograph showing a frog caught in the rocket launch. Best. Photobomb. Ever. Amirite? Too bad poor Frank the Frog (as Ian O’Neill of Discovery News dubbed him) didn’t live to savor his newfound fame.  NASA confirmed the photo was genuine, adding, “The condition of the frog is uncertain.” Uh — we’re not liking its chances.

This week was the 2013 Ig Nobel Awards ceremony at Harvard, where the geekerati gathered to Celebrate Science’s Wacky Side.  Scicurious will be blogging about the various individual prizes, as is her usual wont. First up: the 2013 Ig Nobel for Public Health: Reattachment of the penis. Unless it was first eaten by a duck.

The Hunt for Microscopic Black Holes. Finding micro black holes at the LHC would alert scientists to the existence of extra dimensions, which might explain why gravity seems so weak.

Some people have no shame. Hucksters are hawking what they claim to be scraps from the LHC that supposedly have acquired healing powers by being near the places where the Higgs Boson were detected:  try a ball bearing ($199) or random bolt or nut ($149).

Sutter’s Mill meteorite: Ingredients for life may have come from space.

According to Physics Buzz, “The team behind Gravity seem particularly dedicated to accurately portraying science.” Astronaut Cady Coleman Gave Gravity Advice to Sandra Bullock.  Wired Science weighed on on Gravity in the Elysium Space Station. And how did the writer of the Riddick movies balance science and storytelling? He spilled the beans.

“Have you considered a silent film?” A math professor consults on a Hollywood movie.

Disarm: A Mechanized Orchestra of Instruments Built from Decommissioned Weapons.

Excerpts From The Mad Scientist’s Handbook: So You’re Ready to Vaporize a Human.  Dr. Horrible would be so proud.

Jen-Luc Piquant demands to know why she is only just now hearing about this: BarBot 2013.75, A San Francisco Festival of Cocktail Robotics, takes place October 25-26, 2013 at the Odd Fellows Building.

Universality: which types of physics qualify as ‘fundamental’?

Quantum Computing in the Cloud! Quantum chip connected to internet is yours to command.

Renaissance Rhinoplasty: The 16th-Century Nose Job. It was a bad time for noses. Just ask Tycho Brahe.

Why You Can’t Travel Back in Time and Kill Hitler, or every time travel trope in sc-fi ever.

Harness the power of play: physicist swears that modelling javelins and shuttlecocks was by far “the most fun and academically stimulating” work he’s done.

Credit: Grover Schrayer, aka Sea Moon, on Flickr. http://www.flickr.com/people/14833125@N02/

Waxbows: The Incredible Beauty of a Blown Out Candle: “In 2009, aspiring science photographer Grover Schrayer took a series of photos documenting candle smoke–something that most people have seen before, but never looked close enough at. … There is so much more to a candle once you blow it out.”

Quantum temperature: Scientists at the Vienna University of Tech study physics that connect the classical, quantum worlds.

Chinese Researchers Make An Invisibility Cloak In 15 Minutes. Look out for mass-produced invisibility cloaks thanks to an entirely new way of designing and manufacturing them out of materials such as Teflon.

Mathematics+Motherhood: An Interview with Constance Leidy

The Sidewalk Astronomer Is Familiar with Doubt.

Cymatics: Stunning Macro Footage of Lycopodium Powder on a Stereo Speaker.

What does the end of the night sky mean for humanity’s existential and physical health?

Contest winner announced for “Why Particle Physics Matters.”  The readers have spoken: Your favorite explanation of why particle physics matters came from physicist Breese Quinn, who said about public support for particle physics research: “You are the Ferdinands and Isabellas.”

Roger Angel is one of the world’s most brilliant and audacious engineers. Could he design the next energy revolution?

Wide Left: Study Shows that Holders Play Key Role in Field Goal Accuracy. “When the field goals are made, kickers are heroes. When they miss, they’re goats. But a study by aerospace researchers shows that kickers aren’t always at fault – the way the ball is held can affect where the ball goes.”

Ten Secret Trig Functions Your Math Teachers Never Taught You.

Magnetic Moment. Two Brothers Taphouse, a brewery near Fermilab honors the arrival of a giant electromagnet.

Science Experiment Ruins Toast: “Our research shows that sod’s law really does exist when it comes to dropped toast.”

In “Baths and Quarks,” theoretical physicist David Tong explains solitons and their effect on quarks and protons, but says nothing about why he wears his glasses in the bathtub.

How fast can you hit a speed bump while driving and still live? Surprisingly fast. [Do NOT try this at home.]

How is the sequester affecting science in America? “As predicted, labs are ditching projects and scientists; researchers are looking overseas for jobs and funding; health initiatives are being hamstrung; and federal agencies across the board are floundering.”

Adam Spencer on why you should watch his TED talk about monster prime numbers.

Perception and the Paranormal: The Tea Box Ghost.

Remember last week’s story about the London building with the death ray that actually melted a car? The Internet had a lot of fun with that this week: host Huw James of Head Squeeze Melted a Toy Car with a Parabolic Mirror. Also, Jen-Luc’s fave new site, The Toast, weighed in with a mock interview with London’s Death Ray Architect.

Smart Helmets and Brain Scans Test Brain Safety in Youth and High School Football./news/519061/brain-injury-study-tracks-footballs-youngest-players/

Retro Report journalism project explores The Second Draft of the History of Science.

Autistic boy genius, 15, pursues physics passion at Waterloo’s Perimeter Institute. “In my opinion, autism is just a sense of focus,” Jacob said. “I’ve seen some autistic people who end up becoming very successful engineers, very successful computer scientists and if you narrow what it is they’re doing you will see amazing things.”

Credit: Martin Klimas, http://www.martin-klimas.de/en/index.html

High Speed Flower Explosions by Martin Klimas: “the artist first soaked them in liquid nitrogen to ensure the petals were brittle as eggshells and then blasted them from behind with an air gun resulting in dazzling bursts of color.”

Many are called, but few are chosen. More than 200,000 people applied for a one-way mission to colonize Mars. Only a few dozen will make the cut.

Quantum teleportation in an electronic chip. Scientists transmit an atom from one location to another.

“Therefore his shipmates called him mad”: The Science of Moby Dick, by my fellow English-major-turned-science-writer Carl Zimmer.

Meet the Man Who Would Build a Computer the Size of the Entire Internet.

High-resolution observations show how black hole jets churn galactic gas. This galactic feedback controls the rate of star formation in the galaxy.

The NSA Hasn’t “Cracked” Encryption—It’s Just Reminded Us of the Ways Around It. New details of the NSA’s capabilities suggest encryption can still be trusted. But more effort is needed to fix problems with how it is used.

Whisker Shape and Orientation Help Seals and Sea Lions Minimize Self-Noise.

Scientists used to scan the skies for messages from alien civilizations. Now they go looking for their ruins.

Kaplansky sings Kaplansky — and Pi. “That’s Mathematics,” by Irving Kaplansky.

Mechanical Marvels: Clockwork Dreams: A History of Automatons on the BBC.

Dark matter theory gets a big boost from a new study of where the unseen material is hiding. Then again, per this article, one line of evidence for dark matter may be based on some dubious math.

A Numerical Love Story: Daniel Tammet’s Thinking in Numbers. ‘There is no such thing that half of it is nothing.”

The Leidenfrost Maze: made by University of Bath undergrads to demonstrate self-propulsion of Leidenfrost droplets:

On The Big Bang Theory, Helping Physics and Fiction Collide: a Q&A with co-executive producer Eric Kaplan. “Listen, it’s a story, not a thesis about how everyone is. It’s a collection of specific characters. All scientists are not Sheldon Cooper, who finds it difficult to hug someone or go out to lunch and divide a check. But many people whose cognitive ability outstrips their emotional sense can see some aspect of Sheldon in themselves.”

Can Dara O’Briain make science sexy? “The ladies love the guy who’s good at maths.”

Les Miserablés is decidedly less miserable with lightsabers.

September 11, 1881: The landslide of Elm and the physics or rock flows.

When Memorization gets in the Way of Learning. A teacher’s quest to discourage his students from mindlessly reciting information.

Fantasy Physics Season Preview: Chad Orzel wonders, What if Fantasy Physics existed–who would be your picks?

Need fast internet? Go to space! NASA is about to launch super-fast, laser-powered WiFi off the planet. (Jen-Luc still thinks it’s way cheaper to just order FIOS.)

Simulating the spread of disease; modeling in the midst of a pandemic.

They had me at “levitation.” Magnetic levitation separates crystal polymorphs by their density.

As he was deciding where to go to college, a depressed Murray Gell-Mann found himself torn between going to MIT or committing suicide. Fortunately for the field of physics,  “It occurred to me that I could try MIT and THEN commit suicide….”

Carbon-coated spider silk wires could lead to ‘green’ electronics.

How to Argue About Research You Don’t Like: A Flowchart. The definitive guide to critiquing research findings that rub you the wrong way.

Here’s Daniel Dennett on Wieseltier attacking Pinker: “Pomposity sitting like an oversized hat on top of fear is hilarious.”

How to argue properly: this was a week-long series in the Guardian by one Protagorus, “the pseudonym of an academic or academics researching and teaching rhetoric and politics in Britain.” It should be required reading for everyone on the Internet. I mean it. Part 1: The internet provides ample space for stating opinions. But true persuasion is an art.  Part 2: How to judge your audience and remain true to your arguments. Being two-faced has had a bad rap recently. But to convince people of your argument you have to adapt it to your audience.  Part 3: How to use your anecdotes well. There’s an art to telling stories to complement an argument without overdoing it. Part 4: Ask yourself: what are you arguing about? Life is not a well-set exam – the questions we ask may be ambiguous. Defining the dispute is itself part of the argument. Part 5: Can you spot a rhetorical fallacy? If you can identify the fallacies in arguments, you can undermine your opponent and demonstrate your own decency.

A new paper on the arXiv suggests our universe may contain TARDIS-like regions of spacetime.  Per io9: “According to Mikko Lavinto and colleagues, the universe isn’t actually expanding. It only looks that way from our perspective. Our view of the cosmos, they argue, is the product of an optical illusion created by regions of space that are bigger on the inside than they appear on the outside. Inspired by Doctor Who’s TARDIS, they’ve dubbed this the Cosmological Tardis Model (also described as a “Swiss Cheese” model of the universe littered with “inhomogeneous holes”).”

Scientists create super biomaterials from squids, mussels and sea snails. I’m probably allergic to all of them.

Finally, here’s Minute Earth with some handy tips on How to Survive a Lightning Strike (personally I’d love a Faraday Suit, but I’d want it to look more like chain mail).

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 2:49 pm 09/14/2013

    Interesting: “The Hunt for Microscopic Black Holes” at the LHC http://www.symmetrymagazine.org/article/september-2013/the-hunt-for-microscopic-black-holes

    1. There is a “Symmetry” magazine targeted to casual enthusiasts of supersymmetry?

    2. As the article concludes:
    “But if micro black holes don’t make a showing at the LHC once it returns at higher energy in 2015, physicists will have to adjust their theories and approaches.”
    “It won’t rule out any theory per se,” Chou says, “but it will strongly constrain them as it has already done with the recent 2010 to 2012 run at the LHC.”

    So supersymmetry is not falsifiable – negative findings only require adjusting predicted symmetrical particle masses to untested levels? [rhetorical questions]

    Link to this
  2. 2. jtdwyer 7:31 am 09/16/2013

    Regarding the “dubious math” of dark matter described in your refernce http://www.siam.org/pdf/news/2094.pdf please also note my earlier, remarkably similar, brief essay “Inappropriate Application of Kepler’s Empirical Laws of Planetary Motion to Spiral Galaxies…”
    http://fqxi.org/data/essay-contest-files/Dwyer_FQXi_2012__Questionin_1.pdf

    Link to this

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