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Physics Week in Review (Nobel Edition): October 12, 2013

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


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So it was a slow week in physics news — eh, who am I kidding? Higgs mania hit a fever pitch as the 2013 Nobel Prize in Physics went, as predicted by many, to Peter Higgs and Francois Englert for their work developing the theory that predicted the Higgs boson, experimentally verified at CERN last year. The New York Times offered a handy interactive Higgs explainer, while others went for humorous flowcharts (“Are you getting particle physics confused with candy?”). The Knight Science Journalism Tracker had a nice round-up of the coverage.

Lots of folks were quick to weigh in on the announcement, including my own Time Lord, both on his blog and for the New York Times, in which he pointed out that “No physicist is an island,” and called for a reconsideration of the so-called “Rule of Three” that limits the number of recipients.

It turned out to be a common refrain, although everyone was careful to also express their enthusiasm and support for the physicists who did win the Nobel prize. The Washington Post‘s Joel Achenbach’s article and accompanying blog post focused on those who’d contributed to the development of the theory but had been passed over because of the Rule of Three, including this blunt quote from Carl Richard Hagen: “Faced with a choice between their rulebook and an evenhanded judgment, the Swedes chose the rulebook. Not a graceful concession by any means, but that department has never been my strong suit.” (Tom Kibble, also overlooked, was more gracious.)

Peter Higgs wipes away a tear as he hears LHC results confirming discovery of the Higgs boson at CERN, July 2012. He later said: 'It's really an incredible thing that it's happened in my lifetime." Still from ITV.

Newly crowned Nobel laureate Peter Higgs proved as elusive as the boson that bears his name; he wasn’t even available for the official phone call informing him of the honor. It turns out he’d gone to lunch; he learned of his award from an old neighbour who stopped him on the street as he returned from lunch.

Of course, as the Guardian pointed out, no one can top Doris Lessing’s reaction when she won the prize in literature a few years ago. Per the Guardian:

“Lessing discovered she’d won the Nobel prize when she found herself surrounded by reporters outside her house. An American voice called out ‘You’ve won the Nobel prize in literature.’ Half a syllable into the word ‘literature,’ Lessing rolled her eyes, put her shopping down, and sighed. It was a deep, heavy sigh – halfway between disbelief and the dawning realisation that this was really going to bugger up her day. ‘Oh Christ,’ she finally said. It was, without exaggeration, the most perfect way to win an award there has ever been.”

Over at NPR, David Kestenbaum recalled that one time 16 years ago he received An Aerogramme From Professor Higgs, Nobel Winner.  The Medium had a lovely piece by Ian Sample (author of Massive) recalling the day the discovery was announced: “The tears Higgs cried weren’t for what he contributed but for what his contribution had become to others.”

After the Higgs Boson: A Preview of Tomorrow’s Radical Physics: Corey Powell chats with Fermilab’s Joseph Lykken about what’s next for particle physics.

Strange but True: Nobel winning physicist David Wineland (NIST), who won in 2012, has been furloughed due to the U.S. government shutdown. “On the organization charts I’m just another worker, another non-essential,” Wineland told The Washington Post.

This week, I chatted in Second Life with the Santa Fe Institute’s Simon DeDeo for the Virtually Speaking Science/Blog Talk Radio podcast, hosted by the in-world Exploratorium. Simon brings his physics background to bear on all kinds of interdisciplinary research involving complex systems, from Wikipedia consensus to finding patterns in archival transcripts from London’s Old Bailey courthouse. (His avatar was a swarm of butterflies.)

Quanta concluded its five-part series on Big Data this week with an article on how new technologies have launched the life sciences into age of big data, and biologists must make sense of their windfall, as well as my own article on the Future Fabric of Data Analysis, focusing on how the nature of computing has changed dramatically over the last decade.

Big Data was everywhere this week. Related: When Meta Met Data: “Meta, once an intriguing, even playful prefix, has emerged as something darker, heavier, and not at all amusing, but perhaps better suited to the times in which we’re living.” Also: Data Discrimination means the poor may experience a different Internet. Do we need “Big Data Due Process”? Furthermore: WeatherSignal: Big Data Meets Forecasting.

This is potentially big news: Nuclear fusion milestone passed at U.S. lab.  “During an experiment in late September, the amount of energy released through the fusion reaction exceeded the amount of energy being absorbed by the fuel – the first time this had been achieved at any fusion facility in the world. This is a step short of the lab’s stated goal of “ignition”, where nuclear fusion generates as much energy as the lasers supply.”

Scientists Accidentally Create Improbable Two-Dimensional Quasicrystals.

Everyone was talking about Gravity this week, the new space thriller starring Sandra Bullock, finding things to praise and critique in the science, including input from the film’s science advisor. Phil Plait offered a full-blown Bad Astronomy review, while Ars Technica poked holes in the trailer. Mental Floss offered 10 Behind-the-Scenes Facts About Gravity.  Jen-Luc Piquant agrees with Boing Boing: Hollywood gets science wrong, and that’s okay. “A gap separates people who do science and the people who make science fiction, but that’s no problem, thanks to the people who bridge the two.”

Related: The nine nerdiest criticisms of sci-fi TV and film. Also: PhD Comics wonders what it would be like if TV Science was more like REAL Science. “What do you mean, one data point is not enough?”

The Walking Dead Shuffles Into Science Education With Bolts, Brains, and a Physics Quiz.

Quantum Crosswords: “We were led to the dual nature of the universe through the same process you follow to solve a crossword puzzle.”

Number Crunching Shows Old Movies Are More Creative Than New Ones.

U.S. Antarctic research is the latest victim of government shutdown; losses are irreplaceable.

Astronauts Emerge from Cave After Week-Long Underground Training. Related: Bras in Space: The Incredible True Story Behind Upcoming Film Spacesuit.

Aria Robotica: MIT Media Lab’s “Death and the Powers: A Robot Pageant.”

European project to experimentally realize Maxwell’s Demon in nanoscale systems.

Portrait of Alan Turing made of computer keys. Credit: Noah Scalin, http://noahscalin.com/

Natural Selection, Portrait Series of Scientists Made From Everyday Materials by Skull-A-Day’s Noah Scalin.

The acoustic cat and more stories from the CIA’s trained animal division.

An abandoned, believed haunted, NASA launch site you can actually visit.

Cute yet creepy? Somersaulting MIT cube robots can self-assemble.

Alan Lightman on Science, Genius, and Common Sense. Can turbulence actually shake your plane out of the sky?

Brown Recluse Spider’s Silk Is Strong and Really Strange.

Cirrus-ly? MIT scientists make icy Martian clouds on Earth.

Literature by the Numbers: Critical reading gets even better when you use your computer.

Gender is the greatest predictor of how often a publication gets cited (not rank, topic, journal, but gender).

If you want more women in science, start with paid maternity leave. “If Americans would take the issue seriously they’d have paid maternity leave to assure employers don’t think twice hiring women in their fertile years who haven’t yet reproduced. If you want more women in science, that’s where you should start, not with complaints about dress code schizophrenia.”

Welcome the Popular Science blog network!

Physicists may have found new “magic number” — protons or neutrons that gives an atomic nucleus unusual stability.

The central limit theorem, explained with bunnies and dragons:

SLAC researchers demonstrate “accelerator on a chip,” latest advance in tabletop accelerators.

“Why on Earth would it be advantageous for a flamingo to stand on one leg instead of two? Because physics!”

Celebrating Martin Gardner and his favorite puzzle, The Monkey and the Coconuts.

The nine kinds of physics seminar, for example, The Unprepared Experimentalist: “There is often a slide or two that make perfect sense, such as ‘Here’s a picture of our laboratory facilities in Tennessee.’”

Does Some Deeper Level of Physics Underlie Quantum Mechanics? An Interview with Nobelist Gerard ’t Hooft.

Elon Musk letter explains why that Tesla Model S caught fire.

Credit: Fanette Guilloud, http://www.fanetteg.com/

The Impossible Geometry of Fanette Guilloud.  “Guilloud employed a method of anamorphic projection similar to the work of Felice Varini to create the illusion of a painting superimposed on an image, when in fact there is no digital trickery whatsoever. The image is actually painted on numerous surfaces at varying depths and only appears like what you see here from a particular vantage point.”

Researchers develop a first-of-its-kind mathematical model for biological process that keeps your immune system working.

A new study claims Einstein’s brain contains the secret of his genius. Sigh.

Paintings Turning Black? Blame Mercury: Salty air and light produce liquid metal from red paint pigment.

Why With Nye: Bill Nye Hosts A New Web Series About NASA’S Juno Mission to Jupiter.

Scientists’ public engagement work should be generously funded. “If we are to move public engagement from being a “nice-to-do” activity to an integral part of research, then we need to ensure that the money is available. We need to put our money where our mouth is.”

Sticky Times: How to Hang On Under a Waterfall. On Trinidad’s torrent frog and the physics of adhesion.

Bad Poetry Yields Good Results in the Celebration of the “Atom-Molecule, from an 1874 issue of London Punch.

As the Life-less Life developed, and the Mind-less ripened Mind,

In this fine old Atom-Molecule,

Of the young World’s proto-prime.

Paul Halpern unearthed this fascinating archival footage of Einstein explaining relativity and his appeal to Roosevelt (embedding disabled).

An H-R diagram for the nine kinds of physics undergrad. “The Supergiant student… is only rumored to exist.”

New Brain Disease Test Could Force NFL to Address Its Concussion Epidemic.

Your guide to one of the coolest physics demonstrations of all time: the wonders of laminar flow.

The Sound of Hitchcock: How the Director Used Sound to Create Atmosphere & Suspense in His Films.

The Mental Machinery of the Chess Master.

The rate at which people post flu-related tweets could become a powerful tool in the battle to spot epidemics earlier.

Adventures in science metaphors: It’s sort of like a light saber, except not really at all like a light saber.

A new animated film celebrates the centenary of x-ray crystallography; uncovered the atomic structure of matter.

Your LEGO Thing of the Week: Space Exploration Looks Even More Awesome in LEGO.

Comet-Chasing Rosetta’s Interplanetary Travel Diary Is Awesome.

Algorithm Writes People’s Life Histories Using Twitter Stream. If you tweet about your life, a new algorithm can identify your most significant events and assemble them into an accurate life history, say the computer scientists who built it.

Astronomer recreates the solar system from Lord of the Rings lore. I heard Central Connecticut astrophysicist Kristine Larsen speak several years ago at an APS meeting on this topic, and am thrilled to see her work getting some online props.

Nirvana by Numbers: What role did Eastern religions play in the foundation of our modern number system?

Quantum Field Theory, String Theory and Predictions (Part 4).

Guinness World Record for the discovery of the thinnest glass.

When an ice pack isn’t enough: Whole body cryotherapy is gaining popularity but not credibility.

The Cosmos Is Cracked: A computer simulation of the universe shows that it may be filled with “defects in spacetime”

“The Curve of the Earth,” a bit of science-inspired poetry for your weekend.

Monsieur, A Robot Bartender That Learns Your Drinking Habits.

Finally, Sesame Street‘s Grover Joins Up With 5Facts To Perform Cool Science Experiments in this nifty video. Per Geekosystem: “5Facts hosts Annie Colbert and Matt Silverman show him how to do some really easy kid-friendly experiments with oobleck, corn syrup, food coloring, and glitter.”

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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