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Physics Week in Review: January 11, 2014

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


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“Information is the currency of nature.”Seth Lloyd

Jen-Luc Piquant spent the entire week at the FQXI conference, exploring the foundational questions relating to the Physics of Information in the idyllic beachfront setting that is Puerto Rico’s island of Vieques. (Seriously, why are more physics conferences not following suit? Especially in winter.) In between battling multiple bug bites — the insects love Jen-Luc’s tasty blood for some reason — and a nighttime kayak in the famed bioluminescent bay, she thrilled to in-depth discussions on quantum computing, quantum information, cosmology, whether one can consider consciousness a form of information, whether information might turn out to be more fundamental than matter and energy, and of course, the black hole information paradox, which predictably drifted into a spirited, convoluted debate on the controversial subject of firewalls that might best be summed up as “Raphael Bousso Vs. Everybody Else” — although, as Bousso pointed out repeatedly, remaining unconvinced by the various attempts to explain away the firewall paradox is not the same thing as “believing” that firewalls exist. Just sayin’.

"We are TOTALLY doing physics, you guys. This isn't just an excuse to hang out at the beach." Photo: FQXI

Anyway, along with fellow SciAm blogger George Musser Jr., I was live-tweeting many of the talks, but you can’t do justice to these kinds of topics in 140 characters. Mainly, I was hoping to pique people’s interest into later listening to the audio of the talks, which are gradually being uploaded to the FQXI website.

I recommend starting with the opening panel: How do you define “Information“? Also be sure to catch Scott Aaronson’s entertaining talk on the Church-Turing Hypothesis and its implications for quantum computing — with a humorous segue into why a “Relatively Computer” might not be the best idea — as well as the lively debate on whether free will exists, and Sean Carroll provocatively announcing that quantum fluctuations don’t exist in De Sitter space, and thus there is no risk of Boltmann brains in that scenario (phew!).  Those were just a couple that seemed to generate a lot of interest on Twitter; all the talks and panels are worth a listen — but be forewarned, they’re highly technical.

MIT’s Max Tegmark organized the conference with Anthony Aguirre, and it just so happens that this week was the release of Tegmark’s first popular science book, Our Mathematical Universe: My Quest for the Ultimate Nature of Reality. Motherboard was hot on the case of The Mathematical Reality of Reality: An Interview with Cosmologist Max Tegmark.  Tegmark wrote his own blogpost: Why a Larger Multiverse Shouldn’t Make You Feel Small. Related, from Ethan Siegel: Why we think there’s a Multiverse, not just our Universe.

Happy Birthday, Stephen Hawking: the famed physicist celebrated another year around the sun, making it a good time to revisit His Charming Children’s Book about Time-Travel, Co-Written with His Daughter.

The latest FIRST Robotics Competition global kickoff event happened January 4. Go teams!

Jen-Luc Piquant is well aware that while she was basking in the tropical setting of Vieques, many of you were caught in a vicious “polar vortex” of record-breaking cold. She also lives in Los Angeles, which has fairly balmy temperatures all year round. Should you need to engage in some vicarious cathartic venting, late night TV host Jimmy Kimmel sent his Cousin Sal to throw snowballs at these smug jerks who happen to live in a “nice city” with “pleasant weather.” As HuffPo put it. “Seriously, where do people in Los Angeles get off going to the beach while the rest of the country is freezing its collective tail off?”

Here’s one creative approach to dealing with the cold: Norwegian Musician Makes Beautiful Music Using Instruments Created Out of Ice.

But most people opted for cloud-happy fun time! Watch what happens when you use a SuperSoaker on a -42°F day. But make sure you know what you’re doing: At least 50 people were scalded by attempting the boiling-to-frozen water trick.  National Geographic explained some of the science behind instant snow, ice fog, and frozen bubbles.  Related: “If you took a glass of water into outer space, would the water freeze or would the water boil?” Podcast: Physics is the backbone of modern weather forecasting, but it also played role in first tech to bring forecasts to masses.

Polar Vortex Causes 100s of Injuries as People Making Snide Remarks regarding Climate Change Get Punched in the Face (satire). Repeat after me: Weather is not the same thing as climate. Not that it will do much good, according to The Adventures of Fallacy Man: Why it’s not enough to point out a logical fallacy, brilliantly explained in comic form.

Bye-Bye Brolly: The Materials Science of Not Getting Rained On. Technology will soon bring spray-on waterproof skin for our clothes. And it will make your sofa immune to red wine too.

New evidence that plants get their energy using quantum entanglement.  Related, for fans of Turing patterns in nature: Mathematical biology: Past, present and future. A lecture at Princeton by the great biologist Jim Murray

So very cool! Japanese “Spiral Top” makes zero-gravity light paintings aboard the International Space Station.”Japanese astronaut Koichi Wakata is using some of his time aboard the International Space Station to create art, namely spiral light paintings made utilizing the station’s microgravity and a spinning top.”

And we might get more of this sort of thing with the excellent news that NASA Extends the Life of the International Space Station; will stay in orbit for at least four years after 2020.

Aligning nanofibers with classical music: Can molecules interact physically with the sound vibrations of music?

Hunting Gravity Pure Enough for Einstein’s Relativity. Astronomers discover “two white dwarf stars hanging out in a very small space (smaller than Earth’s orbit around the Sun) with a millisecond pulsar. What’s governing the motion of this trio is only the purest high-grade gravity.”

Here’s What the Earth Sounds Like Six Miles Below Ground: giving a “voice” to the subterranean world. Most geologists only scratch the surface. But “in Germany, a decades-old drilling site lets scientists (and one Dutch artist) go much deeper—nearly 6 miles below the surface. And they’ve brought up a guttural voice from deep inside the Earth.”

An effect created by a 19th century device – a Helmholz coil – offers clues for achieving nuclear fusion.

Unsung physicists: Madame Wu and the backward universe.

Rhett Allain takes a closer look a the physics of the electromagnetic ring launcher.  “It’s more complicated than I thought.”

SpaceX Falcon 9 Launches Thai Communications Satellite.

“Mathematically, how does Schroedinger’s cat fit into the equivocal universe of quantum mechanics?”

This week’s <headdesk> moment: Canada’s Ex-Defense Minister Says Aliens Would Give Earth Tech If We Were Less Warlike. Aliens, man. If we would only listen to them, the world would be a better place.

BOSS measures the universe to one-percent accuracy.

Supersymmetry finds its way into literary fiction, thanks to novelist Lousie Erdrich:

“What kind of particle are you?

A worthy question, Top Quark. Let me think.

Florian smoked for a while, looking out over the constant motion of the lights.

Okay, I got it. I was going to say I am a tau, but no, I think I’m an unobserved particle. I’m only hypothetical. An electron gets a selectron. For every tau there is a stau. Floridan sang, For every muon there is a smuon.

The short film “Symmetry” is an audio/visual palindrome: the first and second halves are mirror images of one another (via io9): It explores all sorts of symmetry: compositions, shapes, sounds and music, scenario, colors, actions, time…

The New (and Cheaper) Physics: “One of the reasons that neutrino physics is becoming more and more popular and attractive is that it is, relatively speaking, cheaper than big accelerator physics compared to the cost of, for example, the Large Hadron Collider. … And yet it allows us to probe very, very interesting and in some ways weird sectors of physics that aren’t otherwise accessible.”

The Unreasonable Effectiveness of the Ising Model: Part I.

Ten Lessons from the Standard Model, brought to you by Frank Wilczek.

Someone took the time to calculate the probability of a tennis ball quantum tunneling through a tennis racket. As one does. “This is done by treating the tennis ball as a single particle, and making the potential barrier equal to the energy required to break the strings classically.” As you might expect, the probability is very low.

F.P. Ramsey’s Marvelous Theorem. You’re planning a party; how do you get just the right mix of friends and strangers?

You might have a nice intuitive new idea, but real progress in physics takes hard, mathematical work.

The War of Astronomies, Condensing Caloric, and the Creation of the Universe via Truth (1847). Related: The observation of six lunar eclipses from the Late Medieval Islamic Period.

It’s complicated: Human ingenuity has created a world that the mind cannot master through technology. Have we finally reached our limits?

The ‘San Diego Series’ Turns Data Into Documentary Into Sublime Art.  Related: Big Sky, Big Data: Art Made From Atmospheric Science.

How to Make Geometric Bubbles with a Cube Made of Cotton Swabs.

Ten lessons from the “Comet of the Century” — What we’re already learning from Comet ISON.

Kevin Short is a math professor with a Grammy award. He’s now using math to improve hearing aids.

The play-by-play of energy conversion: Catching catalysts in action.

Via Rhett Allain of Dot Physics: apparently a physics student read his blog post on falling through the Earth and decided to finish the   calculations. Now that’s education.

People Running and Dancing on a 2,100-Gallon Non-Newtonian Fluid Pool of Cornstarch and Water.

An evening with Gustav Born, son of the well-known quantum physicist Max Born (and uncle of Olivia Newton-John):

Am I Going To Die This Year? A Mathematical Puzzle. “Yes, death creeps closer, but it creeps closer in orderly steps.” Why eight years? Why the doubles? The Gompertz Law of human mortality.

At NASA Langley scientists are squishing bugs at super high speeds — for science!

The NASA Mars Curiosity Rover LEGO Set Is Now Available. That is all.

On scientific instruments: “..we accept them as a kind of occult machinery for producing knowledge.”

The shocking dust of an exploding star (Supernova 1987A): Phil Plait asks, How is the Universe like the floor underneath your refrigerator?

A starship engine and an asteroid killer—in one handy package.

“When science isn’t put on a pedestal, it’s more accessible, and seen as something “normal” people can do. ”

88, Or How Telegraphers Coded ‘Love and Kisses‘ – behold, the emoji heart of 1879!

John Astin (Gomez from the Addams Family) examines “Eureka:”  Poe’s imaginative essay about the universe. (h/t: Paul Halpern)

Researchers have designed a micro-windmill that generates wind energy and may become an innovative solution to cell phone batteries constantly in need of recharging.

Baseball Physics: Behold the absolute mind-bogglery of a knuckleball in flight.

Modified GPS Helps Track Quakes and Floods. Data synthesis and sensor coverage make for better monitoring.

Real Scientists Pick Their Top 10 SciFi Films: Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey tops the list. What, Contact didn’t make the list? No Apollo 13? Express your outrage over your own favorite being left off in the comments.

TIE Fighter Physics – “what the heck are those big side panels for?”

What do science fiction writers envision for the future of economics?

Scientifically accurate Pokemon:  “Let’s be real, Pikachu is a rat that bit an extension cord. Pokémon!”

How does a scientist launder money? With supercritical carbon dioxide. “Rhode Island scientists say they’ve devised a method of washing human grease, microbes and motor oil from the world’s banknotes using supercritical fluid.”

How To Track Vehicles Using Speed Data Alone: Computer scientists have developed an algorithm that works out a vehicle’s destination using only its starting location and speed throughout its journey.

BBC Future created this stunning timeline of the far future: 1,000 years from now all the way to one hundred quintillion years from today.

Math Bites, Danica McKellar’s New Nerdist Channel Series About Making Mathematics Fun.

Do people play the ultimatum game “irrationally”? Stochastic evolutionary game theory makes sense of the data (PDF).

Why teaching probability at school is as important as teaching arithmetic. Related: Against all odds: A gentle introduction to statistics hosted by Harvard geneticist Paris Sabeti.

Math Poem:  “The Prince of Algebra” by JoAnne Growney. “I will teach mathematics by punctuality and perfect attendance.”

Finally, Art + Math = Whimsy, in a pentagonal hexecontahedron sculpture by George Hart:

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. vulcantaylor 12:39 pm 01/12/2014

    Jennifer Ouellette, the link for “Our Mathematical Universe: My Quest for the Ultimate Nature of Reality” links back to this page. Should it link to http://www.scientificamerican.com/article.cfm?id=is-the-universe-made-of-math-excerpt instead? I really enjoy Physics Week in Review! Thanks!

    Link to this

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