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Physics Week in Review: January 18, 2014

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


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This week saw the release of the Edge Annual Question: What scientific idea is ready for retirement? Many excellent responses were submitted; the Time Lord zeroed in on the various entries dealing with Falsifiability, cause and effect, IQ, and the universe as his faves, while Kate Clancy took a good, hard look at  The Way We Produce and Advance Science: “As unadulterated as we may want to envision science, the scientific enterprise is run by people, and people often run on implicit bias.”

I think all the Edge contributors should do this for the next installment: Student Rickrolls his teacher in this ingenious quantum physics essay.

“A parliament of owls, a knot of toads, an exaltation of larks” — but what’s a Collective Noun for Mathematicians?

Physicists come together to explore mechanics of collective motion by taking a lead from starlings and sardines.

Ball lightning–often reported but never confirmed, previously dismissed as hallucination–turns out to be realPer New Scientist: “In 2012, Jianyong Cen and his colleagues at Northwestern Normal University in Lanzhou, China, were observing a thunderstorm in Qinghai, China with video cameras and spectrographs. Purely by chance, they recorded a ball lightning event.” Related: Almost No Americans Die From Lightning Strikes Anymore. Why?

With Math as Inspiration, a New Form of Flyer: a hovering, flapping-wing machine that looks like a flying jellyfish.

Mathematician Mukhtarbay Otelbaev has published proposed solution to Navier-Stokes existence and smoothness problem.

A Solar System Test of String Theory?! “Baloney.  Hogwash.  Garbage.” Tell us how you really feel, Matt Strassler.

What happens when an unstoppable PR force hits an NP-hard problem? The answer’s getting clearer. Scott Aaronson runs down the latest developments in the D-Wave quantum computing saga.

Proposed Time Machine Could Also Clone Objects: Access to the past would open new possibilities of more than travel. “It’s like there are 1,000 different particles… but in fact they’re all the same particle you sent in the beginning… You just have all these temporary copies emerging from and going back into these wormholes.”

The Case of the Telephone in His Hat (1894): a very early tale of electronic eavesdropping. “Lawyer Laflin Mills, of Chicago, is the author of a very ingenious scheme, involving the use of a telephone in a silk hat…”

“Supernova” Cave Art Myth Debunked: “I am certain that star-crescent combos have absolutely nothing to do with the 1054 A.D. event.”

Credit: Markus Reugels: http://www.markusreugels.de/

The Unseen Beauty of High Speed Water Drop Photography: more amazing pix from Markus Reugels. “Through dizzying combinations of lighting, food colouring, surfaces (liquid and solid) and airstreams; Reugels creates incredible liquid art that occurs and disappears in a split-second, but is immortalized through his photography.”

Why you can’t travel at the speed of light: A short history of Einstein’s theory of relativity.

Life is a Braid in Spacetime. The most interesting property of your spacetime tube isn’t its shape, but its structure, which is remarkably complex.  Related: Ingenious: Max Tegmark with a birds-eye view on life and the universe.

Shape-Shifting Airplane Wing Design Prepares For Testing: First, fuel savings. Next? Maybe a whole new way to use wings.

Birds That Fly in a V Formation Use An Amazing Trick.  Scientists have found that a V-formation helps birds conserve energy during flight and report their findings in this week’s Nature.

Under Pressure, Does Evolution Evolve? Bacteria, yeast and other organisms that are under stress undergo more frequent mutations, which might be an evolutionary mechanism to help them cope with changing environments.

Charged Tape, Toy Models, and Dimensionless Parameters: how changing to dimensionless variables can provide insight, followed by a bit more on Doing Atomic Physics with Sticky Tape.

The Taste of Electrical Current. “It was sometime around 1752 that Johann Georg Sulzer decided (for reasons best known to himself) to put the tip of his tongue between two plates of (different) metal whose edges were in contact. The results were, quite literally, shocking.”  The taste of electric currents (part 2 of 2): Enhancing Saltiness with Cathodal Current.’

Diffraction in spider webs makes them as colorful as rainbows. “Either spiders are killing pixies and smearing their colorful blood on their webs or something else is going on here.”

‘Inverse opal’ structure improves thin-film solar cells.

“It’s not that the field’s energy is fluctuating. It’s that the energy isn’t even properly defined.”

Bell’s Theorem, Quantum Entanglement, and The Experiment That Forever Changed How We Think About Reality.

Particle accelerators join fight against brain cancer. Accelerator technology could be key to developing an effective treatment for a type of brain tumor currently considered incurable.

Teleology Rises From the Grave. “In his 1790 Critique of Judgment, Kant famously predicted that there would never be a “Newton for a blade of grass.” Biology, he thought, would never be unified and reduced down to a handful of mechanical laws, as in the case of physics. This, he argued, is because we cannot expunge teleology (goal-directedness) from living systems. The question “what is it for?” applies to living structures in a way that has no corollary in physics.”

A wide angle panorama of Martian sand dunes. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Cornell

The most beautiful photos taken by the Mars Rovers.

Using atomic bomb traces to age great white sharks. Rock on, science.

Run away! Run away! Why Are These Stars Fleeing The Milky Way? A new class of speedy rogue stars are accelerated by an unknown force.

The average nuclear power plant in the U.S. is 33 years old.

Aerial lasers (LIDAR) uncover the ruins of a long-lost culture in…Connecticut.

Weight and Weightlessness: The Science of Life in Space, in Charming Vintage Illustrations

The last place on Earth without human noise: In anechoic chambers, the only thing you can hear is the unsettling sound of your own body.

A Sampling of History of Physics Timelines from the Web, 1.0.

The many tragedies of Edward Teller: “a prime example of the harm that brilliant men can do – either by accident or design – when they are placed in positions of power.”

Infinite Series: when the sum of all positive integers is a small negative fraction. Yes, negative. “This post involves math. Really bizarre, brain-melting math. The math itself is actually not that complicated—I promise!—but the result will carve out a piece of your soul and leave hollow space.”  But there were some nuances that the Bad Astronomer missed: here’s a bit more on the weirdness of infinite series, written by Greg Gbur in 2010, and a slightly more technical take by  Mark Chu-Carroll.

From complex numbers to quaternions, octonions, vectors, spinors and superstrings: check out this charming video intro by John Baez.

Artist Sandro Bocchi uses macro imagery of fluids in  “Porgrave” to create celestial landscapes.

Einstein’s Camera: photographer captures different parts of people at different times.

The Latest Update in the Hydrino Saga. “Real scientists, doing real work, don’t pull nonsense like this. Mills has been promising a commercial product within a year for almost 25 years. In that time, he’s filed multiple patents, some of which have already expired! And yet, he’s never actually allowed an independent team to do a public, open test of his system. He’s never provided any actual data about the system!”

Physicists harness the power of probability: What do the stock market, weather models and the discovery of the Higgs boson all have in common? They all are deeply indebted to statistics.

Twelve short films about 12 planets, each animated in a different style. Each planet has its own quirky personality, its own creature design, and a particular musical soundtrack.

Brains of Genius: What do Albert Einstein and mathematician Evariste Galois have in common?

Science Fiction and Religious Allegory: In Space, No One Will Hear Your Prayer.

“Chaosmos” board game keeps you on the edge of cosmic catastrophe. “The Chaos Clock counts down to the complete collapse of the universe. Hidden on some desolate planet protected by traps and trickery is an artifact that can save the cosmos — but you’re not the only one after it.”

The Physics of a Front Wheel Drive Muscle Car.

Body Mass Index: the dieters’ bogeyman discovered by a Belgian astronomer-mathematician.

Israel raises flag at CERN after UNESCO officially recorded Israel’s accession as a new member state.

Caltech’s John Preskill talks about how Quantum computing leads to new insights and perspectives.

An adventure in the Nth dimension: Brian Hayes on the mysterious volume of the N-dimensional ball (PDF).

How to Survive a Nuclear Explosion. Hint: don’t hide in the fridge.

What is the value of Pi? (What does the fox say): a middle school math parody.

Kugelblitz! Powering a Starship With a Black Hole.

Moving Cocktail Garnishes Harness The Power of Surface Tension. “Scientists have now developed a boat that zips across the surface of drinks, as well as a “flower” that sops up a tiny, sip-sized dollop of the beverage for your palate-cleansing pleasure.”

The Huygens Principle explains why waves turn corners.

Honey Bees Are Mapping Their Movements with Tiny Sensor Backpacks.

Computers Watching Movies: Visualizations of Famous Movie Scenes as Interpreted by Computational Systems.

How the ‘Chain Fountain’ Defies Gravity. Physicists debunk explanation for counterintuitive display.

Mount Wilson Observatory in Pasadena: The stomping grounds of the most eminent astronomers of the early 20th century.

Cyberwar Surprise Attacks Get a Mathematical Treatment.

Long-Forgotten Photographs Reveal Challenger Disaster As It Happened.

Undiscovered Math: “This math is sorcery! Which makes me a wizard!”  …

“If two statisticians were to lose each other in an infinite forest, the first thing they would do is get drunk.”

Lego Colonial Space Ship Is Big Enough to Terraform Real Planets.

How To Calculate Your Exact Commute Times In Rain And Snow, thanks to License plate-reading cameras in London.

Physics fight! String theorist Raphael Bousso vs. loop quantum gravity champion Carlo Rovelli, switching sides in an FQXI debate.

Wonder material silicene has suicidal tendencies: Researchers demonstrate that graphene 2.0 can barely be made.

Dorothy Hodgkin and the Year of Crystallography: The UK has a long and successful history in crystallography, but among its numerous Nobel Prize winners in the field, the only woman was headlined as a mere ‘Oxford housewife.’

Hollywood Science: “Sticking to reality may threaten to kill a mystery, but a resourceful consultant can explore the options.”  Related: The Big Bang Theory: “a slowly unfolding tragedy rooted in a very unsentimental and perfectly materialist worldview.”

The Science of Citizenship: What’s at stake when schools skimp on science?

Haunted by His Brother, He Revolutionized Physics – To John Archibald Wheeler, the race to explain time was personal.

Use sound waves to make personalized jewelry: send an audio file. Get back jewelry in shape of that sound wave.  Related: The Sound of Taste: Slow-Motion Spice Bag Explosions Synchronized with Music.

All his materials: Philip Pullman tells his own origin story, and why the great questions are still religious ones.  Related: Godliness in the Known and the Unknowable: Alan Lightman on Science and Spirituality.

First in a series: #FollowFriday: Physicists to follow on Twitter. A number of scientists have taken to the social media site to share perspectives on new research and insights into their day-to-day lives.

If G.R.R. Martin Were A Science Reporter: “We make our own help, and the grave shall be our judge.”

Sloths In Space: a catchy song about an irradiated sloth who falls back to Earth and takes on Godzilla…after a nap.

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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