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Physics Week in Review: March 15, 2014

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


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For those who don’t hang out much on Google+ (and also for those who do), the Time Lord (a.k.a. Caltech physicist Sean M. Carroll) and I did a live hangout with Read Science, co-hosted by my fellow SciAm blogger Joanne Manaster. Apparently there are lots of people who don’t realize that we’re married; hence Joanne’s nicknaming us a “Sci-Comm Power Couple.” Just call that public entity “Seannifer,” I guess.

Yesterday we celebrated Albert Einstein’s birthday. Did you know that Einstein rejected the big bang, black holes, and dark energy? Here’s why.  Brain Pickings marked the occasion by reminding us of the wonderful children’s book, On a Beam of Light: The Story of Albert Einstein, Illustrated by the Great Vladimir Radunsky.  Related: Einstein’s tongue – a picture from the past. (The story behind that famous photograph) Also: A Chat with “Einstein’s Girl” Gia Mora: “I want everyone to know that physics is a language we all can understand, and learning science from a non-scientist proves to my audience that they too can appreciate the universe in this new way.”

Physics Rumor Mill Buzzing About Gravitational Waves: Einstein Was Right, Again, Maybe. Cosmologists hope for a field-rocking announcement next week.  Have US scientists heard echoes of the big bang? Trenches of Discovery has more on those BICEP2 rumors: “If … true, this would be a result immense in its significance.”

Image: Francisco Aragon et al, http://walks.carma.newcastle.edu.au

Einstein’s birthday just happens to coincide with Pi Day. Here, for your viewing pleasure, is the Guardian‘s slideshow of Pi transformed into striking computer-generated images. For example, Walking on Real Numbers (pictured at right): “Francisco Aragón and his colleagues converted pi into base 4, meaning that it is written using only the digits 0, 1, 2 and 3, and with these digits representing north, south, east and west, tracked a random walk of pi for 100 billion digits.” There’s even a paper based on their work (PDF).

The Time Lord wrote an illuminating post on the Einstein/Pi connection, revealed at last. There’s more than a celebratory day shared between them.  Wired tells you how to Calculate Pi For Pi Day, while the Perimeter Institute offers a bunch of things you might not know about Pi (PDF).

For more of a humanities bent, Alex Bellos ruminates on Shakespeare, Jane Austen and the poet laureate of pi, while Matt Francis pays tribute to Euler: “the i and the pi.” Finally, if you’re feeling peckish, here’s How Alcohol Makes A Flakier Pie Crust: The “Proof” Is In The Pie.

Ooh! Math fight! Detractors say pi really is half-baked. Many want to replace it with the more mathematically sensible Tau. But over at Slate, Phil Plait disagrees, nixes replacing Pi with Tau, for pragmatic reasons. “Rebooting the use of a fundamental constant is utterly hopeless.”  Here, let Vi Hart explain:

Here’s another sore subject when it comes to math. The Fraud of Vedic Maths: “Those who seriously still think ancient India had devised a parallel mathematical system need to acquaint themselves with an inventive Shankaracharya called Bharti Krishna Tirthaji.”

Sunday was the long-awaited premiere of the Cosmos reboot, starring Neil de Grasse Tyson. I’ll be writing recaps of each episode for the Los Angeles Times; the first one is here. Related: Shut Down Everything: Somebody Filmed Their Daughter Reacting to Cosmos, and it’s adorbz. Also: The Cosmos science advisor shared what its like consulting for Hollywood.

Not everyone was happy with the episode. Most of the ire seemed to center on the segment featuring Giordano Bruno, such as this take by Corey Powell over at Discover, with a follow-up counterpoint from Steven Soder, a co-writer of the episode, who also is a research associate at the American Museum of Natural History. Related: Before Galileo, before Giordano Bruno, there was the infinite cosmology and theology of Nicolas of Cusa.

While the top ratings of the night went to The Big Bang Theory (just renewed for three more seasons), Cosmos did pretty well, especially if you add up all the other channels on which it aired. According to the Los Angeles Times, science seems to be having a cultural moment: Craig Ferguson will be producing a new series for the Science Channel, I F-ing… Love Science, based on the popular Facebook page/Internet juggernaut. Finally, Shatner, Fillion, Nichols, Tennant, Gaiman, and More Set For BBC America’s Real History of Science Fiction. <happy sigh>

There was also actual science getting done this week, including new long-baseline neutrino experimental results. Related: Do Neutrinos Change Flavor at Night?

Betting on the Future of Quantum Gravity: Zvi Bern calculates “with increasing precision the behavior of gravitons.

NASA Joins Hunt for Missing Malaysian Passenger Jet. Related: How The Pros Look For Missing Aircraft: It’s essentially an optimization problem.

Of Phase Transitions and Bull Sperm: “A physicist at Cornell is studying bull sperm, and is looking at a phase transition that the sperm undergo.”

By studying trick roping as a science, a French physicist has taught himself to lasso like a rodeo veteran.

The Physics Of Tuning Out: A digital model demonstrates the inner ear can dampen background noises.

This odd-looking cloaking device could make you invisible to sonar.

Better living through quantum mechanics? Seth Lloyd on quantum biology.

Science’s Cult of Calculation: “Physics is forgetful. It deals only with forces that are active now…”

A primer on the ideal gas law – why bubbles expand if you heat them. It’s all about pressure, temperature, volume and the number of particles.

A Telescope Made of Galaxies Is Helping Astronomers Look at the Young Universe.

Cosmic Experiment Aims To Close Loophole In Quantum Theory. Distant quasars could help confirm “spooky action” between particles.

Flour Experiment Helps Explain Strange Lights Preceding Earthquakes.

This Is What We Don’t Know About The Universe. For example, We don’t know why the universe exists.

Credit: Fiction, http://fctn.tv

Camera Drone Used to Make Eerie Aerial Light Paintings Inspired by Close Encounters of the Third Kind. Per Laughing Squid: “[P]roduction studio Fiction attached lights to a DJI Phantom drone and used it to create eerie light paintings in the night sky. The images were recorded in long exposure photographs and tweaked in Photoshop for the full effect.”

Dino Dining vs. Speed. Could you outrun a dinosaur? That depends on the dinosaur. “you could easily outrun, and even out-walk, some herbivorous dinosaurs. But if you caught the attention of a ravenous raptor, chances are high that it would be the last race you ever ran.”  Related: Physics Offers New Look at T-rex Arms: Weapons not Waste.

How to Toughen Glass by Cracking It: A Lesson From Teeth and Shells.

If Stonehenge Is Actually a Giant Instrument, What Does It Sound Like? Answer: a bit like a glockenspiel.

Amazing Structure: A Conversation With Ursula Franklin, who pioneered the field of archeometry.

Warp Speed, the Musical: Apparently this Star Trek parody is a big hit. “Audience response has been so staggering…”

The Physics of the Water Bouncing Ball.  “A Brigham Young University physicist set up high-speed cameras to find out how the Waboba skips so readily across the water. He and his colleagues found that the key lies in the ball’s elasticity.”

Fibonacci Patterns in sunflowers are created by the plant hormone auxin.  Related: Modern Scientists Validate Alan Turing’s Theory About Biology.

Morpheus shows NASA the path. “The best way to deliver probes to moons and asteroids may be using a robotic probe.”

Derivation of the centripetal force, for those who want to get a bit math-y this weekend, courtesy of The Curious Astronomer.

For Astronomers, Plan to Ground SOFIA Comes as a Shock.

Burning Out: Waste Heat Is Free Energy. So Why Aren’t We Using It?

A Bit of Physics History: Ed Witten Introduces M-Theory.

Rails: Anorak up while you explore dynamic graph theory and Braess’s paradox, and also lose hours and hours of productivity.

How the ancient Greeks shaped modern mathematics – A Royal Institution animation.

Think watching ice melt would be dull? Think again.  Per New Scientist: “A time-lapse video by photographer Shawn Knol brings out scintillating hidden structures using two polarising filters and an extreme close-up view. Knol uses an LED computer monitor as a polarised light source, then attaches a circular polarising filter to his camera’s macro lens. Rotating the filter creates the rainbow effect as varying thicknesses of ice refract the light differently.” Related: Mathematical Patterns in Sea Ice Reveal Melt Dynamics.

Special relativity creates its own optical illusion: The Strangeness of Terrell-Penrose Rotation.

To The Last Breath: physicist (and mountain/rock climber, and a friend of many years’ standing) Francis Slakey at TEDx Georgetown.

Spanish scientists simulate the ice volcanoes of Europa, So They Don’t Have to Go There.

In 1585 Hans Schlottheim built a ship-shaped automaton that rolled across dinner table and fired its tiny cannons.

Florian “Venom” Kohler is back with four new videos where he demonstrates his amazing pool trick shots.

Ain’t No Party Like a Topologist Party: “I’m worried about Joe. He’s been hitting the Klein bottle hard lately.”

How Atheism Helped Create the Modern World. Science has long advanced in part due to its rejection of religion as it uncovered information inconvenient for believers and their institutions.

Meet Stephen Morris and his Online Ice Atlas, which may help solve the mystery of why icicles have ripples.  “Most likely, the secret to the icy formation has something to do with the fact that the ice in an icicle isn’t all ice…. Water that forms icicles is supercooled, meaning it’s colder than freezing. In hailstones and ice that forms on power lines, this supercooled water makes ‘spongy ice.’ Not all of the water freezes solid. Some gets quarantined as a liquid in little icy compartments.”

High Voltage: How to Take Psychedelic Fractal Photos With Lightning.

Credit: Luka Klikovac, http://www.behance.net/lukaklikovac

The ethereal shapes of inks and paints falling through water make fascinating subjects. “The ink appears to rise because the photographs are upside-down. The fluid forms mushroom-like plumes and little vortex rings. The strands that split apart into tiny lace-like fingers are an example of the Rayleigh-Taylor instability, which occurs when a denser fluid sinks into a less dense one.”

SLAM POW BANG: On Tour in England with the Bonn Physics Show.

The Powerful Promise of Puzzling New Microscopic Combustion Engine that relies on combustion of hydrogen and oxygen.

First Brit in space Tim Peake: ‘We phone people because it’s just so cool.’

Why Scientists Make up Stories in the Dark: In unseen worlds, science invariably crosses paths with fantasy. “When science crossed wires with the occult, the result was television.”

How sound affects taste of food: High-frequency sounds enhance sweetness; low frequencies bring out the bitterness.

An art installation at the Australian Synchrotron provides insight into experimental physics.

The $1 Origami Microscope could revolutionize education and health care in the developing world.

Astronomer maps out Earth’s place in the universe among ‘Council of Giants.’

Visualizing Radiation: The Form of Fukushima (terrific student art project).

About that “common core” math problem making the rounds on Facebook: an illuminating analysis. Related: Kids Have an Instinct for Algebra—If They’re Taught Correctly.

Hypnotic Music Videos Created Using Nothing Except an Oscilloscope, An Instrument for Observing Signal Voltages.

The physics of curling are actually really fascinating.

15 Works of Art Depicting Women in Science [Photo Essay].  Related:  My Virtually Speaking Science co-host Tom Levenson chatted with Eileen Pollack on Why Are There Still So Few Women In Science. (Her wonderful 2013 New York Times article on the subject is here.)

Both Genders Think Women Are Bad at Basic Math. Bias persists even in the face of contradictory facts.

Ever wonder what it’s like to work at a national laboratory? Berkeley Lab’s Rene Delano can tell you.

Flock of 104 Spacecraft Set for Launch.

Astronaut (actually a Suitsat with no human inside it) spins out of control in terrifying real life Gravity scene.

Will Fusion Energy Ever Come Together?

Magnetic attraction: Physicists pay homage to the SQUID at 50.

“We risk painting choice to teach as self-sacrifice. I believe that view harms our schools more than it helps them.”

Truer Detective: The sleuthing plot of the Veronica Mars movie gets all the technology right. (SPOILERS)

How many lemons does it take to power a light bulb? This video shows you how to turn lemons into batteries.

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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