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Physics Week in Review: April 26, 2014

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


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It was a busy week on the shameless self-promotion front. I chatted with Sonali Kolhatkar of Uprising Rradio (KPFK) about my book, Me, Myself and Why — there’s even video. I can also be heard on the latest episode of Science for the People podcast, hosted by Desiree Schell, along with Ed Yong, who enlightened us on the nuances of research into oxytocin.  And if you’re keen to hear me yammer on some more about science of self, you can catch me on WGBH’s Innovation Hub (airs Saturday 10 AM Eastern).

If you missed this past week’s Cosmos, here’s my recap: Getting a fix on Earth’s age, and the danger of lead. Related: Patterson and Kehoe, and the great lead debate. Also: Lead piping ‘unlikely’ to have poisoned Romans: it did contaminate water supplies, but not enough for severe poisoning.  Bonus: What the World Actually Looked Like on the Day Creationists Say It All Began.

Of course, a lot more happened this week that had nothing to do with me (or myself). We bid farewell to LADEE, the NASA spacecraft that crashed into the moon this week. “The vending-machine-sized spacecraft ran out of fuel and collided with the moon at a speed of roughly 3,600 miles per hour…. The doomed satellite encountered so much heat — hundreds of degrees — that as it broke up during impact, parts of it may have even vaporized.”

Astronauts repaired the space station computer on emergency spacewalk, a few days after a SpaceX delivery capsule containing food and spacewalking gear was captured by ISS’s robot arm 260 miles above Egypt.

Using krypton gas to date the age of ancient ice cores.

Physics Predicts U.S. Voting Patterns. Properties of magnetized iron show strong resemblance to party affiliation.

R.I.P. physicist Andrew Sessler (1928-2014), who passed away on April 18. “His early accelerator research on radio frequency acceleration laid the groundwork for many high luminosity proton accelerators like the LHC.”

Light pollution is stealing our skies: Bad Astronomer Phil Plait on International Dark Sky Week.

Transcending Complacency on Superintelligent Machines: Stephen Hawking, Frank Wilczek, Max Tegmark and Stuart Russell weigh in. “[T]here is no physical law precluding particles from being organized in ways that perform even more advanced computations than the arrangements of particles in human brains.”

Credit: Mierswa Kluska, http://www.behance.net/gallery/ART-DIRECTION-INSTRUMENTS-FROM-INSIDE/340016

Photographs taken inside of instruments: a different kind of acoustical architecture by Mierswa Kluska for the Berlin Philharmonic. “The internal landscape draws parallels to the architecture of buildings, and with a bit of imagination you can almost feel the unique tone and life of each acoustic instrument just by looking inside them.”

The physics of squeezing sheep through a bottleneck, a phenomenon which in some ways is like ketchup flowing through a bottleneck, and in some ways is not.

Under Light, Chameleon-Like Material Changes Color And Shape.

How Bubbles May Help Treat Cancer.  “For seven years, Dr. Eleanor Stride has been developing a new way to deliver drugs: injecting tiny bubbles. By containing medicine within a “micro-bubble” and targeting where the bubbles go (some are magnetic, and can thus be literally dragged around), the medicine’s release can be highly targeted.”

Renoir Shows His True Colors: When conservators wanted to find the missing pigment in a portrait by Renoir, they used laser light.

The Physics of a Cross Sea. “A cross sea is a marine state with two wave systems traveling at oblique angels.”

The Physics of Basketball, featuring Hangtime explained: Whenever you jump, you spend 71% of your time in the top half of the jump.

Saturn’s New Moon Might Just Be the Planet’s Weird Rings Being Weird.

What is told by hands, measured in sand, and announced with bells? Time and Clocks in the Middle Ages.

Arecibo Observatory Detects Mysterious, Energetic Radio Burst.

Successful companies founded by physicists often break the Silicon Valley model.

Your weekend satire: Top Theoretical Physicists, R&B Singers Meet To Debate Meaning Of Forever. “Renowned theoretical physicist Dr. Sourendu Gupta reportedly lectured on the existence of diverse, distinct subsets of forever, ranging from the distance between the first and last events on a temporal axis of infinite length to the amount of time you want to spend looking into your sweet baby’s eyes.”

Striking Cosmic Gold: How was Earth’s most well-known precious metal made (cosmically speaking)?

Exploring why cats almost always land on their feet. High speed video. Cats. Physics. Weightlessness. This is the physics of flipping cats starring Gigi the stunt cat.

Related: What are cats thinking? Inside the mind of the world’s most uncooperative research subject.

Molecules mimic mesmerising mathematics, specifically penrose tiling: Computer modelling predicts formation of molecular quasicrystals.

Diamond Teleporters Herald New Era of Quantum Routing. Ability to teleport quantum information between diamond crystals that also store it is a small but important step toward a quantum Internet.

The Tragic Story of How Einstein’s Brain Was Stolen and Wasn’t Even Special. “Here’s how smart Einstein was — he understood all too well the public’s obsession with him, our obsession with celebrity and special-ness. He knew that if given the chance, scientists would pore over his brain’s neurons and glia, sulci and gyri, and make grand pronouncements about what makes a genius. And he knew it would be bullshit.”

New Paper Explains How To Make Supermaterial Graphene In A Blender.  … How to make graphene: Place 0.5 l water, 10-25 ml detergent, 20-50 g graphite in 400W blender, run 10-30 min.

The Mystery of “Quantum Resonance Spectroscopy” – Can quantum physics help to diagnose schizophrenia and depression?

Records of supernovae visible to the naked eye crop up roughly every 250 years, and several cultures with written histories have recorded the dozen or so such events over the past 2,000 years.”  Related: From a supernova in 1572 to the discovery of Jupiter’s four biggest moons – astronomical discoveries of Shakespeare’s time may pop up in his work (sub req’d). Also: Physics Buzz podcast chats with  science writer Dan Falk about his new book The Science of Shakespeare.

What’s the Deal with Euclid’s Fourth Postulate? The one that states all right angles are equal to one another.

The Calculus of History: “In War and Peace, Tolstoy compared civilization to a vast integral.”

Nanotechnology lab ‘chisels’ world’s smallest magazine cover.

Silent Storms, A Short Film Capturing The Gorgeous Geomagnetic Storms of the Scandinavian Night Sky. It was filmed primarily around the Tromsø area, Norway. (h/t: Laughing Squid)

Tracking particles faster at the LHC: New trigger system will expand what ATLAS scientists can look for during high-energy collisions.

Wear What You Want: Scientific Proof that Horizontal Stripes Don’t Make You Look Fatter. “Adding horizontal stripes to shapes like rectangles makes them look thinner, known as the Helmholtz illusion.”

Chipotle refines science of burrito velocity, the speed it can funnel customer and burrito from start to finish line.

Did a Case of Scientific Misconduct Win the Nobel Prize for Physics? “Millikan hardly lucked into fame and honor. He was trying to do an accurate experiment. While he can be faulted for omitting any of the 75 drops, his biggest error was the claim that “no drop” was omitted. This, in the end, is what baffles most people. He didn’t have to pretend that he counted every drop, and yet he did. And a lot of scandal ensued.”

V-2: The Rocket Fueled by the Nazi War Machine. “Luckily the technology didn’t reach America in the form of bombs carried by A-10s. The knowledge that made the Aggregate rocket series a success eventually reached America in the minds of the scientists who immigrated in the 1940s and 1950s.”

Inside a circa 1968 Soviet cosmonaut’s survival kit: three balaclavas, a tripartite rifle/shotgun/flare-gun, and a pistol intended to frighten “wolves, bears, tigers, etc.” in the event of a crash landing.

Cosmologist Andrei Linde asserts that the multiverse concept is just as natural as that of a single universe.

Open problem in combinatorics: tiling a floor (no background).

Möbius Ship, A Model Ship Sculpture That Contorts in a Loop Like a Möbius Strip.

Credit: Andrea Minini, via Behance. https://www.behance.net/gallery/12324331/Animals-in-Moir

Animals Drawn with Moiré Patterns: artist and designer Andrea Minini creates complex shapes and depth starting with just a few lines.

Time Magazine article from 1923 shows how relativity and the fourth dimension were once associated with mysticism.

New material coating technology mimics nature’s Lotus effect.

Bouncing neutrons probe dark energy on a table-top; could rule out some theories of the exotic origins of dark energy.

Forget Icarus: “Be courageous, be curious, and fly as close to the Sun as you can get. You might be surprised how high you fly.”

Prepare to Have Your Mind Blown by a Balloon and a Minivan: “In this, the latest installment of the outstanding YouTube science series Smarter Every Day, our host Destin explores the baffling behavior of a helium balloon in an accelerating vehicle.”

Study in Bird Motion, A Hand-Cranked Kinetic Sculpture that Flaps Like a Bird.

What does it take to break into data analysis? You’ll need the Internet, a computer, and some basic math skills.  Related: Big Data: Don’t Let the Billions of Data Points Blind You.

Rhesus macaques can do simple addition of symbols, revealing how numbers are processed in the mammalian brain.

A Cloak of Near Invisibility in an Underwater World: Cuttlefish can alter their color, texture, and apparent shape.

Here be dragons: the science of the flying fiery reptiles.

Ants Swarm Like Brains Think – A neuroscientist studies ant colonies to understand feedback in the brain.

MIT has made a material that is both mirror and window. Per Gizmodo: “The magic is in the alternating 84 ultra thin layers typical glass and tantalum oxide. It’s a mirror but when you spin it, it becomes transparent. Some light passes through, some light gets reflected.”

How Nanoexplosives Could Help Solve One of the Biggest Mysteries of Astrophysics. Particles of dark matter should trigger nanoexplosions in certain materials, an idea that could lead to an entirely new generation of detectors, say physicists.

Mystery of the missing xenon: heat and pressure at the Earth’s centre may have locked xenon in iron and nickel compounds.

Ingenious: Simon DeDeo – Cosmic microwaves and crime. “How do you science when you can only run the tape once?”

Quick: Is This A Jackson Pollack Painting, or Insect Flight? “Flight trajectories of fruit flies during exploration of a 30 cm wide wind tunnel are reconstructed as different colored paths that resemble dribbled paint.”

Scientists solve mystery of Southern Ocean ‘quacking’ sound: it’s underwater chatter of the Antarctic minke whale.

When things get glassy, molecules go fractal.

Space Oddity (ft. Chris Hadfield and Glove and Boots): Mario and Fafa sing David Bowie’s song with Chris Hadfield.

One heap of galactic chaos, many wavelengths:  A visual demonstration on why astronomers use many types of telescopes.

What Do We Make of The Big Bang? Max Tegmark, Alan Guth and Bob Kirshner answer the top 10 questions. Related: Physicists consider implications of recent revelations about the universe’s first light: might point to new physics.

A Physics Course Through Time: Students Retrace the Steps of Albert Einstein, Niels Bohr, Max Planck and Many More.

How fast would you have to spin to slow down the Earth even a tiny bit? It’s all about the angular momentum.

A university team has developed a machine that can fire coloured, scented bubbles at users to deliver notifications.

Chocolates that look like the 8 planets: Mercury is coconut mango.

Early 1885 paper in Nature on four-dimensional space may have inspired H.G. Wells’ The Time Machine.

“An asteroid big enough to destroy a city occurs on average once a century”: a nifty asteroid strike map.

Astronomy Board Games 1661 and 1804: “Le jeu de la sphere ou de l’univers selon Tyco Brahe [The game of the (celestial) sphere, or the universe according to Tycho Brahe] was printed in 1661, and was an educational toy for the advancement of kids young and old. It was played with a spinner and took the players on a tour of the universe, compiled in 4 elements, 7 planets, the constellations of the Northern hemisphere, the Zodiac, then constellations of the Southern hemisphere, and then the Empyrean.”

The Wisdom of (Little) Crowds: “In 1785, a French mathematician named Marie Jean Antoine Nicolas de Caritat (known as Marquis de Condorcet) used statistics to champion democracy.”

Liquid spacetime: What if spacetime were a kind of fluid? Such models may reconcile gravity and quantum mechanics.

Scientists Probe Secrets of the Sun’s Seething Interior By Mapping Magnetic Fingerprints on its Surface.

White Dwarf Acts as Cosmic Magnifying Glass.  Related: Mystery Solved: Supernova Lies Behind Cosmic ‘Magnifying Glass.’

In the animated short film Bulb, a very small man lives in model solar system where planets orbit along physical tracks.

Book review by George Johnson in the New York Times: The Wives of Los Alamos, by novelist TaraShea Nesbit. “What was it like to be uprooted from your home in your first years of marriage and plunked down at a remote outpost in a far-off mountain land?”

Dark Side of Certainty: Jacob Bronowski on Spirit of Science & What Auschwitz Says About Our Compulsion for Control

More People Need To Know About Carolyn Porco: “She’s got this pure, unfiltered energy that totally draws you in.”

Creating a compelling story about the search for the secrets of the universe in Particle Fever helped filmmaker Mark Levinson find his calling.

A Wrist-Mounted Coilgun — or “electromagnetic web shooter” — With Aiming Laser Inspired by Spider-Man

M is for Mandy? As in Amanda Gefter, who penned this article in New Scientist (sub req’d): What does the M in M Theory stand for?

Which is more likely, fusion or space-based solar?

Astronomical forensics uncover planetary disks in Hubble archive.

How Parents Can Bring Science Home — and Why They Should. “Our kids ask lots of Qs. How we answer them can make all the difference in their future success–and our nation’s.”

The bursting of a soap bubble is fascinating when slowed down.

Help Scientists Record One Day of Sound on Earth. “Bryan Pijanowski wants to capture the sounds of the world on a single day, and he needs your help. … All those sonic snippets could create an unprecedented soundtrack to life on Earth — and as they accumulate, year after year, scientists could use them to measure patterns and changes in our sonic environments.”

Consider a spherical zebra… ROLLIN` SAFARI – what if animals were round?

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. Adrian Morgan 10:36 am 04/26/2014

    The articles on lead remind me of the recent BBC piece on the controversial idea that lead levels in the environment correlate with crime rates. I don’t have the knowledge to evaluate this idea, but I will advise against informing any ancient Romans you may meet. It would only encourage them to build more lead pipes, on the grounds that something which makes people more aggressive is all the better for the arena.

    Incidentally, I’ve always liked the way you intersperse the embedded videos more-or-less evenly so that readers can use them as bookmarks (I assume this is intentional). At the time of writing I’ve got as far as the aurora video — everything below that can wait for tomorrow.

    Link to this

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