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Physics Week in Review: May 3, 2014

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


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Jen-Luc Piquant was transfixed along with everyone else this week over those beached dead whales in Newfoundlound: will they or won’t they explode? According to this Brief History of Exploding Whales, it happens! Pretty often, actually. “And the results are … really, really gross.” Naturally,  inquiring science-y minds wanted to know: What’s the pressure inside an exploding whale?  Which leads us to the exploding whale Fermi problem posed by the folks at Physics Buzz. I mean, just how big a boom are we talking about here? Hint: you might want to stand back. Way, waaaay back. Said explosion has yet to occur, however, and may not — so what do you do with a whale that won’t explode?

Yeah, okay, there was “real” news, too. For instance, the existence of element 117 has been confirmed. Read Alexandra Witze’s excellent article from 2010 for context, when she first broke the story.

If you missed the latest episode of Cosmos, here’s my recap of the long-awaited episode highlighting women astronomers: “Science is a human endeavor, not an exclusively male endeavor.” [UPDATE: I am chagrined to realize, a week later, that in the heat of deadline I mixed up John and William Herschel -- as in, Caroline was WILLIAM's sister, and John's aunt. C'est la vie....] Related: Here’s pioneering astronomer Vera Rubin on science, stereotypes, and success in a 1996 commencement address.  Also related: How the Pleiades Shaped Civilization.  Bonus: The Cosmos Connection: “Science is no longer the wallflower who doesn’t get asked to the dance.”

In a horrifying turn of events, 234 young girls were abducted from a physics exam in Nigeria, purportedly by terrorists who are opposed to educational endeavors.  Two weeks later, the girls are still missing, and their families are fast losing hope of rescue.

Astronomer Finds a Star Literally as Cold as Ice… and It’s Right Next Door.

The Intergalactic Medium Unveiled: Caltech’s Cosmic Web Imager Directly Observes “Dim Matter.”

Physicists hope to seek out the source of cosmic neutrinos by expanding IceCube detector to 10 times current size.

Source: NASA

NASA says its new spacesuit is one small step towards sending mankind to Mars.  Related: TRON fans rejoice over winning spacesuit design. “NASA says the winning design for its Z-2 prototype spacesuit cover will sport glowing blue panels that evoke the suits from the classic video-game movie.”

Decoding the Secrets of Superconductivity: “[R]esearchers have deciphered the cryptic structure of one class of the superconductors, providing a basis for theories about how they manage to transport electricity with perfect efficiency when cooled, and how scientists might raise their operating temperature closer to the climes of everyday life.”

To divide the rent, start with a triangle. An old mathematical proposition, Sperner’s lemma, can be used to resolve thorny modern predicaments fairly.

How To Win At Rock-Paper-Scissors: first large-scale measurements of how humans play Rock-Paper-Scissors reveal a hidden pattern of play that opponents can exploit to gain a vital edge..

A Terminal Condition: The Cathode Ray Tube’s Strange Afterlife.

Turbulent black holes grow fractal skins as they feed. “We showed that when you throw stuff into a black hole, the surface of the black hole responds like a fluid – and in particular, it can become turbulent,” says Allan Adams at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. “More precisely, the horizon itself becomes a fractal.”

Destroy ALL the Things! General Electric Shows Off Advanced Materials Tests by Destroying a Variety of Regular Objects. It’s called destructive testing.  Per io9: “The idea is to take a material and push it beyond its limits, recording the moment of failure.”

Liquid Metal Used to Reconnect Severed Nerves, raises the prospect of a new treatment for nerve injuries. Chinese biomedical engineers have used liquid metal to transmit electrical signals across the gap in severed sciatic nerves. The work raises the prospect of a new treatment for nerve injuries.

A Flock of Birds Flows Like a Liquid and Shatters Like a Solid.  Related: Birds on The Wires: Jarbes Agnelli used positions of birds in a photo as musical notes to compose a song.

The acoustics of tree trunks: using stress wave tomography to identify rot and decay.

The Sacred, Spherical Cows of Physics – Theoretical physics milks symmetry to power its newest tool.

Scientists Made Color-Changing Paint Out of Gold Nanoparticles – It’s like Hypercolor but for touch instead of heat.

What’s It Like to Consult for The Big Bang Theory? A chat with UCLA physicist David Saltzberg.

Physicist Leonard Susskind on Why He Teaches Physics to Old Codgers, and How It Got to Be a YouTube Sensation. “Young people from all over the world were sending me smart questions about physics.”

Just how controversial was Copernican cosmology during Shakespeare’s lifetime? Beware of hindsight!

The Importance of Uncertainty. “Error bars are important. Really important.”

The work can get pretty tedious, so here’s how young physicists are keeping things awesome on the Dark Energy Survey’s ambitious cataloging of one-eighth of the sky.

It’s often said that science fiction inspires real-world science as often as it is inspired in turn. Here are All The Times Science Fiction Became Science Fact In One Handy Chart.

Credit: David Liittschwager, http://www.liittschwager.com

A Single Drop of Seawater, Magnified 25 Times: “Photographer David Littschwager captured this amazing shot of a single drop of seawater magnified 25 times to reveal an entire ecosystem of crab larva, diatoms, bacteria, fish eggs, zooplankton, and even worms.”

The Psychic Card Trick: “Maybe, given five cards, you can always sequence four of them into a code for the fifth.”

When will we know which is bigger, Pluto or Eris? It may be a while.

Hacking nature: loopholes in the laws of physics.

Fun with Physics: Listening to a Spoon, 1880.

3-manifolds everywhere: a marvelous marriage of flexibility and rigidity.

Sometimes the similarity between fluid flow and granular flows is quite striking.

Why Neglecting Math Can Be Hazardous To Your Life. “Science and math were originally discovered together, and they are best learned together now.”

Modern-Day Alchemy: A recipe for a new superheavy element. Superheavy elements are made in the laboratory by smashing together smaller elements.

‘Refreshment’, An Animated Short About Evaporating Water.  Per Laughing Squid: “[T]he latest short from Dutch artist Johan Rijpma follows the evaporation of water as it dries on stone pavement, with the artist continually creating larger versions of patterns left by the partially dried water spots.”

Coloring the Plane: Ramsey’s Theorem Revisited and the Moser Spindle.

How Many People Are Wrongly Convicted? Researchers Do the Math.

One of Srinivasa Ramanujan’s Neglected Manuscripts Has Helped Solve Long-standing Mathematical Mysteries (sub req’d).

How an “Upside-Down” Planet Gave New Insight into Gravitational Lensing.

The Dangerous Mathematical Con of Hedge Funds and Financial Advisers.

Physicists give the best analogies. “They’re the best because they make no sense. They’re the best because they prompt you to go “Huh? What could that possibly mean?” They’re the best because, they show that math really is the language of the universe, and hilarious things happen when you try to translate the universe into English.”

The Miracle of Chocolate, Glass and Other Stuff: Mark Miodownik is on a mission to make people appreciate the substances around us.

A tinkerer models a cosmic camera. An engineer at SLAC laboratory constructed a full-scale model of the Large Synoptic Survey Telescope’s cryostat in his spare time.

Ganymede May Have Multi-Layered, ‘Sandwich’-Like Oceans, with up to three layers of different kinds of ice.

Impossible Cookware and the Penrose Tile – Infinite patterns that never repeat have moved from fantasy to reality.

Credit: Laurent Laveder, http://www.laurentlaveder.com

Photographer Laurent Lavender has his subjects “play” play with the Moon, transforming it into a balloon, a painting, a scoop of ice cream, and more.

Secret History of Cosmic Buzzwords: “As the human mind and human senses reach ever-farther out into space, we keep encountering new things that require new objects that require new names.”

Ancient oceans’ metals mimicked metabolism: Precursors to molecules essential for life can be produced without enzymes.

How tessellation became the mutt’s nuts in the fashion world.

Magnetic Noose Knocks Magnetar Off-Kilter.

Math Shall Set You Free—From Envy. How to do divorce, divestment, and death properly.

Carbon, Avogadro’s Constant and the Importance of the Number 12. Materials scientists have decided to define, rather than measure, Avogadro’s constant, triggering a lengthy debate over what number to choose. Now one physicist thinks he has the answer.

Scientists reveal atomic mechanism for historic materials transformation.

When the ink was barely dry on his masterful theory of general relativity, Einstein began to look further.

“White Holes” Could Exist—But That Doesn’t Mean They Do.

Over at the Toast, Mallory Ortberg asks about cryogenic freezing, time travel paradoxes, robots and gender roles, and much much more in “My Brother The Physicist Answers A Bunch Of Questions About Futurama.”

There’s Real Atmospheric Science in Stargate: Atlantis thanks to the efforts of its science consultant.

William Shatner, a.k.a. Captain James T. Kirk of Star Trek fame, receives NASA’s highest civilian honor.

The Physics of Star Wars: Could deflector shields in Star Wars really defend a space ship against laser attack? (h/t: io9)

Excitement was building over the release of the new Spiderman movie, which means fun physics related posts, like this one on the Physics of Spider-Man’s Webs. Also: Should Spider-Man Swing or Run?

Heavenly Sounds: Hearing Astronomical Data Can Lead to Scientific Insights.

Cartographies of Time: A Visual History of the Timeline, or what Macbeth has to do with Galileo.  Related: 400 Years of Beautiful, Historical, and Powerful Globes.

What makes a river sing the blues? The Rio Celeste in Costa Rica becomes an enchanting celestial blue at the convergence of two tributaries. Until recently scientists have been at a loss to explain this mysterious phenomenon.

How do we clean up the junkyard orbiting Earth?

Make Like a Nanotree and Cleave: Hacking photosynthesis for renewable energy.

Engineering students: Increase Your Odds Of Working For SpaceX By Building Racecars.

Perhaps you read this exceedingly silly essay in Salon this week: Our godless brains: Emerging science reveals mind-blowing alternatives to a higher power.   It inspired heavy sighs and exasperated eye rolls among physics aficionados, and at least one biologist confessed, “I am embarrassed. Physicists, I swear, not all biologists are this stupid. Really, we aren’t.” (In fairness, some physicists have been known to say silly things about biology and neuroscience, too.)

Credit: Visualizing Math, http://visualizingmath.tumblr.com

Check out these brilliant minimalist posters of mathematical objects.   Related: Mondrian Meets Euclid: An Eccentric Victorian Mathematician’s Masterwork of Art and Science.

Jen-Luc Piquant also spotted these Fabulous New Illustrations for a Steampunk Homage to Jules Verne. Per io9: “Mahendra Singh is an illustrator best known for work that is meticulously researched, intelligent to the point of phosphorescence and executed with obsessive craftsmanship. It should go without saying, then, that his illustrations for steampunk Jules Verne tribute 20 Trillion Leagues Under the Sea are nothing short of fantastic.”

Discrimination (via implicit bias) starts even before grad school, study finds.

Churchill, FDR, their nuclear scientists and the Bomb—new podcast, featuring Graham Farmelo and Steve Mirsky, from Scientific American.

Proving uncertainty: New insight into an old problem, 90 years after Heisenberg.

Non-Inertial Playground Physics with the merry-go-round, a camera, and a tennis ball.

How Thoroughbreds Convert Air Into Blazing Speed.

First attempts to model bipolar patients as harmonic oscillators, swinging between mood extremes.

Pinch of Pigment: Cobalt Blue, “the only goblin hiding in the Periodic Table.”

Snake-like robot advances automated assembly of aircraft wings.

Tunneling: A Quantum Process. Matt Strassler lays it all out for you, and also provides an update and commentary on whether BICEP2 detected gravitational waves directly or indirectly.

The energy scales we probe by looking at the cosmic microwave background are pretty mind-boggling, according to Sean Carroll (a.k.a. the Time Lord), who also chatted about particles and cosmology this week with the folks at the Equal Time for Freethought podcast. The folks at the World Science Festival spoke to the Time Lord about the danger of metaphor in science. And here is my beloved spouse pontificating on what it means to be a theoretical physicist and his work on the arrow of time, in between staring pensively into the distance at Griffith Observatory, tooling along the 110 freeway in a spiffy Jaguar convertible, and making coffee at home to fuel his mathematical scribblings.

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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