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Physics Week in Review: May 10, 2014

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


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Wednesday night I joined Jon Ronson, Carl Zimmer, Ophira Eisenberg, and Sarah Schlesinger in Brooklyn to tell stories in celebration of the Story Collider’s fourth anniversary. Mine was all about the physics of jujitsu and how my time in the martial arts taught me the importance of learning to fail — and while I think I did okay for a first time storyteller, I was humbled and blown away by the awesomeness of the other raconteurs.

Meanwhile, Sean Carroll (a.k.a. the Time Lord, a.k.a. my beloved spouse) joined forces with neuroscientist Steve Novella in the Intelligence Squared debate, facing off against near-death enthusiast Eban Alexander and Ray Moody on whether death is final or if there is an afterlife. The verdict: Science wins! Death IS final.  The Time Lord recapped his own thoughts here. (Sadly, as he observed on Twitter, a book entitled You’re All Going to Die. Suck It Up is unlikely to top the New York Times bestseller list.)

This week the geekerati celebrated Star Wars Day, and NASA obliged with this video featuring R2D2 And The International Space Station Wishing You A Happy Star Wars Day. There were also some fun Star Wars themed science posts. EG: Bigger spaceships should have MUCH bigger thrusters. Also: May The Fourth Be With You, Real-Science Edition.  Also again: How Star Wars Inspired a Real-Life Scientific Discovery: the set was used to track sand-dune migration.  Bonus: Of Rebel bases and habitable exomoons.

And how about a real-life light saber from physicists at MIT & Harvard — um, okay, not really, but it’s pretty cool anyway. “What has actually happened is that scientists at Harvard and MIT created a medium in which photons behave like they have mass (our operating assumption for a while has been that they are “massless particles”) and from which they emerge bonded together into a molecule. This is nifty for reasons other than that we are marginally closer to light sabers than we used to be — it could come in handy in quantum computing — but mainly it is exciting because we are marginally closer to light sabers than we used to be.”

Speaking of pop culture and science, I think I’ve held my Game of Thrones mania admirably in check thus far in Season 4. So indulge me. Conquering Westeros: the Chemistry of Fire Breathing Dragons.

This week’s Cosmos recap focused on the Permian extinction — a.k.a. the Great Dying — and ‘The Lost Worlds of Planet Earth.’  Some people felt the episode Was Too Soft on Our Current Mass Extinction Event In Progress (i.e., climate change).  io9 explored the nuts and bolts of why continents break apart and come back together.  And guess what? The crocodile-size millipede that Neil de Grasse Tyson dodged on this latest episode once really existed. Bonus: Here’s Tyson Moonwalking. You’re welcome.

EyeWire Video Gamers Help Untangle the Retina’s Space-Time Secrets.  Wiring of retina reveals how eyes sense motion. Online gamers helped researchers map neuron connections involved in detecting direction of moving objects.

Element 117 poised to enter superheavyweight division: decay chain is longer than previously thought. Physics Buzz Podcast: element 117 and the Island of Stability. Related: Superheavy element 117 weighs in again, as elusive element is detected by another experiment.

The first picture of a neutrino that traveled from Illinois to Minnesota as part of the NoVa experiment sheds light on neutrino properties.

The Conspiracy Theorist Who Duped The World’s Biggest Physicists. Popular Science spoke with Rick DeLano, whose movie The Principle shows the world’s most famous cosmologists promoting the idea that the Earth is the center of the universe. Kudos to Colin Lecher for tracking  this guy down and revealing the extent of teh crazy.

Death by ball lightning: “an exceedingly rare phenomenon’ that can kill.

A Tractor Beam Made of Sound.

In Social Bees and Loners, a Hunt for Roots of Social Behavior.

An average glass, left to sit quietly (no sipping!) will produce a million bubbles in 4 hours, a physicist estimates.

Finding a Note in the Noise: mathematical model mimics our ear’s ability to isolate sound in a noisy room.

Is There Anything Beyond Quantum Computing? Scott Aaronson brings the thoughtful insight.

Math is always hard… until it isn’t. “What now seems inscrutable will one day be quite scrutable indeed.”

The Case for Europa. The oceans of Jupiter’s ice worlds might be swimming with life — so why do we keep sending robots to Mars?

Credit: "Sandcastle Matt," https://www.flickr.com/photos/sandcastlematt/sets/

Peculiar Abstract Sandcastles by Sandcastle Matt. “Using found objects like vines, plywood, and other junk he creates a sturdy framework to which he applies the classic drip method sandcastle technique resulting in these strange temporary structures that look like contemporary land art pieces.”

“Gerald Guralnik, one of six pioneering physicists who in the 1960s came up with a theory that nearly 50 years later would lead to the discovery of a subatomic particle that helped explain a perennial mystery about the universe — why it contains life and diversity — died on April 26 in Providence, R.I. He was 77.” Matt Strassler penned a moving In Memoriam. Related: Physicist Alan Friedman, 71, Dies; Revived Hall of Science.

Squelching Boltzmann Brains (And Maybe Eternal Inflation). Sean Carroll gives the lowdown on his latest paper.

Ultracold Rydberg gases obey the same sorts of rules that govern some wireless telecom networks.

In light echoes, astronomers can watch replays of centuries-old cosmic explosions.

New lens could turn your smartphone into a microscope. Related: An app to generate quantum random numbers? Smartphone cameras with good photon sensitivity could make it possible.

The Dark Energy Spectroscopic Instrument will create the clearest three-dimensional map yet of one-third of the sky.

The Ever Increasing Size of Godzilla: Implications for Sexual Selection and Urine Production.

Build Your Own Gaussian Gun with a grooved pipe, ball bearings, and a neodymium magnet.

The Physics of Wrecking Balls: Musings on the popular song by Miley Cyrus. “Any human behaving like a wrecking ball would likely result in serious injury.”

Let the world know your quantum state with these cool earrings, e.g., the time-independent Schrödinger equation. Per John Preskill on Twitter: “Wear a bra and a ket, so you can evaluate the expectation value of your head.”

Boldly Growing: Will NASA Send a Greenhouse to Mars? Plant life may touch down on the red planet in 2021.

Can a virtual pandemic in World of Warcraft teach us about real ones?

What It Means to Live in a Holographic Universe.

Consciousness and Physics from Scratch. “The problem is that “consciousness” is not in and by itself a thing, and it isn’t a state of something either. Consciousness is a noun that is shorthand for a verb much like, for example, the word “leadership”. Leadership isn’t a thing and it isn’t a property, it’s a relation. It’s somebody leading somebody. Consciousness too isn’t a thing, it’s a relation. It’s A being consciously aware of B.”

Watch nearly 14 billion years of the universe’s creation in about 2.5 minutes in this amazing video. Per the Los Angeles Times: “Watching the video is like flying through the universe … and watching galaxies as they are assembling.”

Pitch-drop experiments: the strange science of an experimental result decades in the making.

A team of Richard Feynman’s friends and fans banded together to restore the Nobel laureate’s most famous vehicle.

Fire-Breathing Dust Devil Toys With Tumbleweeds. “Combine a firestorm with some tumbleweeds and a dust devil and you get a massive vortex.”

Behold, the Tachyons+ Video Synth Pyramid, “a giant glitch video synthesizer built by Tachyons+, a collective that builds “custom modified electronics” for video artists.”

Shrimp SMASH! Shrimp’s shell-smashing punch hands researchers a lead on tougher materials for cars, aircraft and body armor.

Scientists created stellar dust in lab to understand its role in forming planets.

Do Gravitational Waves Cause Tiny Earthquakes? “Earth can serve as a giant detector for theoretical ripples in the fabric of space-time given off by stars, black holes and other massive objects in deep space, researchers say.”

A Thousand of These ‘Droplet’ Robots Will Test Swarm Algorithms.

The literary hoaxer who made Brazil love maths. Arab freedom fighter Malba Tahan wrote one of Brazil’s most popular books, even though all was not what it seemed.

A Cheaper Tool for Virtual Sculpting. A new haptic sculpting tool heralds a coming boom in 3-D modeling and manipulation.

Credit: CJ Kale, http://www.lavalightgalleries.com

CJ Kale waited five long years for the right conditions to present so he could shoot lava in Kalapana on the Big Island of Hawaii, plunging into the scalding ocean surf to get the shots.

Modern Physics: Increasingly Vacuous. “empty space isn’t really that empty. There are always fields…”

Death of Dark Matter’s #1 Competitor: only way out is to modify the laws of gravity; new constraints rule those out.

Flesh Made Wood: The Invention of Artificial Refrigeration in the 1870s was revolutionary.

Matthew Stevenson shares his experience being employed off of the academic track, in the “astro industry.”

In the Light of Truth: a physicist sees science as spiritual practice.

The suspicious case of Miss Sapwell, or why Spanish fly has no place on a girls’ weekend getaway.

Sara Seager has a plan to find other Earths–not just 1 of them, but 100 living alien worlds.

Fox News now classifies climate change as superstition. “You have to admire hubris of someone who simultaneously cites Einstein & then declares his contempt for numbers.”

Living Lights: A popular account of phosphorescent animals and vegetables, 1887.

BICEP2 quote of the week, courtesy of Michael Turner: “Maybe this is too good to be true. It’s quacking like a duck, but is it really a duck?”

The world’s most popular sport (soccer) is terrible at statistics. NYU’s Daniel Altman “questions the use of well-known metrics such as the “total shot ratio,” and even the number of goals scored by a player in a season, to measure performance. Instead, he offers up as a more useful predictor the Shapley value, an economic concept used in game theory to determine each team member’s contribution to success—which could capture, for example, the value that a trash-talking player brings to the field, as well as the value of a high-scorer.”

Twin Paradox: Fermilab physicist Don Lincoln explains this classic thought experiment regarding the consequences of special relativity.

Long-Overlooked Ice Quakes Data Provides Insights into Calving Glaciers. Related: As Ice Forms, It Can Create Amazing Spirals.

Why Beer in a Hot Pan Slides Around Like an Air Hockey Puck. (Hint: it’s called the Leidenfrost effect.)

Why Do Your Tea Leaves Move To The Middle Of The Cup? PHYSICS!

This is What Sound Looks Like: Schlieren flow visualization makes it possible.

The Neuroscience of Mathematical Beauty.

The Mathematical Dialect Quiz.

What do you call a rigorous demonstration that a statement is true?
If “proof,” then you’re a mathematician
If “experiment,” then you’re a physicist
If you have no word for this concept, then you’re an economist

A new mathematical framework to characterize shape of graphene.

Remembering Alan Shepard: Astronaut, Pilot, and the first, and so far only, interplanetary golfer.

High School Physics Teacher Embedded on A Quest to Squash Quantum Noise.

On the cutting edge of musical innovation: the unusual instruments of William Close, inventor of the Earth Harp and more.

Why are 23.4 million people watching The Big Bang Theory? The show keeps its humor accessible by “balancing its more obscure references with something to explain them so everyone can understand the point,” says [TV critic Jaime] Weinman. “The jokes are never just about science; they’re always about the characters’ conflict or stubbornness. What the references do is make the show feel real.”  Star Jim Parsons, who plays Sheldon Cooper, has his own theory: “There’s not anything to keep up with…. People have so many choices on TV now, so no one’s asking for you to marry us. You can enjoy our show without a weekly appointment.”

The apparatus of feeling: the best investigators know and love their machines.

Documentary filmmaker Jay Cheel’s How To Build A Time Machine is “a focused look on people who are obsessed with inventing (or recreating) time machines.”

Meet the Winners of the 2014 Kavli “Science in Fiction” Video Contest.

Physicist Freeman Dyson on the one thing we still don’t get about science (and more!).

A conversation with Bill Bryson: A champion of science and science communication.

A Live Reading of the Pilot Episode of The Digits, An Interactive Math Show for Kids.

Alex Bellos brings the quirks and eccentricities of numbers wonderfully to life in new book, Alex Through the Looking Glass.

New Web series from the folks who brought you “The Lizzie Bennett Diaries”. This time it’s a send-up of Mary Shelley, “Frankenstein MD”, which “reimagines the title character as Victoria Frankenstein, an obsessive, eccentric prodigy determined to prove herself in the male-dominated fields of science and medicine.”

Finally, for your weekend listening pleasure, Peter Mulvey performs “Vlad the Astrophysicist”: interesting thoughts about the cosmos in a song.

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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