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Physics Week in Review: May 17, 2014

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


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By a quirk of the calendar, this week’s linkfest falls on my birthday. And the Internet gave me an early gift: I made a list — Eight of Twitter’s coolest geeks. Also celebrating her birthday this week was my guest on Virtually Speaking Science, writer/ethicist Kelly Hillis, our new co-host. We chatted about her background, 23andMe and the FDA, the ethics of patenting genes, and more. Here’s Kelly’s own wrap-up of the fun. Related: Is Second Life About to Die? Well, maybe it’s not quite dead yet. But “To survive requires facing reality, accepting where we are — and advocating a strategy for slipping away before we’re bonked on the head.”

Kelly and I weren’t the only ones celebrating a birthday this week. Happy birthday, Richard Feynman! Celebrate with his little-known drawings, collected by his daughter. “I wanted to convey an emotion I have about the beauty of the world…this feeling about the glories of the universe.”  Also, Happy 104th B-Day Dorothy Hodgkin, pioneer scientist in the field of X-ray crystallography studies of biomolecules, who  created the molecular model of penicillin, among other achievements and this week was honored with a Google Doodle.

There was a bit of a kerfuffle over rumor-mongering this week when a blogger expressed doubt and skepticism about the BICEP3 results announced a few weeks ago — namely, that the five-sigma signal might not be evidence of gravitational waves in the cosmic microwave background radiation after all, merely interference by dusty particles that messed up the team’s calculations. To which Sean Carroll (a.k.a. the Time Lord) said, “Arrrgh Rumors,” and advised us all to chill out and wait for actual new evidence. As Sean also pointed out, everyone issued such caveats from the start; BICEP2 needs confirmation before it goes down in the history books as a bona fide discovery. The Washington Post‘s Joel Achenbach had the best take: “The BICEP2 story provides a reminder that science is a human enterprise, not an automatic and bloodless aggregation of data. The most important science is often conducted in difficult terrain, where data is elusive and the signals are ambiguous.”

Speaking of which: Planck has revealed a galactic fingerprint, and this data will also test BICEP2’s discovery of gravitational waves.  Related: Don’t believe in cosmic inflation? You’re probably wrong — Even if BICEP2 results turn out to be wrong. Bonus: Here’s Allan Adams’ TED talk right after the BICEP2 announcement.

POLARBEAR data analysis: Radiation from early universe found key to answer major questions in physics.

A critique of a recent dark matter ‘hint’ provides a CoGeNT argument for open data. Related: When the Large Hadron Collider restarts, it will be an even more powerful dark-matter-hunting machine.

The Bermuda Triangle of Space, a.k.a. the South Atlantic Anomaly, “where the Earth’s magnetic field is off center and lets in space radiation to especially low altitudes.” Related: Earth’s Magnetic Field Wonkyness. “There’s a spot in the Atlantic ocean where Earth’s magnetic field is basically non-existent.”

Forging One Qubit to Rule Them All. Construction is now under way on a new information-storing device that could become the building block of a robust, scalable quantum computer.

A Little Hair Music! “To make hair playable, they clumped it together to form the correctly-sized strings, then applied glue to make it more resistant. They then attached the strings of hair to the violin and proceeded to make great music.” (via Lost at E Minor)

The Space Station Crew Returned to Earth Safely this week, and A Japanese Astronaut Said Goodbye to His Robot Space Companion, who took the parting in stride. “I’ll be all right. I’m a robot.”

If you missed this week’s Cosmos, here’s my recap. Yay for the focus on Michael Faraday, a.k.a.. “The Electric Boy,” one of my all-time favorite physicists.Of course, it was impossible to squeeze all of Faraday’s awesomeness into a single 45 minutes, so Motherboard weighed in with What Cosmos Left Out About Michael Faraday. A few years ago Greg Gbur (a.k.a. Dr. SkySkull) and I wrote companion blog posts, each focusing on one of Faraday’s classic Christmas lectures. Greg wrote about “Forces of Matter” while I tackled “The Chemical History of a Candle.” Related: Here’s a nifty animated GIF of Faraday’s “induction motor” discovery with one battery and a piece of wire.  Did you know that the electromagnetic principles Faraday established are fantastic ways to dispose of Wolverine? Also, Faraday’s campaign to clean up foul 19th-century London got him ridiculed in Punch.

Speaking of Cosmos, remember the episode a few weeks ago featuring Claire Patterson and lead poisoning, which dates back to ancient Rome? There’s some new geoarchaeological evidence on that front.  Related, from 2012: Lead Poisoning in Rome – The Skeletal Evidence.

Neil deGrasse Tyson and the value of philosophy. Massimo Pigliucci takes issue with the Cosmos host’s recent comments dissing philosophy. So does Ethan Siegel of Starts With a Bang: “[P]hilosophy doesn’t have the answers, but it does teach ways to consider the limits of our knowledge.”

Godzilla opens this weekend! Here are Five Real Life Mouth Weapons More Terrifying Than Godzilla’s Atomic Breath.

Quantum twist could kill off the multiverse: a fresh way of looking at random motions known as quantum fluctuations,with implications for  Many Worlds and so-called Boltzmann Brains.

The 432Hz ‘God’ Note: Why Fringe Audiophiles Want to Topple Standard Tuning.

Roller coaster roulette: physics edition. “see if you can match the rides with their acceleration data.”

Kepler-16b eclipsing in front of its two parent stars. Illustrator: Robert Hurt. Image: NASA/JPL-Caltech/R. Hurt

How artists meld science and imagination in exoplanet illustrations. “We’re in the job of telling a story with these pictures,” said visualization scientist Robert Hurt of Caltech, who works with NASA to make exoplanet renderings. “The science visualization process is always starting with one or two data points and trying to make an engaging illustration.”

Saussure’s Cyanometer: when scientists measured the blueness of the sky.

Did Homer Simpson Actually Solve Fermat’s Last Theorem?

Algorithm Reveals Link Between Sour Cream And Traffic Accidents. “Tyler Vigen created a program, appropriately titled Spurious Correlations, that finds correlations between random data sets and produces a chart every minute. Thus, the .95 correlation between mozzarella cheese consumption and civil engineering doctorates is finally uncovered.”  Related: What Correlation Implying Causation Means in the Real World.

The Hypervelocity Star That’s Being Booted from the Galaxy.

Please Don’t Beam Me Up, Scotty: In which the Star Trek crew faces the harsh reality of teleportation. “It’s not a transporter, it’s a replacer.”

Static Electricity Defies Simple Explanation. Experiment torpedoes theory of how rubbing pieces of same material together generates charge.

In a new class at Duke University, professors from different realms explore the intersection of literature and physics.

Have cosmologists lost their minds in the multiverse?

Error at IBM Lab Finds New Family of Polymer Materials. Their code names? “Titan” and “Hydro.”

The Physics of Hot Pockets: From why they stay frozen in the middle to how the crisping sleeve works.

Feeling Blue: General Augustus James Pleasonton and the “blue glass” craze of the 1870s.  Related (kinda): ‘The Ripple Project’, A Look at the Beauty of Light Through Hand-Blown Glass. Per Laughing Squid: this video “by London-based design studio Poetic Lab, is an examination of the effect of light when projected through a rotating, hand-blown glass down. The result is an ever-changing pattern that appears to mimic the movement of water.”

Space junk threatens real-life Gravity incident, Congress hears.

Bend it like… Bernoulli: the physics of soccer balls. Also sports-related: Keeping Your Eyes On The Ball May Be Essential. Eye-tracking rig confirms that baseball players must watch the ball to catch it. Ya think?

There is a Mysterious Effect That Makes Hot Water Freeze Faster Than Cold. It’s called the Mpemba Effect.

Flying Virgin Galactic Might Not Make You An Astronaut. The official altitude for “space” (a.k.a. the Karman Line) recognized by the Federation Aeronautique Internationale is 62 miles; Virgin Galactic promises “about 50 miles.”

Cleaning an Egyptian obelisk with lasers. Central Park’s 3500-year-old Egyptian obelisk has seen better days. Centuries of wear-and-tear have camouflaged the monument’s ancient hieroglyphics, and now conservators are cleaning up with the help of high-powered lasers.

Should We Colonize the Moon? And How Much Would It Cost? Establishing a moon colony would require no less than tens of billions of dollars and the cooperation of numerous countries.

Giant Gummy Bear Dropped Into Potassium Chlorate Creates Fiery Mess.

Lunch with the Einsteins. “Little did the aspiring medical student, Max Talmey, know at the time that his weekly lunches with the Einstein family in the late 1800s would cultivate a lasting relationship with Albert Einstein.”

Charles Babbage’s little-known civic-minded research into London’s 19th century spate of broken windows. “He published the results of his study in an 1857 article, “Table of the Relative Frequency of Occurrence of the Causes of Breaking of Plate Glass Windows” in the  Mechanics Magazine.”

Five Reasons You Should Consider a Different Physics Textbook, specifically, Matter and Interactions (by Chabay and Sherwood).

Top 10 things everybody should know about science.

Long-distance neutrino search: For some physicists, remote operations centers bring neutrino experiments closer to home.

Millikan, Einstein, and Planck: The Experiment io9 Forgot.

Tears of timeless reunion, photo © Rose-Lynn Fisher, courtesy of the artist and Craig Krull Gallery, Santa Monica, CA.

Microscopic Structures of Human Tears: Photographer Rose-Lynn Fisher captures tears of grief, joy, laughter and irritation. “Scientifically, tears are divided into three different types, based on their origin. Both tears of grief and joy are psychic tears, triggered by extreme emotions, whether positive or negative. Basal tears are released continuously in tiny quantities (on average, 0.75 to 1.1 grams over a 24-hour period) to keep the cornea lubricated. Reflex tears are secreted in response to an irritant, like dust, onion vapors or tear gas.”

Department of Household Sciences, Division of Rubbing and Scrubbing. Sponges and the science of tribology.

Mysterious ‘Spokes’ in Saturn’s Rings are Still There.

The Emerging Science of Superspreaders (And How to Tell If You’re One Of Them). Nobody has figured out how to spot the most influential spreaders of information in a real-world network. Now that looks set to change.

The Strange, Secret History of Isaac Newton’s Papers. “It was only in the 1960s that some of Newton’s papers were widely published.”

How the new Spider-Man movie draws on Carl Jung, Apollo 14, the HPV vaccine, and STEM education.

The New Math of Subways – New software can take simple data and infer exactly what’s going on across a transportation system.

Squee! Trailer for Interstellar, brainchild of physicist Kip Thorne. “A group of explorers make use of a newly discovered wormhole to surpass the limitations on human space travel and conquer the vast distances involved in an interstellar voyage.”

The Frustrations of Being Scientifically Literate.

“It’s a bit like binge watching TV shows called Physics, Chemistry and Biology. You can sit there in your pajamas catching up on all the past seasons totally engrossed in it. Every episode is interesting and compelling and drives you to watch the next and the next. You’re sitting there screaming, “Light is a wave and a particle? I did not see that coming!” or “I can’t believe they killed off Hypatia!” (Spoiler alert.) Then suddenly you watch the last episode and it ends in a cliffhanger. And there you are with your craving for what comes next and you realize they’re not making another episode for a whole year. You have to wait. All you have to sustain you are little teasers of what’s to come.”

Silly Putty Material inspires batteries. Engineers use silicon dioxide to make lithium-ion batteries that last three times longer between charges compared to current standard.

Lady Astronomers Can’t Get a Break. “Apparently lady astronomers have been getting crap for years….  Even in 1790, a lady couldn’t contribute to science without catching some kind of shit.” Related: Women In Astronomy: Fed Up With Sexual Harassment. It’s a series of sorts including posts on The Serial Harasser’s playbook, and this more inspiring tale: “Our harassment experiences don’t define us.  If you feel like you should be angry, be angry.  If you want someone to listen, be loud.  You deserve better.  We all do.”

A Creationist Schism Is Tearing Apart A Christian College: “with an allegorical stroke of a pen, Bryan College’s statement of faith was transformed into an explicit endorsement of young-earth creationism.”

Line Segments Space,” An Artwork Exploring Positive and Negative Space With Nylon String and a Projector.

When Numbers Bleed, Freeze, Starve And Die On A Battlefield: The Dark Poetry of Data.

Ice melt in part of Antarctica appears unstoppable: “According to a study released Monday, warm ocean currents and geographic peculiarities have helped kick off a chain reaction at the Amundsen Sea-area glaciers, melting them faster than previously realized and pushing them ‘past the point of no return,’ NASA glaciologist Eric Rignot told reporters.” Related: The West Antarctica Ice Sheet Melt: Defending the Drama.  Bonus: Last Week Tonight with John Oliver (HBO) presents a statistically representative Climate Change Debate. “You don’t need people’s opinions on a fact. You might as well take a poll on which number is bigger, 15 or 5.”

Algorithm Fixes Weather Radar Images Distorted by Wi-Fi. All over the world, weather radar images are being plagued by signals from the latest generation of five GHz Wi-Fi. Now Austrian researchers have developed a fix.

Adiabatic Winds and Tornadoes: it’s fire season in California, and this is a terrific explainer about those pesky Santa Ana winds.

FQXI Podcast: entanglement is the most fundamental constituent of reality that binds space and time together. Another FQXI podcast: Thermal gravity: does gravity emerge from the unknown “atoms” of space and time?

This Week in Biomimicry: How the bombardier beetle inspired a new kind of ATM security. Related: The bombardier beetle was Wired‘s Absurd Creature of the Week, largely due to its ability to Fire Boiling Chemicals Out of Its Bum.

Magnetars: How the Universe’s Most Intense Magnetic Fields Are Born.

Decorate your home in vintage NASA artifacts from a space auction.

How To Marry The Right Girl (or Guy): A Mathematical Solution that could have helped Kepler choose a wife.

What it’s like to own a Tesla Model S – A cartoonist’s review of his magical space car.

Robot Bartender Struggles With Asimov’s Laws In “A Robot Walks Into a Bar” Short Film.

How to Solve the Seemingly Impossible Perpendicular Line Problem Presented in ‘The Expert’ Sketch Comedy Video.

Sizing up the Big Bang, 50 years after Penzias and Wilson’s historic discovery.

The Case of the 5-millisecond Cosmic Radio Burst.

Remember when I did the Story Collider last week? They’ve posted Carl Zimmer’s wonderful tale, “Safety Carl Versus Gamera,” in which he cops to his enduring love for monster movies and how he battled marauding snapping turtles in his yard.

A 1996 video on the use of neutron activation analysis to determine the origin of a fragment of medieval sculpture in The Cloisters collection.

“Misadventure in Time,” An Animated Short About the Consequences of Time Travel by London illustrator Lee Daniels, takes a brief look at what can go wrong when you build a time machine in order to visit your past self. “40 years wasted in 40 seconds.”

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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