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Physics Week in Review (BICEP2 Redux): May 24, 2014

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


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It’s the physics story that keeps on going and going and going, just like the Energizer Bunny. BICEP2 is still generating headlines as the Backlash to the Big Bang Discovery Gathers Steam. Princeton’s David Spergel assures us this is just how science is done, adding “If the signal is there we’ll know for sure within two or three years.” Per Richard Easther: “This is not (yet) a show-stopper, but the debate shines a light on a weak spot in BICEP2′s claim to have seen the fingerprints of gravitational waves. In the long run, we need more data.”  Backreaction’s Sabine Hoftstadter rhetorically asks What is direct evidence and does BICEP2 measurement prove gravity must be quantized? (tl;dr: it’s relative, and no. But you should read the whole thing.) Finally, Matt Strassler also weighed in:

“Doing forefront science is extremely difficult, because it requires near-perfection. A single unfortunate mistake in a very complex experiment can create an effect that appears similar to what the experimenters were looking for, but is a fake. Scientists are all well-aware of this; we’ve all seen examples, some of which took years to diagnose. And so, as with any claim of a big discovery, you should view the BICEP2 result as provisional, until checked thoroughly by outside experts, and until confirmed by other experiments.”

Related: The Cosmic Microwave Background Radiation, 50 years later: celebrating the cosmic discovery that earned two New Jersey physicists the Nobel Prize.

If you missed the latest episode of Cosmos, you can read my recap of ‘The Immortals,” which explored (among other things) the origins of life. NatGeo’s Nadia Drake weighed in on a possible Alien Origin for Life on Earth, as well as The Best Way to Eavesdrop on Aliens. If that last name seems familiar, she’s the daughter of Frank Drake, who formulated the famous Drake Equation. Per Nadia: “’The technology to do this actually exists,’ Dad says. ‘It doesn’t require new inventions.”  Related:  The Wow! Signal Is The Strongest Candidate For an Alien Radio Transmission Yet. Meanwhile, Paul Halpern drew attention to the remarkable contributions of Indian scientists, such as Satyendra Nath Bose, to quantum physics.

Bonus: An Amusing Parody of Cosmos (“Cosmos on Weed”) Imagining Neil deGrasse Tyson High on Marijuana. “He puts the “GRASS” in deGrasse. Neil deGrasse Tyson … knows where to get the good sh*t.” Also: “Everything in the universe is star stuff. This cheese and this pepperoni is star stuff.” I would totally watch this show.

Biological Noise in an Unpredictable World:  Is the random noise inside a cell a nuisance, or have cells evolved ways to put it to work?

Picasso and Einstein Got the Picture – Breakthroughs in science and art begin with an image.

Scientists discover how to turn light into matter after 80-year quest, essentially running E=mc2 backwards.  Physicists believe they can create electrons and positrons from colliding photons.

A black hole’s event horizon could reveal insights into the Big Bang, formation of galaxies, and even death by spaghettification.

It was a sad week for conspiracy theorists. The Military Is Shutting Down HAARP, a.k.a. Its Weather-Controlling Death Beam. “Just yesterday, a Serbian scientist blamed HAARP for recent flooding in the country: ‘It seems as if the sky opened, and sea of water fell from it. These were not rain droplets that you would typically expect to see. This was a designed weather pattern which I might add is not the first, nor will it be the last by HAARP.’”

There will be an app for that: How to make a quantum random number generator from a mobile phone.

Data Mining and the Hunt for Dark Matter. “Computers can make quick work of large data sets, but some of the tracking software for spotting evidence of dark matter is not as efficient as astronomers might like and by no means is ready for the deluge of data that will come from telescopes like the Large Synoptic Survey Telescope.”

How Mathematicians Used A Pump-Action Shotgun to Estimate Pi: “If you’ve ever wondered how to estimate pi using a Mossberg 500 pump-action shotgun, a sheet of aluminum foil and some clever mathematics, look no further.”

A Tiny Moon of Saturn Carves a Big Gap in the Rings.  Related: Smoking gun evidence for theory that Saturn’s collapsing magnetic tail causes auroras.

Photo: Charles Lindsay, http://charleslindsay.com

Charles Lindsay, SETI’s Artist-in-Residence, Illuminates Nature’s Uncanny Places. “The CARBON IV work begins with an emulsion on a negative, and ends up as moving plasma, an image returned to light. An extruded reality.”

Trust in gravity? it’s hard to tell whether a new entity or a new theory is needed to resolve a scientific paradox.

Of Magnetic Monopoles and Fast Scrambling Black Holes: a tribute to Caltech’s John Preskill, newly elected to the National Academy of Sciences, by Stanford’s Leonard Susskind.

Roaring again—a review of the science in the first and newest Godzilla movies.

From CERN to Midlands engineers. What does a 150-year-old pen nib have to do with the Large Hadron Collider?

The Next Big California Earthquake May Be Spread Out Over Years.

Physics Of Amazing Spider-Man 2‘s Visual Effects Is Really Impressive.

We normally send messages through space. A wormhole could send one through time. Related: Wormhole Time Travel ‘Possible‘ (If You’re a Photon).

Percival Lowell was Fantastically Wrong: One Astronomer’s Quest to Expose the Alien-Built Canals of Mars.

Mark and Derek’s Time Traveling Rules: “We can’t all go back in time and invent the skateboard, you have to invent something else.” Also: “Everybody stop killing Mark.” Related: Time Machines Would Run Afoul of the Second Law of Thermodynamics.

Beauty is truth? There’s a false equation. Scientists prize elegant theories, but a taste for simplicity is a treacherous guide. And it doesn’t even look good.

Nothing is More Fun Than a Hypercube of Monkeys: “Monkeys! Mathematical groups! 4-dimensional geometry! Together at last!”

Does hating math make you bad at it? “Yeah, Kind of. In the long run, hate will almost always undermine excellence.”

The Swing of the Pendulum: From atoms to bridges to wheeled luggage, much of the world is in simple harmonic motion. Bonus: check out this chaotic pendulum simulator:

The Matrix Meets Braid:  Artificial brains in gunfights. SUPESHOT is “a first-person shooter video game “where the time moves only when you move….  You can stare at the bullets streaking toward you as long as you like, but moving to dodge them causes the enemies and bullets to move forward in time as well.”

This week on the Physics Buzz podcast: Einstein’s theory of distant parallelism. “Never heard of it? It was on the front page of the New York Times in 1929. Einstein himself said it was more important than general relativity. The head of the NYU physics department predicted that it might give us antigravity devices. So what happened? It turns out the theory was doomed from the beginning. Wolfgang Pauli finally convinced Einstein to let go of distant parallelism, but it wasn’t the last time Einstein had bet his hand on a theory that didn’t pan out.”

Here’s How Carbon Fiber Absorbs Crash Energy In Slow Motion.

The Unconscious Expander: Scott Aarsonson explains why he’s not an integrated information theorist.

GPS fails underwater, so submarines routinely drift 1 km off course. How to be more precise? The “quantum compass.”

The Particle Physics Project Prioritization Panel’s report recommends strategic path forward for US particle physics.

Haters Gonna Hate: I Love The Big Bang Theory. “We have a hard time being happy, don’t we? The science is too sciency. The science isn’t sciency enough. Where are the women? Well we don’t like those women – give us some we can.”

Notation, notation, notation: a brief history of mathematical symbols.

Teen puts calculus on ice: Jacob Nichols calculated the volume of long, skinny icicles using advanced math.

Credit: Barry Underwood, http://barryunderwood.com

Stunning Light-Painted Landscape Photos by Barry Underwood. “To create each image, Underwood builds sets and places LED lights and luminescent materials in a process that can take several days.”

Forgotten Hardware: How to Urinate in a Spacesuit. Because inquiring minds need to know!

Not all diamonds are forever: Researchers see nanodiamonds created in coal fade away in seconds.

Come on Feel the Data (And Smell It) – Digital interaction will engage all of our senses simultaneously, including smell.

Some stars make Earth-like planets, only to turn around and eat them.

“Physics was paradise”: Terrific Q&A with Melissa Franklin, the first woman to earn tenure in Harvard’s physics department.

Physicist turned ‘rocket man’ Sam Waldman looks to the sky with SpaceX.

How Gamblers Get Hot: “If there’s one idea to take away from the study, it’s this: just don’t gamble.”

The Ten Most Bizarre Ideas For Using Nuclear Weapons.

Supermassive Black Holes are Not Doughnuts.  “[A]stronomers have analyzed data from NASA’s Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer (WISE) of thousands of supermassive black holes to find that the “torus model” may be woefully inadequate when explaining what is actually going on.”

“Loosely inspired by the theoretical physics work of Stephen Wolfram, the new movie Frequencies is set in a future where your romantic destiny is predetermined by science. Will tampering with the algorithm of love destroy or unite society?”

A good hair day for glowing nano particles: Chinese scientists make luminescent ink out of hair.

Charging a Smartphone, No Wires Required. A startup called Energous aims to let you charge your gadgets without plugging them in.

Wicked dips versus perfect proportions: the physics of football (soccer) revisited.

Scientists create bionic particles “inspired” by Terminator. The particles, a blend of inorganic semiconductors and organic proteins, are designed not to advance a machine race but rather to create biofuels.

The March of the Water Droplets. Researchers in Zurich couldn’t control the behavior of the water droplets in their experiment, so they made a video, edited so that the droplet behavior organizes into a march. Clever! (Video credit: C. Antonini et al.)

Psychedelic artwork, or the surface of the moon? Why not both? Data from the Lunar Orbiter Creates Abstract Moon Art.

Chelyabinsk meteor had violent history before striking Earth.

Archimedes in the Fence: the return of the carpenter bees and their making of perfect circles.

Explainer: What is a Supercrutical Fluid? “If you squeezed water to 1,000 times atmospheric pressure and then heated it while keeping the pressure on, you would no longer observe boiling as such. The water molecules would whizz around with more energy, and the density would gradually go down, but there would be no boiling. … Water (or any other material) under these conditions is called a supercritical fluid.”

Congressionally mandated panel will look at the mission of DOE’s 17 civilian and weapons labs.

Photos from Six Flags Physics Day 2014 — marvel at those g-forces.  Related: New Roller Coaster, Falcon’s Fury, Sends You On A 60-MPH Face-First Fall.

One Day a Forest Could Store All of Humanity’s Knowledge.

Killer View: What If the Moon Orbited the Earth a LOT Closer?

The Case for Robots, 1864 Edition – Machinery, a poet thought, makes us more prosperous and refines our morals.

Does the Wheel of Fortune Produce the Coriolis Effect? Big Picture Lessons from an Unfortunate Tweet by game show host and climate change denialist Pat Sajak.

Power suits: wearable fabric that can generate electricity from the sun.

There’s a secret to persuading strangers to retweet your messages. A machine learning algorithm has discovered it.

Why do people persist in believing things that just aren’t true? The Backfire Effect.

This 1975 ‘Cooling World’ Story Doesn’t Make Today’s Climate Scientists Wrong.

Finally, It’s Okay To Be Smart warms my heart with The Science of Game of Thrones: “You know nothing!”

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. jtdwyer 8:38 am 05/25/2014

    Thanks for the link to Sabine Hoftstadter’s blog – http://backreaction.blogspot.com/2014/05/what-is-direct-evidence-and-does-bicep2.html

    As to BICEP2 evidence of the quantitization of gravity… See http://arxiv.org/abs/1309.5343 for the base argument. While the polarization of CMB photons may or may not have been caused by primordial gravitational waves expected in association with cosmic inflation – they are termed gravitational waves because they can be described in the context of GR as “tensor fluctuations in the gravitational metric” (spacetime dimensional coordinates). As I understand, it is those fluctuations in the dimensional coordinates of spacetime that is thought to have imparted the B mode polarity of CMB light waves – there is no defined gravitational force interaction that could have produced the expected polarization of CMB radiation…
    … In particular, there seems to be no implicit role for gravitons in the large scale gravitational waves described by general relativity – oscillating spacetime curvature produced by, for example, the rapid juxtaposition of collapsing binary neutron stars or even Venus orbiting the Sun – see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gravitational_wave#Sources_of_gravitational_waves
    … Any primordial ‘gravitational’ waves – perturbations of the dimensional spacetime gravitational metric – were not the product of any apparent strictly gravitational interaction. IMO, even if it _can_ be shown that gravitons existed and were influential in the inflationary primordial universe – that is _not_ evidence that they directly or even indirectly mediate gravitational interactions among massive objects.

    Please also see http://www.gravityresearchfoundation.org/pdf/awarded/2014/Porto_2014.pdf – which states:
    “At first glance, the (indirect) measurement of primordial tensor modes by the BICEP2 collaboration supports an inflationary paradigm for early universe cosmology together with quantum vacuum fluctuations (aka gravitons) as the origin of the spectrum. In this essay we argue the the observed signal may instead be a signature of semi-classical sources of perturbations during inflation. In this scenario, despite a large tensor-to-scalar ratio r ~ 0:2, it may be possible to write an effective field theory of a rolling scalar field without super Planckian excursions…”

    Link to this

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