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Physics Week in Review: June 7, 2014

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


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As you read this, we are flying home to Los Angeles after an exhausting but exhilarating trip: 10 days, 2 continents, 3 flights, 2 trains, 4 hotels, 18 car rides, 7 panel discussions, 3 interviews, and 5 lectures between the two of us.  (The circles under my eyes are now saucers.) First stop: New York City and the 2014 World Science Festival, where I joined neuroscientists David Eagleman and Dean Buonomo for a casual free-wheeling discussion on the brain, the self, free will, and consciousness, while the Time Lord (a.k.a. Caltech physicist Sean M. Carroll) flitted about debating the finer points of quantum mechanics, and also rubbed elbows with Joyce Carol Oates and E.L. Doctorow on a science and story panel (along with Steven Pinker and science writer Jo Marchant).  Also, he moderated a panel on the documentary Particle Fever.

But so much more was going on! Some other highlights: The Mast Brothers Unveiled The Physics Behind Chocolate;   The Biophysics Of Pie, From Crust To Core;  and Botany At The Bar Delivered A Lush, Biodiverse Round Of Cocktails.  Lest you think it was all food and drink related: F-&$# Traffic: From insects to Interstates.  Can marching ants, schooling fish, and herding wildebeests teach us something about the morning commute? And Even Einstein Was a Fool in Love: Review of Dear Albert, a staged reading of Alan Alda’s play, based on Einstein’s letters, which kicked off the World Science Festival on May 28.

Then we hopped a red-eye flight to London, followed by a train to Cheltenham for the Cheltenham Science Festival. They kept us very busy at Cheltenham. Sean gave talks on the Higgs boson and the arrow of time, and spent a lot of time talking about his science consulting adventures in Hollywood. I served as a judge for the semifinals of the Famelab Competition, gave a talk on my book, Me, Myself and Why, engaged in a science question time, and moderated a fascinating panel on brain stimulation featuring cognitive neuroscientist Vince Walsh and bioethicist Ilina Singh. Related to my Cheltenham panel: Zapped: how applying electricity to your head might ease pain, improve memory and attention. Also: What Happens If You Apply Electricity to the Brain of a Corpse?

Sean (M.) Carroll and some science writer.

But our work was not yet done! On Thursday it was back to London, where the Time Lord and I teamed up to give our first-ever dual talk on the black hole firewall paradox, once at Imperial College and again that evening at the Royal Institution. Apparently we are the first husband-wife team to speak in that famous room (where my physics hero, Michael Faraday, first demonstrated induction) since Pierre and Marie Curie — and Marie was not allowed to speak (!). I was both honored and hugely intimidated, but I think it went well.

The next day, Royal Institution documentation manager Jane Harrison and curator of collections Charlotte New gave me a tour of Faraday’s lab and some of the original notebooks, etc. they have in their archives — including the bound volume a young Faraday made from his notes on Humphrey Davy’s lectures, which inspired Davy to hire him — and we geeked out over the awesomeness of science history. Thanks to them for spending so much time with me; it was a major highlight of an action-packed trip.

Turbulent black holes: Fasten your seatbelts – gravity is about to get bumpy. New research shows that gravitational fields around black holes might eddy and swirl. Related: Gravity, like a fluid, can be turbulent.

How Turbulence Happens, and Why It’s Not So Scary After All.

LHCb glimpses possible sign of new physics, could show a crack in the Standard Model. “If we continue to see this discrepancy, it could be evidence of a new particle—like a heavier cousin of the Z boson—interfering with the muon production.”

The Complex Mathematics of Robot Wrestling. When mathematicians simplify wrestling, they boil it down to one pendulum attempting to unbalance another. That’s when things start to get really complex.

Invisibility Cloaking Goes Film Noir – New technique can hide macroscopic objects in foggy, “diffuse” lighting.

How Jetpacks and Flying Cars Turned into Cliches About the Future.

Could Pulses in Earth’s Magnetic Field Forecast Earthquakes? New model suggests how some rocks deep within the planet might emit magnetic pulses under stress.

Srinivasa Ramanujan: A Century On, This Math Prodigy’s Formulas Are Finally Unravelled.

The Zero Gravity Cocktail Project: Boldly Designing a Cocktail Glass for Space: “The cup relies on capillary action to deliver liquid to the rim of the glass without creating a zero gravity cocktail mess.”

The beauty of science and naturalism, set to some hardcore Scandinavian punk rock — inspired by the Time Lord’s blogging.

Nine Exceptional Scientists Received the 2014 Kavli Prizes, honoring Cosmic inflation, nano-optics, memory and cognition: Andrei Linde, Alan Guth and Alexei Starobinsky were among them. Related: Dan Eisenstein, Shaun Cole and John Peacock won the Shaw Prize in Astronomy

Remembering The Astrophysicist of Tiananmen Square: The late Fang Lizhi “awakened the people’s yearning for human rights and democracy.”

This week in astronomy news, Astronomers Found a New Kind of Exo-Planet – the “Mega-Earth.” From the Guardian, “There are more rocky planets than we thought, which means there are more places where aliens might live – but it would take 10,000 years to get to Kepler-10c, so don’t get too excited.”  Related: Exoplanet Size: It’s Elementary.  Bonus: How to calculate your weight on the newly discovered mega-Earth; all you need are a few napkins and a pen.

Experiments in virtual world Second Life Reveal Alternative Laws of Physics, allowing researchers to experiment with entirely different laws of motion.

Just Add Water and Silicon Folds into Origami Shapes.

Beam On: My Father’s Fight with Cancer. After working with particle accelerators his entire professional career, Heather Rock Woods’ father placed himself in the path of a beam to fight cancer.

In case you missed it, here’s this week’s Cosmos recap: Climate change is explained in ‘The World Set Free,” the rebooted series’ penultimate episode.  Related: Cosmos Calls for Utopia: Here Are Five Ideas That Fit the Bill. Bonus Nerdgassery of the Week: Everything Wrong with the Film Gravity Featuring Guest Narrator Neil deGrasse Tyson.

What the Dragons on Game of Thrones Can Teach Us About Nuclear Weapons. “Writing in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, Timothy Westmeyer sees an immediate parallel in that both dragons and nuclear weapons offer their owners a seemingly inexpensive defense.”

Related: From Tar Pits to Game of Thrones: The Hidden History of the Dire Wolf.Game of Thrones has made the dire wolf famous 10,000 years after the last real one died.”

Science Fiction to Science Fact: A Universal Translator. “This new video and audio conferencing tool will allow those who speak different languages to communicate with one another in their native tongue while Skype Translator, in real time, will translate the conversation into whatever language the recipient desires.”

Meet the Photophone: Alexander Graham Bell Made a Wireless Phone That Ran on Sunshine.

Higher Ground: would making the pitcher’s mound higher change the torque on their elbows?

The NSA Probably Really, Really Wants a Quantum Computer.  “When you have large quantum systems, they end up acting classically… So the real challenge is building a big enough quantum system so it can do the calculations you want, but so it remains quantum. It’s this kind of conflicting goal.”

Five of The Most Symmetrical Objects in the World, from Gravity Probe B’s quartz gyroscope rotors to obsidian ear plugs.

MagnetoSperm, or sperm-inspired robots, swim in response to an oscillating magnetic field. (I.S.M. Khalil / GUC & S. Misra / University of Twente)

MagnetoSperm: A tiny swimming robot inspired by human sperm.

Plasmonic nanoantennas: hot spots for molecules. The accurate placement of molecules into gaps between gold nanoantennas enables ultrahigh-sensitivity molecular detection.

NASA’s Interface Region Imaging Spectrograph watched a magnetic eruption in the solar corona, giving us the most intimate view of the creation of a CME yet.   Related: Amazing NASA video shows the sun erupting in unprecedented detail: “we are amazed at how violent of a place this region is.”

Challenger, Columbia and the Nature of Calamity. On Jan. 28, 1986, seven astronauts “slipped the surly bonds of earth to touch the face of God.” America’s space program was never the same. Worth watching the entire 20-minute video.

NASA Plans to Test Flying Saucer Over Hawaii. “Technically, NASA’s new toy is called the Low Density Supersonic Decelerator (LDSD)… The LDSD will collect data about landing heavy payloads on Mars and other planetary surfaces.”  Related: NASA is About to Test a Mega-Parachute at the Edge of Space – If it works, we’ll be a step closer to a human on Mars.

Oobleck: The Bizarre Liquid That Sometimes Acts Like a Solid (technically a non-Newtonian fluid).

Inspired by the wreck of the ship Medusa in 1816, physicist Augustin Fresnel, who had fought his way from obscurity to a position as one of France’s leading theoretical physicists, committed himself to building better lighthouses.

Gravity Versus the Standard Model. Per Jon Butterworth in the Guardian: “Einstein’s general relativity, and quantum field theory in the Standard Model of particle physics, have different spheres of influence. Uniting them is one of the big challenges of physics. But at an everyday level, they are influenced by spheres in the same way.”

MINOS experimental result narrows field for sterile neutrinos. Data collected stacks evidence against the existence of these theoretical particles.

The Physics of Yo-Yos: “low friction is the key to sleeping.”

Strategic War, With Cards: “The most common version does not require decisions, so it’s totally deterministic (outcome is determined) once the card order in each deck is fixed. … The question of how to determine the winner from the two deck orderings (without actually playing the entire game) … leads to things like classification of cellular automata and the halting problem.”

Only A Holistic View of Nature Can Solve Big Problems, Says UC Berkeley Physicist Fritjof Capra.

Surprising nanotubes: unexpected variations in nanotubes made of different materials: Some slippery, some sticky.

A New Clue in the Hunt for the Universe’s Missing Antimatter.

This Week in xkcd’s What If? column, a reader asks how large a flock of starlings would have to be before gravity began to take hold and forced the group into a huge ball. A: really, really large — so large that it would begin to other interesting cosmological effects.

Credit: Alain Delorme, http://www.alaindelorme.com

Look closely: these are not flocks of birds, they are flocks of plastic bags. French photographer Alain Delorme has an eye-popping new series. “‘I took photos of plastic bags individually [using] a light box to get the bags’ transparency. There is a different bag for every swarm, shot 150 to 200 times. I then duplicated the bags, so in total you have at least 10,000 bags per image.”

Astronaut, Heal Thyself: How humans deal with the physical and psychological realities of life in space.  Related: Before Apollo astronauts went to the moon, they went to Hawaii to train on the Big Island’s lunar landscapes.

The science of face planting: meme culture’s most human failure–and the surprisingly awful injuries the real thing inflicts.

Good Will Hunting‘s “open” math problem: Draw all the homeomorphically irreducible trees with n=10.

Graphene’s multi-colored butterflies: Combining black and white graphene can change electronic properties of the materials

Thorium lends a fiery hand. Could Thorium (named after the Norse god Thor) fire up the next generation of reactors?

Laser-guided fruit flies: Thermal control of wireless flight.

Parasitic vines may serve as lightning rods. Field campaign in Panama will study whether lianas help trees to survive lightning strikes.

Clocks, Microwaves, and the Limits of Fermi Problems.

The science behind the perfect coffee. “Water composition can make a dramatic difference to the taste of coffee made from the same bean.”

Belgium to win the World Cup? Build your own ranking system for the teams. In a new website launched this week, mathematicians show how varying the parameters of your ranking system can give you interesting insights about how the World Cup may play out

A Video Unleashes the Power of Math to Whack Mars Conspiracy Theorists.

More than math: MIT teaches physics students about another side of scientific life—communication.

The Ice Ball Mold, A Device That Uses Ambient Heat and Gravity To Make Ice Spheres That Melt More Slowly In Drinks

The Kelvin-Helmholtz instability looks like a series of overturning ocean waves and occurs between layers of fluids undergoing shear.

There’s an Equation for That: The Greatest, Most Scientifically Accurate Dick Joke Of All Time, courtesy of HBO series Silicon Valley. “Not only did the math check out, the Silicon Valley producers actually hired Stanford engineers to make the formula in the first place.” The satirical scene really captures the testosterone-fueled geek culture of industry — and it’s hilariously funny, to boot. Embedding has been disabled but you can watch the clip here. However, this is very, very (very!) NSFW.

Crystal Nanoflowers and the Future of Architectural Chemistry. Watch as microscopic crystals are sculpted into blooming roses, irises, violets and carnations, all while being smaller than the width of a human hair.

The theory of everything: Help wanted. How do we push forward, from quantum mechanics to spacetime?

“The Everettian multiverse is one of the most beautiful ideas in the history of science.” – Alastair Wilson

Squid skin conductor for bioelectronics: Transistors made from reflectin protein could bridge the gap between electronic and biological systems.

Organic Cat Litter Chief Suspect In Nuclear Waste Accident. “t turns out there’s more to cat litter than you think. It can soak up urine, but it’s just as good at absorbing radioactive material.”

Helium-3 Shortage Threatens Our Ability To Detect Radioactive Bombs.

Astronaut Reid Wiseman’s Tweets From Space: “a live feed of fanboyish squealing w/ astounding view from ISS.”

Beauty, Passion, and Computation: Gregory Chaitin on Ramanujan, Cantor, Euler, etc.

Table-top supernova: Laser beams used to recreate scaled supernova explosions in the laboratory.

BRAIN Project Meets Physics (subscription required), or, Physicists Still Telling Other Fields What They’re Doing Wrong – you know, just being helpful like that.  “Neuroscientists were over the moon in April 2013 when President Barack Obama announced a bold new initiative to study the human brain in action. But in their heady excitement, some researchers may have forgotten to check the math in their first proposals, physicists say. This week, a group of physicists, engineers, and neuroscientists are meeting in Arlington, Virginia, to discuss which ideas are likely to succeed and which may fall flat. ”

Technological mandala 30. Electronic components, copper wire, paper, 122 cm x 122 cm, 2013. Credit: Leonard Ulian, http://www.leonardoulian.it

New Technological Mandalas and Wrapped Books Made from Soldered Computer and Radio Components. “The mandala is traditionally known as a spiritual and ritual symbol in both Hinduism and Buddhism meant to represent the universe, but through his deep interest in how systems can be applied to the process of art making, [artist Leonard] Ulian has adopted mandala patterns to create symmetrical networks. ”

Resolving the Chaos of Crowds with Algorithms.

How Not to Be Wrong, by Jordan Ellenberg. (Book Review). It “can help you explore your mathematical superpowers.”  Related: Does 0.999… Really Equal 1? A Mathematician Explains.

In Case You Missed it: Sean Carroll joined Reddit for Ask Me Anything, answering all sorts of outrageous questions about the universe and everything.

William Shakespeare, Astronomer: science writer Dan Falk on How Galileo Influenced the Bard. For instance, “Cymbeline is believed to have been written in the summer or fall of 1610, mere months after the publication of Galileo’s short but seminal treatise on his initial telescopic observations, Sidereus Nuncius (Starry Messenger).”

The internet is made of cats – and you can blame economists, thanks to the Allen-Alchian theorem:

“It’s all about relative costs. When you move something, or impose any fixed cost, the higher-quality item always wins, because it now has a lower relative cost compared to the lower-quality item. The interesting idea is that this also applies in reverse – namely when we remove a fixed cost. The internet does this: it removes a cost of transport, and it does so equally for high quality and low quality content. Following the Allen-Alchian theorem, this should mean the opposite. Low-quality items are now relatively cheaper and high-quality items are now relatively more expensive. This idea was first explained by Tyler Cowen, but the upshot is that the internet is made of cats.”

Good Vibrations: Spiders Spin Sonically Tuned Webs.

The Lego female scientists set is finally becoming a reality.  Per the Los Angeles Times: “In August, Lego will produce a limited-edition box set called Research Institute, featuring three female scientists in the act of learning more about our world and beyond.”

Finally, for your weekend listening pleasure, here is “Tesla,”‘ a New They Might Be Giants music video featuring nine remixes, skateboarding and burning teddy bears. (h/t: Laughing Squid)

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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