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Physics Week in Review: August 2, 2014

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


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Looking for a few good popular math books? In the latest New York Times Book Review, I look at five terrific recent ones: Jordan Ellenberg’s How Not to Be Wrong, David J. Hand’s The Improbability Principle, The Norm Chronicles by Michael Blastland and David Spiegelhalter, Infinitisimal by Amir Alexander, and The Grapes of Math by Alex Bellos.

But you really want to hear about the sexy space geckos, right? Yes, Russia lost contact with a satellite full of horny geckos, an experiment to study their mating habits in microgravity. Within a day or two, we learned that the five geckos sent to space to have sex had phoned homephew!  In the meantime, the Internet was vastly entertained. Amy Shira Teitel took the opportunity at Nautilus to explain why space exploration has  99 Problems, and a Wild Gecko Space Orgy Is Just One. “Controlling what happens inside a spacecraft isn’t exactly rocket science. In some ways, it’s harder.”  Related: The Oatmeal is here to teach you about animals in space. Also: Russia’s Sexy Space Geckos Memorialized Forever In Fantastic Poster. Imagine them crying in their teeny-tiny Gecko voices: “You can’t take the skies from us!” Finally, John Oliver (host of the Late Night With John Oliver, which you should all be watching religiously) wants Vladimir Putin to #GoGetThoseGeckos:

Last week also saw hordes of science fiction and fantasy fans converge on San Diego for Comic-Con (a.k.a. “Nerdprom”). Fortunately for attendees vying to get into their favorite panels, there is a Science of Waiting in Line: “there is actually a lot of science behind queuing up for Hall H. A longer line can be a faster line.”  Among those coveted panels:  a special Avengers event, in which moderator Phil Plait announced that “The panel would serve as the scientific training required to become a part of Marvel’s S.T.A.T.I.O.N. network (Scientific Training and Tactical Intelligence Operative Network).”

Hopefully you all tuned into the new series Manh(a)ttan, set at Los Alamos during World War II (I’ll be doing weekly recaps for the duration of the series here at the cocktail party). What’s the surface gravity on Krypton? 100G…maybe? The nuclear nerds on Manh(a)ttan discussed, and the folks at Nerdist checked their work.  Related: Can you enjoy a dramatization of the Manhattan Project if you’re familiar with the real version’s history?

The quantum Cheshire cat: Scientists separate a particle from its properties (its “grin”).  Related: To Live And Die In Berkeley: Monitoring Schrodinger’s Cat In Real Time.

Phun with Phase Transitions: Superheating a Liquid to Create a Single Bubble. “When a superheated material begins the transition from one phase to the next (like liquid to gas), small bubbles can form, a process called bubble nucleation. Scientists at Harvard have presented a new method for studying superheated materials in the moments before, during, and after bubble nucleation.”

Aspirin’s Quantum of Solace: aspirin can form two very similar crystal structures, but why is one more common?

How Bird Flocks Are Like Liquid Helium: Mathematical model shows how hundreds of starlings coordinate their movements in flight.  Related: Why Birds Make Weird Circles on Weather Radars. Also: Unpredictable and Magical: The Allure of the Dragonfly Swarm.

Sleeping Beauty: a philosophical puzzle, applied to quantum mechanics and the multiverse.

New Model shows That Splashing Droplets Can Take Off Like Airplanes.

Magnon theory suggests magnets could one day be at the heart of practical refrigerators. “There’s still a long way to go for thermoelectrics to compete with traditional technologies,” said Bolin Liao.

First Glimpse of Higgs Bosons at Work Revealed. Per the latest data from ATLAS, “The Higgs boson particle, which was detected for the first time in 2012, is essentially tossed around like a ball between two force-carrying particles known as W-bosons when they scatter, or bounce off of one another.” Related: The Higgs boson could be the tool that leads scientists to the next big discovery.

Having Fun with the Equation of Time. “That funky figure eight [on a globe] is what’s known as an analemma, and it traces out the course of the Sun in the sky through the year as measured from a daily point fixed in apparent solar time.”

Dirty Martini under microscope. Credit: BevShots, http://bevshots.com

What Does Your Favorite Drink Look Like Under A Microscope? Check out these colorful images of crystallized alcoholic beverages, courtesy of BevShots.  (Art. Distilled.)

Risk and Reason: NPR series on using/explaining probabilities in the real world.

Gas Cloud Wrapped in Dark Matter Is Like a Speeding Cosmic Burrito.  Related: Dark Matter Search Enters Round 2: Three experiments will begin upgrades that could help them corner the particles responsible for the universe’s missing mass.

The awesome strength of a hummingbird: Wing length-to-width ratio explains its tremendous efficiency.

New Evidence Shows Asteroid’s ‘Bad Timing’ Killed the Dinosaurs. Edinburgh University experts say asteroid hit Earth at a time when ecosystems had been weakened by a loss of biodiversity.

Development of airplanes is like biological evolution: Airplanes and birds may have followed similar pattern to increase efficiency. Related: Go with the flow and you’ll find evolution belongs to physics.

Gambler’s fallacy trips up goalies: Penalty kickers could score more goals by exploiting hidden patterns in dives.

Dutch designer Anouk Wipprecht built a Faraday cage dress and zapped herself with nearly half a million volts of electricity, inspired by meeting Arc Attack, a band that uses Tesla coils to make music. Per Wipprecht: “Normally I work with fashion models. But this time, nobody else wanted to wear it.”

A Truncated Story of Infinity is a short film written and directed by New York City filmmaker Paul Trillo that explores one day in the life of a man spread out over the infinite possibilities of the multiverse.

A New Set of Fourteenth Century Planetary Observations: The Astronomy of Levi ben Gerson (d.1344).

Finding quantum lines of desire. Physicists have tracked a quantum system’s wanderings through quantum state space, a feat once considered impossible.

We often think of raindrops as spherical or tear-shaped, but a falling droplet’s shape can be much more complicated.

The real science behind the zombies in The Last of Us.

The Whole Brilliant Enterprise: NASA’s First 50 Years In One Interactive Graphic.

There’s Now a Reason to Go Fossil Hunting on the Moon.

“I find your lack of intelligent life disturbing.” The James Webb Space Telescope Sun Shield Will Help Us Search for Aliens, Looks Like a Star Destroyer.

Nuclear policy specialist at Los Alamos National Lab Gets Fired After Writing An Article Criticizing Nukes. “[James] Doyle’s piece wasn’t an anti-government rant, but a lengthy argument that nuclear weapons had lost their strategic utility and value as a deterrent, that getting rid of them would enhance international security, and that this was an ideal point in time to get serious about global disarmament.”

This week we got Our Best Look Yet At the Rosetta spacecraft’s “Rubber Ducky”-shaped Comet. Bonus: The European Space Agency put together this charming animated tale–  “Rosetta, Are We There Yet?”  –in which Rosetta and its sibling, Philae, learn about the history of comets from their grandfather, Giotto.

Engineers Make The World’s First Verified, 2-Dimensional Polymers –  just one atom thick.

When Good Waves Go Rogue – Even in calm seas, waves can become monsters.

Science of the spear: an exploration of the biomechanics of a javelin throw.

Wait, So How Much Does The Milky Way Weigh? “Does this galaxy make me look fat? Has Andromeda been taking skinny selfies?”

What could be better to beat the summer heat than Ice Cream That Changes Color as You Lick It — Invented by a Spanish Physicist.

How Much Energy Would You Need To Replicate Elsa’s Powers In Frozen?

Perhaps your interest was piqued by the news that a Fuel-Less Space Drive with “Q-Thrusters” May Actually Work, meaning that it might one day be possible to travel through space without filling up the gas tank, so to speak. Per Wired: “Either the results are completely wrong, or NASA has confirmed a major breakthrough in space propulsion.”  The Time Lord’s money is on the latter. Via Twitter, he declared that the notion of “Propulsive momentum transfer via the quantum vacuum virtual plasma” is nonsensical sub-Star-Trek level technobabble. (You may as well put your faith in “Red Matter.”)

Want to See the Hottest Spot in Town? Visit Enceladus Sulci!

Tired of fighting about Feynman? Consider the (Enrico) Fermi Alternative as a source for colorful-character anecdotes in physics.

The beauty and clarity of Paul Dirac’s prose — because physics papers can be elegant and clear.

Johannes Kepler’s Somnium and Katharina Kepler’s Trial for Witchcraft: The emergence of a myth. More cool physics history: Making the indiscernible visible: Robert Hooke’s Micrographia.

When Los Angeles Was Test-Bombed in the 1900s, They Decided To Throw A Party.

An Advance in Tractor-Beam Technology, using sound waves to manipulate a triangular prism made of metal and rubber.

This week on Virtually Speaking Science, Tom Levenson talked with MIT science historian David Kaiser about the development of physics in the United States during the Cold War and Kaiser’s latest book: How the Hippies Saved Physics: Science, Counterculture and the Quantum Revival.

Filmmaker Gary Yost shot this beautiful infrared time-lapse video of ghostly Mamane tree “bones” on Kohala Mountain in Hawaii.

Unlocking The Secrets Of Mysterious Interstellar Molecules.

Ant Fight Creates Liquid With Properties Never Seen In Nature — because the first rule of Ant Fight Club is to never talk about Ant Fight Club. “Recent research has shown that the crazies [tawny crazy ants -- I kid you not] can neutralize fire ant venom by mixing it with the formic acid that they excrete.”

Does this cluster make my mass look big? Astronomers using Hubble calculate most precise cluster mass yet.

Is Our Universe Like Oil & Vinegar or Homogenized Milk?

The Hubble telescope found a galaxy so huge, it acts like a magnifying glass– one of the first posts from the Washington Post’s new blog, Speaking of Science. Related: The mathematics of discovering new things.

Bill Nye Explains Why The Search For Life Could End On Europa.

A History of Using Sound as a Weapon.

Do We Have the Big Bang Theory All Wrong? One physicist’s radical reinterpretation of the cosmic microwave background.

Octopus Robot Makes Splash with a Tentacled, flexible breakthrough: “It’s probably a good thing they’re confined to water.”

Project Almanac’s Recipe For Character-Driven Time Travel Stories.

Rotation can cause non-intuitive effects in fluid dynamical systems.

NASA Unveils Plans for Its Next Mars Rover in 2020. Related: The NASA Simulator This Dad Built for His Kids Is Just the Best.

Credit: George Hart, http://www.georgehart.com/bagel/bagel.html

Mathematically Correct Breakfast Foods: How to make a Mobius bagel. Very cool Sunday brunch math experiment. Related: Brooklyn-based designer Takeshi Miyakawa has created a “Mobius chair,” a seat made from a single, continuous band.

Maxwell’s mysterious final poem mentions the fourth dimension, evolution, entropy & the vortex theory of matter.  Related: “[E]ach equation is a playful catch, like bees into a jar” – from a poem by Lisa Rosenberg, in which she uses a child’s anxiety about insects as a way to describe fear of mathematics.

In 2001, Paul Bresseloff and colleagues explored what happens in geometric hallucinations mathematically.

A Nifty Visualization of Markov Chains, mathematical systems that hop from one “state” (a situation or set of values) to another.

Bayesian Checks To Detect Cheating on Tests. “But sir, I didn’t cheat!” “I’m afraid Mr Bayes tells me you did, boy.”

How a scientist who knew nothing about football became closer to her brothers by writing a book on football science.

“While nature may abhor vacuums, 19th-century audiences loved them.” Air pump entertainment.

Physicists have identified the “quantum glue” that underlies a promising type of superconductivity.

Once Thought Impossible, Scientists Create Cold Fires In Space.

This Cycloid Optical Illusion Will Boggle Your Mind.  But wait! Cycloid Illusion Is Not Really an Illusion. “The dots are moving linearly, that’s true. But there is also a wheel. If this causes you cognitive dissonance, so be it. It is not a paradox, however. It is the case that some wheels, when spinning inside other wheels, have points on them which travel linearly.”

Novelty Item of the Week: Read the time by watching Dali’s mustache turn on this wristwatch.

A New Science Program for Kids: “Annedroids is the story of genius scientist Anne (Addison Holley), her friends Nick (Jadiel Dowlin) and Shania (Adrianna Di Liello), and her android creations Hand, Eyes and Pal (Millie Davis) as they embark on the biggest experiment of them all: growing up.”

Finally, It’s Okay To Be Smart Explains Some Summer Science. Why do we burn in the sun? Why do we sweat? Why do our fingers get wrinkly in the pool?

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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