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Physics Week in Review: August 16, 2014

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


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This week on Virtually Speaking Science, I chatted with astrophysicist Katie Freese, author of a new book, The Cosmic Cocktail: Three Parts Dark Matter. Also, regular readers may have noticed I’ve been recapping episodes of the new WGN America series, Manh(a)ttan, each week (Part 1, Part 2, Part 3) — the best new show you’re probably not watching. But you should. It’s about the Manhattan Project in the same way Buffy the Vampire Slayer was about vampires. Sure, it’s the bulk of the narrative arc, but it also provides a great metaphorical backdrop. The show is about so much more than the race to invent the first atomic bomb.

It was a big week for the math world, with the announcement of the winners of the 2014 Fields medal – the ‘Nobel prize of math.’ Quanta ran a special series profiling each of the winners. Among them: the first woman to win the medal in its entire history, A Tenacious Explorer of Abstract Surfaces: Maryam Mirzakhani.  ‘The more I spent time on maths, the more excited I got.’ Then there was Artur Avila: A Brazilian Wunderkind Who Calms Chaos, and Martin Hairer: In Noisy Equations, One Who Heard Music. Also: A Grand Vision: Subhash Khot’s bold conjecture is helping mathematicians explore the precise limits of computation. Finally, there was the Musical, Magical Number Theorist: Manjul Bhargava.  Related: The math of Avila, Bhargava, Hairer and Mirzakhani explained, via the Guardian.

How to Talk About the Fields Medal at Your Next Cocktail Party. “Start following the Chern Medal now. In 20 years, you can talk about how you called the Chern Medal the Nobel Prize of mathematics before it was cool.” Also: ​Brilliant Female Mathematicians You’ve Never Heard Of.

Funky toe hairs allow geckos to turn stickiness on and off. (Funky Gecko Toe Hairs = the name of Jen-Luc Piquant’s next band)  No, seriously, new research investigates the physics of sticky gecko feet. What gives geckos the remarkable ability to run upside down across ceilings and stop short on smooth vertical surfaces? The Los Angeles Times says you could call it “the hierarchy of hairs.” Special thanks to JPL’s Bobak Ferdowski  (a.k.a. Mohawk Guy, or @tweetsoutloud) for tipping me off to JPL’s “Gecko Gripper”, which helps robots navigate low gravity environments.

A possible signal from dark matter? X-ray emission line could be sign of the so-called sterile neutrino.

Stanford University Biologist Explains the Science Behind Captain America and the Hulk’s Amazing Superpowers. “The key to these characters’ transformations, he said, might involve some cutting-edge genome-editing techniques.”  Related: 15 Top Scientists Share Their Favorite Science Fiction Books, Movies.

It was Erwin Schrodinger’s 127th birthday, and the folks at the Perimeter Institute celebrated with this “unique look at the most famous thought experiment of quantum physics, in which an unfortunate (and, rest assured, purely hypothetical) cat sacrifices its life, yet also doesn’t, for the sake of science.” It’s part of the documentary The Quantum Tamers: Exploring Our Weird & Wired Future.

Duetting musicians are linked by math: Study reveals the science of being in sync.

All-you-can-eat at the end of the Universe: how early black holes could have grown to over a billion solar masses.

Is the next supermaterial hiding in your refrigerator? Eggshell membranes star in a variety of industrial and medical applications.

Speaking of supermaterierals, here’s a great interview with Andre Geim: The godfather of graphene. “Political correctness is not one of my vices,” he growls. “I’m accepting that my role in society is to be a disturbance in the smooth flow.”

Sample of uber-black material—so dark, it’s impossible to see when it’s folded—is now getting tested in space.

Modern Day Alchemist Turns Metal Into Glass.

The Physics of the Railgun.  “The device is simple in design. You have two parallel rails (thus called a railgun) and a moveable projectile that is also like a wire. An electric current goes down one wire, across the projectile and then back down the other rail. In between the two parallel rails, both of the magnetic fields due to the rails points in the same direction and make a stronger magnetic field. This magnetic field then pushes on the projectile with the current running through it to propel it out of the railgun. Boom. A projectile.”

Supermoon and Persied meteor shower, together at last! Astronomers and amateur skywatchers  were totes excited as perigee moon and comet Swift-Tuttle appeared together for dazzling skies. The supermoon got its name because it appears about 14% bigger and 30% brighter than an average full moon. The Perseid Meteor Shower Thrilled Stargazers Despite the Bright Moon. There were lots of pictures, as well as teh science. “I heard the Super Moon causes hemorrhoids.” Phil Plait (@BadAstronomer) recommends tinfoil hats.

ESA released some amazing Close-Up images of a Comet from Rosetta, and evidence of a landslide. Related: Bizarre Asteroid has ‘Negative’ Gravity. “Asteroid 1950 DA appears impossible at first glance. It spins so rapidly no one could work out why it hadn’t pulled itself apart long ago. Now the mystery has a solution, and it seems the asteroid is using a similar trick to geckos climbing glass walls, with implications for how to tackle objects that might threaten the planet.”

Stills from movies showing the Kilobots assembling into a K and a star. Credit: Michael Rubenstein, Harvard University.

A Swarm of a Thousand Cooperative, Self-Organising Robots.  Following simple programmed rules, autonomous robots arrange themselves into vast, complex shapes.

How the Sun Sees You: A Video Demonstrating What People Look Like to an Ultraviolet Camera.

Via Colossal: “Australian artist Andy Thomas creates what he describes as “audio life forms,” specifically 3D animations that respond to audio input. For these latest pieces he used archival bird recordings from the Netherlands Institute for Sound and Vision (in addition to one of his own recordings) to create these new digital sound sculptures that animate in different ways in reaction to the songs of each bird.”

Stephen Hawking’s Dazzling Life Becomes a Movie — But What Sort of Movie?  “It’s important that even an exemplary, heroic life can still be messed up, ferocious, flawed and broken — but not so broken that it isn’t beautiful. That’s the thing to remember about Stephen Hawking — that he gambled everything, and then, in his own way, he won, and lost — like all the rest of us.”

Lord of the Rings Physics Homework. How Long is the Balrog’s Whip? And other pressing physics questions.

In honor of Shark Week: “Sharks have evolved some incredible fluid dynamical abilities. Instead of scales, their skin is covered in microscopic structures called denticles.”

The Schiller Effect Makes Stone Seem to Light Up Internally. “The best way to picture the physics of it is imagining the streak of light off an old record, always perpendicular to the grooves in the vinyl. Another good way to understand the effect is to picture the glitter path that appears on the ocean when light from the moon hits it. The path of the light is always perpendicular to the waves, as their angle to the incoming light reflects it back towards the onlooker.”

Firing of Los Alamos political scientist spurs criticism. Paper on disarmament caused concern in Congress.

“Specks returned from space may be alien visitors.”  Scientists think they have dust specks from outside our solar system.

New maps of the Milky Way galaxy may help solve interstellar material mystery. “To figure out what something is, you first have to figure out where it is.”

Big Data at the movies: the Kinomatics project. “Since the end of 2012 a team of researchers at Deakin and RMIT universities has been gathering global film business data to determine and measure the critical factors affecting film industry performance in a period of transition.”

Chemists provide a crucial update to hyper-vivid quantum dot display screens.

Watch NASA’s flying saucer inflate on the edge of space.

The Smallest Possible Scale in the Universe: Is there a limit to how small a length can be?

Psychical science or physical phenomena? Philip Ball investigates William Barrett’s sensitive flames that lit a fire of controversy in the 1800s.

Ordering the Heavens: How Johannes Hevelius, the Last and Greatest of the Naked-Eye Astronomers, Cataloged the Stars.

Students at CERN have created a computer game that makes particle physics research as addictive as Candy Crush Saga. Related: ‘Hohokum’ Is a Clever Puzzle Game That Makes as Little Sense as Possible.

LHC research, presented in tangible tidbits. Students working on their PhDs at the Large Hadron Collider explain their research with snacks, board games and Legos.

Chatty Cathys will be so busted! Pattern Recognition Algorithm Recognizes When Drivers Are on the Phone.

Do Atoms Ever Touch? Perplexed by Pauli: Philip Moriarty expresses his displeasure with oft-repeated belief that atoms do not physically touch each other.

The Artist inside the Mathematician: through a shared passion for the number zero, Mikhail Gromov showed David Lynch that maths can be an art, too.

Public, Pointed Scientific Spats—A Feature, Not A Bug. “Science is not just about wondrous discovery; it is also about determined debate. The models that can survive the controversy are the ones that are borne out by history.”

“The Curiosity Mars Rover is one of the most complex machines ever built, a fully equipped analytical laboratory rolling around on the surface of another planet. Our Curiosity celebrates the mission’s exploratory spirit and scientific prowess with narration from Neil DeGrasse Tyson and Felicia Day, and an original score from Austin Wintory.”

Salmon Cannon Shoots Fish Over Dams. That’s Right—A Fish Cannon.

Thermoelectric devices turn waste heat into electricity for vehicles and other machines.

The Universe Seems to be Missing Some Ultraviolet Light.

Water “tractor beams” will help contain oil spills, fleets of ping-pong balls.

Albert Einstein’s Report Card. “His best subject? Math.” Related: The American Scholar: Physicist, Pacifist, Anti-Fascist – In dissent, Einstein affirmed humanity over nationalism.

To Infinity… and Beyond! Recursion has become a big topic in cognitive science.

French Freediver David Helder Possesses the Uncanny Ability to Blow Perfect Bubble Vortexes Underwater. “While many divers have playfully experimented with blowing these whirling vortexes, Helder has dedicated significant time to perfecting the technique which he uses to perform dozens of different tricks.”

San Francisco based graphic designer Cameron Drake converted some X-ray footage into a series of nimated GIFs for one of his recent projects.

Strapping a Camera to a Shark Is as Awesome as You’d Expect. (Still waiting for sharks with frickin’ laser beams.)

Moving fluids around in microgravity can be a challenge. Capillary flow can help.

WOC Astronaut Mae Jemison Talks About Fulfilling Her Space Dreams.

The Glory of Math Is to Matter: “Mathematics is the science of order, and throughout history people have tried to make use of mathematics to order their lives, their societies, and the world.”

How to turn every child into a “math person”: “We hear it all the time. But the truth is, you probably are a math person, and by thinking otherwise, you are possibly hamstringing your own career. Worse, you may be helping to perpetuate a pernicious myth—that of inborn genetic math ability.”

“Another day, another slice of pi”: What the First 10,000 Digits of Pi Sound Like Dialed on a Rotary Phone.

Credit: Martin Kimball, https://www.flickr.com/photos/kimbell/sets/72157612159225532/“British photographer Martin Kimball creates intriguing glowing forms that flow through natural landscapes in his fantastic light painting photography. Kimball creates the glowing tubes, tornados, and other shapes with hoop-shaped devices that are covered in a ring of LEDs.”

The Faces of Project Y: All of the Manhattan Project security badge photos in one mosaic.

Harassment in Science, Replicated.  “Solutions require a change of culture that can happen only from within. It will take chief executives, department heads, laboratory directors, professors, publishers and editors in chief to take a stand and say: Not on my watch. I don’t care if you’re my friend or my favorite colleague; we don’t treat women like that.”

J is for Jettison in NASA’s illustrated alphabet.

Why Humor Matters. “Physics has a tradition of thoughtful joke-telling that uses humorous tales inquisitively – to deepen appreciation of a person, of the world, or of both.”

Galileons (a hypothetical class of effective scalar fields) And Ghostly Degrees Of Freedom.

How the Universe grew up… and stopped. Where all the structure in the cosmos came from.

Even a highly advanced alien civilization will generate a heat signature that we may be able to detect.

Edgar Allan Poe’s Comet Cataclysm: It’s the End of the World in his short story “The Conversation of Eiros and Charmion” (1839).

An utterly nerdy explanation for why Gandalf didn’t just send the ring to Mount Doom via eagles.

Do try this at home: Fun inspired by origami robots. You can make your own ‘tunable’ ‘metamaterial’ with a simple sheet of paper.

Cosmos Miniseries Hosted by Neil deGrasse Tyson Remixed by Eclectic Method.

Scooby-Doo Story of the Week: Jen-Luc Piquant actually found this hilarious. Ghostbusted: man fined for terrifying mourners in cemetery by making woooooh noises.

Actress Jennifer Hale shares how science influenced her on MassEffect, Bioshock and more.

Cloud Piano, A Robotic Installation That Plays Keys on a Piano Based on the Movement of Clouds.

I see what you did there: Huge methane storm erupts on Uranus.

Math Improv: Vi Hart plays with mathematics and her food—in this case a treat called Fruit by the Foot.

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 9:45 pm 08/17/2014

    Re. “The Cosmic Cocktail: Three Parts Dark Matter” – making a real cocktail requires that you be able to identify the specific ingredients…

    Link to this
  2. 2. jtdwyer 10:08 pm 08/17/2014

    http://www.iflscience.com/physics/bizarre-asteroid-has-%E2%80%9Cnegative-gravity%E2%80%9D – “Bizarre Asteroid Has “Negative Gravity”” – this article is not bad, but what’s bizzaro is the goofy title. “Negative Gravity?” – there’s no mention of any such thing in the article. Why have o many news reports gone so berserk with the title for this story? Its really quite straightforward. See all the comments posted to this bizarre story…

    Link to this

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