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Physics Week in Review: August 23, 2014

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


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Summer is winding down, but the ongoing drought in much of the southwestern US shows no sign of abating. In fact, it’s so dry in California (where we live) that the ground is literally rising. “One doesn’t think of rock as being elastic, but over tens and hundreds of kilometers, the Earth is behaving elastically.”  Related: If You Think the Water Crisis Can’t Get Worse, Wait Until the Aquifers Are Drained. We’re pumping irreplaceable groundwater to counter the drought. When it’s gone, the real crisis begins.

At Multiverse Impasse, a New Theory of Scale. Mass and length may not be fundamental properties of nature, according to new ideas bubbling out of the multiverse.

Quantifying Occam. Is the simplest answer always the best? Connecting Medieval monks to computational complexity, using the branch of mathematics known as category theory.

Fascinating Rhythm. Oscillating light pulses illuminate rare black hole. “The two light oscillations were like two dust motes stuck in the grooves of a vinyl record spinning on a turntable…. If the oscillations were musical beats, they would produce a specific syncopated rhythm. Think of a Latin-inflected bossa nova.”

A Cheaper, Better Accelerometer for Smartphones could add motion sensing to clothing.

Marvel Comics Gets Inside the Heads of the Avengers. The neuroscience behind the Hulk, Captain America and Iron Man, explained in a Times Square exhibit. Excelsior!

Listening In: The Navy Is Tracking Ocean Sounds Collected by Scientists. A network of Internet-connected undersea microphones is picking up more than whale songs.

New 3D Maps Show How Comets Work in Incredible Detail.

Researchers developed prototype electronic ‘nose’ for detection of chemical warfare gases (Sarin, Soman and Tabun).

Noted scientists speculate on whether time travel is possible or is simply science fiction:

“O Excellent Air-Bag!” Humphrey Davy’s self-experimentation with nitrous oxide (laughing gas).

Roll Over, Boltzmann. John Cartwright on Tsallis entropy in statistical mechanics. “Physics may aim for simplicity, yet the world it describes is a mess.” (PDF)

How a fundamental but unstable particle might be our first window into particle physics beyond the Standard Model.

A Material So Dark That It Looks Like a Black Hole. “Even when applied to a highly reflective surface like aluminum foil, Vantablack renders the entire surface, including creases, all but invisible.”

Why Scientists Want To Throw Lawn Darts At Mars. With the ExoLance, “arrows” fall from a spacecraft, penetrate the ground, and expose the life-detecting equipment inside.

Credit: Brigette Bloom, http://brigettebloom.com

Via Lost At E Minor: “For Float On, photographer Brigette Bloom soaks her film in urine, creating ethereal bubbles over a desert landscape in Hawaii. Before shooting, she will steep her film canister in a cup of her own pee, allowing the fluid to break down portions of the emulsion. After rinsing the canister and allowing it to dry outside for a week, she loads it into her camera and shoots. Bloom explains that each roll varies based on the time of day when the urine is collected and what she ate that particular day.”

How the heck do you weigh a helium balloon?

Zipf’s ranking law explains signals in the optical neurons of a blowfly, say researchers.

Tesla At Last? Researchers Send Electricity Through Thin Air.

The singularity is not near: the human brain as a Boson sampler?

The Thermodielectric Effect Creates Tiny Electrical Storms in Your Body.

A Leidenfrost droplet impregnated with hydrophilic beads hovers on a thin film of its own vapor.

Bubbling down: bursting bubbles can push tiny particles down into a liquid as well as up into the air.

Touching a Laptop Can Break Its Encryption, by measuring subtle changes in electrical potential as data is decrypted. …

How Long Can You Balance a Pencil?: why balancing a top-heavy object on its tip is quite a precarious task. The math that goes into keeping a simple pencil balanced on one finger is rather complex.

Another step forward for diamond-based quantum computers. Square cut or pear-shaped, these qubits don’t lose their shape.

Subatomic physics in your medicine cabinet: Scientists in Berlin can now explain why aspirin’s molecules favor one crystal structure over another.

Taking a cue from Schrödinger’s famous cat thought experiment, Josh Samani walks us through the basics of quantum mechanics and entanglement.

Back in 2013, Morgan Freeman told The Daily Show host Jon Stewart all about touring the Large Hadron Collier and hanging with theoretical physicists and the multiverse. Stewart’s response: “If I had met you in college, I would get mushrooms and you and I would go to a park.”

Lightning Can Kill You in Cars Now:

“A Toyota Rav4 sitting in a dealer’s lot in Florida was just sitting there, minding its own business, when a murderous bolt of lighting struck not the car’s metal roof, but its glass windshield, and completely melted the interior of the car, according to local NBC affiliate WPTV. Okay, so the car was unoccupied, technically making this particular lightning bolt not very murderous at all, but YOU KNOW ITS INTENTIONS. And furthermore, no one knows how lightning came up with this new development, in its continuing search for ways to kill us, as glass is not normally a conductor of electricity.”

Finally, a Use for Big Data: Cracking the Voynich Manuscript.

Computers can find similarities between paintings – but art history is about so much more.

Cell-Phone Data Could Help Predict Ebola’s Spread, help researchers recommend where to focus health-care efforts.

Researchers discover a new class of materials – protein crystalline frameworks.

Could you park safely on the world’s steepest street? Steven Strogatz poses a nice problem for high school physic and trigonometry students.

A “stellar” Fossil: These hints of the universe’s first stars could shed fresh light on the early cosmos.

Doctor Who Neuroscience Special: The Brain of a Time Lord.  One of the most enduring qualities of the titular Time Lord is that he relies on superior intelligence to save the day. But what could be the underlying scientific properties of the Time Lords’ brain that make them such a force to reckoned with?

Single Superfluid Inflation: The Trailer = Most Awesome Thing Evah. Per Sean Carroll: “New Rule: every new paper in theoretical physics should come with a Hollywood-style trailer.”

Quantum theory escapes locality by accepting uncertainty, like a ballerina doing a pirouette must escape friction of the ground to get the freedom to move. “She does this by restricting her contact with the ground to a point.”

What one scientist learned from debating science with trolls.

A former LHC physicist brings his knowledge of high-energy collisions to a new EA SPORTS NHL hockey game.

Nature Through Microscope and Camera (1909): A selection of photo-micrographs created by Arthur E Smith. / Related: Scientific Histological Slides that capture cross sections of microscopic life For Kids Available in Vending Machines.

Nearby galaxy may be victim of dark matter hit-and-run.  Related: Five Reasons We Think Dark Matter Exists (No other idea explains even two of these).

​This Next-Gen Cloaking Material Is Made of Synthetic Octopus Skin.

Researchers have developed “bionic liquids” from lignin and hemicellulose for next-generation biofuels.

What is the goal of a math history class? “If my students only get one thing out of this class, I want them to see that mathematics did not spring from the head of mathematicians fully-formed in little definition-theorem-proof packages. It was (and is) invented and discovered in bits and pieces by many people through creative processes, and people are still creatively inventing and discovering math.”

This Place is not a Place of Honor: “f you look at it just right, the universal radiation warning symbol looks a bit like an angel.” What danger symbol should you put on a radioactive waste facility so it’s comprehensible 100K years from now?

The Curve Who Became a Witch: The Mathematics of Maria Agnesi (Women In Science 18).

The Next Battleground In The War Against Quantum Hacking.

Credit: Robert Bosch, http://www.dominoartwork.com

Phyllotactic Portrait of Fibonacci by mathematical artist Robert Bosch: “Using a simple model of phyllotaxis (the process by which plant leaves or seeds are arranged on their stem), I positioned dots on a square canvas. By varying the radii of the dots, I made them resemble Fibonacci. Incidentally, the number of dots, 6765, is a Fibonacci number. So are the number of clockwise spirals (144) and counterclockwise spirals (233) formed by the dots.”

Rubik’s Quadratic forms: How a Rubik’s cube inspired a Fields medalist’s Eureka moment.

How Rockets Really Work: The chemistry of ridable explosions.

The geometry of diatoms, desmids and other algae.

From Sin to Science: Astrological Explanations for the Black Death, 1347-1350.

Magnetic Fields That Could Power Tiny Implants, enabling new ways to control appetite, regulate insulin, etc.  …

Pizza Science is the Tastiest Science: “there’s a science to getting that perfectly browned-but-not-too-brown, moist-but-not-oily, haphazard-but-also-uniform arrangement of peaks and valleys for the blistered cheese that rests on top of a pizza.”

“The program is based on the notion that shark attacks in Hawaii are increasing; a “sharkageddon”, as they define it. The entire show is based on this notion—trouble is, there’s no evidence for it. Period.” Christie Wilcox brings the fact check hammer down on the Discovery Channel’s SharkageddonSaturday Morning Breakfast Cereal asks, “How can you run a science channel but have most of your shows be about ghosts and aliens and other nonsense?” How indeed…

Bill Nye Fights Back: How a mild-mannered children’s celebrity plans to save science in America—or go down swinging.

Eight Inventions by Women That Dudes Got Credit For. (Or at least ignored the contributions of the women.) Related: women faculty are less likely to earn tenure than men of equal productivity. Also: Science needs Women: “It is still harder to be a woman in science than a man. Women in science have to accomplish more to get the same amount of credibility.” — Bonnie Bassler.

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. Percival 2:36 pm 08/24/2014

    I just wanted to tell you how much I look forward to your physics week in review articles. You bring so many tasty topics together that it takes me a day or two to get through all of them, though I admit I go for the ones that confuse me the most first. This time around it was “a New Theory of Scale”. For some time (!) I’ve wondered if time and space aren’t emergent properties of something else since there are no obvious fundamental units for either, but I had no idea what that something might be. Salvio and Strumia seem to have their hands on something very big, even though Lee Smolin has dismissed their work as a retread of a 1977 paper by Kelly Steele. I wish them success.

    Please keep up the good work, Jennifer.

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