Cocktail Party Physics

Cocktail Party Physics

Physics With a Twist

Physics Week in Review: June 15, 2013


If you missed this week's Virtually Speaking Science, I chatted with astrophysicist (and fellow SciAm blogger) Caleb Scharf in Second Life about black holes, exoplanets, astrobiology, and more. You can listen to the taped conversation at Blog Talk Radio.

Nautilus launched its second issue this week, on the theme of Uncertainty. I contributed a blog post: Why Every Coin Flip May Be a Schrödinger’s Cat, delving into the burning question of whether classical probabilities emerge from quantum probabilities. There is also a thought-provoking piece (not by me) on The Deepest Uncertainty, exploring why infinity drove George Cantor to insanity. You can even watch Richard Feynman give a lecture on probability and uncertainty.

Hitting the big screen this weekend is Man of Steel, or yet another reboot of the Superman franchise. We have yet to see it -- being felled with "the dreaded lurgy" the past couple of days -- but Kyle Hill brought you 10 Sciencey Stats on the Man of Steel: " Superman is basically a solar panel with red and blue tights." E. Paul Zehr also weighed in on Superman science with The Man of Steel, Myostatin, and Super Strength:

"What if something inside the human body could be unleashed—like removing the shackles from Hercules—and allow for dramatically increased strength? Which brings me to two proteins with the superhero sounding names of myostatin and activin A. These are “chalones”—factors secreted by your cells to suppress excessive growth of an organ—found in your muscles. They basically work to keep the size and number of your muscle cells—and thus your overall strength—within a certain range. Since these factors work to negatively regulate muscle cell growth, removal of these factors allows muscle cells to get larger and increase in number. That’s where the “super-strength” comes from!"

This week NASCAR fans mourned the death of sprint car racer Jason Leffler in a crash. The tragedy prompted physicist Diandra Leslie-Pelecky, author of The Physics of NASCAR (and longtime friend of the cocktail party), to examine the underlying physics behind the crash, and possible improvements in safety design. "Perhaps the tragic loss of Jason Leffler will be the catalytic incident that spurs a safety initiative for Sprint Car racing similar to the one NASCAR initiated in 2001. I can think of no greater tribute to a driver than that his very untimely death ends up saving more lives. Thirty-seven is just too, too young to go."

Caltech’s Institute for Quantum Information and Matter has teamed up with Jorge Cham and the folks at PhD Comics to make a series of animated web videos about quantum mechanics. First up: a cool experiment by Amir Safavi-Naeini and Oskar Painter, "who take a small mirror and put it into a quantum state where its center of mass is as cold as it is possible to be.” (h/t: Preposterous Universe)

Bayes’ theorem: Its triumphs and discontents. Lessons learned from 250 years of a famous statistical theorem. Related: Can Quantum Bayesianism Fix the Paradoxes of Quantum Mechanics? (subscription required).

Star Talk Radio takes a look at the Zombie Apocalypse - Everything You Need To Know, featuring World War Z author Max Brooks and Epidemiologist Ian Lipkin: Part 1 and Part 2.

Three 15th-century figures try to alter fate by moving the stars in The Adjustable Cosmos. Per io9: "The [animated] short takes the convention of the old "voyage to space" stories, but turns it deliberately unscientific, sending its trio of real 15th-century figures—Frederick III, Regiomontanus, and Cardinal Bessarian—on a trek through the medieval concept of the cosmos."

Complex fractal patterns in colonies of E. coli emerge simply from the physical interactions of rod shaped cells.

"Mountains on Venus are also capped with snow. Except that Venusian snow is mostly made from heavy metals."

Watts For Lunch? (Or Why Humans Are Like Light Bulbs). "How Much Energy Am I Eating? Enough To Power A Flashlight?"

Mysterious Meteors Could Dazzle in Rare Shower: gamma Delphinid meteor shower first observed in MD on June 11 1930

China's First Space-Based Quantum Communications Experiment: “Chinese Quantum Science Satellite” will launch in 2016 and aim to make China the first space-faring nation with quantum communication capability.

Even the greatest physicists make mistakes. According to, Isaac Newton made an obvious calculus mistake that nobody noticed for 300 years: "Newton had mistakenly plugged the wrong number into an equation to find the mass of the Earth -- Newton had used 10.5 seconds in his write-up, but 11 in the actual problem." The person who caught it? Robert Garisto, then an undergrad at the University of Chicago, now a prominent physicist and editor of Physical Review Letters.

The physics of clogged arteries: What do rubber tires have in common with fatty atherosclerotic plaques?

Chef in a Box: In the kitchen of the future, a food compositor could fabricate haute cuisine from scratch.

Photo by Tim Fielding, NAL.

"They tied a string to a ferret and got an atomic age pipe cleaner." At Fermilab, truth is stranger than fiction.

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and the case of the Cottingley Fairies - the duping of Sherlock Holmes' creator.

Few-Body Systems: Cooler Than You Might Think -- especially if your experiment uses ultra-cold gas of lithium-6.

Dark matter may be made of particles with an unusual, donut-shaped electromagnetic field called an anapole. Related: New Kind of Dark Matter Could Form 'Dark Atoms'.

New Popular Science Webseries, Almost an Expert, shows you how to make a flaming Dr Pepper, plus the freaky science of phlogiston -- a 17th century theory about why things burn.

Over at Teen Skepchick, Mindy has been documenting her adventures learning physics in The Physics Philes. This week: Pipe Dreams (torque!)

Nifty animation! What does a heart's sine function look like?

Everything you ever wanted to know about PRISM. No, not the National Security Agency (NSA) one. The polarized cosmic imaging survey.

X-rays Restore Lost Segment of 200-Year-Old Opera, Luigi Cherubini's Medee. "When the X-rays (basically just extra-energetic light) hit the blacked out music, they reacted differently to each material on the page: the ink Cherubini wrote with, full of iron; the printed lines of the musical staves on the page, full of zinc; and the charcoal smudges and the paper itself, full of carbon." You can listen to the resurrected score here.

A rumination on the difference between continuous and discrete: "Discrete objects are counted, while continuous ones are measured."

Say hello to the particle accelerator of the future: the International Linear Collider!

Of Controversies and Clocks: re-interpretation of earlier experiment ruffles a few AMO feathers. Chad Orzel of Uncertain Principles explains.

The physics of vinyl (and other records): why an ice record sounds so noisy compared to a vinyl record.

What the NSA can do with “big data”: The NSA can't capture everything that crosses the Internet—but doesn't need to. Also check out Adam Frank's thoughts: Brave New World: The Big Dangers of Big Data. Meanwhile, Kieran Healy opted to channel his inner Jonathan Swift with a satirical post on Using Metadata to find Paul Revere."Rest assured that we only collected metadata on these people, and no actual conversations were recorded or meetings transcribed. All I know is whether someone was a member of an organization or not. Surely this is but a small encroachment on the freedom of the Crown’s subjects."

Mythological Social Networks: social network in Homer’s Odyssey is remarkably similar to real social networks today.

IndieWire gave us a look behind-the-scenes of the Large Hadron Collider -- "like a five-story Swiss watch" -- in this clip from the forthcoming Particle Fever documentary.

Why War – Einstein and Freud’s little-known correspondence on violence, peace, and human nature. “Every man has a right over his own life and war destroys lives that were full of promise.”

Moths Wait until Bats Lock On, Then Jam Their Sonar. "Moths may fly in another direction if they hear a bat nearby, or even drop into an escape spiral. Some species of tiger moth, while making their dramatic maneuvers, also make clicking sounds that jam a bat's sonar."

"How do we know when the method of flow visualization doesn’t actually alter the flow of a fluid itself?" That's a good question, and this Tumblr has an answer.

Richard Panek loves magic, fears magicians. "We’re powerless to stop them from appearing to break rules of nature."

Mathematica turns 25 and Stephen Wolfram reminisces on its origins.

In glittering gems, reading Earth's story. Lyrical column by Carl Zimmer on what geologists can learn about the earth through its gemstones. "A jewelry store is an archive of the Earth. Every gem fixed to every ring or necklace was forged deep inside our planet, according to its own recipe of elements, temperature and pressure."

Chandra x-ray observations of M31′s core noting newly-discovered black holes (NASA/CXC/SAO/R.Barnard, Z.Lee et al.)

Andromeda Galaxy: "My God, It's Full of Black Holes," finds Chandra X-Ray Observatory.

There's a downside to our inevitable collision with Andromeda Galaxy: chaos, stars flung everywhere. but there's also an upside: we'll get a pretty night sky.

Shattering Flowers and Fruits with Liquid Nitrogen in super-slow-notion in the latest episode of Distort, with hosts David Prager and Mauricio Balvanera. BECAUSE THEY CAN!

Big, cheap invisibility cloaks are suddenly beginning to emerge thanks to some simple optical short cuts that physicists have discovered. Dr. Skyskull also weighs in on temporal cloaking: Hiding from time? New design of a "temporal cloak" makes waves.

Longread of the Week: Margaret Wertheim's thoughtful essay, "Physics's Pangolin," in Aeon Magazine on the paradoxes that sit at the very core of physics. Per the tagline: "Trying to resolve the stubborn paradoxes of their field, physicists craft ever more mind-boggling visions of reality." It's bound to generate some discussion!

The Formation of Holes in Swiss Cheese – a century of scientific investigation. Back in 1917, a Johns Hopkins professor of physiological chemistry named William Mansfield Clark published "On the Formation of “Eyes” in Emmental Cheese in 1917." According to the folks at Improbable Research, Clark concluded that "the mysterious growth of large holes (rather than myriads of small ones) was akin to crystal formation, in that they appeared to be ‘seeded’."

What will they think of next? The Edison Bottle, The World’s First Beer Bottle to Play Music.

I am not making this up: Gold nanoparticles in your balls may be the new male contraception. Bonus: lasers!

Finally, Project Kronos, is a fake documentary that explores the beginnings of human interstellar travel. Check it out (via Laughing Squid):

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

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