kottke.org posts about physics

Edward Snowden's Fermi Paradox solutionSep 21 2015

Edward Snowden has come up with a solution to the Fermi Paradox that I hadn't heard of before. Maybe we haven't discovered intelligent life elsewhere in the Universe, says Snowden, because their communications encryption is indistinguishable from cosmic background radiation.

"If you look at encrypted communication, if they are properly encrypted, there is no real way to tell that they are encrypted," Snowden said. "You can't distinguish a properly encrypted communication from random behaviour."

Therefore, Snowden continued, as human and alien societies get more sophisticated and move from "open communications" to encrypted communication, the signals being broadcast will quickly stop looking like recognisable signals.

"So if you have an an alien civilization trying to listen for other civilizations," he said, "or our civilization trying to listen for aliens, there's only one small period in the development of their society when all their communication will be sent via the most primitive and most unprotected means."

After that, Snowden said, alien messages would be so encrypted that it would render them unrecognisable, "indistinguishable to us from cosmic microwave background radiation". In that case, humanity would not even realise it had received such communications.

Snowden shared his hypothesis with Neil deGrasse Tyson on Tyson's podcast, StarTalk.

The Earth's nuclear scarsSep 15 2015

Last month I shared a video showing the thousands of nuclear weapons that humans have detonated on Earth. I hadn't really thought about it too much apart from the two dropped in Japan in WWII, but those weapons created some permanent physical changes in the landscape of the Earth. For instance, dozens of circular scars are visible at this testing range in Nevada near Area 51.

Nuke Blast HolesAlso located in the same area is the Sedan Crater, the largest man-made crater in the United States. The crater is 320 feet deep, 1280 feet across, listed on the National Register of Historic Places, and was made by a thermonuclear device with a 104 kiloton yield detonated in 1962.

Sedan Crater

Now, I haven't read a whole lot about nuclear tests, but this one seems particularly idiotic. The purpose of the Sedan shot was not to test a new kind of weapon or to determine the effects of the bomb, but to move earth. Yeah, no big deal, we're just gonna use a fusion bomb like a big stick of dynamite. Sedan was part of Operation Plowshare, an effort to use nuclear devices for peaceful purposes like mining and moving earth. From Wikipedia:

Proposed uses for nuclear explosives under Project Plowshare included widening the Panama Canal, constructing a new sea-level waterway through Nicaragua nicknamed the Pan-Atomic Canal, cutting paths through mountainous areas for highways, and connecting inland river systems. Other proposals involved blasting underground caverns for water, natural gas, and petroleum storage. Serious consideration was also given to using these explosives for various mining operations. One proposal suggested using nuclear blasts to connect underground aquifers in Arizona. Another plan involved surface blasting on the western slope of California's Sacramento Valley for a water transport project.

The Pan-Atomic Canal! This quaint US government video has more on Sedan:

In my post the other day, I said that the Soviets didn't care about their citizenry when testing nuclear devices. Apparently the US didn't either: the Sedan shot -- the purpose of which, as a reminder, was to move a bunch of dirt -- resulted in a significant amount of nuclear fallout, about 7% of the total radioactive fallout generated by all the nuclear tests in Nevada. Fallout from the test reached as far as West Virginia and was particularly high in counties in Iowa and Illinois. Buy hey, they moved 12 million tons of soil! (via @kyledenlinger)

The varying wavelengths of colorsSep 03 2015

Rain BrosRain-Bros by Daniel Savage is a fun visualization of the different wavelengths of light in the visible spectrum, from the loping walk of red to blue's energetic bounce.

Everything is made from somethingAug 21 2015

In A Children's Picture-book Introduction to Quantum Field Theory, Brian Skinner explains quantum field theory -- "the deepest and most intimidating set of ideas in graduate-level theoretical physics" -- as if you and I are five-year-old children.

The first step in creating a picture of a field is deciding how to imagine what the field is made of. Keep in mind, of course, that the following picture is mostly just an artistic device. The real fundamental fields of nature aren't really made of physical things (as far as we can tell); physical things are made of them. But, as is common in science, the analogy is surprisingly instructive.

So let's imagine, to start with, a ball at the end of a spring.

(via @robinsloan)

Supermassive black holes are *really* massiveAug 19 2015

How massive are they? The Sun is 1 solar mass and as wide as 109 Earths. Sagittarius A, the black hole at the center of the Milky Way, weighs 4.3 million solar masses and is as wide as Mercury is far from the Sun. The black hole at the center of the Phoenix Cluster is one of the largest known black holes in the Universe; it's 73 billion miles across, which is 19 times larger than our entire solar system (from the Sun to Pluto). As for how much it weighs, check this out:

I also like that if you made the Earth into a black hole, it would be the size of a peanut. (thx, reidar)

New subatomic particle: the pentaquark!Jul 14 2015

CERN's LHC (Large Hadron Collider) has discovered a new subatomic particle, the pentaquark.

"The pentaquark is not just any new particle," said LHCb spokesperson Guy Wilkinson. "It represents a way to aggregate quarks, namely the fundamental constituents of ordinary protons and neutrons, in a pattern that has never been observed before in over fifty years of experimental searches. Studying its properties may allow us to understand better how ordinary matter, the protons and neutrons from which we're all made, is constituted."

Here's the paper, with more than 680 authors. Between New Horizons zipping past Pluto earlier today (look at this pic!) and this, what a day for science.

Compasses don't work on Mars, so how do you navigate?Jul 02 2015

Unlike the Earth, Mars and the Moon don't have strong directional magnetic fields, which means traditional compasses don't work. So how did the Apollo rovers and current Mars rovers navigate their way around? By using manually set directional gyroscope and wheel odometers.

While current un-crewed rovers don't have to return to the comfort of a lunar module, some aspects of the Apollo systems live on in their design. Four U.S. Martian rovers have used wheel odometers that account for slippage to calculate distance traveled. They've also employed gyroscopes (in the form of an inertial measurement units) to determine heading and pitch/roll information.

One of the fun things about reading The Martian is you get to learn a little bit about this sort of thing. Here's a passage about navigation on Mars where astronaut Mark Watney is trying to get to a landmark several days' drive away.

Navigation is tricky.

The Hab's nav beacon only reaches 40 kilometers, so it's useless to me out here. I knew that'd be an issue when I was planning this little road trip, so I came up with a brilliant plan that didn't work.

The computer has detailed maps, so I figured I could navigate by landmarks. I was wrong. Turns out you can't navigate by landmarks if you can't find any god damned landmarks.

Our landing site is at the delta of a long-gone river . NASA chose it because if there are any microscopic fossils to be had, it's a good place to look. Also, the water would have dragged rock and soil samples from thousands of kilometers away. With some digging, we could get a broad geological history.

That's great for science, but it means the Hab's in a featureless wasteland.

I considered making a compass. The rover has plenty of electricity, and the med kit has a needle. Only one problem: Mars doesn't have a magnetic field.

So I navigate by Phobos. It whips around Mars so fast it actually rises and sets twice a day, running west to east. It isn't the most accurate system, but it works.

I wonder why the rovers in the story weren't outfitted with directional gyroscopes and wheel odometers? (See also the operations manual for the lunar rovers.) (via @JaredCrookston)

How do bikes ride themselves?Jul 01 2015

Here's something that I knew as a kid but had forgotten about: if you get a bike going on its own at sufficient speed, it will essentially ride itself. MinutePhysics investigates why that happens.

Interesting that the bike seems to do much of the work of staying upright when it seems like the rider is the thing that makes it work. (via devour)

Richard Feynman: fire is stored sunshineMar 31 2015

In 1983, the BBC aired a six-part series called Fun to Imagine with a simple premise: put physicist Richard Feynman in front of a camera and have him explain everyday things. In this clip from one of the episodes, Feynman explains in very simple terms what fire is:

So good. Watch the whole thing...it seems like you get the gist about 2 minutes in, but that's only half the story. See also Feynman explaining rubber bands, how trains go around curves, and how magnets work.

Super slow motion video of popping a balloon underwaterMar 12 2015

This video, shot at 36,000 frames per second, shows a balloon popping underwater. I am not quite sure what I expected, but it wasn't this.

For instance, the air bubbles do not immediately rise to the surface...it takes them about 20-25 ms to get in the mood. Compare with a slow motion video of popping a water balloon in air:

Again, watch how it takes for gravity to kick in. It's like Wile E. Coyote after having run off a cliff, hanging in midair holding a sign that says "EEP!" (via @BadAstronomer)

Supernova rerunsMar 05 2015

Astronomers have been able to view the same supernova in a distant part of the Universe several times due to the gravitational lensing effect of a cluster of galaxies in-between here and there. From Dennis Overbye in the NY Times:

Supernovas are among the most violent and rare events in the universe, occurring perhaps once per century in a typical galaxy. They outshine entire galaxies, spewing elemental particles like oxygen and gold out into space to form the foundations of new worlds, and leaving behind crushed remnants called neutron stars or black holes.

Because of the galaxy cluster standing between this star and the Hubble, "basically, we got to see the supernova four times," Dr. Kelly said. And the explosion is expected to appear again in another part of the sky in the next 10 years. Timing the delays between its appearances, he explained, will allow astronomers to refine measurements of how fast the universe is expanding and to map the mysterious dark matter that supplies the bulk of the mass and gravitational oomph of the universe.

Scientists expect the supernova to reappear in the next few years. Gravitational lensing was predicted by Einstein's general theory of relativity and as Overbye writes, "the heavens continue to light candles for Albert Einstein."

The origin of the Joy Division's Unknown Pleasures album cover artFeb 26 2015

Joy Division Unknown Pleasures

For Scientific American, Jen Christiansen tracks down where the iconic image on the cover of Joy Division's Unknown Pleasures came from. Designer Peter Saville found the image, a stacked graph of successive radio signals from pulsar CP 1919, in a 1977 astronomy encyclopedia but it actually originated in a 1970 Ph.D. thesis.

By now I had also combed through early discovery articles in scientific journals and every book anthology on pulsars I could get my hands on to learn more about early pulsar visualizations. The more I learned, the more this descriptor in the 1971 Ostriker caption began to feel significant; "computer-generated illustration." The charts from Bell at Mullard were output in real time, using analogue plotting tools. A transition in technology from analogue to digital seemed to have been taking place between the discovery of pulsars in 1967 to the work being conducting at Arecibo in 1968 through the early 1970's. A cohort of doctoral students from Cornell University seemed to be embracing that shift, working on the cutting edge of digital analysis and pulsar data output. One PhD thesis title from that group in particular caught my attention, "Radio Observations of the Pulse Profiles and Dispersion Measures of Twelve Pulsars," by Harold D. Craft, Jr. (September 1970).

When a star gets old and fat, it explodes in a supernova, leaving a neutron star in its wake. Neutron stars are heavily magnetized and incredibly dense, approximately two times the mass of the Sun packed into an area the size of the borough of Queens. That's right around the density of an atomic nucleus, which isn't surprising given that neutron stars are mostly composed of neutrons. A teaspoon of neutron star would weigh billions of tons.

A pulsar is a neutron star that quickly rotates. As the star spins, electromagnetic beams are shot out of the magnetic poles, which sweep around in space like a lighthouse light. Pulsars can spin anywhere from once every few seconds to 700 times/second, with the surface speed approaching 1/4 of the speed of light. These successive waves of electromagnetic pulses, arriving every 1.34 seconds, are what's depicted in the stacked graph. Metaphorical meanings of its placement on the cover of a Joy Division record are left as an exercise to the reader.

Current paradoxes in cosmologyFeb 04 2015

From the Physics arXiv Blog, a list of paradoxes in modern cosmological physics, i.e. areas where theory and observation disagree, sometimes by a whopping 120 orders of magnitude.

Perhaps the most dramatic, and potentially most important, of these paradoxes comes from the idea that the universe is expanding, one of the great successes of modern cosmology. It is based on a number of different observations.

The first is that other galaxies are all moving away from us. The evidence for this is that light from these galaxies is red-shifted. And the greater the distance, the bigger this red-shift.

Astrophysicists interpret this as evidence that more distant galaxies are travelling away from us more quickly. Indeed, the most recent evidence is that the expansion is accelerating.

What's curious about this expansion is that space, and the vacuum associated with it, must somehow be created in this process. And yet how this can occur is not at all clear. "The creation of space is a new cosmological phenomenon, which has not been tested yet in physical laboratory," says Baryshev.

What's more, there is an energy associated with any given volume of the universe. If that volume increases, the inescapable conclusion is that this energy must increase as well. And yet physicists generally think that energy creation is forbidden.

Baryshev quotes the British cosmologist, Ted Harrison, on this topic: "The conclusion, whether we like it or not, is obvious: energy in the universe is not conserved," says Harrison.

This is a problem that cosmologists are well aware of. And yet ask them about it and they shuffle their feet and stare at the ground. Clearly, any theorist who can solve this paradox will have a bright future in cosmology.

Luckily, these paradoxes are an opportunity to do some great science.

The unbearable slowness of lightFeb 03 2015

Nothing is faster than the speed of light. But compared to the unimaginable size of the Universe, light is actually extremely slow. This video is 45 minutes long and during that time, a photon emitted from the Sun1 will only travel through a portion of our solar system.

In our terrestrial view of things, the speed of light seems incredibly fast. But as soon as you view it against the vast distances of the universe, it's unfortunately very slow. This animation illustrates, in realtime, the journey of a photon of light emitted from the sun and traveling across a portion of the solar system.

It takes light more than 43 minutes to travel to Jupiter and even to travel the diameter of the Sun takes 4.6 seconds. (thx, andy)

  1. To even fight its way out of the Sun is an incredible journey for a photon. The Sun is so dense that a photon generated at the core is absorbed and re-emitted trillions of times by hydrogen nuclei on its way out. By some estimates, it may take up to 40,000 years for a photon to escape the Sun's surface and head on out to the cold reaches of space.

A map of physics, circa 1939Jan 16 2015

Map Of Physics 1939A map published by Bernard Porter in 1939 depicting physics as a landmass through which several rivers corresponding to the main branches (light, sound, heat, etc.) run and converge into one.

Amazing Hubble imagesJan 07 2015

The Hubble Space Telescope was launched 25 years ago, and to start the celebration, NASA has released a pair of images that actually did make this space nerd's jaw drop. The first is an update of a classic: a much sharper photo of the so-called Pillars of Creation:

Hubble Pillars

Although NASA's Hubble Space Telescope has taken many breathtaking images of the universe, one snapshot stands out from the rest: the iconic view of the so-called "Pillars of Creation." The jaw-dropping photo, taken in 1995, revealed never-before-seen details of three giant columns of cold gas bathed in the scorching ultraviolet light from a cluster of young, massive stars in a small region of the Eagle Nebula, or M16.

The second image isn't so immediately amazing but is my favorite of the two. It's a photo of half of the Andromeda galaxy, the big galaxy closest to our own in distance but also in rough size and shape. Here's a very very scaled-down version of it:

Hubble Andromeda

The largest NASA Hubble Space Telescope image ever assembled, this sweeping view of a portion of the Andromeda galaxy (M31) is the sharpest large composite image ever taken of our galactic neighbor. Though the galaxy is over 2 million light-years away, the Hubble telescope is powerful enough to resolve individual stars in a 61,000-light-year-long section of the galaxy's pancake-shaped disk. It's like photographing a beach and resolving individual grains of sand. And, there are lots of stars in this sweeping view -- over 100 million, with some of them in thousands of star clusters seen embedded in the disk.

The original image is 1500 megapixels (1.5 gigapixels!), which is so big that you'd need 600 HD televisions to display the whole thing. But if you take the biggest reasonable size available for download (100 megapixels) and zoom in on it, you get this:

Hubble Andromeda Close

That looks like JPEG compression noise, right? Nope, each one of those dots is a star...some of the 100 million individual stars that can be seen in the full image.

Keanu Whoa

That's right, Keanu. Whoa. For an even closer look, check out this annotated close-up released by NASA:

Hubble Andromeda Closer

If you're curious and feel like crashing your browser and/or Photoshop a bunch of times (I did not), the full-res Andromeda images are available here. And Phil Plait writes much more joyfully and knowledgeably about these images than I do...go take a look at his Pillars of Creation and Andromeda posts.

Update: Rob Griffiths took 50+ photos from the Hubble web site and made them into Retina iMac-sized wallpapers. (via @djacobs)

A tour of the vastness of the UniverseJan 06 2015

From astrophysicist Robert Simpson, a tour of the Universe from humans to the largest structure of the Universe. The piece is full of interesting little bits like:

The average female is 1.62 metres [tall] -- that's 5.4 light-nanoseconds.

If the Earth was a beach ball then all life on Earth exists within just 1mm around the surface.

Out by Pluto, the Sun itself is has dimmed to look like an other stars.

If the Sun was a blood cell then the Milky Way is the size of Europe.

See also Steven Strogatz on the Sagan Planet Walk in Ithaca, NY.

As you stroll from one to another, you can't help noticing that the first four planets are really close together. It takes a few seconds, a few tens of steps, to walk from the Sun to Mercury and then on to Venus, Earth and Mars. By contrast, Jupiter is a full two-minute walk down the block, just past Moosewood Restaurant, waiting for someone to stop by and admire it. The remaining planets are even lonelier, each marooned in its own part of town. The whole walk, from the Sun to Pluto, is about three-quarters of a mile long and takes about 15 minutes.

My favorite detail: they added a new station to the Sagan Walk, the star nearest to our solar system. It's in Hawaii.

String theory at 30Dec 22 2014

As a young graduate student, Brian Greene caught the very beginning of the superstring revolution in physics. 30 years later, Greene provides an accessible overview of string theory's current status.

While spectacularly successful at predicting the behavior of atoms and subatomic particles, the quantum laws looked askance at Einstein's formulation of gravity. This set the stage for more than a half-century of despair as physicists valiantly struggled, but repeatedly failed, to meld general relativity and quantum mechanics, the laws of the large and small, into a single all-encompassing description.

Such was the case until December 1984, when John Schwarz, of the California Institute of Technology, and Michael Green, then at Queen Mary College, published a once-in-a-generation paper showing that string theory could overcome the mathematical antagonism between general relativity and quantum mechanics, clearing a path that seemed destined to reach the unified theory.

The idea underlying string unification is as simple as it is seductive. Since the early 20th century, nature's fundamental constituents have been modeled as indivisible particles-the most familiar being electrons, quarks and neutrinos-that can be pictured as infinitesimal dots devoid of internal machinery. String theory challenges this by proposing that at the heart of every particle is a tiny, vibrating string-like filament. And, according to the theory, the differences between one particle and another -- their masses, electric charges and, more esoterically, their spin and nuclear properties -- all arise from differences in how their internal strings vibrate.

Blue color without blue colorDec 18 2014

There's no blue pigment present in the wings of the morpho butterfly. So where does that shimmering brilliant blue color come from? It's an instance of structural color, where the physical structure of the surface scatters or refracts only certain wavelengths of light...in this case, blue.

Eye color is another example of structural color in action. Eyes contain brown pigments but not blue. Blue, green, and hazel eyes are caused by Rayleigh scattering, the same phenomenon responsible for blue skies and red sunsets. Blue eyes and blue skies arise from the same optical process...that's almost poetic. (thx, jared)

2014 Physics Breakthrough of the YearDec 12 2014

Physics World, the magazine of the Institute of Physics, has named their 2014 Breakthrough of the Year and nine runners-up. The top spot goes to the ESA's Rosetta mission for landing on a comet.

By landing the Philae probe on a distant comet, the Rosetta team has begun a new chapter in our understanding of how the solar system formed and evolved -- and ultimately how life was able to emerge on Earth. As well as looking forward to the fascinating science that will be forthcoming from Rosetta scientists, we also acknowledge the technological tour de force of chasing a comet for 10 years and then placing an advanced laboratory on its surface.

The other nine achievements, which you can click through to read about, are:

Quasar shines a bright light on cosmic web
Neutrinos spotted from Sun's main nuclear reaction
Laser fusion passes milestone
Electrons' magnetic interactions isolated at long last
Disorder sharpens optical-fibre images
Data stored in magnetic holograms
Lasers ignite 'supernovae' in the lab
Quantum data are compressed for the first time
Physicists sound-out acoustic tractor beam

The science of InterstellarNov 10 2014

Kip Thorne is a theoretical physicist who did some of the first serious work on the possibility of travel through wormholes. Several years ago, he resigned as the Feynman Professor of Theoretical Physics from Caltech in part to make movies. To that end, Thorne acted as Christopher Nolan's science advisor for Interstellar. As a companion to the movie, Thorne wrote a book called The Science of Interstellar.

Yet in The Science of Interstellar, Kip Thorne, the physicist who assisted Nolan on the scientific aspects of Interstellar, shows us that the movie's jaw-dropping events and stunning, never-before-attempted visuals are grounded in real science. Thorne shares his experiences working as the science adviser on the film and then moves on to the science itself. In chapters on wormholes, black holes, interstellar travel, and much more, Thorne's scientific insights -- many of them triggered during the actual scripting and shooting of Interstellar -- describe the physical laws that govern our universe and the truly astounding phenomena that those laws make possible.

Wired has a piece on how Thorne and Nolan worked together on the film. Phil Plait was unimpressed with some of the science in the movie, although he retracted some of his criticism. If you're confused by the science or plot, Slate has a FAQ.

Update: Well, well, the internet's resident Science Movie Curmudgeon Neil deGrasse Tyson actually liked the depiction of science in Interstellar. In particular: "Of the leading characters (all of whom are scientists or engineers) half are women. Just an FYI." (via @thoughtbrain)

Update: What's wrong with "What's Wrong with the Science of Movies About Science?" pieces? Plenty says Matt Singer.

But a movie is not its marketing; regardless of what 'Interstellar''s marketing said, the film itself makes no such assertions about its scientific accuracy. It doesn't open with a disclaimer informing viewers that it's based on true science; in fact, it doesn't open with any sort of disclaimer at all. Nolan never tells us exactly where or when 'Interstellar' is set. It seems like the movie takes place on our Earth in the relatively near future, but that's just a guess. Maybe 'Interstellar' is set a million years after our current civilization ended. Or maybe it's set in an alternate dimension, where the rules of physics as Phil Plait knows them don't strictly apply.

Or maybe 'Interstellar' really is set on our Earth 50 years in the future, and it doesn't matter anyway because 'Interstellar' is a work of fiction. It's particularly strange to see people holding 'Interstellar' up to a high standard of scientific accuracy because the movie is pretty clearly a work of stylized, speculative sci-fi right from the start.

(via @khoi)

Gorgeous time lapse of the SunNov 10 2014

This is a time lapse of the surface of the Sun, constructed of more than 17,000 images taken by the Solar Dynamics Observatory from Oct 14 to Oct 30, 2014. The bright area that starts on the far right is sunspot AR 12192, the largest observed sunspot since 1990.

The sunspot is about 80,000 miles across (as wide as 10 Earths) and it's visible from Earth with the naked eye. Best viewed as large as possible...I bet this looks amazing on the new retina iMac. (via @pageman)

The physics of mosh pitsNov 03 2014

In 2013, a group of researchers published a paper called Collective Motion of Moshers at Heavy Metal Concerts. The paper's abstract reads:

Human collective behavior can vary from calm to panicked depending on social context. Using videos publicly available online, we study the highly energized collective motion of attendees at heavy metal concerts. We find these extreme social gatherings generate similarly extreme behaviors: a disordered gas-like state called a mosh pit and an ordered vortex-like state called a circle pit. Both phenomena are reproduced in flocking simulations demonstrating that human collective behavior is consistent with the predictions of simplified models.

The authors built an interactive mosh pit simulation based on their simplified models. You can try it out right here:

(via @nickrichter)

Galileo still right about gravityNov 03 2014

If you believe in gravity, then you know that if you remove air resistance, a bowling ball and a feather will fall at the same rate. But seeing it actually happen, in the world's largest vacuum chamber (122 feet high, 100 feet in diameter), is still a bit shocking.

In the late 1500s, Galileo was the first to show that the acceleration due to the Earth's gravity was independent of mass with his experiment at the Leaning Tower of Pisa, but that pesky air resistance caused some problems. At the end of the Apollo 15 mission, astronaut David Scott dropped a hammer and a feather in the vacuum on the surface of the Moon:


Lockheed Martin claims fusion reactor breakthroughOct 16 2014

Lockheed Martin is in the process of developing a compact fusion reactor they say could revolutionize the world's energy industry.

Dubbed the compact fusion reactor (CFR), the device is conceptually safer, cleaner and more powerful than much larger, current nuclear systems that rely on fission, the process of splitting atoms to release energy. Crucially, by being "compact," Lockheed believes its scalable concept will also be small and practical enough for applications ranging from interplanetary spacecraft and commercial ships to city power stations. It may even revive the concept of large, nuclear-powered aircraft that virtually never require refueling-ideas of which were largely abandoned more than 50 years ago because of the dangers and complexities involved with nuclear fission reactors.

The key difference in Lockheed's approach seems to be the configuration of the magnetic field containing the reaction:

The CFR will avoid these issues by tackling plasma confinement in a radically different way. Instead of constraining the plasma within tubular rings, a series of superconducting coils will generate a new magnetic-field geometry in which the plasma is held within the broader confines of the entire reaction chamber. Superconducting magnets within the coils will generate a magnetic field around the outer border of the chamber. "So for us, instead of a bike tire expanding into air, we have something more like a tube that expands into an ever-stronger wall," McGuire says. The system is therefore regulated by a self-tuning feedback mechanism, whereby the farther out the plasma goes, the stronger the magnetic field pushes back to contain it. The CFR is expected to have a beta limit ratio of one. "We should be able to go to 100% or beyond," he adds.

Charles Seife, who wrote a book about the history of fusion, is skeptical of Lockheed's claims.

This week, Lockheed Martin supposedly managed to achieve a "breakthrough" in nuclear fusion that has gotten a lot of media attention. As Charles Seife points out, it did so "without having built a prototype device that, you know, fuses things on an appreciable scale. It's a stunning assertion, even by fusion-research standards. But a quick look at the defense contractor's ambitious plan-a working reactor in five years-already shows the dream fraying around the edges. A year and a half ago, the company promised that fusion was four years away, meaning that the schedule is already slipping. Negative one years of progress in 20 months is, sadly, business as usual for fusion. At this rate, it'll take Lockheed Martin at least a decade before the natural endpoint: desperately spinning victory out of an underwhelming result generated by a machine whose performance comes nowhere near predictions-and which brings us no closer to actually generating energy from a fusion reaction."

The physics of doing an ollie on a skateboardOct 08 2014

This is fun...Aatish Bhatia maps out the forces and motions involved in doing an ollie on a skateboard.

Ollie Physics

It's a neat piece of science art, and it also tells us something interesting. The arrows show us that the force on the skateboard is constantly changing, both in magnitude as well as in direction. Now the force of gravity obviously isn't changing, so the reason that these force arrows are shrinking and growing and tumbling around is that the skater is changing how their feet pushes and pulls against the board. By applying a variable force that changes both in strength and direction, they're steering the board.

Gravity simulatorSep 25 2014

Give me even the simplest gravity simulator and I will play with it for many many minutes. Or hours. Or days. (Send help!)

Physics paradoxesAug 21 2014

Today's brain-melter: Every Insanely Mystifying Paradox in Physics. It's all there, from the Greisen-Zatsepin-Kuzmin limit to quantum immortality to, of course, the tachyonic antitelephone.

A tachyonic antitelephone is a hypothetical device in theoretical physics that could be used to send signals into one's own past. Albert Einstein in 1907 presented a thought experiment of how faster-than-light signals can lead to a paradox of causality, which was described by Einstein and Arnold Sommerfeld in 1910 as a means "to telegraph into the past".

If you emerge with your brain intact, at the very least, you'll have lost a couple of hours to the list.

The molecular structure of citiesJul 23 2014

MIT's Franz-Josef Ulm has taken to analyzing the structure of cities as if they were molecular materials like glass or crystal.

With colleagues, Ulm began analyzing cities the way you'd analyze a material, looking at factors such as the arrangement of buildings, each building's center of mass, and how they're ordered around each other. They concluded that cities could be grouped into categories: Boston's structure, for example, looks a lot like an "amorphous liquid." Seattle is another liquid, and so is Los Angeles. Chicago, which was designed on a grid, looks like glass, he says; New York resembles a highly ordered crystal.

I love this. It's like Jane Jacobs + the materials science research I did in college.

So far, Ulm says, the work has two potential applications. First, it could help predict and mitigate urban heat island effects, the fact that cities tend to be several degrees warmer than their surrounding areas-a phenomenon that has a major impact on energy use. (His research on how this relates to structure is currently undergoing peer review.) Second, he says that cities' molecular order (or disorder) may also affect their vulnerability to the kinds of catastrophic weather events that are becoming more frequent thanks to climate change.

(via 5 intriguing things)

The polar flipJul 16 2014

Earth Magnetic Field

According to data collected by a European satellite array, the Earth's magnetic field is shifting and weakening at a greater pace than previously thought. One of the reasons for the shift might be that the magnetic North and South poles are swapping positions.

Scientists already know that magnetic north shifts. Once every few hundred thousand years the magnetic poles flip so that a compass would point south instead of north. While changes in magnetic field strength are part of this normal flipping cycle, data from Swarm have shown the field is starting to weaken faster than in the past. Previously, researchers estimated the field was weakening about 5 percent per century, but the new data revealed the field is actually weakening at 5 percent per decade, or 10 times faster than thought. As such, rather than the full flip occurring in about 2,000 years, as was predicted, the new data suggest it could happen sooner.

You can read up on geomagnetic reversals on Wikipedia. A short sampling:

These periods [of polarity] are called chrons. The time spans of chrons are randomly distributed with most being between 0.1 and 1 million years with an average of 450,000 years. Most reversals are estimated to take between 1,000 and 10,000 years. The latest one, the Brunhes-Matuyama reversal, occurred 780,000 years ago. A brief complete reversal, known as the Laschamp event, occurred only 41,000 years ago during the last glacial period. That reversal lasted only about 440 years with the actual change of polarity lasting around 250 years. During this change the strength of the magnetic field dropped to 5% of its present strength.

What else is out there?Jun 26 2014

Great post on the Fermi Paradox, aka if there are so many potential intelligent civilizations out there in the universe (possibly 10 quadrillion of them), why haven't we heard from anyone?

Possibility 5) There's only one instance of higher-intelligent life -- a "superpredator" civilization (like humans are here on Earth) -- who is far more advanced than everyone else and keeps it that way by exterminating any intelligent civilization once they get past a certain level. This would suck. The way it might work is that it's an inefficient use of resources to exterminate all emerging intelligences, maybe because most die out on their own. But past a certain point, the super beings make their move -- because to them, an emerging intelligent species becomes like a virus as it starts to grow and spread. This theory suggests that whoever was the first in the galaxy to reach intelligence won, and now no one else has a chance. This would explain the lack of activity out there because it would keep the number of super-intelligent civilizations to just one.

Update: If you prefer to watch engaging videos instead of reading text, here's six minutes on the Fermi Paradox:

Building the ultimate solar systemMay 28 2014

There are a couple of different ways you can construct a stable solar system with a maximum number of habitable worlds. One includes 36 habitable worlds in a single solar system.

Ultimate Solar System

We can fit the orbits of four gas giants in the habitable zone (in 3:2 resonances). Each of those can have up to five potentially habitable moons. Plus, the orbit of each gas giant can also fit an Earth-sized planet both 60 degrees in front and 60 degrees behind the giant planet's orbit (on Trojan orbits). Or each could be a binary Earth! What is nice about this setup is that the worlds can have any size in our chosen range. It doesn't matter for the stability.

Let's add it up. One gas giant per orbit. Five large moons per gas giant. Plus, two binary Earths per orbit. That makes 9 habitable worlds per orbit. We have four orbits in the habitable zone. That makes 36 habitable worlds in this system!

Jupiter's Great Red Spot is shrinkingMay 15 2014

Jupiter Spot Shrinking

Jupiter's Great Red Spot is becoming more of a Medium Red Spot. The gas giant's signature beauty mark was recently measured by the Hubble as spanning 10,250 miles across its widest point, down from a high of 25,500 miles across.

Historic observations as far back as the late 1800s [2] gauged this turbulent spot to span about 41 000 kilometres at its widest point -- wide enough to fit three Earths comfortably side by side. In 1979 and 1980 the NASA Voyager fly-bys measured the spot at a shrunken 23 335 kilometres across. Now, Hubble has spied this feature to be smaller than ever before.

"Recent Hubble Space Telescope observations confirm that the spot is now just under 16 500 kilometres across, the smallest diameter we've ever measured," said Amy Simon of NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland, USA.

Amateur observations starting in 2012 revealed a noticeable increase in the spot's shrinkage rate. The spot's "waistline" is getting smaller by just under 1000 kilometres per year. The cause of this shrinkage is not yet known.

The truth of science with your own eyesMay 14 2014

Clive Thompson recently saw the moons of Jupiter with his own eyes and has a moment.

I saw one huge, bright dot, with three other tiny pinpoints of light nearby, all lined up in a row (just like the image at the top of this story). Holy moses, I realized; that's no star. That's Jupiter! And those are the moons of Jupiter!

I'm a science journalist and a space buff, and I grew up oohing and aahing over the pictures of Jupiter sent back by various NASA space probes. But I'd never owned a telescope, and never done much stargazing other than looking up in the night unaided. In my 45 years I'd never directly observed Jupiter and its moons myself.

So I freaked out. In a good way! It was a curiously intense existential moment.

For my birthday when I was seven or eight, my dad bought me a telescope. (It was a Jason telescope; didn't everyone have a telescope named after them?) We lived in the country in the middle of nowhere where it was nice and dark, so over the next few years, we looked at all sorts of celestial objects through that telescope. Craters on the Moon, the moons of Jupiter, Mars, and even sunspots on the Sun with the aid of some filters. But the thing that really got me, that provided me with my own version of Thompson's "curiously intense existential moment", was seeing the rings of Saturn through a telescope.

We had heard from PBS's Jack Horkheimer, the Star Hustler, that Saturn and its rings would be visible and he showed pictures of what it would look like, something like this:

Saturn through a telescope

But seeing that with your own eyes through a telescope was a different thing entirely. Those tiny blurry rings, visible from millions of miles away. What a thrill! It's one of my favorite memories.

How to Build a Time MachineMay 08 2014

How to Build a Time Machine is a documentary about two men on separate quests to build their own time machines. Here's a teaser trailer:

Ronald Mallett's reason for his search for a way to travel through time is quite poignant...he shared his story in a book and on an episode of This American Life back in 2007. (via ★interesting)

The island of stabilityApr 25 2014

The elements located in the upper reaches of the periodic table are notable for their short half-lives, the amount of time during which half the mass of an element will decay into lighter elements (and other stuff). For instance, the longest lived isotope of fermium (#100) has a half-life of just over 100 days. More typical is bohrium (#107)...its half-life is only 61 seconds. The elements with the highest numbers have half-lives measured in milliseconds...the half-life of ununoctium (#118) is only 0.89 milliseconds.

So why do chemists and physicists keep looking for heavier and heavier elements if they are increasingly short-lived (and therefore not that useful)? Because they suspect some heavier elements will be relatively stable. Let's take a journey to the picturesque island of stability.

Island Of Stability

In nuclear physics, the island of stability is a set of as-yet undiscovered heavier isotopes of transuranium elements which are theorized to be much more stable than some of those closer in atomic number to uranium. Specifically, they are expected to have radioactive decay half-lives of minutes or days, with "some optimists" expecting half-lives of millions of years.

Big Bang gravitational waves possibly in doubtApr 18 2014

Ruh-roh. Remember the news last month about the detection of gravitational waves would have allowed scientists to see all the way back to the Big Bang? Well, that result may be in jeopardy. The problem? Dust on the lens. Well, not on the lens exactly:

An imprint left on ancient cosmic light that was attributed to ripples in spacetime -- and hailed by some as the discovery of the century -- may have been caused by ashes from an exploding star.

In the most extreme scenario, the finding could suggest that what looked like a groundbreaking result was only a false alarm. Another possibility is that the stellar ashes could help bring the result in line with other cosmic observations. We should know which it is later this year, when researchers report new results from the European Space Agency's Planck satellite.

You may also remember the video of physicist Andrei Linde being told about the result, which seemed to confirm a theory that had been his life's work. I don't think I want to see the video of Linde being told of this stellar ashes business. Although Linde is more than aware that this is how science works...you have to go where observation takes you. (via @daveg)

Navy: using seawater for fuelApr 14 2014

The US Navy is working on technology to convert seawater into fuel to power unmodified combustion engines. They recently tested the fuel (successfully!) in a replica P-51 and hope to make it commerically viable.

Navy researchers at the U.S. Naval Research Laboratory (NRL), Materials Science and Technology Division, demonstrated proof-of-concept of novel NRL technologies developed for the recovery of carbon dioxide (CO2) and hydrogen (H2) from seawater and conversion to a liquid hydrocarbon fuel.

Fueled by a liquid hydrocarbon -- a component of NRL's novel gas-to-liquid (GTL) process that uses CO2 and H2 as feedstock -- the research team demonstrated sustained flight of a radio-controlled (RC) P-51 replica of the legendary Red Tail Squadron, powered by an off-the-shelf (OTS) and unmodified two-stroke internal combustion engine.

Using an innovative and proprietary NRL electrolytic cation exchange module (E-CEM), both dissolved and bound CO2 are removed from seawater at 92 percent efficiency by re-equilibrating carbonate and bicarbonate to CO2 and simultaneously producing H2. The gases are then converted to liquid hydrocarbons by a metal catalyst in a reactor system.

"In close collaboration with the Office of Naval Research P38 Naval Reserve program, NRL has developed a game-changing technology for extracting, simultaneously, CO2 and H2 from seawater," said Dr. Heather Willauer, NRL research chemist. "This is the first time technology of this nature has been demonstrated with the potential for transition, from the laboratory, to full-scale commercial implementation."

Discover has more, in slightly more accessible language.

Surprise! Science!Mar 17 2014

I love this video. Love love love. Chao-Lin Kuo surprises Andrei Linde and his wife with the news that gravitational waves were detected, proving Linde's theory of an inflationary universe.

Love love love. (via @stevenstrogatz)

Update: Many people have asked what Kuo is saying to Linde on the doorstep. Let's start with "5 sigma". The statistical measure of standard deviation (represented by the Greek letter sigma) is an indication of how sure scientists are of their results. (It has a more technical meaning than that, but we're not taking a statistics course here.) A "5 sigma" level of standard deviation indicates 99.99994% certainty of the result...or a 0.00006% chance of a statistical fluctuation. That's a 1 in 3.5 million chance. This is the standard particle physicists use for declaring the discovery of a new particle.

The "point-2" is a bit more difficult to explain. Sean Carroll defines r as "the ratio of gravitational waves to density perturbations" as measured by the BICEP2 experiment, the telescope used to make these measurements. What BICEP2 found was an r value of 0.2:

Inflation r value

From the brief explanation of the science behind the BICEP2 experiment:

According to the theory of Inflation, the Universe underwent a violent and rapid expansion at only 10^-35 seconds after the Big Bang, making the horizon size much larger, and allowing the space to become flat. Confirmation of Inflation would be an amazing feat in observational Cosmology. Inflation during the first moments of time produced a Cosmic Gravitational-Wave Background (CGB), which in turn imprinted a faint but unique signature in the polarization of the CMB. Since gravitational waves are by nature tensor fluctuations, the polarization signature that the CGB stamps onto the CMB has a curl component (called "B-mode" polarization). In contrast, scalar density fluctuations at the surface of last scattering only contribute a curl-free (or "E-mode") polarization component to the CMB which was first detected by the DASI experiment at the South Pole.

The big deal with BICEP2 is the ability to accurately detect the B-mode polarization for the first time. r is the ratio between these two different types of polarization, E-mode & B-mode. Any result for r > 0 indicates the presence of B-mode polarization, which, according to the theory, was caused by gravitational waves at the time of inflation. So, that's basically what Kuo is on about.

Update: The Atlantic's Megan Garber spoke to Stanford's science information officer about how the video came about.

We didn't do any re-takes. The goal was for it to be a really natural thing. We did ask him to tell us what he was feeling and what the research means. But what you see in the video is just very off-the-cuff and raw. Part of it was, we went there not even knowing if we'd be able to use or keep anything that we did. It was just as likely that he would have been emotional in a way that he didn't want us to share, or that his wife didn't. So we went into it with no guarantee-we knew we'd be able to shoot, but didn't know if we'd be able use it. So we're thankful that they agreed to let us do that.

Finally a viral video that's genuine and not staged or reality TV'd.

Physicists "see" the Big BangMar 17 2014

Gravity Waves

This is huge: physicists have detected gravitational waves that harken back to the beginning of the universe, when it was "a trillionth of a trillionth of a trillionth of a second old". The discovery goes a long way toward proving the inflation theory of how the universe formed.

Reaching back across 13.8 billion years to the first sliver of cosmic time with telescopes at the South Pole, a team of astronomers led by John M. Kovac of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics detected ripples in the fabric of space-time -- so-called gravitational waves -- the signature of a universe being wrenched violently apart when it was roughly a trillionth of a trillionth of a trillionth of a second old. They are the long-sought smoking-gun evidence of inflation, proof, Dr. Kovac and his colleagues say, that Dr. Guth was correct.

Inflation has been the workhorse of cosmology for 35 years, though many, including Dr. Guth, wondered whether it could ever be proved.

If corroborated, Dr. Kovac's work will stand as a landmark in science comparable to the recent discovery of dark energy pushing the universe apart, or of the Big Bang itself. It would open vast realms of time and space and energy to science and speculation.

Confirming inflation would mean that the universe we see, extending 14 billion light-years in space with its hundreds of billions of galaxies, is only an infinitesimal patch in a larger cosmos whose extent, architecture and fate are unknowable. Moreover, beyond our own universe there might be an endless number of other universes bubbling into frothy eternity, like a pot of pasta water boiling over.

If the results are confirmed, Guth will undoubtably win the Nobel in Physics for this soon. Phil Plait at Bad Astronomy has more on the discovery.

Update: This video of Chao-Lin Kuo (one of the principle investigators on this experiment) telling physicist Andrei Linde (a leading inflation theorist) about the result is just outstanding.

Update: Upon further review, it turns out the evidence for the gravitational waves is inconclusive. The problem? Dust on the lens, basically:

The problem comes in when the astronomers looked at things that might mimic the signal they were looking for. For example, dust (long, complex carbon-molecules that are much like fireplace soot) floating in space can look very much like the signal BICEP2 was seeking. The astronomers knew this, and used data from the ESA mission Planck to investigate it. Planck measured the amount of dust lying along the direction BICEP2 was looking, and the astronomers concluded the amount of dust in their line-of-sight was low. The signal they saw, therefore, must be from inflation.

And here's the bummer part: They were using preliminary Planck data. When better data from Planck were released, the astronomers used that, and found that the amount of galactic dust in their view was much higher than they previously thought. That weakens their case considerably.

I don't want to see the video of someone telling Linde "whoops!"

Particle FeverMar 12 2014

Last year (spoilers!), CERN confirmed the discovery of the Higgs boson. Physicist-turned-filmmaker Mark Levinson has made a film about the search for the so-called God Particle. Particle Fever follows a group of scientists through the process of discovery and the construction of the mega-machine that discovered the Higgs, the Large Hadron Collider. Here's a trailer:

Two additional data points: the movie is holding a 95% rating on Rotten Tomatoes and legendary sound designer and editor Walter Murch edited the film. Particle Fever is showing at Film Forum in New York until March 20. (thx, james)

The magical chain fountainMar 06 2014

Ok quiet down, we're going to science right now. (That's right, I verbed "science".) If you take a long chain of beads, put them in a jar, and then throw one end of the bead chain out, the rest of the beads will follow *and* this bead fountain will magically rise up into the air over the lip of the glass.

As the guy's face in the video shows, this is deeply perplexing. For an explanation, slow motion video, and a demonstration of a preposterously high chain fountain, check this video from the NY Times out:

The fountain, said Dr. Biggins, which he had never seen before the video, was "surprisingly complicated." The chain was moving faster than gravity would account for, and they realized that something had to be pushing the chain up from the container in which it was held.

A key to understanding the phenomenon, Dr. Biggins said, is that mathematically, a chain can be thought of as a series of connected rods.

When you pick up one end of a rod, he said, two things happen. One end goes up, and the other end goes down, or tries to. But if the downward force is stopped by the pile of chain beneath it, there is a kind of kickback, and the rod, or link, is pushed upward. That is what makes the chain rise.

The slow-motion political race to build tiny stars on EarthMar 04 2014

Raffi Khatchadourian's long piece on the construction of the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor (ITER) is at once fascinating (for science reasons) and depressing (for political/bureaucratic reasons). Fusion reactors hold incredible promise:

But if it is truly possible to bottle up a star, and to do so economically, the technology could solve the world's energy problems for the next thirty million years, and help save the planet from environmental catastrophe. Hydrogen, a primordial element, is the most abundant atom in the universe, a potential fuel that poses little risk of scarcity. Eventually, physicists hope, commercial reactors modelled on iter will be built, too-generating terawatts of power with no carbon, virtually no pollution, and scant radioactive waste. The reactor would run on no more than seawater and lithium. It would never melt down. It would realize a yearning, as old as the story of Prometheus, to bring the light of the heavens to Earth, and bend it to humanity's will. iter, in Latin, means "the way."

But ITER is a collaborative effort between 35 different countries, which means the project is political, slow, and expensive.

For the machine's creators, this process-sparking and controlling a self-sustaining synthetic star-will be the culmination of decades of preparation, billions of dollars' worth of investment, and immeasurable ingenuity, misdirection, recalibration, infighting, heartache, and ridicule. Few engineering feats can compare, in scale, in technical complexity, in ambition or hubris. Even the iter organization, a makeshift scientific United Nations, assembled eight years ago to construct the machine, is unprecedented. Thirty-five countries, representing more than half the world's population, are invested in the project, which is so complex to finance that it requires its own currency: the iter Unit of Account.

No one knows iter's true cost, which may be incalculable, but estimates have been rising steadily, and a conservative figure rests at twenty billion dollars -- a sum that makes iter the most expensive scientific instrument on Earth.

I wonder what the project would look like if, say, Google or Apple were to take the reins instead. In that context, it's only $20 billion to build a tiny Sun on the Earth. Facebook just paid $19 billion for WhatsApp, Apple has a whopping $158.8 billion in cash, and Google & Microsoft both have more than $50 billion in cash. Google in particular, which is making a self-driving car and has been buying up robots by the company-full recently, might want their own tiny star.

But back to reality, the circumstances of ITER's international construction consortium reminded me of the building of The Machine in Carl Sagan's Contact. In the book, the countries of the world work together to make a machine of unknown function from plans beamed to them from an alien intelligence, which results in the development of several new lucrative life-enhancing technologies and generally unites humanity. In Sagan's view, that's the power of science. Hopefully the ITER can work through its difficulties to achieve something similar.

A Brief History of TimeFeb 25 2014

Huzzah! Long unavailable (or at least not widely available), Errol Morris' documentary film on Stephen Hawking and his work, A Brief History of Time, is now available for rent or purchase on iTunes. Or if you can wait a little bit, there's a Criterion Blu-ray edition coming out in mid-March. Bonus: score by Philip Glass!

There's a tiny black hole in my heartFeb 11 2014

What would happen if a tiny black hole the size of a marble were placed at the center of the Earth? Rest assured, the Earth won't completely be swallowed up by the black hole but that's really the only good news to offer.

First of all, not all of the Earth would simply be sucked into the black hole. When the matter near the black hole begins to fall into the black hole, it will be compressed to a very high density that will cause it to be heated to very high temperatures. These high temperatures will cause gamma rays, X-rays, and other radiation to heat up the other matter falling in to the black hole. The net effect will be that there will be a strong outward pressure on the outer layers of the Earth that will first slow down their fall and will eventually ionize and push the outer layers away from the black hole. So some inner portion of the core will fall into the black hole, but the outer layers, including the crust and all of us, would be vaporized to a high temperature plasma and blown into space.

This would be a gigantic explosion -- a significant fraction of the rest of the mass of the Earth matter that actually fell into the black hole will be converted into energy.

FYI, that marble-sized black hole would have about the same mass as the Earth. Not that they exist, mind you. Maybe, maybe not. Blackish holes? Dark grey holes? Anyway, really heavy.

A young Neil deGrasse Tyson's letter to Carl SaganJan 30 2014

In 1976, legendary cosmologist and astronomer Carl Sagan tried to recruit a 17-year-old Neil deGrasse Tyson to Cornell University. In April of that year, Tyson wrote Sagan a letter informing him of his intention to enroll at Harvard instead:

Letter Sagan Tyson

The Viking Missions referred to in the letter were the two probes sent to Mars in the mid-1970s.

Tyson occupies a role in today's society similar to Sagan's in the 1980s as an unofficial public spokesman of the wonderous world of science. Tyson is even hosting an updated version of Sagan's seminal Cosmos series for Fox, which debuts on March 9th. Here's a trailer:

Letter courtesy of The Seth Macfarlane Collection of the Carl Sagan and Ann Druyan Archive at the Library of Congress, which is chock full of great Sagan stuff. And yeah, that's Seth Macfarlane, creator of Family Guy and much-maligned host of the Oscars. Macfarlane was a big fan of the original Cosmos series and was instrumental in getting the new series made. (via @john_overholt)

ROYGBIV is arbitraryJan 29 2014

In a short video from The Atlantic, science writer Philip Ball explains why Isaac Newton picked ROYGBIV (red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo, and violet) for the colors of the spectrum and not 3 or 6 or even 16 other possible colors.

Newton was the first to demonstrate through his famous prism experiments that color is intrinsic to light. As part of those experiments, he also divvied up the spectrum in his own idiosyncratic way, giving us ROYGBIV. Why indigo? Why violet? We don't really know why Newton decided there were two distinct types of purple, but we do know he thought there should be seven fundamental colors.

Ball is the author of Bright Earth: Art and the Invention of Color, which looks pretty interesting. His mention in the video of the changing perception of color throughout history reminds me of my favorite segment of Radiolab, which covers that very topic.

An ode to the supernovaJan 29 2014

In a thread about the newly visible supernova in the M82 galaxy, MetaFilter user Ivan Fyodorovich offered up this plain-English explanation of what happens when a star dies and goes supernova. It's a great read.

It will take it just 6 months to burn up its oxygen. Again, when there's not enough oxygen being fused to generate energy to balance the pressure of gravitational contraction, the star begins to shrink, almost doubling the temperature, tripling the density, and causing the silicon (which was produced by the oxygen fusion) to begin fusing, in its own complicated sequence involving the alpha process, with the end result of nickel-56 (which radioactively decays into cobalt-56 and iron-56). This, as before, balances against the gravitational pressure and returns the star to equilibrium.

And now it will take merely 1 day to burn up its silicon. Finally, when there's not enough silicon being fused to generate energy to balance the pressure of gravitational contraction, the star begins to shrink.

This time, however, the core of the star is mostly nickel and iron, and they cannot ordinarily be fused into heavier elements, so as the star shrinks and the temperature and density increase, there is no nuclear fusion ignition of the nickel and iron to counteract the contraction. Here the limit of pressure and density is the electron degeneracy pressure, which is the resistance of electrons being forced to occupy the same energy states, which they can't.

(via @mathowie)

Hawking backtracks on black holesJan 27 2014

In an "only Nixon can go to China" moment in physics, Stephen Hawking now says "there are no black holes".

Most physicists foolhardy enough to write a paper claiming that "there are no black holes" -- at least not in the sense we usually imagine -- would probably be dismissed as cranks. But when the call to redefine these cosmic crunchers comes from Stephen Hawking, it's worth taking notice. In a paper posted online, the physicist, based at the University of Cambridge, UK, and one of the creators of modern black-hole theory, does away with the notion of an event horizon, the invisible boundary thought to shroud every black hole, beyond which nothing, not even light, can escape.

In its stead, Hawking's radical proposal is a much more benign "apparent horizon", which only temporarily holds matter and energy prisoner before eventually releasing them, albeit in a more garbled form.

There's a new supernova in townJan 23 2014

A supernova erupted recently1 in galaxy M82, a mere 11.4 million light years away from Earth, which means that it was close enough to be discovered by someone using an ordinary telescope in London and may be visible with binoculars sometime in the next two weeks.

M82's proximity means that there are many existing images of it, pre-explosion, including some from the Hubble Space Telescope. Cao and others will comb through those images, looking for what lay in the region before. It will not be easy: M82 is filled with dust. But the light the supernova shines on the dust could teach astronomers something about the host galaxy, too. One team is already looking for radioactive elements, such as nickel, that theories predict form in such supernova, says Shri Kulkarni, an astronomer at California Institute of Technology. "Dust has its own charms."

  1. Ok, it didn't erupt recently. M82 is 11.4 million light years away, so the supernova happened 11.4 million years ago and the light is just now reaching us here on Earth.

How does the snow-diving fox hunt?Jan 09 2014

First of all, how cute are these foxes jumping up and diving down into the snow after mice?

So. Cute. Here's Robert Krulwich on what they're up to:

Think about this ... an ordinary fox can stalk a mole, mouse, vole or shrew from a distance of 25 feet, which means its food is making a barely audible rustling sound, hiding almost two car lengths away. And yet our fox hurls itself into the air -- in an arc determined by the fox, the speed and trajectory of the scurrying mouse, any breezes, the thickness of the ground cover, the depth of the snow -- and somehow (how? how?), it can land straight on top of the mouse, pinning it with its forepaws or grabbing the mouse's head with its teeth.

Look at those ears and how the fox moves his head around to zero in on the mouse's location...reminds me of the pre-radar acoustic location devices (sometimes called war tubas) used in the early 20th century to detect approaching aircraft:

War Tuba

Let slip the tubas of war! Aaaaanyway, as the acoustic location device gave way to the more effective radar, so too is the fox more successful at hunting when he is pointed northeast -- a kind of magnetic radar, if you will. Fascinating.

Searching Twitter for signs of time travelJan 06 2014

A pair of scientists recently searched the internet for evidence of time travel.

Here, three implementations of Internet searches for time travelers are described, all seeking a prescient mention of information not previously available. The first search covered prescient content placed on the Internet, highlighted by a comprehensive search for specific terms in tweets on Twitter. The second search examined prescient inquiries submitted to a search engine, highlighted by a comprehensive search for specific search terms submitted to a popular astronomy web site. The third search involved a request for a direct Internet communication, either by email or tweet, pre-dating to the time of the inquiry. Given practical verifiability concerns, only time travelers from the future were investigated.

Spoiler: they didn't find any. (via @CharlesCMann)

Nabisco scientists discover unstable Quadriscuit crackerJan 02 2014

Inspired by the escalating blade count of the razor industry, Nabisco has developed a new snack called the Quadriscuit.

"At the moment, this hyperwafer can only exist for six milliseconds in a precisely calibrated field of magnetic energy, positrons, roasted garlic, and beta particles," lab chief Dr. Paul Ellison told reporters at a press conference outside Nabisco's $200 million seven-whole-grain accelerator.

The last line of the piece made me LOL for real. (thx, meg)

Cool gravity visualizationDec 05 2013

Using a large piece of spandex (representing spacetime) and some balls and marbles (representing masses), a high school science teacher explains how gravity works.

The bits about how the planets all orbit in the same direction and the demo of the Earth/Moon orbit are really neat. And you can stop watching around the 7-minute mark...the demos end around then.

Update: Here's another video of a similar system with some slightly different demos.

Quantum mechanics made relatively simpleNov 13 2013

Hans Bethe was a giant in the field of nuclear physics. He rubbed shoulders with Einstein, Bohr, and Pauli, was head of the Theoretical Division of the US atomic bomb project, and was awarded a Nobel Prize. In 1999, at the age of 93, Bethe gave a series of three lectures to the residents of his retirement community near Cornell University, where he had taught since 1935. Video of the lectures is available on the Cornell website.

In the first lecture, Bethe covers the development of the "old quantum theory", covering the work of Max Planck and Niels Bohr. In the second and third lectures, he relates how modern quantum mechanics was developed, with a healthy amount of personal recollection along the way:

Professor Bethe offers personal anecdotes about many of the famous names commonly associated with quantum physics, including Bohr, Heisenberg, Born, Pauli, de Broglie, Schrödinger, and Dirac.

Without a doubt, this is the most high-power presentation ever made at a retirement home. (via @stevenstrogatz)

Is Google's quantum computer even quantum?Nov 12 2013

Google and NASA recently bought a D-Wave quantum computer. But according to a piece by Sophie Bushwick published on the Physics Buzz Blog, there isn't scientific consensus on whether the computer is actually using quantum effects to calculate.

In theory, quantum computers can perform calculations far faster than their classical counterparts to solve incredibly complex problems. They do this by storing information in quantum bits, or qubits.

At any given moment, each of a classical computer's bits can only be in an "on" or an "off" state. They exist inside conventional electronic circuits, which follow the 19th-century rules of classical physics. A qubit, on the other hand, can be created with an electron, or inside a superconducting loop. Obeying the counterintuitive logic of quantum mechanics, a qubit can act as if it's "on" and "off" simultaneously. It can also become tightly linked to the state of its fellow qubits, a situation called entanglement. These are two of the unusual properties that enable quantum computers to test multiple solutions at the same time.

But in practice, a physical quantum computer is incredibly difficult to run. Entanglement is delicate, and very easily disrupted by outside influences. Add more qubits to increase the device's calculating power, and it becomes more difficult to maintain entanglement.

(via fine structure)

Why hot water freezes faster than cold waterOct 31 2013

Not to get all Malcolm Gladwell here, but it's counterintuitive that hot water freezes faster than cold water. The phenomenon is called the Mpemba effect and until recently, no one could explain how it works. A group of researchers in Singapore think they've cracked the puzzle.

Now Xi and co say hydrogen bonds also explain the Mpemba effect. Their key idea is that hydrogen bonds bring water molecules into close contact and when this happens the natural repulsion between the molecules causes the covalent O-H bonds to stretch and store energy.

But as the liquid warms up, it forces the hydrogen bonds to stretch and the water molecules sit further apart. This allows the covalent molecules to shrink again and give up their energy. The important point is that this process in which the covalent bonds give up energy is equivalent to cooling.

In fact, the effect is additional to the conventional process of cooling. So warm water ought to cool faster than cold water, they say. And that's exactly what is observed in the Mpemba effect.

(via ★djacobs)

How to time travelOct 28 2013

This video dicusses three simple ways to travel through time (all of which you can do right now at home) and three not-so-simple time travel methods.

For more on time-travel, here are some works by physicist and time-lord Sean Carroll:

Rules for time-travellers - http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/cos...

Learn more about time and time-machines in his book From Eternity to Here - http://preposterousuniverse.com/etern...

Visualizations of the spinning universe - http://iopscience.iop.org/1367-2630/1...

An engaging talk on the Paradoxes of Time Travel - https://vimeo.com/11917849

(via digg)

A canyon of fire on the SunOct 25 2013

NASA's Solar Dynamics Observatory is getting some really amazing shots of the Sun, including this 200,000 mile-long solar eruption that left a huge canyon on the surface of the Sun:

Different wavelengths help capture different aspect of events in the corona. The red images shown in the movie help highlight plasma at temperatures of 90,000° F and are good for observing filaments as they form and erupt. The yellow images, showing temperatures at 1,000,000° F, are useful for observing material coursing along the sun's magnetic field lines, seen in the movie as an arcade of loops across the area of the eruption. The browner images at the beginning of the movie show material at temperatures of 1,800,000° F, and it is here where the canyon of fire imagery is most obvious.

The level of detail shown is incredible. (via @DavidGrann)

Physics: what we currently know and don't knowOct 21 2013

For the New York Review of Books, theoretical physicist and Nobel laureate Steven Weinberg gives us an update on what we know and don't know about physics.

It turns out that particles already known to us are not enough to account for the mass of the hot matter in which the sound waves must have propagated. Fully five sixths of the matter of the universe would have to be some kind of "dark matter," which does not emit or absorb light. The existence of this much dark matter in the present universe had already been inferred from the fact that clusters of galaxies hold together gravitationally, despite the high random speeds of the galaxies in the clusters. So this is a great puzzle: What is the dark matter? Theories abound, and attempts are underway to catch ambient dark matter particles or remnants of their annihilation in detectors on Earth or to create dark matter in accelerators. But so far dark matter has not been found, and no one knows what it is.

Google's new quantum computerOct 16 2013

Google's got themselves a quantum computer (they're sharing it with NASA) and they made a little video about it:

I'm sure that Hartmut is a smart guy and all, but he's got a promising career as an Arnold Schwarzenegger impersonator hanging out there if the whole Google thing doesn't work out.

The new hotness: using gravity waves to map the universeSep 30 2013

Light (aka electromagnetic radiation) is responsible for most of what we know about the universe. By measuring photons of various frequencies in different ways -- "the careful collection of ancient light" -- we've painted a picture of our endless living space. But light isn't perfect. It can bend, scatter, and be blocked. Changes in gravity are more difficult to detect, but new instruments may allow scientists to construct a different map of the universe and its beginnings.

LIGO works by shooting laser beams down two perpendicular arms and measuring the difference in length between them-a strategy known as laser interferometry. If a sufficiently large gravitational wave comes by, it will change the relative length of the arms, pushing and pulling them back and forth. In essence, LIGO is a celestial earpiece, a giant microphone that listens for the faint symphony of the hidden cosmos.

Like many exotic physical phenomena, gravitational waves originated as theoretical concepts, the products of equations, not sensory experience. Albert Einstein was the first to realize that his general theory of relativity predicted the existence of gravitational waves. He understood that some objects are so massive and so fast moving that they wrench the fabric of spacetime itself, sending tiny swells across it.

How tiny? So tiny that Einstein thought they would never be observed. But in 1974 two astronomers, Russell Hulse and Joseph Taylor, inferred their existence with an ingenious experiment, a close study of an astronomical object called a binary pulsar [see "Gravitational Waves from an Orbiting Pulsar," by J. M. Weisberg et al.; Scientific American, October 1981]. Pulsars are the spinning, flashing cores of long-exploded stars. They spin and flash with astonishing regularity, a quality that endears them to astronomers, who use them as cosmic clocks. In a binary pulsar system, a pulsar and another object (in this case, an ultradense neutron star) orbit each other. Hulse and Taylor realized that if Einstein had relativity right, the spiraling pair would produce gravitational waves that would drain orbital energy from the system, tightening the orbit and speeding it up. The two astronomers plotted out the pulsar's probable path and then watched it for years to see if the tightening orbit showed up in the data. The tightening not only showed up, it matched Hulse and Taylor's predictions perfectly, falling so cleanly on the graph and vindicating Einstein so utterly that in 1993 the two were awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics.

Will an airplane on a treadmill take off?Sep 27 2013

Friday morning is as good a time as any to revisit what I consider one of the quintessential Kottke.org post(s), The case of the plane and conveyor belt. Essentially, will an airplane take off on a treadmill. Prompted by a question on The Straight Dope, the post, now over 7 years old, has everything you need for a Kottke.org post: airplanes, physics, a waffle, and careful consideration of the facts. The question was addressed again a few days later to definitively and succinctly put the argument to rest.

Now that I've closed the comments on the question of the airplane and the conveyor belt, I'm still getting emails calling me an idiot for thinking that the plane will take off. Having believed that after first hearing the question and formulating several reasons reinforcing my belief, I can sympathize with that POV, but that doesn't change the fact that I was initially wrong and that if you believe the plane won't take off, you're wrong too.

A 2008 liveblog of an episode of Mythbusters, further cemented the following notion:

The Plane Takes Off

For what it's worth commenters almost everywhere continue to disagree. For more opinions, see here, here, here, here.

Richard Feynman explains rubber bandsSep 24 2013

I had no idea that's how rubber bands worked. Once again, Feynman takes something that seems pretty simple and makes it both simpler and vividly complex.

(via @stevenstrogatz)

The Feynman Lectures on Physics in HTMLSep 13 2013

Volume 1 of The Feynman Lectures on Physics is now available in HTML form. What a fantastic resource.

Nearly fifty years have passed since Richard Feynman taught the introductory physics course at Caltech that gave rise to these three volumes, The Feynman Lectures on Physics. In those fifty years our understanding of the physical world has changed greatly, but The Feynman Lectures on Physics has endured. Feynman's lectures are as powerful today as when first published, thanks to Feynman's unique physics insights and pedagogy. They have been studied worldwide by novices and mature physicists alike; they have been translated into at least a dozen languages with more than 1.5 millions copies printed in the English language alone. Perhaps no other set of physics books has had such wide impact, for so long.

On the prescient nature of On the Nature of ThingsAug 21 2013

I took a Greek and Roman literature class in college. Among the texts we studied was Lucretius' On The Nature of Things. Shamefully, about the only thing I remembered from it was that the poem was an early articulation of the concept of atoms (see also Democritus). Impressive, chatting about atoms in 50 BCE. But reading Stephen Greenblatt's The Swerve has reminded me what an impressive and prescient document it is, quite apart from its beauty as a poem. In chapter eight of his book, Greenblatt summarizes the main points of Lucretius' poem:

Everything is made of invisible particles.
The elementary particles of matter -- "the seeds of things" -- are eternal.
The elementary particles are infinite in number but limited in shape and size.
All particles are in motion in an infinite void.
The universe has no creator or designer.
Everything comes into being as a result of a swerve.

[Ok, the swerve deserves a bit of explanation. Here's Greenblatt:

If all the individual particles, in their infinite numbers, fell through the void in straight lines, pulled down by their own weight like raindrops, nothing would ever exist. But the particles do no move lockstep in a preordained single direction. Instead, "at absolutely unpredictable time and places they deflect slightly from their straight course, to a degree that could be described as no more than a shift of movement." The position of the elementary particles is thus indeterminate.

I can't help but think of quantum mechanics here. Anyway, back to the list.]

The swerve is the source of free will.
Nature ceaselessly experiments.
The universe was not created for or about humans.
Humans are not unique.
Human society began not in a Golden Age of tranquility and plenty, but in a primitive battle for survival.
The soul dies.
There is no afterlife.
Death is nothing to us.
All organized religions are superstitious delusions.
Religions are invariably cruel.
There are no angels, demons, or ghosts.
The highest goal of human life is the enhancement of pleasure and the reduction of pain.
The greatest obstacle to pleasure is not pain; it is delusion.
Understanding the nature of things generates deep wonder.

The seeds of atomic theory, quantum mechanics, evolution, agnosticism, atheism...they're all right there, in a poem written by a man who died more than 2000 years ago.

The Pioneer DetectivesAug 13 2013

If you're at all interested in the Pioneer Anomaly (and you really should be, it's fascinating), The Pioneer Detectives ebook by Konstantin Kakaes looks interesting.

Explore one of the greatest scientific mysteries of our time, the Pioneer Anomaly: in the 1980s, NASA scientists detected an unknown force acting on the spacecraft Pioneer 10, the first man-made object to journey through the asteroid belt and study Jupiter, eventually leaving the solar system. No one seemed able to agree on a cause. (Dark matter? Tensor-vector-scalar gravity? Collisions with gravitons?) What did seem clear to those who became obsessed with it was that the Pioneer Anomaly had the potential to upend Einstein and Newton -- to change everything we know about the universe.

Kakaes was a science writer for The Economist and studied physics at Harvard, so this topic seems right up his alley. Available for $2.99 for the Kindle and for iBooks on iOS.

The science of Boston's molasses flood of 1919Aug 13 2013

Boston Molasses Flood

On January 15, 1919 in Boston's North End, a storage container holding around 2.3 million gallons of molasses ruptured, sending a 8-15 ft. wave of molasses shooting out into the streets at 35 mph. Twenty-one people died, many more were injured, and the property damage was severe. In an article in Scientific American, Ferris Jabr explains the science of the molasses flood, including why it was so deadly and destructive.

A wave of molasses does not behave like a wave of water. Molasses is a non-Newtonian fluid, which means that its viscosity depends on the forces applied to it, as measured by shear rate. Consider non-Newtonian fluids such as toothpaste, ketchup and whipped cream. In a stationary bottle, these fluids are thick and goopy and do not shift much if you tilt the container this way and that. When you squeeze or smack the bottle, however, applying stress and increasing the shear rate, the fluids suddenly flow. Because of this physical property, a wave of molasses is even more devastating than a typical tsunami. In 1919 the dense wall of syrup surging from its collapsed tank initially moved fast enough to sweep people up and demolish buildings, only to settle into a more gelatinous state that kept people trapped.

This could just be a Boston urban legend, but it's said that on hot days in the North End, the sweet smell of molasses can be detected wafting through the air.

Pitch drop caught on video for first timeJul 18 2013

After running since 1944, the pitch drop experiment at Trinity College Dublin has finally yielded results: a drop has been caught falling on camera.

Pitch is an extremely viscous substance, about 2 million times more viscous than honey. Drops take 7-13 years to form and less than a second to fall. A similar experiment has been running at University of Queensland in Brisbane, Australia since 1927...their next drop is expected to fall sometime later this year.

The Sun telescopeJul 02 2013

Turning the Sun into a giant radio telescope through gravitational lensing will take some work, but it is possible.

An Italian space scientist, Claudio Maccone, believes that gravitational lensing could be used for something even more extraordinary: searching for radio signals from alien civilizations. Maccone wants to use the sun as a gravitational lens to make an extraordinarily sensitive radio telescope. He did not invent the idea, which he calls FOCAL, but he has studied it more deeply than anyone else. A radio telescope at a gravitational focal point of the sun would be incredibly sensitive. (Unlike an optical lens, a gravitational lens actually has many focal points that lie along a straight line, called a focal line; imagine a line running through an observer, the center of the lens, and the target.) For one particular frequency that has been proposed as a channel for interstellar communication, a telescope would amplify the signal by a factor of 1.3 quadrillion.

A photon's random walkJun 27 2013

The Sun is so dense at its core that the average photon created by the fusion process takes more than 40,000 years to escape to the surface. !!!

The center of the Sun is extremely dense, and a photon can only travel a tiny distance before running into another hydrogen nucleus. It gets absorbed by that nucleus and the re-emitted in a random direction. If that direction is back towards the center of the Sun, the photon has lost ground! It will get re-absorbed, and then re-emitted, over and over, trillions of times.

This is from 1997, so that figure might have been revised a bit (anyone have updated numbers?) but still, that's incredible. (via hacker news)

Physicists on moneyJun 13 2013

Some countries, the cool ones, put physicists and other scientists on their money. Here's Niels Bohr on the Danish 500 kroner note:

Niels Bohr Currency

Even the US sneaks onto the cool list with Ben Franklin on the $100.

Under pressureMay 08 2013

Damn! Watch this railroad tanker car instantly implode:

I couldn't find too much information on the source of this clip, but it appears to be part of a safety training video on the perils of improperly steam cleaning tanker cars. In the clip, the tanker car is filled with steam and the safety valves are disabled. The steam cools, then condenses, the pressure inside drops, and the pressure difference is big enough to crumple that huge railcar like a napkin.

Update: See also "sun kink", when railroad tracks buckle in intense heat:

An explanation of the effect can be found here. (thx, will)

Perpetual motion: the "time crystals" editionMay 01 2013

Normally when someone says they've thought up a theoretically possible perpetual motion scheme, you roll your eyes and pass the dutchie to the left hand side. But when that someone is a Nobel laureate in physics, is not generally off his rocker, and has published his idea in a prestigious peer-reviewed journal, people pay attention. Frank Wilczek believes he's invented something called time crystals.

In February 2012, the Nobel Prize-winning physicist Frank Wilczek decided to go public with a strange and, he worried, somewhat embarrassing idea. Impossible as it seemed, Wilczek had developed an apparent proof of "time crystals" -- physical structures that move in a repeating pattern, like minute hands rounding clocks, without expending energy or ever winding down. Unlike clocks or any other known objects, time crystals derive their movement not from stored energy but from a break in the symmetry of time, enabling a special form of perpetual motion.

"Most research in physics is continuations of things that have gone before," said Wilczek, a professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. This, he said, was "kind of outside the box."

An effort to prove or disprove Wilczek's theory is underway...let's hope it holds up to scientific scrutiny better than Time Cube. (via digg)

Watch magnetic putty eat magnetsApr 22 2013

This video footage of metallic putty eating magnets is super freaky.

Ten cool things about black holesApr 09 2013

From Phil Plait at Bad Astronomy, a list of ten things you might not know about black holes. Some of this I knew, but this one is incredible:

If you were to rope off the solar system out past Neptune, enclose it in a giant sphere, and fill it with air, it would be a black hole!

See also this recent tweet from physicist Brian Greene:

Remove all the space within the atoms making up the human body, and every person that's ever lived would fit inside a baseball.

(via @daveg & @rosecrans)

Why don't trains need differential gears?Apr 08 2013

The other day I posted a video about how differential gears work to help cars go smoothly around curves. Trains don't have differential gears, so how do they manage to go around curves without slipping or skidding? Richard Feynman explains:

Ha, it looks like I've posted this one before as well. Can never get enough Feynman. (thx, kerry)

Graphene super-toys last all summer longMar 25 2013

Well, this is interesting. Graphene is a substance discovered relatively recently that has a number of unusual properties. In 2004, physicists at the University of Manchester and the Institute for Microelectronics Technology in Russia used ordinary scotch tape to isolate single-layer sheets of graphene. Once isolated, the sheets could be tested for the unusual properties I mentioned. The 2010 Nobel Prize in Physics was awarded for this work.

In 2012, a group of researchers at UCLA discovered they could make single-layer sheets of graphene by coating a DVD with graphite oxide and then "playing" the disc in a plain old DVD drive. And then in a happy accident, they found that graphene has unusually high supercapacitance properties, which could mean that graphene could be used, for example, as a mobile phone battery that lasts all day, charges in a few seconds, and can be thrown into a compost bin after use.

(via io9)

The professor and the bikini modelMar 08 2013

Paul Frampton is a 69-year-old theoretical particle physicist who has co-authored papers with Nobel laureates. In late 2011, the absentminded professor met a Czech bikini model online. Over email and Yahoo chat, they became romantically involved and she sent him a plane ticket to come meet her at a photo shoot in Bolivia. Then she asked him to bring a bag of hers with him on his flight.

While in Bolivia, Frampton corresponded with an old friend, John Dixon, a physicist and lawyer who lives in Ontario. When Frampton explained what he was up to, Dixon became alarmed. His warnings to Frampton were unequivocal, Dixon told me not long ago, still clearly upset: "I said: 'Well, inside that suitcase sewn into the lining will be cocaine. You're in big trouble.' Paul said, 'I'll be careful, I'll make sure there isn't cocaine in there and if there is, I'll ask them to remove it.' I thought they were probably going to kidnap him and torture him to get his money. I didn't know he didn't have money. I said, 'Well, you're going to be killed, Paul, so whom should I contact when you disappear?' And he said, 'You can contact my brother and my former wife.' " Frampton later told me that he shrugged off Dixon's warnings about drugs as melodramatic, adding that he rarely pays attention to the opinions of others.

On the evening of Jan. 20, nine days after he arrived in Bolivia, a man Frampton describes as Hispanic but whom he didn't get a good look at handed him a bag out on the dark street in front of his hotel. Frampton was expecting to be given an Hermès or a Louis Vuitton, but the bag was an utterly commonplace black cloth suitcase with wheels. Once he was back in his room, he opened it. It was empty. He wrote to Milani, asking why this particular suitcase was so important. She told him it had "sentimental value." The next morning, he filled it with his dirty laundry and headed to the airport.

Crazy story. (via @stevenstrogatz)

Can you fly a plane on Mars?Jan 30 2013

Another fine installment of XKCD's What If? series: What would happen if you tried to fly a normal Earth airplane above different Solar System bodies?

Unfortunately, [the X-Plane simulator] is not capable of simulating the hellish environment near the surface of Venus. But physics calculations give us an idea of what flight there would be like. The upshot is: Your plane would fly pretty well, except it would be on fire the whole time, and then it would stop flying, and then stop being a plane.

(via stellar)

Timeline of the far futureDec 26 2012

The timeline of the far future artice is far from the longest page on Wikipedia, but it might take you several hours to get through because it contains so many enticing detours. What's Pangaea Ultima? Oooh, Roche limit! The Degenerate Era, Poincaré recurrence time, the Big Rip scenario, the cosmic light horizon, the list goes on and on. And the article itself is a trove of fascinating facts and eye-popping phrases. Here are a few of my favorites. (Keep in mind that the universe is only 13.75 billion years old. Unless we're living in a computer simulation.)

50,000 years: "Niagara Falls erodes away the remaining 32 km to Lake Erie and ceases to exist."

1 million years: "Highest estimated time until the red supergiant star Betelgeuse explodes in a supernova. The explosion is expected to be easily visible in daylight."

1.4 million years: "The star Gliese 710 passes as close as 1.1 light years to the Sun before moving away. This may gravitationally perturb members of the Oort cloud; a halo of icy bodies orbiting at the edge of the Solar System. As a consequence, the likelihood of a cometary impact in the inner Solar System will increase."

230 million years: "Beyond this time, the orbits of the planets become impossible to predict."

Timeline Future

800 million years: "Carbon dioxide levels fall to the point at which C4 photosynthesis is no longer possible. Multicellular life dies out."

4 billion years: "Median point by which the Andromeda Galaxy will have collided with the Milky Way, which will thereafter merge to form a galaxy dubbed 'Milkomeda'."

7.9 billion years: "The Sun reaches the tip of the red giant branch, achieving its maximum radius of 256 times the present day value. In the process, Mercury, Venus and possibly Earth are destroyed. During these times, it is possible that Saturn's moon Titan could achieve surface temperatures necessary to support life."

100 billion years: "The Universe's expansion causes all galaxies beyond the Milky Way's Local Group to disappear beyond the cosmic light horizon, removing them from the observable universe."

1 trillion years: "The universe's expansion, assuming a constant dark energy density, multiplies the wavelength of the cosmic microwave background by 10^29, exceeding the scale of the cosmic light horizon and rendering its evidence of the Big Bang undetectable."

1 quadrillion years: "Estimated time until stellar close encounters detach all planets in the Solar System from their orbits. By this point, the Sun will have cooled to five degrees above absolute zero."

10^65 years: "Assuming that protons do not decay, estimated time for rigid objects like rocks to rearrange their atoms and molecules via quantum tunneling. On this timescale all matter is liquid."

10^10^56 years: "Estimated time for random quantum fluctuations to generate a new Big Bang, according to Caroll and Chen."

Read the whole thing, it's worth the effort. (via @daveg)

Note: Illustration by Chris Piascik...prints & more are available.

Do we live in a computer simulation?Dec 11 2012

In 2003, British philosopher Nick Bostrom suggested that we might live in a computer simulation. From the abstract of Bostrom's paper:

This paper argues that at least one of the following propositions is true: (1) the human species is very likely to go extinct before reaching a "posthuman" stage; (2) any posthuman civilization is extremely unlikely to run a significant number of simulations of their evolutionary history (or variations thereof); (3) we are almost certainly living in a computer simulation. It follows that the belief that there is a significant chance that we will one day become posthumans who run ancestor-simulations is false, unless we are currently living in a simulation. A number of other consequences of this result are also discussed.

The gist appears to be that if The Matrix is possible, someone has probably already invented it and we're in it. Which, you know, whoa.

But researchers believe they have devised a test to check if we're living in a computer simulation.

However, Savage said, there are signatures of resource constraints in present-day simulations that are likely to exist as well in simulations in the distant future, including the imprint of an underlying lattice if one is used to model the space-time continuum.

The supercomputers performing lattice quantum chromodynamics calculations essentially divide space-time into a four-dimensional grid. That allows researchers to examine what is called the strong force, one of the four fundamental forces of nature and the one that binds subatomic particles called quarks and gluons together into neutrons and protons at the core of atoms.

"If you make the simulations big enough, something like our universe should emerge," Savage said. Then it would be a matter of looking for a "signature" in our universe that has an analog in the current small-scale simulations.

If it turns out we're all really living in an episode of St. Elsewhere, I'm going to be really bummed. (via @CharlesCMann)

Richard Feynman's last interviewOct 24 2012

Aired as The Quest For Tannu Tuva in the UK and The Last Journey Of A Genius in the US, this hour-long program is the last extended interview that physicist Richard Feynman gave; he died a few days after the recording.

Richard Feynman was not only an iconoclastic and influential theoretical physicist and Nobel laureate but also an explorer at heart. Feynman through video recordings and comments from his friend and drumming partner Ralph Leighton tell the extraordinary story of their enchantment with Tuva, a strange and distant land in the centre of Asia.

While few Westerners knew about Tuva, Feynman discovered its existence from the unique postage stamps issued there in the early 20th century. He was intrigued by the unusual name of its capital, Kyzyl, and resolved to travel to the remote, mountainous land. However, the Soviets, who controlled access, were mistrustful, unconvinced that he was interested only in the scenery. They obstructed his plans throughout 13 years.

I could watch this guy talk all day long. Feynman is a national treasure; we should give Andrew Jackson the boot and put Feynman on the $20.

Earth-sized planet found only 4.3 light years awayOct 16 2012

A European team of exoplanet hunters has discovered a planet about the size of Earth orbiting Alpha Centauri B, which is in a group of stars closest to the solar system, a mere 4.3 light years away. Lee Billings explains the significance.

At a distance of just over 4.3 light years, the stars of Alpha Centauri are only a cosmic stone's throw away. To reach Alpha Centauri B b, as this new world is called, would require a journey of some 25 trillion miles. For comparison, the next-nearest known exoplanet is a gas giant orbiting the orange star Epsilon Eridani, more than twice as far away. But don't pack your bags quite yet. With a probable surface temperature well above a thousand degrees Fahrenheit, Alpha Centauri B b is no Goldilocks world. Still, its presence is promising: Planets tend to come in packs, and some theorists had believed no planets at all could form in multi-star systems like Alpha Centauri, which are more common than singleton suns throughout our galaxy. It seems increasingly likely that small planets exist around most if not all stars, near and far alike, and that Alpha Centauri B may possess additional worlds further out in clement, habitable orbits, tantalizingly within reach.

Changing the color of the Moon with laser pointersOct 01 2012

Hey, if Randall keeps writing them, I'm gonna keep posting links to them...today's XKCD What If is "If every person on Earth aimed a laser pointer at the Moon at the same time, would it change color?"

Unfortunately, the laser energy flow would turn the atmosphere to plasma, instantly igniting the Earth's surface and killing us all.

The story of how Gorilla Glass came to beSep 24 2012

Gorilla Glass is the thin strong glass used for the screens of most smartphones. It was invented in the 1960s by Corning but was shelved in the early 1970s due to a lack of demand. The iPhone brought it out of retirement in a big way.

Chemical strengthening, the method of fortifying glass developed in the '60s, creates a compressive layer too, through something called ion exchange. Aluminosilicate compositions like Gorilla Glass contain silicon dioxide, aluminum, magnesium, and sodium. When the glass is dipped in a hot bath of molten potassium salt, it heats up and expands. Both sodium and potassium are in the same column on the periodic table of elements, which means they behave similarly. The heat from the bath increases the migration of the sodium ions out of the glass, and the similar potassium ions easily float in and take their place. But because potassium ions are larger than sodium, they get packed into the space more tightly. (Imagine taking a garage full of Fiat 500s and replacing most of them with Chevy Suburbans.) As the glass cools, they get squeezed together in this now-cramped space, and a layer of compressive stress on the surface of the glass is formed. (Corning ensures an even ion exchange by regulating factors like heat and time.) Compared with thermally strengthened glass, the "stuffing" or "crowding" effect in chemically strengthened glass results in higher surface compression (making it up to four times as strong), and it can be done to glass of any thickness or shape.

I did glass research in college so I'm a sucker for this sort of thing. (via @joeljohnson)

A Skrillex storm with "a single giant drop"Sep 21 2012

XKCD's What If? science feature continues to delight. This week's question is "What if a rainstorm dropped all of its water in a single giant drop?"

The drop is now falling at 90 meters per second (200 mph). The roaring wind whips up the surface of the water into spray. The leading edge of the droplet turns to foam as air is forced into the liquid. If it kept falling for long enough, these forces would gradually disperse the entire droplet into rain.

Before that can happen, about 20 seconds after formation, the edge of the droplet hits the ground. The water is now moving at over 200 m/s (450 mph). Right under the point of impact, the air is unable to rush out of the way fast enough, and the compression heats it so quickly that the grass would catch fire if it had time.

Fortunately for the grass, this heat lasts only a few milliseconds because it's doused by the arrival of a lot of cold water. Unfortunately for the grass, the cold water is moving at over half the speed of sound.

Zero gravity yo-yo tricksSep 20 2012

It turns out that yo-yos work pretty well in space. Astronaut Don Pettit demontrates from the International Space Station.

(via explore)

Tantalizing evidence of room temperature superconductivitySep 12 2012

Researchers in Germany have found evidence of room temperature superconductivity in graphite powder that has been soaking in water and then dried. Not surprisingly, the results come with a few caveats:

First, this is not a conventional bulk material. The claim from Germany is that the superconductivity occurs at the interface between grains of graphite after they have dried out.

So that's a surface effect which involves only a tiny fraction of the total mass of carbon in the powder--just 0.0001 per cent of the mass, according to Esquinazi and co.

What's more the effect is clearly fragile. Esquinazi and co say the superconductivity disappears if the treated powder is pressed into pellets.

So whatever allows the superconductivity to occur at the grain interfaces is destroyed when the grains are pressed together.

I'm pretty sure this is the technology used by the aliens who designed The Machine in Contact.

Feynman diagram sculptures by Edward TufteAug 22 2012

Opening on September 15 at Edward Tufte's gallery in Chelsea is All Possible Photons, an exhibit of sculptures by Tufte of Richard Feynman's subatomic particle diagrams.

Feynman Tufte

Made from stainless steel and air, the artworks grow out of Richard Feynman's famous diagrams describing Nature's subatomic behavior. Feynman diagrams depict the space-time patterns of particles and waves of quantum electrodynamics. These mathematically derived and empirically verified visualizations represent the space-time paths taken by all subatomic particles in the universe.

The resulting conceptual and cognitive art is both beautiful and true. Along with their art, the stainless steel elements of All Possible Photons actually represent something: the precise activities of Nature at her highest resolution.

The physics of cats always landing on their feetAug 09 2012

In this slow-motion video, you can see how cats rotate themselves in the air while conserving angular momentum.

This is an interesting companion to yesterday's owl rotation video. (via @stevenstrogatz)

Can I interest you in a 24-horsepower Yoda?Jul 24 2012

Ignoring the prequels (of course), how much power does Yoda put out when he's using the Force? It's perhaps less than you'd realize.

Yoda's greatest display of raw power in the original trilogy came when he lifted Luke's X-Wing from the swamp. As far as physically moving objects around goes, this was easily the biggest expenditure of energy through the Force we saw from anyone in the trilogy.

The energy it takes to lift an object to height h is equal to the object's mass times the force of gravity times the height it's lifted. The X-Wing scene lets us use this to put a lower limit on Yoda's peak power output.

First we need to know how heavy the ship was. The X-Wing's mass has never been canonically established, but its length has-16 meters. An F-22 is 19 meters long and weighs 19,700 lbs, so scaling down from this gives an estimate for the X-Wing of about 12,000 lbs (5 metric tons).

The relativistic baseballJul 11 2012

XKCD is answering "hypothetical questions with physics" once a week and the first installment is just flat-out delightful: What would happen if you tried to hit a baseball pitched at 90% the speed of light?

The ideas of aerodynamics don't apply here. Normally, air would flow around anything moving through it. But the air molecules in front of this ball don't have time to be jostled out of the way. The ball smacks into them hard that the atoms in the air molecules actually fuse with the atoms in the ball's surface. Each collision releases a burst of gamma rays and scattered particles.

These gamma rays and debris expand outward in a bubble centered on the pitcher's mound. They start to tear apart the molecules in the air, ripping the electrons from the nuclei and turning the air in the stadium into an expanding bubble of incandescent plasma. The wall of this bubble approaches the batter at about the speed of light-only slightly ahead of the ball itself.

All science writing should (and probably could!) be this entertaining. (via @delfuego)

Hipsters don't know what the Higgs boson isJul 05 2012

Motherboard journeyed out onto the streets of Williamsburg to see if the hipster on the street knew what the Higgs boson was. And he/she did not.

If you're in that same boat, take a few minutes to learn about what the Higgs is. (via @alexismadrigal)

CERN finds the Higgs bosonJul 04 2012

Or, to put it in the cautious words of science, researchers have observed a "particle consistent with long-sought Higgs boson".

"We observe in our data clear signs of a new particle, at the level of 5 sigma, in the mass region around 126 GeV. The outstanding performance of the LHC and ATLAS and the huge efforts of many people have brought us to this exciting stage," said ATLAS experiment spokesperson Fabiola Gianotti, "but a little more time is needed to prepare these results for publication."

"The results are preliminary but the 5 sigma signal at around 125 GeV we're seeing is dramatic. This is indeed a new particle. We know it must be a boson and it's the heaviest boson ever found," said CMS experiment spokesperson Joe Incandela. "The implications are very significant and it is precisely for this reason that we must be extremely diligent in all of our studies and cross-checks."

How sure are they that they've found the Higgs? Brian Cox notes on Twitter:

5 sigma is the usual particle physics threshold for discovery. It roughly means that you're 99.9999% sure

Holy levitating Slinky!Jun 19 2012

In this series of slow motion clips, you can see that if you hold a Slinky by one end and drop it, the bottom end doesn't actually move until the top end catches up with it.

I've watched this like six times and it drops my jaw every time...the bottom of the Slinky JUST. DOES. NOT. MOVE. Here's the scientific explanation:

The explanation that "it takes time for the bottom of the slinky to feel the change" might work ok, but it isn't the best.

Then why doesn't the bottom of the slinky fall as the top is let go? I think the best thing is to think of the slinky as a system. When it is let get, the center of mass certainly accelerates downward (like any falling object). However, at the same time, the slinky (spring) is compressing to its relaxed length. This means that top and bottom are accelerating towards the center of mass of the slinky at the same time the center of mass is accelerating downward.

(via @stevenstrogatz)

Update: See also The Physics of a Falling Slinky. (via @jeffhellman)

How to measure the size of the UniverseJun 13 2012

From The Royal Observatory, Greenwich, a short video explanation of how scientists measure the size of the Universe.

This is science for the layperson done right...PBS or the Discovery Channel would have inflated this into a 30-minute show. (via ★interesting)

The collapse of the Tacoma Narrows bridgeMay 31 2012

The Tacoma Narrows Bridge was open for about four months in 1940 before a steady wind set it twisting and ultimately tore the bridge apart.

Damn Interesting has a detailed account of the bridge's short history and demise.

After opening, the new bridge shortly came to be known as "Galloping Gertie," so named by white-knuckled motorists who braved the writhing bridge on windy days. Even in a light breeze, Gertie's undulations were known to produce waves up to ten feet tall. Sometimes these occurrences were brief, and other times they lasted for hours at a time. Numerous travelers shunned the route altogether to avoid becoming seasick, whereas many thrill-seeking souls paid the 75-cent toll to traverse Gertie during her more spirited episodes.

The 99% Invisible podcast devoted a show to the collapse of the bridge.

(via sarah pavis)

The Pioneer Anomaly has been solvedMay 29 2012

I missed this last July when the news came out, but since I've been following the Pioneer Anomaly for the past eight years, I wanted to mention it here for closure purposes. First, what the hell is the Pioneer Anomaly?

The Pioneer anomaly or Pioneer effect is the observed deviation from predicted accelerations of the Pioneer 10 and Pioneer 11 spacecraft after they passed about 20 astronomical units (3×10^9 km; 2×10^9 mi) on their trajectories out of the Solar System. Both Pioneer spacecraft are escaping the Solar System, but are slowing under the influence of the Sun's gravity. Upon very close examination of navigational data, the spacecraft were found to be slowing slightly more than expected. The effect is an extremely small but unexplained acceleration towards the Sun, of 8.74±1.33x10^-10 m/s^2.

A team at JPL has tracked the problem to uneven heat emissions from the probes' fuel source.

For their new analysis, Turyshev et. al. compiled a lot more data than had ever been analyzed before, spanning a much longer period of the Pioneers' flight times. They studied 23 years of data from Pioneer 10 instead of just 11, and 11 years of data from Pioneer 11 instead of 3. As explained in their new paper, the more complete data sets reveal that the spacecraft's anomalous acceleration did indeed seem to decrease with time. In short, the undying force had been dying after all, just like the decaying plutonium.

A more recent paper by the same researchers offers even more support for their theory. Case closed, I say.

Quantum propulsion system for spacecraft inventedMay 29 2012

Aisha Mustafa, a 19-year-old Egyptian physics student, has invented a promising new quantum propulsion system for spacecraft.

Mustafa invented a way of tapping this quantum effect via what's known as the dynamic Casimir effect. This uses a "moving mirror" cavity, where two very reflective very flat plates are held close together, and then moved slightly to interact with the quantum particle sea. It's horribly technical, but the end result is that Mustafa's use of shaped silicon plates similar to those used in solar power cells results in a net force being delivered. A force, of course, means a push or a pull and in space this equates to a drive or engine.

Scientific secrets?May 25 2012

Soon after the US dropped two nuclear bomb on Japan in 1945, a group of physicists at the University of Pennsylvania decided to investigate for themselves how nuclear fission and the bomb might work using non-classified materials. In doing so, they ventured into classified territory and raised questions about the nature of science and secrecy.

To what degree would nuclear research become shackled by the requirements of national security? Would the open circulation of new scientific knowledge cease if that knowledge was relevant to nuclear fission? Those questions were hardly idle speculation: From the fall of 1945 through the summer of 1946, the US Congress was crafting new, unprecedented legislation that would legally define the bounds of open scientific research and even free speech. The idea of restricting open scientific communication "may seem drastic and far-reaching," President Harry S. Truman argued in an October 1945 statement exhorting Congress to rapid action. But, he said, the atomic bomb "involves forces of nature too dangerous to fit into any of our usual concepts."

The former Manhattan Project scientists who founded what would eventually become the Federation of American Scientists were adamantly opposed to keeping nuclear technology a closed field. From early on they argued that there was, as they put it, "no secret to be kept." Attempting to control the spread of nuclear weapons by controlling scientific information would be fruitless: Soviet scientists were just as capable as US scientists when it came to discovering the truths of the physical world. The best that secrecy could hope to do would be to slightly impede the work of another nuclear power. Whatever time was bought by such impediment, they argued, would come at a steep price in US scientific productivity, because science required open lines of communication to flourish.

At the University of Pennsylvania were nine scientists sympathetic to that message. All had been involved with wartime work, but in the area of radar, not the bomb. Because they had not been part of the Manhattan Project in any way, they were under no legal obligation to maintain secrecy; they were simply informed private citizens. In the fall of 1945, they tried to figure out the technical details behind the bomb.

Drawings of the LHC in the style of Leonardo da VinciMay 23 2012

Dr. Sergio Cittolin has worked at CERN for the past 30 years as a research physicist. He has also made several drawings of the Large Hadron Collider in the style of Leonardo da Vinci.

LHC da VinciLHC da Vinci

Symmetry magazine profiled Cittolin a few years ago.

As a naturalist, da Vinci probed, prodded, and tested his way to a deeper understanding of how organisms work and why, often dissecting his object of study with this aim. "I thought, why not present the idea of data analysis to the world within the naturalist world of Leonardo?" Cittolin says. In the drawing below, the CMS detector is the organism to be opened; the particles passing through it and the tracks they leave behind are organs exposed for further investigation.

Cittolin brings a sense of humor to his work. For example, after betting CMS colleague Ariella Cattai that he could produce a quality drawing for the cover of the CMS tracker technical proposal by a given deadline, he included in the drawing a secret message in mirror-image writing-which was also a favorite of da Vinci's. The message jokingly demanded a particular reward for his hard work. The completed picture was delivered on time and within a few hours Cattai cleverly spotted and deciphered the message. She promptly presented him with the requested bottle of wine.

(via ★johnpavlus)

Kodak's secret nuclear reactorMay 14 2012

Up until 2007, Kodak operated a small nuclear reactor that contained 3.5 pounds of weapons-grade highly enriched uranium.

The Democrat and Chronicle learned of the facility when an employee happened to mention it to a reporter a few months ago.

The recent silence was by design. Detailed information about nuclear power plants and other entities with radioactive material has been restricted since the 2001 terrorist attacks.

Nuclear non-proliferation experts express surprise that an industrial manufacturer like Eastman Kodak had had weapons-grade uranium, especially in a post-9/11 world.

"I've never heard of it at Kodak," said Miles Pomper, senior research associate at the Center for Nonproliferation Studies in Washington. "It's such an odd situation because private companies just don't have this material."

(via @kdawson)

Monet's ultraviolet visionApr 17 2012

In a review of the Color Uncovered iPad app, Carl Zimmer highlights something I hadn't heard before: Claude Monet could see in ultraviolet.

Late in his life, Claude Monet developed cataracts. As his lenses degraded, they blocked parts of the visible spectrum, and the colors he perceived grew muddy. Monet's cataracts left him struggling to paint; he complained to friends that he felt as if he saw everything in a fog. After years of failed treatments, he agreed at age 82 to have the lens of his left eye completely removed. Light could now stream through the opening unimpeded. Monet could now see familiar colors again. And he could also see colors he had never seen before. Monet began to see -- and to paint -- in ultraviolet.

The condition is called aphakia.

Let's destroy Mercury and build a Dyson sphereApr 09 2012

George Dvorsky argues that if we wanted to, humanity could get a Dyson sphere up and running in a few decades.

The Dyson sphere, also referred to as a Dyson shell, is the brainchild of the physicist and astronomer Freeman Dyson. In 1959 he put out a two page paper titled, "Search for Artificial Stellar Sources of Infrared Radiation" in which he described a way for an advanced civilization to utilize all of the energy radiated by their sun. This hypothetical megastructure, as envisaged by Dyson, would be the size of a planetary orbit and consist of a shell of solar collectors (or habitats) around the star. With this model, all (or at least a significant amount) of the energy would hit a receiving surface where it can be used. He speculated that such structures would be the logical consequence of the long-term survival and escalating energy needs of a technological civilization.

Needless to say, the amount of energy that could be extracted in this way is mind-boggling. According to Anders Sandberg, an expert on exploratory engineering, a Dyson sphere in our solar system with a radius of one AU would have a surface area of at least 2.72x1017 km2, which is around 600 million times the surface area of the Earth. The sun has an energy output of around 4x1026 W, of which most would be available to do useful work.

The downside: we'd have to part with Mercury to do it.

And yes, you read that right: we're going to have to mine materials from Mercury. Actually, we'll likely have to take the whole planet apart. The Dyson sphere will require a horrendous amount of material-so much so, in fact, that, should we want to completely envelope the sun, we are going to have to disassemble not just Mercury, but Venus, some of the outer planets, and any nearby asteroids as well.

At Forbes, Alex Knapp explains why Dvorsky's scheme and timeline might not work.

I emailed Astronomer Phil Plait about this project, who told me in no uncertain terms that the project doesn't make sense.

"Dismantling Mercury, just to start, will take 2 x 10^30 Joules, or an amount of energy 100 billion times the US annual energy consumption," he said. "[Dvorsky] kinda glosses over that point. And how long until his solar collectors gather that much energy back, and we're in the black?"

Richard Feynman, No Ordinary GeniusApr 03 2012

Now available in its entirety on YouTube, a 95-minute documentary on physicist Richard Feynman called No Ordinary Genius.

The excellent film on Andrew Wiles' search for the solution to Fermat's Last Theorem is available as well (watch the first two minutes and you'll be hooked).

The slow-ass neutrino modemMar 26 2012

With their ability to move seamlessly through walls, rocks, lead shielding, and entire planets, neutrinos would seem like a great choice for a new method of wireless communication. Scientists at Fermilab have demonstrated sending messages via neutrino but the downside is that the slippery particles can also move seamlessly through detectors.

In the Fermilab experiment, the physicists fired a proton beam into a carbon target to produce a shower of particles called pions and kaons that quickly decay into neutrinos. For every pulse of 22.5 trillion protons, the physicists registered an average of 0.81 neutrino with the 170-ton MINERvA detector.

That translates into a data rate of 0.1 bits/second, or just slightly faster than America Online's dialup service circa 1992. (Hey, hey, if you liked that one, perhaps you'll also enjoy my impression of Dana Carvey doing George H.W. Bush.)

My God, it's full of galaxiesMar 26 2012

The VISTA telescope in Chile recently took a photo of the sky that contains over 200,000 galaxies. For reference, the Hubble Ultra-Deep Field image shows only about 10,000 galaxies (but sees further back in time, I think).

I've spent years studying all this, and it still sometimes gets to me: just how flipping BIG the Universe is! And this picture is still just a tiny piece of it: it's 1.2 x 1.5 degrees in size, which means it's only 0.004% of the sky! And it's not even complete: more observations of this region are planned, allowing astronomers to see even deeper yet.

Here's a full view of the image that looks sorta unimpressive:

Vista Deep Field

You can download the original 17,000 x 11,000 pixel image here (250 Mb, yo) for the full effect. As a preview, this is several levels of zoom in...just a tiny part of the full image.

Vista Deep Field 2

MOAR Higgs boson evidenceMar 07 2012

The NY Times is reporting that a data bump "smells like the Higgs boson". The odor is emanating not from CERN in Europe but from Fermilab near Chicago, where their Tevatron still flings some pretty fast particles.

"Based on the current Tevatron data and results compiled through December 2011 by other experiments, this is the strongest hint of the existence of a Higgs boson," said the report, which will be presented on Wednesday by Wade Fisher of Michigan State University to a physics conference in La Thuile, Italy.

None of these results, either singly or collectively, are strong enough for scientists to claim victory. But the recent run of reports has encouraged them to think that the elusive particle, which is the key to mass and diversity in the universe, is within sight, perhaps as soon as this summer.

Update: The Tevatron is no longer flinging, having been shut down in 2011 due to budget cuts. Which makes the Higgs discovery a little bittersweet, to say the least. (thx, miles)

Time traveling neutrinos oopsie daisyFeb 22 2012

Remember those time traveling neutrinos that they found in Italy? It is likely that a faulty connection between the GPS and the computer collecting data is to blame for the time travel illusion.

According to sources familiar with the experiment, the 60 nanoseconds discrepancy appears to come from a bad connection between a fiber optic cable that connects to the GPS receiver used to correct the timing of the neutrinos' flight and an electronic card in a computer. After tightening the connection and then measuring the time it takes data to travel the length of the fiber, researchers found that the data arrive 60 nanoseconds earlier than assumed.

Neutrinos? More like Nintendo...they forgot to blow in the cartridge. (via @tcarmody)

The whisky and water trickJan 18 2012

I don't know if the nudie playing cards are absolutely essential, but this trick is pretty neat.

(via @itscolossal)

A Brief History of Time by Errol MorrisJan 11 2012

The sound and picture are poor, but the entirety of Errol Morris' A Brief History of Time is available on YouTube.

Featuring music from Philip Glass, the film is a documentary about Stephen Hawking and his ideas about the universe. Morris recently stated on Twitter:

Yes. I plan to re-release [A Brief History of Time]. (It was never properly color corrected and is one of my best films.)

The film is difficult, if not impossible, to find on DVD and isn't available on Netflix, Amazon Instant Video, or iTunes. And as far as I can tell, the soundtrack was never released either.

Slow motion magnetsDec 22 2011

If you drop a bunch of neodymium magnets down through a thick-walled copper pipe, an effect called eddy current braking will slow the magnets' fall even though there's no direct magnetic attraction between the copper and the magnets.

Science! (via make)

Camera shooting at a trillion frames/sec can see photons moveDec 13 2011

At the beginning of this video, Ramesh Raskar, associate professor at the MIT Media Lab, announces calmly:

We have built a virtual slow-motion camera where we can see photons, or light particles, moving through space.

Yeah, no biggie.

Higgs boson found?Dec 07 2011

Rumor has it that the LHC at CERN has found the Higgs boson. The news runs contrary to some earlier speculation.

The teams are sworn to secrecy, but various physics blogs, and the canteens at Cern, are alive with talk of a possible sighting of the Higgs, and with a mass inline with what many physicists would expect.

Since the Higgs' nickname is the God particle, does this count as the Second Coming? (@gavinpurcell)

Ten things everyone should know about timeDec 06 2011

From Sean Carroll at Cosmic Variance, a list of facts and very strong opinions about the nature of time.

4. You live in the past. About 80 milliseconds in the past, to be precise. Use one hand to touch your nose, and the other to touch one of your feet, at exactly the same time. You will experience them as simultaneous acts. But that's mysterious - clearly it takes more time for the signal to travel up your nerves from your feet to your brain than from your nose. The reconciliation is simple: our conscious experience takes time to assemble, and your brain waits for all the relevant input before it experiences the "now." Experiments have shown that the lag between things happening and us experiencing them is about 80 milliseconds.

5. Your memory isn't as good as you think. When you remember an event in the past, your brain uses a very similar technique to imagining the future. The process is less like "replaying a video" than "putting on a play from a script." If the script is wrong for whatever reason, you can have a false memory that is just as vivid as a true one. Eyewitness testimony, it turns out, is one of the least reliable forms of evidence allowed into courtrooms.

NYC water towersOct 20 2011

One of the many reasons to love the wooden water towers found on the tops of NYC buildings is that the structures themselves reveal the math behind how they work.

Water Tower

The distance between the metal bands holding the cylindrical structure together decreases from top to bottom because the pressure the water exerts increases with depth. The top band only needs to fight against the water at the very top of the tower but the bottom bands have to hold the entire volume from bursting out.

Quantum levitation!Oct 18 2011

What the what? This video gives a little more explanation into the effect at work here (superconductivity + quantum trapping of the magnetic field in quantum flux tubes) and an awesome demonstration of a crude rail system. You can almost hear your tiny mind explode when the "train" goes upside-down.

Wingardium Leviosa! (via stellar)

The physics of the riderless bikeSep 28 2011

Why do riderless bicycles not fall over? Science Friday looks at the science behind bike self-steering.

(via robottke!)

That's faster than the speed of light, you idiot!Sep 23 2011

Physicists at CERN believe they have observed neutrinos moving at speeds faster than the speed of light, a feat previously assumed to be impossible.

Thousands of experiments have been undertaken to measure it ever more precisely, and no result has ever spotted a particle breaking the limit.

But Dr Ereditato and his colleagues have been carrying out an experiment for the last three years that seems to suggest neutrinos have done just that.

Neutrinos come in a number of types, and have recently been seen to switch spontaneously from one type to another.

The team prepares a beam of just one type, muon neutrinos, sending them from Cern to an underground laboratory at Gran Sasso in Italy to see how many show up as a different type, tau neutrinos.

In the course of doing the experiments, the researchers noticed that the particles showed up 60 billionths of a second sooner than light would over the same distance.

This is a tiny fractional change, but one that occurs consistently.

The team measured the travel times of neutrino bunches some 15,000 times, and have reached a level of statistical significance that in scientific circles would count as a formal discovery.

If true, saying this is a significant discovery is a doubly significant understatement.

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