Category: Physics & Math

What Makes Droplets Dance Around a Hot Surface and Then Fly Away?

By Sophie Bushwick | July 25, 2012 10:56 am

To test the temperature of a frying pan, people often dribble a few drops of water onto the surface. If the pan is cold, the water sits placidly on the surface. But if the metal is hot, the droplets will skitter around like deranged dancers. What makes them move?

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Physics & Math

Graphene, Heal Thyself: Carbon Molecule Can Rebuild Holes

By Sophie Bushwick | July 11, 2012 10:47 am

graphene patch
The graphene filled in the smaller hole with fresh
carbon atoms

Due to their extraordinary abilities, graphene and other one-atom-thick molecules like carbon nanotubes have enormous potential for use in fields from electronics to medicine. For example, graphene is physically strong, transparent, flexible, and a great conductor of both electricity and heat—and now the two-dimensional carbon molecule can add another power to its roster: self-healing. When researchers made holes in a graphene sheet, the molecule rebuilt its own structure using new carbon atoms. This ability might help researchers grow graphene in large quantities and specific shapes.

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Physics & Math, Technology

Look at This: Atom Casts a Tiny Shadow

By Sophie Bushwick | July 5, 2012 11:56 am

atom shadow

In the right light, everything casts a shadow—even an atom. A large object creates a shadow by physically blocking the light flying past it, and even a miniscule atom or ion can prevent photons with specific wavelengths from reaching their destinations.

Australian researchers from Griffith University captured a relatively large ytterbium atom in an ion trap, and then hit it with light of a wavelength the ytterbium could absorb. When the light reached the detector, the missing photons that the atom had gobbled up left this negative space: the shadow of a single atom, less than a millionth of a meter in length.

[via Gizmodo]

Image courtesy of Kielpinski group, Griffith University / Nature Communications

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Physics & Math
MORE ABOUT: atom, imaging, ion, look at this

What's a Higgs Boson, What's Being Announced Tomorrow, and What's Next

By Veronique Greenwood | July 3, 2012 2:48 pm

July 4th is the big day! And not only because of fireworks. It’s the day of a press conference at which it is widely anticipated that CERN (the giant European particle physics laboratory) will announce that the Higgs boson—that much-touted particle needed to make the Standard Model of Physics complete—has been found at the Large Hadron Collider. Or at least, that something that looks very much like it has been observed.

What’s the Higgs, you say? You’ve been living under a rock? Well, here is the best explanation we’ve seen of what the Higgs is and why it’s important, courtesy The Guardian’s Ian Sample:

Normally, we would not be writing anything suggesting the Higgs had been found until the proof was in our hot little hands. Rumors schrumors, we say—many a CERN press conference has ended in disappointment. But this morning, Kate Travis, an editor at ScienceNews, found a leaked CERN video in which a spokesperson all but announces the discovery of a new particle.

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Physics & Math, Top Posts

FBI Releases Feynman Files

By Sophie Bushwick | June 9, 2012 9:00 am

Richard Feynman

More than just a brilliant physicist, Richard Feynman was also a larger-than-life character whose enthusiasm, boundless curiosity, and mischievous sense of humor made him a dynamic lecturer and memoirist, as well as leading him to pick locks and crack safes for fun. But the very traits that continue to charm science fans today also brought him to the attention of the FBI—and now, with the help of a recent Freedom of Information Act request, we know all the dirt they gathered on the bongo-playing physicist.

MuckRock, a website that helps people file FOIA requests, asked the FBI for its records on Feynman and received and published 361 pages of background checks, interviews with Feynman’s acquaintances, newspaper articles that mention him, and notes on the official investigation. Most of the material is boringly uniform: colleague after colleague asserts that Feynman is trustworthy and dependable, an outstanding scientist and a loyal American. Some interviews add information known to any reader of Feynman’s books: that he was engaging and social, outspoken about his lack of religion, with a wide range of interests that did not include politics. But while readers of Feynman’s semi-autobiographical writing will see certain behavior, such as Feynman learning to crack safes, as a fun and ultimately harmless, the FBI report reveals an all-too-serious perspective: “[Feynman] has been known to show impatience and temper at security problems and investigators…For example, [a colleague] recalled that at one time [Feynman] demonstrated to some security people how worthless the locking procedure was on confidential items and he demonstrated this fact by ‘picking the locks’ of secured cabinets.” An incident that the physicist was fond of portraying as a prank was, to the FBI, a refusal to conform to rules and a sign of potential sedition.

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Physics & Math
MORE ABOUT: FBI, feynman, physics

The Razor Clam's Digging Superpower is Quicksand

By Sarah Zhang | May 24, 2012 2:57 pm

clam
The digging motions of a razor clam.

The soft, pale foot of a six-inch long razor clam burrows through sand at an impressive rate of four body lengths per minute (video). When scientists put muscles in the razor clam to the strength test though, they found that its foot was only 1/10 as strong as it would need to be to dig so fast. What gives? The sand, literally.

Instead of relying on brute force, the burrowing razor clam turns the sediment around itself into quicksand, according to a study published in the Journal of Experimental Biology. And as Hollywood has taught us well, it’s easy to sink in quicksand.* The razor clam pulls its shell up, creating a vacuum that sucks water into the space surrounding its body. Quicksand is just sand with enough water between all its particles so that it no longer holds any weight, making it easy for the razor clam to tunnel down. Although most (big) pools of quicksand are created by earthquakes or flowing water, the razor clam’s small scale strategy is quite effective. In fact, the little buggers are so fast that recreational clam digging actually takes some practice.

*The human body is actually too buoyant to sink beyond the armpits in quicksand. So no, you can’t die of drowning in quicksand but you can get stuck and die of dehydration. Comforting thought, right? 

[via ScienceNow]

Image via Winter et al. / J. Experimental Bio 

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Living World, Physics & Math

What People in 1859 Thought of the Great Solar Storm (Hint: They Were Very Confused)

By Sarah Zhang | May 9, 2012 1:41 pm

aurora
An 1865 painting by Frederic Edwin Church, possibly inspired by the aurora of 1859.

On September 1, 1859, the sky erupted in color: “alternating great pillars, rolling cumuli shooting streamers, curdled and wisped and fleecy waves—rapidly changing its hue from red to orange, orange to yellow, and yellow to white, and back in the same order to brilliant red,” read a New York Times account. This was the aurora seen around the world.

Meanwhile, the telegraph operators were perplexed to find that the system suddenly failed. None of the lines worked, and telegraph paper spontaneously caught on fire. The aurora and disconnected telegraphs were both the working of the largest solar storm recorded in history.

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Physics & Math, Space

Weight of the World: The Ongoing Fight Over How to Define the Kilogram

By Sarah Zhang | May 2, 2012 6:04 pm

spacing is important

The meter is fixed to the speed of light and a second to the radiation of cesium, but the mass of one kilogram is still not defined by a universal constant. Instead, it’s still pegged to an old-fashioned cylinder of  platinum iridium alloy kept under lock and key in Sèvres, France.

The method isn’t just old-fashioned, it’s imprecise, which has literal ramifications across the world when the point is to set the kilogram standard. The cylinder is weighed every few decades against official copies that had the same mass when they were all cast in 1899. When they were last weighed in 1988, however, their masses had drifted 70 micrograms apart.

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Physics & Math
MORE ABOUT: kilogram, mass, physics, SI unit

Which City Is the Musical Tastemaker for the US? Hint: Not NY or LA

By Sarah Zhang | April 17, 2012 11:00 am

music flow
Click to enlarge.

If you want to know what the cool kids will be listening to next month, here are two hints: 1) Head to Atlanta. 2) It’s probably hip hop. That’s according to a recently posted arXiv paper mapping the geographic flow of music on the social-networking music site Last.fm.

Last.fm users sync their iTunes listening histories to the site, recording some 11 billion tracks played in 2011. The site has been a gold mine for data viz lovers like LastGraph, and social-network researchers are getting in on the action, too. In this study, they looked for trendsetting cities that started (and stopped—those snobs) listening to new artists before everyone else. Among American Last.fm users, Atlanta is the trendsetting city.

But when they sorted by music genre, the researchers found subtler patterns. Atlanta dominates the overall music flow mostly because it’s a hip hop center, and hip hop has been ubiquitous to American ears. When it comes to other genres such as indie music, the trendsetting city of North America is further north—much further north—in Montreal.

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Physics & Math

Bright Idea: Filling Potholes with Non-Newtonian Fluids

By Veronique Greenwood | April 12, 2012 12:34 pm

What’s something that everyone hates? That’s the question that undergrads at Case Western University asked recently while brainstorming their entry for a materials science competition. Their answer: potholes. And their answer to the problem of how to fill them cheaply and easily? Basically, corn starch and water.

It’s not as strange as it sounds: the corn starch putty is a non-Newtonian fluid, a class of fluids that behave very differently from water. In the case of the putty, when it’s placed in an oddly shaped receptacle, like a pothole, it will flow like a liquid into all the nooks and crannies. But the second you push on it, with a car, for instance (or, as you can see in the above video, your feet), it turns solid, resisting compression and giving drivers a smooth ride.

Here’s a little more on the physics involved, courtesy of ScienceNOW, including how ketchup-like non-Newtonian fluids are different from putty-like non-Newtonian fluids: Read More

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Physics & Math, Technology
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