April 6th, 2013
December 7th, 2011
Emily Lakdawalla reports from the 2011 Fall Meeting of the American Geophysical Union:
Voyager 1 is very close to the heliopause. Last year at this time, the Voyager team reported that the outward-directed speed of the solar wind had dropped nearly to zero. With this observation and a mental model of the way the boundary between the solar wind and the interstellar medium should work, they formed a hypothesis: we are near the heliopause, and the direction of the energetic particles that Voyager 1 can measure should be shifting from the outward and east-west directed flow to a north-south one, the direction of the interstellar medium. So the simple experiment that the scientists needed to do to test their hypothesis was to measure the north-south flow of energetic particles. They predicted that they should be seeing increased north-south flow, matching the interstellar medium.
There are three cool aspects to what happened next.
- In order to perform the experiment the scientists would have to get Voyager 1 to change orientation – something it last managed 21 years ago. Not only did Voyager 1 pull this off, but it did so four times so that they could check their findings.
- The scientists found that their eminently plausible hypothesis was completely unsupported by the evidence Voyager produced. Cue much scratching of heads, and the formulation of a new hypothesis.
- With any luck,1 Voyager still will be around to test that hypothesis in due course.
Given that Voyager 1 was launched in 1977 and is still producing worthwhile scientific data thirty-plus years on, it must be the most cost-effective satellite in the history of space exploration.
November 9th, 2011
Greg Leyh's The Lightning Foundry Kickstarter project proposal:
The Lightning Foundry is a project to re-create super-long discharge effects normally found only in lightning. Two 10-story Tesla Coil towers will fill an area the size of a football field with lightning-like discharges hundreds of feet in length. If we trigger super-long discharge effects the arcs could strike considerably further.
That's Two Ten Storey Tesla Coil Towers! How can I not throw US$10 his way?
November 24th, 2010
A Gallery of Fluid Motion. (Slides 4 and 7 are especially striking.)
November 23rd, 2010
All this time we've though Jack Kirby was a graphic innovator of unmatched genius, it turns out he was just tapping into the Universe.
As pointed out last week by comics creator Rick Veitch, scientists have made an incredible breakthrough in the study of antimatter that yielded the first ever creation and capture of antihydrogen, which looks almost exactly like the ubiquitous "Kirby Krackle" visual effect innovated by the legendary comics artist many decades ago. […]
"Apparently Warner Brothers has some rule against bringing hydrazine and nitrogen-5 onto their sets."
October 22nd, 2010
The Big Blog Theory is written by David Saltzberg, the science consultant on The Big Bang Theory. He posts about each episode, explaining the scientific background to some plot point or throwaway comment. See, for example, the entry on The Wheaton Recurrence:
Giant ants were the terror of the movie Them! (1954). Tonight Rajesh and Howard realize giant ants would be a cool new method of transportation. But Sheldon Cooper is right: unfortunately physics determines that giant ants cannot exist on our planet as we know it.
The evolutionary biologist, J.B.S. Haldane, won this argument already in his 1926 essay "On Being the Right Size". In his essay, Handane did more than observe elephants are larger than mice but explained, using physics, how changes in size demand changes in form.
A typical ant we know and love is about 5mm long and has a mass of about 5 milligrams. The giant ants you might like to have around would be 1000 times longer. Not just longer, but 1000 times wider. Not just wider, but 1000 times taller. To calculate the new mass of the giant ant we have to multiply these all together – a billion times the volume. At the same density, a giant ant would weigh about 5 tons. But its legs would only be wider in two dimensions. They are a million times stronger, but that is not enough – for a creature a billion times heavier. Before taking their first step they would break all their legs, leaving them immoblile and harmless. While mass increases as the cube of size, the function of its structure improves only as the square, hence the name "square-cube law".
Note to bug spray companies: Just make a chemical that grows ants 1000-fold in every dimension. That will stop ants in their tracks. That's sure to be a best-selling item.
February 22nd, 2010
Professor Sidney Perkowitz is a deeply deluded man:
Science fiction movies should be allowed only one major transgression of the laws of physics, according to a US professor who has won backing from a number of his peers after creating a set of guidelines for Hollywood.
The guidelines are by Sidney Perkowitz, a professor of physics at Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia and a member of the Science and Entertainment Exchange, an advisory body run by the US National Academy of Sciences.
"I am not offended if they make one big scientific blunder in a given film," Perkowitz added. "You can have things move faster than the speed of light if you want. But after that I would like things developed in a coherent way."
"If you violate that you are in trouble. The chances are that the public will pick it up and that is what matters to Hollywood. […]
In written SF, there's a corner of the genre known as 'hard SF' where writers take great pains to base their stories on extrapolations from the current state of the art in physics/biology/information technology/[insert scientific field of choice here]. Done well, it's a satisfying approach to storytelling. Sometimes, even hard SF writers will allow themselves one big breach of the general principle of scientific plausibility, often (as Perkowitz suggests) permitting some form of FtL travel, the better to allow the action to move around.
Unfortunately, sticking to the rules of hard SF tends to rule out visually appealing space battles, face to face conversation in real time between humans and aliens, governments capable of extending their writ across multiple star systems, hand-held ray guns and … well … pretty much all the tools of the trade of the modern, CGI-heavy SF blockbuster. I'd love to see more hard SF films, but I find it hard to believe that the moviegoing masses care. Modern Hollywood blockbusters are more space opera than hard SF.
Put it another way: how many of the Best SF films would survive the Perkowitz test? Of those films in the top 20 that I've seen, I reckon Alien,1 2001: A Space Odyssey,2, Blade Runner3 and The Thing4 might pass, but we'd have lost a whole bunch of highly entertaining SF films to a 'one strike and you're out' rule.
November 30th, 2009
From Walter Isaacson's account of Einstein's 1921 visit to the United States:
After three weeks of lectures and receptions in New York, Einstein paid a visit to Washington. For reasons fathomable only to those who live in that city, the Senate decided to debate the theory of relativity. On the House side of the Capitol, Representative J.J. Kindred of New York proposed placing an explanation of Einstein's theories in the Congressional Record. David Walsh of Massachusetts rose to object. Did Kindred understand the theory? "I have been earnestly busy with this theory for three weeks," Kindred replied, "and am beginning to see some light." But what relevance, he was asked, did it have to the business of Congress? "It may bear upon the legislation of the future as to general relations with the cosmos."
Unfortunately, Isaacson doesn't say whether the motion to read an explanation of general relativity into the Congressional Record was passed. As yet I haven't found an online resource that allows me to search the Congressional Record as far back as 1921, so I still don't know whether Rep. Kindred's motion was passed.1
[Edited to add…] For the record, Isaacson's article is worth reading for much more than the comedic value inherent in the notion of politicians talking about relativity. It's a reminder of just how much of a public sensation Einstein was in his day. Who was the last scientist to have that sort of impact on the public imagination? Carl Sagan? Stephen Hawking? Richard Dawkins? Tim Berners-Lee?2
- I suppose it's just about possible that somewhere along the way Einstein's work might have been used as material in a filibuster, so perhaps it ended up in the Congressional Record by a different route. Or perhaps not: if I were a Senator or Representative intent on blocking the passage of some contentious piece of legislation, I think I'd pick an easier read… ↩
- The latter probably should get something approaching that level of acclaim, albeit for the tool he created and gave away rather than for any grand scientific theory. ↩
October 17th, 2009
The University of Nottingham's Sixty Symbols hosts short videos of scientists talking about, well, scientific symbols:
Ever been confused by all the letters and squiggles used by scientists?
Hopefully this site will unravel some of those mysteries.
The films are just fun chats with men and women who love their subject and know a lot about it!
Click on "gamma" and you'll find a professor of physics talking about cricket balls… Click on "rho" and we're stuffing paperclips into coffee cups.
And sometimes when there's no symbol to tell a story (like SchrÃ¶dinger's cat), well we just make one up!
[Via The Scout Report]