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How scientists created an element

The synthetic (or man-made) elements are the ones with silly-sounding names, found along the bottom of the periodic table — Einsteinium and Nobelium, Livermorium and Mendelevium, and more. Unlike the rest of the elements, you won't find them just hanging out in nature. They have to be created in a laboratory, and they only exist for a limited amount of time — some no more than milliseconds. Though new ones have been discovered/created as recently as 2010, the 1950s and 60s were sort of a heyday of synthetic elements, with different laboratories locked in a race to find the niftiest new things first.

During that time, researchers at Lawrence Berkeley National Lab made a film strip reenacting their own 1955 discovery of the element Mendelevium. The film lay forgotten in storage for 60 years until it was recently uncovered and restored by retired physicist Claude Lyneis. Originally just a silent sequence showing real Mendelevium discoverers Al Ghiorso, Bernard Harvey, Gregory Choppin, and Stanley Thompson demonstrating how they'd found the 101st element, the film has been updated with narration and sound effects and is a pretty cool explanation of where synthetic elements come from.

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Behind the particles: The Guardian goes inside CERN and the Large Hadron Collider

What's it like to live and work in the world's most famous physics mecca? Suzanne Moore went to Geneva, Switzerland to meet the scientists who study particle physics at CERN, home of the Large Hadron Collider and the Higgs Boson — and also home to a multinational population that can reach 10,000 at different times of year. There's a kindergarten at CERN. And Halloween parties. And, of course, the much-noted tendency toward Comic Sans Powerpoints. In other words, CERN has a culture. This is its story.

Doctor Who spacetime described in physics paper

Traversable Achronal Retrograde Domains In Spacetime is a new paper by Caltech/Memorial Gallifrey physicists Benjamin K. Tippett and David Tsang that attempts to describe the spacetime through which Doctor Who's Tardis travels; one that "goes forward and back in time, and left and right in space." It's a bit heavy going, so they've also published The Blue Box White Paper, a lay-friendly, 17 page summary for people with "no technical knowledge of Einstein's Theory of General Relativity." The discussion continues on Tippet's Tumblr.

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Researchers get slo-mo footage of the collapse of a quantum waveform

Research from UC Berkeley's Kater Murch and team has allowed fine observation of a quantum waveform collapse. Observing single quantum trajectories of a superconducting quantum bit, published in Nature, describes the experiment, which used indirect observations of microwaves that had passed through a box containing a circuit where a particle was in a state of superposition, allowing the researchers to view the collapse in slow-motion.

I finally came to have some (admittedly crude) understanding of what all this means in 1992, thanks to Greg Egan's novel Quarantine, which is one of the best -- and most exciting and comprehensible -- explanations of superposition and uncertainty I've ever encountered.

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Nobel Prizes 2013: An award for the Higgs Boson theorists, but not for the people who found it

The 2013 Nobel Prize for Physics was announced this morning and it is probably the least surprising Nobel of the year. People have been speculating for months that the award was going to be centered around the discovery of the Higgs Boson — the subatomic particle that helps explain why everything else in the Universe has mass. The Higgs Boson, itself, has been the physics pop culture celebrity for the last few years. It's even got its own blues.

So the big question going into today's announcement wasn't what discovery would the award be about. The question was who was going to end up being the named human recipients of said award. This was always going to be a tough call. The whole reason you've heard about the Higgs is because of a long-running effort to experimentally prove whether or not it existed. The very nature of experimental particle physics makes it a collaborative enterprise — proving a theory requires huge, expensive machines, international institutions, and lots of physicists. The Nobel Prize, meanwhile, can only be given to three recipients at a time. (Although an institute, like, say, CERN, could have been one of those, at least hypothetically.) The Nobel Committee gut this Gordian Knot by skipping over the experimental physicists altogether and giving the 2013 award to two theorists, alone — Peter Higgs and Francois Englert.

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Dropping things from the top of a tower — for science!

If you want to replicate the effects of weightlessness you could send various objects and animals into the sky aboard the Vomit Comet or you could just haul them to the top of a 475-foot-tall tower and let them drop. At Gizmodo India, Geoff Manaugh writes about the tower in Germany where scientists go see what happens when you drop a lead weight, or a billiard ball ... or a fish.

Live-stream two days of public lectures on physics and cosmology

The Nobel Conference is an annual event at Minnesota's Gustavus Adolphus College that brings in scientists from around the world to talk to the general public about a given theme. This year, the conference is focusing on physics and cosmology, from tiny particles to massive features of the Universe outside our own solar system. The conference runs all day tomorrow and Wednesday and you can watch the whole thing on a live stream. Lawrence Krauss will be speaking Wednesday at 1:00 central.

Richard Feynman explains rubber bands

Here's a clip from the BBC's Fun to Imagine series, in which Richard Feynman explains the amazing thing that happens when you stretch and release a rubber band. I'd always wondered why wide rubber bands got warm when you stretched them, and now I know! Feynman was a brilliant physicist and an even more brilliant physics-explainer, who busts out lines like "The world is a dynamic mess of jiggling things if you look at it right" (here's a transcript).

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Rasl: dark comic from Bone creator Jeff Smith

If you love comics, you'll know Bone, Jeff Smith's Walt Kelly-esque independent funnybook that ran for an epic 13 years. It won just about every award in the field (deservedly so), and was a nigh-perfect mix of whimsy and action.

Now, Smith is back with RASL, another self-published epic, albeit one that's much darker than Bone. Rasl, the main character, is a art-thief on the run from his past. Specifically, he's running away from his former career as a Tesla-obsessed Defense Department physicist who discovered something in Tesla's notebooks that led him to believe he had it in his power to create the ultimate weapon -- or the end to war altogether. But when he tested the technology, he learned that it let him hop between dimensions -- and also discovered that his fellow researchers were willing to hand the military everything it needed to slaughter millions. So Rasl blew up the lab and hopped to another dimension, and discovered a lucrative career in stealing transdimensional Picassos that he fences through a crooked Vegas casino owner.

Rasl is an often-brutal, high-speed adventure about loyalty, sex, romance, Tesla and mysticism. It's delicious nerdbait, tailor-made for people like me who grew up idolizing Tesla and fantasizing about dimension-hopping. It's a very different kind of story than Bone ever was, but in an absolutely wonderful way. The giant, hardcover bound edition that comes out today is a great way to acquaint yourself with it.


Enormous timescales made graspable by graphs

Wait But Why has a fantastic series of graphs that aim to help us wrap our heads around the enormous timescales on which forces like history, biology, geography and astronomy operate. By carefully building up graphs that show the relationship between longer and longer timescales, the series provides a moment's worth of emotional understanding of the otherwise incomprehensible.

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Feynman lectures as HTML

Here's an HTML-ified version of the Feynman Lectures on Physics, volume one, courtesy of the good folks at CalTech. We discussed these lectures when I reviewed Feynman, a biography in graphic novel form; they're justly considered to be one of the great works of physics instruction.

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Excellent goals from an eight-year-old

This list of third-grade goals is presented by redditor Elbostonian as the work of his eight-year-old son. It's a rather ambitious document, but admirably so -- an excellent mix of stupid body tricks, theoretical astrophysics, identity development, culinary adventure, and mystery.

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How physics sunk the Titanic

The iceberg wasn't the only thing that took down the Titanic, explains Yale University materials scientist Anissa Ramirez. Instead, cold temperatures in the icy North Atlantic changed the behavior of the materials that made up the boat — changes that reduced the ocean liner's ability to withstand a head-on iceberg collision.

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Check out more Anissa Ramirez science videos

Custodian of the famous Pitch Drop Experiment died without ever seeing the pitch drop

Back in early August, I had the pleasure of interviewing John Mainstone, the man who has taken care of the Pitch Drop Experiment at Australia's University of Queensland since 1961. The experiment has been running since 1927, when Professor Thomas Parnell set out to show his students that coal-tar pitch can behave as both a solid and a liquid. Despite being hard enough to break with a hammer, the pitch also drips ... sliding very, very slowly down the neck of a funnel into a beaker.

In Mainstone's years as custodian, the drops have dripped five times. He never got a chance to watch any of them, either in person, or on video. The first falling drop he ever saw came this earlier this summer, when a different pitch drop experiment in Ireland managed to catch the event on camera.

Mainstone's pitch is predicted to drop later this fall, but he won't be around to see it. Last week, I received an email from his daughter Julia, confirming that Mainstone had died of a stroke on August 23rd. He was 78. You didn't have to talk to Mainstone for very long to get a sense of the passion he had for the pitch drop project. I'm glad I got a chance to speak with him before he died and, in a couple of weeks, we'll be running a feature story here at BoingBoing based, in part, on those interviews.

In the meantime, the Pitch Drop Experiment has a new custodian, Andrew White, a physics professor and former student of Mainstone.

Hay Devil: vortex whips field into an amazing sight

Not CGI, but convection. Krista Mitchell at the BBC Weather Centre: "This rapidly rising air lifts dust, or straw, into the air. When conditions are right, the rising air will rotate."

"Older than dirt" not really that old in the grand scheme of things

The Earth is about 4.5 billion years old. Actual dirt — that is to say, like the stuff in your backyard, not rocks that were once dirt — probably dates to about 2 million years ago. Dirt is young! (Relatively speaking.)

The mysterious physics of bicycles

We don't actually understand why bikes stay upright as they move, writes physicist Michael Brooks at The New Statesman. A 2011 paper, published in the journal Science, poked big holes in the old theories about gyroscopic effects, and nobody has come along with anything to fill them yet.

Physics slam (on ice!) tomorrow in Minneapolis

Tomorrow night you can catch physicists from around the country, competing to see who can explain their research in the best, funniest, most awe-inspiring way possible. The action starts at 8:00 pm in the University of Minnesota's Ridder Arena. Doors open at 7:00, and it's all free.

A giant electromagnet's cross-country road trip

A 50-foot wide, doughnut-shaped electromagnet recently completed a journey from New York to Illinois. It went most of the way by barge — down the Eastern seaboard and then up the Mississippi River before hitting the road for the last 26 miles, shutting down multiple lanes as it crept along over the course of three nights. Livescience has pictures from this incredible journey.

Aquaman's costume would look different underwater than above

Water filters light. The more water that's above you, the more light is filtered out before it can reach your eyes. The deeper you go, the more this effect alters which colors you can see and how those colors appear, writes Andrew David Thaler at Southern Fried Science. Even at a depth of just 5 meters, reds and oranges become difficult to distinguish from one another.

Physics comics for kids, with classroom guides

Spotted at Comic-Con: Spectra, a series of well-done, smart comics about physics from the nonprofit American Physical Society. The art is great, the content is great, and leads to good, illuminating experiments you can do with household objects. They're free downloads, along with supplementary classroom materials, and you order signed hardcopies, too.

Spectra: Comic Books

Physics of murder, superball style

Indispensable wisdom from the XKCDverse: "After falling from seven stories, the mass of bouncy balls would be moving at about 20 meters per second.... If you wanted to be sure of killing someone, you'd need 3,000,000 of them—enough to fill a large room—to guarantee that the target would either be crushed to death by the impact or buried too deep to dig themselves out."

Amateur scientists vs. cranks

This is video of a talk given last year by David Dixon, assistant professor of math, science and engineering at Saddleback College in California. He used to work in the Physics Department at California Polytechnic State University, which, like many physics departments around the world, received loads of correspondence from non-scientists who thought they had come up with earth-shattering, game-changing hypotheses that needed to be shared.

Now, sometimes, laypeople come up with good ideas that should be explored. But many of these letters are better classified as the work of cranks — folks who had big ideas, cared deeply about those big ideas, but who were dead wrong ... and utterly impervious to the idea that they might be wrong.

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Gravity-defying levitating superconductor on a magnetic Möbius strip

Andy from the Royal Institution made a large, suspended Möbius strip out of rare-earth magnets, then cooled down an object until it became a superconductor, and set it levitating and running around the track. The result is amazing, plus Andy's explanation is cogent and fascinating. Plus, gravity-defying levitation!

Levitating Superconductor on a Möbius strip (Thanks, Ed!)

50' chain of beads leaps and cavorts its way out of a jar

Steve Mould, Britain's Brightest's "science guy," showed that if you put coil a 50' chain of magnets in a jar and then casually toss out one end, the whole chain goes berzerk leaps and cavorts like an innocent colt on crystal meth, defying gravity and gravitas. In this video, Earth Unplugged gets Steve to explain what's really happening.

Amazing bead chain experiment in slow motion - Slo Mo #19 - Earth Unplugged (via IO9)

Five great myths of cocktail chemistry

There is nothing wrong with adding ice to scotch, writes Kevin Liu at Serious Eats. In fact, a little water can change the flavor profile of the drink for the better. What's more, chilling your scotch won't dampen down the aroma. A chilled drink won't be flinging off scent molecules left and right, but it will warm up enough from your hot breath to get the chemistry of scent where it needs to go — and to give you the flavor experience you want.

Felicia, the Fermilab Ferret

In 1971, this ferret played a key role in the construction of particle accelerators at Fermilab's Meson Laboratory. As sections of vacuum chamber were connected together, Felicia would run through them, dragging a string. After she had carried the string all the way through, researchers would use the line to run a rag doused in cleaning solution through the long, narrow tubes.

Particle physics is seldom this adorable, and Felicia became a media star — until her retirement in December of 1971 (scientists replaced her with a vacuum-chamber-cleaning robot). She died the next year of an intestinal abscess. But her memory lives on.

Read about Felicia in the Fermilab archives

Felicia's obituary

Thanks, Jennifer Ouellette!

Cool-looking science book I am ordering immediately

Guidebook for the Scientific Traveler, published in 2010 and written by Duane Nickel, promises to be a tour guide to chemistry and physics points of interest all across the United States. (Thanks Tim Heffernan!)

Double rainbows: Here's what they mean

The physics blog Skulls in the Stars has answers to your rainbow-related questions. Among the fascinating things we learn here — each color in a rainbow represents the light reflected by a separate group of raindrops; skydivers can see circular rainbows; and the famous double rainbow happens when light bounces off the inside of a raindrop not just once ... but twice.

Why are barns red?

If you've ever spent much time in American farm country, then you've probably noticed that there's a strong tradition there of coating barns and outbuildings with red paint. Why?

Because nuclear fusion.

Okay, the actual answer is simply because red paint has long been a cheap color to buy. But, explains Google engineer Yonatan Zunger, there is some really interesting physics lurking in the background of that price point.

What makes a cheap pigment? Obviously, that it’s plentiful. The red pigment that makes cheap paint is red ochre, which is just iron and oxygen. These are incredibly plentiful: the Earth’s crust is 6% iron and 30% oxygen. Oxygen is plentiful and affects the color of compounds it’s in by shaping them, but the real color is determined by the d-electrons of whatever attaches to it: red from iron, blues and greens from copper, a beautiful deep blue from cobalt, and so on. So if we know that good pigments will all come from elements in that big d-block in the middle, the real question is, why is one of these elements, iron, so much more common than all of the others? Why isn’t our world made mostly of, say, copper, or vanadium?

The answer, again, is nuclear fusion.

You can read the full story on Zunger's Google+ page. In my experience, white is another really common barn color, due to the fact that whitewash — a paint made from calcium hydroxide and chalk (which is also calcium) — is way cheap, as well. Calcium is also one of the most abundant elements in the Earth's crust ... clocking in at number 5, right under iron in the top 10. I'm sure there's some different science that accounts for the high concentrations of calcium on our planet, but the same principal applies. Cheap paint is paint made with abundant (and easily accessible) elements. And abundant elements happen because of physics.

Image: Red Nebraska Barn, a Creative Commons Attribution No-Derivative-Works (2.0) image from 50779843@N03's photostream