The tale of a 'disappeared' physicist

Growing up in the United States, I never really heard much about high-stakes, dead-of-night defections to the Soviet Union. But here's an interesting one: Bruno Pontecorvo, an Italian nuclear physicist who vanished (along with his whole family) while vacationing in Finland in 1951.

Sun dogs light up the sky

My friend Austin took this photograph last week, looking out his office window near the Metrodome in downtown Minneapolis. That flare in the distance isn't Photoshop. Nor is it the nuclear annihilation of St. Paul. Instead, it's a sun dog — an atmospheric phenomenon that happens when light from the Sun is refracted off of ice crystals in the air. The light gets bent as it passes through the crystals and we see the bright flash of a "false sun" to the side of the actual Sun. The same process can also form rings around the Sun. Whether you get a halo or a sun dog depends on which way the ice crystals are oriented in relation to you.

What we really feel when we feel "cold"

Temperature is just a measure of jigglyness, says Henry Reich of Minute Physics. Not in the "I don't think you're ready for this jelly" sense, but at the scale of atoms. And it's this jiggle that can help explain why two things that are, technically, the exact same temperature can feel totally different when we touch them. Great science for a cold day!

Physics is not interested in your delusions of grandeur

It's impossible to dive in front of a bullet and play the hero. Likewise, you can't really dodge a bullet either (unless you get a big lead on the fact that it's heading towards you). Kyle Hill explains why the stuff that looks fancy and flashy on TV doesn't work in the real world.

Coming soon: The Very Large Hadron Collider?

What comes after the Large Hadron Collider? Obviously, the answer is a Very Large Hadron Collider. At least, that's what some physicists are hoping for.

HAWKING: 2016 graphic novel bio from the FEYNMAN writer/illustrator team


Jim Ottaviani and Leland Myrick's Feynman was one of the best science-oriented graphic novels I've come across (see my 2011 review for more). So I was delighted to learn that the pair are now working on HAWKING, a graphic biography of The Hawk himself, to be published in 2016. Read on for the official, exclusive announcement from FirstSecond, along with a sneak peek:

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The best way to pee into a urinal — as explained by physics

Good news, everyone*! If you're tired of being splashed (or splashing others) with your own urine, the Brigham Young University Splash Lab has done the research and produced a series of helpful tips that will enable you to potty without the spotty. Research at the Splash Lab is heavily based on imaging and this video will show you how easy it is to reduce splash-back with simple changes like peeing against a vertical, rather than horizontal, surface.

And by "everyone", I mean "people who pee into urinals".

Luis Alvarez: Your new science hero?

Forget Tesla. Luis Alvarez should be the new object of your science history obsession says Ben Lillie at The Last Word on Nothing. Them's fightin' words. But Lillie backs it up. With his son Walter, Alvarez was the first to suggest that a giant asteroid impact had led to the mass extinction of the dinosaurs. Before that, he won a Nobel for designing a better Bubble Chamber to study electrically charged particles, invented the aircraft blind landing system and night-vision binoculars, found hidden rooms in the pyramids at Giza, investigated the JFK assassination, and was also a creepily outspoken voice in favor of global nuclear armament. (So it's not all awesome stuff.) Read more.

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.

Video Link

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.