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." Cory 1

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.

Read the rest

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!