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What's quantum physics got to do with biology?

Photosynthesis allows plants to convert light from the Sun into energy, and, in some cases, it does this incredibly well. In fact, certain bacteria can capture 95% of the light that hits them and turn it into useful energy.

Solar panels also convert light from the Sun into energy—but they aren't nearly as good at it. The very best solar panels ever tested in a lab (i.e., not the ones actually available for sale and installation on your house) were able to convert about 34% of the light that hit them into electricity. (Individual experimental solar cells can do better than that. But those are even further away from being incorporated into commercially available panels.)

Why can't we use the Sun's energy as effectively as bacteria can? The secret may be that the bacteria are using quantum physics to transmit energy. It's sort of like the bacteria have a method for keeping boxes of energy from falling off the truck during transport.

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Planesrunner: Ian McDonald's YA debut is full of action-packed multidimensional cool, airships, electropunk and quantum physics

Ian McDonald has spent the past two decades blowing the lid off of science fiction with his poetic, dense, lavish novels that span the universe from Mars to Africa, from the future to the past, from Brazil to India to Turkey. Now McDonald has begun a second career as a young adult novelist with his Everness series, the first volume of which is Planesrunner, which goes on sale today.

Planesrunner is the story of Everett Singh, a moderately unhappy schoolboy in London whose divorced, quantum physicist dad is kidnapped before his eyes one night. Everett embarks on an epic quest to find out what happened to his dad, a quest that is complicated by his mother's hostility to her ex-husband, a police cover-up, sinister visits from the head of the Imperial College physics department, and mysterious, threatening strangers who tail him through the streets of London.

But Everett is convinced that he saw what he saw, and that his father is in peril -- not least because his Dad's server has emailed him a firmware update for his tablet that turns it into an n-dimensional directory of the multiverse, an insurance file on a dead man's switch that was sent to Everett when his dad was offline for a critical amount of time. Everett can't outwit the forces of evil forever -- but he can choose the way he is captured, and he does, and that's how he manages to escape through an interdimensional portal and penetrate a parallel electricpunk universe where there is no oil, but where coal-fired manufactories turn out the carbon nanofiber necessary to support a global industry of freewheeling electrified airships.

On the run in another London, Everett gets embroiled in the politics of international airship traffic, living in the autonomous zone around Hackney where the airships dock, spying on the interdimensional ministry where he believes his father is being held, joining a ragtag airship crew and making their fights his own -- even as he tries to solve the seemingly impossible problem of liberating his father.

Planesrunner is smashing adventure fiction that spans the multiverse without ever losing its cool or its sense of style. Ian McDonald is one of the greats of science fiction and his young adult debut is everything you could hope for: romantic, action-packed, wildly imaginative and full of heart.

Planesrunner

TOM THE DANCING BUG: God-Man saves the day! Well... he saves A day, anyway.

GOD-MAN commands that you visit the TOM THE DANCING BUG WEBSITE often (at least once a week, unless you have a REALLY good reason, like your football team’s in the playoffs); and if you don’t follow RUBEN BOLLING on TWITTER, there’s no way God-Man’s answering your call when you signal him on the special GOD-MAN RADIO WRISTWATCH you received when you joined his Fan Club.

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The Physics Book: From the Big Bang to Quantum Resurrection, 250 Milestones in the History of Physics

201111151520A couple of years ago our friend Clifford Pickover wrote the terrifically fun book, The Math Book. Now he's got a new one that's just as good about physics. It's called, as you might guess, The Physics Book and the publisher has kindly given me permission to run some examples from the book. You can check all of them out after the jump.

Physics Book For Boing Boing-1

2 Billion B.C.: Prehistoric Nuclear Reactor -- Francis Perrin (1901-1992)

"Creating a nuclear reaction is not simple," write technologists at the U.S. Department of Energy. "In power plants, it involves splitting uranium atoms, and that process releases energy as heat and neutrons that go on to cause other atoms to split. This splitting process is called nuclear fission. In a power plant, sustaining the process of splitting atoms requires the involvement of many scientists and technicians."

In fact, it was not until the late 1930s that physicists Enrico Fermi and Leo Szilard fully appreciated that uranium would be the element capable of sustaining a chain reaction. Szilard and Fermi conducted experiments at Columbia University and discovered significant Neutron (subatomic particle) production with uranium, proving that the chain reaction was possible and enabling nuclear weapons. Szilard wrote on the night of the discovery, "there was very little doubt in my mind that the world was headed for grief."

Because of the complexity of the process, the world was stunned in 1972 when French physicist Francis Perrin discovered that nature had created the world's first nuclear reactor two billion years before humankind, beneath Oklo in Gabon, Africa. This natural reactor formed when a uranium-rich mineral deposit came in contact with groundwater, which slowed the neutrons (subatomic particles) ejected from the uranium so that they could interact with and split other atoms. Heat was produced, turning the water to steam, thus temporarily slowing the chain reaction. The environment cooled, water returned, and the process repeated.

Scientists estimate that this prehistoric reactor ran for hundreds of thousands of years, producing the various isotopes (atomic variants) expected from such reactions that scientists detected at Oklo. The nuclear reactions in the uranium in underground veins consumed about five tons of radioactive uranium-235. Aside from the Oklo reactors, no other natural nuclear reactors have been identified. Roger Zelazny creatively speculates in his novel Bridges of Ashes that an alien race created the Gabon mine in order to cause mutations that eventually led to the human race.

SEE ALSO Radioactivity (1896), Neutron (1932), Energy from the Nucleus (1942), Little Boy Atomic Bomb (1945).

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