Year in Cool – 2012

I’ve been MIA here, lately. Turns out, writing a research-heavy historical memoir is massively time-consuming. Who’d have thought?

However, there’s no way I’d miss our annual Year in Cool post, because writing this post is more fun than spending a day at Disneyland with the entire cast of The Avengers. Below are my ten favorite news stories of 2012 involving physics celebrities gone wild.

I’m totally kidding. They’re totally about physics. But I promise – this stuff is way cooler than celebrities gone wild. (Although to be honest, maybe not quite as cool as spending the day at Disneyland with Downey, Jr. and Hemsworth and Hiddleston. But they’ve all stopped returning my calls.)

Ladies and Gents…presenting.

1. SCIENCE FICTION, MINUS THE FICTION

Set your phasers to stunned – it’s about to get freaky in here.

Remember in Apollo 13, when the astronauts got stuck in space and had to jerry-rig things out of stuff they had on board, like duct tape and toilet paper rolls? Remember how it would have been really helpful if someone on Earth could’ve punched something into a computer and then a Star-Trekky “replicator” in space could’ve produced the items? Like a printer, only for three-dimensional objects?

Welcome to the twenty-first century, where we have such things.

This video shows a 3-D printer scanning a crescent wrench, then “printing” an actual, working crescent wrench with moving parts, out of a powder solidified with a binding material and resin.

I love it when the guy says that this company is “one of the world’s leading manufacturers of 3D printers.” As if the world is casually overflowing with companies that make 3D printers…a sci-fi technology that I heretofore didn’t even know existed.

Seriously – watch the video. It’s fan-freaking-tastic.


2. APPROACHING THE FINAL FRONTIER

Way back in 1977, NASA launched Voyager I and II, two small spacecraft originally designed to explore Jupiter and Saturn. Once they checked that off their lists, they kept going – and any time now, 35 years after we sent it into space (carrying a gold-plated audio/visual disc inscribed with voice greetings and music by Mozart and Chuck Berry), Voyager I is preparing to become the first man-made object to leave our solar system.

https://i0.wp.com/voyager.jpl.nasa.gov/mission/images/interstellar_1.gifThe spacecraft is currently some 11 billion miles from the Sun, inside the Heliosheath, an outer section of our solar system where winds from our Sun interact with outer space, creating 100 million-mile-wide bubbles in the “air.” Astonishingly, it still sends data back to Earth via radio waves. And sometime within the next year or so, Voyager I is expected to cross the Heliopause, the theoretical edge of our solar system, to take its place among the stars.

Voyager I is traveling at a speed of around 37,000 mph, and has enough nuclear power to propel itself until at least 2020. After that, it will drift forever, trillions of miles away, accompanied by its own perfect Motown soundtrack.

Go, Johnny, go.

3. HOW MUCH IS THAT SPACE-TIME ALL AKIMBO

But when will humans travel to the stars? Even at Voyager’s fast clip, it would take an exasperating 76,000 years to arrive at Alpha Centauri, our nearest star. Clearly, we’re gonna need a faster ship. Fortunately, we have some ideas.

https://i1.wp.com/img.gawkerassets.com/img/186idp39rpm13jpg/original.jpgIn 1994, a physicist named Alcubierre came up with a theory for moving a starship through space by putting it inside a chunk of space-time (created via a giant ring) and then moving the chunk of space-time faster than the speed of light. The starship itself would not be moving faster than the speed of light within the bubble, so it would not violate Einstein’s special theory of relativity.

The only fly in the theoretical ointment has been the amount of energy needed to power the ring containing the space-time bubble – it would take a ball of antimatter that’s 317 times the size of Earth. And as of now, antiparticles are rarely even found in the observable universe, only in radioactivity and cosmic rays.

But this September, at the annual 100-Year Starship Symposium (and how much do you love that we have such a thing?), researchers announced that by changing the shape of the ring, they’ve worked out a design that could be powered by only 500 kilograms of antimatter!

Never mind that 500 kilos of antimatter would be dangerous enough to destroy all life on Earth. Never mind that we don’t even technically know if the whole ring concept would actually work.

We’re inching ever closer, peeps.

4. HOLE-Y MOLEY

Since the 1980’s, astronomers have maintained that every large galaxy has a black hole at its center – an extremely dense chunk of space-time that allows nothing to escape, not even light.

In October, scientists announced they’d found not just one, but two black holes at the center of the Milky Way, each about 10-20 times larger than our Sun (and please remember: our Sun is the size of a million Earths.)

But hold on to your britches, because just last week, astronomers announced that within the smallish NGC 1277 galaxy, they’ve discovered a black hole that has a mass equal to 17 billion Suns.

http://www.dailygalaxy.com/.a/6a00d8341bf7f753ef015433ac9868970c-800wiThe bad news about these bad boys? They gobble up surrounding space matter like candy, and if you were to fall into one, your body would compress to a single point of infinite density. (Sounds kind of cool, except for the part where you wouldn’t survive.) The good news? Black holes are formed when stars explode from compression of their own gravity, and our Sun’s relatively weak gravity ensures that that’ll never happen to it. So yay! We’re far, far away from any black hole danger.

Well, unless we get that starship working.

5. YES, VIRGINIA, (WE’RE 5.9-SIGMA LEVEL SURE) THERE IS A HIGGS BOSON

In the last half of the 20th century, physicists created the “Standard Model,” a theory that explains the most basic building blocks of the universe. As far as I can tell, the theory includes 12 matter particles, 12 antiparticles, and 5 elementary bosons (force particles). For a long time, the elusive “Higgs” boson (or as I like to call it, the Scarlet Pimpernel boson) was the only one of the bunch that had never actually been seen.

Basically, so the theory goes, all other particles have to interact with an unobservable “Higgs” energy field in order to obtain mass (unless they’re photons, in which case they don’t care to have any mass whatsoever, much like Victoria Beckham, but I digress.)

The Higgs particle is interesting. It has no spin. It is its own antiparticle. It has no electric charge or color. And, oh yes, it decays almost instantly upon creation, which is why it’s almost impossible to detect.

Enter the Large Hadron Collider (about which I’ve already written.) This July, two groups of scientists, working independently, analyzed 800 trillion proton collisions within the LHC and found, bingo, a never-before-seen particle that is “consistent with a Higgs boson.”

In other words, they’re pretty pretty pretty sure they’ve found what they’re looking for.

6. CALL ME DATA

So, you know how computers store data in something called “bytes,” which consist of 8 “bits” (binary digits) of 1’s or 0’s, which is absolutely as far as my understanding of such things goes, so don’t ask me to explain any further, because it makes no sense to me how a computer can turn numbers into…other things.

Anyway, scientists have figured out how to store data (the 1’s and 0’s about which I’m unclear) in human DNA. To the tune of 700 terabytes (one trillion bytes, and please stop talking) per one gram of DNA.

https://cathylagrow.files.wordpress.com/2013/01/700terabytedna.jpg?w=300Conceivably, you could store text, pictures, and Javascript in your strands of DNA. So, 10,000 years from now, someone could dig up my bones and find out just what books Cathy was reading, which videos she was watching…heck, they could read this blog post. On (okay, in) my bones.

Of courses, we are decades away from practical applications for such technology. Still – human DNA as data storage space? I love that there are people smart enough to figure out how to do these things that I am not even smart enough to explain.

Speaking of not being smart enough…

7. DO YOU SEE WHAT I SEE?

Never before in history have I tried so hard to understand a technology. Never before have I so utterly failed.

In July, scientist announced that they had discovered a way to take pictures through opaque objects, using natural light instead of lasers (X-rays.) Meaning they can now take pictures from around corners.

https://i2.wp.com/www.extremetech.com/wp-content/uploads/2012/07/seeing-around-corners-diagram.jpgIn short, when you’re trying to look at an object but there is a barrier in the way (a piece of paper, skin, a wall), the barrier is interfering with the photon beams – changing their directions (in the case of something opaque), or changing their wavelengths (in the case of something semi-transparent.) The barrier is said to be “scattering” the beams.

Spatial Light Modulators correct the scattering, allowing you to see the image as it really is (for a jolly good tumble down the rabbit hole, google phases and sine waves and ha ha, have fun with that) by turning the barrier into a mirror. Or something.

I asked three of my smartest friends to help me decipher this technology. They each wrote back a beautiful essay on the subject. One of the explanations was so sweeping and elegant, I nearly wept with joy.

And it all still makes zero sense to me. But anyway: we’ve developed a camera that can see around corners. Super cool, yes?

8. DIAMONDS, DIAMONDS EVERYWHERE…

The largest diamond ever found on Earth was discovered in 1905 – the Cullinan Diamond, a whopping 3,106.75 carats. The biggest stone cut from the Cullinan, at 530.4 carats, is part of the Crown Jewels in London and is worth an estimated 400 million dollars.

Sounds impressive – but should we ever manage to get our grubby little hands on a certain Super Earth zooming around a star named 55 Cancri, even the Cullinan would be rendered worthless.

https://i0.wp.com/i.space.com/images/i/22659/iFF/55-cancri-e-diamond-planet.jpg55 Cancri e (yes, that’s the planet’s completely boring official name) is twice as big as Earth, but it’s a fast-moving behemoth – it orbits its Sun, a journey that takes us a full year, once every 18 hours! Two months ago, astronomers announced that this planet is likely a “carbon planet.” Meaning a third of it could be pure diamond.

Sadly, this impressive piece of bling is 40 light years away from us. (NOW do you see why we need that starship?)

A bone to pick. Could we please find a more interesting name for this beauty? I vote for Latin – Puellae Optimus Amicus. Rough translation: Girl’s Best Friend.

9. MARS DREAMING

On August 6, with millions of people (including me) watching live, NASA’s one-ton Curiosity rover landed safely on Mars, after completing an astonishing sequence of events that all had to occur automatically and perfectly within a seven minute timeframe in order to not have the $2.5 billion project, well, literally crash and burn.

Since then, Curiosity has been making geeks happy by driving around the surface of Mars taking photographs, conducting experiments, and generally being adorable. (It beamed a song – “Reach for the Stars” by will.i.am – back to Earth, and used the Foursquare mobile app to generate the first “check-in” from another planet! C’mon…does it get any cuter?)

https://i0.wp.com/upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/thumb/7/7d/Mars_atmosphere.jpg/220px-Mars_atmosphere.jpgHowever, Curiosity may soon be made obsolete by the appearance of – well, people on Mars. In 2010, the U.S. scrapped plans for another moon mission and instead authorized a 2030(ish) manned Mars mission. Not to be outdone, those renowned space experts the Dutch have spearheaded Mars One – a planned actual human colony on Mars which has a (wildly) optimistic target date of 2023.

Well, you can imagine how much all of this excites me. Although there is 0.00% chance of me going to Mars, myself…

10. SO YOU WANNA BE AN ASTRONAUT

I’ve already written about how no-way no-how could I ever go into space. (I’m a big fat scaredy-cat, etc.) The video below, complete with audio remastered by the folks who brought you Star Wars, lets you (sort-of) experience traveling out of our atmosphere on the Space Shuttle. Pay attention to the numbers on the upper right – that’s the shuttle’s speed in mph.

Note the heart-pounding force that pushes the shuttle off the launch pad. Note the amazing sounds of the rockets and the pierced-through atmosphere. Note how fast the shuttle is accelerating.

Note me soiling my pants like a little baby.

 

Quiet Time

I saw a woman at the park the other day who held forth to a group of her friends, no kidding, for at least an hour solid. I kept looking up from my book, in astonishment – Yep, she’s still talking. Her friends seemed content to be her audience. I was equal parts amazed and exhausted, watching her. She was still going, when I left.

It was like watching a creature from another planet. But let me explain. Continue reading

Death By Molasses

Evidently, part of this blog’s mission is to bring you weird wonderful bits of history that you may not have learned about in school. Paul Revere’s midnight dash, Mrs. O’Leary’s pyromaniac cow, and Boston’s tea party? The U.S. Department of Education handled those. The Dionne quintuplets, the Collyer brothers, and Boston’s deadly wall of molasses (see below)? I’ve got you covered.

(It occurs: this makes me a slightly more literary version of Ripley’s Believe it or Not. Ah, well.)

Next Sunday marks the 100th anniversary of the sinking of the Titanic, and there is no shortage of tributes taking place this week, on television, in magazines, and on the internet – James Cameron even re-released his epic movie in 3-D.

I have nothing useful to add to the Titanic lexicon. Sorry. But I can give you a recap of a lesser-known (okay, just lesser) tragedy that occurred 7 years after the Titanic sank.

Since you asked. Continue reading

The Year in Cool

I apologize – you’ve been misled. The title of this post is not The Year in Cool; it’s actually (in the spirit of Christmas) The Twelve Days of Physics.

But if I’d said that up front, one or two of you wouldn’t have even stopped by. So, a little subterfuge for the greater good? When the good is this great – heck, yeah.

Here are 12 of the coolest things that captured my attention this year and I promise – you won’t break a sweat or a nail, reading about them. (Click the embedded links for more information on each topic.)

Learn something new! Impress your friends! Get ready to have your world rocked, baby.

1. NANO GUITAR

This guitar was created (way back) in 1997, but I just read about it this year. So I hope you’re not relying on me for all your breaking science news. Anyway, apparently, while I’ve been busy baking cookies and checking my email, scientists have been busy making things out of atoms. As in, manipulating atoms and crafting things out of them, like an atomic abacus or, I don’t know, a six-string guitar that is the size of a red blood cell.

Wanna see how small that is? Check out this killer link, which shows lots of tiny items in proportion to even tinier items. (Please note: even the original view has been magnified.) You can’t see the red blood cell from here. You have to zoom way, way in (using the slider right underneath the graphics) to get to the red blood cell.

That’s the size of this guitar they’ve made. And yes, it can be played. But no, not by your fat fingers. Continue reading

Fiction in a Flash

I few weeks ago, my Twitter buddy Jay DiNitto told me he’d just published an e-book of Flash Fiction. My first reaction was, “What kind of fiction?”

I’d heard the term before, but had no idea what it meant. I’d certainly never read any. But bring up something I know nothing about, and it’s like waving a pound of catnip above a box of kittens.

So here’s the scoop.

Flash fiction dates at least back to 600 B.C., when Aesop was writing his famous fables (The Tortoise and the Hare, The Boy Who Cried Wolf, etc.) It’s generally considered to be a story of less than 1000 words – but many are far shorter than that. Continue reading

The Mountain

On the third Saturday of May, in 1980. a thirty-year-old scientist named David Johnston headed up the gorgeous Toutle River Valley in Washington State, one of the prettiest places on God’s green earth. Johnston, who worked for the United States Geological Survey, had agreed to fill in that weekend for a colleague, manning an observation camp on Coldwater Ridge in the Cascade Mountains.

Although Johnston had earned his PhD just two years previously, his short career had already taken him around the country, and he was already considered an expert in his field. For the last two months, he’d been based in the Pacific Northwest, monitoring a troubling series of earthquakes and phreatic activity. He and his co-workers had been so alarmed by what they’d seen, in fact, they’d successfully lobbied to close the large, tourist-heavy Toutle River area to the public (a move that did not sit well with local authorities.)

After “making the rounds” that day, Johnston settled into his “home” for the next 24 hours – a small, well-worn camper parked on top of a mess of rocks, surrounded by piles of broken tree branches. Not a luxurious setting by any means…unless you factored in the location.

Spread out at Johnston’s feet was the kind of view that eats million-dollar views for breakfast. As far as the eye could see (and that happened to be mile after mile, from here), there was not a single man-made object.  Below his feet, the ground dropped away into a wide valley that was ringed by towering, snow-capped peaks. Everything sparkled in the sun like jewels: the silvery river threading its way down the center of the valley; the deep emerald-colored evergreens blanketing every square inch of flowing mountainside; the nearly sapphire-blue sky.

Although Coldwater Ridge was at an elevation of more than 3000 feet, and it was only the middle of May, the day was postcard-pretty – so warm that Johnston was dressed in his shirtsleeves and a pair of jeans. Continue reading

Objects in the Mirror…

It goes far beyond the familiar warning about objects in our rearview mirrors, by now. I hate to tell you this, but all sorts of objects, everywhere, might not be anything like they appear.

I’ve been reading a book that my friend Ron recommended, called The Drunkard’s Walk: How Randomness Rules Our Lives, by Leonard Mlodinow. By a few pages in, I loved it so much, I wanted to weep. Give me a book about geeky-fascinating, blow-your-mind science stuff, and I’m a goner.

The book is about (and do NOT run away here – I’m getting ready to tell you some funky-cool things) probability theory, chance, and how psychological illusions cause us to misjudge the world around us – not because we are stupid or gullible, but because these illusions are so powerful.

I think of it this way: our complex psychological and emotional makeup constantly interferes with our ability to analyze data and use pure reasoning. But also, we exist in both a microscopic world and a macro universe, the scopes of which are virtually impossible for most of us to grasp.

Our elegant brains are simply hard-wired to misinterpret data. Here are a few examples.

Our perceptions of probability and cause & effect are skewed.

We tend to think, in our own lives and in the world at large, that an event is either more or less likely to occur because it has (or has not) happened recently. (We think: “Her luck has run out…” “He is due…”) This is the same reasoning behind the hiring and firing of CEO’s or studio heads, when they’ve had a run of several good or bad years/movies.

We – and executive boards, and recruiting agents, and on and on – reason that results are based on performance…isn’t this what we’ve been taught, all our lives? But, as has been mathematically proven (and the book goes into great detail on this), much of what happens in the world is the result of randomness – the result of what is called “Bernoulli’s theorem” (after a 17th-century mathematician) or “the law of large numbers.”

Of course, Kobe Bryant’s talent allows him to perform much better in the NBA than, say, my neighbor Sandra would. But Kobe’s individual performance from game to game, or season to season, or throughout his career, is due almost exclusively to chance, and not to fluctuations in his abilities. This might sound like hooey, but it’s a scientific fact.

Success, as it turns out, really is most often a matter of repetition. Bad news for the exceptionally talented of this world. Fantastic news for the exceptionally dogged.

Our perceptions of relevance, and our interpretation of statistics, are skewed.

During the O.J. Simpson murder trial, it was an accepted fact that Nicole Brown had been previously battered by O.J. So one of the arguments that the defense team pulled out was this: Of the 4 million women who are domestically battered each year, only about 1 in 2,500 are killed by their partners.

This was a true fact. It was a very convincing argument, to the jury. And on an intuitive level, it appeared to be completely and totally relevant to the O.J. case.

But it wasn’t.

Why not? Well, the previous statistic dealt with women who are NOT killed – and Nicole most definitely had been killed. The relevant statistic (and one the prosecution failed to bring up) was this: of all the battered women in the U.S. who are killed (and Nicole was part of this category), 90 percent of them are killed by their abuser.

The first (irrelevant) statistic created such a powerful illusion, it helped convince the jury to acquit a double-murder defendant.

Our perception of logic is skewed.

Here’s a fun example of the way our brains resist reality, from The Drunkard’s Walk.

Let’s say you know that someone has twins, and you wish to determine the likelihood that both children are girls. If you don’t know the gender of either child, then the chance that they are both girls is 1 in 4. Sounds logical, right?

Moving along, let’s say you find out that at least one of the children is a girl. Now the chance of them both being girls increases to 1 in 3. (Still sounds right.)

However, if you are told that one of the children is a girl named Florida (!), then the chances of them both being girls increases to 1 in 2.

Whoa, whoa, whoa, back that train up.

How can this be? How can one girl’s strange-sounding name affect the odds on the gender of the other child?

And yet, as Mlodinow painstakingly proves over a few pages, this outlandish statement is an absolute fact. In this example (and in so many others, throughout the book), my own instincts for mathematical reasoning completely failed me.

Moving away from The Drunkard’s Walk

Our perceptions of space and time are skewed.

As we’ve all heard, we (and everything else in the universe) are not moving in a linear way through space and time, from point A to point B; instead we are moving through four dimensional space-time, a concept that even Stephen Hawking calls “impossible to visualize.”

When we look at the sun, we are seeing it in the past, as it existed eight minutes ago – but since everything we perceive comes to us via signals (which require time to travel), even as you read these words, you are looking at your computer screen as it existed in the past (infinitesimally so, of course.)

We’re not just “lost in space,” peeps – we’re lost in time.

Our perception of reality might even be skewed!

The more you start thinking about all these problems with perception, the more widespread you realize they are. Indeed, this recent article from Discover Magazine suggests that our entire universe might be – are you ready for this? – a giant hologram.

This theory will never be proved in our lifetime, of course, but it certainly dovetails nicely with the Christian belief that this world is but a pale twin of another dimension, the “real” reality that is our eternal destination.

(And may I humbly submit: if you are someone who rejects the concept of God and/or Christian beliefs because they seem too far-fetched, too “hocus-pocus” for practical people, then you haven’t been paying attention to the world of science in the last decade. From space exploration to theoretical physics and everything in between, the physical laws of this universe are far wackier than anyone ever imagined. You can still have personal objections to Faith, if you like – but you really can no longer reject it on intellectual grounds.)

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I’ve barely scratched the surface here – but it sure would be nice if this information made us think twice, the next time we want to dig in our heels about our points of view on something. Because chances are very good that our perception is flawed – that there are factors we haven’t considered, or aren’t even aware of.

If mankind understood this concept, it would deliver a death sentence to arrogance of every sort – intellectual, spiritual, societal.

And that would be a very, very good thing.