space squid, atomic dance, and people magnets

Inlovejenluc It's time for the weekly cool science links post — Vegas edition! The Time Lord whisked me off to Sin City for my birthday, and we've been indulging in great food, a bit of poker, sidecars at the Bellagio, and he even went with me to see Bridesmaids because Time Lords are totes secure in their masculinity. We're returning to our usual hard-working ascetic existence this very moment, but it's been a great week for weird and wonderful science on the Interwebz.

Space Shuttle Awesomeness. Okay, the big news for space geeks this week was the final launch of Space Shuttle Endeavor on Monday, complete with wow-worthy pix and videos. Among the various items hitching a ride on Endeavor were bobtail squid, a set of LEGOs, C. elegans (earthworms) descended from the survivors of Columbia's final flight, and a ChipSat experiment to test the viability of fingernail-sized micro-satellites in space — plus one major experiment, the Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer, to study high-energy cosmic rays and search for evidence of dark matter and dark energy.

Strangeness is Not Conserved. Jon Butterworth's column in the Guardian highlights a guest post by Lily Asmuth on her three least favorite quarks, Up, Down and Strange. "There are in fact six quarks now, but the others are much more exciting and deserve heir own stories. All of matter is made of the first two and electrons. Every single atom in the Universe has nothing in it other than some combination of up quark, down quark and electron. The strange ones inhabit particles that only exists transiently, before decaying to something stable that contains only normal up and down quarks."

A Poem About Love and Math. New Jersey teacher and star of the poetry slam circuit Chad Anderson performs his most requested piece. (He loves her like math: infinite and precise.)

Inventive Timepiece of the Week. Physicists can't just use a stopwatch like normal people. The folks at Physics Buzz provide a detailed account of the time-keeping device the American Physical Society's Physics Central team concocted for the American Visionary Art Museum's annual in Kinetic Sculpture Race, in which human-powered sculptures wind around the Baltimore harbor. All you need to build your own similar device is some plastic tubing, a funnel, some PVC pipe, water, corn oil, mineral oil, 91 percent rubbing alcohol, and a bit of food dye (red and green). Check out the link for more details.

Surely You're Joking. Wired's Joel Warner has a fun, lengthy feature on the science of jokes and humor, specifically, "one man's attempt to explain every joke ever." There are handy charts and diagrams, categories and subcategories, for those interested in seeing how this system applies to the humor in their own lives. Next one hopes scientists will turn to the pressing question of why trying to explain a joke renders it not funny.

People Magnets. The Guardian's M.J. Robbins offers a witty critique of the phenomenon of "magnetic people" that seem to be springing up all over Eastern Europe these days. After admitting he once craved a magnetic nose as a child (who wouldn't?), Robbins debunks the supposed video evidence, concluding, "There's nothing in the videos that can't be explained by sticky skin and some careful positioning." He might still get something like his magnetic nose, though: he ends the piece by citing a 2006 Wired feature (also well worth a read) on folks with magnetic implants in their fingertips. Science! It's like magic, only so much cooler!

7629eda8-71db-4e4f-8cab-92f4abcd016c Cool Physics History Moment Of the Week. Turns out I share my birthday with (a) late night host Craig Ferguson (kudos to Phil Plait for noticing), and (b) a pivotal 19th century experiment by physicist James Clerk Maxwell and Thomas Sutton, whereby they took the world's first color photograph. The two men "used three projectors fitted with red, green, and blue filters to combine three black-and-white photos of a tartan ribbon shot through similar filters, thereby forming the world’s first color photo and, consequently, the 'basis of nearly all subsequent photochemical and electronic methods of colour photography.'”

The Science of Condiments. Ketchup and mustard are practically staples in the American diet, and this week a couple of folks decided to find the science hidden in their condiments. First, over at HiLoBrow, Tom Nealon has the latest installment in his De Condimentis series, with a look at the history and science of mustard. Apparently for centuries it was used medicinally, not as a condiment. "Pythagoras claimed that it would cure the bite of the scorpion and Pliny suggested it for improving lazy housewives. As late as the Renaissance, Guillemeau suggested it for weaning babies." Other uses included dispersing snake and fungi poisons, curing coughs (mustard is "a terrific expectorant" for breaking up phlegm), as a laxative, and "simulated menses and urine." Second, io9's Esther Inglis-Arkell reports on the surprising truth about snake venom and how it enters the victim's bloodstream. Apparently it works a lot like ketchup. Snake venom, she writes,

"… is one of many deliciously-named thixotropic liquids. Ketchup is another. The running joke about how ketchup stays stuck in the bottle until a certain amount of shaking makes it flow so fast it floods the top of a burger has its foundation in fact. Thixotropic liquids behave like gels or foams, hanging loosely together, until a sideways force is applied. Sometimes it's rhythmic pounding on the side of a bottle. Sometimes it's fast vibrations. Sometimes it's the movement of prey, or the natural absorbtion of the prey's muscle tissue. When a sideways, or vibrational, force is applied to a thixotropic liquid, it flows fast. So the snake's venom holds together until it gets into the prey, and then gushes into the surrounding tissue."

When Atoms Do a Digital Dance. New Scientist posted an amazing video called "Dancing Atoms," showcasing a collaboration between ballet dancer Roberto Bolle and a team lead by researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, in which motion capture technology creates a digital avatar of Bolle dancing. "It's unlike any ballet you've ever seen – a swarm of swirling particles gradually form the shape of a dancer and transform into a lifelike model before they explode into digital bits for the grand finale." Check it out!

Finally, we give you the Video Mashup of the Week: The opening credits from Dr. Who/Series 5, set to the theme song from Buffy. WINNING!

2 thoughts on “space squid, atomic dance, and people magnets”

  1. That Peter McGraw guy from the “explaining jokes” article makes me angry. He says that if people laugh when they’re tickled then they must, on some level, enjoy it. Bullshit. Surely a scientist should understand that the fact people laugh when they’re tickled falsifies the hypothesis that laughter is necessarily correlated with pleasure. Being tickled can be an utterly horrible experience (especially in closed spaces), and we really don’t need insensitive folk telling us that if we didn’t enjoy it we wouldn’t laugh.
    Reading the mustard article now. The bit about reinterpreting the parable is unconvincing as written, but I wouldn’t mind reading some other sources that explain it better.

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