out with a (big) bang

Jazzedjenluc We're back with another weekly round-up of intriguing physics-related stories culled from all over the Intertubes — including the mystery of what happened to that Air France flight, a little-known footnote to the history of special relativity, and a sneak peek at the new noir thriller opening this weekend that boldly goes where noir has never gone before: into a particle accelerator to search for the Higgs boson.

The Physics of Air France Flight 447. In June 2009, an Air France flight mysteriously disappeared while flying over the tropical Atlantic Ocean. Physicist Keith Eric Grant explains what likely happened, physics-wise, in a fantastic guest post at Scientific American. "[The aircraft] was … flying at a cruise altitude of 35,000 feet, an altitude where the relationship between an aircraft's stall speed and the speed of sound has gained the name 'the coffin corner.' The name does not come from 'it's deadly to fly there,' but from the shape of a plot of stall velocity versus altitude when the velocity is expressed as  Mach number, the speed relative to the speed of sound. The curve then resembles the tapered corner of a coffin."

Shrinkage is All Relative. Dr. Skyskull has another terrific historical post, this time examining one of the central tenets of special relativity: length contraction (the other is time dilation). Specifically, he talks about the implications of the failed Michelson-Morley experiments to detect the luminiferous aether — a substance once believed to pervade the atmosphere, since it was assumed light, like sound, needed a medium through which to travel) — and an intriguing guess by an Irish scientist named George Fitzgerald who came so very close to Einstein's breakthrough insight about length contraction, but didn't quite get all the way there. All because he couldn't let go of the notion of the aether. There's a lesson in there somewhere.

Also thanks to Dr. Skyskull and his "Weird Science Facts," we learned of the Pythagorus Cup, "a form of drinking cup which forces its user to imbibe only in moderation. Credited to Pythagoras of Samos, it allows the user to fill the cup with wine up to a certain level. If the user fills the cup only up to that level he may enjoy his drink in peace. If he exhibits gluttony however, the cup spills its contents out the bottom." We fail to see the point.

Just Top it Off with a TARDIS. Those wacky Caltech pranksters weren't satisfied with transporting a full-sized TARDIS to the top of a domed structure on MIT's campus. (There is a legendary prankster rivalry between the two schools.) Now they've produced a video and taken the TARDIS on the road — this time to UC-Berkeley. And they put the filmic evidence on YouTube so we can all see how it's done. (h/t: io9) "Remember: if anyone asks, you're moving scientific equipment…."

The Paper Chase. Over at Wired's Neuron Culture blog, David Dobbs has an excellent, in-depth article — original reporting and everything, like he's some sort of professional journalist — posted about biologist Jonathan Eisen's struggle to collect all the academic papers of his late father Harold Eisen. His "quest has solidified his conviction that science needs to radically rework the way it collects and shares its data, methods, and findings. He has plenty of company. A growing number of prominent scientists want to replace the aging journal system with something faster, cheaper, and richer. The current system, they note, grew out of meeting notes and journals published by societies in Europe over three centuries ago."

Under Isaac's Apple Tree. The UK's Daily Mail reports that Isaac Newton's famous 400-year-old apple tree is being fenced off to protect it from prying tourists. "Visitor numbers have gone up by around 50 per cent, to 33,000 a year in three years. The more people who visit, the more the soil will become compacted around the tree and over the roots."

To Catch a Thief. Over at The Scientist, Morgan Giddings vents about the anti-science rhetoric that currently pervades so much of our cultural discourse these days — you know, the argument that states scientists are thieves living high on the hog off taxpayers' money. Giddings gives the smack-down to that nonsense and provides a bracing defense of the forgotten concept of investing in the future:

"Perhaps the anti-science-investment folks would prefer a return to 18th century medicine and physics. I hear that leeches and bloodletting were occasionally effective. For someone who truly believes this, it would seem they should go live like the Amish, taking no advantage of the investments made in science or technology over the past century. If you truly don’t like the fruit of the investments, why are you still taking advantage of it?"

Enter the Cave of Forgotten Dreams. This weekend Werner Herzog's new documentary opens in a limited release, detailing the interior of France’s Chauvet Cave, decorated by humans some 32,000 years ago with the oldest known figurative paintings in the world. There is a long article describing the making of the film (well worth a read) and the underlying geological science over at National Geographic.

Top Ten List of the Week. Breaking Bad's dark and twisted chemistry teacher, Walter White, is "something of a MacGyver when it comes to using chemical formulas to get out of sticky situations. Whatever the problem, Walt will find a solution in the recesses of his scientific mind." AMC has White's top ten chemistry experiments, from making pure meth to building a better battery.

Life from First Principles. If you haven't been reading science writer David Harris' new blog, The Photonist, you've been missing out. Check out his post this week about a paper in Physical Review Letters that describes some calculations from first principles that, for the first time, show how carbon can come into being in the heart of a star. As Harris writes, "In one sense, carbon-12 is easy to create. Just combine three alpha particles–helium-4 nuclei. However, the fusion of three alpha particles is highly suppressed at the temperatures of stars. You can get part of the way there–two alpha particles will fuse easily to create beryllium-8. It’s just that adding the third is tricky."

New Twist on the Zoetrope. We're fans of the history of film and animation, especially early devices like the zoopraxiscope and zoetrope. Jim le Fevre has spent the last few years playing around with a modern twist on this 19th century technology, using a record player and camera — and few other find objects here and there. You can read all about his quest, complete with video documentation.

The Science of Storytelling. Written By is the official magazine of the Writers Guild of America, and the current issue has an excellent article talking to writers of science-centric TV shows about how they benefit from consulting with scientists to get a better story. Among those interviewed: Bones' Janet Lin and Caprica's Jane Espenson.

And speaking of science and storytelling, it's opening weekend for The Big Bang, the quirky new thriller starring Antonio Banderas trying to find a thug's stripper girlfriend and some missing diamonds, who ends up getting tangled in the scheme of gazillionaire to recreate the conditions of the big bang and find the Higgs boson. As one does. Did we mention the waitress tatooed with particle tracks? We're expecting good campy physics fun all around. (h/t: io9)

3 thoughts on “out with a (big) bang”

  1. Saw the Cave of Fogotten Dreams this afternoon – taking a break from grading final exams. Very good, striking. Though Herzog is not a documentarian, but an artist, and there were questions my daughter and I
    wish he had answered. Saw it is in 2D, by the way (same as Thor). My wife is keen to see it again when it comes to DVD. Worth the trip.
    Sigh. Back to the exams.

  2. I liked Dr Skyskull’s post. It explains the historical background to Fitzgerald-Lorentz contraction.
    But really you need to derive the time dilation argument at the same time.
    (perhaps he will do this in a later post?)
    Because on their own they both look mysterious.
    It’s when you combine them together, using a four-dimensional notation,
    that you see that the full set of Lorentz transformations (“boosts”) are really a kind of generalized, four-dimensional hyperbolic “rotation” in spacetime.
    It’s also a powerful argument for introducing the four-dimensional tensor notation as early as possible into the teaching of relativity.
    It is really the only way to see the full elegance of the theory.
    FWIW, “Imaginary time” is one of my pet hates.
    I’ve always believed it confuses novices far more than it reveals.
    Long live the metric tensor. 😉

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