friday fodder, july 29, 2011

Jazzedjenluc It's been a few weeks since we had a roundup of Friday Fodder here at the cocktail party, and it's high time we got back on schedule. So here's a sampling of cool physics-y links to liven up your cocktail party conversation this weekend.  

Simulating the End of Time. Physicists at the University of Maryland — the same group that brought you analogues of black holes back in 2006 — have now used plasmons ("a two-dimensional form of light that moves along the interface between a metal and an insulator") to create analogues of what might happen to spacetime at the end of time itself. According to George Musser of Scientific American, they ended up with some unusual nonlinear effects corresponding to "the creation of particles—basically, Hawking radiation. In short, matter would go haywire at end of time. It would not go gentle into that good night." Or, as Brandom Keim put it over at Wired Science's coverage of the same story, "This is the way the world ends: not with a bang but a higher harmonic generation." And in other time-related news, physicists re-confirm that time travel is probably impossible.  

Oh, the Glare. Chad over at Uncertain Principles wondered how effective polarized sunglasses really are at blocking polarized light. So like any good physicist, he did the experiment.  

Naked Science: The Singularity. No, not the kind of singularity futurists are always going on about. Over at io9, physicist Dave Goldberg tells you all about the science of a black hole's singularity — and whether such a singularity could exist without the "clothing" of an event horizon. If so, then we might one day be able to observe the singularity without, you know, all the dying and stuff. Because once you fall into a black hole, Goldberg warns, "you get killed very quickly — it takes about a tenth of a second between mild discomfort and being ripped to shreds by tidal forces."

Through a Scanner, Lightly. The BBC made an eye-catching video of a multimedia musical performance by the Aurora Orchestra in London's Wilton's Musical Hall. The piece was composed by Mira Calix and Anna Meredith, who got their inspiration from the sounds of an MRI machine. Definitely worth a listen.  

Zombie Science of the Week: Over at Scientific American's Science Sushi blog, Nerdy Christie tells you all about soy sauce (or salt in general) and why it seems to reanimate the dead.  

Redletter Hubble Space Telescope and the Scarlet Letters. Richard Panek at The Last Word on Nothing delves into an intriguing bit of recent space history, looking back to the launch of the Hubble Space Telescope in 1986.

The idea was to include a small memento for the mission. Perhaps a pipe belonging to Edwin Hubble himself? Or something better: "What about the photographic plate with which Hubble had made the discovery that essentially began modern cosmology: that our vast menagerie of stars is not alone but is, as we now know, merely one among billions of galaxies clouding the universe as far as even HST would be able to see?"

In Defense of the James Webb Space Telescope. Physicist Lawrence Krauss writes an impassioned essay over at Richard Dawkins' place on why the successor to Hubble is important not just for science, but also for inspiring the public — and, one hopes, a new generation of scientists.

The cancellation of the JWST would likely herald the beginning of the end of US leadership in Space Science, just as the cancellation of the SSC moved the center of gravity in particle physics to Europe. The JWST was designed to take off where the Hubble Space telescope—which has revolutionized astronomy—has ended, by taking us to the very beginnings of visible structure in the Universe. It was meant to be the centerpiece of astronomy for the next two decades, and without it, the tantalizing hints that Hubble has been able to glean about our beginnings will remain just that for perhaps a generation. … But the potential loss of the JWST is far greater than just science. It is hard to think of a single NASA project, exceeding even the Mars Rovers, that has captured the imagination of the public, and in particular children, than the images of the cosmos provided by the Hubble Space Telescope. Whenever I lecture and show a Hubble photo I can be guaranteed to provoke excitement and awe. One can only imagine what inspirations the next generation will miss without another comparable eye in the sky.

The Science of Scotch. Over at Popular Science, reporter Paul Adams samples a bit of aged scotch at the Tales of the Cocktail convention in (where else?) New Orleans. But first, the chosen scotch is fractionated by scientist Dave Arnold: "He has set up his laboratory evaporator and physically separated out the flavor components in a glass of Glenlivet so they can be sipped individually…. The evaporator uses a process of vacuum distillation at room temperature to separate liquids based on their relative volatility."  

Hot Enough To Fry an Egg? As the Northeast simmered in record-breaking heat, Alexis Madrigal and his colleagues at the Atlantic wondered if it was really possible to fry an egg on the pavement — or, even better, on the rooftop of the infamous Watergate Hotel. So they did the experiment. Also? Here's a brief history of the science of air-conditioning.

Squishycircuit When Circuits Go Squish. Who knew that PlayDoh could be used to build simple circuits? Lots of folks, apparently. The Exploratorium offers this terrific post and photographs of the museum's first session of summer trainings with its High School Explainers. "We led three workshops on squishy circuits on different days hoping that as many Explainers as possible could try out this activity. The workshops started with the challenge of using the playdoh and batteries to turn on an LED and then progressed to free exploration with all the materials."

The Ladies of the Mercury 13. Via Science 2.0 we learned that in the early days of the space race, NASA investigated the possibility of training women rather than men as astronauts for those early Mercury missions. (In other space trivia, apparently the spacesuits worn by the Apollo astronauts were handmade by seamstresses at Playtex.) Meet the 13 women who passed the same rigorous testing procedures as their male counterparts. In the end they didn't go to space, but they definitely brought some advantages.

Their proposition was based purely on physiology and practicality. They recognized that women's lighter weights would reduce the amount of propulsion fuel being used by the rocket's load and that women would require less auxiliary oxygen than men. They knew that women had fewer heart attacks than men and their reproductive system was thought to be less susceptible to radiation than a male's. Finally, preliminary data suggested that women could outperform men in enduring cramped spaces and prolonged isolation.

One-Minute Physics: Dark Matter. Is it possible to summarize the basic physics of dark matter in one minute? Watch the video and decide for yourself!


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