Physics Week in Review: April 7, 2018

We’re back from our travels and yes, Japan was a glorious experience. But we’re thrilled to be home and getting back into groove of things. Among this week’s physics highlights: measuring the color of antimatter, financial brownian motion, and the geometry of arctic ponds.

On a personal note, I was truly stunned and honored to hear the American Humanist Association named me 2018 Humanist of the Year.  Also: my TEDx talk from February on phase transitions, plateaus, and eureka moments, is now online, in which I discuss how changing someone’s mind is like boiling water: nothing seems to happen until suddenly it does. Partially based on this essay I wrote a few years ago for BOOM California.

Scientists Have Measured the ‘Color’ of Antimatter for the First Time–a finding three decades in the making.

Quantum Correlations Reverse Thermodynamic Arrow of Time. “A recent experiment shows how quantum mechanics can make heat flow from a cold body to a hot one, an apparent (though not real) violation of the second law of thermodynamics.”

Quantum Gambling and the Nature of Reality: An (Awesome) Interactive Feature. “Bell had never been happy with quantum physics. “I hesitated to think it was wrong,” he said, “but I knew it was rotten.”

Physicists Get to the Root of Randomness in Financial Markets.  Wall Street Could Benefit from Classic Physics, namely Financial Brownian Motion. Using data on the activity of individual financial traders, researchers have devised a microscopic financial model that can explain macroscopic market trends.

CERN researchers think they saw rare particle decay that could lead to new physics.

The Geometry of Arctic Ponds: A geometric model of meltwater ponds may help predict how the polar ice caps might evolve under future climate changes.

Data from the Chandra X-ray Observatory suggests clusters of stellar-mass black holes surround Sagittarius A*, the supermassive black hole at the center of our galaxy.

A Victory for Dark Matter in a Galaxy Without Any. Paradoxically, a small galaxy that seems to contain none of the invisible stuff known as “dark matter” may help prove that it exists.  Related: “We really thought dark matter is the skeleton upon which everything else in the universe is built. Seeing a galaxy without it suggests maybe there’s other ways of building galaxies that don’t require dark matter.”

Whisper From the First Stars Sets Off Loud Dark Matter Debate. A surprise discovery announced a month ago suggested that the early universe looked very different than previously believed. Initial theories that the discrepancy was due to dark matter have come under fire.

Beguiling Dark-Matter Signal Persists 20 Years on. Physicists at experiment in Italy continue to see a data fluctuation that they say represents dark matter—but the mystery deepens.

Saltwater-artThe Delicate Saltwater Paintings of Mai Hirashima. “Mai Hirashima uses saltwater as paint, carefully applying it on black paper canvases, using small brushes and thin bamboo skewers, and then applying heat to cause the water to evaporate and the salt crystallize in the desired shape.” [Image: Mai Hirashima]

The physics behind why knuckles crack; Engineers Calculated the Answer. Mathematical models show that the trademark popping sound comes from the collapse of tiny cavitation bubbles in the knuckle joint.

Cracking eggshell nanostructure: New discovery could have important implications for food safety. Shell strength due to “presence of nanostructured mineral associated with osteopontin, an eggshell protein also found in … bone.”

A Critical Analysis of the Latest Cellphone Safety Scare from Ars Technica’s John Timmer: “In which we describe how we decided not to cover the newest cellphone-cancer study…. A quick glance at the study identified significant issues with its primary conclusion. Normally, at this point, the decision would be to skip coverage unless the study picked up unwarranted attention from the rest of the media. (See: Scott Kelly’s DNA). But in this case, we thought we’d describe how we went about evaluating the paper, since it could help more people identify similar issues in the future.”

In 1986 E. W. Silvertooth performed an experiment that seemed to overturn Einstein’s theory of relativity. Thirty years later the mystery was solved.

A device that can detect individual barium ions could be the heart of an experiment that takes the next step toward probing the nature of the neutrino.

Helping Soldiers Disappear in a Burst of Smoke with infrared smoke grenades.

Do You Weigh More at the Equator or at the North Pole? In which a physics professor very severely overthinks his daughter’s science homework.

Scientifically Speaking, You Could Run Through Platform 9 3/4: “[A]ccording to the equations of quantum mechanics, a human-sized object has a non-zero chance of randomly passing through a wall just like platform 9 & 3/4.”

The Quantum Physics Of Vampires: Can quantum mechanics explain why vampires are killed by sunlight but unperturbed by most forms of artificial lighting?

Hmmm. Momentum Isn’t Magic–Vindicating the Hot Hand with the Mathematics of Streaks. Nearly every basketball player, coach or fan believes that some shooters have an uncanny tendency to experience the hot hand.

Bring Me a Shrubbery! Lumber’s lure: Thanks to physics, viable biofuel may grow in the woods. Future biofuel production requires new catalysts–or better training for stubborn enzymes.  Related: Trees are incredible organisms, and the physics behind them baffled scientists until relatively recently.

‘Frogs’ and ‘mushrooms’ bubble up in quantum fluids: Exotic states of matter mix to form fanciful shapes in supercomputer simulations.

Why It Doesn’t Matter That The World Wide Web Was Invented At CERN. CERN would’ve been a worthwhile use of money even if Tim Berners-Lee had never been hired.

The Strange Magic of Forest Thaw Circles. “As winter gives way to spring, you might notice a strange phenomenon. The snow doesn’t just melt away uniformly, but in almost perfect circles. These “thaw circles” occur when sun the dark trunks of the tree, which absorb more heat than the reflective snow.”

The Physics Behind a Fake Flying Samurai Battle. Quality is one sign of a video hoax, but physics gives you indisputable evidence.

A space junk disaster is a real possibility — here’s how the US government is preventing a chain of collisions that would threaten human access to space.

Conservationists use astronomy software to survey and (hopefully) save endangered species.

The Making of ‘Pillars of Creation,’ One of the Most Amazing Images of Our Universe.

Dolomites-1A New Infrared View of the Dolomites by Paolo Pettigiani Shows Craggy Landscapes in Cotton Candy Colors. “Infrared photography uses a special film or light sensor that processes the usually not-visible wavelengths of infrared light (specifically near-infrared, as opposed to far-infrared, which is used in thermal imaging.) The resulting images from Pettigiani depict the stands of coniferous trees as watermelon-pink, while surfaces that don’t reflect IR light stay more true to their nature hues.” [Image: Paolo Pettigiani]

A ball that inverts and changes color when it is midair, and the scientific literature that explains it.

The physics behind a baseball bat’s sweet spot. “It’s actually more of a sweet zone.”

Why Winning in Rock-Paper-Scissors (and in Life) Isn’t Everything. What does John Nash’s game theory equilibrium concept look like in Rock-Paper-Scissors?

2,300 years after mathematicians first noticed prime numbers, they’re still intrigued.


Tiangong-1: Defunct China space lab comes down over South Pacific; it mostly burnt up on re-entering the Earth’s atmosphere.

Philip Metzger is a planetary scientist who nearly lost his hearing after dropping a lid to a toilet tank. As a physicist, he had to get to the bottom of how this could ever happen.

What Do We Picture When We Want Pictures Of Physics? A brief look at the stock images that define what media outlets think physics is all about.

The latest from the marvelous Story Collider series, this time on the theme of Magnetism: Two physicists, Neer Asherie and Deborah Berebichez, find love after thirteen years. “I grew up in Mexico City in a community that discouraged women from pursuing a career in science. My mom told me not to tell anybody in school that I liked physics because, probably, I would never be able to get married.”  [Also in Spanish.]

Meet the Astronomer Who Has Chronicled the Field for 16 Years. For 16 years, Virginia Trimble read every astronomy paper in 23 journals. Now, her review papers are part of the canon.

The Habits of Light: A Celebration of Pioneering Astronomer Henrietta Leavitt, Whose Calculations Proved That the Universe Is Expanding.

Einstein and the Quantum: He helped invent the concept, but struggled until his death with the idea of a probabilistic universe.

Arago finds new physics with a compass (1824): “a demonstration of what are known as eddy currents, which can be done with a simple copper pipe and a neodymium magnet that fits easily inside it.”

The Atomic-Bomb Core That Escaped World War II. “Even outside a weapon, plutonium posed an immediate danger. All it took was an errant brick or misplaced screwdriver to kill two civilian scientists.”

Quantum Leaps: Read the Winning Entry in a Physics-Inspired Fiction Contest. The Quantum Shorts competition invited stories incorporating the laws of quantum mechanics.

An Acoustic Ecologist Has Recreated the Sounds of John Muir’s World. “I regard him as the first nature sound recorder, Hempton told Earther. “He used his available technology to compose sound recording: a pen and paper. He wrote words about sound because he found irreplaceable value in it aside from lived experience itself.”

Subatomic Smackdown: When it comes to talent, versatility and the power to change the world, which atomic particle is the champ? Read what Symmetry magazine’s four contenders have to say—then you decide.

The Astronaut’s Guide to Flat Earth “theory.” Astronaut Chris Hadfield Offers Helpful Advice For Filtering Out Conspiracy Theories on Social Media.

The Physics Girl unpacks the Quantum Prisoners’ Dilemma: How to flip a coin over the phone when you don’t trust the other person?!

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