Archive for the 'Physics' Category


Orionids Tonight, GIANT Science Festival Tomorrow

Sooo…haven’t posted in a while…I can see you’re upset. Here, let me help you:

(1) Peak of the Orionids Meteor Show tonight (LIES — it was last night at 11pm, but it should still be great tonight).  So grab your chums and a few blankets, then just drive till the city is a tiny smudge of light pollution in your rear view mirror. When you hit an empty, deserted corn field, you’ve made it. Lie your tired head down and enjoy some science (it works, bitches). Here’s a great article where you can learn more.


(2) Wiggawhaaaa? This weekend is the first ever National Science and Engineering Festival on the mall (in DC — it’;ll be off the 1300 block)!

Now, I know what you’re thinking. “This is way to good to be true.”

FALSE!  Go to this site and Obama will explain why it’s not only true, but awesome.

US Science & Engineering Festival: Saturday 10/23/10 and Sunday 10/24/19, from 10am to 530am (both days), just off the 1300 block on the Mall.


Ain’t that one fiiiiiiiine-stucture constant.

Hey all, sorry for the long hiatus. There were a couple surprise visits by certain special people, and now I’m beginning to plan some mooooves, so there wasn’t much time to blog for a little bit there. That said, I have been reading.

For example, I just read this great article in the Economist about the fine-structure constant.

Despite its convoluted origin, though, alpha [the fine-structure constant] has a real meaning. It characterises the strength of the force between electrically charged particles. As such, it governs—among other things—the energy levels of an atom formed from negatively charged electrons and a positive nucleus…When many different energy levels are involved, as they are in the spectrum of a chemically mixed star, the result is a fine, comb-like structure—hence the constant’s name. If it were to take on a different value, the wavelengths of these lines would change. And that is what Dr Webb and Mr King think they have found.

…That may sound trivial. But any detectable deviation from zero would mean that the laws of physics were different there (and then) from those that pertain in the neighbourhood of the Earth.

Using the light from quasars, some physicists think they’ve found evidence for deviations from what we have measures this fine-structure constant to be on Earth. If confirmed, this would be ground-breaking news, for several reasons. Primarily, as mentioned in the above quote, this would mean that the laws of physics vary with time and space. No small thing. The invariability over time and space of physical laws is the cornerstone of many physical theories. Such an incredibly discovery would be… uuuh, is “revolutionary” a strong enough word? an EXPLOSION!! pow!

Stay tuned, folks.

The Economist is one great rag, for many reasons, but I’d never read any of their science articles before. I particularly loved this one because, not only is it talking about something I find very interesting (and you should too), it hits the perfect pitch between too much and too little information.* They tell you the make-up and importance of the fine-structure constant, without bogging you down with higher-level physics and mathematical symbols and such. Well done.

Now if you want to get bogged down by the physics and mathematical symbols, you can go to the ever-awesome Wikipedia article on the subject. Additionally, there is another reporting of this possible discover in the Technology Review.

*I try to do this. How am I doin?


LHC Update

From the physics blags, here’s a great post from John at Cosmic Variance, bringing you up to speed. Things get a little difficult at points, but I think it would still be a fun post to read, if you’re interested.

This past weekend the LHC crossed a major threshold: 1 inverse picobarn delivered to the experiments – a factor of a thousand more collisions. By late next year we are all hoping to have recorded another factor of a thousand, for a total of 1 inverse femtobarn.

In an earlier post I explained these funny units, inverse whatever-barns. The point here, though, is that as we record exponentially greater numbers of collision events, with the proton beam energy 3.5 times greater than that at the Tevatron at Fermilab we will begin to really probe an unexplored mass scale in the search for new particles. What lies there is completely unknown.

Also. I love the Onion, as you should too. Here’s an awesome article — “Scientists Ask Congress to Fund $50 Billion Science Thing” — from 2007 that I thiiiink is referring to the Superconducting Super Collider (sadest story every told).


NASA Image. Stunningly beautiful and damn cool.

'Island Universe' in the Coma Cluster

A long-exposure Hubble Space Telescope image shows a majestic face-on spiral galaxy located deep within the Coma Cluster of galaxies, which lies 320 million light- years away in the northern constellation Coma Berenices. The galaxy, known as NGC 4911, contains rich lanes of dust and gas near its center. These are silhouetted against glowing newborn star clusters and iridescent pink clouds of hydrogen, the existence of which indicates ongoing star formation. Hubble has also captured the outer spiral arms of NGC 4911, along with thousands of other galaxies of varying sizes. The high resolution of Hubble’s cameras, paired with considerably long exposures, made it possible to observe these faint details.

This natural-color Hubble image, which combines data obtained in 2006, 2007, and 2009 from the Wide Field Planetary Camera 2 and the Advanced Camera for Surveys, required 28 hours of exposure time.

Image Credit: NASA/ESA/Hubble Heritage Team (STScI/AURA)


Quantum Mechanics?

No such thing.


Goodness, gracious. Great ball of fire.

Update: In this Wikipedia article, there is a great chronicle of the recent solar events.

This incredible NASA image came juuuust too late for my prior post about the current uptick of solar activity. Dag-namit.

On August 1, 2010, almost the entire Earth-facing side of the sun erupted in a tumult of activity. This image from the Solar Dynamics Observatory of the news-making solar event on August 1 shows the C3-class solar flare (white area on upper left), a solar tsunami (wave-like structure, upper right), multiple filaments of magnetism lifting off the stellar surface, large-scale shaking of the solar corona, radio bursts, a coronal mass ejection and more.

This multi-wavelength extreme ultraviolet snapshot from the Solar Dynamics Observatory shows the sun’s northern hemisphere in mid-eruption. Different colors in the image represent different gas temperatures. Earth’s magnetic field is still reverberating from the solar flare impact on August 3, 2010, which sparked aurorae as far south as Wisconsin and Iowa in the United States. Analysts believe a second solar flare is following behind the first flare and could re-energize the fading geomagnetic storm and spark a new round of Northern Lights.

Image credit: NASA/SDO/AIA


“Explain this to me.” Solar shenanigans edition.

Today I got an email from ma girl Amanda* asking about the “Sun burp” over Norway. Well, cool. This is actually something I know something about.

Image Credit to NASA SOHO

Here’s what’s going on. Solar flares are charged particles shot out of the Sun.  Generally these particles are confined to the Sun itself (although much of the corona of the Sun is mini-ish-solar flares) — you can think of them flowing around the surface of the Sun along its magnetic field lines (I think of the magnetic field lines like rubber bands wrapping and twisting around the Sun — there are problems with this, of course, but it works alright for this purpose). Solar flares, at least little ones, happen quite often, but scientist have found that about every eleven years there is an increase of solar activity (apparently we’ve been in quite a lull for a while, but things might be heatin’ up!).

Although this isn’t well understood, scientists are pretty sure that it has something to do with magnetic fields (due to the correspondence of sunspots and solar flares). There’s one theory that goes like this: the Sun’s magnetic field lines get so twisted and twirled that they reach the peak of what they can handle about every eleven years — then they go ‘snap!’ and, like a when you pull a rubber band and it breaks, the loose ends lash out. And, well, charged particles curl around and flow down magnetic field lines, so if a magnetic field line is extending out of the Sun, then charged particles will flow along and out of the Sun. I’m explaining this in a slow-motion type way, however this happens pretty fast (although, granted, the timescale is minutes or tens of minutes — not, you know, femtoseconds). In fact, this is downright violent:

The amount of energy released is the equivalent of millions of 100-megaton hydrogen bombs exploding at the same time!

(from NASA’s solar people.) The magnetic field lines quickly right themselves along the Sun.

But what we get from this process is a solar flare (sometimes huge, every now and then directed at us). When charged particles come at us, the Earth, we’re thankfully protected by magnetic field shield of our own (due to the Earth’s rotating metal core). These charged particles hit the Earth’s magnetic field and are filtered along them to the magnetic North pole and South pole. Once there, those particles filter down and interact with the atmosphere to create beautiful aurorae (Borealis for the north and Australis for the south).

The stronger the solar flare, the more the charged particles, the brighter the aurorae and therefore the further towards the equator these aurorae can be seen. It’s being predicted that for the particular solar storm we’re currently experiencing — who knows?! — we may even be able to see then down in DC! (Honestly, if we could see it down here, it wouldn’t be very clear. Although you could try staring really hard. See what happens. I dare you.)

I think this really cool.

Note: a similar physical process is happening within particle accelerators! That’s why they got those superconducting magnets in ’em — to create the magnetic fields that guide the charge particles.

More info and some articles:

(1) NASA’s RHESSI website. The place to go for solar flare information.

(1b) NASA SOHO website. Where you can find some incredibly cool images and videos.

(2) “NASA Scientists Braced for ‘Solar Tsunami’ to Hit Earth.” Telegraph article from 8/2/2010 about our imminent destruction (and the motivation for this post). Also, pretty skies…mmmmsensationalism. Tasty.

(2b) Another Telegraph article from earlier today on the beautiful auroras created by this solar storm.

(3) More about the eleven year solar activity cycle here.

(4) I really like this website from Montana State University about solar magnetic fields, and the like.

*Amanda T. you rock, as always.

"The MythBusters need to tackle whether a black hole from the LHC could REALLY destroy the world."

"The MythBusters need to tackle whether a black hole from the LHC could REALLY destroy the world."


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