It's that time of year again, where we begin looking for gift ideas for family and friends. For those of you looking for gifts for a science enthusiast friend, you're in luck! You can get started on our 2013 Holiday Physics Gift Idea List, which includes some games and television shows that might be of interest, and also a link to some 2013 science books that might make great gift ideas.
What are your suggestions for a great holiday gift for the scientist in your life?
It's rare that I review books by biologists, but when I received Edward O. Wilson's Letters to a Young Scientist, I was intrigued to see whether the suggestions of a world-renowned field biologist would resonate with someone whose background was in the hard sciences. While Wilson spends a bit more time on discussions about ants than I personally find necessary, the overall book was enjoyable and offered advice that I wish I'd received upon deciding to pursue the sciences.
Wilson's discussion of how science is pursued - while a bit different in the "squishy" science of biology than in physics - touches on the importance of many of the key scientific skills that I have discussed in the past. I can't call this a "must read" book, but for someone who's thinking about pursuing the sciences, and who wonders about whether it's really something that might interest them, this sort of book certainly may help point out a path that hasn't previously occurred to them, with insights about how scientists really do their work.
Read more in my full review of the book.
For years, I hated turkey at Thanksgiving. I just had no interest in eating it, because it never tasted right. The breast was too dry and the dark meat was too chewy. It seemed absolutely impossible to get turkey to come out right.
Then I discovered the science behind it, and incorporated some suggestions from Food Network food geek Alton Brown on how to get the perfect bird. It was one of the most delicious things I've ever eaten.
Since then, it's been my pleasure every year to share the Physics of Turkey article with our loyal readers. (Do we have loyal readers? I'm not sure.) It brings together a lot of the interesting science behind cooking a turkey, focusing on how to get the right parts of the bird heated to the right temperatures.
The article was inspired in part by Roger Highfield's intriguing book, The Physics of Christmas, which includes a detailed discussion of cooking a turkey. The article has evolved over the years as I discover new and intriguing turkey-related physics fact. (That's a sentence you don't expect to ever write until it happens.)
Image Source: Lisa Peardon / Getty Images
When the original Thor film came out in 2011, I commented on how effectively they incorporated scientific concepts into the film. With the upcoming release of its sequel, Thor: The Dark World, it's a good time to revisit some of the ways science manifests itself in this fundamentally mythical cinematic event.
Mjolnir - In the original film, Odin makes reference to the fact that Thor's hammer Mjolnir was forged from a dying star. This made me think that it was perhaps made of the incredibly dense material of a neutron star (a viewpoint that's also been voiced by no less than astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson). However, in the comic book Indestructible Hulk #8, a discussion of Mjolnir points at another explanation ... one that had been outlined by James Kakalios, author of The Physics of Superheroes. In this alternate explanation, Mjolnir contains nanotechnology that can manipulate and emit graviton particles.
Bifrost - The Bifrost, or Rainbow Bridge, is the mythical path between the Norse heavenly realm of Asgard and Midgard (known to us non-Norse mere mortals as Earth). In the original film, this Rainbow Bridge is revealed to be a wormhole, or Einstein-Rosen bridge, which connects two distant points in spacetime.
The Nine Realms - Norse cosmology contains nine distinct realms, which is tied through the films into the current scientific understanding of parallel universes. Asgard, Midgard, Jotunheim, and other realms that show up in the films are represented as different physical realities, although there are connections (such as the aforementioned wormholes) between them.
The Aether - I haven't seen the film yet (an oversight that I expect the folks at Disney/Marvel are kicking themselves for), but the reviews that I've seen imply that a major component is a destructive force from the dawn of time known as the "Aether." It appears that it may be a power that can break down the barriers between the parallel universes, thus destroying all of reality. Or something like that. Some early trailers also hinted at the "darkness" out of which the universe was originally formed. It's not clear, but it's possible that this Aether might be dark energy, which pushes spacetime itself apart. A sufficiently powerful source of dark energy could, in theory, cause matter itself to fly apart rapidly, thus destroying the universe. (The impact on parallel universes is far less clear.)
One of the biggest dreams in the realm of energy technology is the development of clean fusion energy generators. Nuclear fusion is the process that generates energy from the sun, but trying to harness that power for our own use on the Earth has proven elusive.
In stars, it is a combination of gravity and quantum physics that drives the fusion process. The mass within the star pulls the atoms closely together into an extremely dense, high energy plasma ... so dense and high in energy that the occasional particle fuses with the particle next to it. And there are so many atoms in the star that "occasional" in this sense generates quite a lot of heat and light.
On Earth, the goal is to simulate this process in a controlled way. The atom of choice is the hydrogen atom. The nucleus of a hydrogen contains only a single proton, but if you are able to get two hydrogen nuclei to fuse together then you have a helium atom with two protons in the atomic nucleus, and also to release energy thanks to the relationship of matter and energy (demonstrated in the famous equation E = mc2).
There are two primary methods that, in theory, should result in nuclear fusion that we can use for power production, with efforts proceeding to demonstrate success in both methods:
- Magnetic confinement fusion - A magnetic field is used to compress hydrogen inside of donut-shaped magnets, called tokamaks.
- Inertial fusion - Lasers are used to heat the outer shell of a spherical hydrogen target. As the outer shell explodes, it creates an inward pressure that compresses the center of the target into an incredibly dense sphere.
For the moment, let's focus on the inertial fusion method ... and the National Ignition Facility (NIF), one of the leading attempts to succeed with the inertial fusion method. Despite some complications due to the recent U.S. government shutdown earlier this month, they've crossed an important milestone: the fusion process released more energy than was put into the target.
This point is called "ignition" ... and it's the main goal of the National Ignition Facility. To reach this goal, the NIF uses the most powerful laser in the world, splitting it into a total of 192 beams and releasing short bursts of pulses to evenly heat the surface of a metal shell containing the hydrogen fuel.
This is certainly a major milestone ... but not quite the sort of self-sustaining process that it might sound like. Due to inefficiencies in the equipment and the overall process, if we tried to take the energy released and use it to continue the process, we'd lose enough energy that we wouldn't be able to keep it going.
Still, having achieved this success is a major step in the right direction, and helps provide information on what is needed to succeed at this project. Unfortunately, this sort of cutting-edge research - based heavily on theoretical work and containing a lot of possibility of failure - is exactly the sort of research that is in danger of being defunded in the political discussions around budget reductions. There are few powerful lobbies in Washington that have a vested interest in seeing that nuclear fusion succeeds ... and multiple powerful lobbies that would be better served by its failure, in fact.
Only time will tell if we're able to get a true breakthrough to achieve the goal of ignition and then, perhaps, the holy grail of energy physics: a fully self-sustaining nuclear fusion generator, which generates no dangerous nuclear side-effects.
Sources & Related Articles:
- Physics of Plasmas - "Progress towards ignition on the National Ignition Facility," July 30, 2013 (free abstract, paywall for full article)
- AIP blog - Fusion, Anyone?, August 23, 2013
- LiveScience Blog - Fusion Experiments Inch Closer to Break-Even Point, Sept. 30, 2013
- BBC News - Nuclear Fusion Milestone Passed at US Lab, Oct. 7, 2013
- NBC News - Nuclear Fusion Laser-Beam Experiment Yields Surprising Results, Oct. 8, 2013
- Scientific American blog - Can Fusion Energy Achieve a Breakthrough?, Oct. 15, 2013
Image Source/Credit: Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, National Ignition Facility
A new idea called Higgsogenesis has been proposed to explain the distribution of matter we observe in our universe ... but will the evidence actually show it as a viable explanation?
If the universe had been created with equal amounts of matter and antimatter, the universe would probably be devoid of any matter right now. Attempts to explain this early imbalance are called baryogenesis.
Lately, some explanations have come forth that might use the properties of the Higgs boson to provide the foundation for this early asymmetry. In these Higgsogenesis models, the early universe contained an anti-Higgs particle, and it was the asymmetry between these two particles that led to the imbalance between matter and antimatter.
In addition, though, it's possible that the Higgs boson may decay into dark matter particles ... and if this is the case, then some preliminary work has shown that it's possible that the Higgsogenesis model could actually explain the distribution of dark matter we observe in our current universe.
You can find out more about this new theory in our article on Higgsogenesis.
In the morning of October 8, 2013, the Nobel Prize committee announced that the 2013 Nobel Prize in Physics is awarded jointly to Francois Englert and Peter Higgs, "for the theoretical discovery of a mechanism that contributes to our understanding of the origin of mass of subatomic particles, and which recently was confirmed through the discovery of the predicted fundamental particle, by the ATLAS and CMS experiments at CERN's Large Hadron Collider."
This year's Nobel Prize in Physics was possibly one of the least surprising in recent memory. It was predicted all over the science blogosphere ... but, in fairness, a lot of people predicted the same thing last year, and the 2012 Nobel Prize in Physics went to someone else. That the theorists behind the Higgs boson (and the Higgs field) were going to eventually get a Nobel was really not a surprise to anyone, it was just a question of whether the committee was going to do it this soon, or wait for some more evidence to come in.
It turns out that they felt the evidence was solid enough to warrant the award. The biggest problem in this case is that a total of 6 physicists independently discovered this mechanism of how fields in empty space can generate mass, but the Nobel Prize can be split between no more than three people. Physicists are still exploring the data from the Large Hadron Collider, seeking to figure out whether the Higgs boson can provide any answers to the remaining great mysteries of theoretical physics.
Image: Peter Higgs awaits the July 4, 2012, official announcement that CERN has found evidence consistent with the Higgs boson that he predicted in the 1960's. Copyright 2012 CERN
A recent book by astrophysicist Mario Livio, Brilliant Blunders: From Darwin to Einstein, focuses on five of the greatest scientific blunders of the last two centuries. What's really interesting to me about the book is that he selects five blunders that are instrumental to our modern understanding of how we came to exist:
- Charles Darwin: conflict between his theory of evolution by natural selection and the biological understanding of heredity at the time
- Lord Kelvin (William Thomson): using thermodynamics to calculate the age of the universe ... and coming up with a value far shorter than that needed for evolution to work
- Linus Pauling: in a rush to create a model of DNA and determine its structure, the great chemist created a model that violated some basic principles of chemistry ... and, as a result, he missed discovering the double-helix structure of DNA, even though he himself had previously stated a basic concept that should have pointed the way.
- Fred Hoyle: developed the steady state theory to avoid the need for a start to the universe, as suggested by the big bang theory, and refused to abandon the theory when ample evidence, such as the cosmic microwave background radiation, pointed against it.
- Albert Einstein: also in belief of an eternal, static universe, added the cosmological constant to the theory of general relativity, but when the evidence of universal expansion was discovered, removed it entirely from the theory (effectively setting its value to 0). Today, evidence suggests that the cosmological constant actually does have a non-zero value and needs to be included in the theory to account for the acceleration of expansion that is attributed to dark energy.
Livio's exploration of these major turning points in science - and the ways in which brilliant scientists made rather glaring mistakes that they themselves should have been able to recognize - helps understand the way scientific progress advances. Bad ideas, no matter who supports them, are eventually identified and modified or eliminated until the theory actually fits with the evidence seen in the realm of experiments and observational evidence.
Find out more by reading our review of Brilliant Blunders by Mario Livio.
One of my favorite songs is "Bohemian Rhapsody" and I have more than a passing familiarity with string theory. For those two reasons, this new music video is about one of the coolest things I've ever seen!
It seems like you couldn't throw a cat on the internet (and there are a lot of cats on the internet) over the last week without hitting this video of a Canadian physics student creating a virtually perfect "Bohemian Rhapsody," where all of the lyrics have been modified to discuss a scientifically-accurate musing on the wonders and mysteries of string theory. Here's a hint of the opening lyrics to the song, which the creator dubbed "Bohemian Gravity":
Is string theory right?
Is it just fantasy?
Caught in the landscape,
Out of touch with reality
Seriously, if you haven't seen the video, check it out now. You will not be sorry.
And this isn't the only video worth checking out. The creator's YouTube channel, acapellascience, features other similar videos that he's created in the past, including one Adele-based song called "Rolling in the Higgs" ... which, as the title suggests, focuses on the search and discovery of the Higgs boson.
The physicist Max Planck was an unlikely man to lead a scientific revolution. When he entered the field of physics, he was told by his mentor that there was nothing new to discover, merely some work in refining theories and hammering out the details. Nonetheless, this sort of work sounded quite good to Planck and, therefore, he started work as a physicist in 1874, soon moving from experimental to theoretical physics.
If you know anything about the history of physics, you know that about three decades later, Planck himself was involved in a series of discoveries that proved his mentor wrong. In his own resolution of the ultraviolet catastrophe in the blackbody radiation problem, he established the basic concepts that would lead to quantum physics ... though it would take a young man named Albert Einstein to recognize the significance of them and really add momentum to the revolution.
When Planck originally proposed the concept of light being treated in discrete units, "quanta," of energy, he intended it as something of a trick, a mathematical convention that allowed him to resolve the calculation problems within the problem he was working on. He didn't believe at the time that they actually corresponded to physical reality. Like Einstein, even years later, Planck didn't really believe the full implications of quantum physics that were embraced by the likes of Niels Bohr.