Browsing the Science – Physics category...


The Silver SpoonToday has been a real challenge. Most of last week I kept having lower back pain on top of the usual fibromyalgia issues. It was constant pain with, now and then, a bad twinge. Finally, today I just couldn’t take it anymore and took a muscle relaxer.

I figured I’d been thinking it was kidneys and drinking water like crazy but it still hurt and every bend and lift was…let’s just say not fun. So, the muscle relaxer. It helped. So, I’m guessing it was the muscles in my lower back all the time and while I was trying to take it easy lifting anything I was probably just making it worse ignoring it. I’m a bit floaty but the pain is now in that “over there” place. You know — you’re in pain and you know it but it’s like one step to the side of you so while it’s here, it’s over there and ignorable.

Meanwhile, we’ve got all the ornaments off the tree and packed. We’ve managed to get all the branches smooched together. Next we need to take it apart and wrap it up for storage. That’s the sticky point with my back as it is. Guess that waits a bit until either I feel better or Hyperion tackles it on his own.

I really hate it when the spoon just get all used up while I still have a full TO DO list and lots of day left over. Meanwhile, I’m doing mindless knitting on my sock — the stocking knit bit in the foot so I’ve got 3 more inches before I have to think about the heel.

I really need many more spoons in my life. So much time so little energy and so few hours not in pain. Okay, I’m whinging again but darn it sometimes you just have to get it out so you can move on.

Hyperion Avatar Okay, this has nothing to do with muscle pain, but a lot to do with mental anguish. Gayle and I watched two sci-fi movies today. Supernova and The Black Hole. Neither are the “classic” by that name, but newer and if anything, worse. Worse because you’d think after all this time movies could actually afford to have a science adviser that could tell them they’re making complete idiots of themselves. Actually, maybe they do have advisers. Just because you have one doesn’t mean you have to listen to them. And in these cases, they most certainly didn’t. Let’s take a second to hit the highlights on the lack of any conformity to high school level physics knowledge.

First in Supernova we have our sun about to go supernova. Okay, we can stop right there. Our sun would need to be about half again its current mass at the very least, so the very premise is already impossible. But wait, there’s more. Why is it going supernova? Because a planetoid crashed into it. Never mind the fact that you could dump the rest of the solar system (which, including ALL the planets, is less than 0.2% of the mass of the sun) into it without causing much more than a ripple. But no, this single planetoid has “punched a hole” in the sun and caused it to become unstable. The instability causes Coronal Mass Ejections which, for some unexplained reason, seem to be aimed at the Earth time and time again. But wait, there’s more. Despite the fact that CME’s are huge energetic clouds of gas larger than the Earth itself, in the movie, they arrive as swarms of little fireballs that rain down and blow up individual buildings. UGH! And the solution to the problem of the impending supernova requires a suspension of disbelieve far above the capacity of this viewer. In most ways, the biggest problems with this movie revolve around the fact that the writers were incapable of understanding anything about the scope of what they were trying to meddle with.  The sun is just too big to fiddle with, and CMEs are just to big and diffuse to cause any problems on less than a hemispheric scale.

Next up is The Black Hole, in which an “accident” with a particle collider causes a black hole to form in St. Louis. Obviously based of the nonsensical ravings against the Large Hadron Collider, this movie quickly goes from the absurd to the disparagingly laughable. Quick lecture in two points. First: The energies produced by the Large Hadron Collider are of a lesser order of magnitude  then the energetic collisions taking place every second in our upper atmosphere between air molecules and cosmic rays. If those collisions haven’t created a black hole in the last few billion years, the LHC isn’t going to be any worry. Second: Assuming a black hole was formed, it would be a microscopic black hole which would flash out of existence in a few microseconds due to Hawking Radiation. Despite what you may have learned about black holes, they do actually emit energy due to quantum mechanical effects at the event horizon. And the smallerl the hole, the faster they evaporate.

So in the movie, we have an impossible event, creating something that wouldn’t actually be of any danger at all.  Furthermore, any black hole that did form, would be subject to gravity like anything else. And since gravity is a universally attractive force, the black hole would fall into the earth (the larger gravity field) and make its way to the core in no time at all before being snuffed by the aforesaid laws of physics. But that would make a short and pointless movie. So instead we get a full scale black hole, hovering over the ground, and eating St. Louis. Interestingly enough, the black hole appears to think (like Khan in Star Trek 2) in two dimensions. Instead of gobbling everything up all around it, it swirls like water going to down the kitchen sink, slowly expanding outwards, but letting helicopters fly over it with impunity. Now we get the part that REALLY doesn’t make any sense. If we ignore physics (and boy do we ever), there’s not much one can do to stop a black hole that’s on the rampage. So we get the addition of an alien entity that uses the black hole as a transit system from planet to planet, and feeds it by sucking in electricity. And “all” we have to do to save the Earth is kick the alien back through the black hole and all will be well again. Gayle and I yelled the solution at the TV about 15 minutes in when the alien first started moving around. Pity it took until 15 minutes from the end for the protagonist to think of it as well.

Okay, that’s enough ranting for now. But be warned, there are two more movies in the collection, and as soon as my craw can take it, we’ll dive into those stinkers as well. When? You’ll be the second to know.

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An artists concept of one of the STEREO spacecraft.NASA announced that it will finally get a good look at our Sun. NASA manages to put the importance of this ability in a nutshell:

STEREO’s deployment on opposite sides of the Sun solves a problem that has vexed astronomers for centuries: At any given moment they can see only half of the stellar surface. The Sun spins on its axis once every 25 days, so over the course of a month the whole Sun does turn to face Earth, but a month is not nearly fast enough to keep track of events. Sunspots can materialize, explode, and regroup in a matter of days; coronal holes open and close; magnetic filaments stretch tight and—snap!—they explode, hurling clouds of hot gas into the solar system. Fully half of this action is hidden from view, a fact which places space weather forecasters in an awkward position. How can you anticipate storms when you can’t see them coming? Likewise researchers cannot track the long-term evolution of sunspots or the dynamics of magnetic filaments because they keep ducking over the horizon at inconvenient times. STEREO’s global view will put an end to these difficulties.

We’ve never been able to see a full 360 view of our sun and using these two STEREO spacecraft we’ll get that chance. Having the full image of the sun available is still two years away but already scientists are getting glimpses of what just over the horizon from what they could see before. You know that bit that’s hidden just a little bit further and you feel if you stretch you could see it. Well, now these spacecraft are giving them that little bit of stretch to see beyond what they had before. It’s a taste of what’s coming and has them all excited about what they could learn. Currently that peek is giving them about a three day advantage — they can see what will be coming around when the Sun spins on its axis by about three days.

Getting better information about the sun and its flares, spots, winds, and such is very important for those of us who use high-tech gadgets. The sun is moving into a very active phase and that is going to effect the Earth’s atmosphere to make some spectacular auroras. However, it’s also going to cause electrical disruptions that can badly decay high-tech gadgets ability to work as smoothly as they do now. There will probably be drop outs in communications using satellites — phones, PDAs, TV reception, internet connections. Having advanced warning of such possible disruptions and maybe some plans to ameliorate the difficulties would be very nice (especially since I have a cellular internet connection).

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An artists concept of Earths magnetic field connecting to the suns--a.k.a. a flux transfer event--with a spacecraft on hand to measure particles and fields.I came across an interesting article the other day but didn’t have time to fully think about it. It seems that about every 8 minutes a magnetic portal opens between the Sun and the Earth and high-energy particles flow through the connection. Then the connection ends until the next time it cycles comes around.

Scientist thought this was a bunch of codswallop but now the facts are just so overwhelming it it can no longer be denied.    Now it’s time to start trying to figure out what’s happening. This is one of the things that makes science great, at least for me. Facts are facts and no matter how much you might wish to ignore, disbelieve, or refute them — if you are honest you have to accept the fact of the matter, adjust, and move on. That’s what science is all about. Having a theory, testing it, then depending on the facts that are gathered, changing the theory, or accepting it as “good enough for now, until new data comes in” and moving on, using this information as a basis for other theories.

Our world is constantly changing, if not in actuality, at least in our understanding of it. Centuries ago we believed the world was flat, then we believed it was round, and now we’ve seen it from space and know that it’s sort of a bulgy-squashed oval shape, slightly more roundish than not actually. But there! We learn, we grow, and our understanding grows also.

So, what does this mean that the Sun and Earth have been having these flux-transfer events. I don’t really know. But it’s been going on for ages so it must be something we need and have learned to adapt and live with. Why does it happen? Why every 8 minutes? Who knows, but now that scientists are aware of the phenomena, I’m confident that we’ll eventually learn a lot more about these flux transfer events. Personally, I wonder because of the magnetic aspect and because it begins over the equator and moves to the pole if it has anything to do with auroras — either helping to build up the charge or release it — but hey, what do I know. I’m just thinking again and that’s always dangerous.

You know I like these flux transfer events. They’re not related, but it makes me think of all those science fiction flux-thingys — flux capacitors, quantum fluxes, and others.

[Hyperion: Two things.  I wonder if the timing has anything to do with the fact that earth is 8 light-minutes away from the sun?  And second, it’s often joked that in science that first a theory is ridiculed, then its violently opposed, and finally its accepted as trivially obvious.]

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Picture of lightRemember physics class in high school where they give you the box and you’re supposed to shine a light through some holes and see light as waves but it passes through the holes as particles? This photo brought it all back. Isn’t it great?

The photo is from an article in New ScientistTech. Among other things:

Researchers have found a way to generate the shortest-ever flash of light – 80 attoseconds (billionths of a billionth of a second) long.

Such flashes have already been used to capture an image of a laser pulse too short to be “photographed” before. (The photo with this post.)

Remember me, science geek? I just thought the photo was “cool” — yeah, I’m dating myself but so what. Imagine taking a photo of light. That long ago science class project just seems even more real to me now.

With this technology, they believe they may be able to photograph electrons going around a atom.  Well, it beats trying to shrink a man/woman to go take a look for them and sending back sketches that have to be enlarged.  Oh, don’t tell me you didn’t watch The Incredible Shrinking Man and think at the end “I wonder what he’ll see when he gets really small?” I can’t be the only one who wondered what happened next.

Now, I wonder what will these scientists do next?

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Every now and then, in my daily search to avoid actual work, I come across something that I think is really and truly worthy of being spread far and wide. Today, I managed to bump into the results of a contest where people were asked to make a video explaining String Theory in two minutes or less. The contest was judged by Brian Greene, a Columbia University physicist. His choice was String Ducky by Sandy Chase (Yes, the yellow bathtub duck. I knew those guys were up to something with all the quarking around.)

Discover Magazine online has the winners and also rans (which are also excellent) along with an introduction by Brian Greene about why he chose String Ducky. Check it out.

After watching all the videos, I really have to say I agree with Greene’s choice of String Ducky. However, my runner ups were Einstein’s Unfinished Symphony (great background music and link to the theory) and Mass Through Strings (visually beautiful).

Writing about science in a clear, concise manner that is factually accurate and entertaining is probably one of the most difficult things a writer can do. The String Theory in 2 Minutes or Less has definitely shown that it can be done visually as well as texturally. All these participants did a wonderful jobs of explaining a very difficult concept in simple language and visuals. These videos are obviously labors of love — love of science and a desire to share knowledge with others. Guess I’ll have to search for more science explanations in 2 minutes or less.

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