Posts Tagged ‘Science’

The Aurora


A different Aurora.

[*This is an article I wrote for a class in response to an incorrect article in a local newspaper*]
The winter season brings with it more viewings of the Aurora Borealis or more commonly the Northern Lights. Sheets of red, blues and greens dance in the skies of far northern (and southern) latitudes. While it is commonly thought that the aurora is more prevalent during the winter it is in fact constantly active throughout the year. Winter months just provide longer nights in which to view the aurora.
The Aurora is caused by the interaction of energetic particles with the Earth’s ionosphere. These particles come from interactions within the magnetosphere of the Earth. The magnetosphere is the space created by the interaction of the Earth’s innate magnetic field (which we use for compasses) and the solar wind. The solar wind is a consistent flow of particles in the form of plasma that have blown off the surface of the sun.
When the solar wind reaches the magnetosphere of the earth a bow shock, similar to a boat, forms on the sun side of the planet. This deforms the magnetosphere into the shape of an elongated tear drop. In the stretched out tail of the magnetosphere the magnetic fields get stretched out and oppositely direction fields get closer together. These opposite fields can collapse together and send particles streaming back towards the earth.
These streaming particles then approach the upper reaches of the atmosphere where they are accelerated to high energies. As they zoom into the atmosphere they interact with the ambient particles and molecules, giving away their energy as they slow down. The now excited oxygen and nitrogen give off the characteristic red, green and blue lights that we see as the Aurora.
The current location of the auroral oval can be seen at spaceweather.com along with more information about the current space weather conditions. For more in-depth information on the physics of the aurora visit: http://deved.meted.ucar.edu/hao/aurora/


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Bead Physics


Glass Flower

A glass flower (sort of a weird material).

Often it is the simplest well thought out experiments that give the most interesting results. Like rotating a bunch of beads and seeing what happens.

My favorite part:

Why this should happen is unclear. No equations exist to describe why such a slight change in packing density should produce such different system-wide behavior. “Known mechanisms for granular convection could not be applied,” wrote Rietz and Stannarius.

I hope to find a good question like that during my science career, something simple and easy to understand that gives brand new results.


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1.9 Kelvin

My guess as to what it would look like to look down the LHC is running. Assuming on lived.

My guess as to what it would look like to look down the LHC while it is running. Assuming one lived.

Looks like everyone’s favorite soon to be turned on particle accelerator is about to start to be turned on!

At least it is down to a balmy 1.9 Kelvin at the moment with the hopes of running at full or near full power by December. Next week they may turn on the beam at low power to mark the start of the slow ramp up to full on Higg’s Boson finding power.

It will be really neat once the LHC is running at full capacity and sending out more data in a second then I can possible imagine. Also once that data is sifted through, analyzed and thought about will it start to get exciting. Maybe they will find a Higg’s boson (exciting) or perhaps nothing new at all (even more exciting). It will be exciting times in particle physics and I am glad to say that I will just be reading the final results and not searching through that data.

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Richard Dawkins

Multiple heads, not a good evolutionary choice.

Multiple heads, not a good evolutionary choice.

Richard Dawkins spoke at University of Washington today as part of the book tour for his new book. I went to hear him speak because he is Richard Dawkins, I tend to agree with what he says (funny how that sometimes makes events more appealing) and the event was free. Free was a big part of it.

The format was about half an hour of selected readings from his book followed by questions and answers. The excerpts were good, nothing really compelling enough for me to buy the book; I still have not finished The God Delusion. The best part was the question and answer session. Instead of the normal line up to ask a question or write them in and submit them, all of the questions were texted in and selected from a pool of texts.

The best question of the evening was essentially “What is your proof of evolution elevator speech?”. I thought this is a really good question since I have been in situations where I need easy, fast and concrete proof of evolution. He would use either the geographic distribution of species or genetic relationship.s

Geographic distribution is how species are located around the world. All the marsupials in the Australia area, penguins in the antarctic but not arctic and alpacas are only in South America. If Noah’s arc was true then the distribution should be peaked in the middle east with little to no diversity on the edges. Not to mention the tough swim some animals would face.

Genetic relationships are bit tougher to explain quickly, it is the tracing of particular genes among species. From that tracing a family tree of life can be made, no matter which gene is traced the tree comes out the same every time. It might be more convincing (well it is) however it is a harder concept to grasp compared to penguins and kangaroos.

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Go Science

San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. At Night.

San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. At Night.

Today Armadillo Aerospace successfully completed the Lunar Lander Challenge II from Northrop Grumman.

Congratulations, and good luck with completing the next challenge and hopefully a second group will also make it past the second challenge soon. The more groups competing and reaching the benchmarks the better off the private space industry as a whole.

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LHC Start Up

A lightbulb used by Edison to test filaments.

A lightbulb used by Edison to test filaments.

Looks like the LHC is planning on starting up in November at half the maximum energy. 7 TeV instead of 14 TeV.

Doing something new is not easy, above is a photo of one of the lightbulbs Edison used to test new filaments. At the time it was revolutionary, now it is something so common we forget about it. The same goes for most pieces of modern technology, every now and then I take a step back, look at what we have and just marvel at it all.

Edison worked on his version of the lightbulb a hundred and thirty years ago, today I used my iPod Touch as a flashlight to find things in the dark.

Similarly around the same time the first telephone was coming into existance, now a small phone can call anyone from almost everywhere (and everywhere with a satellite phone).

Sometimes it is important to look at things in perspective when a several month delays occurs with a much anticipated piece of technology.

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Cosmic Rays

Shorts between these plates are caused by cosmic rays passing through.

Shorts between these plates are caused by cosmic rays passing through.

Visualization of abstract or complex scientific concepts has always intrigued me. More so is a live demonstration of those concepts.

In physics the basics are easily seen, mechanics is around is every day. Thermodynamic can be trickier but some neat tricks with rubber bands, half empty cans and sudden changes in temperature easily demonstrate many of the principles. Electromagnetism and optics takes a little bit more effort but can have stunning results.

In optics I was taught at first solid theory with no demonstrations of any of it. Then the next teacher I had realized this gap in the classes understanding so he set up a simple single/double slit experiment, it all suddenly made sense.

Eventually topics like generally relativity and solid state physics get harder to demonstrate in a simple manner. I do not mean in a basic lab experiment rather in front of an audience or to an elementary school student.

This is all why I love going to science museums, observatories and other sciencey places, to see the neat demonstrations. Recently I went to the Griffith Park Observatory in Los Angeles and they had a small section for cosmic rays. Two demonstrations were there: a cloud chamber and a spark gap detector (I don’t know the real name off the top of my head). Cloud chambers are either really impressive or not exciting at all, I guess some places may add their own radioactive source to spice things up.

The spark gap detector was really cool. It had a slightly antique look to it with blue sparks and corresponding clicking noises. Best of all the sparks showed up really well on camera even with 1 second hand held exposures.

Now if only the tesla coil was turned on.

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The LHC beam line leading to the ATLAS detector.

The LHC beam line leading to the ATLAS detector.

I watched Angels and Demons last night and could not get over the bad science. It came it two distinct varieties, the first is straight up bad or media-hyped style science the other is in the character of Vittoria, a CERN physicist. (There may be spoilers)

In the film there is concern  the LHC, when switched on, will create antimatter for the first time in the start up event (but not afterwards). This part hurt. Anti-matter, first proposed by Dirac in 1928 is created quite often in particle accelerators and hospitals.

The LHC had some typical science-movie computer interfaces though I was concerned with the part where people were walking in the tunnels as the collider was running. Personally I would not want to be in those tunnels during operation, the massive x-ray radiation generated would not be conducive to ones health, in any situation.

There are also some issues with the device used to hold the ant-matter but I will let that go as it is movie and necessary to the plot.

Then there is Vittoria the bio-entanglement physicist. I wish I knew what bio-entanglement research is or in particular how it links to energy companies, it must be a nascent field. Two comments she made in the film diverged to how a physicists (at least those I know) would really think.

First she said that she never thought that collecting a significant amount of antimatter could ever be used as a weapon. This is just wrong. Physicists realize that their work often leads to improvements in military technology, likely due to the military being a source of funding.

Finally there was the reference to the Higgs Boson. But she never said the word Higgs or boson, instead kept using God Particle. Something that is only done by the media or scientists talking to the media in an attempt to stop that particular nomenclature. I suppose that since this movie had a lot of religious themes in it the god particle seemed like a better choice. Still it hurts to hear it.

Eventually a big budget summer blockbuster film will consult with a few scientists while writing the script to get the science right.

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Vanishing point.

Vanishing point.

The classic example of describing the expanding universe is the inflating balloon.

Imagine that you are on the surface of a half inflated balloon. As the balloon expands you see everything around you moving away even though you are not at the center. If you move around the balloon everything will still be moving away, there is no special center. The two dimensional surface of the balloon is expanding into a three dimensional space for ease of understanding. Likewise one could imagine our three dimensional space expanding into an embedded four dimensional space.

This analogy never really worked for me. I knew what the expanding universe meant but I don’t see how the balloon is the best way to explain it. I heard a better one recently in one of my classes.

Everyone in the room is standing (or sitting) on a particular floor tile. Imagine now that there is an explosion in the room that causes all the floor tiles to fly apart. If someone is at the center they would see everyone flying away from them. But someone sitting elsewhere in the room will see that same person flying away from them. Similarly everyone will see everyone else moving away from them while they are stationary. Except it is not the tiles that are moving apart but space itself.

Of course all of this would easier if we could easily visualize four dimensional space (like a hypercube or 3 sphere).

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This Phone is Tapped.

This Phone is Tapped.

I always found it hard to find a good example of how a scientific theory differs from the colloquial usage of the word. Professor Plaxco (my astrobiology professor) had a good way of demonstrating the difference.

We have a theory of Angola. Not many people of been to Angola (or if they have pick another small country) so no one can directly confirm the theory. However the theory makes certain predictions we can check. One is that there is a United Nations representative from Angola, we could look up their number and call the representative from Angola. Even though we have never been there we can confirm several phenomena associated with the theory of Angola.

The same is true with many scientific theories. We have Big Bang theory, it predicts several independent aspects of the universe and they are right. It predicts a microwave background radiation, variations in that background caused by phonons in the early universe, the primordial ratios of hydrogen, deuterium, helium and other elements and the expansion of the universe. Even though we cannot see the actually big bang (not yet there is some neat neutrino research being done that may let us see farther back beyond the microwave background) we can clearly see what it predicts should happen, just like the theory of Angola.

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