The lava lamp glooped its way into pop culture history with its ascending and descending blobs of wax. Although some lava lamp science is known, there are still a few mysteries that only its makers know for sure. Find out about the knowns and unknowns of the lava lamp.
The psychedelic physics behind the lava lamp’s hypnotic goo
Why Blood Looks Blue Inside Your Veins
No one, no matter how snooty, has actual blue blood. So why do veins look blue under the skin? Turns out, the answer lies in physics, not biology.
We’re on the verge of two world-changing antimatter discoveries
While the Large Hadron Collider is looking for the Higgs boson, we’re on the verge of two huge antimatter-related breakthroughs. One could finally solve the universe’s oldest mystery, while the other could reveal strange new particles that are perfect for quantum computers.
Superman is without a doubt the granddaddy of cinematic superheroes. Among his plethora of powers is the ability to fly. But how does he do that?
Consider Superman simply hovering above the city. According to Newton’s Second Law, there must be some upward force to balance the downward force of his weight. Expressed mathematically: F – mg = ma = 0. But what could cause that upward force?
One possibility is that he is able to emit high-velocity streams of air through the pores of his skin. As he forces the air out of his body, according to Newton’s Third Law, the expelled air must push back. And since Superman can survive in space, his lungs clearly aren’t needed for respiration—maybe they’re auxiliary air tanks.
A classic superhero conundrum: Where do these people get the energy to perform their superhuman feats? In the X-men movies, the “mutant” Storm is able to generate bolts of lightning at will. The energy released in a normal lightning bolt is about 500 million joules, which is equivalent to 120,000 food calories. To produce even a single lightning bolt, Storm would have to eat at least 60 times the recommended daily amount for an adult female. But we don’t see her constantly cramming down food in the movie, do we?
If her stomach has mutated into some type of nuclear-fusion reactor, however—or better yet, a matter/anti-matter reactor—she could do it. Applying relativity (E = mc2), a single gram of mass converted completely into energy would yield 90 trillion joules. That’s 18 million lightning bolts!
3. The Hulk
One of the best ways to become a superhero is to be bombarded with tremendous doses of either cosmic rays or high-energy electromagnetic radiation. Although the effect of high doses of these types of radiation on humans (in the real world) are well-documented–the typical result is severe and debilitating cell destruction, followed by death–in the superhero world, this normally lethal experience results in a sequence of fortuitous “mutations.”
These physiological changes always create abilities so astonishing that it might convince the most cautious of us to risk spending a couple days in the reaction chamber of a high-energy particle accelerator. After Bruce Banner exposes himself to a “lethal” dose of high-energy gamma rays, he transcends the expected symptoms of high-intensity radiation exposure and turns into the giant, green, astonishingly strong-antihero we know and love.
We all know that Batman has no superpowers. He’s just a highly motivated and highly skilled crime fighter with a lot of tech support. Or is he?
In fact, to survive intact some of the impacts he undergoes, Batman actually might require super strength. A classic movie-physics blunder is the sudden stop. Now, we see this in a variety of forms in the original Batman. At one point, he plunges from the top of a building, along with Kim Basinger, to what appears to be certain death. Their fall, however, is arrested by a (decidedly inflexible) rope before hitting the ground. The thing is, it doesn’t matter if you hit the ground or not. If the time it takes for the rope to bring you to a stop is the same as if you hit the ground, then the force exerted on you will be the same in each case. In this example:
Frope - mg = ma
If a (acceleration) is large, so is F(rope). Ouch.
When Will the Leaning Tower of Pisa Fall Over?
Experts say the famous tower at Pisa will lean for at least another 200 years. It may even stay upright — well, almost upright — forever. That’s all thanks to a restoration project, which brought the tower back from the brink of collapse a decade ago.
From the first moment of its construction on unstable subsurface soils in 1173, Pisa’s bell tower tilted farther and farther to the south. Its early-onset lean even influenced the way it was built, as its architects tried to compensate by angling the structure northward, resulting in its being banana-shaped.
A few ill-advised construction projects accelerated the Leaning Tower’s invisibly slow fall during the past couple of centuries; it tilted 5.5 degrees, its acutest angle ever, in 1990. By all calculations, the tower should have toppled at just 5.44 degrees, but fortunately it defied the predictions of computer models just long enough for engineers to come up with a fix.
Restoration work undertaken from 1999 to 2001 stabilized the tower. Engineers placed weights on the structure’s north end, while at the same time extracting soil from below, causing it to slowly sink back in that direction.
The Leaning Tower of Pisa still leans south, but now it does so at just 3.99 degrees. Barring a large earthquake or other unforeseen catastrophe, engineers believe it will stay put for at least a few hundred years.
5 Everyday Things that Happen Strangely In Space
1. Water boils in a big bubble (video here)
On Earth, boiling water creates thousands of tiny vapor bubbles. In space, though, it produces one giant undulating bubble.
Fluid dynamics are so complex that physicists didn’t know for sure what would happen to boiling water in microgravity until the experiment was finally performed in 1992 aboard a space shuttle. Afterward, the physicists decided that the simpler face of boiling in space probably results from the absence of convection and buoyancy — two phenomena caused by gravity. On Earth, these effects produce the turmoil we observe in our teapots.
Much can be learned from these boiling experiments. According to NASA Science News, “Learning how liquids boil in space will lead to more efficient cooling systems for spacecraft … [It] might also be used someday to design power plants for space stations that use sunlight to boil a liquid to create vapor, which would then turn a turbine to produce electricity.”
2. Flames are spheres
On Earth, flames rise. In space, they move outward from their source in all directions. Here’s why:
The closer you are to the Earth’s surface, the more air molecules there are, thanks to the planet’s gravity pulling them there. Conversely, the atmosphere gets thinner and thinner as you move vertically, causing a gradual decline in pressure. The atmospheric pressure difference over a height of one inch, though slight, is enough to shape a candle flame.
That pressure difference causes an effect called natural convection. As the air around a flame heats up, it expands, becoming less dense than the cold air surrounding it. As the hot air molecules expand outward, cold air molecules push back against them. Because there are more cold air molecules pushing against the hot molecules at the bottom of the flame then there are at its top, the flame experiences less resistance at the top. And so it buoys upward.
When there’s no gravity, though, the expanding hot air experiences equal resistance in all directions, and so it moves spherically outward from its source.
3. Bacteria grow more… and grow more deadly
Thirty years of experiments have shown that bacterial colonies grow much faster in space. Astro-E. coli colonies, for example, grow almost twice as fast as their Earth-bound counterparts. Furthermore, some bacteria grow deadlier. A controlled experiment in 2007 testing salmonella growth on the space shuttle Atlantis showed that the space environment changed the expression of 167 of the bacteria’s genes. Studies performed after the flight found that these genetic tweaks made the salmonella almost three times more likely to cause disease in mice than control bacteria grown on Earth.
There are several hypotheses as to why bacteria thrive in weightlessness. They may simply have more room to grow than they do on Earth, where they tend to clump together at the bottom of petri dishes. As for the changes in gene expression in salmonella, scientists think they may result from a stress response in a protein called Hfq, which plays a role in controlling gene expression. Microgravity imposes mechanical stresses on bacterial cells by changing the way liquids move over their surfaces. Hfq responds by entering a type of “survival mode” in which it makes the cells more virulent.
By learning how salmonella responds to stress in space, scientists hope to learn how it might handle stressful situations on Earth. Hfq may undergo a similar stress response, for example, when salmonella is under attack by a person’s immune system.
4.You can’t burp beer
Because no gravity means no buoyant force, there’s nothing pushing gas bubbles up and out of carbonated drinks in space. This means carbon dioxide bubbles simply stagnate inside sodas and beers, even when they’re inside astronauts’ bellies. Indeed, without gravity, astronauts can’t burp out the gas — and that makes drinking carbonated beverages extremely uncomfortable.
Luckily, a company in Australia has concocted a brew that’ll be just the thing for kicking back on spaceflights. Vostok 4 Pines Stout Space Beer is rich in flavor, but weak in carbonation. A nonprofit space research organization called Astronauts4Hire is looking into whether the beer will be safe for consumption on future commercial spaceflights.
5. A rose by the same name smells… different
Flowers produce different aromatic compounds when grown in space, and as a result, smell notably different. This is because volatile oils produced by plants — the oils that carry fragrance — are strongly affected by environmental factors like temperature, humidity and a flower’s age. Considering their delicacy, it isn’t surprising that microgravity would affect the oils’ production as well.
An “out of this world” fragrance produced by a variety of rose called Overnight Scentsation flown on the space shuttle Discovery in 1998 was later analyzed, replicated and incorporated into “Zen,” a perfume sold by the Japanese company Shiseido.
It’s Official: Physics Is Hard
Students and researchers alike have long understood that physics is challenging. But only now have scientists managed to prove it. It turns out that one of the most common goals in physics—finding an equation that describes how a system changes over time—is defined as “hard” by computer theory.
That’s bad news for physics students who hope that a machine can solve all their homework problems, but at least their future jobs in the field are safe from automation. Physicists are often interested in mathematically describing how a system behaves: for instance, a formula tracks the motions of the planets and their moons in their complicated dance around the sun. Researchers work out these equations by measuring the objects at various points in time and then developing a formula that links all of those points together, such as filling in a video from a set of snapshots. With each new variable, however, it becomes tougher to find the right equation.
Computers can speed things up by sifting through potential solutions at breakneck speed, but even the world’s top supercomputers meet their match with a certain class of problems, known as “hard” problems. These problems take exponentially more time to solve with every additional variable that is thrown into the mix—an extra planet’s motion, for instance. Sometimes, hard problems can be made easier through clever mathematical maneuvering, but quantum physicist Toby Cubitt of the Complutense University of Madrid and colleagues have stamped out that hope for physics equations that describe a system through time.
Mathematicians recognize a set of truly hard problems that can’t be simplified, Cubitt explains. They also know that these problems are all variations of one another. By showing that the challenge of turning physics data into equations is actually one of those problems in disguise, the team showed this task is also truly hard. As a result, any general algorithm that turns a data set into a formula that describes the system over time can’t be simplified so that it can run on a computer, the team reports in an upcoming issue of Physical Review Letters.
The physics equations are in good company, according to computer scientist Stephen Cook of the University of Toronto in Canada, who was not involved in the work. “Literally thousands of problems” fall into this category of truly hard problems, he says. There’s still a shred of hope that physicists will find a way to turn these supposedly unsimplifiable problems into computer-solvable forms. If such an easier route were to turn up, profound knock-on effects would ripple through mathematics because it would mean all the other hard problems could be simplified as well.
The Clay Mathematics Institute in Cambridge, Massachusetts, offers a $1 million prize to anyone who discovers such a universal problem-tenderizer. Mathematicians, however, strongly suspect that it can’t be done (although the Clay Institute will also pay you $1 million for proving that suspicion true). In that case, “there is no smarter way” for computers to work out these physics equations “than brute-force checking” of each possible equation, Cubitt says. Still, he muses, if computers find these equations so difficult to figure out, why have physicists been able to calculate so many of them?
Physicist Heinz-Peter Breuer of the University of Freiburg in Germany suggests it’s because physicists give their brains—and their computers—a head start. They set the stage with the laws of physics that have already been developed by the likes of Newton, Maxwell, and Einstein, and this gives the outline of the equation, he says. The experimental data only have to fill in the details. Physics may be tough for computers, but real scientists get around it by standing on the shoulders of giants.
Maddie the Coonhound is an ongoing daily photo project by Atlanta-based photographer Theron Humphrey who’s traveling to all 50 states, dog in tow, over the next year. See Maddie deftly balance atop nation park signs, tractor trailers, tires, mailboxes and other roadside attractions on the Maddie the Coonhound Tumblr. Prints available here. Despite my best efforts my dog would be found on exactly none of these things. (via swiss miss)
20 Things You Didn’t Know About Magnetism
The mystery of how to describe it, the mystery of where spin comes from, and the mystery of whether lightning makes rocks magnetic.
1 Magnetism is familiar to every fifth grader, but describing it can confound even the most brilliant physicist.
2 Take the case of Richard Feynman. When asked to explain magnetism, he urged his BBC interviewer to take it on faith (video). After seven minutes of stonewalling, he finally said, “I really can’t do a good job, any job, of explaining magnetic force in terms of something else that you’re more familiar with because I don’t understand it in terms of anything else that you’re more familiar with.”
3 He did break down and try for a few seconds before abandoning the attempt. Those seconds were packed with oversimplifications: “All the electrons [in a magnet] are spinning in the same direction.”
4 But who better than Feynman would have known that not all electrons spin in the same direction?
5 And they don’t actually spin. “Spin” is just a physicist’s term for the little magnetic north and south poles baked into every electron. The orientation of those poles defines the direction of the electron’s (somewhat imaginary) rotation.
6 Why does every electron have those poles? As soon as someone finds out, we’ll get back to you.
7 Here is what we do know. Within an atom, each electron is usually paired with an opposite- oriented electron so that their magnetic pulls cancel each other out.
8 But if some of the electrons are unpaired, they can be induced to move around so that their poles line up, creating a net magnetic field. The arrangement of the electrons in metals makes them particularly open to magnetic peer pressure.
9 DIY refrigerator magnet: Apply an external magnetic field to some hot metal. Cool it so the aligned electrons get frozen in place. Slap on your local plumber’s business card, and—voilà!
10 Yin Seeks Yang for Magnetic Relationship. All magnets have north and south poles, and opposite poles attract: North poles seek south poles seek north poles seek south poles seek . . .
11 You are standing on a magnet right now. The earth’s magnetic field is created by electric currents in an ocean of molten iron at its core. That’s why the north pole of a compass needle points . . . er . . . why north? Since north poles are attracted to south poles, the “north” arrow on your compass actually points toward the earth’s south magnetic pole, which is the one up north. Got it?
12 And the earth’s magnetic south (aka “north”) pole isn’t even precisely at the geographic north pole. Right now it is in the Arctic Ocean, near northern Canada.
13 Worse still, it is constantly drifting in response to currents in the earth’s core. It is moving toward Siberia at a rate of up to 35 miles per year, according to the U.S. Geological Survey. Hey, shift happens.
14 Ancient mariners navigated by lodestone, naturally occurring magnetic rocks.
15 Where lodestones come from is another mystery of magnetism. Some geologists think they are created when lighting strikes iron-rich rocks.
16 Microbes, birds, and some other animals have magnetic crystals inside their bodies that allow them to orient themselves.
17 That is probably why loggerhead turtles can migrate 8,000 miles in unfamiliar waters while humans can get lost looking for the restroom at Olive Garden.
18 Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) machines generate a field 60,000 times as intense as the earth’s to vibrate the hydrogen atoms in your body; in response, the atoms emit radio waves that are analyzed to produce a map of your insides.
20 The signal is faint, but the good news is that science has proved attraction is quantifiable. Word up, Hallmark.