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Posts Tagged ‘Physics

“In eternity there is no time, only an instant long enough for a joke”*…


Finnish artists Juha van Ingen and Janne Särkelä have developed a monumental GIF called AS Long As Possible, which loops once every 1,000 years. The 12 gigabyte animated image is made of 48,140,288 numbered frames, that change about every 10 minutes [the first and last frames are above].  van Ingen and Särkelä explain:

In the early days of World Wide Web GIF was the most popular tool for artists working on on-line projects. But in mid 90’s the technically more versatile Flash took over as the number one creative tool for presenting art works on-line. Recently with the huge success of photo-sharing services such as Instagram, Flickr and Tumblr GIF has had its second coming and has regained its popularity also as an artistic medium.

The name of ASLAP is homage to John Cage composition “ORGAN2/ASLSP” (1987) which is played with Halberstad organs for the next 625 years. The abbreviation of Cages composition included and instruction to the performer of the piece: As SLow aS Possible. However, if the piece was to be played as slow as possible the first note should be played for ever.

As humans capability to comprehend eternity is limited, it is easier understand the dimensions of a composition lasting hundreds of years than something playing for ever…

They plan to start the loop in 2017, when GIF turns 30 years old (and Finland celebrates its Centennial of independence). “If nurturing a GIF loop even for 100 — let alone 3,000 years — seems an unbelievable task, how much remains of our present digital culture after that time?”, van Ingen said. The artists plan to store a mother file somewhere and create many iterations of the loop in various locations — and if one fails, it may be easily synchronized with, and replaced by, another.


* Hermann Hesse, Steppenwolf


As we take it slowly, we might send itty-bitty birthday greetings to Niels Henrik David Bohr; he was born on this date in 1885.  A Danish physicist and philosopher, Bohr was the first to apply quantum theory,to the problem of atomic and molecular structure, creating the Bohr model of the atom, in which he proposed that energy levels of electrons are discrete, and that the electrons revolve in stable orbits around the atomic nucleus but can jump from one energy level (or orbit) to another– a model the underlying principles of which remain valid.  And he developed the principle of complementarity: that items could be separately analyzed in terms of contradictory properties, e.g., particles behaving as a wave or a stream.  His foundational contributions to understanding atomic structure and quantum theory,won him the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1922.


Written by LW

October 7, 2015 at 1:01 am

“A day will come when there will be no battlefields, but markets opening to commerce and minds opening to ideas”*…


… well, markets opening anyway.

There’s a rule of thumb that to have a healthy diet, you should eat the rainbow—meaning fruits and veggies of all colors. A similar notion could be applied to a country’s economic health. The more diverse the exports, the less susceptible a nation will presumably be to fluctuations in a single market. Too reliant on oil? A drop in prices might spell the loss of billions of dollars. And for a country where heavy machinery comprises most of the exports, that drop in prices might mean lower operating costs and an uptick in sales. And thanks to globalization, the web of trade is very complex and tough to comprehend.

Looking for better ways to unpack this data, Harvard researchers mapped out international exports in an infographic called the Globe of Economic Complexity, an interactive website that visualizes the exports of every country around the world.

Industries like agriculture, medical products, precious metals, cars, and even baked goods are all assigned a specific color. To get more detailed breakdowns, the infographic leads you to an atlas of exports with more detailed breakdowns. The data was collected in 2012 and for that year, the graphic shows the United States as predominantly turquoise (machinery and parts), blue (automotive), and fuchsia (chemicals). Spin the globe and head over to China and nearly half of the exports are machinery related. Saudi Arabia is a beacon of pink for petroleum, accounting for 76% of exports. Clicking on the country names shows who the nation exports to the most.

Changing to different views, like the product space graph, reveals which countries are most heavily involved in the trade of a specific product. Who knew that the United Kingdom accounted for 26% of the antiques trade or that Europe exports the most cigarette papers?

Browse at globe.cid.harvard.edu. [Via Co.DESIGN]

* Victor Hugo


As we note sadly that two countries with McDonald’s franchises have in fact gone to war, we might send charged birthday greetings to Ernest Rutherford, 1st Baron Rutherford of Nelson; he was born on this date in 1871.  An experimental physicist whose work earned him the honorifics “father of nuclear physics” and “father of electronics” (along with a Nobel Prize), he is considered the greatest experimentalist since Michael Faraday, and and was instrumental in laying the foundation for the advances in technology and energy that have enabled the globalization visualized above.



Written by LW

August 30, 2015 at 1:01 am

“At my age, the radiation will probably do me good”*…


The “banana equivalent dose” (BED) is a measure of radiation used to illustrate levels of emissions.  Bananas contain lots of potassium, which contains 0.01% potassium-40– which is radioactive.  The radiation exposure from eating a banana is deemed “1 BED,” roughly equivalent to 0.01 millirem (mrem).  (Happily, one would never be able to eat enough bananas to be dangerous, as our bodies excrete the potassium we’re consuming before it can do exposure damage.)

The existence of a clearly-understandable unit of this sort allows for easily-understood apples-to-apples (or, bananas-to-bananas) comparisons…

This is also roughly the exposure from having a single smoke detector.


Due to increased altitude; Mt Everest is more like 800 mrem (80,000 bananas) per year.


The granite in the walls is mildly radioactive. By comparison, the Vatican is about 800 mrem (80,000 bananas) per year.


More fruity comparisons at Mad Art Lab‘s “Yellow Alert

* Sir Norman Wisdom


As we peel, we might send thoughtful birthday greetings to Richard Philips Feynman; he was born on this date in 1918.  A theoretical physicist, Feynman was probably the most brilliant, influential, and iconoclastic figure in his field in the post-WW II era.

Richard Feynman was a once-in-a-generation intellectual. He had no shortage of brains. (In 1965, he won the Nobel Prize in Physics for his work on quantum electrodynamics.) He had charisma. (Witness this outtake [below] from his 1964 Cornell physics lectures [available in full here].) He knew how to make science and academic thought available, even entertaining, to a broader public. (We’ve highlighted two public TV programs hosted by Feynman here and here.) And he knew how to have fun. The clip above brings it all together.

– From Open Culture (where one can also find Feynman’s elegant and accessible 1.5 minute explanation of “The Key to Science.”)

email readers click here for video


Written by LW

May 11, 2015 at 1:01 am

“If we all worked on the assumption that what is accepted as true really is true, then there would be little hope for advance”*…


Some guys spend their spare time restoring automobiles, devoting garage space to chocked-up Corvettes and Camaros.  Dave Pares, an adjunct professor at the University of Nebraska- Omaha,  is making his own warp drive.

In theory, a warp drive contracts space in front of a space vessel and expands it at the back. The ship itself speeds along inside what is called a “warp bubble.”  As theoretical physicist Miguel Alcubierre explained in 1994, if such an artificial warping of space — essentially picking up a piece of fabric of space=time at two points and bringing them together — could be accomplished, it would allow a space ship to travel incredible distances incredibly quickly, while avoiding the speed-of-light problem.

NASA has explored the prospect, but been put off by the technical and financial challenges of developing the power source that it believes would be necessary.  But Pares believes he can accomplish warping with low power– indeed, with the voltage available in his garage.

So far, Pares seems primarily to have attracted the attention of UFO enthusiasts; NASA and academic journals have (more and less politely) turned him away.  But retired UN-O physics professor Jack Kasher is cautiously optimistic:

It is so far out there, he’s not going to get funding to do it. If it’s going to be done, it’s going to be done in his garage…  A lot of people are going to flat-out dismiss it off the top, but I think he’s crossed some kind of bridge here, just showing this is possible with reasonable energy.  It wouldn’t surprise me if NASA latches on to this.

In any case, as Kasher notes, at a time when the scientific and technical mainstream had written off manned flight, the Wright Brothers took their first critical steps in their Ohio bike shop.

Read more at “Working toward a warp drive: In his garage lab, Omahan aims to bend fabric of space.”  See also: “No, NASA Did Not Accidentally Invent Warp Drive.”

C.F. also the warp drive’s bizarro twin: the EM Drive (which seems to work in practice… though it doesn’t work in theory).

* Orville Wright


As we put on our helmets, we might recall that it was on this date in 1949 that Britain’s first “launderette”– self-service, coin-operated laundry– opened on Queensway in London.  The very first coin-op laundry had opened in 1936 in Ft. Worth, Texas (where it was known for a time as a “washateria”).

While these self-service laundries are still known as launderettes in the U.K., they are now widely called “laundromats” in the U.S., Canada, Australia and New Zealand (a genericization of the trademark of the coin-op washers and dryers developed and sold by Westinghouse).



Written by LW

May 9, 2015 at 1:01 am

“Time is the longest distance between two places”*…


In 1949, on the occasion of Einstein’s seventieth birthday, Gödel presented him with an unexpected gift: a proof of the nonexistence of time. And this was not a mere verbal proof, of the sort that philosophers like Parmenides, Immanuel Kant, and J. M. E. McTaggart had come up with over the centuries; it was a rigorous mathematical proof. Playing with Einstein’s own equations of general relativity, Gödel found a novel solution that corresponded to a universe with closed timelike loops. A resident of such a universe, by taking a sufficiently long round trip in a rocket ship, could travel back into his own past. Einstein was not entirely pleased with Gödel’s hypothetical universe; indeed, he admitted to being “disturbed” that his equations of relativity permitted something as Alice in Wonderland–like as spatial paths that looped backward in time. Gödel himself was delighted by his discovery, since he found the whole idea of time to be painfully mysterious. If time travel is possible, he submitted, then time itself is impossible. A past that can be revisited has not really passed. So, Gödel concluded, time does not exist…

Put yourself in Jim Holt‘s skilled hands for an explanation and an exploration of implications, in “The Grand Illusion.”

* Tennessee Williams, The Glass Menagerie


As we check our watches, we might recall that it was on this date in 1925 that Clarence Birdseye first tested frozen peas with consumers at a Chester, NY grocery store.  Birdseye had already patented a range of “flash-freezing” processes and devices, inspired by his experiences as a biologist and trapper in Labrador earlier in the century.  He had noticed that while slow freezing creates ice crystals in frozen foods– crystals that, when thawed, create sogginess– meat exposed to the extremely cold temperatures in the Canadian North– frozen essentially instantly– didn’t create internal ice, and were as tasty when thawed months later as fresh.  Birdseye created quick-frozen vegetables and meats as a storable option to fresh, and in 1930 offered a range of 26 frozen meats and vegetables.



Written by LW

November 3, 2014 at 1:01 am

“Photons have mass? I didn’t even know they were Catholic”*…


On Tuesday, the Nobel Committee announced the winners of the the Nobel Prize in Physics for 2014.

Isamu Akasaki, 85, left, Hiroshi Amano, 54, and Shuji Nakamura, 60, won “for the invention of efficient blue light-emitting diodes which has enabled bright and energy-saving white light sources”– an award that speaks to current concerns over energy efficiency, climate change, and improving living conditions in developing economies:

In the spirit of Alfred Nobel the Prize rewards an invention of greatest benefit to mankind; using blue LEDs, white light can be created in a new way. With the advent of LED lamps we now have more long-lasting and more efficient alternatives to older light sources…

As about one fourth of world electricity consumption is used for lighting purposes, the LEDs contribute to saving the Earth’s resources. Materials consumption is also diminished as LEDs last up to 100,000 hours, compared to 1,000 for incandescent bulbs and 10,000 hours for fluorescent lights.

The LED lamp holds great promise for increasing the quality of life for over 1.5 billion people around the world who lack access to electricity grids: due to low power requirements it can be powered by cheap local solar power…

[Read more in the Nobel press release]

The Committee’s choice was clearly a worthy one.  Still, as a reminder that the field is a very competitive one, it’s worth (re-)visiting the expert predictions that immediately preceded the award.  Thompson-Reuters’ annual Science Watch predictions named three potential winners (or groups– the award can go to up to three); while they’ve been right four of the last ten years, and all of their candidates did amazing– and amazingly-important– work, they missed this year.  Ditto, the expert panel whose prognostications were reported last Friday by Scientific American.

But maybe most fundamentally, it’s worth noting (quizzically, as SciAm does) that since the Prize was first awarded in 1901, only two women have won: Marie Curie (who was a double Laureate, also winning in Chemistry) and more recently, Maria Goeppert-Mayer, who won in 1963.

* Woody Allen


As we size up the sociology of science, we might recall that this was a bad day for inclusiveness in Massachusetts in 1635: the General Court of the then-Colony banished Roger Williams for speaking out for the separation of church and state and against the right of civil authorities to punish religious dissension and to confiscate Indian land.   Williams moved out to edge of the Narragansett Bay, where with the assistance of the Narragansett tribe, he established a settlement at the junction of two rivers near Narragansett Bay, located in (what is now) Rhode Island. He declared the settlement open to all those seeking freedom of conscience and the removal of the church from civil matters– and many dissatisfied Puritans came. Taking the success of the venture as a sign from God, Williams named the community “Providence.”

Williams stayed close to the Narragansett Indians and continued to protect them from the land greed of European settlers. His respect for the Indians, his fair treatment of them, and his knowledge of their language enabled him to carry on peace negotiations between natives and Europeans, until the eventual outbreak of King Philip’s War in the 1670s. And although Williams preached to the Narragansett, he practiced his principle of religious freedom by refraining from attempts to convert them.

Roger Williams statue, Roger Williams Park, Providence, R.I.


Written by LW

October 9, 2014 at 1:01 am

“Correlation does not imply causation”*…


From stat-enthusiast (and full-time law student) Tyler Vigen, entertaining examples of patterns that map in compelling– but totally-inconsequential– ways…

More (and larger) examples at the sensational Spurious Correlations.

* a maxim widely repeated in science and statistics; also rendered: (P&Q)≠(P→Q)٧(Q→P).  It addresses the post hoc, ergo propter hoc (“affirming the consequent”) logical fallacy


As we think before we leap, we might send energetic (really energetic) birthday greetings to Enrico Fermi; he was born on this date in 1901.  A physicist who is best remembered for (literally) presiding over the birth of the Atomic Age, he was also remarkable as the last “double-threat” in his field:  a genius at creating both important theories and elegant experiments.  As recently observed, the division of labor between theorists and experimentalists has since been pretty complete.

The novelist and historian of science C. P. Snow wrote that “if Fermi had been born a few years earlier, one could well imagine him discovering Rutherford’s atomic nucleus, and then developing Bohr’s theory of the hydrogen atom. If this sounds like hyperbole, anything about Fermi is likely to sound like hyperbole.”



Written by LW

September 29, 2014 at 1:01 am


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