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Blog

Geophysics Texas style

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By Hamish Johnston at the APS March Meeting in Dallas

I’m here in Dallas for the March Meeting of the American Physical Society, which this year will be celebrating the 100th anniversary of the discovery of superconductivity and the 25th anniversary of high-temperature superconductivity.

Eager to get stuck into superconductivity I went to a session on Sunday on industrial physics that, among other things, asked what we could be doing to get more practical use out of superconductors.

And in case you are wondering when physicists will get round to finding a theory for high-Tc superconductivity, Seamus Davis of Cornell University predicted that it will arrive next year – although I think he was being slightly tongue-in-cheek.

On Saturday I did some sightseeing in Fort Worth. After seeing the cowpokes at the stockyard and having some tasty Texas BBQ, we went to the Fort Worth Museum of Science and History.

One physics-related highlight was an exhibit that looked at the geophysics of natural gas exploration. The impressive vehicle above is used to vibrate the ground, sending soundwaves deep into the Earth – a process called vibroseis. These waves reflect off various geological features and are then picked up by an array of microphones back on the surface. After some impressive computer processing, the data are rendered as a 3D image.

Some of the display was focused on the controversial process of hydraulic fracturing or “fracking”. This involves pumping water and a small amount of sand into gas-bearing rock – the pressure of the fluid fractures the rock and the sand props open the cracks. Gas can then escape along the borehole to the surface.

What the exhibit didn’t seem to discuss is the growing controversy surrounding the process. There seemed to be no mention of the concern of some people that some toxic additives to the fracking water could end up seeping into local groundwater, and ultimately into drinking water. That was the subject of a recent documentary film called GasLand.

Other highlights of the museum include a real Sputnik satellite – apparently the Soviets made lots of them, but didn’t get round to sending them into space – and a letter from Albert Einstein to Fort Worth schoolchildren that you can read below.

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