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Best of the blog 2011

By Michael Banks

From an argument about whether magnetoreception exists in cows to investigating the best way to board an aircraft, the world of physics has produced its fair share of quirky stories this year. Here is our pick of the best from the blog.

A load of bull, part 2
Beef over magnetic cows keeps on sizzling


Do cows align their bodies along the Earth’s magnetic-field lines while grazing? Yep, that is the latest controversy and what zoologist Hynek Burda from the University of Duisburg-Essen in Germany is now calling a “holy war against magnetoreception”. The carfuffle began in 2008 when Burda and colleagues, led by Sabine Begall, shocked the bovine world by claiming that cattle prefer to align their bodies along the Earth’s magnetic field – that is, along north–south lines. Then, earlier this year, Jirí Hert from Charles University in Prague and co-workers reported that there is no evidence for such alignment, following a Europe-wide study of 3412 individual cows in 322 herds. In November Begall’s group hit back, re-analysing all the data used by Hert and co (Journal of Comparative Physiology A 10.1007/s00359-011-0674-1) and arguing that about half of Hert’s data are actually noise – that the resolution of corresponding images is too poor, or the cattle are on slopes or in other locales that could affect their orientation. Look out for the next salvo soon.

Hawking meets the queen of the galaxy

Stephen Hawking’s annual pilgrimage to the California Institute of Technology seems to be turning into quite a celebrity tour. In early February the 69-year-old cosmologist met the actress Jane Fonda – known for her starring role in the science-fiction movie Barbarella: Queen of the Galaxy. Hawking presented Fonda with a large bouquet of flowers backstage at the Ahmanson Theatre in Los Angeles, where the 73-year-old actress is starring in the play 33 Variations, which is about how Beethoven created the piano composition Diabelli Variations. Thanks to Fonda’s blog, we are treated to a toe-curling account of the meeting, which so thrilled the cast and crew that “Michael, the head of the costume department, was shaking with emotion”. After quizzing Hawking about how he has continued to work despite his illness, Fonda then gave “the great physicist” her e-mail address so she can meet him during his next trip to Caltech. The encounter ended with Hawking telling the Oscar-winning actress that she was his “heart-throb” for her performance in Barbarella. “I almost fainted and everyone broke into laughter,” recalled Fonda, who went home “enlivened and inspired”.

A sad end for the Superconducting Super Collider


Most physicists are, of course, a law-abiding bunch. However, during the March Meeting of the American Physical Society (APS) in Dallas, Texas, five physicists took a break from the gruelling conference schedule to break into the derelict site of the Superconducting Super Collider (SSC) just south of the city. Conceived in 1983, the SSC was to be the next big particle collider, with a circumference of 87 km and a maximum collision energy of 40 TeV. But 10 years later the project was cancelled, leaving a few buildings on the surface as well as tens of kilometres of tunnels deep underground. After getting into the site and investigating the abandoned buildings, the physicists, who wish to remain anonymous, blogged about their findings and posted photographs on the Web. “We wanted to see what was left after 17 years,” one SSC interloper told “What happens to a science experiment of this size when the government no longer chooses to fund it?” According to the clandestine intruders, the tunnels are well below the water table and are therefore flooded, while many unopened crates containing electronic equipment are lying around.


Zero resistance to cake

To mark this year’s 100th anniversary of the discovery of superconductivity Ted Forgan and his condensed-matter group at Birmingham University in the UK celebrated in style with their very own “zero-resistance cake”. Apparently, comments about the cake included “Does it contain super currants?”, “Does it contain pears?” and the less obvious “Is it a Butter–Chocolate–Sugar supercake? (maybe this depends on Tc, the cooking temperature)”. Clearly, superconductivity brings out the puns in everyone.

Mystery of the riderless bike thickens

The riderless bike is a fairly well-known quirk of mechanics. It refers to the fact that regular bicycles can keep going by themselves for long distances without ever toppling over. But a new bike created this year by researchers in the US and the Netherlands has cast doubt on our understanding of what causes this effect. The mechanics behind it are not as simple as one might think, but most researchers agree that the stability is caused by two features. First, there is gyroscopic motion, which causes the front wheel to correct itself like a spinning top. Then second, there is the “trail” or “caster” effect, which also explains why the front wheel of a shopping trolley automatically turns to follow the pivot. Now, a team including Andy Ruina at Cornell University has put conventional wisdom aside and created a bike that self-balances without relying on these forces – the first of its kind.

Gorilla inspired by the work of Roger Penrose


Say hello to Tensor. He was one of a band of 60 life-sized decorated gorillas that appeared around Bristol to celebrate Bristol Zoo’s 175th anniversary this year. In 2010 the organizers of this public art exhibition approached IOP Publishing (which publishes to ask if it would like to sponsor and design a gorilla for the show. The challenge was taken on by in-house artist Fred Swist, collaborating with art director Andrew Giaquinto, and the pair came up with the idea of using the graphical tensor notation – as inspired by the UK mathematical physicist Roger Penrose. These pictorial elements, used in physics and pure maths, comprise simple shapes connected by lines. In addition to entertaining Bristolians and visitors to the city, the exhibition was also designed to promote the zoo’s gorilla conservation project and Wallace and Gromit’s Grand Appeal, which raises funds for the Bristol Royal Hospital for Children.

How to board an aircraft in a hurry

Mumbai one month, Moscow the next. Physicists are used to flying to conferences, so it should come as no surprise that they have turned their attention to the issue of how to get on a plane as quickly as possible. In 2008 Fermilab physicist Jason Steffen devised a “theory” that the best way for passengers to board is back to front, but in such a way that adjacent passengers in the queue are seated two rows apart (12A followed by 10A and 8A, for example). By using a mock fuselage of a Boeing 757 aircraft, which contained 12 rows of six seats with one aisle running up the middle, Steffen has put his theory to the test in a pioneering experiment performed earlier this year. Using “passengers” ranging in age from 5 to 65, Steffen found boarding using his method took only three and a half minutes. Boarding the plane in row-number blocks – with passengers seated at the rear section going first – took around seven minutes. Glad that’s sorted then.

The Big Bang on the big screen

Did you manage to catch the noir film The Big Bang, which was released in the US in May? Starring Antonio Banderas as private detective Ned Cruz and directed by Tony Krantz, the film features Cruz searching for a missing stripper while contending with unsavoury Russian boxers and brash police detectives. And the physics connection? As well as an eatery called Planck’s Constant Café, the film features an underground particle-physics lab built by Simon Kestral (played by Sam Elliott) to search for the Higgs boson. The film has enjoyed less than favourable reviews – the New York Times called it a “jumble of notions tossed into a hat” with the movie being a “low point for Mr Banderas”. From the trailer, the physics in the film seems to be fairly accurate, which at least makes a change.

Space shuttle rap
Hubble rap
The climate science rap

No end of year review would be complete without a musical outro. So take your pick from the best that this year has had to offer. First up came the Edwin Hubble rap by the “science rapper” Zach Powers, which describes the discovery of the expanding universe. Then with the launch of the last and final flight of the Space Shuttle in July, a video emerged (see above) featuring a group of youths dressed in NASA jumpsuits rapping about the history of the Space Shuttle programme. Then finally there was the climate-change rap featuring lines such as “climate change is caused by people, Earth unlike Alien has no sequel”. We have probably missed some other rap videos that emerged this year, but that might not be such a bad thing.

You can be sure of more quirky stories – and raps – from the world of physics next year. See you in 2012!

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One comment to Best of the blog 2011

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