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Blog

Intelligent life on a doughnut, how cats and skiers spin, a marriage made at CERN and more

By Hamish Johnston

There’s definitely an educational vibe to this week’s picks from the Red Folder, which begins with Tanner Higgin’s selection of “Five apps that test your physics skills“. Writing on Mind/Shift, a website based in California and dedicated to learning, Higgin highlights Crayon Physics Deluxe, which allows users to draw physical objects and then let gravity and other physical effects take over. Also featured is Amazing Alex, which allows users to combine more than 30 different household objects to create fantastical Heath Robinson/Rube Goldberg contraptions.

What do Olympic-class aerial skiers and cats have in common? They always land on their feet. Exactly how aerial skiers twist and turn through the air before alighting delicately on their skis is the topic of an article on the Learning Network of the New York Times. It is entitled “Getting physical: the physics and other science behind Winter Olympic sports“. It was first published for the 2010 Winter Olympics but is well worth a look if you are a physics teacher trying to inspire your students using examples from the Sochi games.

And if your class is more partial to cats, the blogger Dr SkySkull has written an epic entry about why cats always land on their feet. Complete with photos of 19th-century experiments on live cats that wouldn’t be allowed today, SkySkull assumes a cylindrical cat and describes the cat’s motion in terms of free-body diagrams.

The CERN particle-physics lab in Geneva is celebrating its 60th anniversary this year and on the Quantum Diaries blog, Pauline Gagnon tells the wonderful story of Maria and Giuseppe Fidecaro. The two Italian physicists have worked at the lab since 1956, a year after they married.

Before settling in Geneva, both Fidecaros worked at the synchrocyclotron at the University of Liverpool and Giuseppe continued working on synchrocyclotrons at CERN. Maria, meanwhile, helped develop a new technique for creating polarized proton beams. Both still come in to work every day, with Giuseppe researching the history of physics and Maria just finishing a paper on B-meson physics.

You can read more about this amazing couple in “Maria and Giuseppe: lives intertwined with CERN’s history“.

Astronomers have discovered hundreds of planets orbiting stars other than the Sun, but so far none of these exoplanets appear to be doughnut-shaped. Could such planets exist, and what would it be like to live on a torus? Anders Sandberg tries to answer that question on his Andart blog. Sandberg says that such bodies could form but that it’s unlikely that the correct initial conditions would occur in nature. He also calculates the gravity that one would experience on the surface of doughnuts of various shapes and sizes.

I don’t know if the astronomer Frank Drake had toriodal planets in mind when he derived his famous equation that attempted to enumerate the various factors that could lead to a signal from an extraterrestrial civilization reaching Earth. In the video interview at the top of this post, Drake speaks to fellow astronomer Andrew Frankoi about his eponymous equation and his founding in 1984 of the SETI Institute, which is dedicated to the search for extraterrestrial intelligence. A highlight of the interview is Drake’s explanation of why a truly advanced civilization could be much more difficult to detect than our current civilization here on Earth.

If the interview has piqued your interest in SETI, Paul Davies has written an article for us called “The eerie silence” in which argues for more research into this fascinating field.

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