Posts by: Tushna Commissariat

What makes a physics experiment go viral?

 

By Tushna Commissariat

Physics experiments are not normally the stuff of “viral” videos on the Internet, but that is precisely what happened when physics students at the University of Bath in the UK decided to get creative with the Leidenfrost effect. If you are a regular reader of Physics World, you may get that déjà vu feeling when you watch the video above of water droplets zipping about the “Leidenfrost maze” built by (at the time undergraduates) Carmen Cheng and Matthew Guy – but rest assured you have seen it right here on this blog in 2013 when editor Hamish Johnston wrote about it before it amassed a whopping 120,150 views on YouTube.

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Science cleans up at the Oscars

Still of Stephen and Jane from the film The Theory of Everything

The Theory of Everything depicts Stephen Hawking’s relationship with first wife Jane. (Courtesy: Universal Pictures International)

By Tushna Commissariat

In a sweeping win for science-themed films at this year’s Oscars, British actor Eddie Redmayne has won the best actor award for his portrayal of the theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking in the film The Theory of Everything. Redmayne, 33, plays Hawking in the biographical film that was inspired by the memoir Travelling to Infinity: My Life with Stephen written by Hawking’s former wife Jane, who is portrayed in the film by the British actress Felicity Jones. The Theory of Everything was also nominated for best picture, original score and adapted screenplay, while Jones was nominated in the best actress category. Redmayne’s success at the Oscars comes after his win in the best actor category at this year’s Bafta awards, which also saw The Theory of Everything pick up best film. The movie chronicles Jane’s relationship with Hawking – from the early days of their courtship to Hawking’s diagnosis of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis at the age of 21 and his success in physics until the two divorced in 1995. I was lucky enough to attend an early screening of the film, and I thought it was a very worthy candidate for the awards season. You can read my review of the film here.

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Oscar-nominated physics, putting the jump into popping corn and more

 

By Tushna Commissariat

There is nothing quite like a bowl of hot, buttery popcorn – and it seems as if even physicists are enthralled by it as they dig into the pops and jumps of this tasty snack. A recent article in the New York Times caught our attention this week, as it talked about how a French research duo used high-speed video cameras and a hot plate to see just why a kernel of corn not only pops, but also leaps up as it puffs. The team found that as the kernel’s hull is breached, we hear the popping sound and this is swiftly followed by the jump that happens when a puffy bit of the inside pushes out and makes the corn jump, a bit like a muscle twitch. Take a look at the lovely slow-motion video above of individual kernels leaping about like perfect puffy ballet dancers.

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Decoding the dark arts of Interstellar's black hole

moderately realistic, gravitationally lensed accretion disk

A moderately realistic, gravitationally lensed accretion disc around a black hole, created by Double Negative artists. (Courtesy: Classical and Quantum Gravity)

By Tushna Commissariat

In recent years, science and science fiction have come together in cinema to produce a host of rather spectacular visual treats, the best of the lot being Christopher Nolan’s epic Oscar-nominated film Interstellar. That actual science has played a major role in film is pretty well known, thanks to the involvement of theoretical physicist Kip Thorne, who was an executive producer for the project. But in a near-cinematic plot twist, it has emerged that Thorne’s work on trying to develop the most accurate and realistic view of a supermassive black hole “Gargantua” has provided unprecedented insights into the immense gravitational-lensing effects that would emerge if we were to view such a stellar behemoth.

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Villainous physicists, Hubble’s cat and more

Eddie Redmayne as Stephen Hawking

Eddie Redmayne as Stephen Hawking in the film The Theory of Everything. (Courtesy: Universal Pictures International)

By Tushna Commissariat

This week we heard about a possible new James Bond film villain and its none other than Stephen Hawking. According to this story in the Telegraph, he feels as if his trademark wheelchair and computerized voice would lend themselves perfectly to the part. On the same note, we saw this interesting feature on the Wired website that looks at the history behind Hawking’s very recognisable voice. Last month, I was lucky enough to attend an early screening of James Marsh’s Hawking biopic The Theory of Everything, which includes a rather touching and funny scene of Hawking testing out his voice for the first time. You can read more about the film in the reviews section of the upcoming January issue of Physics World.

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Last chapter in Rosetta’s Philae lander story…for now

Strange new world: Image of comet 67P taken by Rosetta's NAVCAM from 10 km away. (Courtesy: ESA/Rosetta/NAVCAM, CC BY-SA 3.0 IGO)

Strange new world: Image of comet 67P taken by Rosetta’s NAVCAM from 10km away.
(Courtesy: ESA/Rosetta/NAVCAM, CC BY-SA 3.0 IGO)

By Tushna Commissariat

Last week was exciting and exhausting for anyone involved in space exploration and astronomy, after scientists working on the Rosetta mission of the European Space Agency (ESA) made history when their “Philae” module touched down safely on the surface of comet 67P/Churyumov–Gerasimenko. But soon after celebrating Philae’s successful landing, a dramatic story unfolded. With a bumpy triple landing, harpoons that did not fire and tether the probe, as well as a final resting spot that lay in the shadows, which meant its solar panels received very little sunlight, Philae’s tumultuous story captivated the interest of thousands of people across the globe.

In the early hours of Saturday morning, as Philae’s batteries slowly drained of power, thousands mourned. “So much hard work..getting tired…my battery voltage is approaching the limit soon now,” Tweeted the Philae crew, and yet, the lander’s story was ultimately happy and successful. Although it spent only 57 “active” hours on the comet, ESA mission scientists were happy to report that the lander had indeed completed the entirety of its primary science mission.

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Rosetta’s Philae starts drilling into comet surface

The view from Philae’s final landing spot

View of a lifetime: Philae safely on the surface of Comet 67P.
(Courtesy: ESA/Rosetta/Philae/CIVA)

By Tushna Commissariat

It had clearly been a long and busy 24 hours for members of the Rosetta mission at the European Space Agency (ESA) as they gave the latest updates in today’s Google+ Hangout. On Wednesday the mission made history as its “Philae” module touched down safely on the surface of Comet 67P/Churyumov–Gerasimenko. But there has been a great deal of drama and uncertainty since then, as it emerged yesterday that the lander’s final resting spot was more than 1 km away from where it was meant to arrive. Also, Philae is thought to be precariously positioned in the shadows on the far side of a large crater, where its solar panels cannot get enough light to operate as planned. Despite these hurdles, the lander’s many instruments have been functioning well and sending data back to Earth, via the Rosetta orbiter.

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Blockbuster physics, bowling balls and feathers in a vacuum, and more

 

By Tushna Commissariat

The results of a successful scientific experiment can make scientists very happy. Indeed, in the clip above, taken from the BBC TV series Human Universe, one scientist exclaims “holy mackarel!” when he sees the outcome he was hoping for. In the video, everybody’s favourite physicist Brian Cox carries out an experiment similar to Galileo’s Leaning Tower of Pisa experiment, where he tested that no matter the mass of objects, they fall at the same rate under gravity. In the video above, Cox drops a bunch of feathers and a bowling ball in the world’s biggest vacuum chamber – the Space Simulation Vacuum Chamber at NASA’s Space Power Facility in Ohio, US. In the slow-motion video, you can see with exquisite clarity just how accurate Galileo’s prediction was, as the feathers and ball land at precisely the same time. We came across this video on the Dot Physics blog on the Wired Science network, written by physicist Rhett Allain, where he has worked out some of the maths and pointed out some of the nuances of the above experiment, so make sure you take a look.

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A 21st-century discourse on quantum mechanics and space–time

Image of Nima Arkani-Hamed

Revealing the secrets of space–time? (Courtesy: Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics)

By Tushna Commissariat

If you fancy a bit of late-night quantum mechanics, make sure that tonight you tune into the live webcast of “Quantum Mechanics and Spacetime in the 21st Century” – a lecture that by physicist Nima Arkani-Hamed as part of the Perimeter Institute’s Public Lecture Series. Arkani-Hamed, who won the inaugural Fundamental Physics Prize in 2012, says that he hasn’t “been this excited about physics in a very long time”. He will talk about how the most recent advances in quantum mechanics shed new light on our understanding of the universe’s fabric of time and space. In the past, Arkani-Hamed has shown how the weakness of gravity, compared with the other fundamental forces of nature, might be explained by the existence of extra dimensions of space. He has also recently been involved in the 2013 documentary Particle Fever, about the search for the Higgs boson.

The webcast will begin at 11.45 p.m. GMT (7 p.m. EST) and you can send questions to Arkani-Hamed by tweeting @Perimeter and using the hashtag #piLIVE. Take a look at a short teaser video for his talk below and tell us what you think about it in the comments section.

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Cthulhu cosmology, Halloween outfits with a physics twist and more

 

By Tushna Commissariat

It’s not often that classical physics and Post-Impressionist painters collide, but when they do the results can be enchanting and intriguing. In one of the latest TEDEd videos, Natalya St Clair has created a short lesson that looks at “The unexpected math behind Van Gogh’s Starry Night.” The video above looks at the enduring mystery that is the turbulence we see in any kind of flows in the natural world and how the human brain can recognize and actually make some kind of sense of the chaotic random patterns turbulence describes.

As pointed out in the video, famous physicists such as Richard Feynman and Werner Heisenberg have noted the complexity of turbulence, with Feynman describing it as “the most important unsolved problem of classical physics” and Heisenberg saying that “when I meet God, I am going to ask him two questions: why relativity? And why turbulence? I really believe he will have an answer for the first”. But is it possible that the undoubted genius and troubled painter that was Van Gogh perceived something more about turbulence in nature and is this most clearly represented in his most famous masterpiece – the evocative painting known as Starry Night? Watch the video to find out.

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