Posts by: Tushna Commissariat

A day in the life of an astronaut, Hawking’s football conclusions, politics and science and more

Image from Tim Dodd's Everydat Astronaut photo series

“Good morning world” (Courtesy: Tim Dodd)

By Tushna Commissariat

For most of us, the life of an astronaut is one of excitement and adventure. Indeed, the mere thought of being a “real live astronaut” brings out the gleeful inner child in many, and photographer Tim Dodd is much the same. After purchasing a Russian high-altitude space suit from an online auction website, Dodd put together a series of photographs titled “A day in the life of Everyday Astronaut”, my favourite of which you can see above. Do take a look at the rest of the excellent series on Dodd’s website and follow him on Instagram for even more of the same.

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BICEP2′s findings trigger new kind of ‘inflation’

The BICEP2 experiment at the South Pole

Sunrise over the BICEP2 experiment at the South Pole. (Courtesy: National Science Foundation)

By Tushna Commissariat

Scientists and laypeople the world over were intrigued by the announcement made by the BICEP2 collaboration earlier last month, when it claimed to have detected the primordial “B-mode polarization” of the cosmic microwave signal (CMB). Many researchers have hailed it as the first evidence for cosmic inflation – the extremely rapid expansion that cosmologists believe our universe underwent a mere 10–35 s after the Big Bang.

Indeed, after a quick search of the arXiv preprint server, I found nearly 172 papers based on the BICEP2 data that have been written since the team’s announcement on 17 March. Some 200 individual citations to the original BICEP2 paper can also be found on the server.

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Earth’s cousin, alien intelligence, Galileo’s game and more

Illustration of Kepler-186f

Artist’s illustration of Kepler-186f. (Courtesy: NASA/SETI Institute/JPL-Caltech)

By Tushna Commissariat

Early last week, astronomers announced that they had found the first Earth-sized exoplanet that is comfortably within the habitable zone of its parent star, using NASA’s Kepler telescope. The new planet, dubbed Kepler-186f, is a close cousin of the Earth as it has a radius that is only 10% larger than that of the Earth, meaning that it could have liquid water on its surface, allowing for the tantalizing possibility of some form of life to exist upon it. At last count, Kepler has now discovered and confirmed 1706 exoplanets.

So it was rather interesting to come across two stories that looked at the implications of life beyond our planetary neighbourhood. Paul Gilster, who writes the Centauri Dreams blog had a rather interesting post on how artists and illustrators need to work with scientists to depict each new exoplanet, to make the images look visually stunning, while still being scientifically accurate. Gilster also talks specifically about the image (see above) that illustrates the newly found Kepler-186f.

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3D printing food, ‘Top 10′ lists, teenage nuclear physicists and more

 

By Tushna Commissariat

Over the past few years, 3D printing has captured the imagination and interest of scientists and the public alike. Now, a €3 million EU-funded project known as “PERFORMANCE – PERsonalised FOod using Rapid MAnufacturing for the Nutrition of elderly ConsumErs” is adapting 3D printing technology to food in order to create easily digestible sustenance that is not only nutritious but also looks and tastes like the real thing. The proposed printer would work like its conventional inkjet counterpart – except the cartridges would be filled with liquefied food instead of ink! While that may not sound like the most appetising way of eating your five-a-day, it might come as a relief for those who suffer from a condition known as “dysphagia” that makes swallowing food difficult. You can read more about the proposed scheme on the EU’s Horizon magazine website and take a look at the video above.

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Web bill-of-rights, cosmic popular culture, origami microscopes and more

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By Tushna Commissariat

This week, the Web celebrated its silver anniversary. In March 1989 CERN scientist Tim Berners-Lee proposed a rather contemporary way of linking and sharing information and so the Web was born. There have been numerous stories on the subject this week, but most interesting of all was a Guardian article where Berners-Lee called for the development of an “online Magna Carta” – a bill of rights to enshrine and protect the independence of the Web. “We need a global constitution – a bill of rights,” he said. You can read more about the 25th anniversary at the “World Wide Web Consortium”.

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Cracking the earthquake lights mystery and out-of-this-world technology

Old photo of earthquake ights taken in Romania

A photograph of streams of lights taken in 1977 near Brasov, Romania, about 100 km from the epicentre of a M 7.2 earthquake. (Courtesy: Seismological Society of America)

By Tushna Commissariat

In case you missed it, I was at the APS March meeting in Denver, Colorado last week and I was blogging about a whole host of interesting talks and sessions that I attended. Although I am back in Bristol now, there were one or two other talks that I thought covered some very interesting physics, so here’s a catch-up.

Slip slidin’ away
Seasoned physicsworld.com readers will remember that earlier this year, we featured a rather intriguing story on the phenomenon of earthquake lights – the mysterious and unpredictable glowing lights that seem to appear before some earthquakes. First documented in the 1600s and seen as recently as the Fukushima earthquake of 2011, the “unidentified glowing objects” add to the long list of possible earthquake precursors, and so are of interest. The study that we wrote about in January looked at 65 well-documented events of such lights and concluded that they may occur thanks to a particular type of geological fault – a subvertical fault – causing the earthquake.

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Snip and tuck

Silverberg's presentation on origiami at the APS March meeting

A rapt audience watches Silverberg’s presentation on origami.

By Tushna Commissariat at the APS March Meeting in Denver

Origami – the traditional Japanese art of paper folding – has long intrigued mathematicians and physicists alike. In addition to understanding the mechanics of it, its principles have been applied to the folding of DNA and other nanoscale structural designing, as well as in the folding of rigid sheets using hinges. Indeed, the latter is used for a variety of purposes: from the simple folds of a paper bag with a flat bottom to the folding of airbags and telescopes, and even to simulating the folding of large solar panels for space satellites (known as the Miura fold, named after its inventor the Japanese astrophysicist Koryo Miura).

This morning, I went along to an APS session that looked at “extreme mechanics”, where researchers were talking about the origami and kirigami – a version of origami that involves folding and making small cuts to a single sheet of paper – of structural metamaterials.

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Robotic cowboys and clams, the SQUID at 50 and more

Pierre-Thomas Brun shows off his lassoing skills

Pierre-Thomas Brun shows off his lassoing skills.

By Tushna Commissariat at the APS March Meeting in Denver

It has been another exceedingly busy day the APS March Meeting – there were sessions on the SQUID’s many applications, robotic clams, global health physics and the spread of epidemics, and even some toys based on physics principles. Here’s another quick round-up of the fascinating talks.

On SQUID row
It’s the 50th birthday of the superconducting quantum interference device or SQUID – a very sensitive magnetometer that accurately measures extremely subtle magnetic fields – this year, and there were sessions this morning to discuss its impact to date as well as possible future applications. Kent Irwin from Stanford University discussed how superconducting photon detectors that are used in a host of astronomical and cosmological observations are being amplified using SQUIDs. Such SQUID-boosted sensors are being used to make more accurate measurements of the cosmic microwave background (CMB) – to look at its power as well as certain polarizations modes it exhibits. As certain experiments look for signs of gravitational waves in in the CMB polarization, this could be particularly helpful.

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Partying bacterial biofilms throw out streamers

By Tushna Commissariat at the APS March Meeting in Denver

The word “streamers” doesn’t normally bring bacteria to mind, but it’s all the rage with biophysicists studying the mechanics of bacterial biofilms that grow where there is fluid flowing. A biofilm is any group of microorganisms where cells stick to each other on a surface – either a living or non-living surface will do. A rather simple example of this is the slimy film that develops over our teeth each night.

Biophysicist Knut Drescher from Princeton University gave a fascinating talk at the APS March Meeting on Monday about his research into why biofilms that grow specifically in the presence of a flowing fluid – such as in channels in soil, filtration systems, as well as medical devices such as stents or urinary catheters – are rapidly clogged, causing a variety of problems and infections. Biofilms in such a case form 3D thread-like “streamers” that are responsible for the rapid clogging. It was initially thought that these streamers formed along the walls of the original film and then expanded inwards, but Drescher and colleagues found that it was actually the other way around – the fishing-line-like streamers grew from the middle and rapidly extended outwards, clogging a channel within minutes.

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Magnetic supreme court judges, easier visa access, visualizing arXiv and more

Lee talks about his supreme court model, as Alemi and Zeng listen in.

From left to right, Lee talks about his supreme court model, as Alemi and Zeng listen in.

By Tushna Commissariat at the APS March Meeting in Denver

With the amazing variety of interesting talks at the APS meeting yesterday, I couldn’t possibly write up each and every one – I’d have to take today off, and there’s yet more physics to be learned today! In light of that, below is a short round-up of some of yesterday’s speakers and their work.

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