Category Archives: The Red Folder

Cats and causality: is your moggy an Isaac Mewton?

Causal connection: are cats feline physicists? (Courtesy: CC BY/David Corby)

Causal connection: are cats feline physicists? (CC BY David Corby)

By Hamish Johnston

It’s been a very difficult week for some UK-based physicists for reasons that you can read about here. Therefore I thought this week’s Red Folder should be a bit of a tonic, so here’s a combination that’s guaranteed to put smile on even the glummest face: cats, physics and the Internet.

Cats seem to grasp the laws of physics,” at least according to Saho Takagi and colleagues at Kyoto University in Japan. It seems that our feline friends have a firm understanding of causality, as shown by their ability to recognize that an effect (an object falling out of an overturned container) is preceded by its cause (the noisy shaking of the object in the upright container). The cats quickly realized that a noisily shaken container would yield an object, but the silent shaking of an empty container would not.

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Second wave: all about LIGO, black holes, gravitational ripples and more

 

By Tushna Commissariat

What an exciting week it has been, as the LIGO and Virgo collaborations announced that they have definitely detected a second gravitational wave event using the Advanced Laser Interferometer Gravitational-wave Observatory (aLIGO) in the US.  These waves made their way into aLIGO early on Boxing Day last year (in fact it was still very late on Christmas Day in the US states where the twin detectors are located), a mere three months after the first gravitational-wave event was detected on 14 September 2015.

This event once again involved the collision and merger of two stellar-mass black holes, and since the “Boxing Day binary” is still on my mind, this week’s Red Folder is a collection of all the lovely images, videos, infographics and learning tools that have emerged since Wednesday.

LIGO physicist and comic artist Nutsinee Kijbunchoo has drawn a cartoon showing that while the researchers were excited about the swift second wave, they were a bit spoilt by the first, which was loud and clear – and could be seen by naked eye in the data. The black holes involved in the latest wave were smaller and a bit further away, meaning the signal was fainter, but actually lasted for longer in the detectors.

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Sea monsters at LIGO, how to become a ‘thought leader’ and why not string theory?

"The art of naming glitches" by Antimatter Webcomic (click to enlarge).

“The art of naming glitches” by Nutsinee Kijbunchoo/Antimatter Webcomics (click to enlarge).

By Hamish Johnston

Have you ever wondered how the LIGO collaboration managed to tease out the tiny signal from gravitational wave GW150914 from all the background noise in its kilometre-sized detectors? Well you’re in luck because experts from the LIGO detector characterization group have written a lively piece on the CQG+ blog called “How do we know LIGO detected gravitational waves?”.

It’s packed full of fun facts; for example, did you know that detecting GW150914 is roughly the same as measuring a change in distance the thickness of a human hair between Earth and Alpha Centauri, the closest star to Earth? But be warned, the article is also full of technical terms such as “whistles”, “blips”, “koi fish” and even “Fringey the sea monster”. These are illustrated in the above graphic by LIGO physicist and artist Nutsinee Kijbunchoo.

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Fractals and infinite curves, sonified data and farewell to Sir Tom Kibble

By Tushna Commissariat

Fractals have always fascinated me and I am sure it’s the same for many of you. What I find most intriguing about them is how the relatively simple base pattern, or “seed”, quickly scales up to form the intricate designs we see in a snowflake or a coastline. In the video above, mathematician and animator Grant Sanderson has created a montage of “space filling curves” – theoretically speaking, such curves can endlessly expand without every crossing its own path to fill an infinite space. Following on from these curves, Sanderson shows you just how a simple seed pattern grows into a fractal and also describes how small changes to a seed property – such as an angle in a V – can alter the final image. The above video follows from a previous one Sanderson created on “Hilbert’s curve, and the usefulness of infinite results in a finite world” so check them both out.

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Killer asteroid bust-up, exposing academic plagiarism, #IAmAPhysicist and more

Time-lapse image of the asteroid Euphrosyne as seen by NASA’s WISE space telescope

Time-lapse image of the asteroid Euphrosyne as seen by NASA’s WISE space telescope, which is used by NEOWISE to measure asteroid sizes. (Courtesy: NASA)

By Hamish Johnston

First-up in this week’s Red Folder is a tale of killer asteroids, hubris and peer review from the Washington Post. The science writer Rachel Feltman has written a nice article about a claim by physicist-turned-entrepreneur Nathan Myhrvold that NASA’s research on asteroids that could potentially collide with Earth is deeply flawed. On Monday, Myhrvold posted a 111-page preprint on arXiv that argues that asteroid radii measured by NASA’s NEOWISE project are far less accurate than stated by NASA scientists. What’s more, Myhrvold seems to suggest that NEOWISE scientists have “copied” some results from previous asteroid studies.

Myhrvold began his career as a theoretical physicist and, after a stint as Microsoft’s chief technology officer, founded an intellectual-property firm. He has never worked in the field of asteroids, yet he has taken great exception to some of the physics and statistical analysis underlying the NEOWISE results. His paper has been submitted to the journal Icarus, but has not yet passed peer review – unlike the NEOWISE results. In her article, Feltman ponders why Myhrvold is actively promoting his controversial work – he was featured in a New York Times article on Monday – before it has passed peer review. She also speaks to several NEOWISE scientists, who are not amused.

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Rosetta and bedbugs, LIGO and dark matter, arXiving science and more…

 

By Tushna Commissariat

Space missions and insects are not the most usual of bedfellows. But in a wonderful example of how space technology can be translated into practical devices for use here on Earth,  a UK company has repurposed and adapted an analyser used onboard the Rosetta mission – that in 2014 landed a probe on a comet for the first time – to sniff out bedbugs. The pest-control company, Insect Research Systems, has created a 3D-printed detector that picks up bodily gas emissions from bedbugs – such a device could be of particular use in the hotel industry, for example, where many rooms need to be quickly scanned. The device is based on the Ptolemy analyser on the Philae lander, which was designed to use mass spectroscopy to study the comet’s surface.

“Thanks to the latest 3D-printing capabilities, excellent design input and technical support available at the Campus Technology Hub, we have been able to optimize the design of our prototype and now have a product that we can demonstrate to future investors,” says Taff Morgan, Insect Research Systems chief technical officer, who was one of the main scientists on Ptolemy. In the TEDx video above, he talks about the many technological spin-offs that came from Ptolemy – skip ahead to 13:45 if you only want to hear about the bedbugs, though.

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Spiralling temperatures, physics legacies, the science of mac and cheese

Spiralling global temperatures

Ring of fire: spiralling global temperatures. Created by climate scientist Ed Hawkins of the University of Reading.

 

By Tushna Commissariat

As we face up to the realities of global warming and see the effects of climate change become apparent, it’s more important than ever that people the world over truly grasp its impact. With this in mind, University of Reading climate scientist Ed Hawkins has created the above animated spiral, which shows how the global temperature has changed over the past 166 years. Using data from the Met Office’s Hadley Centre observations datasets, Hawkins’ animation presents data in a a clear and artistic way. “The pace of change is immediately obvious, especially over the past few decades. The relationship between current global temperatures and the internationally discussed target limits are also clear without much complex interpretation needed,” says Hawkins, who is based at the university’s National Centre for Atmospheric Science. Take a look at his webpage to learn more about the project and for a list of specific weather events that are noticeable in the data.

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Climate change and chaos, the many faces of physics, spider-silk superlenses and more

 

By Tushna Commissariat

In case you have ever wondered why so many theoretical physicists study climate change, physicist Tim Palmer from the University of Oxford in the UK has a simple answer: “because climate change is a problem in theoretical physics”. Indeed, Palmer, who won the Institute of Physics’ 2014 Dirac medal, studies the predictability and dynamics of weather and climate, in the hopes of developing accurate predictions of long-term climate change. The answer, according to Palmer, lies at the intersection between chaos theory and inexact computing – which requires us to stop thinking of computers as deterministic calculating machines and to instead “embrace inexactness” in computing. Palmer talked about all this and more in the latest public lecture from the Perimeter Institute in Canada – you can watch his full talk above.

When someone says the word “physicist”, what image or persona comes to mind? That is the question the Institute of Physics (which publishes Physics World) was hoping to answer with its recent member survey based on diversity, titled “What Does a Physicist Look Like?” The Institute’s main aim with this diversity survey, which about 13% of its members responded to, was “to understand the profile of our members and gain some insights into who they are – diverse people with different ages, ethnicities, beliefs and much more”. You can read its entire results here.

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The most expensive object on Earth, publish or perish, and a physics Magna Carta

Gold coast: the Hinkley Point C power station will be build next to existing reactors in Somerset (Courtesy: CC BY-SA 2.0/ Richard Baker)

Gold coast: the Hinkley Point C power station will be built next to existing reactors in Somerset. (CC BY-SA 2.0 Richard Baker)

By Hamish Johnston

What will soon be the most expensive object on Earth? The answer, according to Greenpeace, is the Hinkley Point C nuclear power station that is slated for construction in south-west England. According to the BBC, the environmental group reckons the station will cost £24bn ($35bn) whereas EDF – the company that will build it – puts the construction cost at £18bn. In contrast, the Large Hadron Collider at CERN cost a mere £4bn. While the price tag on Hinkley Point C – which should produce 3.2 GW of electricity by 2024 – is eye watering, building a reactor on the cheap is not really an option.

Still, Hinkley Point C will not be the most expensive object ever built by humans. That honour goes to the International Space Station, which the BBC says cost nearly £78bn. There’s something comforting in knowing that the single highest expenditure ever has been on science – maybe civilization isn’t doomed after all.

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Physics saves humanity, the large rainfall collider and other environmental highlights on Earth Day

Gravity's pull: could the LHC be used as a giant rain gauge? (Courtesy: CERN)

Gravity’s pull: could the LHC be used as a giant rain gauge? (Courtesy: CERN)

By James Dacey and Hamish Johnston

Today is Earth Day, so let’s temporarily rename this regular Red Folder column as the Green Folder. Either way, today we’re going to focus on the Earth and environmental issues. The official website of Earth Day – an initiative now in its 46th year – has details about the various initiatives and events taking place around the world today.

First, let’s pay tribute to a physicist whose work had a profound influence on the climate and energy debate in the UK and beyond. Sir David Mackay died on 14 April aged 48 following a battle with cancer. Mackay is remembered among other things for his pragmatic approach to energy and his 2008 book Sustainable Energy: Without the Hot Air (free access) was hailed for its rigour and refreshing absence of rhetoric. Mackay’s writings attracted the interest of the British government who appointed him as chief scientific adviser to the Department of Energy and Climate Change in 2009, a post he held for five years. Ever prolific, Mackay was blogging about his experiences right up until two days before his death.

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