Category Archives: The Red Folder
By Michael Banks and Tushna Commissariat
It’s that time of the year again when the Royal Observatory Greenwich announces the winners of its Astronomy Photographer of the Year award and releases some of the most wonderful and awe-inspiring celestial images. Pictured above is this year’s overall winning image – titled “Eclipse Totality over Sassendalen” and taken by French photographer Luc Jamet, this stunning skyscape was taken from Svalbard during the total solar eclipse that took place earlier this year. “It is one of those heart-stoppingly beautiful shots for which you feel grateful to the photographer for sharing such an exceptional moment,” says Melanie Vandenbrouck, who was one of the judges. If you are in London, then you can drop in to the observatory to see the full exhibition , which opens today, and you can see all the winning images online.
While you’re admiring pictures, do take a look at the latest images of Pluto – backlit by the Sun and showing off its many rugged mountains and icy planes – taken by the New Horizons probe. The pictures are eerily similar to something you would see at the poles of our very own planet, while still maintaining its alien air.
By James Dacey and Tushna Commissariat
While it may seem as if we Physics World journalists spend our evenings leafing through Newton’s Principia Mathematica or deriving the Dirac equation from first principles, on Wednesday night this week, a few of us visited Dismaland – the pop-up “bemusement park” curated by the elusive British street artist Banksy. Located in the seaside town of Weston-super-Mare – a few miles south-west of the Physics World Bristol HQ – Dismaland offers a darker and more politically motivated alternative to Mickey Mouse and his friends. While our visit was not work-related, there were a few unexpected physics references that we couldn’t help but spot. First we stumbled across “The Astronauts’ Caravan”, a humorous take on the flight simulators used by NASA (see video above).
Created in 2011 by artists and engineers Tim Hunkin and Andy Plant, the outwardly unimpressive-looking theme-park ride is a compact version of the Victorian “haunted swing” illusion. We won’t spoil the magic by explaining the mechanics of the ride here, but you can read this blog by Hunkin where he explains exactly how he and Plant built their spinning caravan and if you can’t visit Dismaland, then watch the video to see what it looks like from the inside.
By Hamish Johnston
Fancy a wee dram while you are orbiting the Earth? With the growing interest in space tourism, travellers could soon be enjoying a sip or two of whisky in space. To make such tipples as enjoyable as possible, the Scotch whisky maker Ballantine’s has developed a special “space glass” that works in the free-fall conditions of Earth orbit. The firm is also developing a special blend of whisky to be enjoyed in space.
Created by Ballantine’s master whisky blender Sandy Hyslop and James Parr from the Open Space Agency, the new glass was filled with Scotch and tested in free-fall at the ZARM drop tower in Bremen, Germany. You can find out more about how one’s palate changes in space and the challenges facing the glass designers in the above video. And if you want to know if the glass passed the free-fall test, there is a second video called “Space Glass Project: the microgravity test”.
By Michael Banks, Tushna Commissariat and Matin Durrani
Chocolate, the food of the gods, is more popular now as a sweet treat than ever before. And while more and more people know their 70% cocoa from their truffles, “lecithin” still isn’t a word that pops up often. It is an ingredient that plays a key role in chocolate-making and other foods. But this fatty substance has long confounded food-scientists and confectioners alike – we don’t know how this ingredient works on a molecular level and confectioners have had to rely on observations and trial-and-error methods to perfect recipes.
Now, though, chocolatiers have had help from an unexpected field – that of molecular biology – to figure out chocolate “conching” – the part of the chocolate-making process where aromatic sensation, texture and “mouthfeel” are developed. In a special issue on “The Physics of Food” published in the Journal of Physics D: Applied Physics, Heiko Briesen and colleagues at Technische Universität München, Germany, use molecular dynamics to model and simulate how lecithin molecules, made from different sources, attach to the sugar surface in cocoa butter. “I’m quite confident molecular dynamics will strongly support food science in the future” says Briesen.
By Matin Durrani
Our eyes were drawn this week to the results of the first national US survey of the experiences of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer or asexual (LGBTQA) people working in science, technology, engineering and medicine (STEM) subjects. Entitled Queer in STEM, the study was carried out by Jeremy Yoder, a plant-biology postdoc at the University of Minnesota, and Alison Mattheis who’s on the faculty at the College of Education at California State University Los Angeles.
By Tushna Commissariat
A visit to the Royal Observatory in Greenwich is incomplete without walking along the Prime Meridian of the world – the line that literally divides the east from the west – and taking some silly photos across it. But you may be disappointed to know that the actual 0° longitudinal line is nearly 100 m away, towards the east, from the plotted meridian. Indeed, your GPS would readily show you that the line actually cuts through the large park ahead of the observatory. I, for one, am impressed that the original line is off by only 100 m, considering that it was plotted in 1884. A recently published paper in the Journal of Geodesy points out that with the extreme accuracy of modern technology like GPS, which has replaced the traditional telescopic observations used to measure the Earth’s rotation, we can measure this difference. You can read more about it in this article in the Independent.
Quantum mechanics in a cup of coffee, hamming it up to the space station, the laws of political physics and more
By Hamish Johnston and Michael Banks
Physicists tend to drink lots of coffee so I wasn’t the least bit surprised to see the above video of Philip Moriarty explaining quantum mechanics using a vibrating cup of coffee. Moriarty, who is at the University of Nottingham, uses the coffee to explain the physics underlying his favourite image in physics. You will have to watch the video to find out which image that is, and there is more about the physics discussed in the video on Moriarty’s blog Symptoms of the Universe.
By Hamish Johnston and Michael Banks
You may remember back in 2013 when researchers at the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) in the US entangled the motion of a tiny mechanical drum with a microwave field for the first time ever. Not content with that feat, NIST physicist Ray Simmonds, who was involved in the work, has now made a dance about it (but no song, yet). Teaming up with choreographer Sam Mitchell, the duo has created a modern dance piece entitled Dunamis Novem (“The chance happening of nine things”). Featuring four dancers, their movements are based on nine quantized energy levels of a harmonic oscillator – like the microscopic drum in the NIST work. For each level, Mitchell created corresponding dance actions, while Simmonds created a random-number generator – to add some “quantum randomness” – for the sequence of levels that the dancers perform at. If the dancers happen to touch each other, their actions become synchronized, which can then only be broken by a beam of light – demonstrating that a measurement collapses the entanglement.
NIST has published a Q&A with Mitchell and Simmonds with links to videos of the dance and the animations of the corresponding energy levels of the harmonic oscillator. A video of the first half of Dunamis Novem is shown above and a video of the entire dance is also available.
The Magnus effect in action, destroying the world, an astrophysicist camps out in Manchester and more
By Hamish Johnston and Michael Banks
This week’s Red Folder opens with a fantastic video (above) from the folks at Veritasium. It involves dropping a spinning basketball from the top of a very tall dam in Tasmania and watching as the ball accelerates away from the face of the dam before bouncing across the surface of the water below. In comparison, a non-spinning ball simply falls straight down. This happens because of the Magnus effect, which has also been used to create flying machines and sail-free wind-powered boats. The effect also plays an important role in ball sports such as tennis and is explained in much more detail in our article “The physics of football”.
By Tushna Commissariat
Mechanics was never my favourite topic when I was studying physics for my BSc, but I think I might have been more interested if we had looked at real-world situations rather than square blocks sliding down an incline plane. A bicycle that carries on, sans rider, without toppling over for quite a long time, for example, would have got my attention. This is a rather well-known quirk of mechanics though and it isn’t even the first time we have discussed it on the blog. Indeed, Physics World‘s James Dacey, a keen cyclist, delved into the topic in 2011. This week, we spotted a a new Minute Physics video on the subject, over at ZapperZ’s Physics and Physicists blog. Watch the video to get a good, if a tiny bit rushed, explanation of the three forces that come into play to allow a bicycle at a certain speed to zip along without its human companion. As the video suggests, all is not known about the secrets of free-wheeling bicycles just yet though, and I have a feeling that we will blog about it again in the years to come.