Category Archives: The Red Folder

Microwave pockets, space station strife and dreaming of Mars

Russia has the toilets on the ISS (Courtesy: NASA)

Russia has the toilets on the ISS. (Courtesy: NASA)

By Hamish Johnston

The physics of how the contents of a microwaved pastry can become “hotter than the Sun” is the subject of an entertaining and informative blog entry by Ethan Siegel. He looks at the physics of heating “microwave pockets”, those roof-of-your-mouth-scalding savoury treats that appeared on shelves in the 1980s. He explains why the outer portion of a pocket can be extremely hot, while the interior remains frozen – and why pockets often explode when heated through.

Siegel’s been a bit cheeky and republished this entry from 2009, but I suppose it’s timeless and I’m sure you can still buy microwave pockets somewhere! His blog is called Starts With a Bang and the entry is entitled “Throwback Thursday: The physics of hot pockets”.

As the crisis in the Ukraine drags on, scientists are beginning to worry about the effect it could have on scientific collaborations involving Russia and the West. Several websites are reporting that Russia is threatening to ban US astronauts from the shuttles that travel to the International Space Station (ISS). Indeed, the Independent quotes Russia’s deputy prime minister Dmitry Rogozin as saying that it would be possible for Russia to independently operate its portion of the ISS, while the US would not be able to do so. Indeed both toilets on the ISS are Russian, so it could get very messy up there!

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The biophysics of Godzilla, skipping stones, Schrödinger in the morning and more

 

By Hamish Johnston

I’m a bit of a connoisseur of the art of stone skipping. That’s because I grew up a stone’s throw from the western end of Lake Ontario, which thanks to its shale shoreline has the best skipping stones in the world. As a result, I was fascinated to read a piece on the Figure One blog about entitled “Frisbee meets fluid: Skipping stones takes spin and skill”.

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Winning rock-paper-scissors, meeting a future Nobel laureate, hot new batteries and more

By Hamish Johnston

Donald Sadoway wants us to think differently about batteries

Donald Sadoway wants us to think differently about batteries. (Courtesy: MIT/M Scott Brauer)

When I was a PhD student, there was a group of retired professors that shared a tiny office in the physics department. It was whispered that one of them was extremely wealthy thanks to a successful commercial spin-out and we marvelled at the fact that he came in to work every day rather than enjoying the fruits of his labours. However, it wasn’t the wealthy professor who was destined for international fame. In 1994 his officemate Bertram Brockhouse shared the Nobel Prize for Physics, and Brockhouse’s quiet life changed dramatically. Indeed, he got his own office!

I was reminded of this little group when I read ZapperZ’s blog entry about his encounter with Ray Davis before Davis bagged the 2002 Nobel for his work on neutrinos. Sitting next to Davis on a two-hour flight, ZapperZ had an inkling that he was beside an interesting character after their brief chat about physics. But it wasn’t until the Nobel was announced several years later that he realized the opportunity he had missed.

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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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Why electricity grids fail, what to do if your PhD is stolen, and what is a ‘Suris tetron’?

 

By Hamish Johnston

It’s the nightmare scenario for any PhD student: losing all those research results that you carefully squirreled away for when you finally sit down to write your thesis. That’s just what happened to biologist Billy Hinchen, who lost four years’ worth of 3D time-lapse videos of developing crustacean embryos when his laptop and back-up drives were stolen. Find out what happened next in “What would happen if you lost all of your research data?” by Julia Giddings at the scientific software firm Digital Science. Hinchen also tells his tale of woe in the video above.

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Cakes that are out of this world, what’s on Andre Geim’s iPod and who’s the April fool?

The joke’s on me: click on the image for a larger version where you can see the instruction for users

The joke’s on me: click on the image for a larger version where you can see the instruction for users

By Hamish Johnston

On Tuesday I was feeling particularly pleased with myself over the April Fool’s piece that I penned. It was about a fictitious microwave-oven ban organized by radio astronomers at the UK’s Jodrell Bank Observatory. But now it looks like I might have a bit of microwaved egg on my face because two of my colleagues visited Jodrell Bank this week and guess what? Astronomers there have built a Faraday cage around the microwave in their tearoom to stop it from interfering with their equipment. Louise Mayor took the above photos: click on the image to read the reminder to microwave users.

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In praise of rocket scientists, ironworkers, superheroes and more

Dark Matter and Big Data are just two of the superheroes inspired by physics.

Dark Matter and Big Data are just two of the superheroes inspired by physics. (Courtesy: Brittney Williams/Symmetry magazine)

By Hamish Johnston

Q: What do you call physicists studying the electrical properties of salad greens?
A: Rocket scientists!

But that’s old news, so lettuce move on to this week’s highlights from the Red Folder…

The rocket scientists referred to in the headline are econophysicists, who got a bad rap from Warren Buffet and others during the financial crisis of 2008. Now that the great depression is nearly over, physicist and author Mark Buchanan has a much more upbeat assessment of those who have made the transition from physics to economics in his blog entry “What’s the use of ‘econo-physics’?”.

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BICEP2 surprise visit, a bizarre rant, credible science fiction and more

 

By Hamish Johnston

The big story this week is that astronomers working on the BICEP2 telescope may have spotted the first direct evidence for cosmic inflation.  This is very good news for the physicist Andrei Linde, who along with Alan Guth and others did much of the early work on inflation. In the above YouTube video Linde, who is certainly in the running for a Nobel prize, receives a surprise visit from BICEP2 team member Chao-Lin Kuo. Kuo is the first to tell Linde and his wife, the physicist Renata Kallosh, the news that the theory that Linde developed more than 30 years earlier had finally been backed up by direct observational evidence. Not surprisingly, champagne glasses are clinking!

Here at physicsworld.com we have tried to tell both sides of the story: the thrill of seeing the first hints of cosmic inflation, tempered with calls for caution that more data are needed before inflation is victorious over other theories describing the early universe.

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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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