The cover feature of the August issue of Physics World, which is now out in print and digital formats, looks at the Sun – and in particular, at the consequences here on Earth of a “solar super-storm”. As I point out in the video above, these violent events can disturb the Earth’s magnetic field – potentially inducing damaging electrical currents in power lines, knocking out satellites and disrupting telecommunications.
One particularly strong solar super-storm occured back in 1859 in what is known as the “Carrington event”, so named after the English astronomer who spotted a solar flare that accompanied it. The world in the mid-19th century was technologically a relatively unsophisticated place and the consequences were pretty benign. But should a storm of similiar strength occur today, the impact could be devastating to our way of life.
Observed change in Tatooine surface temperature 100BBY – 10ABY. (Courtesy: David Ng)
By Hamish Johnston
What’s it like to have a nuclear bomb dropped on you? Okay, I know the question is a bit heavy for this light-hearted column but I was really inspired by this piece about Shinji Mikamo who was less than a mile from the epicentre of the Hiroshima bomb. He was 19 at the time and not surprisingly the bomb changed the course of his life in many ways. What I found most amazing is that Mikamo managed to survive an explosion so intense that it blasted off the glass and hands of his father’s pocket watch, but not before imprinting the time of the blast on the watch’s melted face. The article is called “When time stood still” and it appears on the BBC website.
I chatted with Carroll when he was in the UK speaking at the recent Cheltenham Science Festival and, in the podcast, you can find out about his favourite science-fiction films and why he thinks it’s important to get the science in such films right. Carroll also reveals who he thinks he’s most like in TV’s The Big Bang Theory.
The various regions at the edge of the solar system. (Courtesy: Southwest Research Institute)
By Matin Durrani
Has the Voyager spacecraft left the solar system and entered interstellar space? I don’t know about you, but I’m getting a teensy weensy bit bored by this question, which has been going on for years now.
Last September, we blogged about a paper in Science that, yep, it had definitely left the solar system a year before – on 25 August 2012 in fact.
Calling all musical gerbils: a new take on the theremin. (Courtesy: Paul Goddard)
By Hamish Johnston
“How we created spooky experimental music in a superconductor lab”: what physicist could resist clicking on this story, which appeared on the Guardian website earlier this week? Written by the physicist-turned-computational-biologist Andrew Steele, the article describes how Steele and a few pals converted a magnetic sensor into a musical instrument. Like the theremin, which is played by waving your hands around an antenna, this new instrument responds to the player’s motion. But because the sensor was optimized for studying superconductors rather than creating freaky mood music, Steele explains the “instrument covered three octaves in less than a centimetre of hand movement”. He suggests that playing the instrument should probably be left to a talented gerbil rather than talented superconductor researchers. You can listen to Steele’s attempt at making music on SoundCloud.
Unless you’re prepared to modify our understanding of gravity – and most physicists are not – the blunt fact is that we know almost nothing about 95% of the universe. According to our best estimates, ordinary, visible matter accounts for just 5% of everything, with 27% being dark matter and the rest dark energy.
The July issue of Physics World, which is out now in print and digital formats, examines some of the mysteries surrounding “the dark universe”. As I allude to in the video above, the difficulty with dark matter is that, if it’s not ordinary matter that’s too dim to see, how can we possibly find it? As for dark energy, we know even less about it other than it’s what is causing the expansion of the universe to accelerate and hence making certain supernovae dimmer (because they are further away) than we’d expect if the cosmos were growing uniformly in size.
What lies beneath?: Mapping Mount Fuji. (Courtesy: Florent Brenguier)
By Tushna Commissariat
Plumbing problems do not get any bigger and more complicated than a backed-up volcano. But geophysicists looking at the responses of ground waves below Japanese volcanoes have now come up with a technique for identifying where pressurized volcanic fluids build up, allowing them to better anticipate when a volcano may erupt. Scientists already knew that seismic waves from large earthquakes agitate volcanic systems and that large eruptions generally follow a build-up of pressurized fluids at some depth. But they had been unable to pin down the specific physical changes that seismic waves cause. Now though, Florent Brenguier of the Institut des Sciences de la Terre in Grenoble, France, and colleagues at the University of Tokyo have used recordings of seismic-wave velocity from the devastating 2011 Tōhoku earthquake to create a map of seismic-velocity changes in its aftermath. Surprisingly, the largest changes were not observed in the area closest to the earthquake epicentre near the Pacific coast but farther inland, immediately below volcanic regions. The image above highlights an anomalously low seismic velocity below the Mount Fuji volcano after the earthquake, despite it being some 500 km from the epicentre. The drop in velocity is because the regions are susceptible to earthquake shaking – cracks in the crust open so that fluids at high pressures can escape, and could be seen as proxies for the high-pressure fluid build-up (Science345 80).
Artist’s impression of the revamped Tesla Tower. (Global Energy Transmission)
By Michael Banks
Two Russian physicists have turned to the fundraising website Indiegogo in the hope of raising a cool $800,000 to build a Tesla Tower.
Leonid and Sergey Plekhanov – graduates of Moscow Institute of Physics and Technology but now working in industry – want to reconstruct the famous Wardenclyffe Tower that was built by the inventor and engineer Nicola Tesla to find a commercial application for long-distance wireless energy transmission.
Is this exoplanet more of a Joanne than a Derek? You could soon be casting your vote to name 305 explanets. (Courtesy: IAU/M Kornmesser/N Risinger)
By Hamish Johnston
With the final two matches of the FIFA World Cup to look forward to this weekend, I thought I would sneak one more football-related story into the Red Folder. Over on the arXiv blog, there is a nice commentary about the topological nature of World Cup balls through the ages. Why? Well, two chemists in Taiwan have worked out a way to create a carbon-based molecule with the same shape as the football currently being used in the tournament in Brazil. Called the Brazuca, the ball is made from six panels that each have a four-leafed clover shape. Together, they form a structure with octahedral symmetry.
Many academics believe that they have an idea in them that could lead to a nifty new technology – and make them some cash in the process. But there is a world of difference between discussing an idea in the departmental common room and actually launching a new product to fit into an unexploited niche in the market. One of the biggest challenges that start-up companies face is known as the valley of death, which we have illustrated for you here with this quirky animation.
The voice you hear is that of Stan Reiss, who works for the international venture capitalist firm Matrix Partners. He explains how the valley of death is a metaphor for the financial challenges faced by a spin-off company in the early stages of its development. In this phase, the firm may have a prototype for a product but it might not have the income or the capital to comfortably survive and grow. Often, the company simply runs out of money and falls by the wayside. “There’s a lot of dead bones and skeletons at the end of that valley,” says Reiss.