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Tag archives: astronomy

‘Wizzing’ physics, fundamental prizes, galactic paradoxes and more

By Tushna Commissariat

“Wizzing” to the top of the Red Folder this week is a group of physicists at the “Splash Lab” at Brigham Young University who have studied the physics of “splashback” that occurs when people urinate. Using high-speed cameras the researchers filmed jets of liquid from a “synthetic urethra” striking toilet walls. They found that the stream of liquid breaks up into droplets when it is about 15 cm from the urethra exit. “Wizz kids” Tadd Truscott and Randy Hurd suggest that apart from sitting down on the toilet (and risk being called Sitzpinklers by their German friends), men should get nice and close when doing their business to eliminate splashback. Take a look at their video about “Urinal dynamics” above.

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Chelyabinsk exposed: the anatomy of an asteroid impact

Photo of Chelyabinsk meteorite fragment

Exhibit A: a 4 cm-wide meteorite created by the Chelyabinsk asteroid explosion with “shock veins” in it. (Courtesy: Science/AAAS)

By Matin Durrani

If there is one thing that will be remembered about Friday 15 February 2013, it’s that it was the day when a massive asteroid blew up above the city of Chelyabinsk in Russia – creating the largest explosion on the planet since the one that occurred over the Tunguska river in Siberia in 1908.

But whereas hardly anyone saw or recorded information about the Tunguska explosion, the Chelyabinsk asteroid blew up over a relatively densely populated region and – perhaps more importantly – its journey through the air was recorded by numerous cameras and webcams that nervous Russian drivers love to install on their cars. Video footage of the event was soon seen by people all over the world.

Now, based on data from those videos and visits to some 50 local villages, researchers from the Czech Republic and Canada have published a paper in the journal Science detailing the trajectory, structure and origin of what they call the “Chelyabinsk asteroidal impactor”. The paper goes live on Thursday 7 November.

To save you the trouble of reading the full article, I’ve picked out a couple of factoids that might intrigue and interest you.

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Grumpy astronauts, LEGO overpopulation, videogame quantum mechanics and more

The xkcd webcomic about LEGO titled

The “Minifigs” comic from xkcd (Credit: Randall Munroe/Creative Commons)

By Tushna Commissariat

This week, the Red Folder seemed filled to bursting with amusing and captivating news stories from around the web about physics. To start off, this rather hilarious and candid account of the Apollo 7 mission on the Discovery News website. I will not give too much away and let you read the story yourself, but suffice to say that having a rather bad cold while in space sounds dreadful and is bound to make the best of us quite grumpy – and I am sure the Apollo 7 crew would agree with me!

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Lectures with Peter Higgs, award-winning photographs, multidimentional shapes and more

Guiding Light To The Stars

By Tushna Commissariat

Each week, all of us here at Physics World comb the Internet for all things physics – we look at national and local newspapers, university news outlets, a variety of magazines, science websites and blogs, and, of course, all the  latest scientific papers. We then pool our research and pick the cream of our crop to report on. But we can’t always cover all the interesting bits of physics news that we have chanced upon and a lot of good stuff is left behind in a red folder. So, starting from today, at the end of each week we’ve decided to point all of you, our eager readers, to the stories that have caught our fancy but not made it to the site yet and leave you with some extra weekend reading from The Red Folder.

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Extending the ‘Goldilocks’ zone

Image comparing the inner planets of our Solar System to Kepler-62, a five-planet system about 1,200 light-years from Earth.

A comparison of the inner planets of our solar system, within the habitable zone, to Kepler-62 – a five-planet system about 1200 light-years from Earth. (Courtesy: NASA/Ames/JPL-Caltech)

By Ian Randall

In the modish hunt for exoplanets, the holy grail is discovering such a body within the habitable zone of a star – offering a tantalizing potential for extraterrestrial life. If our solar system is anything to go by, we can expect most planets to form outside of the confines of this zone. What if, however, the habitable zone is really larger than we thought?

This is the idea put forward by Sean McMahon from the University of Aberdeen, Scotland, and colleagues in a recent paper – proposing that the existing definition of the habitable zone overlooks the potential for life to survive below the surface of terrestrial planets that currently lie outside the zone’s reach.

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Is the fine structure constant affected by gravity?

Artist's illustration of a white-dwarf star.

Artist’s illustration of a white-dwarf star (Image Courtesy: NASA/JPL-Caltech)

By Hamish Johnston

If there is one thing our readers like it’s a good story about fundamental constants – and the fine structure constant (α) is always a favourite.

In case you are not familiar with α, it’s a dimensionless quantity (about 1/137) that measures the strength of the electromagnetic interaction. As such, it quantifies how electrons bind within atoms and molecules and therefore can be measured to great precision using spectroscopic techniques. And because atoms can be found just about anywhere between here and the edge of the universe, it’s possible to ask whether α is the same everywhere.

In a paper published this week in Physical Review Letters, an international team of physicists have measured α in the atmosphere of a white-dwarf star – where the gravitational potential is about 30,000 times greater than here on Earth.

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Physics on the big screen

By Tushna Commissariat

A new documentary of Stephen Hawking’s life is due in cinemas later this summer, with the esteemed physicist himself narrating the film. Hawking, as the documentary is simply dubbed, takes a personal look at the life of the celebrated scientist – his early days as a student in Oxford and his ongoing battle with motor neurone disease – as well as documenting his academic achievements.

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Eyeing light pollution

By Tushna Commissariat

The newly patented all-sky camera

The newly patented all-sky camera (Courtesy: University of Granada)

Researchers in Spain have developed a small and light device that can quickly and accurately measure the light-pollution levels or artificial night-sky background brightness for a given location. The team, led by Ovidio Rabaza from the Department of Civil Engineering at the University of Granada, has developed a portable system that includes an all-sky camera and several interference filters that can be easily transported and can be used anywhere.

Currently, methods to measure light pollution that affects the night sky involve using complex techniques such as astronomical photometry, which requires large-scale and expensive equipment generally housed in observatories, according to the researchers. According to the team, the new system is “clearly innovative because, for the first time, relative irradiance and sky background luminance have been measured through wide-field images, of all the sky, instead of using more conventional methods”.

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Voyager 1, where art thou?

Voyager 1 xkcd webcomic

The “Voyager 1” xkcd.com webcomic (Credit: Randall Munroe/Creative Commons)

By Tushna Commissariat

It’s a running joke at the Physics World news desk – the exact location of the Voyager 1 probe and how often we end up writing about how it really has nearly left the solar system this time. So we decided to wait and watch when the news broke on Wednesday evening this week that the probe had left the solar system for sure (again).

Unsurprisingly, the next morning our inboxes included a slightly sheepish “status update” message from NASA. “The Voyager team is aware of reports today that NASA’s Voyager 1 has left the solar system,” says Edward Stone, Voyager project scientist based at the California Institute of Technology, Pasadena. “It is the consensus of the Voyager science team that Voyager 1 has not yet left the solar system or reached interstellar space. In December 2012 the Voyager science team reported that Voyager 1 is within a new region called ‘the magnetic highway’ where energetic particles changed dramatically. A change in the direction of the magnetic field is the last critical indicator of reaching interstellar space, and that change of direction has not yet been observed.”

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You spin me right round

By Tushna Commissariat

It’s not often that we come across a mention of an astronomical event measured in Earth years, let alone months or hours. So suffice to say I was pretty surprised by a recent XMM-Newton finding that talked about a star orbiting a black hole at the furious rate of once every 2.4 hours! Further investigation revealed that this has only broken the previous record by an hour, but these extremely short orbits still have me rather amazed. Certain short orbital period binary stars or pulsars do have even shorter periods of less than an hour, but this star orbits a stellar-mass black hole (it’s about three times more massive than the Sun) that is roughly a million kilometres away from it. The video below, courtesy of the European Space Agency (ESA), is an animation showing one complete orbit of the star.

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