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Deflategate, DIY particle detection and an ode to Beagle 2

By Hamish Johnston

Loyal sports fans often need a reason for losing beyond “their team was better than ours”, and the latest blame-game in American football comes with a twist of physics to it. The run-up to this year’s Superbowl is no exception. Some disgruntled Indianapolis Colts fans claim that the New England Patriots had taken advantage of deflated footballs to make their decisive 45-7 victory on 18 January, which sends them to the championship game.

At first I was confused by this, thinking that surely both teams would benefit equally from the supposed benefits of deflation. But then I realized that each team is given 12 balls that they can choose from when they play offensively. So if a team deflated its balls, while the opposition didn’t, the deflators would enjoy an advantage. After the Superbowl, officials found that 11 of the Patriots’ balls were deflated. This number adds to the conspiracy because deflation is not an advantage when kicking, so a team would save one ball for that purpose.

In their defence, the Patriots have invoked the ideal gas law and say that the deflation was simply caused by the drop in temperature when the balls were taken outside for the game. Now, armed with a freezer and pressure gauge, physicist and author Chad Orzel gives his verdict on their plea.

Here’s an opportunity to show your non-physicist friends that radiation is everywhere. The above video provides a step-by-step guide to building your own cloud chamber from household materials – okay, you do need dry ice but I’m sure you could find some. There is a wealth of information here (“How to build your own particle detector”) about how to identify the particles and if you are really lucky you could even see a particle decay in front of your eyes.

Finally, there was a bittersweet victory this week for supporters of the late Colin Pillinger and the Beagle 2 Mars mission that he championed. Beagle 2 disappeared on Christmas Day 2003 as it was making its final descent to the Martian surface. The cost of the mission was a small fraction of that paid to get other probes to Mars (or not) and was seen as a shining example of British pluck and ingenuity. That is until it was lost, and Pillinger in particular was subject to undeserved ridicule.

But this week we discovered that Beagle 2 is sitting on the surface of Mars exactly where it is supposed to be. However, it failed to deploy all four of its solar panels, thereby allowing no communication with scientists on Earth. The British poet Pam Ayres has tweeted a poem about Pillinger’s posthumous rehabilitation and it begins “Dear Colin sending thoughts to you…”.

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  1. M. Asghar

    Upblasted like a globe regal,
    Compact, composed as an eagal,
    Flew and flew in the virgin space,
    Hit the Mars as a lonely Beagle.

  2. Zach

    Here’s a funny deflategate infographic I came across!

  3. Trackback: Blog -


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