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Michael Banks: May 2011 Archives

By Michael Banks

If my memory serves me right, my first introduction to physics came via a demonstration of the Van der Graaf generator.

Situated in the middle of the classroom one day stood a scary-looking contraption consisting of an upright metal stand with a large silver ball on top.

However, once our teacher stood up to give the hair-raising demonstration of the device, the fear of it being used as some kind of torture tool soon eroded.

While Van der Graaf generators are still widely used to teach students about static electricity, researchers at Case Western Reserve University in the US have now used a similar contraption – a Tesla coil – for an altogether different reason.

They have formed the Tesla Orchestra, which uses Tesla coils to convert music into lightning and sound.

In their set-up, an alternating current (AC) is used to generate each bolt of lightning produced by the Tesla coil. As it is made by AC, the bolt has a certain frequency, which can then be tuned to reproduce all of the notes on a keyboard.

Last month the group invited musicians to submit music so they could convert the tunes into sparks and the accompanying sounds. You can see the results in the video above.

On 11 June the Tesla Orchestra will select some of the best songs and perform them in a live show in the Masonic Auditorium in Cleveland.

If you are in the area that day don’t miss out on what is sure to be an electrifying show!

By Michael Banks

Well it had to come didn’t it? There have been quite a few science raps over the last few years touching on nuclear physics, the American astronomer Edwin Hubble and even the Large Hadron Collider at the CERN particle-physics lab, so it seems about right there is now one about climate change.

The rap video for I’m a climate scientist was produced by the Australian current affairs television programme Hungry Beast.

Featuring lines such as “climate change is caused by people, Earth unlike Alien has no sequel”, the video features a raft of climate scientists doing their best Beastie Boys impression.

I will let you decide whether using rap as a means of communicating climate science is a worthwhile endeavour.

By Michael Banks

If you are in the US and stuck for things to do this weekend, then you might well think about catching the noir film The Big Bang, which is released today.

Starring Antonio Banderas, who plays private detective Ned Cruz, and directed by Tony Krantz, the film features Cruz searching for a missing stripper named Lexie Permisson (played by Sienna Guillory) while contending with unsavoury Russian boxers and brash police detectives.

And the physics connection? Well apart from a café in the film called Planck’s Constant Café, the movie’s resident madman is Sam Elliott, played by Simon Kestral, who, with the help of a particle physicist, has built a proton collider under the New Mexico desert to search for the Higgs boson. The film then sees Cruz heading to the underground “military base” to find Permisson.

From the trailer the physics in the movie seems to be fairly accurate. “In 27 hours I am going to find something that theoretically should exist but no-one has ever seen,” says Kestral. “Funny,” replies Cruz. “That is exactly what I am looking for.”

Before heading off to the nearest cinema, however, you might want to read this less than favourable review of the film in the New York Times, which calls the movie a “jumble of notions tossed into a hat”, with the picture being a “low point for Mr Banderas”.

Well, at least it contains some accurate physics, which probably makes for a change.

N.B. The film is rated R (“under 17, requires accompanying parent or adult guardian”) so take note when watching the above trailer.

By Edwin Cartlidge, Rome, Italy

Rome, the birthplace of nuclear physicist Enrico Fermi, is this week hosting a conference dedicated to discussing results from the NASA satellite that bears his name. Some 400 scientists have gathered in the Italian capital to discuss what the Fermi Gamma-Ray Space Telescope, launched in June 2008, can tell us about all manner of extreme celestial events – from the accretion of matter by supermassive black holes and ultra-energetic events known as gamma-ray bursts to the hypothesized collision of dark-matter particles.

First up on to the vast stage of the echoey Aula Magna at La Sapienza University was NASA’s Elizabeth Hays, who gave an overview of Fermi’s progress to date. Hays says she was happy to report that Fermi’s operations were “becoming almost mundane”, now that the satellite has been circling the Earth for over 1000 days, completing more than 16,000 orbits in that time, and collecting vast quantities of gamma-ray data in the process. (There is even now a Fermi app for the iPhone/iPad.)

Some of the gamma rays collected by Fermi have their origins on Earth, with Hays pointing out that radiation generated by charged particles during thunderstorms created something of a minor storm of their own on the Web with nearly half a million views of a NASA video explaining the process (see video above). Fermi’s principal source of gamma radiation is, however, outer space, and it surveys almost the whole sky in three hours, making increasingly detailed studies of bright sources and attempting to pinpoint the nature of weaker ones.

The first catalogue of distinct gamma-ray sources revealed by Fermi was released about a year ago and researchers have been working furiously to get a second, more precise catalogue published. As Dave Thompson of NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center explained, this has taken a lot longer to produce than expected but he argues that when it comes out later on this month it will represent a “major revision” of the old catalogue, listing some 1888 active galactic nuclei and other gamma-ray sources.

Many of those who have made the trip to Rome will also be hoping that another high-profile – and very expensive – astroparticle mission will finally get to make the trip into space in the next few days or weeks. That mission is the cosmic-ray observatory known as the Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer, which is expected to launch on 16 May on the space shuttle Endeavour. As speaker Giovanni Bignami of the University of Pavia put it, “we are keeping our fingers crossed”.

Edwin Cartlidge is a science writer based in Rome

Celebrating 50 years of US manned spaceflight (Courtesy: USPS)

By Michael Banks

If you haven’t marked it in your diary yet, today marks the 50th anniversary of the first American in space.

On 5 May 1961 NASA astronaut Alan Shepard blasted off on a Redstone rocket from Cape Canaveral as part of the US Mercury manned space programme, which had the goal of putting a human in orbit around the Earth.

Shepard, one of seven astronauts chosen for the Mercury programme, successfully completed the 15 minute suborbital flight, which carried him to an altitude of 187 km. He became the second person in space after Yuri Gagarin’s successful orbit of the Earth on 12 April 1961.

To mark the anniversary, LIFE magazine has published 30 images taken on the day by LIFE photographer Ralph Morse, which includes 13 previously unseen photographs.

Indeed, Morse was dubbed by NASA astronaut John Glenn (who in 1962 went on to become the first American to orbit the Earth from space) as “the 8th Mercury astronaut” because he spent many years with the astronauts as they trained. You can view the slideshow of images here.

The United States Postal Service has also commemorated the anniversary by unveiling a pair of stamps. There is also one featuring a grinning Shepard (see image above), the other stamp features an image of the MESSENGER spacecraft, which successfully entered orbit around Mercury in March.