Best of the blog
Dec 23, 2009
From a piece of baguette bringing to a halt the world's largest physics experiment to an arduous 100 item health checklist for wannabe Chinese astronauts, the world of physics has had its fair share of quirky stories this year. Here is a selection from the physicsworld.com blog.
The world's smallest snowman?
At just one-fifth the width of a human hair, this must be a very strong contender for the smallest snowman in the world. The little fella's creator is David Cox, an engineer at the National Physical Laboratory (NPL) in the UK. Rather than being made from snow, however, the body is formed by welding together two tin microparticles, each 10 µm in diameter, which are usually used to calibrate electron microscopes.
A focused ion beam is then used to etch out the eyes and mouth on the top microparticle and a tiny fleck of platinum forms the nose. Cox made the snowman while taking time out from his research at NPL's quantum detection group. According to his homepage, Cox seems to enjoy making things on the nano-scale. "I guess I was just born to make stuff," he writes.
From baguettes to bosons
We all know about last year's magnet disaster at the Large Hadron Collider (LHC), but in November a more mundane object – a piece of baguette – temporarily stopped the machine from operating. According to a note posted on the CERN users' pages, the bread was found lying on a busbar – an electrical connection made of copper that allows heat to dissipate more easily – in one of the eight above-ground cryoplants that help cool the LHC down to a temperature of 1.9 K.
The well placed piece of baguette caused a short circuit in the cryogenic equipment, which heated one of the eight sectors in the LHC's 27 km long ring to about 10 K. "The best guess is that it was dropped by a bird, either that or it was thrown out of a passing aeroplane," a spokeswoman from CERN told The Times.
Once the offending item was removed, the sector of the LHC cooled down again to 2.4 K and proton collisions at 450 GeV began. But in another twist, James Gillies, head of communication at CERN, later claimed that the problem was not caused by a bird carrying a baguette. "Of course, no such thing happened," he said. However, Gillies, who was not at CERN when the incident occurred, says it is true that "feathers and bread" were found at the scene of the electrical fault. The mystery continues.
The Starkey effect
Could it be that in every water droplet is a cartoon figure of everyone's favourite mop-topped Liverpudlian? While taking high-speed photographs of water droplets bouncing from the surface of a lotus leaf, Chuan-Hua Chen and Jonathan Boreyko from Duke University in North Carolina obtained images of the bouncing droplet that bore an uncanny resemblance to a cartoon impression of the Beatles drummer Richard Starkey, better known as Ringo Starr.
Chen and Boreyko studied a vibrating lotus leaf in the lab using high-speed microscopic imaging to try to understand how a lotus leaf manages to shake off so much water. In doing so, they appeared to capture an image of Ringo Starr bouncing off the leaf. However, Boreyko told Physics World that the image most likely shows the reflection from the lamp used as a backlight, with the bulb representing his nose and the headlamp as the face.
By using a more diffuse light source, Boreyko did manage to erase Ringo's face from the droplet. "So unfortunately, unless George Harrison's face starts appearing in my lotus leaves, I think we've seen the last of the Beatles in my photographs," he says.
All spaced out
With raps about the Large Hadron Collider at CERN near Geneva and Fermilab in the US, it would only be a matter of time before hearing a song about the International Year of Astronomy (IYA), which took place this year.
Taking over a year to make, astronomy enthusiast Michael Davis has created a music video about astronomy entitled "Spaced out". Lasting four and half minutes, the video shows astronomers at a park in Patoka Lake, Southern Indiana, US, along with their various telescopes (some quite impressive) getting ready for a night of star-gazing.
The film also features more bizarre, and less well put together, clips such as a woman ice-skating on Saturn's rings or someone riding a comet. "Put a saddle on a comet, joy-ride 'til you pull on the reins," Davis sings. The main fun of science songs is, of course, the lyrics. The song does have a few catchy lines such as "refraction, reflection, telescopic connection," and "the universe is yours, to discover, go observe, go uncover".
However, the chorus is perhaps a bit cheesy (and maybe a little on the unimaginative side): "International Year of Astronomy two thousand nine, International Year of Astronomy two thousand nine" – the repeat and fade out on the "nine" adding an extra layer of cheese. (But if you really like it then you can just speed to the end of the song where it is repeated quite often.)
"The IYA2009 team loved it," says Davis. "They wanted a link to the video on the main IYA2009 website." The International Year of Astronomy medley is not Davis's first song about science. He made a music video about the insect world, entitled "I'm not a bug squasher". So perhaps he could use that video to promote the International Year of Biodiveristy, which is taking place next year.
Astronauts wanted, but no body odour please
Astronauts are used to undergoing rigorous training for the physical and mental challenges that travelling into space brings. Yet Chinese astronauts hoping to be part of the country's next space crew will now have to comply with an arduous 100 item health checklist that will be able to quickly whittle down the number of people capable of being a "taikonaut".
Along with having no family history of serious illnesses, aspiring taikonauts are not allowed to have any drug allergies or holes in their teeth. You can also forget it if you have a runny nose, body odour, bad breath or scars that could burst open in space. And, if a 100 item health checklist is not demanding enough, wannabe taikonauts will get nowhere unless they get permission from their spouse first.
Who needs the lunar breakdown services?
If your car has ever broken down late at night, then the first port of call is, of course, the breakdown services. Failing that, you can always get your hands dirty and turn to your trusted Haynes manual for help.
Haynes publishes owners' manuals for seemingly every make and model of car, motorcycle and truck, but to mark the 40th anniversary of the first Moon landing in July, the company brought out an owners' manual containing technical illustrations and photographs of the 1969 Apollo model, including descriptions of the Saturn V booster rockets as well as the CM-107 command module, the SM-107 service module and the LM-5 lunar module, which took the astronauts to the surface of the Moon and back.
The manual also contains "how it works" and "how you fly it" guides that give insights into launch procedures, flying and landing the lunar module and even a guide to walking on the Moon. So if one of the landing legs is a bit stuck, the lunar-module hatch is jammed or the carbon-dioxide filter gets clogged, then who needs the 400,000 people who helped build Apollo 11? Just get your hands on the Haynes manual for only £17.99.
Safe for safety?
"If you have something that can happen and something that won’t necessarily happen, it is going to either happen or it is not going to happen, and…so the best guess is 1 in 2." It is probably not the most lucid explanation you have ever heard for the meaning of 50/50 probability and especially not from a physics teacher. But this is the explanation given in an interview for the US political satire TV programme The Daily Show by Walter Wagner – who infamously filed a federal lawsuit in the US District Court in Honolulu last year to prevent the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) from starting up.
Broadcast on 30 April, the episode features the show's correspondent John Oliver going to the CERN particle-physics lab near Geneva in a hilarious six-minute segment. The first person Oliver meets is "pioneer particle physicist "John Ellis, who, according to Oliver, is "clearly an evil genius up to something".
Oliver asks him the obvious question: will the LHC destroy the world? "Nobody with expertise in physics or astrophysics thinks there is the slightest risk of any danger," says Ellis. Cue Wagner's bizarre explanation. Oliver then turns to Richard Breedon, another particle physicist at CERN. "This place is perfectly safe," says Breedon as the pair stand in the giant cavern that houses the CMS detector. "So why are we wearing hard hats?" Oliver quips. "It is safe, er, for safety," stumbles Breedon. "Checkmate," says a voice-over from Oliver.
Finally, Wagner and Oliver enter a bunker, where Oliver suggests that as the world is about to end they may as well try and breed. "It's worth a shot," says Oliver. "There's a 50% chance it might work." Game, set and match, we say.
Calling all pizza tossers
Here is a contender for a future Ig Nobel prize. In April, three physicists at Monash University in Australia studied footage of a professional chef to calculate the mechanics of the perfect pizza toss. Their solution? Your first toss should make the dough follow a helical, or spiral, motion as this maximizes energy efficiency and the dough's airborne rotational speed.
Subsequent tosses should involve the dough following a semi-elliptical motion so that the disc flies through the air at an angle rather than flying perfectly flat. This is better because it makes it easier to maintain high-speed dough rotation.
Kuang-Chen Liu and colleagues say that their research could be used by engineers to improve the efficiency of micromachines such as the design of standing-wave ultrasonic motors, applications of which include autofocus camera lenses. Who would have thought it?
You can certainly expect much more of the same next year. See you in 2010.
About the author
Michael Banks is news editor of Physics World