There was a lot of cool physics-y news this week: the physics of swarming midges and of curling (as in, the Olympic sport), the successful SpaceX rocket launch that put a Tesla into space, and proving the existence of superionic ice, to name a few. But physics also said goodbye to one of its best and most beloved theoreticians, Joe Polchinski.
Sounding Out Swarms: Swarms of midges might be an annoyance if you’re out walking in the woods, but for physicists they offer unique insights into collective behaviour. I covered Stanford physicist Nicholas Ouellette's fascinating work (no relation) for Physics World.
Words can't adequately express the sense of loss many of us who knew him are feeling at the passing of Joe Polchinski from brain cancer last Friday--but some tried. To wit: Saying goodbye to Joe Polchinski, a major theorist and a nice guy. Joe “ranks among the greatest theorists of the last half-century.... Remarkably little theoretical physics is done today that doesn’t build on Polchinski’s work,” Raphael Bousso told the New York Times. (“I have not achieved my early science-fiction goals, nor explained why there is something rather than nothing,” a typically modest Joe wrote in a moving epilogue to his online memoir, “but I have had an impact on the most fundamental questions of science.”) Matt Strassler on the man he calls the Brane Master. "Everyone who knew him personally will miss his special qualities — his boyish grin, his slightly wicked sense of humor, his charming way of stopping mid-sentence to think deeply, his athleticism and friendly competitiveness."
Naturally I spoke with Joe at length while writing about his controversial black hole firewalls paper (co-written with three colleagues) for Quanta back in 2012--and again a few years later for another Quanta feature on Samir Mathur's concept of fuzzballs (a firewall is basically a hot fuzzball). But my fondest memory of him is from 2008, when I was journalist in residence for three months at the Kavli Institute for Theoretical Physics in Santa Barbara. I organized several interactive workshops on various aspects of science communication for any physicists at KITP game to participate, including bringing in a video camera and recording them as they were being interviewed, then watching the playback and offering tips for improvement. (It's an uncomfortable and sometimes unpleasant exercise, but incredibly useful for anyone interested in improving their interview game.) Joe graciously volunteered to be my guinea pig and pronounced the playback a revelation: as articulate and accessible as he could be explaining his work, he realized he tended to nervously glance away from the camera or interviewer while speaking. And he became convinced that this was why his footage never appeared in NOVA's Elegant Universe documentary miniseries based on Brian Greene's bestselling book about string theory. (For the record, I have no idea if that's correct.)
The incident speaks to Joe's natural modesty, his willingness (even eagerness) to set ego aside in the passionate pursuit of truth, and to his personal generosity, especially with his valuable time. As Sean noted in his own remembrance for Scientific American: "Looking over the countless memories and sympathies posted online, I don't think I've ever seen such a large and heartfelt outpouring of grief at the passing of a great physicist." The notes on Joe's Facebook wall reveal what he meant to so many people. He was a brilliant physicist, true, but also a truly stellar human being. We should all hope to be so well remembered when our time finally comes.
Why Do Curling Stones Curl? Curling at the highest level requires careful calculations and a little finesse with physics. Related: Back in 2014, I wrote about going curling with a group of physicists for Mark Wise's birthday. (The Caltech Curling Contingent, pictured at right, included a visiting Joe Polchinski and his wife Dorothy Chun.) Also: Olympic Geology -- An Ancient Volcano Provides The Best Curling Stones Worldwide.
The 2018 Winter Olympics kicked off last night, and there was plenty of science-themed coverage. Can Figure Skaters Master the Head-Spinning Physics of a Quintuple Jump? Related: Interactive graphic, courtesy of The New York Times: "Nathan Chen reaches speeds of nearly 440 r.p.m. to execute a quad jump. That's 100 r.p.m. faster than the average speed for a triple and 200 faster than for a double." Also: The Physics of One of the Craziest Big Air Snowboard Tricks Ever. Bonus: The Physics Of A Crazy Finnish Sled: A spinning sled on a pole on a frozen pond makes a great ride for kids, and also a nice physics demo.
Olympic Clothing Designers Try to Beat the Cold with Technology. With electric self-warming jackets and new insulated fabrics, Team USA hopes to overcome record-setting chills. Related: The Science of Ski Wax: Athletes rely on secret chemicals and technicians to make skis both glide and grip. Also: A physicist explains the secrets of endurance at the Winter Olympics.
Physicists Harness Twisted Mathematics to Make Powerful Laser. High-quality beams could be among the first practical applications of the booming field of topological physics.
Heaviest Element, Oganesson, Should Completely Subvert the Rules of High School Chemistry.
A search for dark photons at the LHC comes up empty but puts new constraints on the strength of the hypothetical particles’ coupling to electromagnetic fields.
A Tiny Engine Powered by Light and Liquid Physics. A micrometer-sized sphere trapped by optical tweezers in a liquid, under the right conditions, orbits rapidly around the laser beam—creating a potential micromixing device. There could be entire stars and planets made out of dark matter. "A new study suggests that the mysterious particles might be analogous to protons and electrons in that they could lose energy, allowing them to clump together and form star-like or planet-like objects."
How Hairy Tongues Help Bats Drink Nectar. Experiments and theory show that hairs on a bat’s tongue allow the animal to drink 10 times more nectar than it could if its tongue were smooth.
The Physics of Vibranium in Black Panther. "As suggested by its name, vibranium’s unique properties relate to how the atoms in this material process external sources of vibrations. In particular, vibranium is a perfect shock absorber, converting the kinetic energy and atomic vibrations from any projectile into non-lethal forms of energy." Related: Shrinking a building to the size of a suitcase might be simple for Ant-Man, but he’d have big problems rolling it away.
Elon Musk Actually Shot A Tesla Roadster Into Space. This may be the moment SpaceX opened the cosmos to the masses. Musk's Falcon Heavy rocket lifts off on the first try, puts a Tesla auto into orbit—and maybe changes the business of space commerce and exploration forever. Related: Musk explains why SpaceX prefers clusters of small engines. "It's sort of like the way modern computers are set up." Also: The Physics of SpaceX's Wicked Double Booster Landing. Bonus: How to Prepare a Sports Car for Interplanetary Space. Fun Tangent: Here's Why A Bugatti Chiron Can Hit 200 MPH Quicker Than The Falcon Heavy Rocket Bonus: Miriam Kramer at Mashable: "Watching SpaceX's Falcon Heavy launch to space and then land back on Earth was like seeing the future appear in front of me." Counterpoint from Leah Crane at New Scientist: Is Elon Musk’s playboy space odyssey really the future we want?
A flat-earther finally tried to fly away. His rocket didn’t even ignite. Science! Doing it well is kinda important.
Something's off about this slow-motion bullet video, so Wired's Rhett Allain brings the physics-based forensics and walks us through some ballistics.
Fast-spinning spheres show nanoscale systems' secrets. "Spin a merry-go-round fast enough and the riders fly off in all directions. But the spinning particles in a lab do just the opposite."
Where and When Snow Comes Off a Moving Train. "The snowfall from a snow-laden (from a snowfall) train is somewhat predictable—and so can be somewhat controlled, suggests [a new] study."
How Long Is A Moment? The physics, neuroscience, linguistics, and philosophy behind a little bit of time. "The present that your brain comprehends is around 500 milliseconds behind what is actually “happening”...The world is only ever seen in hindsight."
Why does the universe exist? Caltech physicist Sean Carroll (a.k.a. Jen-Luc Piquant's Time Lord) is glad you asked, and he has the answer for you right here.
Stronger Than Steel, Able to Stop a Speeding Bullet--It's Super Wood! Simple processes can make wood tough, impact-resistant—or even transparent.
The Supersonic Parachutes Carrying NASA's Martian Dreams. A new generation of space scientists is using high tech materials to resurrect the long-neglected supersonic parachute.
So cool! A new interactive installation by the Japanese art collective teamLab uses the movement of visitors to drive vortex motion.
Israeli Artist Sigalit Landau uses the exceptionally high salinity of the Dead Sea as a medium for transforming everyday objects into crystalized artworks. “These objects leave ‘the game’ of being useful ‘things’ and enter a new realm – the open space of representation,” said Landau to Colossal. “They loose their old features and dimensions and inhale a certain pureness of spirit, treated by climate and enhanced by emotion.” [Image: Sigalit Landau]
How the Brilliant Colors of Medieval Illuminated Manuscripts Were Made with Alchemy.
The ABC Book of e: Get excited, citizens of math, because Wednesday, February 7th, 2018 is e Day: 2/7/18.
The Ten Commandments of Molecular (and other) Modeling. EG: "Thou shalt never forget the difference between accuracy and precision."
How Self-Driving Cars Use Lidar Laser Sensors to See. "It's also why dozens of companies are competing to overcome lidar's key weakness: It's too young for a rough life on the road."
Probability and poetry were unlikely partners in the creation of a computational tool, but that's how "Markov chains" got started, which are used everywhere in the sciences today, from identifying genes in DNA to power algorithms for voice recognition.
34 years ago, Bruce McCandless stepped out of the space shuttle Challenger and into the cosmos, becoming the first human to float untethered in space. Before he died in December, McCandless spoke with Nadia Drake at National Geographic.
When Probability Meets Real Life: When deciding whether to do something risky, do you run through a risk-benefit calculation or just go with your gut?
The only two equations that you should know (for chemistry): "Two thermodynamic quantities govern molecular behavior, and indeed the behavior of all matter in the universe."
The Making of Physical Review Letters: Mission, Material, Method "Over the last 60 years, PRL has become the global, go-to physics journal, offering a unique combination of breadth, quality, and long-term value." Related: Top 10 papers from Physical Review’s first 125 years. The most prestigious journal in physics highlights dozens of its most famous papers.
The National Science Foundation will require institutions that receive grant funds to tell them if PIs, co-PIs or anyone on the grant is found to have committed sexual harassment.
FabLabs Are Showing That Student Makers Have Many Faces. Opening the lab door to alternative education, therapeutic emotional support, special needs, and behaviorally non-conforming students shows potential benefits that reach far beyond report cards.
Why Vacations Are Essential For Physics. Two of the most important breakthroughs of the 20th Century were made by physicists on holiday, which gives the lie to the claim that scientists need to spend 60 hours a week in the lab.
Dizzying Geometric Pies and Tarts by Lauren Ko, who "brings mathematical precision to her baking, using elaborate intertwined patterns to form transfixing patterns to the top of her homemade pies and tarts."
What happens when you shine the world's strongest flashlight at the world's brightest paint? Watch and find out.
Artist Seb Lester creates calligraphy using ink and water. "After writing in water, the artist applies ink a drop at a time, allowing fluid forces to spread it."
Explaining the Reason Why There Are Tiny Drilled Holes at the Bottom of Airplane Windows.
Garden of Constants in Columbus, Ohio: "The massive, colorful numbers bring a whimsical air to the lawn outside the engineering building. They’ve stood there since 1994, and have been making numbers look good ever since."
A Fascinating Timelapse That Corrects the Thomas Jefferson Grid to the Spherical Shape of Earth. "This film was made mining the Thomas Jefferson’s Grid in Google Earth. By superimposing a rectangular grid on the earth surface, a grid built from exact square miles, the spherical deviations have to be fixed. After all, the grid has only two dimensions."