Tortoise vs Hare, but in a vacuum this time

We all know how gravity is supposed to work. Without air resistance, a feather and a bowling ball (the standardized materials for all gravitational tests) should accelerate toward the center of the Earth at the same rate, thus striking the ground at the same time. Humans have tested this. It works.

Although we know this thing, it is so far removed from our daily experience that it is still stunning to watch it happen. This fundamental principle is nicely illustrated in this video from the BBC. The video also nicely shows how amazed a roomful of individuals who know how the experiment will work can be when the experiment works exactly as expected.

That is why we need the scientific method to rigorously test hypotheses and incrementally build our knowledge of how the universe works. Our day-to-day experience of and intuition about the world is extremely valuable, but also extremely deceptive.

For the record, the tortoise vs hare in a vacuum race I alluded to in the title would be incredibly inhumane and disappointing, in addition to having no winner – unless, UNLESS we had the tortoise and hare race in spacesuits. Why aren’t we racing animals in spacesuits?

HT: Jared Heidinger

Science for the People: Cosmology is Hard

sftpThis week, Science for the People is talking about the mindbending science trying to understand the inner workings of the Universe. Astrophysicist Ethan Siegel returns to discuss the BICEP2 experiment, and its search for the fingerprints of cosmic inflation. And they’ll talk to theoretical cosmologist Roberto Trotta about his book The Edge of the Sky: All You Need to Know about the All-There-Is, which explains the history and concepts of cosmology using the 1,000 most common words in the English language.

*Josh provides research help to Science for the People and is, therefore, completely biased.

Doing the things that a particle can…

Particle Clicker is a simple and addictive click-based game developed by undergrads at CERN Webfest. You are cast as the head of a particle accelerator lab striving to make breakthroughs in physics, without all the grant writing and begging governments for money.

Screenshot 2014-08-15 21.01.52

In addition to being aesthetically pleasing – I particularly enjoyed the smashed particle paths when you click on the detector, it is full of information about the physics phenomena you are investigating and humor about the research process.

In its current iteration, the gameplay can get repetitive, but it is well worth at least one play through, if only to read all the information boxes. Also, once you have accumulated enough competent staff, you can simply sit back and let the data accumulate while you enjoy the easy life of a high-profile PI1.

1. According to reports, this is only an easy life by the standards of graduate students and post-docs with no hopes of advancement on their traditional career path.

SOURCE: Cory Doctorow at BoingBoing.

Science for The People: Ephemeral Particles

#267 - Ephemeral Particles
#267 – Ephemeral Particles

This week Science for The People learns about some of the many invisible particles that surround us. They speak to astrophysicist Ray Jayawardhana about his book “Neutrino Hunters: The Thrilling Chase for a Ghostly Particle to Unlock the Secrets of the Universe.” And they talk to ecology professor Donald Canfield about his book “Oxygen: A Four Billion Year History.”

The Art of Science: Tamsin van Essen’s Charming Quarks

Tamsin Van Essen, Quarks (Back), 2008
Tamsin van Essen, Quarks (Black), 2008

Ceramic artist Tamsin van Essen uses a combination of novel and traditional techniques to produce thought-provoking pieces, including many drawn from science and medicine. For example, her Medical Heirlooms series comprised a series of vessels that seemed to have skin diseases, while the cups in her Contamination series appeared to have been colonized by various nasty bacteria.

I was particularly drawn to her Collection of Curious Objects, a series of less traditionally shaped objects inspired by theoretical physics.  On her website, Van Essen explains:

Physicists are busy developing sophisticated theories around the existence of things that are impossible for us to see, perfecting mathematical models of the ‘beyond-visible’ worlds of the very large and distant (using Einstein’s theory of relativity) and the very small (using quantum mechanics).

Focusing on this realm of the intangible, I wanted to explore how abstract theoretical ideas can be visually represented. I also wanted to play with the notion that today’s cutting-edge theories may one day be seen as quaint and curious museum pieces: theoretical antiques or abstract junk.

The objects might be found in someone’s dusty attic or perhaps turn up on Antiques Roadshow in the future: “Oh my! Look what they thought in 2008!”

Tamsin van Essen, “Curious Objects”

I love their simultaneous seriousness and playfulness – ceramic quarks and wormholes! – demonstrating van Essen’s willingness to engage with difficult and abstract ideas in an accessible but not dumbed-down way. And while I can admire the thought and craft that goes into a vase that appears to have syphilis, I’d much rather have a shiny quark.

If you’re in the UK, you can see some of van Essen’s work in the Subversive Design show at the Brighton Museum through March 2014.

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