Category Archives: Science

Never give up: undulatus asperatus

For years, Gavin Pretor-Pinney, the founder of The Cloud Appreciation Society, sought recognition for a new category of cloud called the “undulatus asperatus.” People around the world had been sending him pictures cloud formations, but they had no official name. Nine years later, the World Meteorological Organization finally recognized the clouds in the updated version of the International Cloud Atlas, the first new addition in over half a century.

Spooky action at a distance confirmed

Imagine that you’re looking in a mirror and you raise your right hand. The reflection you see appears to raise its left hand. Now imagine you’re a particle, the reflection is another particle, you are separated by great distances, and yet the two particles still affect each other. That’s kind of an analogy for entanglement, a principle of quantum mechanics that says when a pair or a group of particles are entangled, they cannot be described independently from each other.

Measuring a particular property, like velocity, of a single particle affects all the other entangled particles, regardless of distance. Einstein and many other scientists believed that this phenomenon was paradoxical, as it would allow for information to be exchanged instantaneously across vast distances. He dubbed it “spooky action at a distance” and he believed that science was missing hidden variables to account for the phenomenon.

Turns out, he was wrong. Scientists at the National Institute of Standard and Technology have proven beyond reasonable doubt that spooky action at a distance does occur. According to the lead author of the research, “You can’t prove quantum mechanics, but local realism, or hidden local action, is incompatible with our experiment. Our results agree with what quantum mechanics predicts about the spooky actions shared by entangled particles.”

It’s a weird world we live in.

Quantum teleportation breakthrough

In a huge step towards making quantum computing a reality, researchers have successfully teleported complete quantum bits of information for the first time. Previous attempts dating back to 1997 resulted in losses of information, and was considered to be too inefficient for any practical use. A new hybrid technique is over 100 times more efficient. It combines technology for transporting light waves with a broad frequency range, and technology for reducing the frequency range of photonic quantum bits. The result is that the bits are incorporated as lightwaves without disruption by noise, and don’t require measurement after transport — constituting “a major advance toward quantum information processing technology”.

The group of researchers at the University of Tokyo explained the breakthrough:

“I think we can definitely say that quantum computers have come closer to reality. Teleportation can be thought of as a quantum gate where input and output are the same. So, it’s known that, if we improve this a little, the input and output could be produced in different forms. If changing the form of input and output like that is considered as a program, you have a programmable quantum gate. So, I think a quantum computer could be achieved by combining lots of those.”

Individuality shaped by experience in genetically identical mice

“What is individuality” debates continue, but the scales have been tipped away from genetics somewhat by a study published this week in Science. Genetically identical mice were placed in the same complex enclosure for three months. Individual mice that explored the environment more broadly grew more new neurons than less adventurous mice. The results suggest a link between experience and brain plasticity, and that exploratory behavior may promote individuality even among genetically identical animals. “To out knowledge, it’s the first example of a direct link between individual behavior and individual brain plasticity,” said one of the researchers on the team. Not all differences are environmental, he cautions, as some mice were more prone to explore at the outset. Still, he added, “the environment amplified that difference”. Studies like this could help explain how much human individuality is based on genetic predisposition and how much is shaped by actual life experiences.

Hurricane on Saturn

Saturn Hurricane

This photo of a 1,250 miles wide hurricane on the surface of Saturn was taken in November 2012 by the Cassini spacecraft. Via NASA:

The spinning vortex of Saturn’s north polar storm resembles a deep red rose of giant proportions surrounded by green foliage in this false-color image from NASA’s Cassini spacecraft. Measurements have sized the eye at a staggering 1,250 miles (2,000 kilometers) across with cloud speeds as fast as 330 miles per hour (150 meters per second).

Experience the Apollo 11 lunar landing

Lunar Module

On July 20, 1969, the Apollo 11 mission successfully landed the first astronauts to ever step foot on the Moon. Many of us, myself included, are far too young to have experienced this incredible feat of science, technology, and human ingenuity as it happened. But now we can get pretty darn close. The First Men on the Moon is a carefully curated online experience that puts you in Mission Control as if it were happening in real-time, combining public domain source material from NASA and others to stitch together a minute-by-minute replay of the Apollo 11 lunar landing. From the project description:

By using simultaneous space and land based audio and video, transcripts, images, spacecraft telemetry, and biomedical data—this synchronized presentation reveals the Moon Shot as experienced by the astronauts and flight controllers.

Our goal is to capture a moment in history so that generations may now relive the events with this interactive educational resource. The world remembers the moon landing as a major historical event but often fails to recognize the scale of the mission. This interactive resource aims to educate visitors while engaging them with the excitement of manned-spaceflight to build a passion for scientific exploration.

Click here to start the experience.

The math of mosh pits

A pair of metal head physicists at Cornell University who enjoy going to concerts and throwing themselves into mosh pits (I’ve done this a time or two back in the day — it’s fun) have taken an interest in the rules of motion behind the activity. “It was basically just this random mess of collisions, which is essentially how you want to think about the gas in the air that we breathe,” one said. So, they went to concerts and studied YouTube videos, and eventually created a mathematical model representing mosh pits, which they presented at a meeting of the American Physics Society, and this very cool simulator where you can change variables and see how the little moshers act.

Higgs boson confirmed

Although it was first announced last summer that scientists had found what they believed to be the Higgs boson in their experiments in the 17-mile-long LHC atom smasher, representatives from CERN are just now saying that they are almost completely confident that it is, in fact, the Higgs boson (which is apparently how long it takes physicists to feel confident in making a statement of this magnitude). “The preliminary results with the full 2012 data set are magnificent, and to me it is clear that we are dealing with a Higgs boson,” a CMS spokesperson said. The Higgs boson was predicted by the Standard Model as the particle that gives you, me, and everything in the universe mass… something we obviously need to exist at all. See also the 6 reasons why finding the Higgs boson matters.