The Year in Cool

I apologize – you’ve been misled. The title of this post is not The Year in Cool; it’s actually (in the spirit of Christmas) The Twelve Days of Physics.

But if I’d said that up front, one or two of you wouldn’t have even stopped by. So, a little subterfuge for the greater good? When the good is this great – heck, yeah.

Here are 12 of the coolest things that captured my attention this year and I promise – you won’t break a sweat or a nail, reading about them. (Click the embedded links for more information on each topic.)

Learn something new! Impress your friends! Get ready to have your world rocked, baby.

1. NANO GUITAR

This guitar was created (way back) in 1997, but I just read about it this year. So I hope you’re not relying on me for all your breaking science news. Anyway, apparently, while I’ve been busy baking cookies and checking my email, scientists have been busy making things out of atoms. As in, manipulating atoms and crafting things out of them, like an atomic abacus or, I don’t know, a six-string guitar that is the size of a red blood cell.

Wanna see how small that is? Check out this killer link, which shows lots of tiny items in proportion to even tinier items. (Please note: even the original view has been magnified.) You can’t see the red blood cell from here. You have to zoom way, way in (using the slider right underneath the graphics) to get to the red blood cell.

That’s the size of this guitar they’ve made. And yes, it can be played. But no, not by your fat fingers.

2. CONFIRMATION OF THE SPACE/TIME VORTEX

Yes, Virginia, there is a space/time vortex around Earth – and, after an impossibly cool 47-year experiment, NASA scientists confirmed it just this last Spring. Nutshell: ever since Einstein, physicists have suspected that the fabric of space consists of four dimensions, not three (don’t bother trying to realistically visualize space/time…even Stephen Hawking says it’s impossible), and that the mass of large objects that sit in space (such as planet Earth), warp the space around them, like a bowling ball resting on a soft mattress.

In order to prove this, NASA nerds scientists had to create four gyroscopes that were perfectly round down to the atomic level, then send them into space on a drag-free satellite that was impenetrable by Earth’s magnetic field, then measure the spin of the gyroscopes without touching them.

You know, just the sort of thing we all accomplish before breakfast. (If you’re at all geeky, read the article. I adore every little thing about it.)

3. SPEED-OF-LIGHT FLIPFLOPPING

This year, scientists made my year decade when they announced that time-travel was back on the theoretical table (okay, what they really announced was that they had made a particle move faster than the speed of light, which is one of the requirements for time-travel. Potato, pa-tah-to.) Then, a few weeks later, they broke my heart when they announced that the “results” were probably due to a calculating error. THEN, two months later, they said no, they HAD broken the speed of light again. Then, a couple of days after that, they threw up their hands and said, “Heck if we know.”

Dudes. You can’t mess with people like that. I think we all know who’s going to be on Santa’s Naughty List this year.

 4. 100 YEAR STARSHIP

For decades now, every physicist, Trekkie, and space cadet worth their salt has looked into the future and seen one Holy Grail: interstellar travel; as in, to the stars. A few weeks ago, NASA and DARPA wrapped up a year-long study aimed at formulating a business plan for the “100 Year Starship” – a program geared towards having a working starship 100 years from now.

Of course, there are a million obstacles to such a plan, not the least of which are the very prohibitive distances involved – even if we could develop nuclear pulse propulsion and travel at, say, 5% of the speed of light, it would take 85 years to reach the nearest star. Which would mean we’d have to send a self-sustaining human colony. Which would, obviously, never return.

Still…just think of it. Holy freaking final frontier, Batman.

5. A SHORT HISTORY OF NEARLY EVERYTHING

If you’re not really “into” science, but guiltily feel you should know more about it, this book by Bill Bryson (yes, the travel writer) is for you. First of all, Bryson is a riot – no author makes me giggle more than he does – and he makes science funny and fun. But he’s also done an incredible amount of research, and his deep love for science is absolutely contagious. I keep meaning to do an entire post on this book. I love it.

(Note: Bryson is not a creationist, so a few chapters contain conclusions, or maybe I should say “conjectures,” that do not fall in line with Christian beliefs. This shouldn’t bother anyone who can formulate their own theories based on facts. I have yet to read any scientific facts that disprove my personal beliefs. Quite the contrary.)

6. ZERO-GRAVITY BASEBALL

Just when you thought astronauts couldn’t possibly get any cooler, they go and do something like this (click these words to view the video.)

Don’t try this at home, kids. Oh, that’s right…YOU CAN’T.

7. NUMBER OF STARS IN THE UNIVERSE

We all know by now that the universe is far, far larger than we can wrap our puny little minds around…full of more planets and stars and entire galaxies than we’ll ever accurately measure. Last December, astronomers discovered that several far-away elliptical galaxies are much denser in “red dwarf” stars than our own galaxy is – which tripled the estimated total number of stars, to as many as 300 sextillion (that’s 3 trillion times 100 billion, if you’re having a little trouble carrying the zeros.)

Of course, the icing on the cake is: more stars = more potential planets. And we all know what that means.

E.T….can you hear me? Speaking of which…

8. SUPER EARTHS

Three months ago, European astronomers announced they’d pinpointed a bunch of new planets, including 16 “Super Earths,” including one in the Vela constellation which may have water and a similar temperature to our Earth; which means it could be habitable…Yay! Oh, except, it’s 35 light years away – and one light year equals 5879 billion miles, so…shoot.

Not to be outdone, last week NASA scientists announced they’d found a new solar system (Kepler-22) which contains a planet that is even more like Earth (with a 290-day year! A balmy 72-degree climate!)

Except…this new planet is 600 light years away from us. Confound it all! Can’t an astrophysicist catch a break, around here? Where are we on that starship?

9. HOW FAST CAN HUMANS RUN?

The current world record holder in the 100 meters, the flamboyant Jamican runner Usain Bolt, has run at a top speed of just under 28 mph. Recently, I wondered: what’s the threshold? I mean, a human body, under its own power, is never going to travel 100 meters in one second – so what exactly is the absolute limit on human speed?

In January of 2010, the Journal of Applied Physiology published this fascinating study (which I confess I haven’t read in its entirety, because right now it’s late at night and after looking at about the fifth consecutive page of algebraic equations, my brain curled up into a ball and started sucking its thumb.) But bottom line: by factoring in the maximum force sustainable by human limbs, the minimum possible foot-ground contact, the length limitations of human legs (which are too short to gallop), and the contractile speed limits of muscles (yada yada), researchers determined that, unless Dr. Frankenstein starts fiddling around with genes in a lab, human beings will never run over 31 mph.

Of course the great thing about physics is that, given enough time, the impossible often becomes possible. (I’ll take Roger Bannister in the mile for 3:59.4, Alex.) Speaking of impossibilities…

10. MICHIO KAKU

I recently picked up Dr. Kaku’s book Physics of the Impossible and was instantly (naturally) hooked. That book explains whether (and how) various sci-fi staples, such as force fields, invisibility cloaking, and teleportation, are possible, according to the known laws of physics.

Here’s why Kaku made my list: in my opinion, he explains physics as simply as it can possibly be explained. I’ve read Hawking and Greene, and love them both, but while reading their books I often have to go back over a passage again and again, to grasp a particular concept. Kaku is much easier to understand. (And a friend who’s read his other books assures me they’re all great.)

Plus, the good professor geeks out about Star Trek. I mean, c’mon, right?

11. QUANTUM CRYPTOGRAPHY

Okay, I’m blatantly cheating with this one – I didn’t run across it in 2011. I actually learned about Q.C. right before my first child was born, when I read The Code Book by Simon Singh, a world’s history on the science of code-making.

Traditional cryptography, the “coding” process used to secure data, is flawed, in that any code can theoretically be cracked (even if, as with current technology, that process would take, quite literally, a trillion years.) Several years ago, scientists figured out how to use photons (mass-less light particles) as encryption keys. Since photons move in waves, their motion is unpredictable – meaning any photon used as a “key” would be unbreakable, for an “eavesdropper.” (Read about how it all works here.)

Of course, scientists being the madcap kids that they are, a short time after quantum cryptography had been invented, researchers at MIT announced they’d figured out how to guess the direction of a photon’s spin by measuring other photons it’d become entangled with, without affecting the original photon – which might render the quantum code breakable, after all.

Or, maybe. But really, what do they know?

12. OH, HECK…PHYSICISTS IN GENERAL – THE WHOLE DANG LOT OF THEM

I was reserving this last spot for the famous (theoretical) Higgs boson, about which we were supposed to get some sensational news yesterday. But when CERN scientists held their press conference, rather than stating that they’d found the so-called “God Particle,” they announced that…well…er…they were closer than ever to hunting it down.

Talk about anti-climactic.

Anyway, during the news conference I stumbled upon the “Quantum Diaries,” a collective blog written by particle physicists from around the world. They were live-blogging the Higgs boson event – and they could not stop using lots of exclamation points! About the speakers! And their roles in this work! Because it must be nerve-wracking for the speakers!

And then last night my brother sent a link to these guys, who created a camera that captures a trillion frames per second (never mind that it took two of my brother’s friends to explain the process to me.) Read the head researcher’s short-bio here, which is hilarious (and Dr. Raskar, if you’re reading this, I’ll have you know that I ran 3 miles last night. Without stopping. So you’re not the only one who can, you know…do cool things. Also, I just found your Facebook page, so…friend me!)

And I realized once again: I just adore every one of these people. They love physics the way Po (the movie panda) loves Kung Fu – with unrestrained delight. And that is utterly delightful.

In fact, had I discovered in my 20’s how cool science was, we wouldn’t be having this conversation right now, because I’d be ensconced in an astrophysics lab somewhere, happily naming stars after myself.

And on that note, I’ll reluctantly conclude the most fun I’ve had all year. Not even kidding.

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23 Responses to The Year in Cool

  1. Oh Cathy, I love you. This whole thing made me smile. You’re one of the only people I know who might even love science more than I do.

    Also, regarding #4, the science fiction masters foresaw this problem, which is why we have an entire subgenre of books that cover “Generation Ships”.

  2. I am no longer surprised by intersections…just grateful. What a delightful happenstance to “meet” you in the ether. Loved this post. Bill Bryson, a favorite. Would you believe I OWN Physics of the Impossible! Made notes Saturday for a future blog with this quote from Einstein: “The most beautiful experience we can have is the mysterious. It is the fundamental emotion which stands at the cradle of true art and true science. Whoever does not know it and can no longer wonder, no longer marvel, is as good as dead, and his eyes are dimmed.” I look forward to your future posts. Wishing all of you a blessed Christmas season.

    • Ha! See? We are twinsies. Which is why I adored your blog so much, when I stumbled upon you.

      Bryson rocks.

      None of this surprises me, about you. Some of the best writers I know are science dorks (David, above, and Billy, below, among them.)

      Merry Christmas!! XO

  3. robin lagrow says:

    Cathy – This is my new favorite Cathy post!! I love your banter!!!

  4. Laurel Lundberg says:

    Um. You have entirely too much time on your hands, (yes, I know you say you have none, but gees, come on!) and way too many brain cells (you scare me!). You really should have been an astrophysicist! (But then you would have no time for dumb people like me)
    Love you! and LOVE your delight in all things geeky! Great post!

  5. Sunia Gibbs says:

    First of all, I almost stopped reading when you called my fingers “fat”. But once I got over that insecurity, I read, giggled, and decided you are my favorite blogger.

    Moral of my comment: let your freak flag fly, sister. This was genius.

  6. Sunia Gibbs says:

    Also, where were you when I took Astronomy without the suggested requirement, Physics?

  7. Billy Coffey says:

    Loved, loved, loved all of these. “Bazinga!”

  8. Dad says:

    This does not cause the intellectual leap that your “cool twelve” dose, or in my case causes my intellect to come to a screeching halt and my mind begins to disintegrate much like a comet heading towards earth. This however dose cause a little stretch. A man who is reversing the aging process by getting physically stronger with the increase of age. For the last 20 years I have been somewhat aware that rather than my physical strength declining as normal with the years, mine has been holding steady if not increasing. So eleven months ago when I turned 70 I decided to examine this a little closer. Refining and evaluating the exercise and diet program I had been using for years. I took the best of my knowledge and experience and combined them into one extremely calculated program of training, nutrition, natural supplements (that I have been testing for years) – these supplements have been reduced to a few that have a relative low cost and have proven to be the most effective.
    In June of 2011 I began (somewhat unexpectedly) to notice an increase in strength, mental clarity, and performance in all areas. To test what I had been experiencing I began entering some masters competitions (competitions for people over 40) in track and field and weight lifting at the age of 70. The results over the past six months have even startled me. I won 10 track and field championships in individual events in both Oregon and Washington, setting a number of records including records in bench pressing for Oregon, Western USA and America. Then this past weekend at the West Coast Power Lift Championships not only did I win and set records but to top it off was awarded the most outstanding lifter of the meet for all divisions not just masters. Though out this six month journey my strength has continued to improve to the point where I am considerably stronger today at 71 then I was 20 years ago at 50.
    People have been encouraging me this week to share what I am doing and the supplement (vitamins) I am taking. Even though it is not earth shaking or earth changing it still is very very unusual and needs to be observed, if in fact one can grow older and stronger at the same time.
    And it does not require light-years to experience it.
    Dad

  9. Fascinating studies! I absolutely love getting into quantum physics but feel like people shut me down when I talk about it. (Such a geek!) :) The time travel discoveries and extra super-earth planets absolutely captivate me! :)

    I had seen you in a blog interview about a year ago (I don’t even remember who it was – May have been Tess Marshall, but I’m not sure). But looking on your sidebar, I see you follow Tony Alicea’s blog. His is one of my favorites. Hope you’re having a great Christmas!

    • The interview was prolly on Knox’s blog…Awesometown?

      I am always ecstatic to discover a fellow nerd. And either there are more of them out there than we think, or I am just cosmically drawn to them…’cause a whole lot of my Twitter buds fall into that category.

      You know how they’re always having those writer’s conferences? We need a Nerds Unite conference.

  10. You are the coolest science nerd I know. Thank you for this. Absolutely fascinating!

  11. Yvette says:

    Your writing is so twisty turny – and what do I mean by that? Well, it can turn on a dime and make me laugh out loud while I’m reading science. SCIENCE for goodness’ sake. I’m most definitely NOT a science geek, heck, I don’t understand particle one of physics though I like to pretend that if push came to shove I kind of sort of do…BUT, I do enjoy reading your take. You are my Science Goddess. (Am I allowed to say that?)

    I’ve been meaning to read Bryson’s books. This coming year for sure!

    Happy New Year, kiddo, to you and yours.

    • Happy New Year, sweet Yvette! Kiss that grandbaby a few extra times for me. :-)

      I LOVE that you feel this way about my science geekery. I think it’s all SO cool…I’m just trying to get that message out!

      Hugs. XO

  12. I already feel smarter! Merry Christmas, Cathy, and a blessed new year…from your aging geek e-friend. Much love.

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