I’ve been MIA here, lately. Turns out, writing a research-heavy historical memoir is massively time-consuming. Who’d have thought?
However, there’s no way I’d miss our annual Year in Cool post, because writing this post is more fun than spending a day at Disneyland with the entire cast of The Avengers. Below are my ten favorite news stories of 2012 involving
physics celebrities gone wild.
I’m totally kidding. They’re totally about physics. But I promise – this stuff is way cooler than celebrities gone wild. (Although to be honest, maybe not quite as cool as spending the day at Disneyland with Downey, Jr. and Hemsworth and Hiddleston. But they’ve all stopped returning my calls.)
Ladies and Gents…presenting.
1. SCIENCE FICTION, MINUS THE FICTION
Set your phasers to stunned – it’s about to get freaky in here.
Remember in Apollo 13, when the astronauts got stuck in space and had to jerry-rig things out of stuff they had on board, like duct tape and toilet paper rolls? Remember how it would have been really helpful if someone on Earth could’ve punched something into a computer and then a Star-Trekky “replicator” in space could’ve produced the items? Like a printer, only for three-dimensional objects?
Welcome to the twenty-first century, where we have such things.
This video shows a 3-D printer scanning a crescent wrench, then “printing” an actual, working crescent wrench with moving parts, out of a powder solidified with a binding material and resin.
I love it when the guy says that this company is “one of the world’s leading manufacturers of 3D printers.” As if the world is casually overflowing with companies that make 3D printers…a sci-fi technology that I heretofore didn’t even know existed.
Seriously – watch the video. It’s fan-freaking-tastic.
2. APPROACHING THE FINAL FRONTIER
Way back in 1977, NASA launched Voyager I and II, two small spacecraft originally designed to explore Jupiter and Saturn. Once they checked that off their lists, they kept going – and any time now, 35 years after we sent it into space (carrying a gold-plated audio/visual disc inscribed with voice greetings and music by Mozart and Chuck Berry), Voyager I is preparing to become the first man-made object to leave our solar system.
The spacecraft is currently some 11 billion miles from the Sun, inside the Heliosheath, an outer section of our solar system where winds from our Sun interact with outer space, creating 100 million-mile-wide bubbles in the “air.” Astonishingly, it still sends data back to Earth via radio waves. And sometime within the next year or so, Voyager I is expected to cross the Heliopause, the theoretical edge of our solar system, to take its place among the stars.
Voyager I is traveling at a speed of around 37,000 mph, and has enough nuclear power to propel itself until at least 2020. After that, it will drift forever, trillions of miles away, accompanied by its own perfect Motown soundtrack.
Go, Johnny, go.
3. HOW MUCH IS THAT SPACE-TIME ALL AKIMBO
But when will humans travel to the stars? Even at Voyager’s fast clip, it would take an exasperating 76,000 years to arrive at Alpha Centauri, our nearest star. Clearly, we’re gonna need a faster ship. Fortunately, we have some ideas.
In 1994, a physicist named Alcubierre came up with a theory for moving a starship through space by putting it inside a chunk of space-time (created via a giant ring) and then moving the chunk of space-time faster than the speed of light. The starship itself would not be moving faster than the speed of light within the bubble, so it would not violate Einstein’s special theory of relativity.
The only fly in the theoretical ointment has been the amount of energy needed to power the ring containing the space-time bubble – it would take a ball of antimatter that’s 317 times the size of Earth. And as of now, antiparticles are rarely even found in the observable universe, only in radioactivity and cosmic rays.
But this September, at the annual 100-Year Starship Symposium (and how much do you love that we have such a thing?), researchers announced that by changing the shape of the ring, they’ve worked out a design that could be powered by only 500 kilograms of antimatter!
Never mind that 500 kilos of antimatter would be dangerous enough to destroy all life on Earth. Never mind that we don’t even technically know if the whole ring concept would actually work.
We’re inching ever closer, peeps.
4. HOLE-Y MOLEY
Since the 1980’s, astronomers have maintained that every large galaxy has a black hole at its center – an extremely dense chunk of space-time that allows nothing to escape, not even light.
In October, scientists announced they’d found not just one, but two black holes at the center of the Milky Way, each about 10-20 times larger than our Sun (and please remember: our Sun is the size of a million Earths.)
But hold on to your britches, because just last week, astronomers announced that within the smallish NGC 1277 galaxy, they’ve discovered a black hole that has a mass equal to 17 billion Suns.
The bad news about these bad boys? They gobble up surrounding space matter like candy, and if you were to fall into one, your body would compress to a single point of infinite density. (Sounds kind of cool, except for the part where you wouldn’t survive.) The good news? Black holes are formed when stars explode from compression of their own gravity, and our Sun’s relatively weak gravity ensures that that’ll never happen to it. So yay! We’re far, far away from any black hole danger.
Well, unless we get that starship working.
5. YES, VIRGINIA, (WE’RE 5.9-SIGMA LEVEL SURE) THERE IS A HIGGS BOSON
In the last half of the 20th century, physicists created the “Standard Model,” a theory that explains the most basic building blocks of the universe. As far as I can tell, the theory includes 12 matter particles, 12 antiparticles, and 5 elementary bosons (force particles). For a long time, the elusive “Higgs” boson (or as I like to call it, the Scarlet Pimpernel boson) was the only one of the bunch that had never actually been seen.
Basically, so the theory goes, all other particles have to interact with an unobservable “Higgs” energy field in order to obtain mass (unless they’re photons, in which case they don’t care to have any mass whatsoever, much like Victoria Beckham, but I digress.)
The Higgs particle is interesting. It has no spin. It is its own antiparticle. It has no electric charge or color. And, oh yes, it decays almost instantly upon creation, which is why it’s almost impossible to detect.
Enter the Large Hadron Collider (about which I’ve already written.) This July, two groups of scientists, working independently, analyzed 800 trillion proton collisions within the LHC and found, bingo, a never-before-seen particle that is “consistent with a Higgs boson.”
In other words, they’re pretty pretty pretty sure they’ve found what they’re looking for.
6. CALL ME DATA
So, you know how computers store data in something called “bytes,” which consist of 8 “bits” (binary digits) of 1’s or 0’s, which is absolutely as far as my understanding of such things goes, so don’t ask me to explain any further, because it makes no sense to me how a computer can turn numbers into…other things.
Anyway, scientists have figured out how to store data (the 1’s and 0’s about which I’m unclear) in human DNA. To the tune of 700 terabytes (one trillion bytes, and please stop talking) per one gram of DNA.
Of courses, we are decades away from practical applications for such technology. Still – human DNA as data storage space? I love that there are people smart enough to figure out how to do these things that I am not even smart enough to explain.
Speaking of not being smart enough…
7. DO YOU SEE WHAT I SEE?
Never before in history have I tried so hard to understand a technology. Never before have I so utterly failed.
In July, scientist announced that they had discovered a way to take pictures through opaque objects, using natural light instead of lasers (X-rays.) Meaning they can now take pictures from around corners.
In short, when you’re trying to look at an object but there is a barrier in the way (a piece of paper, skin, a wall), the barrier is interfering with the photon beams – changing their directions (in the case of something opaque), or changing their wavelengths (in the case of something semi-transparent.) The barrier is said to be “scattering” the beams.
Spatial Light Modulators correct the scattering, allowing you to see the image as it really is (for a jolly good tumble down the rabbit hole, google phases and sine waves and ha ha, have fun with that) by turning the barrier into a mirror. Or something.
I asked three of my smartest friends to help me decipher this technology. They each wrote back a beautiful essay on the subject. One of the explanations was so sweeping and elegant, I nearly wept with joy.
And it all still makes zero sense to me. But anyway: we’ve developed a camera that can see around corners. Super cool, yes?
8. DIAMONDS, DIAMONDS EVERYWHERE…
The largest diamond ever found on Earth was discovered in 1905 – the Cullinan Diamond, a whopping 3,106.75 carats. The biggest stone cut from the Cullinan, at 530.4 carats, is part of the Crown Jewels in London and is worth an estimated 400 million dollars.
Sounds impressive – but should we ever manage to get our grubby little hands on a certain Super Earth zooming around a star named 55 Cancri, even the Cullinan would be rendered worthless.
55 Cancri e (yes, that’s the planet’s completely boring official name) is twice as big as Earth, but it’s a fast-moving behemoth – it orbits its Sun, a journey that takes us a full year, once every 18 hours! Two months ago, astronomers announced that this planet is likely a “carbon planet.” Meaning a third of it could be pure diamond.
Sadly, this impressive piece of bling is 40 light years away from us. (NOW do you see why we need that starship?)
A bone to pick. Could we please find a more interesting name for this beauty? I vote for Latin - Puellae Optimus Amicus. Rough translation: Girl’s Best Friend.
9. MARS DREAMING
On August 6, with millions of people (including me) watching live, NASA’s one-ton Curiosity rover landed safely on Mars, after completing an astonishing sequence of events that all had to occur automatically and perfectly within a seven minute timeframe in order to not have the $2.5 billion project, well, literally crash and burn.
Since then, Curiosity has been making geeks happy by driving around the surface of Mars taking photographs, conducting experiments, and generally being adorable. (It beamed a song – “Reach for the Stars” by will.i.am – back to Earth, and used the Foursquare mobile app to generate the first “check-in” from another planet! C’mon…does it get any cuter?)
However, Curiosity may soon be made obsolete by the appearance of – well, people on Mars. In 2010, the U.S. scrapped plans for another moon mission and instead authorized a 2030(ish) manned Mars mission. Not to be outdone,
those renowned space experts the Dutch have spearheaded Mars One – a planned actual human colony on Mars which has a (wildly) optimistic target date of 2023.
Well, you can imagine how much all of this excites me. Although there is 0.00% chance of me going to Mars, myself…
10. SO YOU WANNA BE AN ASTRONAUT
I’ve already written about how no-way no-how could I ever go into space. (I’m a big fat scaredy-cat, etc.) The video below, complete with audio remastered by the folks who brought you Star Wars, lets you (sort-of) experience traveling out of our atmosphere on the Space Shuttle. Pay attention to the numbers on the upper right – that’s the shuttle’s speed in mph.
Note the heart-pounding force that pushes the shuttle off the launch pad. Note the amazing sounds of the rockets and the pierced-through atmosphere. Note how fast the shuttle is accelerating.
Note me soiling my pants like a little baby.