APS News: Keen Minds Prep for the International Physics Olympiad

By itself, a flexible, plastic “Hot Wheels” toy car track is pretty mundane. Add a can of racket balls and a team of the top high-school physics students in the country, and you have the makings of an intriguing science experiment.

Each year, the American Association of Physics Teachers and a number of member societies of the American Institute of Physics sponsor a two-week competitive training camp held on the University of Maryland campus at the end of May. The purpose is to select five high school students, from a pool of about 20, who will represent the US in the International Physics Olympiad (IPhO) annual competition. This year, the Olympiad will take place in Astana, Kazakhstan from July 13-21.

It’s essentially physics boot camp, but instead of climbing walls and jumping hurdles, the students take on obstacle courses that challenge their intellectual capacities. Each day, students attend lectures covering topics like optics and special relativity, take written exams, and conduct laboratory experiments.

Read more at APS News online.

NASA Releases Lots of Code Tomorrow

Here’s a sample of a blog post I wrote on Physics Buzz about who will be able to utilize the code NASA will be releasing on Thursday and what they might do with it:

This Thursday, NASA will unveil a catalog of different software that their employees have designed over the years. The code from a total of 1,000 software projects will become available for free and will be copy-right free, too.

Judging from some of the stories about this exciting news, one might get the impression that any person in the general public can take this newly-released material and design their very own rocket project.

This would be a fallacy. The code will likely become an invaluable resource for professional scientists and engineers. But those of us who do not speak the coding vernacular of computer-programming languages like JavaScript and Fortran will have little use for this new mountain of NASA code.

Read more on Physics Buzz.

New Study is investigating lightning formation

There’s a chance that the mystifying phenomena we call lightning would not exist without cosmic aid. The same high-energy particles that light the night sky with colorful auroras, scientists think could also explain a longstanding problem in the process of lightning production.

When you shock yourself after reaching for a metal doorknob, you’re experiencing a similar process that leads to lightning. As long as the extra charge you accumulate from, for example, rubbing your feet across a carpeted surface reaches a minimum value, called the breakdown voltage, a shock will travel from you to the doorknob.

Storm clouds can also build up extra charge, which must go somewhere. Often times it will either strike the ground or branch outward across the sky in the form of a lightning bolt. However, scientists have yet to find a way to explain how storm clouds build up enough extra charge to electrically illuminate the sky.

“The cloud has to charge to a certain amount so spontaneous discharge can happen,” said Helio Takai, a physicist at Brookhaven National Laboratory. “What [scientists] measure is not enough charge for this spontaneous discharge to happen.”

The solution might lie with cosmic rays, high-energy particles that enter Earth’s atmosphere from far-off sources, most of which are outside of our solar system.

About twenty years ago, physicist Alex Gurevich at the Russian Academy of Sciences in Moscow proposed that cosmic rays could lead to lightning. So far, finding a correlation has been easier said than done and scientists are still uncertain whether the two phenomena are linked and at what point in the process cosmic rays might be important for lightning production.

Read more on Physics Buzz.

Physics Buzz: Taking Back the Night Sky

Here’s a snippet from my latest post on the APS blog, Physics Buzz.

The next time you’re taking a nightly stroll downtown, take a minute to count how many people are looking up at the sky. Chances are the number will be small, if it’s not zero.

Light pollution drowns the brilliance of the night sky, leaving city and town dwellers little reason to look up. Meanwhile, technology is providing an incentive to look down at our screens. As a result, we are losing touch with the cosmos. Have you ever seen the star-lit band of the Milky Way Galaxy?

Click here to read more about the story behind the challenges two scientists in Quebec, Canada faced while trying to reduce light pollution and keep the levels low.

More on the physics of dinosaurs this week on Physics Buzz

Could you outrun a dinosaur? Well, it depends on the dinosaur. According to Scott Lee, a professor of physics at the University of Toledo in Ohio, herbivorous dinosaurs moved more slowly than predatory dinosaurs that often chased down their prey and could reach up to 30 miles per hour. Plant eaters, on the other hand, moseyed along at about 3 miles per hour.

This means you could easily outrun, and even out-walk, some herbivorous dinosaurs. But if you caught the attention of a ravenous raptor, chances are high that it would be the last race you ever ran.

It’s no surprise that predatory dinosaurs evolved to move faster than their prey. Otherwise, they would be hard pressed to find a decent meaty meal most days. But it would also make sense, from an evolutionary standpoint, if herbivorous dinosaurs at least gave predators a run for their money in the cat-and-mouse chase.

By studying 56 sets of distinctive fossilized footprints, or trackways, belonging to herbivorous dinosaurs that paleontologists have uncovered over the years, Lee determined that not a single set resulted from running. Lee calculated the ratio of the dinosaurs’ stride length to foot length and found that all of the footprints were likely made at a walking pace. So, how did the plant-eating dinosaurs protect themselves?

Find out more on Physics Buzz.

Latest on Physics Buzz, The Terrifying T. rex

With a gargantuan head flaunting the largest teeth of any predatory dinosaur, Tyrannosaurus rex embodies the ideal nightmarish horror. So, what was such a ferociously large animal doing with such tiny forelimbs that look more like a humorous afterthought than an evolutionary tool?

“Some people think T. rex forearms are just vestigial organs which evolved away, but I claim no,” said Scott Lee, a professor of physics at University of Toledo, who argues that a T. rex could move its forearms quickly enough to prevent a struggling prey’s escape. Therefore, the arms were an integral part of the predator’s hunting tactics, he said, and not useless stubs.

Read more

Break and Bake, you’re my savior

As a thank you for taking the time to write me multiple letters of recommendation, I decided that I was going to bake cookies for a certain professor. I made this conscious decision over the weekend, and to emphasize my appreciation I was going to make the cookies from scratch. However, as the hours passed from Saturday to Sunday and finally Monday, the cookies were still only a figment of my imagination. On my way past the break and bake cookie section of the grocery store tonight I glanced over at the solution to my problem.

I'm a break and bake cookies kinda gal

(I must clarify that I do not make cookies from scratch, hence the procrastination. I was only making and exception as a token of my appreciation.) So, I glanced at the break and bakes all the while slowing my pace while contemplating if I really should take the ultimate plunge to lazy-town. After two seconds hesitation, I made an about face and grabbed not one but TWO break and bake chocolate chip cookie packages. I must say that lazy-town is a pretty good place to be when all of your work is finished within twenty minutes of preheating, placing on pan, and baking. Thank you Nestle Tollhouse. I owe you one.

I’ll be sure to make cookies from scratch once my boyfriend returns and makes the dough for me.

Manic Monday

So much to do with so little time remaining. I have graduate applications due. I have appointments to schedule and execute. I have research to conduct. I have research articles to write. I have academic course work to finish. I have exams to study for. I am one busy woman this week.

How I feel on the inside.