Long time, no post. I’ve been delinquent about posting to this blog, but the other day, I came across a story in my alumni newsletter from Furman University that prompted me to get back to the keyboard. A team of Furman students created a robot named Aldo that won second place in the 2012 Atmel Robotics Contest at the World Maker Faire in New York. The team took on the challenge as part of the Furman Physics STEM Initiative, which encourages students to pursue careers in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. The team’s advisor, Dr. John Conrad, chronicled the students’ experience on the Furman Physics STEM blog.
Here’s one of my favorite posts from the blog. It highlights the importance of keeping a sense of humor in the face of challenges (and explains how Aldo got his endearing mustache and googly eyes):
When Life Gives You Lemons, … make lemonade, right? Make robots? Nope, make a mustache and goo, goo, goggly eyes to put on the robot! About a week ago, one of the last remaining problems the team had to face was spurious RF noise from the motor brushes playing havoc with the microprocessor and making the robot claw arm go nuts. The arm was jiggling so much that the balls were flying out of the scoop, even when Aldo was standing still. I think this happened either very late one night, or in the wee hours of the early morning. The problem was a potential showstopper, and they were running out of time. Could have been a pretty devastating low point. But did they despair? Nope. First they first made lemonade out of lemons by adding the mustache and goggly eyes. Then they fixed the problem the next day. Here’s a video (thanks to my son Jeff for the editing and original score soundtrack):
How many margaritas can you blend with one kilowatt-hour of energy? How many solar panels would it take to power the world? What should every person know to be energy literate? The following tools offer a primer on energy, from the fun to the fundamental.
Which uses more energy–your fridge or your dishwasher? How many pieces of bread can you toast with one kilowatt-hour of energy? Find out in this interactive visualization from GE. It will even tell you how quickly an Energy Star appliance can pay for itself.
Which states produce the most coal power? Nuclear? Wind? And how does that electricity get from one state to another? Use this multi-layer visualization from NPR to find out.
How much land would we need to cover with solar panels to meet the entire world’s energy needs? The answer might surprise you. Find out in this visualization from LandArtGenerator.org.
How does energy consumption vary by location and land use? Find out in this interactive visualization that breaks down estimated energy consumption in New York City to the level of a single lot. Of course, areas with tall buildings use more energy per lot since they essentially have many lots stacked on top of each other.
This downloadable guide sponsored by the Department of Energy “identifies seven Essential Principles and a set of Fundamental Concepts to support each principle.” It serves as a stepping-off point for a much deeper exploration of energy, from its physical properties to its economic and environmental impacts.
During the 2012 London Olympics, dozens of athletes from all over Earth earned a spot in history, diving, twisting, vaulting, and racing their way to victory. Meanwhile, 350 million miles away, a robot named Curiosity secured its own place in history with a perfect landing on the dusty red surface of Mars.
What do they have in common? Years of preparation. Sideline support from a cadre of experts. Fame. Glory. And covers of the hit summer song “Call Me Maybe.”
I started this post planning to explain the science behind the Curiosity rover and the science behind the summer Olympics. However, when I came across the Martian and Olympian versions of Carly Rae Jepsen’s pop hit, I decided there’s time for explanations later. Now is the time to celebrate:
Get your creative juices flowing this summer without leaving home through Maker Camp. The virtual camp, targeted toward 13- to 18-year olds, is sponsored by MAKE magazine and hosted entirely on Google+.
Don’t let the word “virtual” deceive you. This camp is far from a hands-off experience. The daily activities are kicked off by video instructions on the MAKE Google+ page, but then participants are left to their own devices to build the day’s project. And maybe even improve on it.
Throughout the day, campers can check in with counselors to get tips on tricky projects. Campers can also share photos and videos of their completed projects during afternoon “campfires” hosted through the Google+ Hangout feature. At the end of the day, the best camper-made projects are featured on the MAKE page.
The camp is jam-packed with 30 projects in 30 days. The festivities kicked off last week, but don’t worry if you missed the start. Since it’s a virtual camp, you can always go back and check out past activities on the MAKE page. The camp is free, but you do need a Google+ account (also free) to participate.
Each day of the week features a theme, such as Maker Monday, Tinkering Tuesday, Weird Science Wednesday, and Theoretical Thursday. The best part of summer camp? The field trips, of course. Don’t miss Field Trip Friday. The trips offer live video chats with scientists, including demonstrations of their latest research.
Last week’s field trip took campers to the Ford Innovation Lab in Michigan, where they watched the making of soy foam in the Bio Materials Lab and learned how engineers simulate driving in the VIRTEX simulation room. The field trip also included a guest appearance by Team Viper, a group of Young Makers who created a flight simulator for the 2012 Bay Area Maker Faire.
This afternoon, summer camp heads to the National Geographic Remote Imaging shop. Engineers will demonstrate the Crittercam, which captures breathtaking images of the natural world by hitching a ride on wild animals, and the Dropcam, which captures spellbinding images from the bottom of the ocean. And don’t forget the Octocopter, a robotic helicopter that raises photography to unprecedented heights.
I’m not a teenager anymore, but I might just have to tune in. After all, you’re never too old to get excited about seeing the world from new angles.
Scientists have been waiting half a century for this moment.
In 1964, Peter Higgs and five other physicists postulated the existence of a subatomic particle and a corresponding energy field that would explain why particles have mass and therefore why they group together into atoms, planets, galaxies–and for that matter, humans.
The particle is formally called the “Higgs boson,” but it has received much attention in the media due to its provocative nickname, “the God particle.” The nickname comes from a 1993 book of the same name by physicist Leon Lederman and science writer Dick Teresi.
In the book, Lederman explains that the particle is “so central to the state of physics today, so crucial to our understanding of the structure of matter, yet so elusive, that I have given it a nickname . . .” With more than a bit of cheek, Lederman continues, “The publisher wouldn’t let us call it the Goddamn Particle, though that might be a more appropriate title, given its villainous nature and the expense it is causing.”
Professor Higgs isn’t too keen on the “God” nickname. When asked his opinion, he said, “It makes us look arrogant.” But then, he isn’t fond of the name “Higgs boson” either, given that the research leading to the particle’s discovery has been deeply collaborative.
Regardless of the best name for the particle, Lederman was right about one thing: the search for the particle has been slow and expensive. Ultimately, its detection depended on the construction of a machine known as the Large Hadron Collider. The LHC was built in a circular tunnel 17 miles long and more than 500 feet beneath the border of France and Switzerland, an undertaking that required 10 years and $9 billion euros.
Last week, amid much fanfare, scientists announced the first substantial proof of the existence of the Higgs boson. The discovery offers a chance to delve into the deepest questions about our universe, including where it came from and how it all holds together.
Faced with such a daunting task, I’ve decided to turn things over to the experts. Here are three of the best explanations I’ve found for the Higgs boson and what its discovery means for our understanding of the universe and our place in it.
First, this animated video from PhD Comics provides a lively look at particle physics and explains in simple language how researchers used the LHC to detect the elusive Higgs boson:
Second, this TED Talk by physicist Brian Cox captures the exhilaration of cutting-edge science and provides an inside look at the LHC’s construction:
Finally, for a more in-depth discussion of the Higgs boson discovery, listen to this 50-minute call-in show from Wisconsin Public Radio featuring David Derbes, a physics teacher who studied under Professor Higgs in the 1970s. It’s well worth the time to listen to Derbes’ perspective on the value of pure research and his personal insights into Professor Higgs as a scientist and a human being. And since it’s radio, you can listen while you cook dinner, clean the house, or build a particle accelerator in your basement.
I was camping in Acadia National Park last week, and being a landlocked Midwesterner, I was captivated by the daily rhythm of the tides. Acadia offers a particularly spectacular tidal show with the water rising as much as 12 feet between low and high tide. This got me wondering about the science behind tides.
Of course, I learned in elementary school that tides are caused by the gravitational pull of the moon on the oceans. But how exactly does that work? And what causes the tides to vary so much based on time and location? It turns out that tidal science is very complex. Tides are influenced by not only the moon’s gravity but also the sun’s gravity, the rotation of Earth, the shape of the ocean floor, and many other factors.
It’s fairly easy to understand why the gravitational pull of the moon would cause a bulge in the oceans on the side of Earth nearest the moon. It’s a little more complicated to understand why there is a similar bulge on the opposite side of Earth at the same time of day. To put it simply, the second bulge is caused by the rotation of Earth.
For some perspective, think about that classic county fair ride, the Gravitron, which spins fast enough that you find yourself pinned to the wall and able to turn sideways or even upside down without falling off. The same spinning forces cause the oceans to bulge out on the side of Earth opposite the moon. Scientists call this the “centrifugal,” or “center-fleeing,” force.
Most tides occur on a cycle of two high tides and two low tides every 24 hours and 50 minutes — the time it takes for the moon to circle Earth. However, in some regions, the shape of the ocean floor and the direction of the ocean currents result in only one high tide and one low tide per day. Other regions experience almost no tidal variation at all.
The tidal range at any given location varies throughout the lunar month. The sun, the moon, and Earth are in alignment when the moon is full or new. At these times of the month, the gravitational pull of the sun adds to the moon’s gravitational pull, causing larger than normal tides known as “spring tides.”
The sun and the moon are at right angles to each other when the moon is in the first or third quarter. At these times of the month, the gravitational pull of the sun partially cancels the moon’s gravitational pull, causing smaller than normal tides known as “neap tides.
The origin of the terms “spring” and “neap” are somewhat uncertain, but most accounts suggest that “spring” is related to “bursting” and “neap” to “scarcity.” At any rate, spring tides are not linked to the season of the same name.
There is a slight delay in the response of the oceans to the ever-changing gravitational field of the moon and the sun. Therefore, spring tides occur a day or two after the full or new moon and neap tides occur a day or two after the first or third quarter moon.
The record for the greatest tidal range goes to the Bay of Fundy on the eastern coast of Canada where the water rises as much as 56 feet between low and high tide. All of that water rushing in and out of the bay day after day represents a huge amount of energy, a fact that has not been lost on renewable energy developers.
Recent advances in tidal power technology offer the potential to harness tidal energy at a lower cost and with fewer environmental impacts than conventional energy sources. And unlike the wind or the sun, the tides can be predicted for years into the future. Sure as the Earth goes round the sun and the moon goes round the Earth.
Apologies for the long absence from this blog. I’ve been in Haiti where I was documenting progress on a reforestation project that I helped establish there in 2009. I’m excited with how far we’ve come and I’m hoping we can find the support we need to scale up our efforts within the next year.
Here’s an update from the field: