Stories tagged Energy Transformations


The theremin: An apropos sign adorns the instrument at the Bakken Museum of Electricity in Minneapolis, MN, since it can only be played by not touching it.
The theremin: An apropos sign adorns the instrument at the Bakken Museum of Electricity in Minneapolis, MN, since it can only be played by not touching it.Courtesy Mark Ryan
Anyone who has ever watched a 1950s science fiction film has probably heard the eerie emanations of the electronic instrument known as the theremin. It’s that high-pitched wavering tone that usually accompanied radioactive giant insects, or flying saucers and spacemen (e.g. The Day the Earth Stood Still). It can also be heard creating the good vibrations in the Beach Boy’s song of the same name, I remember seeing Simon & Garfunkle in concert a few years back, and noticing that the instrument was used during the performance of their song The Boxer.

I don’t remember when I first became aware of the device. I suppose it was in those aforementioned sci-fi movies. The electronic instrument (the first of its kind) was created by Russian professor Leon Theremin in 1917, when he stumbled upon it while trying to construct a better radio. Theremin was also a musician and obviously saw potential in his accidental invention.

The theremin is an odd-looking thing made up of a box containing circuitry, some knobs, and two metal antennas, one straight, and the other looped. Rather than strumming, bowing or hammering strings, or blowing air into brass tubes or across reeds, the sounds of the theremin are produced by not touching it. Here’s how it works: inside the theremin’s circuitry guts, two radio frequency oscillators produce two distinct signals. It’s the mixing of these two signals in a process called heterodyning that create the theremin’s sounds. The performer stands near the unit and controls the pitch and volume by moving their hands in the vicinity of the two antennas. Generally, the left hand controls the volume over the looped antenna, and the right hand the pitch near the straight antenna, although some performers, such as virtuoso Pamelia Kurstin, reverse the antennas (I’m guessing the instrument can be constructed for both right-handed and left-handed people). Changes in pitch and volume are controlled by the performer moving his or her hands nearer or farther from their respective antenna. In Kurstin’s case, the closer her left hand moves towards the straight antenna, the higher the pitch in tone, while the farther her right hand moves from the looped antenna, the louder the volume. Musical techniques such as vibrato and staccato can be mastered and controlled by rapid hand movement,

In this TED Talk performance (which got me interested in this subject), the above-mentioned Pamelia Kurstin shows that the theremin is not limited to just special effects. She has mastered the instrument to the point of being able to create dreamy and haunting melodies, as well as simulate a walking bass line as she does in the first song, Autumn Leaves. You’ll notice Pamelia appears to be in a trance while playing the instrument, but as she explains she’s keeping as still as possible so as to not corrupt the tone production. Unintentional body movements or even her breathing can affect the tone she’s trying to produce.

The Bakken Museum of Electricity in Minneapolis has a working theremin on display that visitors can play. Making sounds on the instrument is pretty easy but making music is a completely different story. Like the human voice, the violin, or similar instruments, the theremin allows for what’s called portamento, that is the gliding between a range of tones. You’re not limited by frets or keyboards, and have to sense your way from one note to the other. If you ever get a chance to play an actual theremin you’ll realize just how difficult it is.
Official Pamelia Kurstin website
Pamelia Kurstin on MySpace Music
Some guys performing a theremin jam of Gnarls Barkely's Crazy


He's fusing hydrogen isotopes in his brain right now: Such is the power of Kim Jong-Il.
He's fusing hydrogen isotopes in his brain right now: Such is the power of Kim Jong-Il.Courtesy JJ Georges
Check it out: North Korea claims to have produced nuclear fusion. Fusion has been demonstrated in laboratory experiments, and, as I understand it, fusion can be achieved in fission-based nuclear weapons, but scientists have never been able to create it on the right scale to produce lots of cheap, controlled energy (for electrical power generation, which is sort of the ultimate goal.) Except, you know, North Korea now.

(Fusion, by the way, is all about forcing two light atoms to merge together. The atoms have to release some of their components to do this, and when those components go flying off, there's a lot of energy to be had from them. More or less.)

Some folks are pointing out that North Korea is one of the poorest countries in the world, and they can barely get their national act together in a lot of other ways, so it seems very unlikely that they've made any huge advancements towards fusion power (which has eluded scientists around the world for decades). But you never know. After all, they claim that the discovery coincided with the birthday of North Korea's "Dear Leader," Kim Jong-Il, and stranger things have happened on that day—according to official biographies, a new star appeared in the sky on the day Jong-Il was born.

la la la


NASA just released some stunning new views of the Sun from the Solar Dynamics Observatory that was launched this past February. The space craft's cameras are able to produce images 10x better than the resolution of high-definition television. giving scientists the ability to examine more closely and in much greater detail such space weather phenomenon as solar flares, coronal mass ejection (CME), extreme ultraviolet radiation, and sunspots. The mysteries of the Sun's magnetic field will also be studied. The spacecraft's instruments are able to gather data more quickly and more often than previously possible. Check it out.

The next video provides some background information about the SDO project.

NASA SDO website


Moving water is an extremely powerful and earth-shaping force of nature. It can also be quite lethal. According to NOAA, over a 30-year average (1979-2008) flash floods have killed more people than any other weather-related natural disaster in the US. With that in mind, here are two remarkable video clips of flash floods that came to my attention via Rebecca Hunt-Foster’s Dinochick Blog. The videos were shot by David Rankin of who keeps close watch on the local weather in southern Utah, and whenever heavy rains occur, runs out with camera in hand to capture the amazing power and erosion of the resultant flash floods, that drag along everything that gets in their way. This explanation of the phenomenon and why it interests him is from his website:

“1 inch of rain over 1 square mile amounts to over 17.38 million gallons of water that need to be drained. Some of the floods in these videos were produced when 2 - 4 inches of rain fell over 30 - 60 square miles, over a few billion gallons of water draining down one wash in the desert. These washes are usually bone dry for most of the year until the monsoon rains come. They can turn into raging torrents within minutes and are very dangerous during this time of year. If there hasn't been much local heavy downpour the floods come through looking like a tsunami with a wall of water that can get up to 5 feet high, and tear up everything in its way. This is what you see happening in these videos. I am also interested in raising awareness when it comes to these beasts. They are quite dangerous, and can come through up to 6 hours after the storms that create them pass by with almost no warning.” – David Rankin


Primary energy source: Solar energy will play a central role in powering the new desert city of Masdar.
Primary energy source: Solar energy will play a central role in powering the new desert city of Masdar.Courtesy fdecomite
Out in the burning desert of United Arab Emirates, architects from Great Britain are designing Earth’s first carbon-neutral city, powered mainly by the Sun.

Called Masdar, the new city will retain time-tested traits of early Arab desert architecture, keeping streets narrow and maximizing the amount of shade created from closely built building walls. Wind towers will help move air through the streets. But most of the energy needs of the planned city of 50,000 will come from the sun. At least that’s the plan.

Some of the ideas being tossed around include using a circle of giant mirrors to focus the sun’s ray’s onto a tower in the center of the city – kind of like those parabolic cookers you see advertised on television but on a much larger scale. The light and heat will be converted and controlled to supply necessary power to drive the city’s energy needs. Other plans stem from lunar colonization ideas, such as covering surfaces with thin layered, highly reflective materials to deflect excessive desert heat.

The planners hope to make Masdar primarily a walking city. They’re keeping it compact and easily accessible by foot. Plus, gasoline-powered vehicles will be banned. But below street level, computer-driven podcars called Personal Rapid Transit will use solar-powered magnets to move people around town.

A huge solar farm – the largest in the Middle East – has already been built to supply power for construction of the new city, and to offset the necessary use of carbon-based fuel to build it. Construction costs for Masdar which will include 1000 business and a university are being covered by Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed Al Nahyan, the ruler of Abu Dhabi.

Pardon the pun, but I think it all sounds so cool.

BBC website


Photon computing

Diamond nanowires emit photons: A Harvard-based team has manufactured a matrix of diamond nanowires with defects called nitrogen vacancies. When stimulated with green light, these defects emit one red photon at a time. Such a construct is promising for the new field of quantum computing
Diamond nanowires emit photons: A Harvard-based team has manufactured a matrix of diamond nanowires with defects called nitrogen vacancies. When stimulated with green light, these defects emit one red photon at a time. Such a construct is promising for the new field of quantum computingCourtesy Zina Deretsky, NSF

Most computers and communications rely upon controlling the flow of electrons. Such devices would be faster and more secure if they used particles of light (photons).
A research team led by Marko Loncar just published how a "diamond nanowire device acts as a nanoscale antenna that funnels the emission of single photons from the embedded color center into a microscope lens."

"This exciting result is the first time the tools of nanofabrication have been applied to diamond crystals in order to control the optical properties of a single defect," said Loncar.

Faster and more secure

Not only is communicating through optical fibers more efficient, there is no easy way for eavesdroppers to "tap the line".

"The resulting device may prove easy to couple into a standard optical fiber. This novel approach is a key technological step towards achieving fast, secure computing and communication."

Learn more about diamond-based nanowire devices

Digging deep into diamonds Harvard Gazette


RHIC collision of gold ions: The tracks indicate the paths taken by thousands of subatomic particles produced in the gold ion collisions at RHIC.
RHIC collision of gold ions: The tracks indicate the paths taken by thousands of subatomic particles produced in the gold ion collisions at RHIC.Courtesy Argonne National Laboratory
A heavy isotope of antihydrogen was created at the Relativistic Heavy Ion Collider (RHIC) on Long Island, New York. This antihydrogen isotope was heavier than the previous antimatter record-holder, antihelium. I say "was", because it only lasted a few hundred trillionths of a second.

Super smash-up

To make the antimatter, physicists smashed two gold nuclei against each other with enormous energies. The data resulting from the collision "literally looked like haystacks". Sophisticated software was used to make sense out of the debris and pick out the new antimatter.

To form the new antihydrogen isotope, first an antistrange quark binds with an antiup and antidown quark to make an antilambda -- an antineutron-like particle. The antilambda, which is fractionally heavier than a neutron, must then combine with a conventional antineutron and an antiproton. The chances of this happening are very slim: out of 100 million collisions, RHIC generated just 70 of the new antihydrogen isotopes.


Studying the properties of antinuclei such as these might help physicists study the primordial form of matter that existed in the universe shortly after the Big Bang and why the Universe is full of matter rather than antimatter.

Source article
Heavy antimatter created in gold collisions Scientific American


Chilean quake sped up Earth's rotation, tipped planet's axis

Earth spins faster
Earth spins fasterCourtesy NASA
If you read the post about how earthquakes differ, you would know that in the Chile earthquake, a large amount of the Earth's crust plunged under its neighboring crust, bringing it closer to the center of the earth.
Just as Olympic figure skaters spin faster when their arms move closer to their body, the Earth is now spinning faster making our day about 1.26 microseconds shorter than it was before the quake.
Earth was also slightly tipped off balance, like when a spinning skater brings in one arm but not the other. The planet's axis tilted about 8 centimeters. This is insignificant compared to other wobbles measuring several meters resulting from winds and ocean currents.


WavesCourtesy skittzitilby
Three unusually large waves crashed into a Mediterranean cruise ship traveling between Barcelona, Spain and Genoa, Italy killing two passengers. Witnesses say the 26-foot waves smashed windows on the front of the ship. By freak wave standards these weren't by any means the largest (see Thor's huge wave post from a few years ago), but they were large enough to do damage. Rogue waves aren't uncommon, and sailing lore often mentions the "Three Sisters", abnormally large waves that come in sets of threes among smaller waves, like these recent ones did. This NOAA webpage attributes these kinds of freakish waves to storms and high winds, but is it possible these abnormal killer waves were generated by the recent earthquake in Chile? Just a thought.

BBC story


There's lots of buzz (normal buzz, not our patented Science Buzz) on the 'net today about the "Bloom Box" featured on 60 Minutes this weekend.

It seemed to me to be a pretty junky interview and feature, but I'm intrigued nonetheless; the Bloom Box is supposed to be an efficient new fuel cell that would allow electricity to be produced at the site where it will be used, eliminating transmission losses, and efficiently converting fuel to energy.

It runs on hydrocarbons, but it sounds like it's pretty omnivorous as to the kinds it can use (so natural gas works, but so would carbon-neutral biogas, etc), and it presumably emits CO2, only much less of it than traditional power generation. (The interview was extremely fuzzy on that aspect, but the Atlantic's article about Bloom from a month ago says that the device does release CO2.)

Something like 20 companies in California are already testing Bloom Box units, and the people making them to have attracted a ton of money, so the technology doesn't look quite so pie in the sky as a lot of other energy inventions we're supposed to get excited about.

The guy behind the Bloom Box believes that, inside of a decade, you'll be able to have one in your basement for something like $3000 dollars. More expensive than a used Super Nintendo, but, as far as major appliances go, pretty darn cheap. We'll see about that, sir... The featured skeptic seems to think that, if we see it at all, we'll see it coming from a company like GE, not Bloom Energy.

Here's the 60 Minutes piece:

Watch CBS News Videos Online

The whole operation has been kept pretty secret until recently, and supposedly there will be more details coming soon.

But until then... What do you think? Ho-hum? Hoax? Or is this something to be excited about?