Stories tagged Physical Science


In a world gridlocked with cars and gas-guzzling SUVs how can we meet our fuel needs?

According to David Tilman and other researchers at the University of Minnesota’s Institute on the Environment (IonE), biofuels, or fuels made from plant materials, are possible substitutes for fossil fuels like gasoline and diesel. In a July 2009 Science article, scientists identify five sources that can produce large amounts of biofuels without destroying natural habitat or using land needed to raise crops and cattle for food.

“We need to transition away from using food for biofuels toward more sustainable feedstocks that can be produced with much less impact on the environment.” Jason Hill, University of Minnesota

One Man’s Trash is Another Man’s TreasureCrop waste, plants grown on abandoned land, and trash, are all possible sources of biofuels.
Crop waste, plants grown on abandoned land, and trash, are all possible sources of biofuels.Courtesy University of California Berkeley News


WaveLengths, the award-winning public television program from Arizona Public Media updates viewers on what was once the most talked-about experiment in the world--the Biosphere 2 in Oracle, Arizona.

Biosphere 2: New TV program takes you inside Biosphere 2.
Biosphere 2: New TV program takes you inside Biosphere 2.Courtesy Biosphere 2

"WaveLengths: Planet in a Bottle" revisits the famous life sciences laboratory to learn about the research currently being conducted inside, and exactly how it can help find answers to environmental questions arising in the new millennium. This new episode of WaveLengths includes research and work televised for the very first time.

(See a preview here.)

"WaveLengths: Planet in a Bottle" premieres Monday, January 18 at 6:30pm on PBS-HD Channel 6.

Segments include:
  • Two years and 20 minutes: Jayne Poynter is one of eight "Biospherians" who were sealed inside the artificial environment for a little over two years. Poynter talks about the challenges the team faced as they grew their own food and recycled their air and water within the immense greenhouse. The problems with living extensively in a sealed environment, says Poynter, were not all environment-related.
  • Biosphere 2's future: The management of this unique structure and its surrounding campus was assumed by The University of Arizona in 2007 now scientists from Arizona and around the world use this remarkable facility to find solutions for understanding climate change and other global problems that threaten the planet. WaveLengths Host Dr. Vicki Chandler takes a walk with Biosphere 2 Director Travis Huxman to talk about the relevancy of the new research going on in the largest sealed facility on Earth.
  • High tech rainforest: How are plants and forests responding to the changing environmental conditions on Earth? Dr. Kolbe Jardine is one researcher using a hi-tech chemistry lab in conjunction with Biosphere 2's rainforest biome to learn more about plant interactions.
  • Critical ocean viruses: The invisible life of the ocean--its microbes--is as critical to other ocean life as plants and trees are to the land. The artificial ocean of Biosphere 2 is now helping scientists discover what kind of impact climate change can have on the ocean's microbial life. Researcher Matt Sullivan is focusing on this invisible life to help us better understand the crucial role it plays in ocean productivity, and the overall health of our planet.
  • Climate change and vegetation shifts: Some regions in North America are seeing rapid vegetation transformations because of invasive species. Here in the Southwest, the invasion of the non-native bufflegrass could change our desert landscape forever, and a better understanding of why these changes are taking place in relation to climate change is happening inside Biosphere 2.

Radioactive Peace: With all countries taking from a nuclear fuel bank, no one country will have to enrich its own uranium.
Radioactive Peace: With all countries taking from a nuclear fuel bank, no one country will have to enrich its own uranium.Courtesy kso
Talk of nuclear power has been brought back into the spotlight, especially after the discovery of Iran’s uranium enrichment plant last September. A solution to the debate about whether countries should even have the capability of enriching uranium (the process required for attaining both nuclear energy and nuclear weapons) was posed more than 50 years ago by President Eisenhower. Eisenhower suggested that various countries should allocate uranium from their stockpiles for peaceful pursuits (i.e. nuclear energy). At the time it wasn’t received very well, but a recent BBC article reported that this vision has been renewed. As of November of last year, the United Nation’s International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) successfully negotiated with Russia to store 120 tonnes of nuclear fuel in a plant in Angarsk (a city in the south central-ish part of Russia). In 2010, similar arrangements are said to be made with Kazakhstan. The idea is to get developing countries that are thinking about using nuclear energy in the future to join in this program, eliminating their need to enrich their own uranium.

All of this got me thinking about how nuclear energy actually works. It turns out that nuclear power plants are not that different from regular coal-burning power plants. Both plants heat water to produce pressurized steam. This steam then drives a turbine, which spins a generator to produce electricity. The only difference between the plants is how the water is heated. Coal-burning plants…well, burn coal (fossil fuels) to produce the heat, while nuclear plants rely on nuclear fission. This is where nuclear power gets really cool!

So atoms are made up of protons, neutrons, and electrons; protons are positively charged, neutrons carry no charge, and electrons are negatively charged. Atoms have an equal number of protons and electrons (making the atom, itself, electrically neutral), but the number of neutrons can vary. Atoms of the same element with a different number of neutrons are called isotopes. The isotope of uranium that is needed for nuclear fission, and therefore, nuclear energy, is Uranium-235. This isotope is unique because it can undergo induced fission, which means its nucleus can be forced to split. This happens when a free neutron runs into the nucleus of U-235. Nuclear fission
Nuclear fissionCourtesy wondigama
U-235 absorbs the neutron, becomes unstable, and breaks into two new nuclei. In the process, two or three neutrons are also thrown out. All of this happens in a matter of picoseconds (0.000000000001 seconds)! The neutrons that are released in this reaction can then go and collide with other on-looking U-235 atoms, causing a huge chain reaction (much like this). The amount of energy released when this happens is incredible- a pound of highly enriched uranium has about the same energy as a million gallons of gasoline. This energy comes from the fact that the products of the fission (the two resulting nuclei and the neutrons that fly off), together, don’t weigh as much as the original U-235 atom. This weight difference is converted directly into energy. It’s this energy that is used to heat the water that creates the steam, which turns the turbine that spins the generator, that produces power in the nuclear reactor that Jack built.

On the plus side, with nuclear power there wouldn’t be a reliance on fossil fuels. Nuclear power plants are cleaner because they don’t emit as much carbon dioxide as traditional coal-burning and natural gas plants. However, there are some downsides as well. Mining uranium is not a clean process, transporting nuclear fuel creates a risk of radioactive contamination, and then there’s the whole issue with what to do with the still-dangerous nuclear waste once the fuel has been used up.

Whether or not we should increase our nuclear power program is still debatable, but one thing I do know is that the science behind it is fascinating!


Kites over Lake Harriet
Kites over Lake HarrietCourtesy Mark Ryan
Over the centuries, kites have been used for ceremonial purposes, military tactics, scientific experiments, and of course just for fun. The actual origin of kites is sketchy. Some historians claim the islanders of the South Seas first used them to catch fish. But others say kites were first invented in China nearly 2500 years ago. Steady as she goes.: Kids love flying kites.
Steady as she goes.: Kids love flying kites.Courtesy Mark Ryan
Some fanciful kites
Some fanciful kitesCourtesy Mark Ryan
Whatever the case, kites are fun to fly. Yesterday, the 10th Annual Lake Harriet Winter Kite Festival took place on Lake Harriet in Minneapolis. Despite the frigid temperatures, it was a beautiful day for the event. A big crowd was present when I was there, and there were some colorful as well as unusual kites in the air. And it’s not just a matter of slapping a sheet of old newspaper to a couple slats of balsawood and adding a tail and some string, kite-flying involves a lot of science.
It ain't rocket science: But keeping a kite aloft takes more than just a good breeze.
It ain't rocket science: But keeping a kite aloft takes more than just a good breeze.Courtesy Mark Ryan
Anyway, the event was sponsored by several organizations, including the Minneapolis Parks and Recreation Board, and the Minnesota Kite Society. Successful kite launch: Up, up, and away!
Successful kite launch: Up, up, and away!Courtesy Mark Ryan

If you want to get involved in kite-flying yourself, there’s a ton of information on the Internet to get you started. I’ve linked to a few of the better ones I found including the site for National Kite Month, which runs this spring from March 27th to May 2nd.

Come on now; get off that couch, join in the fun, and go fly a kite.

Using Kites to Study Aerodynamics
World’s largest kite plan archive
PBS Challenge: How does a kite fly?
The Kite Society (UK)
Kite Study for Children (includes some history)
National Kite Month
Off we go!!: A bundled kite-flyer gives her aircraft a good boost at launch
Off we go!!: A bundled kite-flyer gives her aircraft a good boost at launchCourtesy Mark Ryan
All sorts of kites
All sorts of kitesCourtesy Mark Ryan

Giant bear kite dominates the sky
Giant bear kite dominates the skyCourtesy Mark Ryan
Lake Harriet Winter Kite Festival: Minneapolis, MN
Lake Harriet Winter Kite Festival: Minneapolis, MNCourtesy Mark Ryan


The sky's the limit!: But probably not for this group; they look more like posers than actual paper airplane aficionados.
The sky's the limit!: But probably not for this group; they look more like posers than actual paper airplane aficionados.Courtesy toolmantim
Here’s an article about a paper airplane virtuoso who’s trying to break the world’s record (held by himself) for keeping a hand-launched paper plane in the air. Engineer Takuo Toda of Japan not only wants to beat his old record of 27.9 seconds – set last April in Hiroshima – he’s also set his sights on achieving the nearly impossible - breaking the 30 second barrier. Actually, the record time of 27.9 seconds should require an asterisk in the record books since it was set using a paper plane with tape on it. The paper-only airplane record – using a single sheet of uncut paper - is 26.1 seconds, and Toda holds that one, too. This guy seems to be the undisputed king of paper airplanes, but I'm sure somebody out there can show him a thing or two. Check out some of the links below and maybe it can be you.

More about paper airplane aerodynamics
Build your own paper airplane (by former record holder Ken Blackburn
Build the best paper airplane
How to build 10 paper airplanes with animated instructions no less
Even more paper airplane designs


GOCE Satellite: The Gravity field and steady-state Ocean Circulation Explorer
GOCE Satellite: The Gravity field and steady-state Ocean Circulation ExplorerCourtesy ESA
Can it be true? Yes, for a mere $5,544 dollars round-trip airfare to Greenland! In March 2009, the European Space Agency launched the Gravity field and steady-state Ocean Circulation Explorer (GOCE) into orbit around our planet, which is now transmitting detailed data about the Earth’s gravity. The GOCE satellite uses a gradiometer to map tiny variations in the Earth’s gravity caused by the planet’s rotation, mountains, ocean trenches, and interior density. New maps illustrating gravity gradients on the Earth are being produced from the information beamed back from GOCE. Preliminary data suggests that there is a negative shift in gravity in the northeastern region of Greenland where the Earth’s tug is a little less, which means you might weigh a fraction of a pound lighter there (a very small fraction, so it may not be worth the plane fare)!

In America, NASA and Stanford University are also working on the gravity issue. Gravity Probe B (GP-B) is a satellite orbiting 642 km (400 miles) above the Earth and uses four gyroscopes and a telescope to measure two physical effects of Einstein’s Theory of General Relativity on the Earth: the Geodetic Effect, which is the amount the earth warps its spacetime, and the Frame-Dragging Effect, the amount of spacetime the earth drags with it as it rotates. (Spacetime is the combination of the three dimensions of space with the one dimension of time into a mathematical model.)

Quick overview time. The Theory of General Relativity is simply defined as: matter telling spacetime how to curve, and curved spacetime telling matter how to move. Imagine that the Earth (matter) is a bowling ball and spacetime is a trampoline. If you place the bowling ball in the center of the trampoline it stretches the trampoline down. Matter (the bowling ball) curves or distorts the spacetime (trampoline). Now toss a smaller ball, like a marble, onto the trampoline. Naturally, it will roll towards the bowling ball, but the bowling ball isn’t ‘attracting’ the marble, the path or movement of the marble towards the center is affected by the deformed shape of the trampoline. The spacetime (trampoline) is telling the matter (marble) how to move. This is different than Newton’s theory of gravity, which implies that the earth is attracting or pulling objects towards it in a straight line. Of course, this is just a simplified explanation; the real physics can be more complicated because of other factors like acceleration.

Albert Einstein
Albert EinsteinCourtesy none
So what is the point of all this high-tech gravity testing? First of all, our current understanding of the structure of the universe and the motion of matter is based on Albert Einstein’s Theory of General Relativity; elaborate concepts and mathematical equations conceived by a genius long before we had the technology to directly test them for accuracy. The Theory of General Relativity is the cornerstone of modern physics, used to describe the universe and everything in it, and yet it is the least tested of Einstein’s amazing theories. Testing the Frame-Dragging Effect is particularly exciting for physicists because they can use the data about the Earth’s influence on spacetime to measure the properties of black holes and quasars.

Second, the data from the GOCE satellite will help accurately measure the real acceleration due to gravity on the earth, which can vary from 9.78 to 9.83 meters per second squared around the planet. This will help scientists analyze ocean circulation and sea level changes, which are influenced by our climate and climate change. The information that the GOCE beams back will also assist researchers studying geological processes such as earthquakes and volcanoes.

So, as I gobble down another mouthful of leftover turkey and mashed potatoes, I can feel confident that my holiday weight gain and the structure of the universe are of grave importance to the physicists of the world!


skin tattooing process
skin tattooing processCourtesy ....

More than 5000 years ago a new form of pain endurance for record, spiritual, and cultural artwork purposes had evolved."Tatau", which means to strike and mark something, also recognized in our modern days as tattooing. You may be wondering what is tattooing?Does it hurt?How is it done?Well, the process of tattooing a needle containing ink is injected into the dermis, which the deeper second layer of skin creating some type of design. The reason for it not puncturing into the top layer of skin called the epidermis is because the top layer of the skin tends to shed its cells more frequently than the second layer.Thus when getting a tattoo, it is permanent because your second layer of skin is more stable. The pain involved in getting a tattoo is personally based on your physical and mental tolerance, so if your skin is more sensitive then most likely it will hurt more because your nerves in your body pick it up faster than someone who doesn't have much sensitivity.
When getting a tattoo on the back of your arm vs. getting a tattoo on your elbow, which will hurt more? The correct answer is on the back of your arm, because it's closer to your major organs and arteries. Go to to view the amount of discomfort to expect on the body chart. From recent experiences in getting tattoo's I feel as though all tattoos feel the same as far as pain wise. "I mean come on now a needle going into your skin.Yea it hurts at first but once your body adjusts to the pain it feels like the area your getting tattooed has gone numb and the only feeling is from the vibration of the needle.I have four tattoos in various parts on my body, and when getting each one I try to compare the pain difference to find out that there is no difference because you get use to it."


A concerned citizen preforms a simplified self test: Results are positive.
A concerned citizen preforms a simplified self test: Results are positive.Courtesy kevjblack
The Large Hadron Collider, the LHC, the World Destroyer, the Hula Hoop of God, the RC Matchbox Racetrack of Zeus, the Contraceptive Ring of Gaia herself… has been turned on.

You remember how concerned you were about this, right? You were worried that, based on what that friend said and what you read on that webpage, the activation of the LHC could be the end of the world, if not the universe.

Well, I know you’re nervous about what you might find, but I think there’s no avoiding it—it’s time for our regular self-check. I’ll walk you through it.

Stand up, and place your arms at your sides, palms in. Move your hands back and towards each other, keeping the palms facing in. When your hands have nearly met behind you, pull them forward and make a grabbing motion with your hands.

Did your hands go through thin air, or did they encounter something soft yet substantial? If the latter is true, we can all breath a sigh of relief—the LHC didn’t destroy life as we know it, and your butt is safe. For now.

The collider was actually turned on on Friday, although the first collisions from its accelerating beams of particles weren’t expected until early December. Much to the scientists’ surprise, collisions were detected as early as Monday. Check again if you need to, Buzzketeers.

If you’re looking for something to worry about, however, you might consider the following: the machine isn’t anywhere near full power yet. The protons involved in Monday’s collisions had been accelerated to the point where they had 450 billion electron volts. In the next few weeks, the LHC team will accelerate the particles up to 1.2 trillion electron volts, and, eventually, the facility should be accelerating protons to 7 trillion electron volts. When you’ve got protons heading each way, that means collisions will involve 14 trillion electron volts.

Yowza, right? I mean, the next most powerful particle accelerator, the Tevatron in Illinois, can only inject 900 billion electron volts into its accelerating particles—the LHC can do more than 15 times that!

But what does that mean? That sounds like a frightening amount of energy, so why doesn’t the Earth rumble and moan like a house in a storm whenever a large particle accelerator is turned on? It is a lot of energy, especially when you’re concentrating it into individual protons, which are, of course, very very small. But an electron volt is a very small unit of energy; it is defined as being “equal to the amount of kinetic energy gained by a single unbound electron when it accelerates through an electrostatic potential difference of one volt.” One trillion (that’s a million millions) electron volts—one fourteenth of the total energy of the LHC’s biggest possible collisions—is approximately equal to “the amount of energy of the motion of a flying mosquito.” That might be a deceptively small analogy—I’m sure it takes much much much more than a few bugs on treadmills to get the LHC powered up, and, again, that’s a lot of energy to be concentrated in a single subatomic particle racing at nearly the speed of light—but it’s an interesting comparison.

Strangelets and micro black wholes: 0; continued existence: 1.


A killer agent from the future: Like the Terminator, but with bread!
A killer agent from the future: Like the Terminator, but with bread!Courtesy Hillarie
So, I’m sure y’all have heard the news by now. The Large Hadron Collider, the largest and most elaborate scientific device ever built, has broken again. And it never even got the chance to end the world.

See, many people believe that the LHC’s attempts to catch a glimpse at the forbidden knowledge of the universe could, like a nerd’s efforts to peek into a locker room of large and aggressively athletic members of the opposite sex, go terribly wrong. Earth-endingly wrong. Sure, pretty much everyone who knows anything about it says that the LHC really isn’t dangerous in that way, and the odds that it would cause a chain reaction that would destroy the world are about the same as its chances of creating an army of teenage mutant ninja turtles. (There simply aren’t enough karate-practicing teenage turtles out there to mutate!) But that doesn’t seem to matter, because every time they try to turn that sucker on, something goes wrong, and we keep getting robbed of our first row seats at the end of the world (or, alternately, our seeding in the ninja reptile tournaments).

Do you know what killed the project most recently? I think you do, if you read this post’s headline. A bird. A little bird dropped its delicious toast on a piece of outdoor equipment (most of the LHC is deep underground). Presumably it was a bird, anyway. Whatever the case, a mystery slice of baguette found its way to some important equipment that was not baguette-proof, causing the machine to rise a few important degrees in temperature.

The damage caused to the machine wasn’t catastrophic. It shut down as the temperature in the circuit increased, which is a good thing, because if the LHC had been fully operational at the time, such an increase in temperature could have caused the superconducting magnets in the particle accelerator to become less-superconducting, and then all that energy from the near-light speed particles would… crash. Boom. But that didn’t happen, and the LHC should be up and running this winter.


A month ago, the internets were alive with discussion over the theory that the Large Hadron Collider was being sabotaged… by the future!

Naturally I ignored this news, because Science Buzz doesn’t credit nonsense like this with attention, and, what’s more, I’m familiar with the concept of someone at one point in time sabotaging his self at another point in time, and I know that it only goes the other way. Trying drinking something named after a cartoon at the end of an evening, and you’ll see what I mean.

I don’t totally get the idea behind this time travel sabotage theory, but the basic premise is that the universe, or “God,” or the fundamental forces of physics, or whathaveyou, aren’t into the possibility that the LHC could create a Higgs Boson. The Higgs is an important theoretical particle that sort of… ties the room together, if we’re calling the whole universe a room. Experiments at the LHC are trying to create conditions in which a Higgs might be observed. However, say a couple of respected scientist dudes, it could be that the Higgs is so “abhorrent to nature” that its creation would send ripples back in time to prevent it from being created.

Leaving aside the exact mechanics of time ripples, let’s consider what’s happening here. As we all know, while killing your own grandfather is often temptingly within reach, going back in time to kill your own grandfather is impossible. It could just be that no one is owning up to doing it, but the situation also describes a paradox: if you were to travel back in time to kill your grandfather, he couldn’t have created your mom or dad, who, in turn, couldn’t have created you, so you couldn’t go back in time to kill him, so… you get the idea. One might think that the universe attempting to undo the creation of a Higgs boson presents a similar paradox—if the creation of the boson is what causes it to destroy the equipment before it can be created, it would never be created, and therefore couldn’t destroy the equipment that creates it. Bleh. On the other hand, the scientists say, while you can’t kill your grandpa in the past (darn!) you can, say, push him out of the way of a speeding bus. Yay! (Unless the event of your grandpa’s bus-related death was the sole inspiration for your time traveling adventures.) The setbacks in the LHC’s operations, say the theorists, could be the universe trying to push us out of the way of a speeding bus, as it were. But what about the Higgs is so abominable? They aren’t sure about that.

It seems to me that there are still some brain-twisting complications in that theory. Cause and Effect, I think, are going to have difficult time sorting out whose clothes are whose in the morning. But… come on! A bird dropped some bread on the LHC! Since when do birds drop things on things? It has to be time-traveling mischief.