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I’m always super excited when science makes a breakthrough. The last major one was the Higg’s Boson. This time it’s the existence of Quantum Spin Liquids (QSL), which has been theorised since 1987 but never discovered. This is reminiscent of the Higg’s Boson, which was predicted by the Standard Model but not found until recently, hence my excitement. It’s just very satisfying to see even more “gaps” filled in by science.

So, what is QSL? I have some knowledge of the quantum mechanics field but I can only really give you guys a basic overview of this discovery. QSL confirms the discovery of a third fundamental state of magnetism. Originally, magnetism was described in two states:

Ferromagnetism:

This type of magnetism has been known and used for centuries. It is the force behind a compass’s needle and your typical bar magnet. A ferromagnet’s spin (charge) of every electron is aligned in the same direction, causing two distinct poles.

Antiferromagnets:

The electrons in these have an opposite spin to their neighbouring electrons, leading to a net effect of zero magnetism. Generally, these exist only at certain low temperatures and are used in giant magnetoresistors. You might be wondering what the point of having zero net magnetism is – well think of it as a control or a switch. Sometimes you want the magnet to switch off.

The existence of QSL posits a new, third type of magnetism that is described as liquid in that the magnetic orientations of the electrons fluctuate, and thus the object’s magnetic state is constantly in flux. Most magnetic solids trend towards a stable magnetic state at low temperatures, but in a QSL, the electron spin will remain in flux even at temperatures close to absolute zero.

Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) just published (literally just then – like today) news of their discovery of QSL in a mineral known as Herbertsmithite. The crystalline structure of this mineral is called a kagome lattice, a weaving pattern of overlaid triangles forming a hexagon at its centre. Here’s a picture to clarify what I’m saying: (the arrows represent electron spin direction)

Kagome

To get a bit more technical, the reason why the kagome lattice is so important to QSL is because of the triangle. It has three points with a copper atom at each. The electrons on two of the corners can align but the third one cannot align with both, thus causing magnetic frustration (fluctuating magnetism).

Implications:

Because a combination of ferromagnets and antiferromagnets are used to create hard drives, the main proposed usage of this discovery is in the field of information processing.

However, the existence of frustrated magnetism has been proposed to lead to other interesting phenomena such as magnetic monopoles, which would support M-Theory, among other things.

All in all though, the most exciting thing is the discovery of something fundamentally new. Adding on top of what we already know is great but when you discover a new fundamental state, it points to an even greater science that we’ve never seen before – something to perhaps replace the Standard Model, as they are trying to do at CERN, or perhaps conclude the theory of everything, as M-Theory and Quantum Loop Gravity are trying to do.

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I … I’m alive. It was horrible. Is anyone else out there? Did anybody else survive the terrible apocalypse?

Hah. I did mention in my previous post about everything wrong with the doomsday predictions that I would come make a post saying “told you so”. Well, here it is. Told you so.

It is currently 12:07AM 21/12/12. I also mentioned the Mayans didn’t know about timezones, but since I come from the “future”, I can safely tell you guys that the world did not end.

And if you’re one of those people who spent their kids’ college fund and destroyed your family to prepare for this hoax … well I feel bad for you because you’re going to feel like an idiot. Or maybe you won’t. After all, ignorance is bliss.

To be honest, I was surprised when I found out that people were still taking this seriously. I’m not even kidding. This isn’t my sarcastic, mocking, borderline cynical humour. I really did have no idea that there were people out there who are so … under-informed, to put it nicely. Although, in hindsight, I guess I shouldn’t have been surprised. Humans have a capacity for ignorance that seems boundless.

But let’s push away the nonplussed disbelief for a moment and look at this academically. Let’s pretend you’re not a scammer making money off the foolish; let’s just say you really do believe in the doomsday predictions. Here’s why you’d be wrong.

Stone of the Sun

 

Presenting the Mayan Calendar. Wait, no. That’s the Aztec Stone of the Sun! Hmm, so much for credibility. 

The Mayans never predicted a doomsday. So what is 2012 then? Well the Mayans used a few different calendars to mark different things; the “Calendar Round” was a 52 year calendar used to document the approximate lifetime of an individual, while the “Long Count” was a calendar for recording historical events over a long period of time. The Long Count has 5,126 years in it, and began in 3114 B.C. That makes 2012 the end of the first cycle of this particular calendar.

Cue unfounded doomsday predictions.

But what’s the end of a cycle? Think of it this way: our modern calendar consists of 12 months. At the end of our calendar, the 31st of December, we simply go back to January of the next cycle (the next year). Using the Long Count calendar to predict the end of the world is the equivalent of expecting Armageddon every 31st of December.

In fact, the Mayans continue to predict events far beyond 2012. They recorded time in cycles known as “baktuns”; new calendars were discovered recording a cycle of 17 baktuns, the equivalent of about 7,000 years (where 2012 is the end of the 13th baktun).

If that’s not enough to assuage your fears, let’s take a look at what exactly people think is going to happen.

Nibiru:

This doomsday hypothesis (and I say hypothesis instead of theory because there’s a big difference between the two) stipulates that a “Planet X” will collide with Earth. First of all, that’s just ridiculous because there’s no way a planet would be flying through space free of all gravitational pulls. Why do you think the Earth hasn’t floated out of our solar system and crashed into another planet? Because that’s not how gravity works.

Plus there are thousands of astronomers all over the world constantly watching the sky. At least one of them would have noticed a gigantic thing speeding towards us. The gravitational distortions of such a thing would have been sending warning signals for thousands of years.

Finally, what the hell are you doing believing in crap like this anyway? What possible reason could you have to believe something like this would happen? Let’s get something clear: the Nibiru  idea was first raised by Nancy Lieder, who describes herself as someone with the ability to receive messages from aliens via an implant in her brain. Does that sound like a reliable source? No. But there’s more; she predicted Nibiru would sweep through our solar system in 2003. Wrong. So why is it that people are bringing up this old garbage again?

Solar Flares:

This doomsday scenario claims that solar flares will erupt from the sun. Well, that’s true. But guess what? That’s completely normal and happens all the time. A solar storm hit on March 8th this year. Did you know that? Probably not because it doesn’t wipe out planets. It just messed with electronics on Earth.

Planetary Alignment:

So this scenario is the alignment of planets with the sun, causing catastrophic tidal effects. Well, unfortunately there is no alignment scheduled for December, and even if there were, there’d be practically no effect (Don Yeomans, 2012). The only two bodies in the solar system that can affect Earth’s tides are the moon (due to close proximity) and the sun (due to size and proximity). Incidentally, the moon and sun align quite frequently, yet we’re still here.

Magnetic Pole Shifts:

Again, a natural occurrence, though it takes around half a million years to happen and the process of actually shifting takes thousands of years. But even then, there’d be no problem if it happened, except that we’d have to recalibrate compasses and perhaps more beached whales, which would be sad. That’d be more a doomsday prediction that whales are worried about rather than humans though.

Conclusion:

If you’re one of the gullible that are fixated on the end of the world, don’t quit your jobs (if you have them) and definitely don’t start sending money to people that claim they’ll save you. You’ll just be falling prey to scammers. 21st Dec 2012 is just the end of one Mayan calendar. It’s their 31st of December. They predicted things far into the future and never made doomsday predictions.

All of the doomsday predictions put forth are false. They have absolutely no basis for existence.

That brings up an interesting point though; it’s probably the most disappointing one for me. Never mind the happy coincidence that the Mayan Long Count ends its first cycle this year, or that scammers are picking on those that don’t know any better. What really disappoints me is that this still demonstrates that people can’t grasp the concept that humans thousands of years ago did not know as much as we do today. You could apply this to a lot of things, including religion, but seriously, do you think the human race has been stagnant for two thousand years? That we’ve learned nothing during the transition from carving symbols into stone and having rockets that can send rovers to Mars?

The absolute scientific ignorance of society is shockingly highlighted every time some pseudoscience or garbage like this becomes widespread. I completely sympathise with people like Neil deGrasse Tyson whose life goals are to rekindle an interest in science, because without it, we just resemble a bunch of babbling idiots.

P.S. The Mayans didn’t know about timezones. Since I live in Australia, the 21st will come where I live before it gets to most of the rest of the world. I’ll be waiting at midnight to say “hah, told you so”.

I just want to do a quick post here so I won’t go into too much detail or include all arguments.

There seems to be some sort of wired-in expectation that things should be more or less symmetrical. Let’s not get too into supersymmetry here – though I should point out that the supersymmetry theory (SUSY) took a hit recently from results at the LHC. BSmeson decay was set to one in every 300 million Bsmesons, close to what the standard model predicts. Those of you that are more science savvy will probably understand why this is a hit to SUSY but basically it’s like god of gaps argument. It is an ever-receding range of likelihood; if BSmeson decay ends up being the rate predicted by the standard model, there’s no space for SUSY any more. As I said above, one in 300 million is getting pretty close, so the possibility of SUSY being successful just got smaller.

Anyway, back on topic. We seem to think things should be basically symmetrical. You can see this on a spiritual scale, with the concept of karma. There’s even that sort of mentality where if you’ve done something wrong, you can assuage your guilt through good deeds (altruism). On a more scientific note, people have an expectation that the universe is perfectly balanced. Everything was “perfect” because if it wasn’t, the universe wouldn’t have formed the way it did. Everything was “perfect” for the conditions of life. We can get a little more technical and even claim the universe is perfectly “even”, as shown by the cosmological principle which suggests homogeneity.

Let’s take a look at this assumption of “perfect balance”. Well, first of all, people often quote homogeneity wrong. The universe is not completely even, nor symmetrical. That much would be obvious if you actually put some thought into it yourself instead of quoting homogeneity. The average density (as well as other factors) of the universe is the same no matter where you look, but it’s not completely uniform.

Next up, the matter-antimatter imbalance. People are often asking “if antimatter exists, where is it all?” or “how come we live on planets made of matter instead of antimatter?”. Well, let me put to rest any doubts you have about the existence of antimatter. It is real, and created on a daily basis at facilities such as the LHC. As for the imbalance? The leading theory is CP violation. Again, I don’t want to get too deep into another theory but basically CP symmetry postulates that all negative equivalents of particles should have the exact same properties (but reversed) as their positive counterparts. CP violation (or CP symmetry violation) is basically the violation of that rule. There’s quite a lot of evidence for CP violation and it can be reproduced in experiments to show that antiparticles do not, in fact, replicate their positive counterparts. Specific to the matter-antimatter imbalance is the fact that antimatter has a much shorter decay rate. Basically, it disappears faster than matter does, which is why we’re left with a predominantly matter filled universe (though I do have some evidence that could suggest antimatter clusters; I’ll save that for another post).

Finally, let’s go to the very beginning. After the Big Bang spread a cloud of cosmic gas, gravity acted to cause these to cluster and form stellar bodies. But think about it for a second. If this matter were spread perfectly evenly throughout the universe, then gravity would act on each individual particle with the exact same force in every direction. There could be no formation of anything unless there was an imbalance, an imperfection in this uniformity.

The reality? Our universe was born imperfect, and that’s why we exist today.

It’s the festive season and in good humour I’m here to rain on everyone’s parade. Christmas has nothing to do with Jesus. People think it’s a holiday to celebrate the birth of Christ despite so much evidence to the contrary. This is just another example of the transmission of knowledge being impeded in society.

The bible is very unclear of the date of Jesus’s birth (it’s a shame religious people don’t know more about their own scripture). The New Testament says nothing at all about the date of his birth and the earliest gospel (St. Mark’s, written around 65CE, where CE was previously known as AD) begins with the baptism of adult Jesus. Many scholars have tried to pinpoint the date of Jesus’s birth through cross-referencing dates mentioned in the bible (which makes many assumptions, the worst being that the bible is consistent, which it most definitely is not). Many have even used astrology and the dates of notable events, which are somewhat less erroneous. Regardless, one thing that scholars can agree upon is that Jesus was not born on the 25th of December. He wasn’t even born in winter, nor 1 BC/1 CE.

So where does Christmas come from? Some of you might have watched The Big Bang Theory where Sheldon points out that Christmas was actually the pagan festival of Saturnalia. Well, the Roman pagans introduced Saturnalia as a week long period of lawlessness where nobody could be punished. Things got pretty crazy; it was pretty much a full blown hedonistic celebration, complete with ritual murder, torture and rape. In the 4th century, Christianity imported this holiday in the hopes of converting pagans. They succeeded in converting a large number of pagans by promising that they could continue to celebrate Saturnalia as Christmas.

Unfortunately, Saturnalia had nothing to do with Jesus so Christian leaders proclaimed it to be a celebration of the birth of Christ. Yes, they made it up to spread their religion.

Saturnalia itself was pretty crazy. It was like ironic torture. You can find more about it if you’re interesting, I’m just here to say it was nuts.

Christmas as a placebo to spread happiness is fine. I have nothing against that. But let’s not mistake the reason why we’re doing it. It has nothing to do with Jesus. In fact, it started for pretty ignoble reasons. Then again, how much has changed? It’s still a pretty hedonistic holiday.

Quick fact for you all. This question has always stumped me because I couldn’t taste or see any difference, but it was never important enough to stay in my mind so I never got around to researching it. Well now I have.

Essentially, they are the made in the same way so in that sense they are basically the same thing. The only difference is the size they are made in: Brie is traditionally made as a large flat wheel, and Camembert a small round wheel. The only other difference is their terroir which is something like the region in which it is made (a concept also in wine). The idea is that certain regions produce slightly different tasting products even if they are meant to be essentially the same. However, to someone like me, I really can’t taste the difference. Besides, Brie and Camembert are no longer exclusively made in their original regions any more (Brie in south-east Paris and Camembert to the west near Normandy) so the difference is moot. The stuff you buy at supermarkets is not technically Brie or Camembert any more, just a facsimile that essentially tastes the same, unless the brand makes them different on purpose.

As promised, the science joke. It usually opens with some sort of problem (anything really), in which a scientist is brought in to solve the conundrum. The punchline then follows with the scientist proclaiming “I have the solution! But it requires spherical chickens in a vacuum” (where chicken can be replaced for something more contextually appropriate).

Basically, the joke is that scientists can theoretically solve anything, but the practical application of their work is often hindered greatly by physical effects (such as resistance, gravity, etc.). Hence, spherical chickens (a sphere having equal distribution of forces applied on its surface) and in a vacuum (where there is no resistance). More broadly, and in the context of my previous post where I mentioned this joke, it refers to the need to make some simplifying assumptions for any science to be done at all. There’s no way to make any sort of progress by accounting for everything at the same time (which is why there still isn’t a grand unified theory). Some might say this undermines the credibility of science. I claim the exact opposite – it’s so precise that it only works in certain situations; but when you combine different scientific models/theories, you get a whole bunch of really accurate explanations that can account for a much wider range of scenarios. It’s certainly more academic to limit your parameters than to say “oh yeah, it works for everything; no explanation required”.

This nerdy joke has appeared on The Big Bang Theory.

Following a lively conversation on Facebook, sparked by the picture below, one of my friends suggested that someone weigh up the benefits of science to society in comparison to the benefits of military research. I figured I’d tackle the task, but as I am aware people don’t like reading long posts, I thought I’d just focus on one particular part of science. And believe me, the list would be long if I were to try it from every field of science. I doubt I’d even be able to finish it.

So the “part” of science I’m going to talk about is NASA. It’s just one organisation, and yet, NASA has contributed more to society than most people give it credit for. This post is largely inspired by the comment I hear a lot that goes roughly along the lines of “why spend money going into space when we have enough problems here on Earth”. Well, here’s why.

First and foremost is the ultimate pursuit of knowledge. Since the development of the human brain, especially the growth of the neocortex, humans have been obsessed with answering everything they can observe. This used to be done largely through the use of deities, but as science developed, we formulated functional, physical understandings of the universe. This is important because it was precisely due to this drive that we have achieved our current level of advanced society. If this drive to explain things didn’t exist, we would still be living as cavemen.

Second, there’s the fact that humankind will inevitably require the means of traveling outside of our solar system. This need is due to two things – the first being the fact that humans are destroying the Earth through exploitation of resources. The World Wildlife Fund predicted that by 2050, we would need to colonise two planets if we continued to expend resources at our current rate. While this report is a decade old, the very fact that we even have to consider something like this in our lifetime is a sign of bad things to come. This prediction is not alone either, with Stephen Hawking also proclaiming that our species will face extinction if we do not colonise other planets. And even if we manage to survive all the things that could kill us (meteors, black holes, climate change, ourselves), somehow managing to survive five billions years into the future (super unlikely), our sun will go Red Giant on our asses and kill us all anyway. So for starters, NASA contributes to our society by developing technology that helps ensure we even have a future to live in.

Finally, and here’s where the examples come in, NASA technology has resulted in a wide range of what are known as “spin offs”. These are essentially technologies developed by NASA and incorporated by others to suit other needs, and I will focus on these as the core of NASA’s contributions. After all, human nature dictates that what occurs in the future is less important than what happens now, so let’s look at some of the technology NASA has contributed to our current lives. There are so many of these that I’m only going to pick out a few. There’s actually 35 archived catalogues dedicated to NASA spinoffs, which you can find on this page.

But let’s look at a few examples. I’m not sure how to go about this so I’ll just make a quick list and explain the more obscure ones.

  1. Velcro
  2. Teflon
  3. Scratch resistant lenses
  4. Freeze dried food
  5. Sports shoes (shock absorbers, stability and motion control)
  6. Cordless power tools
  7. CAT and MRI scanners (so anyone with fractures or internal injuries can thank NASA for this technology allowing doctors to see what’s wrong in your body).
  8. Light emitting diodes (can be used for cancer treatment and promote faster healing of wounds).
  9. Infrared technology
  10. Mammography systems (reducing need for biopsies due to better breast cancer detection).
  11. Miniature heart assist device (implanted into patients waiting for a heart transplant).
  12. Memory foam
  13. Sunglasses (the technology of the lense being able to filter out UV rays).
  14. Water purification systems
  15. All manner of protective coatings (used on tools, vehicles, buildings and bridges)
  16. Kidney dialysis machines
  17. Medical rehabilitation equipment
  18. Insulation (specifically aluminium and propylene/mylar)
  19. Retroreflectors (used as a sensor to detect hazardous gases in oil development, chemical planets and waste storage sites)
  20. Anthrax detection system
  21. Wireless light switches
  22. Decontamination processes (specifically for areas contaminated by chemicals, used by many companies)
  23. WARP-10 (a portable pain reliever for muscle and joint pain)
  24. Patient harnesses (to assist patients recovering from traumatic brain injury, stroke, spinal cord injury, hip/knee replacements, etc.)
  25. Crash test models (and dummies)
  26. Liquidmetal (used in a large range of sporting equipment, jewelry, watches, mobile phones, orthopedic implants, and coatings).
  27. Navigation systems for planes allowing terrain recognition in all conditions
  28. Gas sensor (used by aircraft to detect dangerous weather conditions and avoid them).
  29. Eye surgery equipment (improving on LASIK)
  30. Bank terminal technology

As I write this, I realise that there is way too much for me to keep going. I’ve put down 30 of the more common ones. You are welcome to take a look at a longer list available here (even if you don’t read it, I advise you to click that link and scroll down just to get an idea of just how much NASA alone – let alone all of science – has given us). One thing is for sure though, in 35 years, NASA has given humankind a ridiculous amount of things. Science in general is responsible for everything you see around you. I guarantee that there is at least a dozen things around you right now that are the result of science, so when people ask why we should bother spending money on science (not only in the case of NASA, but for the LHC as well), I shake my head in dismay. But wait, I’m not done yet.

It’s become a cliché to compare the chronically underfunded NASA to the comically-bloated military establishment, but the comparison is instructive. In 2010, total military spending (not including indirect costs from interest on incurred debts) was 683.7 billion dollars. This was a three percent increase over the previous year.

Let me put it another way. At the same time the NASA budget was being nickle and dimed with budget decreases every year, the budget increase in the military for that year was about equal to the total NASA budget. The military budget increased by nearly $20 billion dollars the same year that NASA was cut back by a critical few hundred million.

– Joel Boyce, Care2

To wrap your head around it, here’s a quick comparison. It costs $1 billion more than NASA’s budget just to provide air conditioning for temporary tents and housing in Iraq and Afghanistan.

I’ve been sloppy with my hyperlinks, for which I apologise. This post was a huge undertaking. Here are my last two links for you guys. Dr. Tyson is fun to listen to and is quite popular on the internet, so I thought you guys might enjoy these.

Neil deGrasse Tyson defending NASA before the Senate

Neil deGrasse Tyson talking about NASA’s importance

Been meaning to do a science related post for a while. I actually have some good follow-up information on the Higg’s Boson and its implications to science, but as that’s a long post I’ll have to do it later. It’s getting busy now that I’m approaching exam period.

In the meantime, enjoy this:

 

 

 

There are various versions of this floating around on the internet because, well, it’s stupid. How stupid you say? Well, here comes the science.

First of all, the neutrino that supposedly travelled faster than light (but was eventually proven not to), is also known as a ghost particle because it does not interact with matter. It quite literally travels through objects without slowing down. Unfortunately, a human doesn’t have this ability.

Second, special relativity means that an object approaching light speed will gain a mass approaching infinity. Not only would Fearless Felix have died, he probably would have formed a black hole that destroyed our solar system.

Finally, it’s just not possible to reach light speed. Humans don’t have the propulsion technology to get anywhere close, let alone free falling with only gravity accelerating you at 9.8m/s/s. Especially if you know that the speed of light is 299,792,458 metres per second. Now, the diameter of the earth is 12,756,200 metres, so Felix would have gone through the Earth more than twenty times in one second. Sounding stupid now?

So yeah, found a funny post in relation to this image: “This is what happens when you let art students tell the news”. Couldn’t help but chuckle.

There’s something happening right now that many of you might not have heard about. It’s a step towards the future of energy, known as ITER (International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor). The project is an attempt to recreate experimental studies of plasma physics in a full-scale, electricity-producing fusion power plant at the Cadarache facility in the south of France. It promises to be the world’s largest and most advanced experimental tokamak nuclear fusion reactor, surpassing the Joint European Torus. A tokamak is basically a device using a magnetic field to confine plasma in the shape of a torus. The theory behind the toroidal design is a little complicated and besides the point so I’ll just stick this picture in here I got off Wikipedia to help you visualise a torus.

 

For those of you who know about fusion, it’s the opposite principle of current nuclear power reactors, which use fission. Fusion fuses two or more atomic nuclei together into a heavier nucleus. The process releases a large amount of energy (more than fission, which is the splitting of atoms).

The project is being funded by seven members – the European Union, as the host, contributing 45% of the cost, while India, Japan, China, Russia, South Korea and the United States are contributing 9% each.

Research into fusion technology has existed for a long time, but there’s always been a problem with its feasibility. Fusion inherently requires a large amount of energy. The Joint European Torus peaked at 65% of its input power in 1997 (meaning it produced less power than it took), but the ITER project hopes to produce ten times more power than its input. Unfortunately, this project will take a long time to complete. The current timeline for the project is:

2006 – Funding agreed upon by seven members

2008 – Site preparation and ITER itinerary begun

2009 – Site preparation completed

2010 – Tokamak complex excavation begun

2013 – Projected start of tokamak complex construction

2015 – Projected assembly of tokamak

2019 – Projected completion of tokamak assembly and start of torus

2020 – Projected achievement of first plasma

2027 – Projected start of deuterium-tritium operation

2038 – Projected end of project

The cooling of the reactor will be through a combination of a water cooling loops, as well as liquid nitrogen and a liquid helium system.

There are a number of criticisms for the project, generally focused on the practicality of containing the fusion project. As Pierre-Gilles de Gennes said on the topic of fusion, “We say that we will put the sun into a box. The idea is pretty. The problem is, we don’t know how to make the box.” Concerns in this regard include contamination of the reactor walls due to intense neutron bombardment. However, ITER maintains that it has considered and addressed all these issues.

The dream of fusion power has been a long one, and ever since cold fusion had been conclusively shut down it seemed like a distant dream. I’ve always maintained that it would be a shame for me not to live through an amazing breakthrough in science. I sincerely hope this “man made sun”   will be successful within my lifetime.

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