Category Archives: Physical Sciences

W is a mystery until you zoom in

From Molly Young and Teddy Blanks, a periodic table of New York street trash.

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Caveat lector

Jennifer Richler posts a good piece about what to expect from good popular science writing—and what to expect from yourself, the reader.

…when you finish reading a piece of science writing, you [should not] think, “‘Wow, I better make some serious changes to the way I eat/talk to my children/use my credit cards,’ but rather ‘Hmmm, I wonder how likely it is that this advice will turn out to be worth following.’” That curiosity should spur you to seek out good information continually. Over time, if the research appears to converge on a particular conclusion—the overwhelming consensus that there is no link between autism and vaccines, for example—then you should probably take it seriously.

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I followed you up until “cool”

A DIALOGUE WITH SARAH, AGED 3: IN WHICH IT IS SHOWN THAT IF YOUR DAD IS A CHEMISTRY PROFESSOR, ASKING “WHY” CAN BE DANGEROUS

(Link via The Morning News.)

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Fearful symmetry: 2

A team led by Jeffrey Adams at the University of Maryland has rendered a map of the gobsmackingly complex E8, a Lie group (sounds like “Lee”). E8 describes the symmetries of a particular 57-dimensional object. A two-dimensional color projection of the map looks remarkably like a mandala.

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Clockwork moon

Jo Marchant brings us up to date on the reconstruction of the Antikythera Mechanism, a second- or first-century BCE gearwork model of the heavens salvaged from a shipwreck more than 1,900 years later. Michael Wright has used computer-assisted tomography on the badly-corroded assembly of bronze to reveal a pin-and-slot model of a nine-year cycle in the Moon’s movements:

One of the wheels connected to the main drive wheel moves around once every nine years. Fixed on to it is a pair of small wheels, one of which sits almost—but not exactly—on top of the other. The bottom wheel has a pin sticking up from it, which engages with a slot in the wheel above. As the bottom wheel turns, this pin pushes the top wheel round. But because the two wheels aren’t centred in the same place, the pin moves back and forth within the upper slot. As a result, the movement of the upper wheel speeds up and slows down, depending on whether the pin is a little farther in towards the centre or a little farther out towards the tips of the teeth….

The researchers realized that the ratios of the gear-wheels involved produce a motion that closely mimics the varying motion of the Moon around Earth, as described by Hipparchus. When the Moon is close to us it seems to move faster. And the closest part of the Moon’s orbit itself makes a full rotation around the Earth about every nine years. Hipparchus was the first to describe this motion mathematically, working on the idea that the Moon’s orbit, although circular, was centred on a point offset from the centre of Earth that described a nine-year circle. In the Antikythera Mechanism, this theory is beautifully translated into mechanical form. “It’s an unbelievably sophisticated idea,” says Tony Freeth, a mathematician who worked out most of the mechanics for Edmunds’ team. “I don’t know how they thought of it.”

Follow links in Marchant’s piece to more technical material, nifty illustrations of the reconstructed device, and Freeth et al.’s paper.

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Sniff

That metallic smell you sense after handling iron or copper isn’t the odor of the metal, according to research by Dietmar Glindemann of the University of Leipzig. Rather, it’s from aldehydes and ketones formed from compounds in your own skin that react quickly with the metal.

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Mind your punctuation

Jenny Hogan writes:

Pluto is one of a new category of object to be known as ‘dwarf’ planets (which, not to be confusing, don’t fall under an umbrella term of ‘planets’, and must, by definition, be written with single quote marks around ‘dwarf’). These objects satisfy the other criteria, in being round and not a satellite. Ceres, which lies in the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter, is also now a ‘dwarf’ planet.

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More equal than others

Via The Morning News, the International Astronomical Union goes all inclusive on us, and decides Pluto can still be called one of the planets, albeit as part of a new second-class category called plutons, reports Alok Jha.

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To Flatland and back

Via kottke.org, Rob Bryanton suggests a way to visualize ten dimensions with a Flash animation/audio presentation.

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Some links: 2

Theodore Gray’s Periodic Table Table.

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