Beautiful Science


A few cool things about science that relate to the holidays.  I wrote this *before* Christmas, but, oh well, better late than never?

Dot Physics has a wonderful post on why Christmas tree lights stay lit even when one of them burns out, which is an unusual way for a series circuit to work.  Some nice explanations using Kirchoff’s laws make this a wonderful little post to stimulate a science lesson for the season.

From Sebastien Martin

From Sebastien Martin

I have an old post on why it’s a myth that no two snowflakes are the same shape.

And Morning Coffee Physics has a delightful little post on why snow sparkles. This is just my kind of science — gorgeously explanatory post about something we see every day.

Sebastien Martin at the Exploratorium has some beautiful images on his Flickr site showing how they used Christmas lights to demonstrate resonance and harmonics (see picture at right).

Steve Spangler Science gives you some ideas to deck the halls…holiday decorations with science.

And then of course there’s the old favorite Instant Snow (video on Teacher Tube).  Insta-Snow is made from sodium polyacrylate, a water-absorbing polymer.

And on the Ellen show….

tt_icon_170Have you ever really listened to the sound of a bouncing ball? There’s some elegant mathematics to be had in this simple thing. In this episode of my Science Teaching Tips podcast, staff educator and physicist Tom Humphrey takes us to the most perfect bouncing ball I’ve ever seen (or heard) — an exhibit at the Exploratorium. The platform the ball is bouncing on is a huge chunk of heavy marble, bolted to the floor. (What does that have to do with anything? Think about conservation of energy and momentum). You hear some surprising things as a small metal ball bounces on that surface. Even without the exhibit, this is something you can do with your students, and integrate science and math into your curriculum.

Listen to the episode – Follow the bouncing ball

How did I not hear of this before?  The American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) is sponsoring a dance contest! The deadline is November 16.  Your job?  To interpret your PhD thesis in dance form.

The contest is open to anyone who has (or is pursuing) a Ph.D. in any scientific field, such as physics, chemistry, biology, psychology, anthropology, or in science-related fields such as mathematics, engineering, linguistics, bioethics, the history of science, etc. regardless of whether you’ve remained in academia.

The best video will be chosen from the categories of Graduate student, Post-Doc, Professor, and Most Popular. The prize?  International fame, and a professional choreographer will create a piece interpreting one of your peer-reviewed publications.  Wow.

Here’s information on last years’ winners.

My thesis was “Exciton Dynamics of Polymer Heterojunctions for Photovoltaics.”  How might I interpret the rapid de-excitation of bound electrons in conjugated polymers as dance?  I’m a contra, swing, and ballroom dancer.  Lessee…. All the types of dance that I can think of to show an excited electron traveling down a polymer backbone are *set* dances, with a group of people.  I wish I were a jazz dancer and could do more solo stuff!   Anyone have some ideas?  It would help if I could remember my dissertation.

Several amazing photos of slime mold. Gorgeous!

Hemitrichia calyculata

Hemitrichia calyculata

Slime and mold are two words guaranteed to send a shiver down many a spine. However, plasmodial slime molds, fungus – like organisms with about eight hundred and fifty species worldwide – possess a strange beauty that you might not expect. Come and take a look at a few, thanks to some exquisite macro photography. You may never look at slime mold in the same light again.

via Swans on Tea

A fabulous science activity from Sebastien Martin over at the Exploratorium, via teacher Bree Barnett — visualizing kinetics with LED lights. See detailed instructions and more pictures over at that blog post.

Molten glass - Mark Interrante - from NY Times

Molten glass - Mark Interrante - from NY Times

This is an addendum to my earlier (and popular) post about whether or not glass is a liquid.  If you haven’t read the previous post, the crux of the myth is that many of us are taught in science class that glass is a veeerry slow flowing liquid, and that’s why old windows are thicker on the bottom than the top.  News flash — actually you can find old windows that are thicker on the top than the bottom because it’s just an artifact of how glass windows were poured back in ye olde days.  But that doesn’t mean that glass is a simple thing.

A few months ago there was a great article in the New York Times Science section called “The Nature of Glass remains Anything But Clear“.  This very nice article about glass talks about how — even if it’s not a liquid — it’s a pretty complicated thing. “The arrangement of atoms and molecules in glass is actually indistinguishable from a liquid,” it says Solids tend to have atoms arranged in nice little tinker-toy stacks, whereas atoms in liquids aren’t so organized, more like someone threw the tinker toys across the floor in a rage, which is why they can flow.  The atoms in glass are more jumbled than organized.  So how come glass is so strikingly hard if its atoms don’t have a rigid order?

From the article:

“When cooled, a liquid either freezes, as water does into ice, or it does not freeze and forms a glass instead. In freezing… the molecules line up next to and on top of one another in a simple, neat crystal pattern. When a liquid solidifies into a glass, this organized stacking is nowhere to be found. Instead the molecules just move slower and slower and slower, until they are effectively not moving at all, trapped in a strange state between liquid and solid. .. This glass transition does not occur at a single, well-defined temperature; the slower the cooling, the lower the transition temperature. … By contrast, water, cooled quickly or cooled slowly, consistently crystalizes to the same ice structure at 32 degrees Fahrenheit.”

The reason glass forms is still a hot topic, with many competing theories.

The Exploratorium has done a lot of fun stuff with the physics of baseball, including a whole website devoted to the science of baseball (where’s the sweet spot on the bat? What are baseballs made of?). One of our senior artists, Dave Barker, has also created the Bat Marimba (photo above). I’ve just posted a new episode of my Science Teaching Tips podcast about the physics of baseball (listen to it here: Hey, batter batter!) with a beautiful performance of the bat marimba. Below is a YouTube video of Dave talking about the physics of baseball and of the amazing Walter Kitundu playing the marimba.

Phil Plait over at Bad Astronomy just spread the word about a sort-of-new NASA site with beautiful zoomable images from NASA.

Phil writes:

They have a ton of very cool images there, I must say. When they load, they are fitted to your screen, but then you can zoom in or out, which is fun. There are descriptions on the sidebar (generally tapped from the press releases, looks like) and there are animations as well. There are some nifty gizmos, like an “Embed This” link with pretty clear instructions on how to embed a given picture into a blog or web page –I embedded an illustration of the New Horizons spacecraft by my friend Dan Durda above — and of course there is the ubiquitous “Share This” link, too.

All in all, well done! It’s nice to see some folks at NASA figuring out this whole intertoob thing and doing a nice job of it. Kudos!

NASA Images is here.

The Exploratorium has a Flickr site devoted to images of the eclipse, and a link to a really neat video of the eclipse as seen at 27,000 feet.

This photo was posted by a teacher who took her own light walk… Notice how all the light patches on the ground are round. That’s because the spaces in the leaves in the trees — though they’re not round — act like pinholes. The round spots are images of the sun. This is true — it’s not just that the light “blurs out” around the edges of the spaces between the leaves. Check out the light walk link above for more information about the weird tricks that you can play with light. It will make you rethink what light — and shadow — is. You can see more of her pix at her Picasa light walk site.

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