Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Report from the Trenches: A CMS Grad Student's Take on the Higgs

Mmmm run172822 evt2554393033 3d

Hi folks. It's been an embarrassingly long time since I last posted, but today's news on the Higgs boson has brought me out of hiding. I want to share my thoughts on today's announcement from the CMS and ATLAS collaborations on their searches for the Higgs boson. I'm a member of the CMS collaboration, but these are my views and don't represent those of the collaboration.

Sunday, November 6, 2011

Physics Challenge Award Show II

Not a DeLorean.  You're doing it wrong.
[Update:  Prize Update / Added link to full solutions]

Welcome to the second Physics Challenge Award show!


Our judges have deliberated for several units of time and I now have in my hands the envelope holding our list of winners.  I could easily just tell you who won right now and save everyone some time, but award shows need some suspense to work effectively, so let's first give some tedious background information!


Saturday, November 5, 2011

Betelgeuse, Betelgeuse, Betelgeuse!

A very cold person points out Betelgeuse
Betelgeuse is a massive star at the very end of its life and could explode any second now!  Every time I hear that I get really really excited.  Like a kid in a candy store that's about to see a star blow up like nobody's business.  This giddiness will last for a solid minute before I realize that "any second now" is taken on astronomical timescales and roughly translates to "sometime in the next million years maybe possibly."  Then I feel sad.

But you know what always cheers me up?  Calculating things!  Hooray!  So let's take a look at the ways Betelgeuse could end its life (even if it's not going to happen tomorrow) and how these would affect Earth.

Monday, October 31, 2011

Physics Challenge Update

Marty McFly realizes he is running out
of time to submit his solution
Did you know that our Physics Challenge problem contest thingy is still up and going?  It is!  The contest will be open until the end of the day this Friday, November 4th.  And, unlike last time, the winning solution will be chosen and posted by the end of the weekend.  So even if you don't submit your own solution (though you totally should), check back here Monday morning for the winning entry.

Why should you submit a solution to our problem?  Lots of reasons!  The top ten reasons as decided by a random sample of me are given below the break.

Monday, October 3, 2011

The Linear Theory of Battleship

Recently I set out to hold a Battleship programming tournament here among some of the undergraduates. Naturally, I myself wanted to win. So, I got to thinking about the game, and developed what I like to call "the linear theory of battleship".

A demonstration of the fruits of my efforts can be found here. Below, my aim is to guide you through how I developed this theory, as an exercise in using physics to solve an interesting unknown problem.

Monday, September 5, 2011

Physics Challenge II: Marty McPhysics

Doc Brown didn't have a time-travel backup plan.
In light of the incredible success of our last Physics Challenge Problem (we received several responses), we here at the Virtuosi have decided to reinstate what was nominally a "monthly" contest. In addition to a brand-spankin'-new problem (with "prizes", see [1]), we have also tried to make a nice collaborative environment for discussing interesting physics problems and posting your own solutions. So I will discuss our new problem and then I'll throw it over to Alemi to discuss the goal of our new Physics Challenge webpage.

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

A Tweet is Worth (at least) 140 Words

So, I recently read An Introduction to Information Theory: Symbols, Signals and Noise.

It is a very nice popular introduction to Information Theory, a modern scientific pursuit to quantify information started by Claude Shannon in 1948.

This got me thinking. Increasingly, people try to hold conversations on Twitter, where posts are limited to 140 characters. Just how much information could you convey in 140 characters?

After some coding and investigation, I created this, an experimental twitter English compression algorithm capable of compressing around 140 words into 140 characters.

So, what's the story? Warning: It's a bit of a story, the juicy bits are at the end.

UPDATE: Tomo in the comments below made a chrome extension for the algorithm

Monday, August 22, 2011

Futurama Physics

The rotting corpses of sunbeams cause global warming.
Good news, everyone!  While rummaging through all my old stuff at home, I found my long-lost copy of Toto IV.  Huzzah for me!  This is entirely unrelated to what I wanted to talk about, but I have it on good authority that Toto's Africa syncs up really well with this post [1].  I'll tell you when to press play.

Anyway, what I really wanted to talk about was a fairly well-posed problem in Futurama.  In the episode "Crimes of the Hot," all of the Earth's robots vent their various "exhausts" into the sky at the same time, using the thrust to push the Earth into an orbit slightly further away from the sun.  As a result of this new orbit, the year is made longer by "exactly one week."  Anything that quantitative is pretty much asking to be analyzed.  Let's explore this problem a bit more then, why not?

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Fun with an iPhone Accelerometer

The iPhone 3GS has a built-in accelerometer, the LIS302DL, which is primarily used for detecting device orientation. I wanted to come up with something interesting to do with it, but first I had to see how it did on some basic tests. It turns out that the tests gave really interesting results themselves! A drop test gave clean results and a spring test gave fantastic data; however a pendulum test gave some problems.

Monday, August 1, 2011

Physics in Sports: The Fosbury Flop

Physics has greatly influenced the progress of most sports. There have been continual improvements in equipment for safety or performance as well as improvements in technique. I'd like to talk about some physics in sports over a series of posts. Here I'll talk about a technique improvement in High Jumping, the Fosbury Flop.

Monday, July 18, 2011

Grains of Sand

Have you ever sat on a beach and wondered how many grains of sand there were?  I have, but I may be a special case.  Today we're going to take that a step further, and figure out how many grains of sand there are on the entire earth.  (Caveat: I'm only going to consider sand above the water level, since I don't have any idea what the composition of the ocean floor is).

Sunday, July 10, 2011

Lifetime of Liquid Water

Apologies for the hiatus recently, it's been a busy time (when isn't it).  I hope to get back to talking about experiments soon, but for now I wanted to write up a quick problem I thought up a while back.  The question is this: how long does a molecule of H2O on earth remain in the liquid state, on average?

Sunday, July 3, 2011

Coriolis Effect on a Home Run

Citizen's Bank Park
I like baseball.  Well, technically, I like laying[3] lying on the couch for three hours half-awake eating potato chips and mumbling obscenities at the television.  But let's not split hairs here.

Anyway, out of curiosity and in partial atonement for the sins of my past [1] I would now like to do a quick calculation to see how much effect the Coriolis force has on a home-run ball.

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Counting Critters

This picture allows us to set a lower bound on the number
of creatures that ever lived of ~4.
We recently had a big book sale [1] here in town where books were being sold for about a quarter.  Needless to say, I bought far more than I'll probably ever need or read.  One of the books I bought was called General Paleontology by A. Brouwer [2].

Anyways, I didn't really make it too far in the book.  In fact, I only made it to the first sentence of the second paragraph of the first chapter, when I encountered this line:

"The number of individuals which has populated the Earth since life began is beyond estimation."

Horse feathers, I say!  Horse Feathers!

The number of things that ever lived may very well be unknowable, but it's certainly not beyond estimation.  So below, Alemi and I each provide an estimate for the total number of creatures that have ever lived on Earth.

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Day in the life of Clicky

Remember when you first learned about other planets and their many fun facts? You were probably bombarded by such truisms as: "Jupiter is approximately the mass of 318 Earths, has a orbital period that is 4,300 Earth days, is made out of pure love, and is mostly transparent." Well, I was curious about what Clicky's day was like in terms of Earth days. When did Clicky get to sleep, when did he eat dinner, what is his orbital radius and eccentricity? To do this, I looked at only the 3rd column of the data that you may or may not have downloaded yesterday from here.

Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Clicky Data v1.0

As we sift through the Clicky data Corky presented yesterday, let us not forget the Clicky that came before.

Clickin' the Night Away

Hey, everybody!  Do you remember Clicky [1]?  Well, we finally got around to analyzing data, so here goes.  But first, a brief summary.

Matt, Alemi and I came up with the idea for Clicky in the beginning of April.  Perhaps "idea" is a bit too generous... it was really just a passing thought:  "Hey wouldn't it be cool if we had an internet Ouija board?"  It was just a stupid lunch-time discussion that wouldn't have gone anywhere had Alemi and Matt not taken it as some sort of challenge.  So after a few hours that night we had Clicky.

To say we had some goal with Clicky would be an overstatement.  But, if anything, we were kind of hoping to see some sort of Brownian motion.  We figured if we had lots of people pulling on the same dot, some kind of Brownian walk would show up.  This was grossly overestimating how many people actually view this blog and it turned out that most of the time Clicky was moved by one person at a time.  Anyway, what we did end up finding was more interesting than just a Brownian random walk...

Thursday, May 5, 2011

Anatomy of an Experiment I - The Question

Warning: picture has little or no relation to this post.
I realized the other day that I've seen a lot of people talk about research results, but it is much more rare that I see someone talk about how we do research.  I think that may be because, to us as scientists, the process is second nature.  We've been doing it for years.  Other folks may be less familiar with the process though.  With this in mind, I'm going to do a short series of posts focused on how we do an experiment.  Not the results, not so much the physics, but the process that we go through to create, setup, and carry out an experiment.  As my example I'll use a short little experiment that I built from the ground up in the last few weeks, that I'm currently in the process of (hopefully) wrapping up.  Today I'll talk about the driving force behind almost any experiment: The Question.

Friday, April 22, 2011

End of the Earth VI: Nanobot destruction

Let's destroy the earth with technology.

A while ago, I read the novel Postsingular by Rudy Rucker, and in the first chapter the Earth gets destroyed, and then undestroyed, and then the novel unfolds and the Earth's likelihood is threatened again, and it looks like the Earth will be destroyed, but it isn't.

How does all of this craziness happen you might ask: nanobots! The story revolves around little self-replicating robots. The story explores what it would be like to live in a world where every surface on Earth was coated in little computers, all of which were networked together. It's certainly a neat idea, but whenever you have self-replicating things, you need to worry a bit about what might happen if they get out of control.

Earth Day Special: Post-Apocalyptic Literature

At some point in elementary school I got into the habit of reading Franz Kafka's The Metamorphosis every time that I got sick. I found it strangely comforting to be reminded that while I might have scarlet fever and be intermittently hallucinating about Mickey Mouse, at least I had not been (spoiler alert!) turned into a giant cockroach and disowned by my family.

Today is Earth Day! The earth has seen better days, and I got too depressed googling various environmental problems to even come up with a suitable list of examples. However, look on the bright side: things could be much, much worse. To explore how much worse it could be, here's a few of my favorite works of post-apocalyptic fiction - perfect reading for Earth Day. Skip past the cut to check them out.

End of the Earth V: There Goes the Sun

The Sun [photo courtesy of NASA]
People that know me well know that I have a lot in common with Robert Frost.  We both were born in March and we both employ rural New England settings to explore complex social and philosophical themes in our poetry.  We also like the same rap groups.

In honor of my literary doppelganger, I will now, having already had the world end in fire, try my hand at ice.

Let's try to answer the question:  "If the sun blinks out of existence this instant, what is the temperature of the Earth as a function of time?"

End of the Earth IV - Shocking Destruction

Earth day is upon us once more.  So many other namby-pamby bloggers out there (don't hurt me!) are writing about how wonderful the earth is and how great earth day is.  We here at The Virtuosi take a more hardline approach.  Today I'm going to tell you how to destroy the earth.  Completely and totally.  Unlike last year's methods, this one should work.

Thursday, April 7, 2011

A Sense of Scale (in Dollars and Cents)

I hate politics, but for some reason I obsessively read about it.  I don't know why I do this, but I assume it's the same reason people slow down for car wrecks and pay to see the geek [1].  Anyway, the big thing in political news now is that if Congress can't pass a budget [2] by the end of the day Friday, the government will shut down.

Shutting down the government means that 800,000 federal employees will go without pay [3], lots of services will be put on hold and you won't be able to go to the Smithsonian or the Grand Canyon.  So it's kind of a big deal.  Since the ramifications of a government shutdown are so serious, there must be some really important disagreements holding it up, right?  Right?

A quick search (for example, here), shows that the big hold-up in passing the budget comes over a disagreement on how much money should be cut from the budget.  Republicans want to cut $40 billion dollars and Democrats are willing to cut $34.5 billion dollars.

So the hold-up is over $5.5 billion.  Let's consider how utterly and stupidly insignificant this is.

Monday, April 4, 2011

Collective Wanderings

Update [04/04/11]:  It seems Clicky got too popular for our bandwidth limits on the physics servers.  Hopefully we'll be able to fix this sometime soon...

Update [04/02/11]:  We made the code faster, so check out the new and improved Clicky!

Hey, kids!  Would you like to be a bit player in a grand experiment with poorly thought out objectives?  If so, then check this out.  It's a little interactive "game" [1] that Alemi and Matt coded up.

When you click on the link, you will be redirected to a page showing something like this:

Friday, April 1, 2011

Special Virtuosi Book Announcement!

Coming soon to a Kindle near you!
We've been at this whole blogging thing for about a year now and I think we've amassed a large and dedicated enough fanbase to finally release a book!  The track record so far for physicist-writers has been quite good of late, so we figured why not us?

Well, lots of reasons actually.  For one thing, it's really hard.  Books are, like, hundreds of pages long.  I barely stay coherent and on-topic in a one page blog post.  For another thing, it takes lots of time.  I hardly have enough time to do my laundry in time scales deemed "socially acceptable."  How could I ever find the time to write a book?

Despite these potential setbacks, the millions and millions of dollars that writers make still seems really appealing.  Who wouldn't want to be rich and popular forever.  I mean, just look at Oscar Wilde, Edgar Allan Poe and Herman Melville!

Luckily, a solution presented itself.  I don't have time to write a book now, but I found an old copy of my novel Blue Dragon laying around the house that I was able to sell using the immense popularity of the Virtuosi brand.  The book will be published this summer by Clark Hall Publishing.  Here are a few advance reviews:

Thursday, March 31, 2011

Nickel Gnomes

Perhaps Step 2 was to steal copper?
While flipping through a CRC Handbook whose days in the United States are dwindling, I came across a section that described the naming conventions of each chemical element.  Most of the names made sense to me.  For example, Nobelium is named after Alfred Nobel (surprise!).  However, the Nickel entry was the following:

Nickel: Named after Satan or Old Nick

This confused me greatly.  What the heck is Santa Claus doing hanging out with Satan [1]?

After a bit of poking around on the internet, I found an article from 1931 by a guy named William Baldwin called The Story of Nickel,  How "Old Nick's" Gnomes were Outwitted.  Needless to say, this did not allay my confusion.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Blown Away

I was reading a discussion on green energy recently, in particular wind power, where the following claim was made
enough wind turbines to power the world would cover the surface of the world.
Now, this was quickly decried by supporters of wind power, but the claim has stuck with me. The question on my mind today is: How much of the earth's surface would have to be covered to power the earth with wind turbines?

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Physics Challenge Award Show

In an emergency, Richard Dean Anderson's mullet can
be used as a flotation device and/or standard kilogram.
Welcome to the First Physics Challenge Problem Award Show!  We received an integer number of solutions to our challenge problem and at long last and after much deliberation, we have chosen our winner.

We had before indicated vaguely that there may be some sort of prizes involved in this competition.  After consultation with our financial advisors and breaking Alemi's piggy bank, we have decided on the following prizes:

First Place:  A brand new CRC Handbook!

Second Place: An autographed [1] picture of Scott Bakula!

Honorable Mention:  Nothing! [2]

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Japan Nuclear Crisis

Though I know that two posts in one day is recently unprecedented, I've been meaning to post about the Japan nuclear crisis for a few days. The various major news outlets are doing a good job, or so it seems, of keeping us informed of the events going on over there. However, I found myself rather puzzled over the physics of what was happening. From the news articles I was unable to figure out what was actually causing the meltdown, beyond some problem with the cooling. As a postdoc in my lab asked, "Isn't all they have to do drop the control rods and the reaction ends?" So I decided to do a little digging. I've found a couple of places that do a nice job of explain some of the physics of what is actually happening, nature news (not sure if the nature blogs are behind a paywall), and scientific american (not up on current events, but a nice summary of what can/might go wrong). I'm sure there are many other places doing a good job of explaining things, but these are the ones and I found, and hopefully they help clarify what is actually happening.

Apologies + Saturn!

Hello, again!  Remember us?  I don't.  Anyway, apologies for the lack of activity here.  There are plenty of people* to blame for this lack of activity, but I don't want to name names.  The real purpose of this pseudo-update is to SUPER DUPER promise that the winners of our first Monthly Physics Challenge problem will be announced tomorrow.  Thanks for your patience!

In the meantime, there's a totally rad video-ification of photos of Saturn (and moons) taken by the Cassini spacecraft that was Astronomy Picture of the Day yesterday and will (presumably) be part of an IMAX movie in the future.  You can check it out here.

Saturn.  It's a planet!

See you tomorrow!

Monday, February 7, 2011

Fun Fact: Lebron James Plays Basketball

Between building airplanes and playfully destroying everyone else in my apartment at Super Smash Brothers, my roommate Nathan brought up an interesting recent fact about LeBron James. He told me that LeBron scored 11 consecutive field goals (not in football... you know who you are) in one game. Apparently this was a pretty special event, but how rare is it for a player of LeBron's caliber? TO THE SCIENCE-MOBILE!

Sunday, February 6, 2011

Problem of the Month: Gilligan Physics

So, some of us over here at Virtuosi Central have organized a challenge problem for the physics community here at Cornell. Well, we thought we would open up the challenge to the great wide world. The more submissions the merrier.

The deadline is March 1, and submissions can be sent to our email.

Details can be found at bit.ly/physicschallenge.

Good luck and happy hunting.

Life in the Infrared

Corky, Matt, and Jared, with the experimental apparatus.
There's a place where TV remotes are flashlights, Wii's are torches, and Snuggies are translucent. It's our kitchen. We modified a 3 dollar webcam to view in the infrared portion of the electromagnetic spectrum. We'll show you how, and what you can do with it.

Friday, February 4, 2011

Free data set of the month: Imaging Spectroscopy

There's a lot of free data sets floating around the internet, and while things like funny cat videos and the results of color-naming surveys get a lot of play, many others don't get used for much. Recently I've been playing around with one such data set: images from the Airborne Visible/Infrared Imaging Spectrometer (AVIRIS).

I've always found it interesting that the way we perceive color is very different from how light actually works. Most of us have three different types of cones in our eyes and we perceive different colors as different combinations of stimuli to these three types of cones. In a very rough sense, when we look at a color, our brain gets three different numbers to figure out what it is. Light, on the other hand, is a bunch of photons with some distribution of wavelengths. To fully describe the light coming from an object you need a function that shows how many photons are at any given wavelength, which is way more complicated than just the three numbers we get.

So what about all that information that gets thrown away on the way to our brain? Are we missing out on a magical world of super-duper colors and wonder? Not really, but skip past the break anyways to find out more.

Thursday, February 3, 2011

Exploration of Cameras I

In the next posts, I'd like to attempt to make a camera from 'scratch.' And by that, I mean explore the creation of cameras from their components and then create a very primitive one from readily available materials.

Sunday, January 30, 2011

The Magnetar Credit Card Swipe

Ned Flanders' credit card doesn't satisfy the Luhn checksum,
but could probably still be erased by a magnetar. 
Hello, Internet!  Today I'd like to talk about the Magnetar Credit Card Swipe.  Sounds like some sinister short on a derivatives deal, doesn't it?  Well, no need to worry, we don't deal with scary things like that here.  Instead, we are going to talk about a super-magnetized neutron star speeding past Earth.

A while ago I heard that a magnetar can erase all the world's credit cards from half the distance to the moon.  I did a little research and it seems like this is the go-to "fun fact" about magnetars.  Almost every time they are brought up in a popular science article, their credit card-erasing prowess is sure to get a mention.  So let's check it out!

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Falling Ice

It's been a while since I posted anything, much to my shame.  Hopefully this post marks a change in that streak.  Today I'm going to consider a very practical application of all this physics stuff.  One of my housemates parks his car on the side of the house, with the front of the car facing the house.  Living in Ithaca, NY, the weather has been the usual cold and snowy, like the rest of the northeast USA this winter. Yet, early last week, we had some unusually warm weather, in the 30s (fahrenheit).  A few days later, my housemate went out to his car, and discovered that falling chunks of ice had broken his windshield!  Now, to be clear here, I'm not talking about icicles, I'm talking about large, block-like, chunks.  My best guess is that during the warm days, snow on the roof turned into chunks of ice, and slid off the roof.  The question I'm going to try to answer today is: How far from the house could these chunks possibly land?  Put another way, what I want to know is, how far from the house would we have to park our cars to not risk broken windshields from falling ice?

Thursday, January 13, 2011


Over break I went out with a buddy of mine and played some darts. This got me to thinking, where exactly should someone aim in order to get the largest expected number of points?

Monday, January 3, 2011

Holiday Hidden Message Revealed

Here we present the solution to the Holiday Code (original post here).  The content of the message is from the creepy looking gentleman to the left, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow.  He is perhaps most famous for writing the poem, "Paul Revere's Ride."

I have taken another one of his popular poems, "Christmas Bells," and hidden its first verse in a huge mess of random letters.  The message:

"I heard the bells on Christmas Day
Their old, familiar carols play,
And wild and sweet
The words repeat 
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!"  

Sounds pretty pleasant at the start.  But it was written at the height of the Civil War and it gets pretty heavy towards the end.  Longfellow was an ardent abolitionist and most of his poems contain allusions to the plight of slaves.  He was also close friends with Senator Charles Sumner, whose own fiery oratory and opposition to slavery famously put him on the wrong side of a Southern cane.