Category Archives: Physical Science and Math

Everything you always knew about Jupiter is slightly different

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A science rocket sent to Planet Jupiter collected information on that giant gas planet’s gravitational field. This has led, through the use of modeling, to the idea that Jupiter was smacked into by another planet early in its life. Bottom line: There should be heavy stuff (heavier than the gasses that make up gas planets) only in a compact core in the middle of the planet, over which the gasses that make it a gas planet accreted. The gravity information seems to suggest that heavy material is distributed more widely. Continue reading Everything you always knew about Jupiter is slightly different


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New interesting planets found

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When a planet passes in front of a star, it is like having the planet in a huge laboratory setting with spectrometers picking up energy from that star as it passes around that planet and through its atmosphere, if it has an atmosphere. It is possible to use this information to estimate the size of the planet and to say something about its composition. Continue reading New interesting planets found


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Physicists discover family members of Schrödinger’s cat

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Interesting research out of the University of Queensland. I’ll just give you the press release and some details from the paper, and you can take it from there. For related conversation, check out this podcast episode.


Continue reading Physicists discover family members of Schrödinger’s cat


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A New Book On Drought by NASA GISS’s Ben Cook

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Drought: An Interdisciplinary Perspective by Benjamin (Ben) Cook is the book you’ve always needed handy when the dry side of climate or climate change comes up in conversation.

The relationship between rainfall, groundwater, evaporation and transpiration, vegetation, bodies of water, animal distribution, agriculture, humans, and atmospheric conditions (not to mention oceanic factors and topography) underlie many different realms of academia and policy. Almost nothing I’ve ever done in my anthropological research didn’t include the hydrologic cycle, climate, and related issues. The weather weirding we are currently watching across the globe, including the current heavy rains and tornadoes, are part of this, and the long lived California Drought, the one that ended just recently, is as well.

In Drought: An Interdisciplinary Perspective, Cook looks at the dry end of the spectrum of the hydrologic cycle, but in so doing, he really has to cover the basics of rain related climate. There is math, and there is complicated science, in this book, but all of the material presented here is accessible to anyone who wishes to learn. If you are interested in climate change or agriculture, or paleoclimate, or any of that, Cook’s book is an essential reference, filling a gap that exists in the available range of current public-facing serious science books.

Cook covers the hydrologic cycle and the relationship between the hydrologic cycle and climatology. He defines the sometimes confusing concepts and measurements known as “drought” in a non-confusing and detailed way. I’ve found that in many discussions of drought, self defined experts who also happen to be climate change deniers tend to talk past (or over or around) others, making it difficult for the average non-expert to avoid frustration. Cook will arm you with the knowledge to stand up to such shenanigans!

Cook covers drought in the Holocene, and the relationship between climate change and drought. He provides two key detailed case studies (the American dust bowl, and droughts in the Sahel of Africa). He covers landscape degradation and desertification, and irrigation.

Drought: An Interdisciplinary Perspective is fully authoritative and thorough, and, as noted, very readable and understandable. Reading this book might make you thirsty but it will also make you smarter.

Ben Cook is a research scientist at NASA-Goddard Institute for Space Studies and the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory of Columbia University, and he teaches at Columbia’s School of Professional Studies.


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How Old Is The Universe?

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According to this paper, which I have no idea what it says, the Earth may be about 12.5 billion years old. This is younger than the previously favored answer, which put the universe at 13.8 billion years old.

More precisely, or actually, less precisely, the lead author on that paper says that the universe may be between 12.5 and 13 billion years old.

There is a write-up here.

So, that hold-the-date card they sent out for the 14 billion year anniversary of the universe? Keep it tacked to the fridge for now, but be prepared to pencil in a new date.


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Minnesota Winter Myths

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Minnesota established its national reputation as a snowy and cold state because of a series of real and fictional events. During this time, the population of Minnesota has grown considerably. I’ll tell you why this matters after I show you the important data. We will then use this new found understanding to evaluate a recent viral video in the light of changing climate.

1940, Armistice Day Blizzard (145 dead). Population: 2.7 million

1970 Blizzard episode of Mary Tyler Moore show (no casualties). Population: 3.8 million

1991, Halloween Blizzard (22 dead, 100 injured). Population: 4.3 million

2019 The Great Snows of 2019 (casualties not yet counted). Population: 5.7 million

The average total snowfall for the Twin Cities is 47 inches over the winter, over the last century or so. Prior to 1979 (inclusively) the average was 43.7 inches. After that date, the average has been 53.4 inches. That is an expected increase of 20% owing likely to added moisture in the atmosphere caused by global warming.

For comparison, the average total snowfall in Buffalo, New York is 94 inches. The average annual snowfall in Boston is 42 inches, more like Minnesota. It is said that Minnesota gets a lot of snow. But really, Minnesota is mostly a semi-dry state, where agriculture only happens with irrigation, and the snowfall is half what it is on the other side of the Great Lakes, and about the same as the east coast. (The east coast is wetter, but more of that falls as rain or, as is the case of Boston, dense slush.)

Since the famous Armistice Day blizzard, which surely contributed significantly to Minnesota’s reputation, the population of the state has doubled. Since the Mary Tyler Moore days, when Minnesota became known to most other Americans, population has gone up by something like 30%. Indigenous Minnesotans don’t reproduce that fast, and many move away (to California, mostly) so that is a much larger number that are totally new to the area, often from tropical or at least warmer, areas, than one might think.

Plus, Minnesotans are known to be masters of passive-aggressive. But this also means they are masters of another trait: Deep denial.

For all these reasons, the weather of Minnesota matters little, and the reputation not at all, as a foundation for the ability of Minnesotans to handle winter. Which brings us to the following video, which YOU MUST WATCH TO THE END:

Conclusions: Look out the window before you leave your garage!


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New New Horizons Kuiper Object Photograph

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NASA’s New Horizons space ship has photographed the farthest thing away shown in an actual photograph where you go up to the thing and take a picture (as opposed to looking far away with a telescope or something).

It is an object in the Kuiper Belt. The first shot is shown below on the left, and then, up close… you can really kinda see something:


Just over 24 hours before its closest approach to Kuiper Belt object Ultima Thule, the New Horizons spacecraft has sent back the first images that begin to reveal Ultima’s shape. The original images have a pixel size of 6 miles (10 kilometers), not much smaller than Ultima’s estimated size of 20 miles (30 kilometers), so Ultima is only about 3 pixels across (left panel). However, image-sharpening techniques combining multiple images show that it is elongated, perhaps twice as long as it is wide (right panel). This shape roughly matches the outline of Ultima’s shadow that was seen in observations of the object passing in front of a star made from Argentina in 2017 and Senegal in 2018. (NASA)

In just a handful of hours, NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft will perform the furthest encounter of an object in our solar system. On Jan. 1 at 12:33 a.m., New Horizons is set to fly by 2014 MU69, nicknamed Ultima Thule, and collect images and scientific data to beam back to Earth. Ultima orbits the Sun from a vast region of icy and rocky bodies beyond the orbit of Neptune. Studying this primitive world—which has been around, unaltered, since the beginning of the solar system—will provide us with vital insights into the origins and evolution of our celestial neighborhood.

Latest update HERE.


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We Don’t Need No Stinking Astronauts: The History of Unmanned Space Exploration

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Not that astronauts necessarily stink. Well, actually, they probably do after a while, but I suppose one gets used to it.

Anyway, we are all faced, or at least those of us who live in countries that have rocket ships all face, the question of personed vs. un-personed space flight as a way of doing science abroad and related quests. I’m not sure myself what I think about it, but considering the huge cost and difficulty, and the physical limitations, of using humans to run instruments on other planets or in space, and the sheer impossibility of human space missions really far away, the best approach is probably to use a lot of robots. Continue reading We Don’t Need No Stinking Astronauts: The History of Unmanned Space Exploration


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The latest newly discovered meteor impact that did not cause the Younger Dryas

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There is little doubt among archaeologists that the Younger Dryas, a cold snap following the initial retreat of Ice Age conditions some 11,000 years ago, had a major impact on human history. It seems that humans are highly motivated to return the impact to the Younger Dryas. Two times in recent years, evidence of an impact, a celestial object whacking into the Earth, has been suggested as the cause of the famous climatic “two step.” As sexy as impacts are, however, it is very unlikely that the Younger Dryas was caused by one. Continue reading The latest newly discovered meteor impact that did not cause the Younger Dryas


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The Solar System from The Smithsonian

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Smithsonian Exploration Station: Solar System by Jon Richards is similar to the previously reviewed Exploration Station: The Human Body. This is part of a new series of STEM learning toys from the Smithsonian, and they are just now available for purchase.

As is the case with the other kits, the Solar System includes a book, a large format big flat thing to which one might attach stickers, stickers, and a unique on-topic object, in this case, those cool stars you can attach to your ceiling or walls, and they glow in the dark. Continue reading The Solar System from The Smithsonian


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A Classic STEM toy: Rock Tumbler

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National Geographic Hobby Rock Tumbler Kit is truly a gift that keeps on giving. We got one last year at Christmas time, and it has been running ever since, except in the coldest months of the year. It is noisy, so you will need to have a place where the sound is not a problem. We run it in the garage (thus the moratorium during the deep cold Minnesota Winter).

There are other rock tumblers out there, and if you want to get serious, you’ll want to shop around and maybe even look at the Vibratory Tumblers, a related technology.

Warning: Figure out a way of disposing of the sludge that does NOT involve putting it down a drain. It will ruin your drains. Dig a hole in the back yard, or make an evaporation system (that’s what we do) so you can throw the dried sludge in the trash.

Expect to buy more rocks, as well as more raw materials. Here are a few examples of what we invested in:

Polly Plastics Rock Tumbler Tumbling Media Grit Kit & Plastic Filler in Heavy Duty Resealable Bags

Crystal Allies Materials: 1lb Bulk Rough Pink Rose Quartz Crystals from Brazil – Large 1″

Crystal Allies Materials: 3 Pounds Bulk Rough 10-Stone Assorted Brazilian Mix – Large 1″


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When the Uncertainty Principle goes to 11

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When the Uncertainty Principle Goes to 11: Or How to Explain Quantum Physics with Heavy Metal is a new book by the amazing Philip Moriarty. You may know Moriarty from the Sixty Symbols Youtube Channel.

You can listen to an interview Mike Haubrich and I conducted with Philip Moriarty here, on Ikonokast. Our conversation wanders widely through the bright halls of education, the dark recesses of of philosophy of science and math(s), the nanotiny, and we even talk about the book a bit.

Moriarty, an experienced and beloved teacher at the University of Nottingham, uses heavy metal to explain some of the most difficult to understand concepts of nano science. Much of this has to do with waves, and when it comes to particle physics, wave are exactly half the story. This idea came to him in part because of what he calls the great overlap in the Venn Diagram of aspiring physicists and intense metal fans. Feedback, rhythm, guitar strings twanging (or not), are both explained by the same theories that help us understand the quantum world, and are touchstones to explaining that world.

I’ve read all the books that do this, that attempt to explain this area of physics, and they are mostly pretty great. When the Uncertainty Principle Goes to 11 does it the best. Is this because it is the most recent? Does Philip Moriarty stand on the shoulders of giants? Or is it because the author has hit on a better way of explaining this material, and thus, owes his greatness to the smallness of his contemporaries? We may never know, but I promise you that When the Uncertainty Principle Goes to 11 is a great way to shoulder your way into the smallness of the smallest worlds.

As you will understand if you check out the Ikonokast interview, Moriarty has taken the risk of using math in this book. The math is straight forward and accompanied by explanation, so you do not have to be a math trained expert to use it and understand. Most importantly, while Moriarty uses music, metal, and other real life things to explain quantum physics, these analogies are more than just analogies. They are examples of similar phenomena on different scales. As Philip told me during the interview, we don’t diffract when we walk walk through a doorway, because the things that happen on nano scales don’t scale up. But wave functions function to pick apart both quantum mechanics and Metallica, so why not explore guitar strings, feedback, and mosh pits together with condensed particle physics?

I strongly recommend this book. Just get it, read it. Also, the illustrations by Pete McPartlan are fun and enlightening. Even if you think you understand quantum physics very well already, and I know most of my readers do, you will learn new ways of thinking or explaining.

Philip Moriarty is a professor of physics, a heavy metal fan, and a keen air-drummer. His research focuses on prodding, pushing, and poking single atoms and molecules; in this nanoscopic world, quantum physics is all. Moriarty has taught physics for more than twenty years and has always been struck by the number of students in his classes who profess a love of metal music, and by the deep connections between heavy metal and quantum mechanics. He’s a father of three — Niamh, Saoirse, and Fiachra – who have patiently endured his off-key attempts to sing along with Rush classics for many years. Unlike his infamous namesake, Moriarty has never been particularly enamored of the binomial theorem.


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The Unspoken Alliance between Science and the Military: Neil deGrasse Tyson’s new book

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Years ago I was visiting a relative of a friend in a house near a major east coast University, and a friend of the relative of the friend was visiting. He was a professor emeritus who had just gotten a renewal of a grant. The grant was from the US Military and it was to further develop a machine he had been working on for decades. The machine, if it ever worked, would be part of a Death Ray (and yes, that’s a thing.)

“The point of my work,” he told me. He was drunk, old, and forgot that this was all a secret. “The point of it is this. It lets us see things we could never see before. Very small things. This will help us cure cancer.”

“But what about the Death Ray,” my friend asked him.

“Oh that. The Death Ray can never work, and my machine can’t help that project along at all. But I had to get the funding somehow. This is very expensive research.”

“But won’t you get in trouble?” my friend asked him.

“I’m sure I would if I was younger. I’ll be dead before those morons catch on.”

And I’m pretty sure that is exactly what ended up happening. He died about 25 years ago. The Death Ray never really took off. Yet, we can see very very small things using machines. The part I don’t know is whether or not his machine ever worked out, but I’d wager it did.

Anyway, the famous and widely loved Neil deGrasse Tyson has a book coming out (for preorder) that reminded me of that story. It is called Accessory to War: The Unspoken Alliance Between Astrophysics and the Military. The co-author is Avis Lang. Here is the publisher’s description:

In this fascinating foray into the centuries-old relationship between science and military power, acclaimed astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson and writer-researcher Avis Lang examine how the methods and tools of astrophysics have been enlisted in the service of war. “The overlap is strong, and the knowledge flows in both directions,” say the authors, because astrophysicists and military planners care about many of the same things: multi-spectral detection, ranging, tracking, imaging, high ground, nuclear fusion, and access to space. Tyson and Lang call it a “curiously complicit” alliance. “The universe is both the ultimate frontier and the highest of high grounds,” they write. “Shared by both space scientists and space warriors, it’s a laboratory for one and a battlefield for the other. The explorer wants to understand it; the soldier wants to dominate it. But without the right technology?which is more or less the same technology for both parties?nobody can get to it, operate in it, scrutinize it, dominate it, or use it to their advantage and someone else’s disadvantage.”

Spanning early celestial navigation to satellite-enabled warfare, Accessory to War is a richly researched and provocative examination of the intersection of science, technology, industry, and power that will introduce Tyson’s millions of fans to yet another dimension of how the universe has shaped our lives and our world.


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The Origin of Life and Life on Other Planets

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The Origin of Life and Life on Other Planets

Several parallel discussions inspire me to write this post partly in the hope that you will chime in.

The chance of life elsewhere in the universe just went to near zero. Or did it?

Continue reading The Origin of Life and Life on Other Planets


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