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The physics of Mario World show the game has a fundamental flaw



Nintendo's Mario series is the best-selling video game franchise in history. And with moves like Mario's, it's no mystery why so many people enjoy navigating the little Italian plumber through his fantasy world of princesses, castles, and magical mushrooms. But there's a fundamental flaw in the game: Based on what we know about our universe, Mario World physically couldn't exist.

This tiny yet surprising flaw in the game was recently discovered by the PBS video series Space Time, which used some simple math and basic physics to determine which kind of planet Mario lives on.

How does Mario jump so high?

You'll notice in the GIF below that Mario has some very impressive jumping skills:

marioAt first you might think Mario can jump so high because he is on a planet that is smaller than Earth and, therefore, has weaker gravity.

The Moon, for example, has about one-sixth Earth's gravity, which means you can jump six times higher on the Moon than on Earth using the same leg power. But that's not the full story.

The crucial detail is not how high Mario jumps but how fast he falls.

mariosAlthough you can jump six times higher on the Moon, it would take six times as long to fall back to the ground as it would on Earth. If Mario fell that slowly, it would make for some pretty boring gameplay.

moonBecause Mario moves relatively quickly through the air, he must be on a planet that has pretty strong gravity. You can easily calculate how strong the gravity in Mario World is with two simple parameters:

  • How high Mario jumps.
  • How long it takes Mario to fall to the ground.

By crudely measuring these factors, Gabe from Space Time determined that in the 1990 game "Super Mario World," Mario jumps about 2 1/4 times his own height and takes approximately 0.3 seconds to fall to the ground.

roller coasterAfter crunching the numbers, Gabe calculates that Mario is on a world whose gravity is eight times as strong as Earth's. Keep in mind that most humans can't withstand anything stronger than five times Earth's gravity before passing out.

To put this into better perspective: If you weigh 150 pounds on Earth, you would weigh 1,200 pounds on Mario's planet!

So how does Mario jump so high with all of those pounds weighing him down?

Pure leg strength, Gabe concludes. He must do a lot of dead lifts off-screen.

In fact, if Mario were on Earth, his strength would allow him to jump higher than 90 feet. To achieve that kind of height, he would have a liftoff speed of more than 50 mph!

Mario's jumping ability does slightly vary between different games, so gravity's force will also vary. But in general people have found that this value is between five and 10 times as strong as Earth's gravity — stronger than anything we experience on a daily basis. You might reach five g's when you're speeding through a 360-degree loop on a roller coaster.

Which planet is Mario's?

No planet in our solar system even comes close to the kind of gravity on Mario's many worlds. Jupiter, the largest planet orbiting our sun, has about 2 1/2 times Earth's gravity. So if you weighed 150 pounds on Earth, you would weigh 375 pounds on Jupiter. That's not even close to the gravity on Mario World.

exoplanetThough Mario's planet is not in our solar system, could it be outside of it, in another star system far from Earth? Because of our search for planets outside our solar system, we know there are plenty of weird planets out there. But are they weird enough?

Through NASA's Kepler Space Telescope, humans have found more than 1,800 planets orbiting stars other than the sun, thousands of light years from Earth. Could one of them have conditions similar to those on Mario World?

First, Mario clearly lives on a rocky planet with an atmosphere similar to Earth's. But its gravity is also eight times as strong as Earth's — is such a planet possible?

Unfortunately for Mario, a planet like this doesn't seem likely to exist in our universe because of how we think large planets form. To have a lot of gravity a planet must have a lot of mass, and the planets that are even close to being large enough seem to be gas giants, like Jupiter and Saturn, with no ground to speak of.

The known planet with the strongest gravity checks in at about four g's — about half the gravity that Gabe calculated on Mario World.

So as Earth-like as Mario's world may appear on screen, there is no planet in the universe that would give us moves like Mario's.

Check out the PBS video below:

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The closest images ever taken of the sun show just how powerful it really is


sunOn a clear day, the sun appears warm and inviting from 93 million miles away, but we know better. Upon closer examination with NASA's Solar Dynamics Observatory (SDO), scientists have seen exactly how menacing the sun truly is. 

For the last five years, SDO has been snapping, on average, one picture every second of the sun's surface. Just last month, the spacecraft took its 100-millionth image, shown to the right.

In celebration of SDO's five years in space, NASA has released two videos of the best images the spacecraft has taken, so far. And these highlights are nothing short of extraordinary, giving us an unprecedented look at the solitary star that makes up 99.86% of the mass in our solar system. 

Despite its bouts of lethal radiation that it flings toward Earth on a regular basis, the surface of the sun is undeniably beautiful. Like Earth, the sun has a magnetic field, but while Earth's magnetic field is hard at work shielding us from most of the sun's harmful radiation, the sun's magnetic field is busy trying to kill us.

Solar flares, like the one below, are the largest explosions in the solar system, releasing ten million times more energy than a volcanic eruption on Earth. They occur when energy builds up within a localized spot on the sun's surface. As that energy eventually grows strong enough, it ejects a tremendous plume of plasma — extremely hot gas — into the sun's upper atmosphere, called the corona.


The energy that produces solar flares comes from the sun's powerful magnetic field. Although the field hangs like a canopy around the sun, the field itself is invisible. But we can see how it affects the gas, like in the example below.

This arch of scorching-hot gas is following the magnetic field lines around the sun, just like how iron filings trace the invisible magnetic field from a bar magnet.


Most of the time, these solar flares last a few minutes and fall back to the sun's surface. But sometimes, they will explode for hours at a time. When that happens, a strong burst can actually release all of that energy and heated gas into the solar system in what is called a coronal mass ejection (CME). 

In 2012, the sun flung a CME in Earth's general direction. If the event had happened one week earlier, the CME would have hit Earth and the high-energy radiation would have fried electronics worldwide, kicking many parts of the world back to the stone ages. 

"If it had hit, we would still be picking up the pieces," Daniel Baker, a researcher at the University of Colorado who published a paper on the event, said in a NASA statement.

sunspotNormally when a geomagnetic storm hits Earth, the radiation that does penetrate our magnetic field interacts with Earth's atmosphere, igniting the Northern Lights. The more powerful the storm, however, the more damage it does. The most powerful storm that ever hit Earth in recorded history knocked out power across the entire city of Quebec in March of 1989.

Scientists are not sure why the sun's magnetic fields are always on the move, which means a solar flare could show up anywhere on the sun at any time. That's why instruments like SDO are gathering information, so that scientists can better understand how the sun generates these enigmatic plumes that are so mesmerizing but dangerous to our technology-rich way of life.

Another useful instrument that will track the sun's activity is currently on a journey through space. Earlier this month, the Deep Space Climate Observatory (DSCOVR) rode a SpaceX rocket into space and is now headed for a spot 932,000 miles from Earth. DSCOVR will sound an early-warning alarm system about 30 to 45 minutes before a powerful surge of radiation hits Earth.

Check out one of the amazing videos below, complete with an epic soundtrack: 

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A physics student built a Lego model of the world's most powerful particle accelerator


lego particle detector

A particle physics student has used his downtime to build a Lego model of the world's most powerful particle accelerator, the Large Hadron Collider (LHC), and is now lobbying the toy company to take it to market.

Nathan Readioff's design uses existing Lego pieces to replicate all four elements of the LHC — known as ATLAS, ALICE, CMS and LHCb — and uses cutaway walls to reveal all of the major subsystems.

He also wrote step-by-step guides to making the miniatures and has now submitted his models to the Lego Ideas website, where ideas from members of the public that get more than 10,000 votes are considered by Lego for future production.

"I have always been a Lego fan," Readioff said in a statement from Liverpool University, where he is in the third year of his PhD. "I had in mind Lego's basic principles of encouraging imagination and play through building bricks."

The LHC in Geneva allows scientists to test the predictions of different theories of physics. Its 27 kilometer (16 mile) ring is buried 100 meters below the French and Swiss countryside.

To see footage of Readioff's model, go to:


(Reporting by Kate Kelland; editing by John Stonestreet and Gareth Jones)

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How the foam on your latte keeps it from spilling



Ever wonder why you always made a mess of your work clothes while carrying a cup of coffee, while your latte-drinking friends generally manage to keep it together? As it turns out, scientists were also interested in finding out why this happened (perhaps they were frustrated beverage spillers as well). They found that adding foam to the top of a beverage drastically cut down on the spillage that occurred from moving around.

To test out whether foam lessens a beverage's chances of spilling, the scientists set up open-top, rectangular glass containers, which they filled with water, glycerol and dishwashing soap. The glycerol and dishwashing soap kept the bubbles in the foam on top around long enough for the team to get a clear view at their levels of sloshing.

The team tested out two different types of movement: quick jolts and steady rocking, which they recorded on camera. They also carried out less quantitative—but more visually interesting—experiments on coffee and different beer brands.

They found that friction between the bubbles and the walls of the container helped keep drinks from spilling. And all it took was 5 layers of bubbles to decrease the waves by 10 times.

latteThe results won't just be used for making life easier on frequent spillers of beer and coffee looking for a way to make it stop; the results of this study could also help in transporting hazardous liquids.

"What we observe in our cups of coffee, this happens every time you're carrying liquids in a container that's partially filled," Emilie Dressaire, an assistant professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering at New York University and one of the authors of the study, tells Popular Science.

The researchers hope this information will help keep ships carrying liquids from changing trajectory, and keep containers carrying the harmful liquids from getting damaged. Instead of using solid foam blocks to fill the extra space in traveling liquid containers and prevent sloshing, their results suggest foam made out of the liquid itself could make for a good alternative.

Next, the team wants to look at how foam acts in closed containers. The study was published today in the journal Physics of Fluids.


This article originally appeared on Popular Science

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This article was written by Lydia Ramsey from Popular Science and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network.

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Four ways to break the universe's speed limit


CERN large hadron collider

BI Answers: What can travel faster than the speed of light?

When Albert Einstein first showed that light travels the same speed everywhere in the universe, he essentially stamped a speed limit on our universe: 670,616,629 miles per hour.

But that's not the entire story. In fact, it's just the beginning.

Before Einstein, mass — the atoms that make up you, me, and everything we see — and energy were treated as separate entities. But in 1905, Einstein forever changed the way physicists view the universe.

Einstein's Special Theory of Relativity permanently tied mass and energy together in the simple yet fundamental equation E=mc^2. This little equation predicts that nothing with mass can move as fast as light.

The closest humankind has ever come to reaching the speed of light is inside of powerful accelerators like the Large Hadron Collider and the Tevatron. These colossal machines accelerate subatomic particles to more than 99.99% the speed of light, but as Physics Nobel laureate David Gross explains, these particles will never reach the cosmic speed limit.

To do so would require an infinite amount of energy and, in the process, the object's mass would become infinite, which is impossible. (The reason particles of light, called photons, travel at light speeds is because they have no mass.)

Since Einstein, physicists have found that certain entities can reach superluminal (that means "faster than light") speeds and still follow the cosmic rules laid down by special relativity. While these do not disprove Einstein's theory, they give us insight into the peculiar behavior of light and the quantum realm.

The light equivalent of a sonic boom

nuclear reactorWhen objects travel faster than the speed of sound, they generate a sonic boom. So, in theory, if something travels faster than the speed of light, it should produce something like a "luminal boom."

In fact, this light boom happens on a daily basis in facilities around the world — you can see it with your own eyes. It's called Cherenkov radiation, and it shows up as a blue glow inside of nuclear reactors, like in the Advanced Test Reactor at the Idaho National Laboratory in the image to the right.

Cherenkov radiation is named for Soviet scientist Pavel Alekseyevich Cherenkov, who first measured it in 1934 and was awarded the Nobel Physics Prize in 1958 for his discovery.

Cherenkov radiation glows because the core of the Advanced Test Reactor is submerged in water to keep it cool. In water, light travels at 75 % the speed it would in the vacuum of outer space, but the electrons created by the reaction inside of the core travel through the water faster than the light does.

Particles, like these electrons, that surpass the speed of light in water, or some other medium such as glass, create a shock wave similar to the shock wave from a sonic boom.

When an rocket, for example, travels through air, it generates pressure waves in front that move away from it at the speed of sound, and the closer the rocket reaches that sound barrier, the less time the waves have to move out of the object's path. Once it reaches the speed of sound, the waves bunch up creating a shock front that forms a loud sonic boom.

Similarly, when electrons travel through water at speeds faster than than light speed in water, they generate a shock wave of light that sometimes shines as blue light, but can also shine in ultraviolet.

While these particles are traveling faster than light does in water, they're not actually breaking the cosmic speed limit of 670,616,629 miles per hour.

When the rules don't apply

cosmic web 3d mapKeep in mind that Einstein's Special Theory of Relativity states that nothing with mass can go faster than the speed of light, and as far as physicists can tell, the universe abides by that rule. But what about something without mass?

Photons, by their very nature, cannot exceed the speed of light, but particles of light are not the only massless entity in the universe. Empty space contains no material substance and therefore, by definition, has no mass.

"Since nothing is just empty space or vacuum, it can expand faster than light speed since no material object is breaking the light barrier," said theoretical astrophysicist Michio Kaku on Big Think. "Therefore, empty space can certainly expand faster than light."

This is exactly what physicists think happened immediately after the Big Bang during the epoch called inflation, which was first hypothesized by physicists Alan Guth and Andrei Linde in the 1980s. Within a trillionth of a trillionth of a second, the universe repeatedly doubled in size and as a result, the outer edge of the universe expanded very quickly, much faster than the speed of light.

Quantum entanglement makes the cut

quantum cryptographyQuantum entanglement sounds complex and intimidating but at a rudimentary level entanglement is just the way subatomic particles communicate with each other.

And what's fascinating about it is that sudies have shown that this communication process can travel faster than light.

"If I have two electrons close together, they can vibrate in unison, according to the quantum theory," Kaku explains on Big Think. Now, separate those two electrons so that they're hundreds or even thousands of light years apart, and they will keep this instant communication bridge open.

"If I jiggle one electron, the other electron 'senses' this vibration instantly, faster than the speed of light. Einstein thought that this therefore disproved the quantum theory, since nothing can go faster than light," Kaku wrote.

In fact, in 1935, Einstein, Boris Podolsky and Nathan Rosen, attempted to disprove quantum theory with a thought experiment on what Einstein called this "spooky actions at a distance."

Ironically, their paper laid the foundation for what today is called the EPR (Einstein-Podolsky-Rosen) paradox, a paradox that describes this instantaneous communication of quantum entanglement — an integral part of some of the world's most cutting-edge technologies, like quantum cryptography.

Dreaming of wormholes

wormhole interstellarSince nothing with mass can travel faster than light, you can kiss interstellar travel goodbye — at least, in the classical sense of rocketships and flying.

Although Einstein took our aspirations of deep-space roadtrips with his Theory of Special Relativity, he gave us a new hope for interstellar travel with his General Theory of Relativity in 1916.

While Special Relativity wed mass and energy, General Relativity wove space and time together.

"The only viable way of breaking the light barrier may be through General Relativity and the warping of space time," Kaku writes. This warping is what we colloquially call a "wormhole," which theoretically would let something travel vast distances instantaneously, essentially enabling us to break the cosmic speed limit by traveling great distances in a very short amount of time.

In 1988, theoretical physicist Kip Thorne — the science consultant and executive producer for the recent film "Interstellar"— used Einstein's equations of General Relativity to predict the possibility of wormholes that would forever be open for space travel.

But in order to be traversable, these wormholes need some strange, exotic matter holding them open.

"Now it is an amazing fact that exotic matter can exist, thanks to weirdnesses in the laws of quantum physics," Thorne writes in his book "The Science of Interstellar."

And this exotic matter has even been made in laboratories here on Earth, but in very tiny amounts. When Thorne proposed his theory of stable wormholes in 1988 he called upon the physics community to help him determine if enough exotic matter could exist in the universe to support the possibility of a wormhole.

"This triggered a lot of research by a lot of physicists; but today, nearly thirty years later, the answer is still unknown." Thorne writes. At the moment, it looks like the answer may be no, "But we are still far from a final answer," he concludes.

This post is part of a continuing series that answers all of your questions related to science. Have your own question? Email science@businessinsider.com with the subject line "Q&A"; tweet your question to @BI_Science; or post to our Facebook page.

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Scientists take the first ever photograph of light as both a wave and a particle


light as both particle and wave

For the first time ever, scientist have snapped a photo of light behaving as both a wave and a particle at the same time.

The research was published on Monday in the journal Nature Communications.

Scientists know that light is a wave. That's why light can bend around buildings and squeeze through tiny pinholes. Different wavelengths of light are why we can see different colors, and why everyone freaked out about that black and blue dress.

But all the characteristics and behaviors of a wave aren't enough to explain everything that light does.

When light hits metal for example, it ejects a stream of electrons. Einstein explained this back in 1905 by suggesting that light is also made of particles and that those particles of light smack into the metal electrons like billiard balls and send them flying. The insight eventually won him the Nobel Prize, but scientists were not happy about being forced to conclude that light can behave as both a wave and particle.

It's been over 100 years and every experiment with light that any scientist has ever performed proves that light either behaves as a wave or that light behaves as a particle, but never both at the same time. No one has glimpsed both states simultaneously until now.

But you need a source of light to take a photo, so how do you take a photo of light itself? Researchers at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Lausanne in Switzerland captured the weird split personality of light by using a new photo technique.

First they fired laser light at a tiny metal wire. This trapped waves of light on the wire:

standing waveThen they fired a stream of electrons alongside the wire. The light waves on the wire are made of light particles called photons, so the electrons ricocheted off the photons, causing some electrons to speed up and some to slow down. The changes in speed show up as energy blips that can be visualized.

The researchers put the wire under a huge microscope that can see electrons, and snapped a photo of it. The bottom layer of the image shows where the particles of light are and the top layer shows what the light looks like as a wave:

light as both particle and wave

"This experiment demonstrates that, for the first time ever, we can film quantum mechanics — and its paradoxical nature — directly," Fabrizio Carbone, one of the researchers who worked on the study, said in a press release.

Carbone said the imaging technique could help advance the development of quantum computers — ultrafast computers that take advantage of other strange properties of light particles.

You can watch a video description of the experiment below, from École polytechnique fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL) on YouTube:

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You'll never guess what Neil deGrasse Tyson's favorite equation of Einstein's is


neil degrasse tyson

Albert Einstein had a knack for unlocking the secrets of the universe and as an astrophysicist, Neil deGrasse Tyson is undoubtedly familiar with the most complex, bizarre, and illuminating of Einstein's equations. But one equation stands out above the rest for the famed director of the Hayden Planetarium and host of the wildly popular television series "Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey." 

"My favorite equation of Einstein's is when he derived the stimulated emission of radiation," deGrasse Tyson said during the annual Isaac Asimov Memorial Debate in 2012. "We study that in astrophysics and that's the equation that enables the construction of lasers."

Each year, the American Museum of Natural History — in memory of American author Isaac Asimov — brings together some of the world's greatest minds, which in 2012 included Nobel laureate Sheldon Glashow, to discuss a complex scientific topic.

During the Isaac Asimov Memorial Debate in 2012, which discussed whether certain particles can travel faster than light, the esteemed guests addressed some of Einstein's most fundamental equations including the Special and General Theories of Relativity.

Since they were on the topic of equations, deGrasse Tyson shared his favorite equation of Einstein's — an equation that today supports a multi-billion dollar industry involving barcode scanners, laser eye surgery, and DVD electronics.

The word "laser" began as an acronym for Light Amplification by Stimulated Emission of Radiation. Stimulated emission is a special way in which atoms can make identical particles of light that Einstein first predicted in 1917. But it wasn't until the the late '50s when physicists actually built the first lasers.

Below is a schematic of how stimulated emission works. It starts when a particle of light called a photon interacts with an excited electron (the green dot). As a result of this interaction, the electron loses energy, shown in the middle portion of this diagram, and in-so-doing the electron emits another photon identical to the first photon:

stimulated emission


DeGrasse Tyson uses this example during the debate to emphasize the importance of "basic research" that might not necessarily have any immediate application but could set the stage for future, fundamental technology.

Check out the full debate in the video below:

READ MORE: Four ways to break the universe's speed limit

SEE ALSO: The physics of Mario World show the game has a fundamental flaw

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Strange 'iron rain' might explain why the Earth and the moon are so different


view of Earth from Moon

New experiments show that the asteroids that slammed into Earth and the moon more than 4 billion years ago were vaporised into a mist of iron.

The findings, published in Nature Geoscience, suggest that the iron mist thrown up from the high velocity impacts of these asteroids travelled fast enough to escape the moon's gravity, but stayed gravitationally stuck on more massive Earth. And these results may help explain why the chemistry of the Earth and the moon differ.

When and how Earth's metallic core formed is uncertain. Clues come from known differences in the preferences of certain elements incorporated in the silicate mantle or the metal core. In a mixture of silicate rock and iron metal, the atoms of certain elements, such as gold and platinum, tend to prefer to enter the metal, while others, such as hafnium, prefer the silicate.

As Earth's iron-rich core formed it "sucked" the metal-loving elements out of the planet's rocky mantle. However, measurements of the silicate mantle by James Day have previously shown that there are more of them left in the shallower Earth than would be expected. This has often been attributed to a late veneer of asteroids that delivered an extra dose of metal-loving elements to the rocky mantle.

Z Machine

One problem with this picture has been that the abundance of the metal-loving elements on Earth is ten to a hundred times greater than that measured on the moon, which should by this argument have the same veneer. The chemical difference between Earth and the moon has been perplexing, and casts a shadow over the prevalent idea that the moon formed from the same stuff as Earth after an impact from a Mars-sized planet early in the history of the Solar System.

Mighty Earth attracts more metal

The new paper seems to reconcile these differences. The experiment relied on Sandia National Laboratory's "Z-machine": a huge electromagnetic gun — twice as powerful as the world's total generating capacity — that can launch projectiles into iron targets at ultra-high velocity.

The impact experiments by Richard Kraus and colleagues show that iron vaporises under the conditions created when an asteroid crashes into Earth or the moon. A cloud of iron mist will have wrapped around the globe after any such collision, falling to Earth as metal rain. These well-mixed droplets will have become incorporated into the mantle, delivering the excess metal-loving chemicals.

The same experiments, however, indicate that the velocity of the iron rain droplets will have been greater than the escape velocity on the moon, but below that of Earth. Earth would therefore have captured the metal cores of colliding asteroids, while the moon will have failed to. William Anderson of Los Alamos National Laboratory, US, said: "The moon may have received, but not retained, a significant portion of the late veneer."

The results could imply that models for estimating the time scales of Earth's core formation could be out by as much as a factor of ten, with the core forming much earlier in Earth's history than previously recognised.

The Conversation

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How geysers shoot thousands of gallons of boiling water hundreds of feet in the air



Like a hidden world of chutes and ladders, the loopy plumbing beneath geysers may explain what causes them to erupt, a new study finds. This finding could settle a long-standing debate over the workings of geysers.

Geysers erupt — sending steam and hot water hundreds of feet into the air, and often releasing a frightening screech and the stench of rotten eggs — because of a series of loops and side chambers hidden deep below the surface that allows water to boil first at the top and then cascade downward, the study found. [Watch Rare Eruption of the World's Tallest Geyser | Video]

Less than 1,000 geysers exist worldwide, according to the study. Half of them are located in Yellowstone National Park, drawing more than 3 million tourists each year. There's no doubt that they have long captivated their audience. But despite the predictability of some geysers (like Old Faithful, in Yellowstone), they have long baffled research scientists.

To better understand the system hidden deep below the surface, Michael Manga, a researcher at the University of California, Berkeley, has spent years studying geysers in Chile and Yellowstone National Park. "We're trying to understand first, why do geysers exist?" Manga said. "Why don't they just continually emit water, like a spring?"

In 2012, Manga and his colleagues closely examined the inner workings of a geyser in Chile known as El Jefe, where water boils at 187 degrees Fahrenheit (86 degrees Celsius). Because the geyser erupts every 132 seconds like clockwork, the researchers recorded 3,600 eruptions over six days.

geyserBy placing temperature and pressure sensors as deep as 30 feet (9 meters) into the geyser, as well as submerging video cameras as deep as 6 feet (1.8 m) below the surface, the team was able to gain a better understanding of what was happening underground prior to an eruption. [See Photos of Amazing Geysers from Manga's Trip]

Then, the researchers correlated their underground measurements with external measurements. They used seismic sensors and instruments called tiltmeters to measure precisely how the ground shakes and rumbles during an eruption. They recorded how high the geyser shot water into the air each time and even measured the massive sound produced by small bubbles growing and collapsing in the air.

Manga and his students were able to use the images to recreate a model of El Jefe via a loop-de-loop apparatus in the lab. At the bottom of the device, there's a hot plate to simulate the hot rock deep underground. This heats liquid in a glass tube, allowing it to erupt periodically — though it doesn't erupt as regularly as the real one, nor is it accompanied by that awful smell.

Fly geyser in Black Rock Desert, NevadaThey found that geysers seem to require a "special geology where steam can accumulate," Manga told Live Science. Specifically, they found a series of loops and side chambers hidden deep below the surface that allows water to boil first at the top. This boiling reduces pressure on the water below, allowing that water to boil as well. As such, the column boils from the top downward, spewing water and steam hundreds of feet into the air.

Although Robert Bunsen — the first geologist to take pressure and temperature measurements inside a geyser, in Iceland —was the first to postulate this pattern in 1846, subsequent studies at Yellowstone and elsewhere, found the opposite, Manga said. "There has been controversy in the literature about whether boiling [first] happens at the top or bottom," he said. [Infographic: Geology of Yellowstone]

The new research finally settles the controversy, demonstrating that water does, in fact, boil from the top downward. And it's those small nooks and crannies in the underground plumbing that first trap steam before bubbling it out slowly to heat the water column above.

There are still basic questions the team has yet to answer, however, like why some geysers are so faithful. Natural geysers are very complicated. "There are all kinds of pathways and cracks, all kinds of places where steam can accumulate," Manga said. The environmental conditions are changing, and yet the geysers are perfectly regular.

"Geysers come in a wide range of flavors and sizes and styles," Manga said. Some geysers interact with one another in peculiar ways; some geysers are sensitive to earthquakes hundreds of miles away (while others are not), and some even soak up water from underground magma, Manga said. He is planning to take his next trip to Yellowstone this fall, and he hopes further measurements will help shed light on the mysterious geological processes hidden deep below the surface.

The study was published in the February 2015 issue of the Journal of Volcanology and Geothermal Research.


Follow Shannon Hall on Twitter @ShannonWHall. Follow Live Science @livescience, Facebook& Google+. Original article on Live Science.

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This laser etching on a human hair is mind-blowing


What better way to build your brand than to etch your emblem into a human hair? That's exactly what scientists at IBM have done using a powerful type of laser called an excimer laser.

The average human hair is about 100 micrometers thick. That's really thin. So, thin, in fact, that if you stacked 254 human hairs one on top of the other, your stack would only be one inch high.

And the laser that IBM scientists used was so precise that, on that 100 micrometer strip, they were able to etch the letters I, B, and M not once, but twice!

laser-etched hair

These powerful lasers are used for certain surgeries that require a high-level of precision, like eye-laser surgery, because they can make clean, narrow cuts in human tissue, as evidence in the impressive image shown above.

The first people to recognize this potential in the early 1980s were IBM scientists Rangaswamy Srinivasan, Samuel Blum and James Wynne. For their discovery, the three scientists were elected to the National Inventors Hall of Fame in 2002.

This image is included in the image gallery for this year's March meeting hosted by the American Physical Society, where James Wynne spoke at a Thursday session about his history with lasers at IBM.

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String theory is one step closer to uniting 2 fundamental elements of physics


string theory

Thirty years have passed since a pair of physicists, working together on a stormy summer night in Aspen, Colo., realized that string theory might have what it takes to be the “theory of everything.”

“We must be getting pretty close,” Michael Greenrecalls telling John Schwarz as the thunder raged and they hammered away at a proof of the theory’s internal consistency, “because the gods are trying to prevent us from completing this calculation.”

Their mathematics that night suggested that all phenomena in nature, including the seemingly irreconcilable forces of gravity and quantum mechanics, could arise from the harmonics of tiny, vibrating loops of energy, or “strings.” The work touched off a string theory revolution and spawned a generation of specialists who believed they were banging down the door of the ultimate theory of nature. But today, there’s still no answer. Because the strings that are said to quiver at the core of elementary particles are too small to detect — probably ever — the theory cannot be experimentally confirmed. Nor can it be disproven: Almost any observed feature of the universe jibes with the strings’ endless repertoire of tunes.

The publication of Green and Schwarz’s paper“was 30 years ago this month,” the string theorist and popular-science author Brian Greene wrote in Smithsonian Magazine in January, “making the moment ripe for taking stock: Is string theory revealing reality’s deep laws? Or, as some detractors have claimed, is it a mathematical mirage that has sidetracked a generation of physicists?” Greene had no answer, expressing doubt that string theory will “confront data” in his lifetime.

Recently, however, some string theorists have started developing a new tactic that gives them hope of someday answering these questions. Lacking traditional tests, they are seeking validation of string theory by a different route. Using a strange mathematical dictionary that translates between laws of gravity and those of quantum mechanics, the researchers have identified properties called “consistency conditions” that they say any theory combining quantum mechanics and gravity must meet. And in certain highly simplified imaginary worlds, they claim to have found evidence that the only consistent theories of “quantum gravity” involve strings.

According to many researchers, the work provides weak but concrete support for the decades-old suspicion that string theory may be the only mathematically consistent theory of quantum gravity capable of reproducing gravity’s known form on the scale of galaxies, stars and planets, as captured by Albert Einstein’s theory of general relativity. And if string theory is the only possible approach, then its proponents say it must be true — with or without physical evidence. String theory, by this account, is “the only game in town.”

“Proving that a big class of stringlike models are the only things consistent with general relativity and quantum mechanics would be a way, to some extent, of confirming it,” said Tom Hartman, a theoretical physicist at Cornell University who has been following the recent work.

If they are successful, the researchers acknowledge that such a proof will be seen as controversial evidence that string theory is correct. “‘Correct’ is a loaded word,” saidMukund Rangamani, a professor at Durham University in the United Kingdom and the co-author of a paper posted recently to the physics preprint site arXiv.org that finds evidence of “string universality” in a class of imaginary universes.

StringSo far, the theorists have shown that string theory is the only “game” meeting certain conditions in “towns” wildly different from our universe, but they are optimistic that their techniques will generalize to somewhat more realistic physical worlds. “We will continue to accumulate evidence for the ‘string universality’ conjecture in different settings and for different classes of theories,” said Alex Maloney, a professor of physics at McGill University in Montreal and co-author of another recent paper touting evidence for the conjecture, “and eventually a larger picture will become clear.”

Meanwhile, outside experts caution against jumping to conclusions based on the findings to date. “It’s clear that these papers are an interesting attempt,” said Matt Strassler, a visiting professor at Harvard University who has worked on string theory and particle physics. “But these aren’t really proofs; these are arguments. They are calculations, but there are weasel words in certain places.”

Proponents of string theory’s rival, an underdog approach called “loop quantum gravity,” believe that the work has little to teach us about the real world. “They should try to solve the problems of their theory, which are many,” said Carlo Rovelli, a loop quantum gravity researcher at the Center for Theoretical Physics in Marseille, France, “instead of trying to score points by preaching around that they are ‘the only game in town.’”

Mystery Theory

Over the past century, physicists have traced three of the four forces of nature — strong, weak and electromagnetic — to their origins in the form of elementary particles. Only gravity remains at large. Albert Einstein, in his theory of general relativity, cast gravity as smooth curves in space and time: An apple falls toward the Earth because the space-time fabric warps under the planet’s weight. This picture perfectly captures gravity on macroscopic scales.

But in small enough increments, space and time lose meaning, and the laws of quantum mechanics — in which particles have no definite properties like “location,” only probabilities — take over. Physicists use a mathematical framework called quantum field theory to describe the probabilistic interactions between particles. A quantum theory of gravity would describe gravity’s origin in particles called “gravitons” and reveal how their behavior scales up to produce the space-time curves of general relativity. But unifying the laws of nature in this way has proven immensely difficult.

String theory first arose in the 1960s as a possible explanation for why elementary particles called quarks never exist in isolation but instead bind together to form protons, neutrons and other composite “hadrons.” The theory held that quarks are unable to pull apart because they form the ends of strings rather than being free-floating points. But the argument had a flaw: While some hadrons do consist of pairs of quarks and anti-quarks and plausibly resemble strings, protons and neutrons contain three quarks apiece, invoking the ugly and uncertain picture of a string with three ends. Soon, a different theory of quarks emerged. But ideas die hard, and some researchers, including Green, then at the University of London, and Schwarz, at the California Institute of Technology, continued to develop string theory.

Problems quickly stacked up. For the strings’ vibrations to make physical sense, the theory calls for many more spatial dimensions than the length, width and depth of everyday experience, forcing string theorists to postulate that six extra dimensions must be knotted up at every point in the fabric of reality, like the pile of a carpet. And because each of the innumerable ways of knotting up the extra dimensions corresponds to a different macroscopic pattern, almost any discovery made about our universe can seem compatible with string theory, crippling its predictive power. Moreover, as things stood in 1984, all known versions of string theory included a nonsensical mathematical term known as an “anomaly.”

String TheoryOn the plus side, researchers realized that a certain vibration mode of the string fit the profile of a graviton, the coveted quantum purveyor of gravity. And on that stormy night in Aspen in 1984, Green and Schwarz discovered that the graviton contributed a term to the equations that, for a particular version of string theory, exactly canceled out the problematic anomaly. The finding raised the possibility that this version was the one, true, mathematically consistent theory of quantum gravity, and it helped usher in a surge of activity known as the “first superstring revolution.”

But only a year passed before another version of string theory was also certified anomaly-free. In all, five consistent string theories were discovered by the end of the decade. Some conceived of particles as closed strings, others described them as open strings with dangling ends, and still others generalized the concept of a string to higher-dimensional objects known as “D-branes,” which resemble quivering membranes in any number of dimensions. Five string theories seemed an embarrassment of riches.

edward wittenThe next major breakthrough came in 1995, when Edward Witten of the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, N.J., argued in a famous lecture that all five string theories were mathematically connected and must be pieces of the same all-encompassing master theory. Witten named it M-theory. The M seems to have originally referred to membranes, but Witten has intimated that the true meaning of Mawaits a better understanding of the theory, which seems to surpass the sum of its known parts. “There was a running joke that it stood for ‘mystery,’” said Steve Carlip, a quantum gravity specialist at the University of California, Davis. Whatever M stands for, this mother of all manifestations of string theory restored the dream of unification.

Edward Witten giving a lecture in 1995 during which he argued that the five known string theories are different pieces of a single master framework, later dubbed “M-theory.”

“People had spent decades studying different types of string theories and found there were only a few consistent ones and they were the same thing,” Strassler said. “You could say, maybe that’s the only thing that can exist. Maybe there’s only one quantum gravity theory, and M-theory is it.”

Fisheye Universes

Two years after Witten’s proposal of M-theory, the Argentinian-American physicist Juan Maldacena found yet another surprising relationship, this time between strings and point particles. Maldacena’s work suggested that under certain conditions, a theory that includes gravity, be it string theory or otherwise, can be directly translated into a quantum field theory that does not have gravity.

In the theory’s simplest manifestation, the “certain conditions” require an imaginary landscape known as anti-de Sitter (AdS) space, which resembles graph paper viewed through a fisheye lens, with the squares getting smaller and smaller toward the boundary. A theory that describes how gravity works in an AdS space can be translated into an equivalent “conformal field theory” (CFT) representing point particles on that universe’s boundary. This connection enables researchers to study quantum gravity by probing the corresponding CFT. For example, they can play around with CFTs to calculate properties of quantum gravity theories in “AdS3” space — a fisheye universe with two spatial dimensions plus time. “The goal of finding quantum gravity in AdS3 could be translated into finding the right conformal field theory,” said Rangamani.

In the two most recent papers, posted within days of each other in December, separate groups led by Rangamani and Maloney set out to study the fundamental objects (whether they be strings or otherwise) in a class of simple AdS3 universes. They found that as these universes get extremely hot, the objects within them will go through an exponentially increasing number of possible “states.”

This behavior is exactly what one would expect if strings were the fundamental objects in these universes. A hotter universe allows strings to vibrate and arrange themselves in new ways, and so a hot, stringy universe will have lots of states. Point particles, by contrast, exhibit far less variety at high temperatures. “We’re getting a stringy number of states,” said Christoph Keller, a postdoctoral fellow in physics at Rutgers University and co-author of one paper with Maloney and Alex Belin. “In principle it’s conceivable there’s another theory out there that isn’t string theory that also has a lot of states. We don’t know any such example.”

Some argue that this orchestra of states at high temperatures strengthens the case for the universality of string or “stringlike” quantum gravity theories in AdS3. “No one is going so far as saying that string theory is the only thing that can come out of these consistency conditions, but there’s evidence that it’s stringlike stuff,” Hartman said.

The “weasel words” in the authors’ arguments, according to Strassler, skirt around the fact that they did not calculate the exact density of states in some of the more complicated cases but merely showed that the number was higher than expected for a universe composed of point particles. “And just finding a stringy density of states — I don’t know if there’s a proof in that,” Strassler said. “This is just one property.”

Meanwhile, loop quantum gravity researchers object to the very premise that the results about AdS3 give any hint whatsoever about the nature of quantum gravity in our own universe. They note that the AdS/CFT correspondence itself has not been proven — it is only a conjecture (albeit one with wide support). More importantly, AdS space differs greatly from flat space, and universes with two spatial dimensions are far simpler than those with three. “The world is not 2+1-dimensional,” said Lee Smolin, a founding and senior faculty member at the Perimeter Institute in Waterloo, Ontario, and one of the founders of loop quantum gravity. “And even in that case, there have existed for a long time counterexamples to the string universality conjecture, in the form of completely worked out formulations of quantum gravity which have nothing to do with string theory.” (String theorists argue that these particular 2+1 gravity theories differ from quantum gravity in the real world in an important way.)

Mukund Rangamani, left, and Felix Haehl of Durham University have argued that all consistent quantum gravity theories in certain two-dimensional universes are stringlike theories.

Yet researchers have also applied the AdS/CFT correspondence to quantum gravity in AdS4 — a fisheye universe, but one with the same number of dimensions as our own. In 2011, Maldacena, now a professor at the Institute for Advanced Study, and his student at the time, Alexander Zhiboedov, found evidence that string theories are the only quantum gravity theories with a particular feature that reproduce general relativity at large scales. The researchers went further in a 2014 paper, arguing that in any number of dimensions and space-time geometries, only theories with a certain stringlike property satisfy causality, or the notion that causes precede effects. “This is what you would expect based on the hypothesis that string theory is the only game in town,” said Zhiboedov, who is now a postdoctoral researcher at Harvard University.

The results to date appear to support the existence of “stringlike” theories, at least circumstantially. According to string theorists, stringlike theories seem somewhat likely to be string theories, as it’s difficult to picture an object that vibrates like a string but isn’t one. But then, what counts as string theory, anyway? What is M-theory? Critics have pointed out that no one knows how to use M-theory to answer all the questions one can ask about quantum gravity, or to show how nature works in all situations. String theorists might become convinced that they’re banging on the right door, without learning what, exactly, lies behind it.

So far, they have picked and chosen special, mathematically tractable testing grounds for their calculations. “There’s nothing wrong with that,” said Carlip, who considers himself a “nonaligned” quantum gravity specialist. In experimental physics, “you do the experiments you can do and not the ones you can’t.” The question, Carlip said, is “to what extent the results are general properties of quantum gravity, and to what extent they are the result of these particular simplifications.”

String theorists seem to expect that stringy results will keep appearing when they apply the AdS/CFT tool to more general classes of imaginary worlds. (They say they would be equally excited to find evidence against string universality.) A full proof that every theory of quantum gravity in AdS space is a theory with strings would be, according to Maloney, “extremely strong evidence” that the same is true in geometrically flat universes like ours.

Proof in flat universes will require completely new tools, however. Our universe does not have a spatial boundary as AdS space does; its boundary lies at the future end of time. The development of an AdS/CFT-like tool for our universe’s geometry remains in its infancy. The road to a full proof — or refutation — of string universality is long. Right now, Zhiboedov said, “this is a belief, a dream, an expectation. It’s a feeling based on work in this field.”

Correction: This article was revised on February 21, 2015, to correct Lee Smolin’s title. He is a founding and senior faculty member at the Perimeter Institute in Waterloo, Ontario.

Note: This article was updated on March 1, 2015, to provide additional context about 2+1 quantum gravity theories.

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Einstein’s famous theory of general relativity turns 100 this year — here’s why it’s still a fundamental part of physics


general relativity

Albert Einstein's theory of general relativity has held up pretty well after a century out in the world.

The famous theory, which Einstein published in 1915, remains the bedrock upon which scientists' understanding of the origin and evolution of the universe rests. It continues to inspire research into some of the most fundamental unanswered questions in physics and astronomy.

General relativity"is now, I think, routinely accepted as the foundation of our description of the universe at large, which we call cosmology; of black holes, of neutron stars and of small corrections to the orbits of planets and spacecraft in our own solar system," said Roger Blandford of the Kavli Institute for Particle Astrophysics and Cosmology at Stanford University. [Einstein's Theory of General Relativity Explained (Infographic)]

The nature of gravity

General relativity adds gravity to the theory of special relativity, which Einstein published in 1905. Special relativity posits that the laws of physics are the same for all nonaccelerating observers, and that the speed of light in a vacuum never changes, even if the observer or the light source is moving.

Special relativity laid out the relationship between energy and mass, in history's most famous equation: E = mc2. ("E" is energy; "m" is mass, and "c" is the speed of light in a vacuum — roughly 671 million mph, or 1.08 billion km/h). The theory also unified space and time into a four-dimensional "space-time."

albert einsteinGeneral relativity expanded on this latter idea, explaining that matter warps space-time, much as a bowling ball set down on a bed creates a depression in the sheets. This monumental insight did not come to Albert Einstein easily; he earned his way to it, over a decade of intense thought and hard work.

"He had to retrace his steps. He proposed things which he subsequently retracted. But he kept on going," Blandford told Space.com. "He was guided not by mathematical ideas or mathematical techniques. He was guided first and foremost by physics intuition; that extraordinarily powerful physics intuition which had served him so well in the past did not let him down here."

General relativity characterizes gravity not as an innate force acting on objects but rather the consequence of space-time's curvature. (Imagine a marble rolling down the incline created by the bowling ball on the bed.)

It's a powerful, radical idea — and it has stood up to intense scrutiny for a century now, Blandford writes in a special review article published online today (March 5) in the journal Science.

Confirmation from many quarters

General relativity predicts that light will take a curved path around a massive object such as a galaxy cluster, which warps the fabric of space-time significantly. [The History & Structure of the Universe (Infographic)]

This has indeed been observed; astronomers routinely use "gravitational lenses" to study faraway light sources. In fact, on a smaller scale, the phenomenon even helps planet hunters search for worlds beyond Earth's solar system. (Exoplanets can sometimes be detected by studying how their star systems bend light from background objects.)

Peculiarities in the orbit of Mercury around the sun also back up general relativity.

"It explained the anomalous precession of Mercury's perihelion, or the rotation of the line joining the sun to the point of closest approach of the planet," Blandford writes in the Science review article. "Einstein used general relativity to explain a ~10 percent discrepancy in the precession attributable to the gravitational pulls of the other planets, ~43 arc sec per century. The agreement today is better than 10−4."

Other types of observational evidence have also helped put general relativity on firm footing, Blandford said.

"We've tested it in many, many different ways," he said. "I think it's fair to say that there's no credible measurement or observation that causes one to doubt it within its domain of applicability."

A dark universe

General relativity also implies that the vast majority of the universe is composed of stuff that humans cannot detect directly or (at this point) even understand, David Spergel of Princeton University writes in another review article in the same issue of Science.

Careful study of the motion of matter and light throughout the universe has revealed that "normal" matter alone cannot explain space-time's curvature patterns, Spergel notes. Indeed, observations suggest that just 5 percent of the universe is familiar atomic matter, while 25 percent is dark matter and about 70 percent is dark energy.

dark matterDark matter neither emits nor absorbs light, betraying its existence only through its gravitational effects. Dark energy, meanwhile, is a mysterious force that's associated with empty space and is thought to be responsible for the accelerating expansion of the universe.

In 1917, Einstein inserted a term called the "cosmological constant" into general relativity, as a repulsive force that would counteract gravity and achieve a static universe (which was the prevailing view of the universe's nature at the time). After astronomer Edwin Hubble's observations in 1929 famously showed that the universe is actually expanding, Einstein dropped the cosmological constant, allegedly deeming it the "biggest blunder" of his life.

But the constant looks prescient now that astronomers are grappling with the nature of dark energy.

"Why is the universe accelerating? The most studied possibility is that the cosmological constant (or equivalently, the vacuum energy of empty space) is driving cosmic acceleration,"Spergel writes in the Science article. "Another possibility is that there is an evolving scalar field that fills space (like the Higgs field or the inflaton field that drove the rapid early expansion of the universe). Both of these possibilities are lumped together in 'dark energy.'

"Because all of the evidence for dark energy uses the equations of general relativity to interpret our observations of the universe's expansion and evolution, an alternative conclusion is that a new theory of gravity is needed to explain the observations," he adds. "Possibilities include modified gravity theories with extra dimensions."

The future

General relativity should continue to shape the efforts of physicists, cosmologists and astronomers far into the future, Blandford said.

For example, researchers will keep using the theory to gain a better understanding of black holes, neutron stars and other celestial bodies and phenomena. Scientists will also continue probing the nature of dark energy and dark matter, in an effort to understand the universe at the broadest scales.

Finally, and perhaps most excitingly, researchers will keep trying to unify general relativity with quantum mechanics, to marry the world of the very large with that of the very small. This grand and longed-for "theory of everything" has eluded physicists thus far, but Blandford said he thinks it's achievable.

"There are many exciting ideas there," he said. "I'll be an optimist and hope that my colleagues can pull this off."

Follow Mike Wall on Twitter @michaeldwall and Google+. Follow us @Spacedotcom, Facebook or Google+. Originally published on Space.com.

Copyright 2015 SPACE.com, a Purch company. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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This space rocket will ‘take off’ from Times Square every night in March


Created by artist Marco Brambilla, Apollo XVIII presents the countdown to an imagined lift-off of a Saturn V rocket across Times Square’s spectacular screens at midnight. The fictional mission combines virtual renderings with real and archival footage to present a new collective viewing experience that will place the public at the foot of a new frontier. The presentation is a part of Midnight Moment, a monthly presentation by The Times Square Advertising Coalition (TSAC) and Times Square Arts.

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Physicists are searching for ‘gravity particles’ that could help unite all of physics


gravity waves

It may be possible to draw energy from a vacuum using gravity, a theoretical physicist says.

If researchers succeed in showing that this can happen, it could prove the long-postulated existence of the graviton, the particle of gravity, and perhaps bring scientists one step closer to developing a "theory of everything" that can explain how the universe works from its smallest to largest scales.

The new research specifically found that it might be possible to show that gravitons do exist by using superconducting plates to measure a phenomenon with the esoteric name of "the gravitational Casimir effect."

"The most exciting thing about these results is that they can be tested with current technology," study author James Quach, a theoretical physicist at the University of Tokyo, told Live Science.

Showing that gravitons exist would help scientists who have long sought to develop a "theory of everything" that can describe the workings of the cosmos in its entirety. Currently, they use the theory of quantum mechanics to explain the universe at its tiniest level, and the theory of general relativity to explain the universe at its largest level. Whereas quantum mechanics can explain the behavior of all the known particles, general relativity describes the nature of space-time and gravity.

Quantum mechanics suggests that particles — including the elusive graviton — can behave both like a particle and a wave.

But quantum mechanics also reveals that the world becomes a fuzzy, surreal place at its very smallest levels. For instance, atoms and other fundamental building blocks of the universe actually exist in states of flux known as "superpositions," meaning they can seemingly be located two or more places at once, or spin in opposite directions at the same time. [Wacky Physics: The Coolest Particles in Nature]

Since quantum mechanics suggests that any given particle may not be where one thinks, but rather could essentially be anywhere, one of the many weird consequences of this theory is that what might seem like vacuum (completely empty space) may actually contain "virtual particles" that regularly pop in and out of existence. These ghostly entities are more than just theory — they can generate measurable forces.

The Casimir effect is one such force, and it can be measured as the attraction or repulsion force between two mirrors that are placed a few nanometers (billionths of a meter) apart in vacuum. The reflective surfaces may actually move, because of virtual photons or packets of light that appear and disappear from the vacuum between the mirrors.

In principle, the Casimir effect can hold true not just for photons, but gravity particles as well, meaning that gravitons could appear and disappear from the vacuum between the mirrors. By detecting this effect, researchers could therefore prove that gravitons exist. In turn, the existence of gravitons would show that gravity has a quantum nature, capable of behaving as both a particle and wave. This would be a major step in reconciling quantum mechanics with general relativity.

Such a "gravitational Casimir effect" is difficult to detect because ordinary matter, like the stuff normal mirrors are made of, does not reflect gravitons nearly as well as it reflects light. However, recent theoretical studies suggest that superconductors can reflect gravitons, Quach said.

Superconductors are materials that conduct electricity with zero resistance. In superconductors, electrons condense into what is known as a quantum fluid that can flow without dissipating energy.

In ordinary materials, the negatively charged electrons and the positively charged atomic nuclei or ions they belong to are generally thought to move together along the same trajectories or "geodesics" in space-time. However, in a superconductor, prior studies have suggested that the quantum fluid made of the electrons in the superconductor does not necessarily have to move together with the ions in the superconductor, Quach said.

Still, the negatively charged electrons and the positively charged ions in the superconductor will attract each other. When incoming gravitons attempt to force the electrons and ions to move along different paths, the attraction between the electrons and the ions may keep them together, potentially causing any gravitons to get reflected off them, Quach said.

In ordinary matter, the gravitational Casimir effect is too weak to detect, exerting only a hundredth of a billionth of a trillionth of a trillionth of the amount of pressure exerted by Earth's atmosphere at sea level. In contrast, using superconductors, if the gravitational Casimir effect is real, it may exert a force about 10 times stronger than any expected from virtual photons, Quach said.

It remains unknown whether superconductors can reflect gravitational waves in the real world. "This is still only a theory, and until there is experimental evidence, we should not take it for fact," Quach said. Still, "I am hoping to conduct this experiment," he added.

Although the Casimir effect does essentially harvest energy from vacuum, Quach noted this does not mean vacuum energy is a practical way to power the world.

"The Casimir effect is very, very small," Quach said. "It takes a lot of effort to detect it, let alone use it as an energy source."

Quach detailed his findings online Feb. 25 in the journal Physical Review Letters.


Follow Live Science @livescience, Facebook& Google+. Original article on Live Science.

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Here's what happens when you put general relativity to the test


sunrise over earth

A century ago this year, a young Swiss physicist, who had already revolutionized physics with discoveries about the relationship between space and time, developed a radical new understanding of gravity.

In 1915, Albert Einstein published his general theory of relativity, which described gravity as a fundamental property of space-time. He came up with a set of equations that relate the curvature of space-time to the energy and momentum of the matter and radiation that are present in a particular region.

Today, 100 years later, Einstein's theory of gravitation remains a pillar of modern understanding, and has withstood all the tests that scientists could throw at it. But until recently, it wasn't possible to do experiments to probe the theory under extreme conditions to see whether it breaks down. [6 Weird Facts About Gravity]

Now, scientists have the technology to begin looking for evidence that could reveal physics beyond general relativity.

"To me, it is absolutely amazing how well general relativity has done after 100 years," said Clifford Will, a theoretical physicist at the University of Florida in Gainesville. "What he wrote down is the same thing we use today," Will told Live Science.

A new view of gravity

General relativity describes gravity not as a force, as the physicist Isaac Newton thought of it, but rather as a curvature of space and time due to the mass of objects, Will said. The reason Earth orbits the sun is not because the sun attracts Earth, but instead because the sun warps space-time, he said. (This is a bit like the way a bowling ball on an outstretched blanket would warp the blanket's shape.)

Einstein's theory made some pretty wild predictions, including the possibility of black holes, which would warp space-time to such a degree that nothing inside — not even light — could escape. The theory also provides the foundation for the currently accepted view that the universe is expanding, and also accelerating.

General relativity has been confirmed through numerous observations. Einstein himself famously used the theory to predict the orbital motion of the planet Mercury, which Newton's laws cannot accurately describe. Einstein's theory also predicted that an object that was massive enough could bend light itself, an effect known as gravitational lensing, which astronomers have frequently observed. For example, the effect can be used to find exoplanets, based on slight deviations in the light of a distant object being bent by the star the planet is orbiting.

But while there hasn't been "a shred of evidence" that there's anything wrong with the theory of general relativity, "it's important to test the theory in regimes where it hasn't been tested before," Will told Live Science.

Testing Einstein's theory

general relativityGeneral relativity works very well for gravity of ordinary strength, the variety experienced by humans on Earth or by planets as they orbit the sun. But it's never been tested in extremely strong fields, regions that lie at the boundaries of physics. [The 9 Biggest Unsolved Mysteries in Physics]

The best prospect for testing the theory in these realms is to look for ripples in space-time, known as gravitational waves. These can be produced by violent events such as the merging of two massive bodies, such as black holes or extremely dense objects called neutron stars.

These cosmic fireworks would produce only the tiniest blip in space-time. For instance, such an event could alter a seemingly static distance on Earth. If, say, two black holes collided and merged in the Milky Way galaxy, the gravitational waves produced would stretch and compress two objects on Earth that were separated by 3.3 feet (1 meter) by one-thousandth the diameter of an atomic nucleus, Will said. 

Yet there are now experiments out there that could potentially detect space-time ripples from these types of events.

"There's a very good chance we will be detecting [gravitational waves] directly in the next couple of years," Will said.

The Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO), with facilities near Richland, Washington, and Livingston, Louisiana, uses lasers to detect miniscule distortions in two long, L-shaped detectors. As space-time ripples pass through the detectors, the ripples stretch and compress space, which can change the length of the detector in a way that LIGO can measure.

LIGO began operations in 2002 and has not detected any gravitational waves; in 2010, it went offline for upgrades, and its successor, known as Advanced LIGO, is scheduled to boot up again later this year. A host of other experiments also aim to detect gravitational waves.

Another way to test general relativity in extreme regimes would be to look at the properties of gravitational waves. For example, gravitational waves can be polarized, just like light as it passes through a pair of polarized sunglasses. General relativity makes predictions about this polarization, so "anything that deviates from [these predictions] would be bad" for the theory, Will said.

A unified understanding

If scientists do detect gravitational waves, however, Will expects it will only bolster Einstein's theory. "My opinion is, we're going to keep proving general relativity to be right," he said.

So why bother doing these experiments at all?

One of the most enduring goals of physics is the quest for a theory that unites general relativity, the science of the macroscopic world, and quantum mechanics, the realm of the very small. Yet finding such a theory, known as quantum gravity, may require some modifications to general relativity, Will said.

It's possible that any experiment capable of detecting the effects of quantum gravity would require so much energy as to be practically impossible, Will said. "But you never know — there may be some strange effect from the quantum world that is tiny but detectable."

Follow Tanya Lewis on Twitter. Follow us @livescienceFacebook & Google+. Original article on Live Science.

Copyright 2015 LiveScience, a Purch company. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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Here's how proving supersymmetry could completely change how we understand the universe



The $10 billion, 17-mile-long Large Hadron Collider (LHC) has laid dormant for two years while engineers revamped it to hurl particles at even greater speeds. Physicists think the near-light-speed collisions could reveal a whole suite of new particles that would backup one of the most elusive theories in physics: supersymmetry.

Right now a theory called the standard model is the reigning theory of particle physics. It does a great job of explaining how the basic building blocks of matter interact to create the universe we see around us.

The standard model is the best description that we have, but it's far from perfect.

An incomplete theory

The standard model came together in the 1970s. It's a set of equations that describe how all known fundamental particles interact with the four fundamental forces: strong force, weak force, electromagnetism, and gravity.

"There are clearly some things the standard model can't explain," George Redlinger, a physicist at Brookhaven Lab that works on the LHC's ATLAS experiment, told Business Insider. "So we know it's not a complete theory."

The standard model does a great job of linking the first three of those four fundamental forces, but it leaves gravity out in the cold. Gravity is so weak that even a toy magnet can defeat it. The other three forces are much stronger. Gravity is still super important though, and Einstein's theory of general relativity describes how it behaves.

The standard model also can't account for the presence of a mysterious substance called dark matter that holds galaxies together. And it can't explain why there's so much more matter in the universe than antimatter, even though there should be an equal amount.

Supersymmetry is an extension of the standard model that could help fill in some of these shortcomings. It predicts that every particle in the standard model has a yet-to-be-discovered partner particle. That goes for even familiar particles like electrons. Supersymmetry predicts electrons have partners called "selectrons," that photons have partners called "photinos," and so on.

SUSY diagram, supersymmetry, particle fever

Here are all the shortcomings in physics that supersymmetry could fix:

1. Supersymmetry could explain why the Higgs boson is so light

Even though the standard model predicted the existence of the Higgs boson, its discovery threw a wrench into the theory. The Higgs that physicists observed in the LHC back in 2012 is much lighter than anyone had anticipated. The standard model predicts a Higgs boson trillions of times heavier than the one physicists observed during the LHC's first run, Don Lincoln, a physicist at Fermilab, said during an interview on Virtually Speaking Science.

higgs bosonAs a particle that gives all other particles their mass, the Higgs should be very heavy because it interacts with so many particles. The partner particles that supersymmetry predicts could fix this. If they exist, the extra particles would cancel out their partners' contribution to the Higgs mass. That would make the super light Higgs that we see possible.

This natural explanation is much more desirable than tweaking the existing standard model. When you're forced to tweak theories to explain what you actually observe, "that's a sign that you don't really know what you're doing," Lincoln said, and the theory is probably wrong or incomplete.

dark matter2. Supersymmetry could explain dark matter

Dark matter is the invisible and so far undetected force that makes up 27% of all the matter in the universe.

The lightest supersymmetric particle that the theory predicts could be the elusive dark matter particle that physicists have hunted for decades. Supersymmetry predicts the particle has a neutral charge, and barely interacts with any other particle. That description is exactly what physicists are looking for in a dark matter particle.

Dark matter is invisible, so the particles it's made of must be neutral or else they would scatter light and be visible. The particles must also barely interact with anything else or we would have detected it by now.

3. Supersymmetry would set us on the right track for a universal theory in physics

A chief goal in physics is to continually condense our understanding of the universe into simpler and simpler terms.

For example, we now understand that the gravity that caused Newton's apple to fall is the same gravity that governs the planets and stars. And we now know the laws of electricity and the laws of magnetism are just two laws that define the single fundamental force of electromagnetism.

If supersymmetric particles are included the standard model, it would tightly bond three of the four fundamental forces that the standard model describes: electromagnetism, strong force, and weak force. Supersymmetry would mean that all three of these forces would have the same strength at very high energy levels.

string theorySpecifically, supersymmetry could bolster string theory. Supersymmetry is often described as a stepping stone for string theory — for string theory to be possible, some version of supersymmetry has to exist.

String theory is one of the leading candidates for a "theory of everything" that could unite all of physics. However, testing for it has proven especially difficult.

"The kind of energies of the structures that string theory deals with are so high, we’ll probably never be able to reproduce them in the lab," Steven Weinberg told Quanta.

However, the discovery of supersymmetry would at least let champions of string theory know they're heading in the right direction.

So do physicists think we'll find evidence of supersymmetry?

Despite decades of searching, no one has found any evidence of supersymmetry. That timeline is typical of grand theories like this one though. For example, almost half a century passed between the time the Higgs boson was theorized and when it was actually discovered. So even though we haven't seen evidence yet, support for supersymmetry has remained strong.

"It's such a great idea, it probably has to be true," Redlinger said.

Still, the universe is in no way obligated to mirror our theories, no matter how perfect they may seem, Lincoln said. Many physicists say we should have already found evidence of these supersymmetric particles in the LHC's first run, so they've discounted the theory altogether.

But just because we haven't seen any supersymmetry particles, doesn't mean they're not there. There might be something about the way that supersymmetry manifests itself that we don't understand yet, Redlinger said. It might require an even more powerful collider for the partner particles to reveal themselves.

We won't know until the LHC turns back on. The revamped particle smasher will operate at 60% more power than before, going from 360 million collisions per second to 700 million collisions per second. If supersymmetry was just out of reach of the energy levels from the last run, then something spectacular could be in the very first data sets that the LHC collects this year.

Of course we might find nothing at all. And that would be transformative too, Redlinger said.

If supersymmetry is wrong, it will open the door to a whole new set of theories. It would also lend more credence to other theories, like the idea that we live in a multiverse, full of many different universes apart from the one in which we live.

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Here's what the world's most powerful physics lab will be looking for when it turns back on



By the end of March, an international team of physicists aims to awaken a monster machine from its two-year slumber and use it to hunt down one of the most elusive and mysterious particles in the universe: a dark matter particle.

The machine, called the Large Hadron Collider, is nestled underground in the suburbs of Geneva, and is the largest, most powerful particle physics accelerator in the world.

Inside the machine's long, underground, oval-shaped tunnel, physicists make subatomic particles like protons and neutrons move at nearly the speed of light. 

Typically, they point two beams of particles at each another, so that they smash into each other in cataclysmic, head-on collisions. These collisions generate hot clouds of debris that reach temperatures 100,000 times hotter than the center of the sun and can include new, never-before-seen particles.

Such was the case during the LHC's first run from 2009 through 2012, and now, after two years of heavy maintenance, the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN) is getting ready for round two. They plan to turn the LHC on sometime at the end of March (they haven't announced a set date) and then slowly ease up to maximum power over the next two months, according to a recent announcement from a panel of physicists during a press conference held Thursday, March 12.

Expectations are high for the LHC’s Run II. Afterall, the accelerator already has one Nobel Prize to its name. That prize was awarded in 2013 when the LHC detected a Higgs boson for the first time in history — after 50 years of searching. (You might know this particle by another name, the "God" particle, but never call it that in the presence of a physicist if you want their respect.)

The biggest scientific discovery of the 21st Century

higgs bosonThe detection of a Higgs boson is considered by some to be the biggest scientific discovery of the 21st Century, and for good reason. Higgs bosons come with what physicists call a Higgs field, which is responsible for giving all of the atoms in the universe, like the atoms that make up people, their mass.

If the LHC team had not found a Higgs boson, it would have left a gaping hole in physics theory. Because without this vital particle, physicists can’t explain how the universe developed objects like galaxies, stars, planets, and, ultimately, life.

With round two just around the corner, the LHC team’s goals are as lofty as ever.

"Now that they've produced a Higgs boson, number one on their list is dark matter," Michael S. Turner, Director of the Kavli Institute for Cosmological Physics, said during a Google Hangout on March 9.

The first light in the dark universe

dark matterFiguring out what dark matter is would be as much of an achievement as discovering a Higgs boson.

Right now, astrophysicists are at a real loss if you ask them what the universe is made of. A big chunk of it (26.8% to be exact), is composed of dark matter, which is inherently invisible and not well understood.

As far as astrophysicists can tell, dark matter is an exotic type of particle that doesn't interact with anything we can see. Because of this quality, it’s nearly impossible to detect. The only reason scientists are convinced dark matter exists at all is because of the gravitational influence it has on other objects, like galaxies and stars.

If dark matter is a type of particle, the LHC should be able to make one in much the same way that they made a Higgs boson — by smashing beams of particles together. And with its new upgrades, which include twice the power and five times the number of collisions, the LHC could just pull it off.

"We gain much more because of higher energy and higher mass particles, really a lot more capability to see new particles," German particle physicist Rolf Heuer, who is the Director General of CERN, said during the press conference on March 12.

Whether they will actually find a dark matter particle or not before 2018, when the LHC will be shut down for another upgrade, remains to be seen. In the meantime, thought, they can dream.

"I have a dream: I want to see the first light in the dark universe," Heuer said. "If I see that, then nature is kind to me."

Dark matter is just one of the many goals physicists hope to meet with the LHC's second run over the next three years. At the start of 2018, physicists will once again shut the LHC down for a couple years more of maintenance. This on-again, off-again pattern is scheduled to continue until 2035.

What will we find in the coming decades? Only time will tell.

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This is Neil deGrasse Tyson's favorite science joke


Neil deGrasse TysonIf you've ever listened to StarTalk radio, then you'll know that its host, famed astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson, definitely has a sense of humor.

His humor was not lost on Business Insider when we asked him in a recent interview about his favorite science joke.

DeGrasse Tyson first heard this joke first told by science comedian Brian Malow

Here's how it starts:

"A Higgs boson walks into a church."

If you're unfamiliar with the term "Higgs boson," you might know it by another name: the "God" particle.

(No self-respecting scientist would ever call it this, but that hasn't stopped media outlets from preserving the term.) 

In order to get the joke, you must first understand the Higgs.

A Higgs boson is a type of subatomic particle that's about 100 times smaller than a proton. Scientists used the world's most powerful particle accelerator to see it for the first time in 2012, and their discovery was awarded the Physics Nobel the following year.

The reason this discovery was Nobel-worthy is because Higgs bosons come with a special ability: They help give other subatomic particles their mass. Without the discovery of a Higgs boson, physicists would not understand how particles, like those that make up you, me, and the billions of galaxies in the universe, could exist.

Back to the joke, as told to Business Insider by Tyson: 

"Higgs boson walks into a church, and the priest says, 'I'm sorry we don't allow Higgs bosons to come to churches.' And [the Higgs] says, 'But without me, you can't have mass.'"

dark matterJust to make sure this joke is politically correct, deGrasse Tyson mentioned that he's tested this joke on a Jesuit priest. "He said it was cool, so that gives us total clearance," Tyson said with a laugh.

This joke is particularly timely because the machine that first detected a Higgs boson in 2012, the Large Hadron Collider, is scheduled to turn back on — after two years of heavy maintenance — by the end of this month.

By mid-summer the LHC should be at max power, which is twice the power it operated at during its first run from 2009 through 2012. Physicists hope to explore the properties of Higgs bosons in more detail as well as discover some more never-before-seen particles like those that physicists think make up the mysterious material called dark matter.

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Here are all the new particles we might discover when the world's largest atom smasher turns back on


Large Hadron Collider

Everything we can see around us, like the Earth, planets, and stars, only makes up about 5% of the universe.

The rest of it is comprised of invisible forces and particles that we haven't directly detected yet.

Physicists hope that will change when the world's largest atom smasher, the Large Hadron Collider (LHC), comes back online at the end of March.

The new and improved LHC, which sits on the Swiss-French border, will be operating at 60% more power than it was three years ago when physicists discovered the Higgs boson.

This time, physicists are searching for a whole host of new particles, many that are predicted by the idea of supersymmetry and could explain dark matter.

Supersymmetry could fix many of the problems that arise within our current understanding of how all the particles around us interact to create the world we see around us. It could also account for dark matter (that makes up about 27% of that invisible 95% of the universe) and explain why the Higgs boson is trillions of times lighter than scientists expected.

Supersymmetry predicts a partner particle for each particle in physics that we already know about. And these partners have some hilarious and hard-to-pronounce names. For example, for electrons and quarks, physicists simply put an "s" in front of the words to name their partners. So an electron's supersymmetric partner is called a "selectron" and a quark's partner is called a "squark." Collectively, physicists will be hunting for the "sparticle" partners of particles.

Scientists think we haven't seen any of these sparticles yet because they're much heavier than regular particles. And heavier particles have much shorter lifespans, so that means they'll only be observable for a split of a split of a split second. Our only hope of spotting them is if they show up in powerful particle collisions that the LHC will generate.

The image below from the documentary Particle Fever does a great job of showing the relationship between known particles and their theorized partner particles.

The inner circle in the image shows the particles that we already know about: the red particles are quarks, while the green ones are leptons. The blue items in the center are the main forces we see in our world, like gravity and electromagnetism, and the H at the center is the Higgs boson, because it creates a field that gives all of these other particles mass.

The outside wobbly ring shows their partner particles predicted by supersymmetry, squarks and sleptons in orange, and the force particles in purple. Even the still-theoretical gravity particle, the graviton, or "g", has a proposed supersymmetric partner called the "gravitino," represented by a g with an accent.

SUSY diagram, supersymmetry, particle fever

The best candidate for a dark matter particle is the accented Greek letter "y" in the purple diamond on the right side of the outer ring.

It's a little easier to see the break down in the image below. The fundamental particles are on the left and the supersymmetric particles are on the right:


Here's a list of the particles we know exist, and their supersymmetric partners that we might find. Some of these categories include multiple particles:

Screen Shot 2015 03 20 at 1.18.30 PMThe LHC will take a few months to rev up to full power, and then physicists will begin mining the data for signs of new particles.

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Incredible new invention has solved a universally annoying problem


One of the most frustrating feelings in the world is struggling to get the last bit of ketchup out of the bottle or the last squirt of toothpaste out of the tube.

Now there's a coating called LiquiGlide that can keep the inside of a container permanently wet and allow its contents to easily slide out. Look how easy it is get to mayonnaise out of a bottle coated in LiquiGlide:

mayoAnd it's even more impressive when you compare it to something that is not coated in LiquiGlide. In this example, the non LiquiGlide detergent cap is on the left and the LiquiGlide detergent cap is on the right:

detergentLiquiGlide was originally created in 2012 by a professor, Kripa Varanasi and his grad students at MIT. They've formed their own LiquiGlide company, and it's now getting some traction among consumer products.

The reason it's so difficult to get things like glue and condiments out of their containers is because they are viscous liquids that can't flow without a powerful push. When these kinds of liquids flow through a pipe or a bottle, the layer of liquids flow at different speeds and create friction and viscosity. The layer at the very center of the container is flowing fastest and the layer that is closest to the container sticks to its surface.

The idea behind LiquiGlide is to create an extra layer between the container and the liquid that will help the liquid slide out easier. LiquiGlide is a liquid coating that binds much more strongly to textured surfaces than to liquids, so when it's painted onto the inside of a container, the liquid can flow freely over it without creating friction and viscosity.

"We're not defying physics, but effectively, we are," one of the MIT grad students, Dave Smith, told the New York Times.

glueSo what's in LiquiGlide? It depends on the liquid and containers that each batch is made for. For any food containers, the coating is made from edible materials like plants.

Other than solving a universally frustrating problem, LiquiGlide also cuts down on waste. You end up wasting less glue, paint, condiments, etc., because it's much easier to get out the last few stubborn squeezes. According to a consumer report from 2009, some people end up throwing out up to a quarter of the lotion in a bottle, 16% of detergent, and 15% of condiments because it's too much of a pain to coax out the layers that stick to the container.

However, the original intent behind LiquiGlide was not to make it easier to have ketchup with your fries. Varanasi was thinking about industry applications like more efficient oil pumping. For now, the company has found success in consumer products, but it will continue pursuing industry application ideas too.

Elmers Products, Inc. is on board and has already signed a contract with LiquiGlide. An easier to squeeze mayonnaise bottle might be coming out this year, and easier to squeeze toothpaste could be here in 2017. For some reason, ketchup companies have shown little interest. But just look at that flawless pouring:


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