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Here's the real reason we don't have nuclear fusion yet



Nuclear fusion is what powers the Sun and the stars – unleashing huge amounts of energy through the binding together of light elements such as hydrogen and helium.

If fusion power were harnessed directly on Earth, it could produce inexhaustible clean power, using seawater as the main fuel, with no greenhouse gas emissions, no proliferation risk, and no risk of catastrophic accidents.

Radioactive waste is very low level and indirect, arising from neutron activation of the power plant core. With current technology, a fusion power plant could be completely recycled within 100 years of shutdown.

Today's nuclear power plants exploit nuclear fission – the splitting of atomic nuclei of heavy elements such as uranium, thorium, and plutonium into lighter "daughter" nuclei.

This process, which happens spontaneously in unstable elements, can be harnessed to generate electricity, but it also generates long-lived radioactive waste.

Why aren't we using safe, clean nuclear fusion power yet? Despite significant progress in fusion research, why do we physicists treat unfounded claims of "breakthroughs" with scepticism?

The short answer is that is it very difficult to achieve the conditions that sustain the reaction. But if the experiments under construction now are successful, we can be optimistic that nuclear fusion power can be a reality within a generation.

The fusion process

Unlike fission, nuclei do not spontaneously undergo fusion: atomic nuclei are positively charged and must overcome their huge electrostatic repulsion before they can get close enough together that the strong nuclear force, which binds nuclei together, can kick in.

In nature, the immense gravitational force of stars is strong enough that the temperature, density and volume of the star's core is enough for atomic nuclei to fuse through "quantum tunnelling" of this electrostatic barrier. In the laboratory, quantum tunnelling rates are far too low, and so the barrier can only be overcome by making the fuel nuclei incredibly hot – six to seven times hotter than the Sun's core.

Even the easiest fusion reaction to initiate – the combination of the hydrogen isotopes deuterium and tritium, to form helium and an energetic neutron – requires a temperature of about 120 million C. At such extreme temperatures, the fuel atoms are ruptured into their component electrons and nuclei, forming a superheated plasma.

Keeping this plasma in one place long enough for the nuclei to fuse together is no mean feat. In the laboratory, the plasma is confined using strong magnetic fields, generated by coils of electrical superconductors which create a donut-shaped "magnetic bottle" in which the plasma is trapped.

image 20150513 2479 g97xlb

Today's plasma experiments such as the Joint European Torus can confine plasmas at the required temperatures for net power gain, but the plasma density and energy confinement time (a measure of the cooling time of the plasma) are too low to for the plasma to be self-heated.

But progress is being made – today's experiments have fusion performance 1,000 times better, in terms of temperature, plasma density and confinement time, than the experiments of 40 years ago. And we already have a fair idea of how to move things to the next step.

Regime change

The ITER reactor, now under construction at Cadarache in the south of France, will explore the "burning plasma regime", where the plasma heating from the confined products of fusion reaction exceeds the external heating power. The total power gain for ITER will be more than five times the external heating power in near-continuous operation, and will approach 10-30 times for short durations.

At a cost exceeding US$20 billion, and funded by a consortium of seven nations and alliances, ITER is the largest science project on the planet. Its purpose is to demonstrate the scientific and technological feasibility of using fusion power for peaceful purposes such as electricity generation.

The engineering and physical challenge is immense. ITER will have a magnetic field strength of 5 Tesla (100,000 times the Earth's magnetic field) and a device radius of 6 m, confining 840 cubic metres of plasma (one-third of an Olympic swimming pool). It will weigh 23,000 tonnes and contain 100,000 km of niobium tin superconducting strands. Niobium tin is superconducting at 4.5K (about minus-269C), and so the entire machine will be immersed in a refrigerator cooled by liquid helium to keep the superconducting strands just a few degrees above absolute zero.

image 20150513 2468 qidv48

ITER is expected to start generating its first plasmas in 2020. But the burning plasma experiments aren't set to begin until 2027. One of the huge challenges will be to see whether these self-sustaining plasmas can indeed be created and maintained without damaging the plasma facing wall or the high heat flux "divertor" target.

The information we get from building and operating ITER will inform the design of future fusion power plants, with an ultimate aim of making the technology work for commercial power generation. At the moment it seems likely that the first prototype power plants will be built in the 2030s, and would probably generate around 1 gigawatt of electricity.

While first-generation power plants will probably be on a similarly large scale to ITER, it is hoped that improvement in magnetic confinement and control will lead to more compact later generation power plants. Likewise, power plants will cost less than ITER: long-term modelling which extrapolates to power plants suggest fusion could be economic with low impact on the environment.

So while the challenges to nuclear fusion are big, the pay-off will be huge. All we have to do is get it to work.


This article is part of The Conversation's worldwide series on the Future of Nuclear. You can read the rest of the series here.

Matthew Hole is Senior Research Fellow, Plasma Research Laboratory at Australian National University.
Igor Bray is Head of Physics, Astronomy and Medical Radiation Sciences at Curtin University.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

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SEE ALSO: Why The Sun Can Generate Energy Through Fusion But We Fall Short Every Time

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NOW WATCH: This 13-year-old found the math formula for capturing the sun's energy

This photo shows a mysterious mechanism of the sun that has baffled scientists for centuries


From 93 million miles away, we earthlings are blissfully unaware of the sheer magnitude of powerful activity roiling on the the sun's surface. But thanks to NASA's Solar Dynamics Observatory (SDO) spacecraft, which has been snapping pictures of the sun for the last five years, we can see this massive monster in action, like in the SDO image below:

sunWhat you're seeing is a representation of one small part of the sun's colossal magnetic field.

The sun's magnetic field is constantly changing unlike Earth's, which means it's growing and shrinking in strength.

Sometimes it can swell to be thousands of times stronger than Earth's. When that happens, it generates black blemishes called sunspots, as shown in the image below:

sunspotIf we go back to the first image, what you're seeing are two giant sunspots in blue and yellow. Both are large enough to completely swallow the Earth.

The blue and yellow are false colors — in reality, the sunspots appear black on the solar surface.

But these false colors serve an important purpose: The magnetic field of the sunspot in blue has an opposite charge from the sunspot in yellow.

What's happening here is similar to what occurs when you throw a handful of iron filings onto a bar magnet — shown in the GIF below:

magnetThe bar magnet has a north and south pole that generates magnetic field lines around it. These fields are completely invisible to the naked eye, but when you sprinkle some iron shavings around it, they actually then outline the fields so you can see them.

The super-hot gas spewing from the solar surface does the same thing: It traces the immensely powerful magnetic field lines connecting the sunspot that acts like the north pole of a bar magnet with the sunspot that represents that south pole.

The most stunning part of this recent SDO image (shown again below) are the white, ethereal wisps — called coronal loops— streaking across the solar surface. These pale whiskers represent hot gas outlining the magnetic field lines connecting the two sunspots.

Although sunspots were first studied in the 16th century by Galileo Galilei — the first scientist to observe the universe through a telescope — researchers are still unsure how these pockets of intense magnetic activity generate sunspots. But with SDO and its more than 100 million pictures taken over the last five years, scientists are hopeful that they will uncover the mysterious mechanism behind these enigmatic spots.


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

SEE ALSO: There's more to this beautiful space image than meets the eye

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NOW WATCH: Neil deGrasse Tyson: Here's What Everyone Gets Wrong About Solar Flares

Neil deGrasse Tyson says the moment he fell in love with astrophysics came from an embarrassing misunderstanding


neil degrasse tyson

Many years ago the world-famous astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson was just a kid in the Bronx without even the hint of a dream to study the universe. But, as he tells Stephen Colbert, all of that changed one fateful night in Pennsylvania.

On that night, Tyson formed what was most likely one of his first thoughts about the trillions of stars in our universe — a thought that would revolutionize his life and was actually embarrassingly, as he puts it, incorrect.

Two years before, Tyson — whom we now recognize as host of the wildly popular podcast series StarTalk and the television series "Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey"— visited the Hayden Planetarium at New York City's American Museum of Natural History for the first time — the same Hayden Planetarium for which he now serves as director.

There he saw a projection of the night sky unlike anything he had ever seen: a sky adorned with countless stars.

"I thought, 'Well that's a nice hoax,'" Tyson told Colbert. "That can't be real."

Then, a couple of years later when he was 9 years old and trekking among the secluded mountains in Pennsylvania, he saw the night sky untainted by city lights for the first time. It, too, had an endless expanse of stars.

That's when everything began to fall into place:

"What is an embarrassingly urban thought: I look up at the night sky from the finest mountain tops in the world and ... I say, 'It reminds me of the Hayden Planetarium,'" Tyson acknowledged with a laugh, later adding: "But so strong was that imprint that I'm certain that I had no choice in the matter that in fact the universe called me."

Tyson has not only carved himself a career in astrophysics over the following decades, but he has also made it his goal to inspire the rest of us to reach for the stars and awe at the wonders of the cosmos.

Watch the full interview with Stephen Colbert:

CHECK OUT: This is Neil deGrasse Tyson's favorite science joke

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

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The world's largest particle accelerator just broke another world record — here's why it actually matters


On May 20 the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) broke a world energy record. It's now smashing particles together with nearly twice as much energy as the old record, and it's going to start churning out data next week.

The LHC at the CERN laboratory in Switzerland fires particles around a 17-mile underground tunnel and smashes them together at nearly the speed of light.

It looks kind of like this:

particle collision twoWhat do we gain from doing this, other than awesome-looking data patterns and maybe proving some wild physics theories?

During a Reddit AMA with several LHC physicists, Reddit user FantastiqueDutchie asked exactly that:

Explain to me like I am five: why are you doing this and what makes it important? What could we/you do with this data in the future?

The physicists gave some fantastic answers.

1. Practical, life-saving applications

Federico Ronchetti who works on the ALICE experiment in the LHC said the research has already yielded practical applications, and higher energies could mean even more insights, and eventually, applications of that knowledge.

Technology found in particle accelerators is already used for certain types of cancer surgery, and CERN gave birth to the world wide web because scientists needed a way to share the massive amount of data they were collecting with each other, Ronchetti wrote.

Claire Lee, who works on the ATLAS experiment, pointed out a few more examples from the past in her answer:

  • When Einstein developed his theory of General Relativity, he just wanted to explain the way gravity worked. Now, your GPS locator in your smartphone uses these exact GR equations to remain accurate.
  • Most particle accelerators are actually found in hospitals, in MRI machines, helping with diagnostic medicine.
  • The web was developed right here at CERN to help scientists transmit important pieces of information to each other and aid in data analysis. Now, hello! :)
  • The Grid, which is a network of high performance computers we use to analyse the vast amounts of data we get from our experiments, is also used in other fields (such as breast cancer image processing, I think)

2. Simple curiosity

Beate Heinemann who works with the ATLAS experiment said a big motivation for physicists at the LHC is that they're simply curious.

"We see the Universe and particle physicists want to understand what it is made of and how it came to be," Heinemann wrote. "Whether this is useful or not we don't know as we don't know what we will find."

Higher energy collisions could reveal a whole host of new particles that we've never observed before, and completely change how we understand the world around us.  

3. Advancing the human race

Steve Goldfarb who works with ATLAS had a very practical reason for why the LHC is important.

"Over time, we have found that, every time we learn something new about nature, the information is used by our children or their children to help them survive,"Goldfarb wrote.

Everything we have today that allows humans flourish, including farming, electricity, worldwide communication, all started with basic research.

"We do not know exactly what our discoveries and measurements will lead to," Goldfarb wrote. "It is too soon to say. But, we do know they will contribute significantly to our understanding of our world. And, as human being, we have no choice but to pursue them. It is a question of survival."

As for how you'd explain the LHC to an actual 5-year-old? Lee joked that she had an answer for that one too. She made up a parody of a song in Disney's "Frozen." It's meant to be sung to the tune of "Do you want to build a snowman?"

The LHC will start churning out new data at this unprecedented energy level next week, and we can't wait to see what happens.

SEE ALSO: This 17-mile circular machine is filled with proton beams moving at nearly the speed of light — and it just got a big upgrade

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NOW WATCH: Here's what astronauts actually see when they go out for a walk in space

5 ways the world's most controversial telescope could revolutionize astronomy


tmt sunset, mauna kea, thirty meter telescope

The Thirty Meter Telescope on the summit of a mountain in Hawaii will be the most powerful optical telescope on Earth. It will be a true game-changer for astronomy.

That is, if it's actually built.

Native Hawaiian protestors halted the construction earlier this year. Many consider the mountain sacred ground and there are concerns that the construction could have terrible consequences for the delicate mountaintop ecosystem.

Legally, TMT has the green light to start construction again (it hasn't). There's a strong science case for why the project should continue though.

The telescope's huge 30-meter (100 foot) mirror will collect more light than smaller telescopes, allowing TMT to see fainter and farther objects that we've never seen before.

It'll operate in wavelengths ranging from ultraviolet to mid-infrared, which means the telescope will be useful for collecting lots of different kinds of data.

Compared to the Hubble Space Telescope, "TMT will have 144 times the collecting area and more than a factor of 10 better spatial resolution at near-infrared and longer wavelengths," according to the TMT website.

Here's how this innovative telescope could revolutionize astronomy:

1. Explore the "dark ages" of the universe.

TMT will be incredibly powerful, capable of gazing farther out into the universe and therefore farther back in time to when the universe was just a baby, fresh from the big bang. TMT will catalogue what astronomers call "first light" objects.

big bang

Once the hot soup of particles generated by the big bang started to cool, they clustered into atoms and eventually formed into larger things like stars and galaxies. Fully-formed atoms allowed light to travel freely, rather than just bumping into and scattering off free-floating electrons. We have no idea what the universe's first light looked like though. TMT will be searching for signs of it.

2. Investigate how the first galaxies formed.

Since TMT will peer so far back in time, it'll be able to analyze how the universe's very first galaxies formed and why it triggered an entire epoch of rapid galaxy formation.

Our best estimates today tell us that galaxies started forming about 200 million years after the big bang. Some astronomers think galaxies started forming earlier than that, and TMT could find the evidence. It could also answer what happened to the haze of hydrogen that blanketed the early universe.

3. Figure out how dark matter helped shape the universe.

Dark matter is one of the biggest puzzles in astronomy. The universe is full of the stuff, but we can't touch it or see it. We only know it exists because of the way it bends light around galaxies.

dark matter map with cutoutsTMT could help us figure out the role dark matter played in early galaxy formation and why it exists in the patterns it exists in now.

4. Test if every galaxy has its own supermassive black hole.

Our own galaxy has a giant black hole in the middle of it called Sagittarius A*. It's four million times more massive than the sun, but squeezed into a much smaller area. All that matter packed into such a small space creates a gravitational pull that not even light can escape.

Astronomers think most galaxies have a black hole at their center, but they aren't sure. TMT's incredible spatial resolution will make it possible to map and measure many more black holes and find out if our galaxy's black hole is typical or not. It could also reveal the role black holes play in galaxy formation.

5. Search for an "Earth twin."

We had no idea that planets existed outside those in our solar system until the late 90s. Now we've found nearly 2,000.

azure blue exoplanetHowever, we know very little about these other planets because they're so difficult to see. TMT will be capable of creating a high-quality spectrograph of an exoplanet's atmosphere that astronomers can use to figure out the exoplanet's temperature, gravity, composition, and cloud structure.

It may even help us spot a planet that looks like our own — a long sought "Earth twin."

Still, TMT's greatest achievement might not even be on this list.

"It is very likely that the scientific impact of TMT will go far beyond what we envision today and TMT will enable discoveries that we cannot anticipate," the TMT astronomy team writes.

SEE ALSO: This giant telescope has split the astronomy community in two

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NOW WATCH: An Astronaut Compressed 6 Months In Space Into This Amazing Time-Lapse

Physicists are still puzzled by a particle that seems to defy the laws of physics


cosmic rays from supermassive black hole

On the night of October 15, 1991, the “Oh-My-God” particle streaked across the Utah sky.

A cosmic ray from space, it possessed 320 exa-electron volts (EeV) of energy, millions of times more than particles attain at the Large Hadron Collider, the most powerful accelerator ever built by humans.

The particle was going so fast that in a yearlong race with light, it would have lost by mere thousandths of a hair. Its energy equaled that of a bowling ball dropped on a toe. But bowling balls contain as many atoms as there are stars. “Nobody ever thought you could concentrate so much energy into a single particle before,” said David Kieda, an astrophysicist at the University of Utah.

Five or so miles from where it fell, a researcher worked his shift inside an old, rat-infested trailer parked atop a desert mountain. Earlier, at dusk, Mengzhi “Steven” Luo had switched on the computers for the Fly’s Eye detector, an array of dozens of spherical mirrors that dotted the barren ground outside. Each of the mirrors was bolted inside a rotating “can” fashioned from a section of culvert, which faced downward during the day to keep the sun from blowing out its sensors. As darkness fell on a clear and moonless night, Luo rolled the cans up toward the sky.

“It was a pretty crude experiment,” said Kieda, who operated the Fly’s Eye with Luo and several others. “But it worked — that was the thing.”

The Fly’s Eye array operated out of Dugway Proving Ground, a military base in the desert of western Utah, from 1981 to 1993; it pioneered the “air fluorescence technique” for determining the energies and directions of ultrahigh-energy cosmic rays based on faint light emitted by nitrogen air molecules as the cosmic-ray air shower traverses the atmosphere. In 1991, the Fly’s Eye detected a cosmic ray that still holds the world record for highest-energy particle.

cosmic raysThe faintly glowing contrail of the Oh-My-God particle (as the computer programmer and Autodesk founder John Walker dubbed it in an early Web article) was spotted in the Fly’s Eye data the following summer and reported after the group spent an extra year convincing themselves the signal was real. The particle had broken a cosmic speed limit worked out decades earlier by Kenneth Greisen, Georgiy Zatsepin and Vadim Kuzmin, who argued that any particle energized beyond approximately 60 EeV will interact with background radiation that pervades space, thereby quickly shedding energy and slowing down. This “GZK cutoff” suggested that the Oh-My-God particle must have originated recently and nearby — probably within the local supercluster of galaxies. But an astrophysical accelerator of unimagined size and power would be required to produce such a particle. When scientists looked in the direction from which the particle had come, they could see nothing of the kind.

“It’s like you’ve got a gorilla in your backyard throwing bowling balls at you, but he’s invisible,” Kieda said.

Where had the Oh-My-God particle come from? How could it possibly exist? Did it really? The questions motivated astrophysicists to build bigger, more sophisticated detectors that have since recorded hundreds of thousands more “ultrahigh-energy cosmic rays” with energies above 1 EeV, including a few hundred “trans-GZK” events above the 60 EeV cutoff (though none reaching 320 EeV). In breaking the GZK speed limit, these particles challenged one of the farthest-reaching predictions ever made. It seemed possible that they could offer a window into the laws of physics at otherwise unreachable scales — maybe even connecting particle physics with the evolution of the cosmos as a whole. At the very least, they promised to reveal the workings of extraordinary astrophysical objects that had only ever been twinkles in telescope lenses. But over the years, as the particles swept brushstrokes of light across sensors in every direction, instead of painting a telltale pattern that could be matched to, say, the locations of supermassive black holes or colliding galaxies, they created confusion. “It’s hard to explain the cosmic-ray data with any particular theory,” said Paul Sommers, a semiretired astrophysicist at Pennsylvania State University who specializes in ultrahigh-energy cosmic rays. “There are problems with anything you propose.”

A logarithmic plot showing the flux of cosmic rays as a function of energy. The line has two bends (where its slope changes), known as the cosmic-ray energy spectrum’s “knee” and “ankle.”

Only recently, with the discovery of a cosmic ray “hotspot” in the sky, the detection of related high-energy cosmic particles, and a better understanding of physics at more familiar energies, have researchers secured the first footholds in the quest to understand ultrahigh-energy cosmic rays. “We’re learning things very rapidly,” said Tim Linden, a theoretical astrophysicist at the University of Chicago.

Ankle Problems

Thousands of cosmic rays bombard each square foot of Earth’s atmosphere every second, and yet they managed to elude discovery until a series of daring hot-air-balloon rides in the early 1910s. As the Austrian physicist Victor Hess ascended miles into the atmosphere, he observed that the amount of ionizing radiation increased with altitude. Hess measured this buzz of electrically charged particles even during a solar eclipse, establishing that much of it came from beyond the sun. He received a Nobel Prize in physics for his efforts in 1936.

Cosmic rays, as they became known, arc through Earth’s magnetic field from every direction, and with a smooth spread of energies. (At sea level, we experience the low-energy, secondary radiation produced as the cosmic rays crash through the atmosphere.) Most cosmic rays are single protons, the positively charged building blocks of atomic nuclei; most of the rest are heavier nuclei, and a few are electrons. The more energetic a cosmic ray is, the rarer it is. The rarest of all, those that are labeled “ultrahigh-energy” and exceed 1 EeV, strike each square kilometer of the planet only once per century.

Plotting the number of cosmic rays that sprinkle detectors according to their energies produces a downward-sloping line with two bends — the energy spectrum’s “knee” and “ankle.” These seem to mark transitions to different types of cosmic rays or progressively larger and more powerful sources. The question is, which types, and which sources?

Like many experts, Karl-Heinz Kampert, a professor of astrophysics at the University of Wuppertal in Germany and spokesperson for the Pierre Auger Observatory, the world’s largest ultrahigh-energy cosmic ray detector, believes cosmic rays are accelerated by something like the sonic booms from supersonic jets, but on grander scales. Shock acceleration, as it’s called, “is a fundamental process which you find on any scale in the universe,” Kampert said, from solar flares to star explosions (supernovas) to rapidly spinning stars called pulsars to the enormous lobes emanating from mysterious, super-bright galaxies known as active galactic nuclei. All are cases of heated matter (or “plasma”) flowing faster than the speed of sound, producing an expanding shock wave that accumulates a crust of protons and other particles. The particles reflect back and forth across the shock wave, trapped between the magnetic field of the plasma and the vacuum of empty space like little balls ping-ponging between table and paddle. A particle gains energy with every bounce. “Then it will escape,” Kampert said, “and move through the universe and be detected by an experiment.”

Cosmic rays are most likely energized through “shock acceleration,” reflecting back and forth across a shock wave that is produced when plasma flows faster than the speed of sound. The stronger and larger the magnetic field of the plasma, the more energy it can impart to a particle. Ultrahigh-energy cosmic rays surpass 1 exa-electron volt (EeV).


Trying to match different shock waves to parts of the cosmic-ray energy spectrum puts astrophysicists on shaky ground, however. They would expect the knee and ankle to mark the highest points to which protons and heavier nuclei (respectively) can be energized in the shock waves of supernovas — the most powerful accelerators in our galaxy. Calculations suggest the protons should max out around 0.001 EeV, and indeed, this aligns with the knee. Heavier nuclei from supernova shock waves are thought to be capable of reaching 0.1 EeV, making this number the expected transition point to more powerful sources of “extragalactic” cosmic rays. These would be shock waves from singular objects that aren’t found in the Milky Way or in most other galaxies, and which could well be galaxy-size themselves. However, the measured ankle of the spectrum — “the only place where it looks like there’s a clear transition,” Sommers said — lies around 5 EeV, an order of magnitude past the theoretical maximum for galactic cosmic rays. No one is sure what to make of the discrepancy.

Past the ankle, at around 60 EeV, the line dips toward zero, forming a sort of toe. This is probably the GZK cutoff, the point beyond which cosmic rays can only tarry for so long before losing energy to ambient cosmic microwaves generated by a phase transition in the early universe. The existence of the cutoff, which Kampert calls “the only firm prediction ever made” about cosmic rays, was established in 2007 by the Fly’s Eye’s successor — the High Resolution Fly’s Eye experiment, or HiRes. From there, the energy spectrum reduces to a trickle of trans-GZK cosmic rays, finally ending, at 320 EeV, with a single data point: the Oh-My-God particle.

The presence of the GZK cutoff means that the laws of physics are operating as expected. Rather than disproving those laws, trans-GZK cosmic rays probably do originate nearby (reaching Earth before ambient microwaves sap their energy). But where, and how? For a maddening 20 years, the particles appeared to come from everywhere and nowhere in particular. But finally a hotspot has developed in the Northern Hemisphere. Could this be the invisible gorilla hurtling bowling balls toward Earth?

star explosion, supernovaGetting Hotter

In Utah, a three-hour drive from the site of the original Fly’s Eye, its latest descendant sprawls across the desert: a 762-square-kilometer grid of detectors called the Telescope Array. The experiment has been tracking the multi-billion-particle “air showers” produced by ultrahigh-energy cosmic rays since 2008. “We’ve been watching the hotspot increase in statistical significance for several years,” said Gordon Thomson, a professor of physics and astronomy at the University of Utah and spokesperson for the Telescope Array.

Of the 87 cosmic rays surpassing 57 EeV detected thus far by the Telescope Array, 27 percent come from 6 percent of the sky. The hotspot centers on the constellation Ursa Major.

The hotspot of trans-GZK cosmic rays, which centers on the constellation Ursa Major, was initially too weak to be taken seriously. But in the past year, it has reached an estimated statistical significance of “four sigma,” giving it a 99.994 percent chance of being real. Thomson and his team must reach five-sigma certainty to definitively claim a discovery. (Thomson hopes this will happen in the group’s next data analysis, due out in June.) Already, theorists are treating the hotspot as an anchor for their ideas.

“It’s really exciting,” said Linden. With more data, he explained, the location of the source can be pinpointed within the hotspot (which gets smeared out by the deflection of cosmic rays as they pass through the galaxy’s and Earth’s magnetic fields). By tracking other types of particles coming from the same spot in the sky, “you have a model of how the source works over many orders of magnitude in energy,” he said. The invisible gorilla would materialize.

Meanwhile, some of those other particles are slowly piling up in the sensors of the IceCube detector, a cable-infused, cubic-kilometer block of ice buried beneath the South Pole. For the past four years, IceCube has monitored the rare ice tracks of neutrinos, lightweight elementary particles that usually flit right through matter and thus require immense efforts to detect, but which are produced in abundance from physical processes throughout the universe.

Every so often, cosmic neutrinos interact with atoms and produce radiation as they pass through IceCube; their directions of travel trace a new map of the cosmos that can be compared to the maps of ultrahigh-energy cosmic rays and those of light. In 2013, IceCube scientists reported the observation of the first-ever very-high-energy neutrinos — a pair of 0.001-EeV particles nicknamed “Bert” and “Ernie” that might have come from the same sources that yield ultrahigh-energy cosmic rays. Neutrinos have a big advantage over cosmic rays as messengers from the most powerful objects in the universe: Because they are electrically neutral, they move in straight lines. “Since neutrinos travel to us uninhibited from the source, they might be able to open up a new window on the universe,” said Olga Botner of Uppsala University in Sweden, IceCube’s spokesperson.

At the South Pole, the IceCube Neutrino Observatory is approaching the mystery of ultrahigh-energy cosmic rays by hunting related cosmic neutrinos, which interact with atoms every so often while passing through the sensor-infused, cubic-kilometer block of ice.

At the South Pole, the IceCube Neutrino Observatory is approaching the mystery of ultrahigh-energy cosmic rays by hunting related cosmic neutrinos, which interact with atoms every so often while passing through the sensor-infused, cubic-kilometer block of ice.

Of the 54 high-energy neutrinos that IceCube has detected as of its latest analysis,reported in early May, four originate from the vicinity of the cosmic-ray hotspot. (Neutrinos can enter the detector after traveling through Earth from the northern sky.) This “hint of a correlation,” as Linden described it, could be a clue: Cosmic rays take longer to get to Earth than neutrinos, so a common source would have to have been pumping out energetic particles for many years. Short-lived source candidates such as gamma-ray bursts would be ruled out in favor of stable objects — perhaps a star-forming galaxy with a supermassive black hole at its center. “In the next few years we’re going to get that many more neutrinos, and we’ll see how this correlation plays out,” Linden said. For now, though, the correlation is very weak. “I’m not staking my foot in the ground,” he said.

Alongside cosmic rays and neutrinos, cosmic “gamma rays” (high-energy photons) will serve as a third messenger in the coming years. They’re the subject of several major searches including the HESS (High Energy Stereoscopic System) experiment in Namibia — named in honor of the father of cosmic rays — and VERITAS (Very Energetic Radiation Imaging Telescope Array System) in Arizona, for which Kieda, the former Fly’s Eye scientist, now works. The combination of cosmic-ray, neutrino and gamma-ray data should help locate and sharpen astrophysicists’ picture of the most powerful accelerators in the universe. The search will organize around the hotspot.

Thomson has his money on threads of galaxies and dark matter called “filaments” that are draped throughout the cosmos and which, at hundreds of millions of light-years long, are among the largest structures in existence. There’s a filament in the direction of the hotspot. “It’s probably something in the filament,” Thomson said. In any case, he added, “we have an idea now of interesting places to look. And all we need to do is collect more data.”

Draining the Pool

Kampert, of the Pierre Auger Observatory, is approaching the mystery of ultrahigh-energy cosmic rays from a different direction, by asking: What are they?

Victor Hess discovered cosmic rays in a series of hot-air-balloon rides in Austria between 1911 and 1913, concluding that a radiation of very high penetrating power enters our atmosphere from above.

Victor Hess discovered cosmic rays in a series of hot-air-balloon rides in Austria between 1911 and 1913, concluding that “a radiation of very high penetrating power enters our atmosphere from above.”

Some astrophysicists say the Auger Observatory has been “unlucky.” Covering 3,000 square kilometers of Argentina grasslands, it collects far more data than the Telescope Array, but it does not see a hotspot in the Southern Hemisphere with anywhere near the prominence of the one in the north. It has detected evidence of a slight concentration of trans-GZK cosmic rays in the sky that overlays an active galactic nucleus called Centaurus A as well as another filament. But Kampert says Auger might never collect enough data to prove this so-called “warm spot” is real. Still, the dearth of clues is a mystery in itself.

“It’s a very rich data set and we don’t see anything,” said Sommers, who helped design and organize the Auger Observatory. “That’s absolutely amazing to me. Back in the 1980s I would have bet good money that if we had the statistics we have now, there would be obvious hotspots and patterns. It makes me really wonder.”

Kampert thinks he and his colleagues must simply get smarter about how they look for hotspots, which are surely there; the local region of the universe is not uniformly blanketed by objects capable of accelerating particles to trans-GZK energies. The problem is magnetic deflection, he said. Galactic and extragalactic magnetic fields bend protons five to 10 degrees off-course, and they bend heavier nuclei many times that, depending on the number of protons they contain. Auger’s analysis of its air-shower events (which integrates cutting-edge results from particle collisions at the Large Hadron Collider) suggests that the highest-energy cosmic rays tend to be on the heavy side, consisting of carbon or even iron nuclei.

“If at the highest energies we have [heavier nuclei], then your sky is always fuzzy or smeared out,” Kampert said. “It would be like doing astronomy from the bottom of a swimming pool.”

He and his team hope to update their experiment with the ability to identify the composition of cosmic rays on an event-by-event basis. This will allow them to look for correlations between only the lightest, least deflected particles. “Composition is really the key to understanding the origin of the highest-energy particles,” he said.

And the shift toward heavier nuclei at the far end of the cosmic-ray energy spectrum could be a major clue itself. Just as supernovas accelerate protons no further than the “knee” of the spectrum and can propel only heavier nuclei beyond that point, so too might the most powerful astrophysical accelerators in the universe peter out. Scientists could be glimpsing the true edge of the cosmic-ray spectrum: the points where protons, and then helium, carbon and iron, max out. Measuring this falloff will help expose how the giant accelerators work — and favor certain candidates over others.

Theorists still struggle to imagine any of those candidates producing the sprinkle of particles in the 200-EeV range or the Oh-My-God particle at 320 — even if they are made of iron. “How you get a [320 EeV] particle is not easy from any theory,” Thomson said. “But it was there. It happened.”

Even that fact is called into question. Back in the early 1990s, Sommers, who was temporarily working at the University of Utah, helped the Fly’s Eye scientists analyze their 320-EeV signal. But although the “big event” (as he calls it) was “pretty well measured by the standards of the time,” the Fly’s Eye hadn’t fully transitioned away from being a “monocular” experiment, analogous to one fly’s eye rather than two (a second eye was under construction); it lacked the precision and redundancy of later stereoscopic arrays. Sommers said that although no serious reasons for doubting the energy estimate are known, “one must be suspicious of it now. With vastly greater exposure, the more precise, new observatories have failed to detect any particle of such high energy. The flux of particles at energies that high must be so low that it would have been an incredible fluke that the Fly’s Eye detected one.”

The error bars that went into calculating the Oh-My-God particle’s energy might all have been off in the wrong direction at the same time. If so, it was a lucky mistake for the field, motivating new experiments without greatly misleading researchers, since many other trans-GZK particles have followed. And if the Oh-My-God particle was a mistake, well, probably no one will ever know.

SEE ALSO: Here’s what scientists really wanted to call the world’s most famous particle

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Physicist and Star Trek screenwriter Leonard Mlodinow: "In 2035, we'll all be part of one giant social network"


Physicist Leonard Mlodinow

Renowned physicist and Star Trek screenwriter Leonard Mlodinow has some pretty awe ome predictions about the future, which we got to hear when we caught up with him recently here in New York.

For one, Mlodinow (who, by the way, has co-written a book with Stephen Hawking, written for popular TV shows such as MacGyver and Star Trek: The Next Generation, and currently teaches physics at Cal Tech) thinks we'll all be part of one giant social network in the next 20 years. 

"You’ll probably just have something embedded in you," he told Business Insider , "a microchip of sorts or some interface...and it’s just easier to talk to anyone in the world immediately."

He has some insights on the state of the world now, too, especially on people who say they don't believe in climate change.

"I think they’re totally ignorant. They have no idea how to approach the problem or what the evidence is and probably haven’t read the literature," Mlodinow said. "If they deny the science the science in that area, they should not trust MRI machines or X-rays and they shouldn’t use a cell phone."

Here's a transcript of our whole conversation with Mlodinow, edited lightly for clarity and length.

BUSINESS INSIDER: To the casual observer, you have an incredibly varied history.

LEONARD MLODINOW: I became a physicist, worked in academic physics as faculty at Cal tech, and went into writing for Hollywood, went into computer games, and went into writing books and teaching at Caltech again.

BI: How did you end up as a screenwriter for "Star Trek: The Next Generation?"

LM: Well, I got that job because they’d read something I’d written for MacGyver and they liked it and they hired me. When I was as Caltech I started writing screenplays. I used to write short stories just for fun. And when I got the job at Caltech, having come from Northern California — where people are rather prejudiced against Southern California — I was too. And I’m thinking, ‘What will I do in Southern California? If I go there I’m gonna write screenplays to see what happens. And I started knocking on doors and I quit doing physics and got an apartment in Hollywood and started writing and got a really crappy job for a really crappy show, but I lived off writing for that show for a while, and it got better and I got an agent and a better show and just climbed my way up. 

stephen hawking brief history of time

BI: You’ve cowritten a book with Stephen Hawking. He says in the next 100 years computers will be smarter than humans and surpass us in artificial intelligence. What do you think?

LM: It’s possible — I wouldn’t say it’s outrageous. I wouldn’t think that neither he nor I knows, and neither of us will be around in the next 100 years to be disproved.

I guess I should remind you that he said in the 1980’s that by the end of the century, we would solve all of physics. We would have the unified theory of everything. And in 2005 I was talking to him and I brought that up and I said, ‘What do you think now?’ And he said, ‘I still think by the end of the century we’re gonna have everything solved.’ So, he seems to think that by the end of the century, whatever century you’re in, everything will be done. And if it isn’t, then he says the same thing again when the next century starts. Knowing him, he might be around next century.

But I think that the kind of computers we’ve built today are in general nothing like how the brain works. The brain is a massively paralleled processor and we are starting to use parallel processing and they used that in the LHC [Large Hadron Collider) to analyze the data. But, I don’t know. There’s a long way to go, it’s a long time, and people are working on the problem.

Who will ever know? How do you even judge? A computer is much different from a brain. Are we going to have something with like 86 billion transistors that are each connected to a thousand or ten thousand other ones? Probably not quite like that. How will we know? I don’t think the Turing test is a really good way of answering that question. It’ll be a different kind of intelligence.

BI: In your mind, what will society look like in the next 20 years? The next 100 years?

LM: In the next 100 years, I have no idea, and I don’t think anyone does, so if they tell you, they’re just making it up. In the next 20 years, I can look back to 1995 and I can take that difference and then move it forward. I feel like the explosion of mass communication will continue and we will be even more connected and easily connected to other people than we are today without having to carry around these devices. Information is very fluid and easy to access — what we’ll do with that, I don’t know. I think that’s the next step, because you can drown in that information and also a lot of the information floating about is false — it’s wrong information so I think those are the challenges to be able to do something constructive with it and be able to tell what’s right from wrong.

Our social networking is exploding. We can be in contact with so many more people than years ago. In 20 years, you’ll probably just have something embedded in you  — a microchip of sorts or some interface and it’s just easier to talk to anyone in the world immediately. I think we’re all going to be one giant network.

matrix code

 BI: In your new book The Upright Thinkers you examine how humans have evolved to where they are today. What drives us as human beings to continue exploring the world around us?

LM: That, I think, is a fundamental part of our nature. It’s a kind of curiosity about where we fit in. What is the world? How does it work and how do we fit in? It’s something that you can see in very young infants, and you can see it in all cultures and it’s a fundamental quality of being human.

BI: Can science and religion — or spirituality, as some would call it, be reconciled?

LM: I think that this dichotomy is something that is fairly recent. First of all, when the brain evolved to have the capacity to ask such questions, to understand abstractions, and to be curious, one of the first things we started doing was asking these spiritual questions. Humans used to live as nomads wandering around and leaving their sick behind to die and leaving the bodies behind, because they couldn’t carry them with. 

And then the first human settlements in the Agricultural Revolution, where we domesticated plants and animals and started living in one place, was really driven by these spiritual questions and the desire to be near our departed loved ones. And that’s where we really started to ask questions about the world around us. In fact, chemistry came from embalming people trying to preserve the bodies, and so science grew out of those spiritual questions. The first scientists were doing science to try to get closer to God.

The first scientists were doing science to try to get closer to God.

Robert Boyle — the chemist, Newton — the physicist, Darwin. People misunderstand them. They started making their investigations as a way of understanding God’s plan for the world, so that was all part of it until very recently.


Certainly since Darwin, there have been people who have opposed ideas based on religious fundamentalism, but Darwin for instance was able to reconcile. He was a religious man, and he was able to reconcile evolution with religion. He didn’t have a problem with that. He just said, ‘Well, God put everything on the Earth in a certain habitat with a plan that would evolve and that’s what’s happening.’ He eventually became an atheist — it’s when his daughter died at age 10 that he lost his faith in God.

BI: You’ve explored the concept of randomness in the past. In your opinion, are humans in control of their own destinies or are they puppets in a play, so to speak?

LM: Well, puppets implies that something else is controlling you, and I think it’s neither. We certainly have the experience or feeling of controlling our own behavior.

Whether some being with infinite or extreme intelligence or data on the state of our bodies could predict what we are going to do beforehand because it’s predetermined by the laws of nature — maybe that’s true. I don’t believe in free will, literally. 

I don’t believe in free will, literally. 

I believe that the laws of nature govern your actions. On some level, what you’re doing is not your choice but it’s governed by the state of your body right now. But we have no way of knowing that. It’s far too complex. 



BI: What are your thoughts on the fact that a lot of people in this country do not believe in evolution?

LM: They’re misguided. I think it’s destructive. It’s not only evolution — it’s people who don’t accept or respect science, and make uninformed judgments about a lot of political and medical issues. These are important issues, and I feel it’s unfortunate that we have people like that in this country. 

BI: There are people that argue that climate change is part of the natural cycle, as opposed to it being man-made, what are your thoughts on that?

LM: I think they’re totally ignorant. They have no idea how to approach the problem or what the evidence is and probably haven’t read the literature and that there are thousands of scientists who have been studying this for years and are experts and devote their lives to it.

To dismiss them because you happen to have a different opinion as if one could look at the weather report and understand global climate change is arrogant and ignorant. Among climate scientists, a fraction don’t accept it, so I think it’s been definitively proven using methods of modern science — the same methods that bring us airplanes and GPS systems and lasers and MRI machines that these people all use. If they deny the science the science in that area, they should not trust MRI machines or X-rays and they shouldn’t use a cell phone. They don’t get vaccinated either, I assume.


BI: Are there other forms of life out there in the universe?

LM: We have no evidence that there is, and we can’t even theoretically say what the chances are, because we found a lot of stars that are like the sun, and a lot of planets that exist in the habitable zone.

So there’s certainly the raw materials for aliens and for intelligent life.

We know that once you have some form of life, like a bacteria, that it can evolve to intelligent life, but we still don’t know how to explain the first creation of DNA, RNA, or the macromolecules of basic life — how they came into being. People are getting closer and closer to understanding that, but we don’t really know. This is one thing I have faith in, that I have intuition that there is, but from the scientific point of view you can’t say.

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A bizarre property of water is flooding coastal cities like New Orleans


You can squeeze and compress water all you want, and under normal conditions its volume won’t budge.

But if you heat up water, its volume expands — and it's precisely this effect, which is playing out in Earth’s oceans, that's helping flood coastal cities like New Orleans.

water ice volume temperature thermal expansionWater is weird. It’s one of the only liquids that expands as it freezes, at 0 degrees Celsius, yet contracts as you warm it up to 4 C. (This is why water ice floats while most other types of ice sink.)

But if you warm up water beyond 4 C, the molecules violently push on one another, expanding the total volume of liquid and making it take up more space.

Earth’s surface has warmed by about 0.8 degrees C on average since 1880, soon after the industrial revolution kicked off.

This increase doesn’t sound like much, explains NASA Earth Observatory, but it has major consequences:

A one-degree global change is significant because it takes a vast amount of heat to warm all the oceans, atmosphere, and land by that much. In the past, a one- to two-degree drop was all it took to plunge the Earth into the Little Ice Age. A five-degree drop was enough to bury a large part of North America under a towering mass of ice 20,000 years ago.

And our world is under going some extensive warming, especially in the northern pole:

nasa global warming temperature anomalyThe Earth’s oceans are especially at risk — they have responded to this increase by soaking up more and more heat as global temperatures climb:

ocean water heat content

And since water expands when heated, this excess heat absorption has expanded the volume of Earth’s oceans.

As of right now, this volume increase by only a mere fraction of a percent of the ocean's original volume.

Yet applied to even part of the planet's 335 million cubic miles of water, e.g. surface waters, this increase adds up to significant sea level rise — on top of increased water runoff from the world's melting ice reserves. 

sea level rise accelerating

According to the Union of Concerned Scientists, sea levels rose about 8 inches from 1880 to 2009, with thermal expansion as the predominant cause.

Again, this doesn’t sound like much — but any increase gives storm surges that much of a leg up to overwhelm coastal marshes, topple levees, and cause damage deeper and deeper inland.

This is a simplistic illustration of what that looks like for coastal cities, but it's a dangerous scenario:

storm surge baseline sea level rise ucs

What’s more, the rate of sea level rise is only accelerating as oceans soak up more heat, expand, and icebergs and glaciers continue to melt.

sea level rise thermal expansion melting ice contribution

Earth is maddeningly dynamicespecially the oceans. That’s partly why it takes so long to reveal these trends in the first place; you have to take measurements over long periods of time to see the trends.

To that end, researchers are still uncertain about the interplay of surface water and deep-ocean warming. But it’s a given that if the planet keeps warming, as it’s on track to, and oceans continue to soak up heat, vulnerable coastal cities like New Orleans are in a heap of trouble.

SEE ALSO: New Orleans could be wiped off the map later this century

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The physics of Doctor Who's awesome time-traveling ship aren't exactly science fiction


doctor who the tardis

The time-traveling box in "Doctor Who," called the TARDIS, is easily the coolest part of the show. It's capable of traveling any direction through space and time — so it can visit any planet at any point in history.

Characters in "Doctor Who" are always amazed by its unassuming appearance (it looks like a blue police box from the 1960s) and that it's much bigger on the inside than it is on the outside.

But what we really want to know is how does it work, and when can we have one?

Physicists Ben Tippett and Dave Tsang actually wrote a paper about how TARDIS time travel might be possible. Tippet and Tsang propose that the TARDIS moves as a bubble of space-time back and forth along a loop of time.

If you connect a bunch of those loops, then the TARDIS could move to any point in space and time, just like it does in the TV show.

The paper is called "Traversable Achronal Retrograde Domains in Spacetime." Yes, the acronym spells out "TARDIS," and yes, they named their proposed space-time bubble that on purpose.

Tsang and Tippet also claim they work at the Gallifrey Polytechnic Institute and Gallifrey Institute of Technology (Doctor Who is from a place called Gallifrey). But in real life they're physics professors at McGill University and the University of British Columbia respectively. Basically, they are awesome Doctor Who fanboys.

How would it work?

Einstein's theory of general relativity tells us that space and time are not separate — they're wrapped up in four dimensions. There are three dimensions of space (up-down, left-right, and forward-backward) and the dimension of time (future-past). Together they combine to create the fabric of space-time in which all the matter in the universe exists.

Massive objects, like stars and galaxies, stretch and curve this fabric into themselves. Physicists don't really know how space-time warps, but it's theoretically possible to fold one of those curves back on itself, creating what's called a closed time-like curve (CTC).

It's basically a loop:

tardis doctor who time travel

The objects inside the loop in the graphic are called light cones. Light cones mark the boundaries of space-time that any one event (like the burst of light from a supernova explosion) can reach.

For example, imagine you're standing at the red dot in the diagram below. Time is on the y-axis (left) and space is on the x-axis (bottom):

light cone graphic

The area enclosed by the white lines is everything you can see without traveling at the speed of light. If a star exploded 10 light-years away from you (orange dot), then it would take 10 years for light from that event to reach you.

The only way to get outside of a light cone is by traveling faster than the speed of light. Normally light cones are arranged in a straight line, because time moves in a straight line like the right side of the diagram below. But CTCs tip light cones, making it possible to travel backward and forward in time, like the left side of the diagram:

tardis doctor who time travel

If the TARDIS/bubble of space-time entered into one of those loops, it would be possible to travel backward and forward through space and time.

It would look kind of like the following graphic from Tippet and Tsang's paper. (It's obviously the TARDIS and Amy Pond from seasons five, six, and seven.)

tardis doctor who time travel

No world-saving space traveler would be very effective just traveling in a circle. So Tippet and Tsang outlined a mathematical formula to chop up different space-time curves and splice them back together; basically, a way to form tunnels that could transport you to any time and place.

tardis time travel

The opening sequence of Doctor Who episodes shows the TARDIS moving through space-time in a motion that actually kind of mimics these proposed tunnels, minus the clouds and lightning:

tardis tunnel

In later episodes, where the Doctor travels into the future, the space-time vortex in the opening credits appears red instead of blue.

Fans speculate that's because light emitted by an object moving away from a viewer (perhaps into the future) shifts toward longer wavelengths. I.e. As the object moves away, the wavelengths of its light stretch out, making it appear more red:

In episodes where the Doctor goes to the past, the tunnel appears blue, since as the opposite happens: When and object moves toward us in space-time, the wavelength of light compresses toward the blue end of the spectrum.

When can I have a TARDIS?

You can't. At least until we figure out a way to create CTCs and invent a material that can repel gravity and somehow travel faster than the speed of light, then use it to build a blue telephone booth.

Time travel is tricky and full of risky paradoxes — like the grandfather paradox, where you accidentally stop your own birth. And again, physicists still aren't sure about how the geometry of space-time works. (We're also waiting for the scientific papers that explain why the TARDIS is bigger on the inside than it is on the outside and how it can instantaneously appear and disappear.)

The consensus seems to be that time travel into the future is possible, but time travel into the past is much trickier and may not be possible at all.

So for now maybe we should just follow the Doctor's lead and call it a "big ball of wibbly wobbly timey-wimey stuff" and just enjoy the show:

SEE ALSO: Physicists have built a time machine simulator

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The LHC is the largest machine ever built by humans — here’s the plan for an even bigger one


international linear collider ilc

The Large Hadron Collider (LHC) is a giant 17-mile underground loop full of supercooled magnets, thirty-foot particle detectors, and miles of accelerator tubes.

It's the largest machine that humans have ever built.

But there are plans for even larger machines.

One, a whopping 50-mile-long circular particle accelerator with energy collisions nearly 10 times as powerful as the LHC, might be a little too ambitious for the near future. We don't even know how to build magnets capable of accelerating particles to that kind of energy level.

The second idea, however, is a 20-mile-long straight line accelerator and it has a good chance of being built in the next few years.

That machine is called the International Linear Collider (ILC). Its structure is just as the name suggests: a long tube that collides electrons with their antimatter partners called positrons.

The ILC has to be a straight path because electrons lose energy every time they round a corner. The LHC successfully accelerates protons, but an electron racing around its ring would run out of energy in no time.

The ILC will fire an electron from one end and a positron from the other end. They'll meet in the middle and annihilate each other. Physicists will analyze the collision data to solve mysteries like dark matter and investigate whether or not multiple universes exist.

You can see what the collisions will look like in the gif below:

international linear colliderThe cost is an estimated $7.8 billion compared the $10 billion it took to build the LHC. Engineers have already worked through all the technical plans.

Now the ILC just needs to secure a chunk of funding and a construction site. Japan may be stepping up to the plate.

The LHC brought us the web and the Higgs boson. Who knows what the ILC could bring.

SEE ALSO: Physicists are still puzzled by a particle that seems to defy the laws of physics

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Scientists just created the coldest substance on Earth, and it has some really weird properties


chilled molecule

Physicists have chilled molecules to just a smidgen above absolute zero — colder than the afterglow of the Big Bang.

Scientists have created such superchilled atoms, these are the coldest molecules (which are two or more atoms chemically connected) ever created, the scientists said. The achievement could reveal the wacky physics thought to occur at jaw-droppingly cold temperatures.

At normal everyday temperatures, atoms and molecules whiz at superfast speeds around us, even crashing into one another. Yet strange things happen when matter gets extremely cold. And physicists had thought these particles would cease to zip and collide as individuals, and instead would behave as a single body. The result was thought to be exotic states of matter never observed before. [The 9 Biggest Unsolved Mysteries in Physics]

To explore this cold scenario, a team at MIT, led by physicist Martin Zwierlein, cooled down a sodium potassium gas using lasers, to dissipate the energy of individual gas molecules. They chilled the gas molecules to temperatures as low as 500 nanokelvins— just 500-billionths of a degree above absolute zero (minus 459.67 degrees Fahrenheit, or minus 273.15 degrees Celsius). That's more than a million times colder than interstellar space. (The density of the gas in their experiment was so small that it would qualify as near-vacuum in most places.)

They found that the molecules were quite stable, and tended not to react with other molecules around them. They also found the molecules showed strong dipole moments, which are the distributions of electric charges in a molecule that govern how they attract or repel other molecules.

Sodium and potassium don't usually form compounds — both are positively charged, so they usually repel each other, and are attracted to elements like chlorine, which makes table salt (NaCl) or potassium chloride (KCl). The MIT team used evaporation, and then lasers, to cool the clouds of individual atoms. They then applied a magnetic field to get them to stick together to form sodium potassium molecules.

Next, they used another set of lasers to cool a sodium potassium molecule. One laser was set at a frequency that matched the molecule's initial vibrating state, and the other matched its lowest possible state. The sodium potassium molecule absorbed the lower energy from one laser and emitted energy to the higher-frequency laser. The result was a very low energy state and an extremely cold molecule.

The molecule still wasn't as stable as everyday chemicals, lasting only 2.5 seconds before it broke up, but that is a long time when dealing with extreme conditions like this. It's a step to cooling the molecules even further, to see some of the quantum mechanical effects that theories predict. Such effects have been demonstrated in single atom substances like helium, but never in molecules, which are more complicated as they rotate and vibrate. For instance, super-cold helium becomes a liquid with no viscosity – a superfluid. Theoretically molecules might enter such exotic states as well.

The study was published in the May 22 issue ofthe journal Physical Review Letters.

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A new physics discovery could change our understanding of the universe



The standard model of particle physics, which describes every particle we know of and how they interact, was given much credence when the Higgs boson was discovered in 2012. Now, measurements of a rare particle-physics decay at the Large Hadron Collider offer further support for the model – but also hints at ways to find out what lies beyond it.

The standard model is cherished by physicists because it can explain most of the fundamental phenomena in nature by referencing just a handful of elementary particles.

These particles include quarks (one of the components of an atom) and electron-like particles called leptons– along with their so-called antiparticles which are identical but have opposite charge. The model also includes the particles that carry forces between them (photons, gluons, W and Z bosons) and the Higgs.

The picture this model provides is remarkably complete and precise – given its (relative) simplicity and the huge variety of very different phenomena which it can explain with amazing accuracy.

Even the sun has spots …

But the standard model is far from perfect. For starters, it does not include gravity. Also, the elementary particles it describes so successfully make up just 4% of the matter in the universe. The rest is a mysterious substance dubbed "dark matter" whose composition we still don't know. This is one of the reasons why scientists doubt that the standard model can be the true theory of everything"

Table of Elementary Particles

For some time now, physicists have been in a desperate search for any phenomena which deviate from the predictions of the standard model, as they could provide clues or hints about the nature of physics beyond it. Any such experimental finds could help test the theories that go beyond the standard model. These include supersymmetry– in which there are copies of all the particles – and string theory, which is an attempt to reconcile quantum mechanics and general relativity.

But so far the standard model has been very resilient, successfully able to explain everything that the experimental physicists managed to throw at it.

That might be about to change. Two collaborations of scientists working at the LHC – one using the Compact Muon Solenoid detector and another carrying out the LHC beauty experiment – at the particle physics lab CERN near Geneva measured the decays of so-called B mesons. B mesons are weird particles made up of a specific quark and an antiquark. They looked at two different kinds of particle: a "neutral" B meson and a "strange" B meson.

All B mesons are short-lived and decay spontaneously into a bunch of other mesons. But this study specifically looked at the decays of B mesons into pairs of so-called muons, which are heavier versions of electrons, and their antiparticles.

These decays are particularly interesting because their probabilities can be calculated within the standard model with little ambiguity and high precision. From the experimental point of view, the muons are relatively easy to detect and can be measured with high accuracy.

Starting point for a theory of everything

So, according to the standard model, on average about four of every billion strange B-mesons decay into the muon-antimuon pair (instead of into other particles). For the Neutral B-meson this number is even smaller, about one in ten billion. These are very small numbers indeed and explain why past experiments have failed to detect them.

But the new experiments have been able to observe these decays, and to measure their probabilities. They show that while the strange B-meson decays into muons at the same rate that the standard model predicts, the neutral B-meson does so about four times more often than predicted (although the accuracy here was somewhat lower).

This is a significant new development, as various theories that go beyond the standard model predict larger decay probabilities. These results will help eliminate some of theoretical possibilities for physics beyond the standard model. Knowing that is essential to one day devise the next theory of everything.

The next run of the LHC, which is about to start, should provide the opportunities to improve the precision of these measurements, and to put even more stringent constraints on theories that include physics beyond the standard model – or maybe bring a discovery which does not fit any of the existing ones?

Vakhtang Kartvelishvili is Reader in Particle Physics at Lancaster University.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

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The world is about to experience a minute that lasts 61 seconds


Clock at Musee D'Orsay

Paris (AFP) - Question: When is a minute not a minute?

The answer: At 2359 Greenwich Mean Time (GMT) on June 30, when the world will experience a minute that will last 61 seconds.

The reason for the weird event is something called the leap second.

That's when timekeepers adjust high-precision clocks so that they are in sync with Earth's rotation, which is affected by the gravitational tug of the Sun and the Moon.

Few of the planet's 7.25 billion people are likely to be aware of the change...and even fewer will have set plans for how they will spend the extra moment.

But for horologists, the additional second is a big deal, and there is a wrangle as to whether it is vital or should be scrapped.

"There is a downside," admits Daniel Gambis, director of the Service of the Rotation of the Earth — the poetically named branch of the International Earth Rotation and Reference Systems Service (IERS), in charge of saying when the second should be added.

To be clear, the leap second is not something that needs to be added to that old clock on your mantlepiece.

Instead, its importance is for super-duper timepieces, especially those using the frequency of atoms as their tick-tock mechanism.

At the top of the atomic-clock range are "optical lattices" using strontium atoms, the latest example of which, unveiled in April, is accurate to 15 billion years — longer than the Universe has existed.

Outside the lab, caesium and rubidium clocks are the workhorses of Global Positioning System (GPS) satellites, which have to send syncronised signals so that sat-nav receivers can triangulate their position on Earth.

On Earth, big-data computers may be less manic than atomic clocks but still need highly precise internal timers.

The Internet, for instance, sends data around the world in tiny packets that are then stitched together in micro-seconds. Some algorithms in financial trading count on gaining a tiny slice of a second over rivals to make a profit.

There have been 25 occasions since 1971 when the leap second was added in an effort to simplify Coordinated Universal Time (UTC), the official monicker for GMT.

Michel Abgrall, head of national reference at part of the Paris Observatory, monitors a bank of equipment on June 12, 2015, in readiness for the

Time to go?

But over the last 15 years, a debate has intensified about whether the change should be made, given the hassle.

"The argument of critics is that it's become more and more difficult to manage these days, as so much equipment has internal clocks," says Roland Lehoucq of France's Atomic Energy Commission (CEA).

"The problem is synchronisation between computers. They do sort things out, but sometimes it can take several days."

The last modification, on June 30, 2012, was disruptive for many Internet servers — the online reservation system for the Australian airline Qantas "went down for several hours," says Gambis.

"It's time to get rid of the leap second. It causes complications and bugs," argues Sebastien Bize, a specialist in atomic clocks at the SYRTE Laboratory — it means Time-Space Reference System — at the Paris Observatory.

Gambis defends the change on the grounds of principle.

"Should Man be the servant of technology? Or should technology be the servant of Man?" he asks rhetorically.

After all, if the world got rid of the leap second, time as counted by mankind would no longer be coupled to the exact rotation of the planet it lives on.

"That would mean in 2000 years, there would be an hour's difference between UTC and the time it takes for the Earth to complete one complete turn," notes Gambis.

"It would mean that, on a scale of tens of thousands of years, people will be having their breakfast at two o'clock in the morning."

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Watch this flowerpot create fire that burns underwater


thermite in flowerpotThis flowerpot full of red powder looks pretty innocuous. 

But when ignited with a strip of magnesium and a blowtorch, it yields a molten metal so hot it keeps burning underwater. 

The red powder in question is thermite, a mixture of finely powdered rust and aluminum that burns at a temperature of over 4,000 degrees Fahrenheit. 

In a video uploaded to his YouTube channel, TheBackyardScientist demonstrated what various metals did when he melted them and poured them into a fish tank full of water. 

For thermite, the result is liquid iron so hot water can't put out the fire: 


Once you get over the initial shock of what you're seeing, watching the fiery chunks of metal sink is mesmerizing. 


The silvery blobs you can see rushing upward are bubbles of gas formed when the water that comes in contact with the molten metal boils

As the iron slowly cools, chunks of it (and another byproduct, aluminum oxide) settle at the bottom of the tank, still shedding bubbles: 


Watch TheBackyardScientist melt other metals and pour them into water:

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There’s a giant hole that’s draining a lake on the border of Oklahoma and Texas like it’s a bathtub


Like something straight out of "The Twilight Zone", a swirling vortex has opened up in a giant lake on the border of Oklahoma and Texas.

lake texoma vortex

The gaping hole — which appeared recently in Lake Texoma — alarmed everyone from Twitter users to the Tulsa District US Army Corps of Engineers, who posted a YouTube video of the vortex. Below the video, they describe the hole as being "8 feet in diameter and capable of sucking in a full-sized boat."

lake vortex

But despite how crazy it looks, there's a perfectly normal explanation for the spooky hole:

The water is being drained.

"Just like in your house when you fill a bathtub full of water and [open] the drain, it will develop a vortex or whirlpool," BJ Parkey, assistant lake manager at Lake Texoma, told Business Insider.

One of the largest reservoirs in the US, Lake Texoma lies on the border of Oklahoma and Texas and is formed by the buildup of water at Denison Dam on the Red River. When the water levels get too high, as they have in recent weeks, the Army Corps opens sluices, called floodgates, at the bottom of the lake to drain the water into the river. The flowing water creates cyclonic action, much like a tornado, which is widest at the top and tapers down at its tip, said Parkey.

Could it really swallow a boat?

If the whirlpool were large enough, it would be easy for a boat to be caught up in it, Parkey said. To avert a watery disaster, the Army Corps has marked the area with buoys and signs to keep people away. He said the entire area is off-limits for boats.

The size of the vortex depends on a number of factors, including the lake's elevation and how wide the floodgates are opened. Although the video description says the hole was 8 feet wide, right now it's probably more like 2.5 to 3 feet, said Parkey.

The lake's vortex is rotating counterclockwise, which may lead some people to think is due to the "Coriolis effect" caused by the Earth's rotation. (This is the same logic some people have used to explain why toilets flush counterclockwise in the Northern Hemisphere and clockwise in the Southern Hemisphere.) As the Earth spins, it causes winds in the Northern Hemisphere to bend to the right and winds in the Southern Hemisphere bend to the left. But the effect happens on a much larger scale than toilets, or even tornadoes. It usually comes into play with storms that are about three times larger than the ones that typically generate tornadoes.

The vortex is especially dramatic right now because of the deluge of rain the region has received over the past few weeks, which has caused massive flooding. Lake Texoma's waters reached a record-high elevation a few weeks ago of nearly 646 feet above sea level.

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Top Navy scientist says 'there will definitely be' system failures because of the leap second


spaceship earth y2k 2000 millenium

On June 30, humanity will “spring forward” by tacking a much-needed second onto the tail end of the month. John Oliver has already planned elaborate leap-second festivities, but it may be a bit early to celebrate—experts caution that the leap second could lead to worldwide computer glitches.

Since the year 1820 we’ve all been slightly late. If you consider “one day” the amount of time it takes our planet to rotate once, every day should last exactly 86,400.002 seconds. But if you’re tapped into the atomic clock (which, by the way, you totally are) then your days last a mere 86,400.000 seconds, based on some electromagnetic tomfoolery within the element Cesium.

Every day the problem gets a tiny bit worse—two thousandths of a second worse, to be precise. Part of the problem is that Earth’s rotation is actually slowing down over time, as our little planet stubbornly tugs against the gravitational force of both the sun and the moon. Weather patterns mess with Earth’s rotation, too. Tides and typhoon season toss a few milliseconds into the mix, the Earth’s inner core constantly changes, throwing our rotation into flux and El Niño, a wave of warm water that floods the Pacific, occasionally adds one thousandth of a second all by itself.

Since humanity first tried a “leap second” on for size in the early 1970s, it’s been a rocky, unpredictable road. Between 1972 and 1999, we had one leap second every year. But since the new millenium, we’ve seen only four leap seconds in 15 years. It turns out (a tad ironically) that the decision to add a leap second is made, well, at the last second.

And that’s where computers lose their sh*t.

the persistence of memory dali, clocks

Virtually all computer systems are coordinated with the atomic clock. Right now, coders around the world are gleefully hacking away at their keyboards, telling their various programs—from online shopping platforms to stock market interfaces and GPS navigation systems—to assume 60 seconds in every minute. The fact that this rule doesn’t hold up four times every 15 years at random makes preparing your program for the inevitable quite complicated. June 30, 2015, is effectively a software hiccup waiting to happen.

As Slate points out, computer glitches aren’t a huge problem. Every few months Facebook goes down for one reason or another, we all freak out, and then everything is fine. Y2K was averted. But if you’re trading stocks when the software that communicates exchanges reboots, a tiny glitch can cost millions. And if you’re trying to land an airplane when your hi-tech GPS freaks out because seconds and minutes temporarily lose their meaning, a harmless blip could spell disaster.

Airbus A380 Cockpit

Then again, it’s probably just so many scare tactics. There’s no reason to stock up on water or go into hiding for another Y2K scare. Realistically, it’s not like the experts are freaking out, right?

“There will definitely be failures of some systems—how significant, I don’t know,” Demetrios Matsakis, the chief scientist for Time Services at the U.S. Naval Observatory, told Motherboard. “I would suggest not to be in the air flying when the leap second is enacted.”

Oh crap—never mind. To the bunker!

SEE ALSO: Google found a clever way to prevent tomorrow's leap second from crashing its computers

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John Oliver created a whole website of hilarious ways to spend your extra leap second


ticking clocksTonight, June 30, at 23:59:59 GMT, an extra second will be added to the day. And thanks to John Oliver, you can now waste this second with a random, 1-second video.

Every few years, a "leap second" has to be added to the world's atomic clocks to account for the difference between their uber-precise time-keeping and the Earth's rotation rate, which varies as the sun and the moon tug on it.

Oliver commemorated the occasion on a recent episode of his HBO show Last Week Tonight. "I know that an extra second does not seem like that big a deal," Oliver said in the show, "but you can get a lot done in a second." 

Last Week Tonight purchased the domain name spendyourleapsecondhere.com and created a website that contains a countdown to the leap second, and a big red button. Pressing the button loads videos of such gems as "an upside-down sloth making a weird sound":sloth gif

and "Mariah Carey's dog getting into a fight with Mariah Carey's cat, during Mariah Carey's 'Cribs' episode":

mariah carey gif

Amusingly, the URL johnoliversecstapes.com also redirects to the leap second video site. 

Watch the full video:


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Researchers put a beatboxer in an MRI and were amazed by what they found


Beat boxer MRI

Using the mouth, lips, tongue and voice to generate sounds that one might never expect to come from the human body is the specialty of the artists known as beatboxers. Now scientists have used scanners to peer into a beatboxer as he performed his craft to reveal the secrets of this mysterious art.

The human voice has long been used to generate percussion effects in many cultures, including North American scat singing, Celtic lilting and diddling, and Chinese kouji performances.

In southern Indian classical music, konnakol is the percussive speech of the solkattu rhythmic form. In contemporary pop music, the relatively young vocal art form of beatboxing is an element of hip-hop culture.

Until now, the phonetics of these percussion effects were not examined in detail. For instance, it was unknown to what extent beatboxers produced sounds already used within human language.

To learn more about beatboxing, scientists analyzed a 27-year-old male performing in real-time using MRI. This gave researchers "an opportunity to study the sounds people produce in much greater detail than has previously been possible," said Shrikanth Narayanan, a speech and audio engineer at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles. "The overarching goals of our work drive at larger questions related to the nature of sound production and mental processing in human communication, and a study like this is a small part of the larger puzzle."

The investigators made 40 recordings each lasting 20-40 seconds long as the beatboxer produced all the effects in his repertoire, as individual sounds, composite beats, rapped lyrics, sung lyrics and freestyle combinations of these elements.

He categorized 17 distinct percussion sounds into five instrumental classes — kick drums, rim shots, snare drums, hi-hats, and cymbals. The artist demonstrated his repertoire at several different tempos, ranging from slower at roughly 88 beats per minute, to faster at 104.

"We were astonished by the complex elegance of the vocal movements and the sounds being created in beatboxing, which in itself is an amazing artistic display," Narayanan said. "This incredible vocal instrument and its many capabilities continue to amaze us, from the intricate choreography of the 'dance of the tongue' to the complex aerodynamics that work together to create a rich tapestry of sounds that encode not only meaning but also a wide range of emotions."

"It is absolutely amazing that a person can make these sounds — that a person has such control over the timing of various parts of the speech apparatus," said phonetician Donna Erickson at the Showa University of Music and Sophia University, both in Japan, who did not participate in this study. "It is very exciting to see how far technology has come — that we can see these movements in real time. It gives us a much better understanding of how the various parts of our speech anatomy work."

The data suggest that "the sounds used by our beatboxing artist mirror those found in the diverse sound systems of the world's many languages," said researcher Michael Proctor, a linguist and speech scientist at the University of Western Sydney in Australia.

The scientists found the beatboxer, a speaker of American English and Panamanian Spanish, was able to generate a wide range of sound effects that do not appear in either of the languages he spoke. Instead, they appeared similar to clicks seen in African languages such as Xhosa from South Africa, Khoekhoe from Botswana, and !Xóõ from Namibia, as well as ejective consonants — bursts of air generated by closing the vocal cords — seen in Nuxálk from British Columbia, Chechen from Chechnya and Hausa from Nigeria and other countries in Africa.

"A key finding of our work is to show that we can describe the basic sounds used by the artist with the same system used to describe speech sounds, which suggests that there is a common inventory of sounds that are drawn upon to create any vocal expression," Proctor said.

beatboxing gifThe research also sheds light on the human ability to emulate sounds, and on how the human instincts for music and language can overlap and converge. Also, "learning more about beatboxing and other forms of vocal musical expression may offer insights into novel future speech therapy," Narayanan said.

"It would be interesting to see if even more unusual sounds could be both imitated and incorporated," said speech scientist Doug Whalen at Yale University, who did not take part in this research. In addition, "it would be nice to know how the beatboxer came by his inventory, and how long it took him to find the articulations that satisfied him. Were they quickly found? Or quite difficult?"

One goal of future research is to image more of the tongue and palate to provide more details of the mechanics of beatboxing. "It is very humbling to realize that we still don't fully understand some of these fundamental human capabilities," Narayanan said.

In addition, further studies will examine other practitioners of vocal percussion. One goal is to explore how some beatboxers can create the illusion of multiple instruments, or make percussive noises while simultaneously humming or speaking.

Proctor, Narayanan and their colleagues detailed their findings in the Journal of the Acoustical Society of America.

Charles Q. Choi is a freelance science writer based in New York City who has written for The New York Times, Scientific American, Wired, Science, Nature, and many other news outlets.

Reprinted with permission from Inside Science, an editorially independent news product of the American Institute of Physics, a nonprofit organization dedicated to advancing, promoting and serving the physical sciences.

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This disgusting video shows the mysterious science of beatboxing in slow motion



As any amateur rapper knows, simulating the beat of a drum or the scratch of a turntable with nothing other than the lips, voice, mouth, and tongue takes skill.

When done properly, a master can trick an audience into believing that a whole repertoire of instruments is creating a beat. When done poorly, well, he or she probably isn't going to be the next Doug E. Fresh.

For years scientists have struggled to identify and classify the intricate sounds that emanate from a beatboxer's mouth. But a recent analysis has shown — quite literally— just how incredible the human body is at producing sophisticated noises. 

After putting a beatboxing man into a real-time MRI machine — an imaging technique that allows scientists to "film" a person's insides while they are performing an action, beatboxing in this case — they recorded the man while he performed a concoction of voice-activated sounds: rapping, singing, beats, freestyling. What they saw was one of the most detailed looks at beatboxing yet. 

The study subject, who spoke English, was able to produce some of the same sounds that are spread across the world's distinct language systems, Inside Science reports.

"It is absolutely amazing that a person can make these sounds — that a person has such control over the timing of various parts of the speech apparatus," phonetician Donna Erickson at the Showa University of Music and Sophia University told Inside Science.

beatboxing gif

Specifically, the sounds he made sounded similar to "clicks seen in African languages such as Xhosa from South Africa, Khoekhoe from Botswana, and !Xóõ from Namibia, as well as ejective consonants — bursts of air generated by closing the vocal cords — seen in Nuxálk from British Columbia, Chechen from Chechnya and Hausa from Nigeria and other countries in Africa,"Inside Science reports.

This is cool because it shows that the sounds an artist uses to create music are the same sounds humans use for speech. The study also highlights the astonishing control beatboxers have over the unique movements of the tongue and lips, which can be useful for informing novel speech therapies.

But how does beatboxing work?

To get a better look at what's going on when someone beatboxes, YouTuber SmarterEveryDay made a super slowed down video that clearly shows the lip and mouth movements that accompany the artist's vocal acrobatics. To be honest, the video is kind of disgusting, but it still illustrates some important scientific concepts.

Before we get into the science, here's an excerpt from the video:

beatboxer slowed down 3

Here he is again, even closer (and arguably even more gross).

beatboxer slowed down 2

And here he is again giving us crazy eyes.

beatboxer slowed down 1

The video mentions that "beatboxers are not just dudes with good rhythm, they're actually biomechanical synthesizers that specialize in the domination of not just the time domain but also the frequency domain."

Here's what SmarterEveryDay means by that.

When looking at a plot of the frequency of the beatboxer's sound, or a graphical representation of how many times a soundwave cycles across a particular period of time, you can see multiple yellow vertical bars representing soundwaves across the graph. The x-axis represents time, the y-axis represents frequency. 

The brighter the color of the bars, the louder the frequency at that particular time. If you look closely, you can see that there are darker vertical bars in between the yellow bars. "It looks like frequency within frequency,"SmarterEveryDay says.

When looking at the texture of the recorded bass sound below, you can see that it's actually two different sounds working together. The top graph shows the normal tone coming from vocal cords, appearing as a regular-looking soundwave. The second graph shows the sound coming from the lips. When lips press together, the video explains, pressure builds inside the mouth until it blows the lip out again.

These different frequencies born from the pressure inside the mouth, the air flowing across the lips and the tightness of the lips slamming shut creates the unique sound signature inherent to beatboxing.

Beatboxing Spectrogram lips shut

You can watch the full video, uploaded to YouTube by SmarterEveryDay, here to see a more complete explanation. If you want to skip straight to the close-up disgusting part, start at 2:40. 

 If you want to learn how to beatbox yourself, here's a handy guide.

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Science explains how American soccer star Carli Lloyd made the shots that clinched the Women’s World Cup


carli lloyd us japan final

David Beckham isn't the only one who knows how to bend a ball.

Soccer star Carli Lloyd showed off her ball control skills yesterday in the US women's team's world cup victory against Japan.

In the first 16 minutes of the game, Lloyd scored three of the US team's five goals. That included an amazing shot she volleyed into the net from midfield. The secret to her mad curveball skills comes down to simple physics.

Here's a clip of Lloyd's stunning midfield goal, complete with the spectator's stunned reaction:


As "Physics Girl" Dianna Cowern explains in a YouTube video on the physics of soccer, kicking a soccer ball on one of its sides is what gives it spin.

As the ball spins, it drags a thin layer of air around it. Air flowing in the same direction the ball is spinning gets deflected around it:

ball spin 1

Meanwhile, air flowing opposite the ball's spin slows down but keeps moving straight:

ball spin 2

This creates a net airflow in one direction, so the ball moves in the opposite direction:

ball spin 3

It comes down to Newton's Third Law: For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction.

In other words, two objects pushing against each other will feel equal and opposite forces — just as a rocket expelling gas downward is pushed upward. Since the air slows down on one side of the ball, it causes air pressure to build up on that side, which pushes the ball in the other direction. This is known as the Magnus Effect.

Soccer players make use of this phenomenon all the time. As many probably know, kicking the ball with the inside of the right foot makes it curve to the left, while kicking the with the outside of the right foot makes it curve to the right. And kicking the bottom of the ball with the top of the foot creates backspin, which makes it curve upwards — as Lloyd did with her epic midfield goal.

So there you have it: Physics helped the US women's team win the world cup. That, plus a little skill and hard work!

Watch the full YouTube video here:

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