I read popular physics: Interstellar Interlopers

This is an entry in my series where I read physics articles in Scientific American, and get annoyed that the only good ones are about astronomy.

I skipped a month, because the September issue was a special 175-year anniversary edition. I actually liked that one, but the physics article was a review of how cosmology had changed in the past 175 years, and I don’t have much to say about that. I learned that Scientific American basically predates the scientific establishment as we know it, and it started out as a thing for like, inventors and hobbyists.

The October issue has a presidential endorsement, the first endorsement that the magazine has ever made in its long history. No points for guessing who they endorsed.

Anyway, the physics article for this month is “Interstellar Interlopers” (no paywall this time), about the first two interstellar objects ever observed in the Solar System. I had never heard of these before, but I guess they made news a while back, as reporters breathlessly speculated about aliens.

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I read popular physics: Quantum Leap

This is an entry in my series where I read physics articles in Scientific American, under the theory that having a physics PhD will save me.

This month’s article is “Quantum Leap” about the theory behind the quantum hall effect. Out of all the articles in this series so far, this is the closest to my actual field of study (I was a condensed matter experimentalist who studied superconductors). But I positively groaned when I saw it. It’s bad.

But before I get to the main attraction, I have some general commentary on the August issue. After two months of putting the coronavirus on the cover, SciAm’s cover has finally moved on, now featuring a story about oak trees. The columnists are all still talking about the virus, one about racial health disparities, one about masks, one about science denial. I think these articles are written 1-2 months in advance, so they’re a bit of a time capsule. Wait, aren’t we still talking about all the same things?

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I read popular physics: The darkest particles

This is an entry in my series where I read physics articles in Scientific American, and pretend that my physics PhD is useful.

A letter

This month, we have an article called “The Darkest Particles“, about sterile neutrinos (sorry, this one’s paywalled). But before I get to the main attraction, I’m excited because we have the first letter from a responding to an article that appeared earlier in this series! Science writing isn’t just about the cutting edge, it’s also about following up with critical discussion and further research. These letters give us a small taste of critical scientific discussion.  Although, many of these letters are written by non-experts, so it’s not quite the same.

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I read popular physics: A planet is born

This is part of my series where I read physics articles in Scientific American, and offer commentary as a former physicist.

I’ve had the June issue around for over a month, but I procrastinated too much and here we are in July. I’ll try to keep it short this time so I can move on to the next one.

The June issue is when COVID-19 really hits Scientific American. The cover says in big letters: “The Coronavirus Pandemic”. I already got the July issue, and the coronavirus is on the cover of that too. But, the cover notwithstanding, there are still physics articles, and that’s my area of expertise. This month’s article is “A Planet is Born“, by Meredith A. MacGregor.  This one isn’t paywalled so you’re free to read it yourself.

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I read popular physics: Quantum Steampunk

This is an entry in my series where I read physics articles in Scientific American, and provide my weary perspective as a former physicist.

Today I’ll be discussing the article “Quantum Steampunk”, by Nicole Yunger Halpern, in the May issue of SciAm. This one is paywalled, but you can still check out the opening paragraph, in which the author appears to excerpt a paragraph from her latest novel.

It’s a bit indulgent, but hey, whatever works as a hook.

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I read popular physics: The Milky Way

It’s time for another entry in my series where I read through physics articles in Scientific American, now through the eyes of a former physicist. It’s a gratifying exercise because I used to struggle through these when I was in high school. Now, if I struggle, I know it’s not my fault!

Today’s article is “New View of the Milky Way” by Mark J. Reid and Xing-Wu Zheng in the April 2020 issue. Oddly the titles in the print version never seem to match the titles in the online version–also the online version is paywalled this time, that means no images, sorry folks!

The main thrust of the article is that they used radio astronomy to map out the Milky Way galaxy. Now you might think that since we’re inside the Milky Way, we have an especially clear idea of its shape. But it’s surprisingly difficult, because determining the distance of stars is hard, and there are dust clouds in the way. If you’ve ever seen an image of the Milky Way as viewed from the outside, those are all artists’ conceptions and we don’t know what it actually looks like.

So the first thing I see in this article, is an image of the Milky Way, as viewed from outside. At first I thought, this is really neat, finally an image that’s more than just an artist’s conception. But nope, it’s just another artist’s conception. Created to be consistent with the study’s results, but still just art.

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Spinning Box experiment

For my monthly repost, I thought I’d reach way back to bring you this post from 2008.  I was a physics undergrad back then!

Here’s a physics experiment that you can try yourself right now. It’s fun, I promise.

First, you have to find a small rectangularly-shaped object. Nothing valuable or breakable. A box works fine. A book works too, but you may have to tape the book shut for best results. It is important that there are no square sides on the object. All sides must be rectangles!

The box is about the dimensions of a novel, with one axis going from cover to cover, one from spine to page-edge, and one from top to bottom.

Here’s my 3-d model of the box (created with Mathematica). Your own box might differ slightly in its shape, but it should be more or less the same. What are those sticks, you ask? They’re just imaginary lines I drew to mark the three principal axes. If you have an object like a cube or a sphere, one axis is as good as another. But for an object shaped like above, there are three special axes of rotation, called the principal axes.

Now, take the box and toss it up into the air. Give it some spin as you toss it. First, make it spin around the blue line, then the green line, and then the red line.* Observe any differences between the three. I will wait.

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