Note (12/2015): Hi there! I'm taking some time off here to focus on other projects for a bit. As of October 2016, those other projects include a science book series for kids titled Things That Make You Go Yuck! -- available at Barnes and Noble, Amazon and (hopefully) a bookstore near you!

Co-author Jenn Dlugos and I are also doing some extremely ridiculous things over at Drinkstorm Studios, including our award-winning webseries, Magicland.

There are also a full 100 posts right here in the archives, and feel free to drop me a line at with comments, suggestions or wacky cold fusion ideas. Cheers!

· Categories: Physics
What I’ve Learned:

Joule: like a newton, with more juice.
“Joule: like a newton, with more juice.”

My introduction to the joule was unkind. I was sleeping peacefully through an applied physics class when the professor slammed my textbook shut and growled:

Well, you must know all of this already. So please, oh bored one, define joule for the class.

I was still waking up, but I thought I heard what he said. Seemed an odd request, but I gave it a shot:

How can you define her, really? Is she a songwriter? A singer? A poet? She covers all the bases, really.

Prof: “Not Jewel, you ninny. Joule, the unit of energy.”

Me: “Yes, exactly. She’s a big unit of energy. A real force of nature.”

Prof: “Oh, go back to sleep. I’m tenured; I don’t need this shit.”

In my defense, this was physics class. No one told me there’d be homophones.

Later — after failing the test it was on, obviously — I learned something about the joule. And I discovered I wasn’t that far off, after all. As a unit of energy or work, a joule really does cover all the bases. It’s something different to everyone, defying definition. Or at least, requiring lots of different ones. Like these, for instance:

  • a joule is a force of one newton applied over one meter
  • a joule is also one coulomb of electrical charge moved through a potential difference of one volt
  • too, a joule is one watt of power produced for one second
  • or if you prefer, the kinetic energy of a two-kilogram mass moving at one meter per second.

The joule is other things, too. Anything that takes work or energy can be expressed in joules — it’s just as versatile as Jewel herself. Singer-songwriter. Poet-feminist. Yodeler-snaggly-teeth-owner. It’s all there.

Of course, you should also know the scientific unit conversions — very handy when talking to someone in a different field. For instance:

0.738 Jewels = 1 Alanis Morissette
1.402 Jewels = 1 Sheryl Crow
1 Jewel + 1 Tom Waits / 1 Joni Mitchell = 1 Melissa Etheridge
1 Jewel + an excess of poor decisions + a truckload of meth = 1 Courtney Love

Okay, maybe these aren’t “scientific” conversions, exactly. But it’s a roller coaster of a Spotify playlist, anyway.

Back in actual science — and around the household — the joules get passed around a lot, too. A dietary calorie is equivalent to 4.2 thousand joules. One kilowatt hour of energy is 3.6 million joules. One of your air conditioner’s BTUs is just over a thousand joules. And a ton of TNT will release a hair over four billion joules, if not treated with care.

(Unlike Jewel, who would just release a song or two complaining about being wronged. This is why you never see TNT in the recording studio.)

Because the joule is a part of the International System of Units, it’s the go-to nomenclature in scientific circles for quantifying work or energy. It’s named after James Prescott Joule, a 19th century British physicist, brewer and early researcher of thermodynamics. So he was pretty versatile himself.

On the other hand, nobody’s nominating James Prescott for a Grammy Award, so I stand by my mix-up in class. But the link to pop culture led me to learn more about joules, at least, so that’s something. If they ever name a unit of measurement after prominent Siberian researcher Nikolas Minaj, or early Swedish physicist Sven Bjornson von Foofighters, then maybe we’ll all learn something.

Actual Science:
Science WireWatt’s a joule?
BBC / GCSE BitesizeWork and power
Physics CentralHow long would you have to yell to heat a cup of coffee?
Magnet AcademyJames Joule

Image sources: WikiHow (joule calculation), Oh No They Didn’t (sparkly Jewel), WikiHow / Redbook / Fact Mag / Wall Street Journal / Concrete (Jewel calculation), 3 News/Australia (less-than-sparkly Love)

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· Categories: Physics
What I’ve Learned:

Uncertainty principle: you'll never be a know-it-all; you can only be a know-it-half.
“Uncertainty principle: you’ll never be a know-it-all; you can only be a know-it-half.”

The uncertainty principle is an important tenet of quantum mechanics, first stated by Werner Heisenberg in 1927. And, like most concepts in quantum mechanics, it’s best explained with an analogy to a scene in Cool Hand Luke.

(No, seriously. I’m pretty sure ninety percent of Richard Feynman’s lectures involved stories about eating fifty hard-boiled eggs. You can look it up.)

In a nutshell, what the uncertainty principle says is this: at the quantum level, there are certain pairs of properties of a particle — like position and momentum, for instance — that cannot be accurately determined at the same time. The more precisely one property in such a pair is determined, the less certain one can be about the other.

That’s a fairly textbook definition of the uncertainty principle, which means any of us who ever took a class with an intro to quantum mechanics once slept through a very similar paragraph, probably drooling on our desks. Therefore: Cool Hand Luke.

Say you’re out there in the prison yard like Luke, wearing leg irons — double irons, to be precise — and the guards have decided to break you. Boss Position says you got a bunch of your dirt in his ditch, and you’d better get it out. So you go to work, and you dig it out.

Then Boss Momentum comes up, and asks what the hell you’re doing. Get your dirt out of his yard, he says. So you shovel your dirt back into the ditch. At which point, Boss Position comes back and yells at you to get your dirt out of the ditch, and somebody smacks you with a walking stick and you get your mind right for a while until you and George Kennedy ride off in a dump truck together.

Okay, some of that bit has nothing to do with physics. It’s just a really good movie.

The point is, you’ve got a ditchful of dirt, which stands for your ability to measure. You can put all your dirt in the ditch and measure position to a T — but then you’ve got no dirt left over to measure momentum. Or you can dump all your dirt in the yard and nail down momentum, but then position is a mystery. Or you can split the dirt, half-ass an estimate for both, and then nobody’s happy. It’s your choice. But there’s no more dirt to work with.

Also, the man with no eyes will probably shoot you in the end, either way. Because in quantum physics, nobody gets their mind right for very long.

One last important thing about the uncertainty principle: it’s not solely a result of the way you do your measuring. Some people — including Heisenberg — explained the uncertainty principle in a way that made it seem the ambiguity came from the act of measuring.

(Probably because Cool Hand Luke hadn’t been made yet in 1927. I think we can all agree that would have saved everyone a lot of time.)

And while it’s true that measurement will often alter the properties of a particle under study — a photon from a microscope changing a particle’s path is a classic thought experiment example — that’s not the same thing. That’s called the “observer effect”, and beyond any ambiguity that brings to the party, there’s still a fundamental, no-getting-around-it, baked-into-the-universe uncertainty principle lurking underneath. Even in a perfect world, with a measuring device that leaves a particle entirely undisturbed, you still can’t know both the position and momentum (for instance) of a quantum particle with complete certainty.

It’s almost as though what the two properties have is… a failure to communicate. Talkin’ physics over heah, boss.

Image sources: Clear Science (uncertainty principle), Information Processing (Feynman, obviously lecturing about a hard-boiled egg), Wars and Windmills (Luke and his ditch dirt), Northwestern University and Dewey21C (Werner and Luke staring down the man with no eyes)

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· Categories: Chemistry, Physics
What I’ve Learned:

Noble gases: They are SO not into you.
“Noble gases: They are SO not into you.”

When you hear the word noble, it conjures many thoughts. French aristocracy. Those starch-shirted tea-sippers on PBS. “Barnes and”. But what is it exactly that these “noble” things have in common?

For starters, they really don’t like dealing with people. They’re not into sharing or helping or customer service. Or customers. Or anyone they consider peasants. Which is all of us.

But this notion of noble isn’t limited to the Antoinettes and booksellers and creepy Crawleys of the world. It’s also pretty much the way noble gases behave: hands-off, aloof and rarely intermingling with the common folk. Not while anyone is looking, anyway.

In atomic terms, this means that atoms of the noble gas elements — helium, neon, argon, krypton, xenon and radon — almost never form molecular bonds with other elements.

(And unlike some “noble” families, they don’t often bond with their own kind, either.

Yeah, that’s right. I’m lookin’ at you, Habsburgs, ya interbreeding jaw-jutters.)

The reason noble gases don’t readily form molecules is that their outermost electron shells are “full”. Atomic bonding — like all bonding, according to Bert and Ernie — is about sharing. In this case, sharing of one or more electrons.

But atoms are built with “shells” of certain sizes, and the outer one is where the interatomic electron love is most likely to happen. If that outer shell already has as many electrons as it can hold, like a dozen eggs in a carton, then it’s got no room for a spare shared from another atom. And having that full shell gives the atom stability — so it’s in no hurry to loan an electron out and break up the set, either.

All the noble gas elements have atoms in this exact situation. They’ve got everything they need, and a place for everything they have. They don’t want to talk to you, nor to some chatty hydrogen ion. And especially not some clingy bonder like carbon. Carbon atoms make up to four atomic bonds at the same time.

That would never do for a noble gas. Noble gases probably hire atoms to make their dirty atomic bonds for them. Indeed. Quite. I say.

Of course, being “noble” gives the noble gases a set of unique properties. (Which, happily for them, don’t include hereditary haemophilia and chronic haughtiness.) First — as if to prove how little they want to do with you — all noble gases are colorless, odorless and tasteless. As the name suggests, they’re all also gases at normal temperatures and pressures — helium, in fact, is the only element that can’t be cooled into a solid without also applying pressure. As in, twenty-five atmospheres of pressure. Nobles really are a stubborn lot.

While it is possible — though never easy — to get the noble gases to play nice and bond with other elements, it’s actually their uppity ways that make them most useful. Helium is added to deep-sea scuba air tanks to prevent the bends, since it’s not easily absorbed into tissues. And because it’s inflammable, it’s replaced hydrogen gas for blimp filler since that whole Hindenburg “oopsie” a few decades ago.

Non-reactivity makes noble gases useful in light bulbs, too. Halogen lamps include krypton, incandescent bulbs use argon and neon lights… well. Loners or not, let’s just say Las Vegas wouldn’t be Las Vegas without a helluva lot of noble gas in its signs. And they find use in arc welding, medical and industrial lasers, MRIs, Antarctic ice dating and gas chromatographs, among many other applications.

Which might be the oddest thing of all about these elements. For a bunch of atoms too snooty to mingle with us commoners, noble gases sure do get around.

Image sources: Chemhume (noble gases), Buzzfeed (disapproving dowager), American Museum of Natural History (“holy Hapsburg jaw, Charles II!), Shrimpdaddycocoapuff (noble gas cat)

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· Categories: Astronomy, Physics
What I’ve Learned:

Albedo: upon further reflection, it keeps getting better.
“Albedo: upon further reflection, it keeps getting better.”

I used to think “albedo” was a term for sex drive in people without skin pigmentation. This led to some very uncomfortable conversations. And, as someone who doesn’t tan very well, a lot of unsuccessful pickup lines.

As it turns out, albedo means something a little bit different. It’s another word for “reflection coefficient”, which is the ratio of light reflected off an object to the amount of light pumped in. For a highly shiny object — Gwyneth Paltrow’s forehead, say — then you have a high albedo, close to 1. On a much darker surface — where light rays check in, but they don’t check out — the albedo will be very close to zero.

A partial list of substances on the low end of the albedo scale:

A 7-11 asphalt parking lot: 0.12
Charcoal: 0.04
Vantablack carbon nanotube substance: 0.00035
C. Montgomery Burns’ shriveled heart: 0.002
Black hole: 0(-ish)
Spinal Tap’s Smell the Glove album (revised cover): 0.000000001

(How much more black could it be? The scientific answer is: negligibly more black, allowing for measurement variability and prevailing experimental conditions. Nigel Tufnel wasn’t so far off.)

The albedo of most objects is affected by two things: the angle and the wavelength of light streaming in. Light glancing past is easier to reflect, and some materials have a preference for absorbing or bouncing back light of various colors.

In fact, that’s how we perceive objects as having colors; we only see the wavelengths bouncing off them that they neglected to absorb. If every substance sucked up every wavelength of light like some kind of solar paper towel, then they’d all be completely black.

Unlike non-solar paper towels, which are white. Because the Brawny man will clean up your coffee spills. But he’ll never take away your sunshine.

In astronomy, albedo is an important characteristic of faraway objects, and can be used to determine what they’re made of. One of Saturn’s moons, Enceladus, has a surface of nearly pristine ice, and an albedo of 0.99. You could basically use Enceladus as a mirror to see if there’s spinach stuck between your teeth, except that its 750 million miles from your bathroom and your face would freeze if you got anywhere close to it.

This week’s flyby — or more accurately, screamingwhooooshby — of Pluto by the New Horizons spacecraft is providing details and answers to a question first raised by albedo measurements of Pluto and its largest moon, Charon. These bodies (as well as Pluto’s other moons) are thought to have formed from a collision of two large objects many millions of years ago. But looking at light reflected from them, Pluto has an albedo in the range of 0.49 – 0.66, while Charon is much darker, at 0.36 – 0.39.

Why the difference? Are the two made of different substances, after all? Did somebody polish Pluto up to try to get it reinstated as a planet? Or is Charon just going through a “goth” phase?

These are answers that albedo alone can only hint at, for objects at the edge of our solar system and for planets many, many light years away. It’s not a perfect tool for astronomical discovery — but for the places our probes (and horny albinos) can’t reach, it’s an awfully good start.

Image sources: University of Washington (albedo spectrum), ChaCha (Gwyneth aglow), Brass Collar (“none more black”), Got a Nerdy Mind? (the Brawny menagerie)

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· Categories: Physics
What I’ve Learned:

Acoustic levitation: be uplifted by the sound.
“Acoustic levitation: be uplifted by the sound.”

Imagine you found an insect in your bathtub — a beetle, say. And also imagine that you’re a kind and compassionate soul — or maybe you actually are, in which case bully for you, Gandhi — and you want to move the beetle outdoors without harming it. That’s where the situation gets a bit complicated, because:

You don’t want to grab the bug, because you might accidentally bend a leg or antenna or something.

Also, you don’t want to catch the bug in a box or glass, because that’s cruel — and we’ve already established you’re a tree-frenching envirohippie paragon. At least for the duration of this thought experiment.

And really, you don’t want to touch the bug at all, because it’s gross. I don’t care how you feel about Mother Nature’s skittering nightmares. Nobody’s touching them on purpose. Ew.

So what do you do? It seems like yelling at the beetle to get the hell out of your bathtime sanctuary wouldn’t help — but actually, it might. If you could yell in a very specific and consistent way, and get the insect in just the right spot, and also maybe have a machine do the yelling for you, to make it less stressful for everyone.

(After all, what did that disgusting little bug ever do to you, other than rubbing its filthy thorax all over your tub?)

If you could produce just the right sort of sound waves, at a high enough volume and a suitable frequency, you could actually lift that beetle off its porcelain perch into mid-air, without ever physically touching it. The process is called acoustic levitation, and can be a lifesaver for manipulating things you don’t want to touch. Even with a Kleenex.

Acoustic levitation — or sonic levitation, as it’s sometimes called — relies on the force of sound waves colliding with an object. Under normal circumstances, this force is tiny. It might nudge a few atoms around, but it’s too weak to get anything fancy accomplished.

However. If you concentrate enough sound waves together, then channel your inner Nigel Tufnel and turn the volume all the way up to 11, those puny nudges multiply into a force that can defy gravity — at least when applied small objects, like that bathtub beetle. Or a computer chip. Or an unstable chemical.

Of course, it helps to use “ultrasonic” signals — those outside the range of human hearing — lest you blast out your own eardrums trying to float a butterfly off your medicine cabinet. Typical volumes for effective acoustic levitation signals are 150 decibels and higher.

That’s basically the equivalent of listening to a NASA rocket launch from the comfort of a chair that’s been strapped to the bottom of the solid fuel booster. Or sharing an elevator with Donald Trump. But because human ears can’t “pick up” ultrasonic frequencies, we’re not deafened by the prodigious ruckus being created by acoustic levitation experiments. We’re also too big to be lifted off the floor by those experiments — and that’s where the beetles and other small objects come in.

There are many advantages to holding something in the air using only sound. Those computer chips, for example, could be examined — or even manufactured — with a complete panoramic view, and no worries about using electromagnetic forces for levitation, either. Chemicals can be mixed or tested without fear of breaking their container, because there is no container. And yes, maybe you could get an insect out of your bathroom without needing a desperate shower yourself.

Mostly, scientists are working on the computer chips and chemicals sort of applications for acoustic levitation. But maybe a beetle crawling up some egghead’s shower head will get them moving on the last one, too. We can only hope.

In the meantime, researchers have managed to move objects around with sound, too. With the right mix of frequencies, sources and intensity, levitated objects can be made to dance, move and travel around the acoustic field. This opens up huge possibilities for what acoustic levitation can do in fields from manufacturing to medicine. Maybe someday, we’ll all have kits that will float those bathroom beetles right out the window to freedom, No muss, no fuss.

In the meantime, I suggest yelling at the bugs as loud as you can. That might not get rid of them, but at least other people will probably come running. They’ll probably know what to do. Or at least bring a Kleenex.

Image sources: LiveScience (acoustically-levitated beetle), Cool Advices, Brooklyn Magazine (Nigel Tufnel, going to 11), Salon (Trump, mid-dump)

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