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:

Special relativity: out with the aether, in with the aother.
“Special relativity: out with the aether, in with the aother.”

On the heels of the holiday season, you may have recently witnessed instances of “special relativity”. Grandma’s secret-recipe fruitcake pucks. Your uncle’s uncomfortably falsetto rendition of “O Holy Night”. Cousin Lem’s drunken faceplant into a bowl of Christmas bisque.

Happily, that’s not the only sort of special relativity. One hundred and ten years ago, Albert Einstein (with a little help from his friends) developed a theory that explained the behavior of things that travel near the speed of light. Like New York City taxis, or Usain Bolt. Or, you know, light.

This theory was needed because by the late 1800s, scientists had figured out that their plain old regular-speed relativity — based on work by Galileo and Newton, among others — wasn’t always getting the job done. This old school theory, called Newtonian relativity or Galilean invariance, because see the previous sentence, sport, said there is an “absolute space” and an “absolute time”, in which everything happens. And by that time, it also included an “absolute reference frame”, a universally unique point of view from which electromagnetic wave properties like the speed of light could be accurately measured.

Problem was, experiments suggested that if that uniquely-accurate reference frame (known as the “aether”) existed, all measurements made in labs were consistently in agreement with it. In other words, all those labs were stationary with respect to this spatial frame of reference. Which would be super, if we didn’t know that the Earth is constantly swooping around the sun (and the sun around the Milky Way, and the Milky Way hurtling through the universe), so it’s not really “stationary” compared to anything but itself.

Einstein dropped this “aether” concept down the nearest aelevator shaft, and that was just the beginning. He also decided that space and time were two great tastes that taste greater together, and mushed them together into something called “spacetime”. And he said no matter how fast you’re going (or not), the speed of light will always look the same. That let a whole bunch of crazy — but later experimentally verified — cats out of the physics bag. For instance:

Under special relativity, two people moving at different speeds may watch the same event happen, but observe it occurring at different times. And not just because one of them has TiVo, either.

If you watch two clocks — one moving and one sitting still — the moving clock appear to go slower. (And if it’s moving while you’re sitting in your office at ten minutes til five on a Friday afternoon, it’ll appear to go reeeeeeeeally slow.)

Mass and energy are equivalent, as given in Einstein’s famous special relativistic equation, E = mc2. This is obvious to anyone who’s eaten a four-ounce chocolate eclair and felt the kajillion-calorie jolt to their metabolism as the mass is converted to energy… and then seen six pounds of flab appear on their ass as it converts back to mass.

(I don’t know why it gets bigger in the conversion. What am I, some wild-haired German genius math guy?)

Basically, Einstein’s special relativity theory made some predictions crazier than drunk old Cousin Lem on an eggnog bender, but they turned out to be true where Newtonian relativity did not. Either theory will get you through the day for normal stuff — but if you’re zooming around near the speed of light, then you’d damned well better listen to Einstein.

He may not be your relative. But believe me — he’s special.

Actual Science:
LiveScienceWhat is relativity?
American Museum of Natural HistorySpecial relativity
HowStuffWorksHow special relativity works
io9Get pelted every day with particles that confirm special relativity
The Physics ClassroomRelativistic length contraction

Image sources: QuickMeme (it’s all relativity), Telegraph (UK) (blurry Bolt), Food Navigator (food faceplant), London Evening Standard (an eclair and present danger)

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

Capillary action: Is that surface tension in your straw, or are you just happy to see me?
“Capillary action: Is that surface tension in your straw, or are you just happy to see me?”

For a long time, I thought “Capillary Action” was a Tom Clancy novel. That’s partly because I never paid attention in physics class, but mostly because I never paid attention to a Tom Clancy book until Harrison Ford got involved.

As it turns out, capillary action is less about espionage, and more about antigravity. And Alabama Slammers. And sometimes, apple bottom jeans. Yeah. It’s kind of a big deal.

Capillary action, or capillarity, describes the movement of fluids in narrow spaces, without any outside force — including gravity. In fact, capillary action often occurs in a direction opposite gravity — like when a bit of your Alabama Slammer climbs up the inside of the straw while it’s resting in the drink, as though the alcohol was trying to claw its way closer to your brain.

(This is why I only drink margaritas. The salted rims keep the alcohol demons at bay, until you decide you’re ready for tequila.

Also: you’re never ready for tequila. No one’s ready for tequila.)

This seemingly-magical uphill slide is actually caused by two physical forces, which are both attractive: the surface tension of the liquid (caused by mutual attraction of its molecules) and the adhesion (again, molecular attraction) of the liquid to the sides of the tube (or straw, or South American monkey-hunting blowgun, if that’s your thing) it’s in.

The combined action of these forces creates a meniscus, or a curve in the surface of the liquid. In fluids like water, the meniscus is concave, meaning the edges touching the walls are higher than the level in the center. As these edges adhere to the tube, the water is pulled further and further up the sides, and voila — capillary action.

It’s like how when some people put on their “skinny jeans”, some of the fluid around their midsections adheres to — and climbs up, and spills over — the sides. The smaller the container, the more climbing up (and out) is going to happen. So basically, capillary action is the muffin top of the physics world.

Except capillary action is caused by attractive forces, and muffin tops are more often caused by Frito pie. Which is far less attractive. Molecularly speaking, of course.

Capillary action is a pretty important phenomenon, though, and scientists have been poking at it for hundreds of years. Leonardo da Vinci first reported it, and some pretty big scientific cheeses — Robert Boyle, Jacob Bernoulli and Lord Kelvin, for instance — have studied and described it. Albert Einstein’s first scientific paper, in fact, was about capillarity. And that guy was pretty smart. He might have even been ready for tequila. Maybe.

Even outside our caipirinhas and our Calvin Kleins (which don’t technically count, but work with me here), capillary action is everywhere. Sponges use capillary action to suck up liquids; so do paper towels. It’s also how trees get moisture to their leaves. Your tear ducts are tiny straws that use capillary action to drain away tears. And those “wicking” fabrics that are all the rage among gym-goers (if somewhat less so among Frito pie fans)? That’s capillary action sucking the sweat off your body and keeping you cool and dry.

So the next time you’re sipping a Sex on the Beach or aerobicizing in Under Armour, take a moment to think about capillary action.

And also Harrison Ford. If they ever make the Capillary Action spy thriller, he’ll make it a lot more interesting.

Actual Science:
USGSCapillary action
UC Davis ChemWikiCapillary action
Scientific AmericanFrost flowers and hot capillary action
ScienceNewsChemist tackles complex problems with simplicity
Fuck Yeah Fluid Dynamics(Tears of wine)

Image sources: MIT (capillary action in action), LoveToKnow (Alabammer slammer), Dude I Want That (Muffin tops [you’re welcome]), Star Warped (Harrison, bemused)

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

Gravitational lensing: mirror, mirror in the sky; show me what's behind this guy
“Gravitational lensing: mirror, mirror in the sky; show me what’s behind this guy.”

If you’ve ever sat behind a really tall person at a movie, then you know the infuriating problem of not being able to see something on the other side of a solid object. At the theater, you probably deal with this in the usual ways — hoping the heighty person slouches in their seat, or spontaneously loses six inches of height, or their head explodes like in that Scanners movie.

But astronomy tells us there’s another viable option, known as gravitational lensing. All you have to do is push the movie a few million light years away, and make that big fat head in front of you as dense as a ten-billion star galaxy.

It’s a little complicated. I’ll explain.

One of the (now-famous) predictions of Albert Einstein’s general theory of relativity is that space (really spacetime, but who’s counting?) is curved, and that hugely massive objects with lots of gravitational force will further warp that curving. So if a celestial light source — like, say, a quasar — lies behind an enormous gravitational well such as a galaxy, the light from the quasar would get curved around the galaxy and slingshot out the other side.

It might appear that the light source lies beside the big heavy thing in the way, because the light doesn’t bend all the way back to the middle. And if the source is directly behind the obstacle, the light could take more multiple paths around it — left, right, up, down, south by southwest — and appear more than once on our side. It could even form a full ring of light all around the object in the middle, weirdly indicating that the thing producing the light isn’t anywhere around the obstacle at all, but directly behind it.

I know, right? It’s spooky. Real call is coming from inside the house stuff.

Because Einstein described relativity, and was a generally awesome dude, the light rings caused by gravitational lensing are called “Einstein rings”. There are very few complete rings — caused by a massive energy source directly behind a star or galaxy — but hundreds of partial rings, multiple-image systems and other gravitational lensing events have been observed. One of the most impressive, called Einstein’s Cross — because, again, cool smart guy — consists of four “bent” images of a way-distant quasar curved around a still-way-distant-but-not-as-way-distant galaxy in between.

It’s like having a head in the way, but still seeing the movie in double-stereo-vision. Because astronomy makes everything better.

So what do you need to make gravitational lensing work? First, a source of some kind of energy. Many of the known ones work in visible light, but any kind of electromagnetic energy will do in a pinch. The universe isn’t picky.

The energy source has to be ridiculously strong, though, because you’ll need to see the signal from way far away. Not just from down the block, or from that window in your attic, either. Instead, from billions of light years away. Which is kind of a big deal.

Why so far? Because you then need to find an incredibly massive object to plop between you and the energy source to produce the gravitational lensing. A bowling ball isn’t going to do it. A star might, if it’s in precisely the right orientation. A whole galaxy of stars would be better. Or you could try Nicki Minaj’s ass. It’s big enough to attract most of the pop culture paparazzi into a close orbit, apparently. Maybe it could work; I don’t know.

The point is, you’ll only see gravitational lensing by throwing that hypermassive whatever between you and and the signal. And then you can watch that gravity well bend electromagnetic waves like Beckham, off a straight line and down to your eyes.

So maybe it won’t help you the next time you’re blocked at the movies. But gravitational lensing could show you a star behind another star some day. And really, isn’t that how the movie industry works in the first place?

Image sources: Cosmic Chatter (Einstein ring), Slate (big head at movie theater), Disease Prone (Scanners head), SlamXHype (rocket-powered Minaj)

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· Categories: Physics
What I’ve Learned:

Brownian motion: even stumbling home drunk means you're doing science.
“Brownian motion: even stumbling home drunk means you’re doing science.”

Brownian motion is one of those things in science that are easy to observe, but which take an awful lot of math and fancy calculators to explain what’s happening under the hood. Much like gravity, or rainbows, or why anyone on the planet still listens to Coldplay.

In simple terms, Brownian motion describes the movement of particles floating in a liquid or gas. This motion is caused by the molecules of that liquid or gas randomly bumping into the particles, jostling them in unpredictable directions. You’re probably familiar with this process, if you’ve ever watched dust dancing on a pool of water, or tried to get out of a crowded subway car when the doors open on the opposite side.

Scientists have observed this “random walk” movement of particles for centuries; there was even an ancient Roman philosopher, Lucretius, who described it back in 60 BC. But the rest of the Romans were apparently busy inventing candles or shades or wrestling Grecos or something, and nobody thought much about wiggling little particles for another eighteen hundred years.

The first person who got back to it was a Dutch guy named Jan Ingenhousz, who in 1785 described the movement of coal dust particles in alcohol. Because that was apparently the most interesting thing he could think of doing with alcohol in 18th century Europe. I’m sure he was an absolute riot at fancy dress balls.

Scientists agreed that Ingenhousz was onto something, but nobody wanted to put a tongue-twister like “Ingenhouszian motion” into the textbooks, probably, so his contribution was mostly swept under the rug, along with his coal dust. And his party invitations.

It wasn’t until 1827 when a more reasonably-named Scottish botanist, Robert Brown, came along and stared at tiny grains of pollen skittering in water — because evidently he couldn’t get a date on Friday night, either. But at least his name was easier to spell, and scientists have called it “Brownian motion” ever since.

To be fair, Brown didn’t actually explain what was happening. He just noticed particles lurching around like those drunken bastards staggering out of ballrooms at all hours of the night, while he was stuck alone in a laboratory, squinting into microscopes and questioning his life choices.

It was another few decades before people — including Albert Einstein, naturally, because what didn’t he do? — sorted out the math behind Brownian motion, which involves a bunch of Greek letters and constants and other stuff my Fisher-Price calculator isn’t equipped to deal with. All I know is, the solutions also supported the idea of unseen tiny atoms and molecules, which wasn’t a done deal at the time. So that was progress.

Besides the squiggly pollen grains and scary maths, what does understanding Brownian motion buy us? Actually, quite a lot. Those same models and equations have been applied to improving medical imaging, helping robots auto-navigate tricky terrain, optimizing schedules in manufacturing, explaining animal herding behavior, studying stock market fluctuations and developing solutions in nanotechnology.

In fact, about the only thing the study of Brownian motion hasn’t done is to get more scientists invited to fancy dress balls.

Random staggering or no, some things in science never change.

Image sources: ETSU / Bob Gardner (Brownian motion), JG Stevenson (crowded subway), This Old Toy (Cookielator), Hypable (physicist drinking alone, aka ‘sad Raj’)

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· Categories: Physics
What I’ve Learned:

Quantum entanglement: It may be spooky -- but at least it won't stink up your ride.
“Quantum entanglement: It may be spooky — but at least it won’t stink up your ride.”

At first, quantum entanglement sounds a little complicated. Entanglement occurs when two elementary particles — electrons or photons, for instance — interact in a way that links some property of those particles together. So if you measure the spin, say, of one electron, you also know the spin of the second, no matter where in the universe that other electron has gotten itself off to. It could still be in the same test chamber. It could be in Hoboken, New Jersey. It doesn’t matter.

There’s a way of thinking about this that makes quantum entanglement seem much simpler. Like all good scientific analogies, it involves Seinfeld.

Imagine the two electrons ride together to the laboratory in Jerry’s car. Specifically, the car parked by that valet who had the really terrible B.O. The kind of funk that couldn’t be cleaned out, and attached itself to everything that came near it — like Jerry’s jacket, or Elaine’s hair.

In this scenario, you clearly only need to measure one electron. If the first particle stinks, and you know they were both in the B.O.-mobile, then the second particle is going to stink, too. Maybe the second particle took a shower. Or sprayed on Old Spice. Or flew to Paris to bathe in perfume. It doesn’t matter. You don’t escape the B.O. car stench.

The key here is that the fates of the electrons were sealed at the time they interacted. If that’s the case, the distance between the two when they’re measured isn’t relevant — they were funkified together, back on the ride to work. This idea is called a “hidden variable” theory, and it makes quantum entanglement much, much easier to understand.

It’s also completely wrong. Which is a shame, because I’ve always thought science could use more Julia Louis-Dreyfus.

Using large-scale experiments and lots of complicated Greek-letter math, physicists have proven (or nearly proven, depending on who you ask) that hidden variables are not involved in quantum entanglement. For either particle, it’s impossible to know or predict the entangled property before it’s measured. But once it’s known, the corresponding property of the other particle somehow “knows” about this measurement, and locks into place. This happens immediately — or at least, thousands of times faster than the speed of light, which is theoretically impossible.

Or was, until bizarro quantum entanglement concepts were first debated back in the ’30s by scientists like Erwin Schrodinger, Boris Podolsky, Nathan Rosen and Albert Einstein.

(Incidentally, Einstein in particular rejected the idea of quantum entanglement, calling it “spooky action at a distance”.

I’m no particle physicist, but any time you describe a theory the same way you would a guy who touches himself while he watches you across the subway car, you’re probably not a fan.)

Besides being wicked weird, quantum entanglement is a hot topic in physics these days. Entanglement is the key to quantum computing, may unlock virtually unbreakable cryptography, could be the secret to photosynthesis and might even be responsible for why time flows in one direction.

Not bad for a phenomenon that’s spookier than subway creeps, and more confusing than permanent automotive armpit stank.

Image sources: NASA Science (entangled cartoon), Abnormal Use (smelly car), Popsugar and Brookhaven National Lab (Julia Scientist-Dreyfus), Live NY Now (subway creep)

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