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:

WIMPs: Massive, dark and WIMPy is no way to go through life, son.
“WIMPs: Massive, dark and WIMPy is no way to go through life, son.”

There are lab geeks, biology nerds and chemistry dorks. But did you know there are also particle physics WIMPs? And that they’re dark and mysterious, and not especially wimpy at all?

(Also, they’re not particle physicists. Most of them couldn’t punch their way out of a wet bag full of hadrons.

I’m just saying. Banging atoms together and scribbling down equations all day doesn’t exactly qualify as “cross-training”.)

WIMPs are actually elemental particles — specifically, Weakly Interacting Massive Particles. Or rather, they would be, if they weren’t hypothetical, which at the moment is what they actually are. Or aren’t. Or might be. Theoretical physics is sort of confusing to talk about.

Let’s try this: if they exist, WIMPs might be the particles that make up the “dark matter” astrophysicists are always going on about. In fact, that’s basically how the idea of WIMPs came about.

Basically, “dark” matter is stuff out there in the universe that — unlike stars, planets, space junk and giant Pharaoh Bender statues — can’t be seen with a telescope. That’s because dark matter doesn’t interact via electromagnetic means, so observations using light, infrared, X-rays, radio waves and basically all the other ways we probe the universe, are off the table. The dark matter — or something — must be there, because it exerts gravitational effects on the things we can see. And there’s a hell of a lot of it — more than four times the amount of “un-dark” matter in the universe.

(This may seem like esoteric cosmological knowledge, but it really comes in handy for making yourself feel better when you’ve cheated on a diet. Just remember: for every cupcake you eat, there’s four more cupcakes’ worth of dark matter out there somewhere that you haven’t eaten. So that’s something.)

According to smart space people — that’s smart people who study space, not smart people from space, obviously — one way of working out what dark matter is made from involves a relatively heavy particle that interacts only via gravity and the weak nuclear force. (Hence the “W” in WIMP, for weak; see what they did there.)

At the same time, one flavor of a popular particle physics theory called “supersymmetry” predicts elemental particles with the very same properties. This confluence of “two great tastes that taste great together”, theoretically speaking, has been dubbed the “WIMP miracle” in scientific circles.

(Thus replacing the previous scientific definition of “wimp miracle”, which was “that time Anthony Michael Hall and the other goober created Kelly LeBrock in their bedroom”.)

Miracles aside, the big problems with WIMPs is that nobody has ever seen one. They wouldn’t be easy to find, naturally, but theories suggest that they might be produced in places like galactic centers, certain particle accelerator collisions and possibly the sun. Mostly, physicists have to search for detectable breakdown products of rare events that suggest WIMPs were involved, and hope they see enough evidence to distinguish from other possible sources. So far, they haven’t.

As the search for WIMPs continues, other theories attempting to explain dark matter have emerged. These include strong interacting massive particles, massive compact halo objects (including black holes) and robust associations of massive baryonic objects. All of which have corresponding acronyms, of course.

So particle physics has ranged from WIMPs to SIMPs to MACHOs to RAMBOs. In other words, it’s run through the Weird Science plot from the miracle girl’s perspective. That’s nice, but it hasn’t solved the mystery of dark matter yet. Somebody call me when the Chet hits the fan.

Image sources: APS Physics (WIMP search plot), Normal Level of Crazy (cupcake stuffing), Dino Bone (science, weirdly), Life and Style (steaming pile of Chet)

· Write a comment
· Tags: , , , , , , , ,

· 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)

· Write a comment
· Tags: , , , , , , , , , ,

· Categories: Physics
What I’ve Learned:

Even when they're plush, neutrinos are badass.
“Neutrinos: never seen, never heard and there’s one behind you RIGHT NOW!”

Scary question: what do neutrinos, ninjas and Bigfoot have in common?

Even scarier answer: Almost everything.

For starters, neutrinos are shrouded in mystery. They were first predicted decades ago, but there’s a lot we still don’t know about them. What’s a neutrino’s mass? How fast do they move? How many types are there? Boxers or briefs? Do they like gladiator movies?

We know none of these things about neutrinos. Just like ninjas and Bigfoot.

Neutrinos are mysterious because they’re extremely hard to detect. They pass right through air, liquid, solids — even the earth itself. Neutrinos make no sound, give no advance warning and make only the slightest disturbance as they pass.

Sound like any feudal Japanese assassins or Sasquatches you know?

Paradoxically, though, neutrinos are basically everywhere. They’re created by processes including nuclear fusion, like in stars or supernovae or a really intense Dave Matthews Band gig. If you put your hand up to the sun, one trillion neutrinos will pass through it every second.

(Of course, if you put your hand anywhere else, they’ll still pass through it. You can put your hand under your butt in the dead of night, if you want; it won’t make a bit of difference.

Neutrinos don’t care. They do what they want.

Like ninjas. Like Bigfoot.)

This abundance does make neutrinos unique, though. If a trillion ninjas were nearby, you’d already be too dead to read this. And a trillion Bigfeet would stack ten thousand deep in the Montana woods, and someone would eventually notice the pile. Or the smell. Plus, there’d be a lot more idiotic beef jerky commercials on TV. Pretty hard to miss.

Neutrinos are hard to detect because they rarely interact. With no electrical charge, tiny mass and near-light speed, neutrinos are a pain in the ass to catch up to. Researchers only find them when one in a hugetillion pings off a molecule in an underground pool of laboratory water, or a detector array built into an Antarctic ice sheet. Short of running smack into the heart of an atomic nucleus, a neutrino could go undetected forever.

Like ninjas’ and Bigfeet’s long lost subatomic brother.

Of course, anything mysterious and spooky needs a nemesis. For ninjas, it’s pirates. Obviously. For Bigfoot, a zoom-lens Nikon. And for neutrinos, it’s the antineutrino — which some theories say is also a neutrino.

So, a particle that rarely interacts, can barely be seen and is also its own opposite. Maybe neutrinos are actually more like Batman. Or the Unabomber. The Batabomber? Possibly not.

Anyway, for such an antisocial particle, neutrinos get invited to an awful lot of physics parties. Scientists use the kind from supernovae as cosmic warning signals. Astronomers want to use them to “see” stars on the other side of light-blocking cosmic dust and gas. Neutrino property measurements could provide evidence for or against competing particle physics models. Neutrinos from the Big Bang could be some (or all) of the “dark matter” cosmologists have been trying to find. They can be used to monitor nuclear reactors. It’s possible (but not so likely — but still possible!) that neutrinos travel faster than the speed of light.

Yeah. They’re kind of a big deal.

In conclusion, neutrinos. A lot like ninjas, and also Bigfoot. And possibly Ted Kaczynski in a Batman mask. Only better.

Image sources: Ars Technica (neutrino event), Particle Zoo (ninja neutrino plushies), AdWeek (Bigfoot posse), Chris Is Why I’m Skinny and Gentleman Sparks (Batabomber)

· Write a comment
· Tags: , , , , , , , ,