Science, sex, space, songs and scenery
You always know shit’s about to get real when Michio Kaku starts a sentence with “We physicists..”
The Z Machine
Located in Albuquerque, New Mexico, the Z Machine is the worlds largest X-ray generator. When discharged, for a brief period of about 70 nanoseconds, the Z machine releases 80 times the electrical output used by the entire planet. One of its main objectives is to study the conditions of extreme temperature and pressure, with the hope of solving the practical difficulties in harnessing the power of nuclear fusion. The temperatures reached in the Z Machine (up to 3.7 billion kelvins) are well beyond those required for standard hydrogen, deuterium and tritium fusion. This could potentially allow for the fusion of light hydrogen atoms with heavier atoms, such as lithium and boron. These fusion reactions would not produce neutrons, which means they would not produce radioactivity or nuclear waste, which would provide a far cleaner and more efficient source of power than is currently available.
Shown here refracting a classic image of Einstein himself, is what was, up until 2008, the closest thing to a perfect sphere ever made by humankind.
Crafted from fused quartz (which is made by melting down and further refining high quality quartz crystal, resulting in a much more consistent and pure form of glass than is achieved by standard means), four of these spheres went up in 2004 as components of four gyroscopes on Gravity Probe B, a satellite designed to test Einstein’s theories on the effects that large spinning objects, such as Earth, have on space and time. The precision of the measurements that were to be taken, required each sphere to be engineered to as close to perfection as was possible with technology available at the time. Even advanced high-end gyroscopes used here on Earth are millions of times too inaccurate to perform these kinds of measurements, due to the slightest imperfections in their design and production. The meticulous construction of these spheres, for the most part, overcomes those issues, being near perfectly round to within just forty atoms. This means if you were to scale one up to the size of Earth, the tallest peak would be 2.4m high.
However during 2008, in a bid to redefine how a kilogram is measured, a new standard was set when a number of teams, including CSIRO and the Australian Centre for Precision Optics, crafted spheres of silicon-28 so near perfectly smooth, that if one were scaled up to the size of Earth, the most noticeable imperfections would be slight ripples of about 12 to 15mm. This feat is perhaps only topped in nature by objects like neutron stars or single electrons.
Just to clear up some confusion about what was covered in my last post concerning the Super-Kamiokande, here’s a very basic summary of what a neutrino is.
While being difficult to detect, neutrinos are quite literally all around you, far outnumbering other, more familiar subatomic particles like protons, neutrons and electrons, which are the building blocks that make up atoms. Most neutrinos we encounter here on Earth originate from our sun, which sends around 65 billion neutrinos through every single square centimeter on Earth, including you and me, per second, at nearly the speed of light.
The reason we don’t notice this is because neutrinos are absolutely miniscule, even in the realm of subatomic particles. They make atoms look plain obese. Also, they have no electromagnetic charge, unlike the positively charged protons and negatively charged electrons. This means they almost never interact with anything else, they pass through the entire planet as though it isn’t even there, they’re the elitist snobs of the particle world. Every now and then, though, one does bump into something ordinary. It’s these elusive, faint interactions that neutrino detectors keep watch for.
Pictured is the Super-Kamiokande, a giant neutrino detector, buried 1000m underground in Japan. Usually filled with 50,000 tonnes of pure water, the observatory detects neutrinos by watching for interactions with the subatomic particles in the water. These interactions are extremely rare, which is why the detector needed to be built to the scale it is.
Ball lightning: A mystery wrapped in an explosive ball of electric fire that can and will find and kill you.
Okay, sadly, this stuff may not be floating orbs of death and destruction, produced by some kind of Super Saiyan Nikola Tesla. In recent studies done by physicists in Austria, it has been suggested that Ball Lightning isn’t even a physical phenomenon and is instead a hallucination caused by intense electromagnetic pulses associated with rare forms of lightning, but it’s something that’s said to be witnessed by somewhere between 0.6% and 5% of us.
The accounts of BL, though spread out over hundreds of years, describe fairly similar events, such as being at least roughly spherical in shape, appearing to consist of plasma or a plasma like state, and usually in motion. Some aspects seem to vary greatly though, descriptions of size range from 1cm up to over 1m. Witnesses have reported seeing a vast array of different colours, even a sequence of changing colours. Some are claimed to move at high speed, in particular directions or erratically, then explode upon contact with a solid object, or in other cases pass straight through obstacles or to just disappear silently.
While BL is usually associated with storms, it doesn’t appear to be exclusively a result of lightning, at least not directly. It has occurred in a bizarre range of settings, including ships at sea, indoors, and even on a plane while mid flight. Fingers crossed for no horrible sci-fi sequel to Snakes on a Plane.
During 1638 in England, a “ball of fire” was said to have entered a church filled with approximately 300 people in the middle of a lightning storm. Around 60 people were injured and 4 were killed in the event after the reported ball of fire tore through a window, causing structural damage as it rebounded around the interior of the church.
Though very little is known about the true nature of BL, there have been numerous theories over the years, from resonant microwave cavities to vaporized silicon, to more outlandish ideas such as BL being microscopic black holes moving through the Earth. The latter was inspired by an event in 1868, where BL left a wake of trenches and holes in the soil and rock over a period lasting around 20 minutes. A report in Astrophysics and Space Science journal in 1999 suggested that the effects of the event were inconsistent with thermal or electro-static effects, and that instead, the effects matched that of which an extremely dense but small object weighing over 20,000kg would cause. This would require something more than 2000 times as dense as gold, in other words, a tiny black hole.
For now the secrets behind the nature of Ball Lightning remain illusive. With very little documentation outside of witness testaments, there is very little to study in a truely scientific manner. Until that changes, educated speculation is the best we can do to understand this strange phenomenon.
“He was always putting his theories to the test and that was the great thing about Richard. Whenever you’d ask him a question and he couldn’t think of an answer he’d always say “Well, what experiment can we do to figure it out?”. I remember once for instance we were making spaghetti, that was our favorite thing to eat together… …but if you take a spaghetti stick and you break it, it turns out that instead of breaking in half it will break in 3 pieces. So I said “Richard, why is this true? Why does it break in 3 pieces?”. So we ended up spending the next two hours coming up with all these crazy theories about why spaghetti breaks into 3 pieces. In fact we ended up doing all these experiments like breaking it under water because we thought it might dampen the sound and we had some theory of breaking it at all kinds of different distances or putting it on a table and breaking it off the edge. So we ended up at the end of a few hours with all this broken spaghetti all over the kitchen and no real good theory as to why spaghetti breaks in three pieces.”
— W. Daniel Hillis, entrepreneur, author, inventor and associate of Richard Feynman. (via 14-billion-years-later)
Has Science Found The First White Hole?
The universe is littered with the weird and wonderful and GRB 060614 could turn out to be one of the weirdest and most wonderful of them all.
GRB 060614, which we’ll call Ralph to smooth things along, was a gamma-ray burst with some very puzzling properties detected by Nasa’s Swift satellite on June 14, 2006.
Gamma-ray bursts are the most powerful explosions in the universe. They usually come in two flavours: long bursts, which are normally caused by the sudden release of energy that occurs when a collapsing star forms a black hole in a massive supernova event, and short bursts, which occur when two neutron stars – the superdense remains of dead stars – collide.
Ralph’s gamma ray burst lasted 102 seconds, which put it firmly in the long burst camp. But there was a problem: no supernovae had been recorded anywhere in Ralph’s vicinity. At the time, its discoverers were baffled, and exclaimed: ‘This is brand new territory, we have no theories to guide us.
Now, five years later, a theory has emerged: it could be a white hole. A white hole is a theoretical beastie that exists as a set of equations that were a by-product of Einstein’s theory of relativity. It is basically a black hole in reverse. If a black hole is an object from which nothing can escape, then a white hole is an object into which nothing can enter – it can only radiate energy and matter.