Latest StoriesPhysics
    Tested: Hail Damage to Solar Panels

    How much hail damage can a solar panel endure? We take our high-speed camera to the Westpak testing facility, where we fire balls of ice at different velocities at a panel to see if they're truly weatherproof. Their high-pressure ice cannon is named "Mr. Freeze!"

    Simple Feats of Science: Bed of Nails

    We take on this classic science experiment! Zeke Kossover from the Exploratorium explains how he built a bed of nails that he can comfortably lie on, and then we smash a concrete block on top of him! The science is simple, but it's still fun to watch every single time.

    Visualizing Energy Inside a Microwave Oven!

    Have you ever wondered why your microwave oven has a rotating turntable, or what exactly makes water boil inside a microwave? This week, we're joined by Zeke Kossover from The Exploratorium to demonstrate an experiment that visualizes microwave energy in the form of a light show. Plus, we show how glass can absorb microwaves by melting a soda bottle!

    10 Things You Didn’t Know About Flying

    One of the most amazing accomplishments of human civilization is our conquering of gravity to let our fragile, ridiculous bodies fly. No other earthly mammal has figured this out, and the invention of powered flight radically transformed civilization. You’re probably pretty used to the presence of airplanes in your daily life (unless you’re a mole woman reading this from your bunker), but you might be surprised at how much you don’t know about aviation. Here are ten nuggets of fascinating information from the world of flight.

    In Brief: ILM's John Knoll on the Death Star and Star Wars Physics

    A week ago, attendees at Star Wars Celebration got the first glimpse of the first Star Wars Anthology film, named Rogue One. Director Gareth Edwards revealed that the film would be about the theft of the Death Star plans before the events of Episode IV, and showed a short teaser clip created by ILM specifically for the announcement. The clip, which has yet to be officially released by Lucasfilm (but for which bootleg copies were immediately uploaded to YouTube), showed the massive Death Star looming over the horizon of a forested planet. AICN writer and professional astronomer used screencaps of that footage to calculate the physics of that shot to assess it's "realism", and was subsequently contacted by effects legend John Knoll to walked through ILM's thinking behind that shot. Knoll's explanation is wonderfully geeky, and shows how much thought effects artists and engineers put into their work, beyond just the "wow" factor. It's the very best of sci-fi apologetics, from the behind-the-scenes technicians closest to canon. (h/t Gary Whitta)

    In Brief: The Mystery of Dancing Droplets

    Back in March, Stanford researchers announced that they had found an explanation for an interesting phenomena: droplets of food coloring on glass spontaneously move and interact with each other. From the Stanford Report: "A puzzling observation, pursued through hundreds of experiments, has led Stanford researchers to a simple yet profound discovery: Under certain circumstances, droplets of fluid will move like performers in a dance choreographed by molecular physics." Super cool, thoughtfully explained, and the video (below) is beautiful.

    Harnessing the Energy of a Man-Made Tornado

    From The Atlantic, in collaboration with The Adapters podcast: "A Canadian inventor named Louis Michaud has spent decades building a machine—a tornado machine—that he thinks could solve the world's energy problems. According to Michaud, his "Atmospheric Vortex Engine" may someday generate mile-high columns of warm air, heated by the sun or waste heat from power plants, which could turn turbines and produce power. Lots of power, he believes. All he has to do is prove it."

    In Brief: Examining the Woodward Effect

    Have you heard of the Woodward Effect? It's a decades-old theory for a method of generating thrust without expending mass--basically limitless propulsion without the need to refuel. It's no wonder that this concept has been used to fuel theoretical engine designs for spacecraft. Steady acceleration without the need for propellants sounds too good to be true, so BoingBoing visited the office and laboratory of Dr. James Woodward to learn about his theory and see an application of it in an experimental thruster. Real-world science is sometimes stranger and more awesome than fiction.

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    ISS Astronauts Put a GoPro in a Floating Water Bubble

    We haven't posted a video shot by Astronauts on the International Space Station in a while, but that doesn't mean they're not shooting awesome stuff up there! Here's a recent one that is especially cool: "During Expedition 40 in the summer of 2014, NASA astronauts Steve Swanson and Reid Wiseman - along with European Space Agency astronaut Alexander Gerst - explored the phenomenon of water surface tension in microgravity on the International Space Station." And because tours of the ISS are always fun to watch, here's the most recent one shot by Astronaut Reid Wiseman, travelling from the very back of the station to the very front!

    The Challenges of Hybrid Vehicle Design

    My recent article on the OverDrive flying car design, triggered some debate about the practicality of hybrid designs. The comments were primarily focused on flying cars and floating cars, but all aspects of modern civilization teem with examples of hybrids. It seems an inescapable human desire to combine two good things in an effort to make one great thing. Some amalgams have achieved stellar results, perhaps even becoming a defining cultural element (think cameraphones). Others fade into a purgatory of ridicule and obscurity.

    The OverDrive concept hybrid car.

    The conversation made me question why some hybrid ideas flourish when others fail, even if the base components are individually successful. It is not something that I had ever given much thought to, but I began to wonder if there is a common link between the failed hybrid attempts. Today, I want to compare a handful of successful and failed hybrid concepts and attempt to determine why their relative outcomes were so varied.

    What is a Hybrid?

    The first question to be answered is how to define a hybrid, and there are many meanings. In its simplest form, a hybrid can be two or more widgets combined into a single unit. Perhaps each part is still intended to perform tasks independent of the other parts (ex. Swiss Army knife), or maybe the parts work in unison (ex. eraser-tipped pencil). Either way, it is the combining of these otherwise discrete tools that creates the selling point of the item.

    In examining these types of hybrids, I think it is important to differentiate whether an aspect of a design is a fundamental element or just a feature. For example, most cars have clocks. We don’t call them clock-cars simply because the clock is a feature rather than a core facet of the design. It’s just a car, not a hybrid…unless it also has wings, or a hull, or two types of engines.

    Another form of hybrid is the combination of two different tools that are used for similar jobs. The point is to utilize the best attributes from each tool to improve some aspect of the end item’s overall performance, such as efficiency, power output, reliability, or dependability. In this column we find things such as the diesel-electric locomotive and turboprop engine. We could even include mules (yes, the animals) and genetically-engineered seeds.

    It doesn’t take long to figure out that hybrids of all types saturate our world. For the purposes of this examination (and at the risk of excluding pertinent data), I will focus on nuts and bolts machines. More specifically, I will stick to legacy military hardware, since such items tend to have well-documented requirements as well as performance data.

    In Brief: Startup Touts Working Hoverboard, Launches Kickstarter

    Let's hope this isn't like that Funny or Die hoax from earlier this year. Hendo is a startup that just launched a Kickstarter for a hoverboard, claiming to have created a working prototype of a hovering skateboard. Their hoverboard system using four focused magnets to keep the board and someone standing on top of it afloat over a designated surface. Yep, there's the catch: the Hendo hoverboard only works when placed above non-ferromagnetic conducting surfaces, like metal sheets spread over a half pipe. Hendo isn't being very forthcoming about how its "Magnetic Field Architecture" engines work, but Nerdist' Science Editor explains it as such: "Henderson’s MFA technology is then apparently creating and fluctuating a magnetic field above a metallic surface, and the induced current in that surface provides enough of a response that you can drop in on a metal [surface]." The Kickstarter is offering backers one of ten production boards for $10,000 each (already four sold!), and developer kits with the magnetic "engines" and metal surfaces starting at $300. Working hoverboards? Auto form-fitting fabrics? Everyone wants to get in on the promise of 2015. Put me firmly in the skeptical category.

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    Tested Asks: How are Holograms Made?

    While in New York, Norm stops by Holographic Studios, one the last remaining independent holography galleries and holography studios still operating. Its founder, Jason Sapan, has spent almost 40 years practicing the art of holographic imagery. We figure he's the best person to explain to us what exactly is a hologram, and how they're painstakingly made.

    In Brief: Skepticism about Lockheed's Fusion Reactor Ambitions

    Lockheed's announcement that its Skunk Works division had made a theoretical breakthrough in developing a compact fusion reactor got people very excited this week. The idea of a clean, safe, and compact way to produce nuclear power easily spurs the imagination (as well as Mr. Fusion references). And even though Lockheed's own engineers admit that it'll be 5-10 years before they can put their theories to practice in a viable reactor, they seemed confident in Lockheed's videos. Less optimistic are the nuclear physicists who want to remind us just how difficult it is to implement small-scale fusion. The dissenting voices are always worth reading to get a better understanding of breakthrough claims. I found a few here, here, and some good points on Reddit's thread on the topic. At least this seems more credible than the latest Cold Fusion claim.

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    MIT and Columbia Labs Run Cable Coiling Simulations

    "Engineers at MIT, along with computer scientists at Columbia University, have developed a method that predicts the pattern of coils and tangles that a cable may form when deployed onto a rigid surface. The research combined laboratory experiments with custom-designed cables, computer-graphics technology used to animate hair in movies, and theoretical analyses. The researchers say the coil-predicting method may help design better deployment strategies for fiber-optic cables to avoid the twisting and tangling that can lead to transmission glitches and data loss."

    University of Rochester's Optical "Cloaking"

    "Researchers at the University of Rochester Create a Three-dimensional,Transmitting, Continuously Multidirectional Cloaking Device Inspired perhaps by Harry Potter's invisibility cloak, scientists have recently developed several ways-some simple and some involving new technologies-to hide objects from view." I know the Rochester researchers and most of media are calling this "cloaking", but this clever optical trick is far from the invisibility cloak of science fiction and fantasy. The simplest version of this setup uses four off-the-shelf lenses to focus light around objects placed between them, but only for a specific region (eg. in a ring around the edge of the lens, but not at the center). And while the demonstrations in this video show a small lens system being used, it apparently can be scaled up as larger lenses are used. Neat stuff. Research paper here.

    In Brief: Death Valley's Sailing Stones Mystery Solved

    The mystery of Death Valley's famous moving stones has finally been solved. For almost a century, geologists have been puzzled by the movement of stoves along a dry lake bed called Racetrack Playa in the California desert. The moving stones, which weigh up to 700 pounds, travelled up to 3000 feet in their journey, seemingly without any human or animal assistance. To study their movements, geologists in 2011 tagged 15 rocks with GPS loggers and time-lapse cameras, and even buried magnetic triggers beneath some to test popular theories. They found the perfect combination of light wind and layer of thin ice on the lake bed was the cause of the movement. In the video below, Scripps Oceanography paleooceanographer Richard Norris describes the discovery.

    In Brief: Physicists Make a Tractor Beam in Water

    Have you ever sat in the bathtub or swimming pool and made waves on the surface of the water with your hands to push or pull away a rubber duck? That's the basic idea behind what Australian physicists have been experimenting with in what popular media is calling "tractor beams" in water. Researchers at the Australian National University released a paper in Nature Physics describing how precise generation and manipulation of surface flows in a pool of water can force small objects to move against the direction of the resulting waves--returning to the source of the water disturbance. Computer models and tank experiments show how complicated and precise the movements have to be to get a desired result, but the researchers are hopeful that their discovery could be applicable for real-world tasks like collecting oil spills.

    MIT's Gravity-Defying "Magnetic Hair"

    "MIT engineers have fabricated a new elastic material coated with microscopic, hairlike structures that tilt in response to a magnetic field. Depending on the field's orientation, the microhairs can tilt to form a path through which fluid can flow; the material can even direct water upward, against gravity." More information here.