Archive for the ‘physics’ Category

Physics and… Indiana Jones?

Saturday, June 4th, 2011

“Tanis is one of the possible resting places of the Lost Ark.”~ Indiana Jones, Raiders of the Lost Ark

Tanis was once the thriving capital of Ancient Egypt.  Between the 11th and 8th centuries BC it was a large, rich city, its economy based on commerce, its proximity to the sea making it an important post for seaborne trade throughout the Mediterranean.  The prosperity of the city accounts for the construction of the largest temple ever built in Egypt, dedicated to the chief deity Amun.  Three thousand years later, however, Tanis is nothing more than an undeveloped stretch of land to the east of modern San-el-Hagar, scattered here and there with ruins and partially excavated areas.

At least, this is how we see it with our own eyes.

The human eye is surprisingly limited when we consider its capacity for detecting light or, in broader terms, electromagnetic radiation.  The human eye is capable of detecting wavelengths – colors – ranging from about 400 nm (violet) to about 700 nm (red), roughly the size of a virus.  But light – electromagnetic radiation – exists in many other wavelengths, too; it’s just that our eyes aren’t sensitive to them.  The entire electromagnetic spectrum extends from gamma rays, with wavelengths smaller than the radius of an atom, all the way to radio waves, with wavelengths up to a thousand miles long!

If our eyes were sensitive to infrared light, however, our view of Tanis would look quite different, and this is precisely what some archeologists have in mind.  Dr. Sarah Parcak, an Egyptologist and archeologist at the University of Alabama, uses infrared satellite images to search for undiscovered ancient settlements in Egypt.  And the results are astonishing.  With funding from the BBC, the imagery of Tanis uncovered a maze of streets and structures that had been buried for nearly two millennia.

So how does it work?  The imaging satellites are equipped with special infrared cameras that are able to detect small differences in temperature between different materials.  Think of the night-vision goggles you’ve seen in action films.  People can be detected in the darkness with the goggles because their bodies are much warmer than their surroundings.  Likewise, walls made of mud brick are warmer than the surrounding soil, sand, and vegetation.  This is because they are drier and denser than the surrounding material, which means they retain more of the heat they absorb.  And the cameras are sensitive, able to detect object 1 m (3 ft) in diameter from 700 km (430 mi) above the Earth’s surface.  No Lost Ark has been found so far.

In addition to Tanis, Dr. Parcak and her team have found thousands of tombs and settlements as well as numerous pyramids that have previously been lost to the shifting sands.  It will be exciting to see what striking new discoveries will be uncovered with this technique in the future!

PS. Another example of infrared light that is closer to home is your remote control.  When you press a button on the remote, flashing infrared light is emitted, the frequency of which varies depending on which button you push.  Observe it like this.  Turn on your digital camera and aim your remote at the lens.  The camera is sensitive to light in the near infrared range and you’ll be able to see the flashing light!


My experience in Davos, 2011

Monday, May 30th, 2011

I am humbled by having had the opportunity to attend the World Economic Forum in Davos this past week. During my time there, I learned that most of the interesting activity at Davos happens in the coffee lounges and hallways of the Congress Center where the interconnectivity of people causes serendipitous encounters which lead to future collaboration. The dinners and parties are great places for networking and for probing some of the most brilliant minds on topics affecting our times. Most of my friends would not agree with me, but one cannot ignore the amount of quality information being debated at the more formal lecture-type gatherings. I think most people told me they avoided a lot of the lectures and preferred talking to colleagues and new people outside the lecture halls.

The conference is perfect for people who like to learn a little out of everything since the topics of the lectures are as varied as politics of India, Climate Change, Music, Psychology, physics, and many on the current state of the world’s economy. But if what you want is a deep analysis of each of the topics, this is definitely not the place. During many of the panels, each presenter gets at most 10mins to explain their point of view and by the time everyone has exposed their opinions, the session is almost over. I quickly found that so many things compete for your attention and I for one at times felt guilty that I was missing some other interesting talk while I sat listening to a different one. A scattered, ADD-like state very akin to what we experience culturally nowadays with a multitude of platforms, friends, jobs, family, trips competing for our attention.

Nevertheless, here are some lectures that I found interesting:


Insights on China addressed the Export Policy, Real Estate, Central government policy-making and private equity of the region. The Crystal Award Cermony presented an award to Jose Carreras for his work on Leukemia awareness. He said “It is our duty to use our popularity in order to give as much back to society as we receive from it.” Celebrated music director A R Rahman received the Crystal award and Carreras sang the Passion concert for us. What a treat. The Opening address was given by Dmitry Medvedev, President of the Russian Federation, who read the peech from his iPad.


I attended a dinner talk on “Social Media Addiction” with Dan Ariely, Charlie Beckett, Trevor Doughert Reid Hoffman, Diarmuid Martin, Marissa Mayer and Clay Shirky, moderated by Loic LeMeur. Fantatstic table discussions and insights into this phenomenon by simply trying to answer the question of why is addiction to social media bad? Loic did a wonderful job at moderating the conversations.


Larry Krauss (Physics Professor at Arizona State) and Rolf-Dieter Heuer (Director of CERN) lectured on the Universe, a visual exploration of Astrophysics and Quantum physics. Moderated by Philip Campbell (Editor in Chief of Nature magazine). I liked George Soros and Christine Lagarde’s panel on an International Monetary System where they discussed lessons from previous financial crises, enhanced G20 coordination and modalities of international monetary system reform. I missed the talk by pilot/her Chesley B. Sullenberger III who spoke on Leadership under Pressure. I later heard his talk was amazing.


I would have also loved to attend the talk on Science, Discovery and Controversy with Francis Collins, Director of the NIH, Howard Alper Chair and President of Science, Technolloogy and Innovation in Canada, Dan Esty (Yale Professor) Larry Kraus and J. Craig Venter, Founder and Presidnet of the Venter Institute. But it occurred simultaneously with the social media addiction one which ended up being great.


I went to hear Bill Clinton speak, as usual charming the crowds with insights into American politics, society and the economy. I attended a lecture on Global Climate Change from a political perspective with Presidents Jacob Zuma (South Africa), Felipe Calderon (Mexico), Denmark’s Connie Hedegaard, the EU commissioner for climate action and Costa Rica’s Christiana Figueres who in my opinion was the sharpest of them all. Hedegaard said that China, once an unrepentant polluter opposed to global controls, had joined Europe in deciding to invest in clean fuel technology in order to steal a march on America in a lucrative future market.


I went to a lecture on Smart Mobility that discussed how the integration of information, telecommunication and transportation technology will change our future mobility. I escaped 15 minutes before it ended to attend Ian Bremmer’s (President of the Eurasia Group) panel on Managing “Black Swans” and “Fat Tails”. Ian did a great job but I thought the panel was too diverse focusing on too many kinds of risk such as financial, energy, environmental, political, sovereign default, etc… so the conversation did not arrive at any significant points.


My friend Itay Talgam gave one of the most fantastic talks by focusing on an analogy between orchestra conductors’ style and CEO leadership. He showed videos with examples of different styles of conducting an orchestra and its effects on the music and compared them to different business leadership situations. He was warm, funny and very engaging. Everyone in the audience laughed and even asked for more once the allotted time had finished!


Finally, one of my favorite lectures was on “The Science of Emotions” which tackled the question on “How can we master emotions for a happier, less stressful and more productive life?” Tania Singer, a neuroscientist did a superb job at explaining how there are (approximately) three parts of the brain: incentive focused, non-wanting affiliation focused and threat-focused. She talked about the correlation between different parts of the brain such as the amygdale and different emotions. She discussed experiments with sniffing natural oxytocin and how it causes people to trust and care for one another more. I can’t wait for that drug to be out in the market! The only thing is that the effect only lasts for 20 minutes. Daniel Goleman (Emotional Intelligence) talked about life-work balance and managing emotions in big corporations. There was also a female Buddhist Priest, Roshi Joan Halifax, who discussed the experiments measuring compassion and happiness in Buddhist monks.

About Eggs

Tuesday, May 17th, 2011

eggs.jpgWe eat them cooked any one of half a dozen ways in the morning.  We use them in cakes and cookies and as a meringue on lemon pies.  The particularly ambitious cook may use them in a mousse or a soufflé.  (For eggs in cooking, revisit Physics in the Kitchen.)  But have you ever stopped to think about how amazing the egg really is?

We all know that eggs should be handled carefully because their shells are incredibly thin.  Drop an egg a short distance and you have a gooey mess to clean up.  One simple tap on the edge of the counter is enough to crack open the shell.  But try this experiment: hold an egg in the palm of your hand and curl your fingers around it.  Now squeeze with all your might.

Did it break?  If you didn’t believe me and didn’t squeeze with all your strength, go back and try again.

What on Earth…?  The key to an eggshell’s strength is the fact that its whole surface is curved.  The strongest shape is a sphere, and an egg is a close approximation of this.  (The reason it’s not exactly a sphere in just a moment.)  With no corners or flat sides to weaken it, the forces you apply to the egg by curling your fingers around it are distributed equally over the egg rather than concentrating at any one point. 

This works even in the following way. Hold the top and bottom of the egg with your thumb and forefinger and squeeze.  Did it break this time?  In physics terms, we say that the egg has a high “compression strength” — you’re compressing the egg, but it doesn’t break!  In fact, an egg has such high compression strength, that (with the proper setup) it can support the weight of a small personwithout breaking.

So why aren’t eggs spherical?  The oval shape is created as the bird lays it, and this turns out to be an advantage for the hen.  The shape prevents the eggs from rolling away!  Spherical eggs would roll and roll and roll… and never return.  For birds like ostriches that nest on the ground, this isn’t an issue, and their eggs are generally more spherical.  But birds that nest on cliffs often lay very conical eggs, which roll in a tight circle around the narrow end and remain on the ledge.

What else?  How can you tell if your egg is fresh?  Eggs contain an air pocket that forms when its contents shrink as it cools after being laid.  As the egg ages, moisture evaporates and the air cell grows larger, reducing the average density of the egg.  An object floats in a liquid if it is less dense than the liquid and an object denser than the liquid sinks.  We can therefore use the egg’s density as a handy measure of the egg’s freshness!  Here’s how it works.  Place your egg in a container of water.  A fresh egg with a small air pocket will rest horizontally on the bottom.  The air pocket in a 1-week-old egg is slightly larger — its density is less — and the end will hover slightly off the bottom, and an egg that’s 2-3 weeks old — even less dense — will rest vertically on the bottom.  Don’t eat any eggs that float!

Now that you know so much about eggs, here’s a bonus question: what do eggs and Roman arches have in common? 

PS. When squeezing your egg: don’t wear any rings, and make sure your egg doesn’t have any cracks already.  My “research” egg was blessed with a crack and I ended up with a handful of broken shell and raw egg oozing between my fingers and onto the floor!

Merging Art and Science

Saturday, May 7th, 2011

Do you paint, write, dance, sing or sculpt?  Are you an artist who is inspired by science?  CERN may be the place for you.

The science that goes on at the laboratory has long been an inspiration for artists.  One current artist you may have heard of is Kate McAlpine, otherwise known as the rap artist Alpinekat.  She rose to fame with her hit Large Hadron Rap, which describes the Large Hadron Collider and its related science at CERN.  Check out that video and others here.

CERN, the French acronym for the European Organization for Nuclear Research, is a high-energy physics laboratory located mostly in Switzerland.  It is here that the largest accelerator in the world, the Large Hadron Collider, is located.  It spans the Swiss-French border about 330 ft (100 m) underground.  This instrument is essentially a ring, 17 mi (27 km) in circumference, consisting of a series of superconducting magnets.  The magnets serve to accelerate subatomic particles that are then smashed together in one of several detectors, each the size of a house.  The result is a spectacular computer display of brightly colored lines that look something like this:


It’s easy to see why science here can inspire artists.

Just look at the movie Angels & Demons.  Dan Brown was inspired by science at the lab when he wrote his book.  In it, the bad guys steal a canister of antimatter from a secret underground lab at CERN, and portions of the movie were filmed at the ATLAS experiment at the lab (check out the multimedia tab on the website).

Now, with ever increasing interest in merging art and science, a new experiment is taking place at CERN.  Called Great Arts for Great Science, the goal is to bring artists to the lab where they can connect with scientists and, through their art, bring science into a broader cultural setting.  And broad it is.  The gallery on the website shows examples of sculpture, music, photography, and dance.  The organization behind the project is due to Ariane Koek, a cultural specialist dedicated to arts development at CERN.  As part of the initiative, a residency program for artists at the lab is expected to launch this year, which is predicted to ease the flow of information between artists and scientists.  Artists will have the opportunity to visit the lab and talk with scientists, and support their artistic work with scientific knowledge.

But do you think this inspiration moves only from scientist to artist?  Surprisingly, the cultural exchange happens in both directions.  Great scientists often use creative thinking in solving a particularly difficult problem.  Just think of Leonardo da Vinci.  During the Renaissance, there were no strong divisions between art and science as there are today.  In spite of his work as an artist, da Vinci used his creativity to design various barricades, bridges and flying machines.  Or consider the names of the moons orbiting around Uranus.  Astronomers were inspired by the names of characters in the works of William Shakespeare and Alexander Pope.  By bringing artists to CERN, scientists will have the opportunity to tap into their artistic side and think more creatively about their projects and science in general.

As the advising scientist for Great Arts for Great Science, Michael Doser says, “Science can provide understanding, while art can provide meaning to the human enterprise.” 

By bridging art and science, we can more easily see the relevance of basic research to society and science can be allowed to engage within the larger cultural context.  There is a tight relationship between art and science in that both are ways of exploring our existence: what it means to be human and where we are in the universe.