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Guilty of not correctly predicting an earthquake

No, seriously. A group of scientists and a government official in Italy have been sentenced to 6 years for not predicting the 2009 earthquake in L’Aquila. One has even said “I still don’t understand what I was convicted of”.

All I can say is “What the ACTUAL Fuck?” Earthquakes are inherently unpredictable. You might as well sue meteorologists for not accurately predicting every hurricane’s trajectory or strength! Even if they were predictable events, there would be nothing a human can do to stop it. And if they had predicted it, but it hadn’t happened, they’d be slammed for “spreading alarm”.

There IS an appeal in the works, but I still suspect this will just harm Italian scientists. Bel lavoro, Italia! You’ve just sent the wrong message entirely.

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Beer glass shapes may affect how fast you drink

I found this via the Beeb: a study suggests that the shape of a glass can have an effect on how quickly you can drink. The full paper is available here, and the results noted that:

Participants were 60% slower to consume an alcoholic beverage from a straight glass compared to a curved glass. This effect was only observed for a full glass and not a half-full glass, and was not observed for a non-alcoholic beverage

The researchers who performed the study are psychologists, and they conclude that this may lead to a target for public health intervention – in plain English, it might be a useful method to help fight excessive drinking. I, however, am more interested in the physics of why this might happen. I suspect this may have to do with the curve of the glass providing some extra acceleration from gravity when you lift the glass high enough, which gives me an excuse (not that I really need one) to go into the physics.

When you lift and tilt the glass, you’re basically rotating a system around it’s centre of mass until most of the beer’s mass lies above it. At this point, the force of gravity is obviously going to act on the beer and pull it down into your mouth (or the floor if you’re not careful), and since beer is a fluid with low viscosity (according to this site, it’s 1.8 centiStokes, which translates to 1.8 square millimetres per second; compare that to sea water’s 1.15 cSt), it tends to flow very easily along the glass. This is where my previous point about the curve of the glass comes in: as it flows along the glass, the beer is flowing slightly faster downwards along a glass that curves outwards than a straight glass.

I need a drink – out of a straight glass 🙂

RIP Neil Armstrong

Well, this is sad: Neil Armstrong is dead. I have no idea what it would be like to be the first to step onto the moon, but he was one of the bravest people I’ve ever heard of. He and the rest of the astronauts in the Apollo programme knew perfectly well that what they were doing was risky, but they went to the Moon because they thought the risk was worth it. I think it was: they proved that it is possible to get to the Moon, which is pretty much the first step towards further manned voyages anywhere in our local solar system, let alone the rest of the Universe.

The really sad thing, of course, is that the conspiracy theorists are coming out of the woodwork. Of course, the big one is that the landing was faked – here’s a site that debunks that entirely. One of the dumbest I came across, via Ophelia Benson, is that he converted to Islam after landing – a complete urban legend, according to the man himself; he labelled himself as a Deist. Don’t look at the comments on the BBC article or the one from About.com, unless you want to end up destroying your computer keyboard and simultaneously give yourself a headache.

Michael Collins, the pilot of the Apollo 11 command module has a short but sweet obituary for him, posted here on NASA’s obituary page:

“He was the best, and I will miss him terribly.”

I’ll drink to that tonight.

New from XKCD: What if?

XKCD is one of the best comics on the Internet. And it’s got even better! They’ve just put up a “What if” feature that they’re updating every Tuesday.

The first post is “what would happen if you could throw or hit a baseball at 90% of the speed of light”. The answer: a nuclear explosion. That’s awesome!

What a great birthday present – the Higgs boson!

CERN is planning to announce the possible discovery of the Higgs boson tomorrow – which also happens to be my birthday. What a coincidence! 😀

There’s a good summary of what the Higgs boson is here. Now, CERN have mentioned that they’ve seen something that is consistent with the Higgs boson, no the boson itself. However, they’re combining the results from two experiments that were within 4-sigma (i.e. four standard deviations away from the expected value, or a 1 in 16,000 chance of the results being a statistical fluke) to try and get 5 sigma, which means there is less than a 1 in 1.7 million chance of a fluke.

Either way, watch this space!

Full results breakdown

Well, I got my results an hour ago, and I definitely hold a 2.1 honours degree (if only by the skin of my teeth)!

The results are as follows, from lowest to highest, with the marks out of 100:

Optoelectronics: 25
Solid State Physics: 28
Nanotechnology: 55
Digital Signals and Image Processing: 58
Problem Solving: 59
Applied Optics: 63
Project and Laboratories: 67
Electromagnetism and Special Relativity: 78
Quantum Mechanics: 73
Atmospheric Physics: 85

What really surprised me was that Problem Solving didn’t go quite as well as I had thought, and the very high ones are much higher than I expected. What’s particularly interesting is that QM and EM are both more abstract topics, and yet I did better in them than I did in the more practical courses for Signals and Nanotechnology. As for Optoelectronics and Solid State…I fucked up in the exams for those two, and suffered a memory block in Optoelectronics.

Still, the average works out as 61.63 for this year. That makes up 80% of the degree, and the other 20% comes from the results for 3rd Year (55.5%), so the degree is 60.4% – see what I mean when I said “by the skin of my teeth”? But regardless, it’s time to celebrate!

Another use for black holes

As particle detectors, according to scientists from the Vienna University of Technology.

The basic idea is that it uses hypothetical particles known as axions; by hypothetical, I mean “not proven to exist yet”. They have a very low mass, currently predicted to be about 10^-6 to 1 eV/c^2, which in kg translates as 1.78*10^-42 to 1.78*10^-36 kg – still not low enough to be considered “negligible” in physics! By Einstein’s famous equation E = mc^2, this means it would take a relatively low (pun not intended) amount of energy to produce one, between 10^-6 and 1 eV – between 1.6*10^-25 and 1.6*10^-19 joules.

One of the fundamentals of quantum mechanics is that particles also have wave-like properties; the relationship between a particle’s energy and its wavelength is E = hc/λ, where h is Planck’s constant, c is the speed of light in a vacumn, and λ is the wavelength. from this, you can see that the wavelength is inversely proportional to the energy required, and since this is quite low for an axion, they would have very long wavelengths – if my calculations for those energy ranges are correct, they could range between 1 metre and 800 km.

Because axions are hypothesised to be electrically neutral, they would interact with a black hole through a gravitational attraction; and since they are bosons, they can be in the same state at the same time. The idea is that this creates a cloud of bosons, which can in turn create a nova that generates gravitational waves.

So, using hypothetical particles to detect and potentially prove the existence of hypothetical waves. If it works out, I suspect a Nobel Prize will be going their way!