The physics of dinosaurs!

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Computer model for the swing of a Stegosaurus tail-spike assembly, also known as a thagomizer from a classic Gary Larson cartoon. (Alas, we didn't get permission to reprint this cartoon.)

Computer model for the swing of a Stegosaurus tail-spike assembly, also known as a thagomizer from a classic Gary Larson cartoon. (Alas, we didn’t get permission to reprint this cartoon.)

Like many (most?) of us, I was a huge dinosaur fan as a kid. I read every horrible, outdated book I could get my hands on. I read Robert Bakker’s book The Dinosaur Heresies not long after it was published, with its often-wrong but very provocative reimagining of how dinosaurs lived, moved, and interacted with their environments. My primary scientific love was space, and so I pursued physics as a career, but I never completely forgot my dinosaur obsession. Now in the February 2017 issue of Physics World, I get to combine the two interests!

Deducing how dinosaurs moved

How did dinosaurs dash and their cousins the pterosaurs take flight? Physics-based modelling is helping to solve these mysteries of movement

For Physics World:

Jurassic Park and its sequels are best thought of as monster movies. But they do make dinosaurs look and act like real animals – which, of course, they were. For more than 100 million years, various groups of dinosaur were the largest predators and herbivores on the planet. There were many smaller species too, though we only know about a fraction of them, since fossils of them are rare, and we’re aware of many only through fragments.

Scientists have been able to answer the biggest scientific question posed by Jurassic Park in one of its most tense chase scenes: could a Tyrannosaurus rex outrun a Jeep? (Answer: no.) Knowing the top speed of an apex predator is vital as it tells us what sorts of prey it could catch. To better understand these creatures, scientists also want to know if a Stegosaurus’ fearsome spike-wielding tail could be used as a weapon, and what damage it could do. Another question is how pterosaurs (cousins of the dinosaurs) could evolve to become the largest flying animals.

Answering all of these questions involves understanding what forces and torques these creatures’ skeletons could withstand. [Read the rest at Physics World]

Seeing the invisible monster at the Milky Way center

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This is my second print magazine feature for Smithsonian Air & Space Magazine. The first was about gravitational waves, published not long before the LIGO detector found the first gravitational wave signals. The new piece is about the black hole at the center of our galaxy, published just a few months before…well, read the article to see why this is a good time to be writing about that particular black hole.

The First Sighting of a Black Hole

We know one lurks at the center of the Milky Way, but to these astronomers, seeing will be believing

For Smithsonian Air & Space Magazine:

he center of the galaxy doesn’t look like much, even if you’re lucky enough to live in a place where the night sky is sufficiently dark to see the bands of the Milky Way. In visible light, the stars between here and there blur together into a single brilliant source, like a bright beam hiding the lighthouse behind it.

But in other types of radiation—radio waves, infrared, X-rays—astronomers have detected the presence of an object with the mass of four million suns packed into a region smaller than our solar system: a supermassive black hole.

Astronomers call it Sagittarius A*, or Sgr A* (pronounced “sadge A star”) for short, because it’s located (from our point of view) in the Sagittarius constellation. Discovering the Milky Way’s black hole has helped cement the idea that the center of nearly every large galaxy harbors a supermassive black hole. But despite mounting evidence for black holes, we still haven’t seen one directly. [Read the rest at Smithsonian Air & Space Magazine]

Evolution, entropy, and beards

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The Hidden Connections Between Darwin and the Physicist Who Championed Entropy

These magnificently bearded men both introduced a dose of randomness and irreversibility into the universe

For Smithsonian Magazine:

Of all the scientific advances, evolution has been the hardest on the human ego. Charles Darwin’s revolutionary theory, laid out in his groundbreaking 1859 book On the Origin of Species, threatened to overturn humanity’s exalted position in the universe. Yet in the same era, a quieter—and seemingly unrelated—scientific revolution was also taking place.

The concept of entropy in physics began harmlessly enough, as an explanation for why steam engines could never be perfectly efficient. But ultimately, entropy also threatened an established hierarchy. And in fact, entropy and evolution were more than casually related. [Read the rest at Smithsonian]

Does thinking we live in a simulation say bad things about us?

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Panel from "Are We Living in a Simulation?", featuring Elon Musk as Link. Art by Maki Naro, script by me.

Panel from “Are We Living in a Simulation?”, featuring Elon Musk as Link. Art by Maki Naro, script by me.

I’m obviously a science writer by profession. However, I’m also a lifelong comics fan, starting from reading Peanuts before I got the jokes, continuing through He-Man and the Masters of the Universe mini-comics that came with the action figures, up to today when I read a wide cross-section of comics titles, genres, and media. So, I’ve always wanted to create my own comics, but have been hampered by my lack of drawing ability. (I know, lack of drawing ability hasn’t stopped Scott Adams, but neither has being a misogynistic jerkmobile. But I digress.)

Panel from "Are We Living in a Computer Simulation". Art by Maki Naro, script by me.

Panel from “Are We Living in a Computer Simulation”. Art by Maki Naro, script by me.

The obvious answer is…find an artist to collaborate with. I’m thrilled and privileged to announce a comics collaboration with Maki Naro, one of the better science comics artists around. I wrote and Maki drew a comic for The Nib, about a recent provocative statement tech billionaire Elon Musk made. Musk said it’s most likely that we — and our entire reality — are actually part of a simulation run by a more advanced version of ourselves. Read the comic here, to see why I don’t think this is an optimistic scenario, and why Musk may not be the most objective person when he talks about it.

He recently contributed a regular comic series to Popular Science, along with The Nib and his own long-running science comic Sci-ence. He also writes the award-winning slice-of-life comic Sufficiently Remarkable. Please throw a little money his way.

Forging dark matter in the Big Bang

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The origins of dark matter

Theorists think dark matter was forged in the hot aftermath of the Big Bang

For Symmetry Magazine:

Transitions are everywhere we look. Water freezes, melts, or boils; chemical bonds break and form to make new substances out of different arrangements of atoms. The universe itself went through major transitions in early times. New particles were created and destroyed continually until things cooled enough to let them survive.

Those particles include ones we know about, such as the Higgs boson or the top quark. But they could also include dark matter, invisible particles which we presently know only because of their gravitational effects.

In cosmic terms, dark matter particles could be a “thermal relic,” forged in the hot early universe and then left behind during the transitions to more moderate later eras. One of these transitions, known as “freeze-out,” changed the nature of the whole universe. [Read the rest at Symmetry Magazine]

The search for magnetic monopoles, the truest north

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The hunt for the truest north

Many theories predict the existence of magnetic monopoles, but experiments have yet to see them

For Symmetry Magazine:

If you chop a magnet in half, you end up with two smaller magnets. Both the original and the new magnets have “north” and “south” poles.

But what if single north and south poles exist, just like positive and negative electric charges? These hypothetical beasts, known as “magnetic monopoles,” are an important prediction in several theories.

Like an electron, a magnetic monopole would be a fundamental particle. Nobody has seen one yet, but many—maybe even most—physicists would say monopoles probably exist. (Read the rest at Symmetry Magazine…)

There (to an asteroid) and back again: a robot’s journey

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This Thursday, the OSIRIS-REx robotic probe will launch from Cape Canaveral in Florida, destined for asteroid Bennu. I can’t ride with the probe, but I’m doing the next best thing: going to Florida to watch the launch, alongside scientists involved in the project. Here’s a preview, written for New Scientist:

NASA probe about to leave for asteroid Bennu and bring bits home

For New Scientist:

Bennu or bust. On 8 September, the OSIRIS-REx probe will leave Earth for the asteroid Bennu, and will return with souvenirs: up to 2 kilograms of material from its surface.

OSIRIS-REx (Origins, Spectral Interpretation, Resource Identification, Security-Regolith Explorer) is the latest in a string of sample return missions, following the Stardust mission to the comet Wild 2 and the Hayabusa mission to asteroid Itokawa. Both of those missions hit hurdles, and neither brought more than a few grains of material back to Earth.

OSIRIS-Rex will pioneer a new and ambitious technique for gathering samples: a robotic arm equipped with a vacuum cleaner. [Read the rest at The New Scientist]