Slowing light to measure the creep of glaciers

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My most recent article is an interesting combination of fundamental quantum physics research — the slowing of light inside specially-designed materials — with the study of the impacts of climate change on Greenland glaciers.

How to clock a glacier

From Nautilus:

low-flying airplane buzzes along the coast of Greenland, hovering over a glacier. The belly of the plane holds a laser that bounces light off the glacier’s face. As the light beam returns to the plane, it enters a black box that slows it to a crawl, turning it into a moment-by-moment report on the glacier’s speed. Each flight, each glacier measured, allows researchers to map the diminishment of the Greenland ice cap. Similar planes skirt Antarctica and the coast of Alaska, charting the damage to the ice cover.

These airplanes and their experimental equipment don’t exist yet. But the need to measure glacier flow in real time does exist. The latest report by Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) projected that melting ice may result in as much as one meter of sea-level rise by the year 2100, threatening millions of people in low-lying nations and coastal cities. Knowing how glaciers melt can help researchers predict the future. But glaciers are, well, glacial. Most of them creep roughly two to three kilometers each year, covering less distance than most of us can walk in an hour. The fastest ice flow in Greenland is the glacier Jakobshavn, which moves at the blazingly slow speed of about 16 kilometers in a year—about 180 centimeters per hour. [Read the rest at Nautilus]


The week in review (September 22-28)

I spent much of the week sick, but that doesn’t stop me. I care about you, people.

  • All black holes, great and small (Galileo’s Pendulum): As my regular readers have probably figured out, I love black holes. I could probably find an excuse to write about them most days. So, why not take an online class from me and learn about black holes? The class begins this Tuesday (October 1), and runs for four one-hour sessions. Sign up today!
  • A Holographic Big Bang: Did the universe start with a five-dimensional black hole? (Slate): Much as I love black holes, however, I cast a skeptical eye on a new paper proposing that the Big Bang had an event horizon. This Slate piece examines what we mean by the “Big Bang model” (which isn’t quite how it’s often described), and the reasons why this five-dimensional theory probably won’t solve the mystery of our Universe’s origins.
  • Scientific grumpfiness and open-mindedness (Galileo’s Pendulum): All three pieces I’ve written for Slate thus far, in addition to a number of other articles published elsewhere, are critical responses to scientific reporting. Generally, I find myself on the opposite side to those who promote radical new theories, which makes me worry sometimes that I’m just a naysayer with no positive commentary to make. Here’s my examination of that worry. (Yes, it’s a bit meta, I suppose.)
  • Pulsar’s magnetic field strong enough to clean up after nuclear explosion (Ars Technica): While pulsars are all fast-spinning objects, some are extremely so, rotating hundreds or thousands of times each second. A new observation caught one of these pulsars in the act of feeding off material from a companion star, lending strong support to the theory of how they spin so fast. Bonus: runaway nuclear explosions! on the surface of a dead star! Who needs science fiction?
  • Snobbish photons forced to pair up and get heavy (Ars Technica): Photons don’t usually interact in the usual sense that matter particles do. Researchers produced a weird medium by pumping a diffuse gas of rubidium atoms with laser light until they puffed up. The result: the interactions between the atoms made an environment where photons have an effective mass (!) and attract each other, forming pairs. Beyond being really cool, this could have all sorts of applications in quantum logic and even “photon materials”.

And just because I can, here’s Cookie Monster playing with his Newton’s cradle again.

Cookie Monster is me brother from another mother.