Archive for the ‘12 days of Christmas’ Category

Quantum physicists in the 1920s helped found field of quantum biology

January 6th, 2019
There is some evidence that quantum effects might play a role in the process of photosynthesis.

Enlarge / There is some evidence that quantum effects might play a role in the process of photosynthesis. (credit: Mikel Bilbao/VW Pic/Getty Images)

In 1944, quantum physicist Erwin Schroedinger wrote a short book called What is Life: The Physical Aspect of the Living Cell, exploring how the relatively new field of quantum mechanics might play a role in biological processes. It is considered by many to be one of the earliest forays into "quantum biology," a rarefied field that attempts to apply quantum principles to living systems. But the field actually dates back to the earliest days of quantum mechanics in the 1920s, according to a recent paper published in the Proceedings of the Royal Society A.

"Quantum biology is wrongly regarded as a very new scientific discipline, when it actually began before the Second World War," said co-author Johnjoe McFadden, a microbiologist at the University of Surrey and co-director of the Centre for Quantum Biology there, with his Surrey colleague and co-author Jim Al-Khalili. "Back then, a few quantum physicists tried to understand what was special about life itself and whether quantum mechanics might shed any light on the matter."

Frankly, quantum biology has suffered from a lack of credibility until the last decade or so, when a number of intriguing studies suggested that there might be something to the idea after all. For instance, there is growing evidence that photosynthesis relies on quantum effects to help plants turn sunlight into fuel.  Migratory birds might have an internal "quantum compass" that helps them sense Earth's magnetic fields as a means of navigation. Quantum effects might play a role in the human sense of smell, helping us distinguish between different scents.

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Posted in 12 days of Christmas, History, history of science, Physics, quantum biology, quantum mechanics, science | Comments (0)

Lose yourself in this highly addictive “murder map” of medieval London

January 4th, 2019
A birds-eye view of London from the south looking north (1572), one of the maps used to create an interactive map of murders in medieval London.

Enlarge / A birds-eye view of London from the south looking north (1572), one of the maps used to create an interactive map of murders in medieval London. (credit: Braun & Hogenberg/Public Domain)

In July of 1316, a priest with a hankering for fresh apples sneaked into a walled garden in the Cripplegate area of London to help himself to the fruits therein. The gardener caught him in the act, and the priest brutally stabbed him to death with a knife—hardly godly behavior, but this was the Middle Ages. A religious occupation was no guarantee of moral standing.

That's just one of the true-crime gems to be found in a new interactive digital "murder map" of London compiled by University of Cambridge criminologist Manuel Eisner. Drawing on data catalogued in the city Coroners' Rolls, the map shows the approximate location of 142 homicide cases in late medieval London. The map launched to the public in late November on the website for the university's Violence Research Center, and be forewarned—it's extremely addictive. You could easily lose yourself down the rabbit hole of medieval murder for hours, filtering the killings by year, choice of weapon, and location. (It works best with Google Chrome.)

"The events described in the Coroners' Rolls show weapons were never very far away, male honor had to be protected, and conflicts easily got out of hand," said Eisner, who embarked on the project to create an accessible resource for the public to explore the historical records. "They give us a detailed picture of how homicide was embedded in the rhythms of urban medieval life."

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Posted in 12 days of Christmas, criminology, digital maps, Gaming & Culture, medieval england, science, sociology | Comments (0)

Machine learning can offer new tools, fresh insights for the humanities

January 4th, 2019
Composite image based on Jacques-Louis David's unfinished painting, "Drawing of the Tennis Court Oath" (circa 1790).

Enlarge / Composite image based on Jacques-Louis David's unfinished painting, "Drawing of the Tennis Court Oath" (circa 1790). (credit: Association of Cybernetic Historians)

Truly revolutionary political transformations are naturally of great interest to historians, and the French Revolution at the end of the 18th century is widely regarded as one of the most influential, serving as a model for building other European democracies. A paper published last summer in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, offers new insight into how the members of the first National Constituent Assembly hammered out the details of this new type of governance.

Specifically, rhetorical innovations by key influential figures (like Robespierre) played a critical role in persuading others to accept what were, at the time, audacious principles of governance, according to co-author Simon DeDeo, a former physicist who now applies mathematical techniques to the study of historical and current cultural phenomena. And the cutting-edge machine learning methods he developed to reach that conclusion are now being employed by other scholars of history and literature.

It's part of the rise of so-called "digital humanities." As more and more archives are digitized, scholars are applying various analytical tools to those rich datasets, such as Google N-gram, Bookworm, and WordNet. Tagged and searchable archives mean connecting the dots between different records is much easier. Close reading of selected sources—the traditional method of historians—gives a deep but narrow view. Quantitative computational analysis has the potential to combine that kind of close reading with a broader, more generalized bird's-eye approach that might reveal hidden patterns or trends that otherwise might have escaped notice.

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Posted in 12 days of Christmas, algorithms, computational analysis, digital humanities, Gaming & Culture, History, Literature, machine learning, science | Comments (0)

Study: Famed Domesday Book was completed later than historians thought

January 2nd, 2019
Original manuscript of the Domesday Book on display at The National Archives in Kew, London. Satellite documents preserved by a Benedictine abbot named Nigel place its completion date much later than previously assumed.

Enlarge / Original manuscript of the Domesday Book on display at The National Archives in Kew, London. Satellite documents preserved by a Benedictine abbot named Nigel place its completion date much later than previously assumed. (credit: Jonathan Brady/PA Images/Getty Images)

At Christmas in 1085, William the Conqueror decided to commission a kingdom-wide survey of England, sending census takers into every shire to take stock both of the population and its resources: land, livestock, castles and abbeys, and so forth. The result was the Domesday Book, a tome that provided an unparalleled record of daily life in 11th-century England, long revered and studied by medieval historians. It got its moniker because the English complained that its decisions could not be appealed, just like on the Day of Judgement.

Traditionally, historians have pegged the date of completion for the Domesday Book as 1087. This puts it about one year after William decreed his survey but just before he sailed off to die (quite ignobly) in Normandy while defending his kingdom from the French. But a recent paper in the journal Speculum by Carol Symes, a historian at the University of Illinois, argues that the final book was actually completed years, maybe even decades, later than that.

Symes' expertise is investigating how medieval manuscripts were made, and the Domesday Book is the most complicated medieval text there is. "After the Magna Carta, the Domesday Book is the most fetishized document in English history, and with good reason," she said. "It's one of the few medieval documents you can do data analysis with, because there's actual data in there."

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Posted in 12 days of Christmas, ancient manuscripts, Domesday Book, Gaming & Culture, History, medieval history, science, William the Conqueror | Comments (0)

The secret to champagne’s universal appeal is the physics of bubbles

December 31st, 2018
Making champagne is fairly simple, but the physics behind its bubbly delights is surprisingly complex.

Enlarge / Making champagne is fairly simple, but the physics behind its bubbly delights is surprisingly complex. (credit: Jon Bucklel/EMPICS/PA/Getty Images)

It's New Year's Eve, and revelers around the globe will be breaking out the bubbly in massive quantities to usher in 2019. Why do humans love champagne and other fizzy beverages so much, when most animals turn up their noses when it's offered? Roberto Zenit, a physicist at Mexico's National Autonomous University of Mexico, and Javier Rodriguez-Rodriguez of the Carlos III University of Madrid in Spain, posit in the November issue of Physics Today that carbonation triggers the same pain receptors in our deep brains that are activated when we eat spicy food.

"This bubbly sensation you have when you drink a carbonated beverage basically triggers similar taste buds," said Zenit. "Champagne is just wine; what makes it special is the carbonation. It's a sad day when you drink flat champagne."

He and Rodriguez-Rodriguez study the behavior of various fluids (including paints), and carbonation is a particularly fascinating topic within that discipline. When the bubbles in champagne burst, they produce droplets that release aromatic compounds believed to enhance the flavor further. (When bubbles in a carbonated beverage like beer don't burst, the result is a nice thick head of foam.) And here's another interesting fact: the bubbles in champagne "ring" at specific resonant frequencies, depending on their size. So it's possible to "hear" the size distribution of bubbles as they rise to the surface in a glass of champagne.

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Posted in 12 days of Christmas, bubbles, champagne, fluid dynamics, foam, Physics, science, Wine | Comments (0)

Book tells the inside story of how Reddit came to be the Internet’s “id”

December 30th, 2018
Reddit co-founder Alexis Ohanian

Enlarge / Reddit co-founder Alexis Ohanian (credit: Getty Images)

Entrepreneurs Alexis Ohanian and Steve Huffman famously founded Reddit as college roommates in 2005. Tech journalist Christine Lagorio-Chafkin's recent book, We Are the Nerds: The Birth and Tumultuous Life of Reddit, the Internet's Culture Laboratory, follows their sometimes rocky relationship as Reddit grew from a simple, user-directed front page for the Internet, to a scandal-rocked dominating force in online culture.

As the subtitle implies, the site has been at the forefront of issues like the limits of free speech, privacy policies, and the unfettered spread of misinformation or "fake news," grappling with those thorny matters well before social media giants Facebook and Twitter took notice. In a sense, Reddit is the "id" of the Internet, and that's what has long fascinated Lagorio-Chafkin. "My friends thought I was nuts talking to these guys who happened into the idea for Reddit," she said. "It had the reputation of being sort of a cesspool, and I wanted to know just how it got there."

So she started meeting regularly with Ohanian at a Brooklyn cafe and he told her about the early days when Reddit was still in its infancy. It was a tough summer, personally: his mother was diagnosed with terminal brain cancer, his childhood dog had died, and his girlfriend at the time suffered a nasty fifth story fall. Yet he still threw himself into promoting what Lagorio-Chafkin dubs "a little scrappy site—I mean, they barely had a product." She was equally impressed with Huffman, and knew he, too, would make a great subject.

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Posted in 12 days of Christmas, books, Gaming & Culture, Online Communities, Reddit, Tech, Technology | Comments (0)

Caltech scientists use DNA tiles to play tic-tac-toe at the nanoscale

December 29th, 2018

Courtesy Qian Lab/Caltech.

Scientists at Caltech have created the world's smallest game board for playing tic-tac-toe out of DNA strands. What's more, it's possible to swap hundreds of DNA strands in and out at once to reconfigure the nanostructure at will, making it possible in principle to build complicated nanomachines in different custom patterns. The scientists described their work in a December paper in Nature Communications.

Back in 2006, Caltech bioengineer Paul Rothemund figured out how to fold a long strand of DNA into simple shapes, demonstrating this "DNA origami" technique by producing a smiley face. All you need is a long strand of DNA, plus several shorter strands ("staples"). Combine them in a test tube, and the shorter strands pull various parts of the long strand together so that it folds over into any number of simple shapes. DNA origami was a huge advance for nanotechnology, but to really achieve its full potential, scientists needed to be able to create larger and more complex structures.

Last year, Rothemund's Caltech colleague Lulu Qian introduced a cheap means of getting DNA origami to assemble itself into large arrays. The best part: you could create custom patterns. The array was a bit like a blank canvas, and Qian demonstrated the power of her technique (dubbed "fractal assembly") by creating the world's smallest version of Leonardo da Vinci's "Mona Lisa," visible only with atomic force microscopy.

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Posted in 12 days of Christmas, DNA origami, nanotechnology, Physics, science, tic-tac-toe | Comments (0)

Study: modern masters like Jackson Pollock were “intuitive physicists”

December 26th, 2018
<em>Collective Suicide</em> (1936), by Mexican muralist David A. Siqueiros, is an example of the "accidental painting" technique developed by the artist.

Enlarge / Collective Suicide (1936), by Mexican muralist David A. Siqueiros, is an example of the "accidental painting" technique developed by the artist. (credit: A. Aviram/MOMA, New York, via R. Zenit)

There's rarely time to write about every cool science story that comes our way. So this year, we're running a special Twelve Days of Christmas series of posts, highlighting one story that fell through the cracks each day, from December 25 through January 5. Today: the fluid dynamics of modern painting techniques.

In the 1930s, a small group of New York City artists began experimenting with novel painting techniques and materials, including Mexican muralist David A. Siqueiros and Jackson Pollock. For the last few years, a team of Mexican physicists has been studying the physics of fluids at work in those techniques, concluding that the artists were "intuitive physicists," using science to create timeless art.

"One of the things I have come to realize is that painters have a deep understanding of fluid mechanics as they manipulate their materials," said Roberto Zenit, a physicist at the National Autonomous University of Mexico who is leading the research. "This is what fluid mechanicians do. The objective is different, but the manipulation of these materials that flow is the same. So it is not a surprise that fluid mechanics has a lot to say about how artists paint."

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Posted in 12 days of Christmas, art, fluid dynamics, Gaming & Culture, Jackson Pollock, painting, painting techniques, Physics, science | Comments (0)

Study brings us one step closer to solving 1994 thallium poisoning case

December 25th, 2018
The 1861 notebook of Sir William Crookes, containing all his data on thallium samples.

Enlarge / The 1861 notebook of Sir William Crookes, containing all his data on thallium samples. (credit: SSPL/Getty Images)

There's rarely time to write about every cool science story that comes our way. So this year, we're running a special Twelve Days of Christmas series of posts, highlighting one story that fell through the cracks each day, from December 25 through January 5. First up: a tale of attempted murder and the geologist who hopes he can help solve the case.

A new trace analysis of the victim's hair sheds fresh light on a famous unsolved cold case by establishing a timeline for the thallium poisoning of Chinese college student Zhu Ling in 1994. Published in October in the journal Forensic Science International, the work could one day lead to catching the culprit, and could help solve future heavy-metal poisonings.

Zhu Ling was a sophomore majoring in physical chemistry at Tsinghua University in Beijing, China, when she mysteriously began losing hair, with accompanying stomach pain and muscle paralysis, sinking into a coma four months later. Doctors were initially baffled, but friends posted her symptoms to a Usenet group, drawing attention to Zhu Ling's plight—likely the first telemedicine trial. Physicians around the world agreed the likely cause was thallium poisoning (a toxic heavy metal sometimes used in rat poison), and her doctors treated her with the commercial dye Prussian blue, the most common antidote.

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Posted in 12 days of Christmas, chemistry, cold cases, forensics, Physics, poison, science, thallium poisoning, Zhu Ling | Comments (0)