Beginner’s guide to atom-smashing

Paul Raven @ 30-03-2010

Today’s ubiquitous topic in the geek-o-sphere is surely the successful test of the Large Hadron Collider at CERN… so if you were wondering exactly how it is that particle accelerators are supposed to discover hypothetical sub-atomic thingybobs with funny names, Ars Technica is running a series of articles that should fill you in on the basics. Start with Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About Particle Smashers, and proceed from there.

Life on Earth may depend on quantum processes

Tom Marcinko @ 07-02-2010

Not to go all new-age on you, but it is remarkable to consider that something as esoteric as quantum physics has been observed at work in biological processes.

University of Toronto physicist Greg Scholes has published in Nature the strongest evidence yet that photosynthesis itself uses “coherence,” or being in more than one place at a time:

The quantum wizardry appears to occur in each of a photosynthetic cell’s millions of antenna proteins. These route energy from electrons spinning in photon-sensitive molecules to nearby reaction-center proteins, which convert it to cell-driving charges.

Almost no energy is lost in between. That’s because it exists in multiple places at once, and always finds the shortest path.

“The analogy I like is if you have three ways of driving home through rush hour traffic. On any given day, you take only one. You don’t know if the other routes would be quicker or slower. But in quantum mechanics, you can take all three of these routes simultaneously. You don’t specify where you are until you arrive, so you always choose the quickest route,” said Scholes.

Scholes based his findings on studies of common marine algae. His University of Chicago colleague Greg Engel says “There’s every reason to believe this is a general phenomenon.”

These findings have implications for solar-cell and computer design, not to mention being something to wonder about.

[According to scientists, the Earth is by far the sassiest planet in the solar system by internets_diary]

The physics of space battles

Paul Raven @ 14-12-2009

Interplanetary course plotting software screenshotWe all know that space battles as depicted in films and television tend to reuse the paradigms of more familiar planet-side combat types – the naval manoeuvres of Star Trek, for example, or the dog-fighting planes of Star Wars. But what would real combat between space-faring civilisations actually involve, strategically and tactically?

Well, Joseph Shoer’s the man to ask! He’s an aerospace engineer and physicist, and he recently wrote a post running through the main considerations of realistic space combat – everything from the difference between engagements in orbit and engagements in “deep space”, to why kinetic weapons are more efficient than explosive payloads, and plenty more in between. If you’re a fan or writer of space opera, it’s a must-read; here’s a taster.

First, let me point out something that Ender’s Game got right and something it got wrong. What it got right is the essentially three-dimensional nature of space combat, and how that would be fundamentally different from land, sea, and air combat. In principle, yes, your enemy could come at you from any direction at all. In practice, though, the Buggers are going to do no such thing. At least, not until someone invents an FTL drive, and we can actually pop our battle fleets into existence anywhere near our enemies. The marauding space fleets are going to be governed by orbit dynamics – not just of their own ships in orbit around planets and suns, but those planets’ orbits. For the same reason that we have Space Shuttle launch delays, we’ll be able to tell exactly what trajectories our enemies could take between planets: the launch window. At any given point in time, there are only so many routes from here to Mars that will leave our imperialist forces enough fuel and energy to put down the colonists’ revolt. So, it would actually make sense to build space defense platforms in certain orbits, to point high-power radar-reflection surveillance satellites at certain empty reaches of space, or even to mine parts of the void.

Go read the whole thing! Hat tip to Ian Sales on Twitter. [image by FlyingSinger]

Quantum motor with just two atoms

Tom James @ 19-09-2009

Quantum-motorResearchers at the University of Augsburg in Germany have developed a blueprint for a kind of quantum electric motor that uses just two atoms:

Their motor consists of one neutral atom and one charged atom trapped in a ring-shaped optical lattice. The atoms jump from one site in the lattice to the next as they travel round the ring. Placing this ring in an alternating magnetic field creates the conditions necessary to keep the charged atom moving round the the ring.

As with many elements of quantum physics it is difficult to imagine precisely what you could do with such a miniscule motor, but for the time being the researchers are seeking to attach the motor to a nanonoscopic resonator, thus making the resonator vibrate.

In the meantime we are left speculating as to what peculiar corners of which unexpected futures devices such as this could find a use and a narrative.

[via Slashdot, from Technology Review][image from Technology Review]

All day cruising down the space corridor

Tom James @ 16-09-2009

light_linesAnother gorgeously science-fictional concept: that of the constantly shifting gravitational corridors in the solar system that will allow for the rapid transit of spacecraft around the Sun:

Scientists in the U.S. and Germany are attempting to map the corridors to allow them to be used by spacecraft exploring the solar system. One of the researchers, Shane D. Ross from the Virginia Polytechnic Institute in the U.S. described the system as a series of low energy corridors that wind between planets and moons. Once a spacecraft entered a corridor it would “fall” along the tube, much as an object falls to Earth.

If and when there is a substantial demand for intra-system space traffic these channels in space will become like the shipping lanes of the oceans of Earth.

[from Physorg][image from TheAlieness GiselaGiardino²³ on flickr]

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