Thursday, November 1, 2012

The Power of Sandy - Expanded Article

Following is an expanded version of an article my Fizzix kids and I wrote for WTNH's science website at . It deals with the power ratings of a typical hurricane as Hurricane Sandy barrelled down upon us here in CT. The original was written Friday, 10/26/2012.

[Image courtesy Wikipedia Commons: 2003 Hurricane Isabel taken from the ISS]

Hurricanes. Just the word sends shivers down the spines of us New Englanders. We don't see that many come our way, but when they do, our homes and infrastructures, built to withstand the harsh New England winters, don't fair well. We all remember what Irene did to CT about this time last year and the bizarre Snowmageddon, that dumped a foot of snow on our still live trees and caused state-wide power outages for over a week, exactly 12 months ago this week. Well, we are in for another round this week.

An article from Weather Magazine (Yes, there is such a thing…), Emanuel, K. A., (1999): "The power of a hurricane: An example of reckless driving on the information superhighway" Weather, 54, 107-108, pinpointed a mathematical explanation of the energy generated by a moderate (CAT2) hurricane. Without boring you with the triple partial integral equations, which quite frankly we don't understand either, here is a summary of the numbers. A typical hurricane (Cat2) will produce 6 x 1014 Watts of power. That is roughly half a million “average” nuclear bombs. Yeah, that's a lot of power. That is, in fact, 200 times the power that the entire planet generates in electricity.

What makes hurricanes one of the most powerful and destructive forces in nature and just where does all that power actually come from? Aside from the obvious wind that could uproot windmills on any wind farm around, it's simple thermodynamics. Yes, there's a word that sends shivers up the spines of high school science students everywhere. You may recall from high school chemistry or physics that one kilogram (just over 2 pounds) of water requires 2.3 MILLION Joules of energy to either turn from a liquid to a gas (vaporization) or turn from a gas to a liquid (condensation). As cooler air rushes in to takes the place of the warmer air at the center of a tropical depression created over warm ocean water, water vapor in the cooler air condenses. This releases energy; 2.3 MILLION Joules per kilogram of vapor. Now, you have the typical self-fulfilling prophecy. This released energy warms the surrounding air, creating a larger more severe depression, pulling in more cooler air, condensing more water, releasing more energy, creating more heat,... You get the picture.

Once the storm is organized, which requires a few other attributes we won't get into here, as the cooler air rushes in, it is subject to the mysterious “Coriolis Effect”. This Coriolis Effect is simply the result of different points on the surface of the earth rotating at different linear speeds. Higher latitude points like CT at 42o North latitude, actually move slower than lower latitude points like the Caribbean at 14o North. CT creeps along at a pokey 339 m/s toward the east while the Caribbean zips along at 455 m/s. [This data compliments of Wolfram Project, see below.] This difference in surface speeds causes the rushing cooler air to feel a centripetal force that causes it to start moving in a circular path. Voila La! You just made a hurricane.

So in summary, the Hurricane Research Division of NOAA states the power of a typical Cat2 hurricane is over 200 times the entire electrical output of the planet earth. The majority of that power is generating from the thermodynamic effects of condensation while a smaller, yet just as impressive, portion is created by the shear kinetic energy of the winds. Indeed, a powerful creature. Try to wrap your brain around these numbers as you move your patio furniture inside before Sandy’s arrival.

Saturday, September 15, 2012

The NEW Kilogram...

I'll bet you are all safe and comfy in your home relaxing in front of your HD TV watching something semi-mindless about some human who is famous for some reason that no one can actually pinpoint. Well, there is a serious situation brewing in the world of metrology. Yep, you heard right! Metrologists are embroiled in a feverish battle over the definition of the kilogram! OH NOSE!

Metrology is the study of measurements. Yes, they measure measurements. Quick synopsis: Around 1889, the French set the SI (metric) system into being. It caused great consternation and more than one brain implosion. However, it was a working system that did not rely on some obscure King's body part sizes. Below is a chart of the original definitions versus today's definitions I made a few years back to show during the Intro Physics lessons.

Note the original definitions of Kg, m, and second. Well, obviously they don't work anymore. The meter can't trust the size of the earth to be a constant since the earth is dynamic and shifts, shakes, and burps constantly. The definition of the second is just as problematic. Even the rotation of the earth on it's own axis and revolution about the sun aren't as constant as one would hope. So, the meter is now well defined from the speed of light, one of the most well-defined physical constants we have, and the second is defined as a specific number of vibrations of a cesium atom, also a well-defined constant. Cool. Constant. Well-defined and reproducible in any real laboratory.

Now, the Kilogram. It's the problem child. The evil twin. The outcast. Notice it's original definition was based on water. Not a good idea since density of water changes due to altitude and temperature and other factors. The "new" definition is the mass of a platinum/iridium cylinder in a quadruple vacuum jar in a vault at the International Bureau of Weights and Measures (BIPM) in Sevres, France. Yeah, that's nice. Have a standard that is locked up and no one can touch it. Nice standard.

For many years, 30 or 40, scientists have been looking for a better way to define the standard unit of mass using similar comparisons like the new meter and second; based on unchanging physical constants. Well, looks like an answer has been found.

Seems the decision guys are taking two very different methods and AVERAGING the results and defining the kilogram as that exact number. Yep, seems arbitrary. Mathematicians are fine with the procedure, but physicists don't like it one bit. According to Nature Online: "Deciding to just average these two results would be perfectly proper mathematics, but it would not be science," says Michael Hart, a physicist at the University of Manchester, UK.

The two methods? METHOD #1: Quoting from Nature: ...a 'watt balance' — a sophisticated scale — weighs the kilogram using electric and magnetic fields. The mass measurement can then be used to define the kilogram in terms of Planck's constant, a number used in quantum mechanics.
METHOD #2: Again, quoting from Nature: ...involves counting the atoms in a sphere of crystalline silicon. That result can be used to redefine the kilogram in terms of Avogadro's Number, which relates an element's atomic mass to its bulk weight.

So, the decision guys are pitting Planck V. Avogadro. Taking the two results and averaging them doesn't sound very scienc-y to me, but what do I know...

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Utterly Painful Ignorance on Display on ABC News!

[NOTE: Following is an updated edited version of my original post. The original post about this incident was written in my typical venomous no-holds-barred antagonistic tactless verbiage. Since then, I have gained a scientific respect for Erica Martin and am quite confident this was an inadvertent mistake that we all make from time to time.]

Well, now. The above image is a smartphone picture taken from my own living room TV while I was choking on a hunk of Birthday pizza 09/10/2012. I thought I heard wrong; a simple slip of the tongue, so to speak... But, NOOO!!!! Erika Martin, Meteorologist for Ch8 WTNH in CT, read this graphic.

It is wrong on so many levels, I can't begin to get my panties unbunched.

So, what's wrong with the info? Let's take a cursory look

1. The name, 2012 QG42, is correct.
2. 800 Miles wide? OMG! LOL! WTH! And other choice TLAs! Where the Hell did this thing come from? The largest asteroid in our entire solar system is Ceres at a meager 950 km (590 miles) wide.
FACT: 2012 QG42 is estimated at 800 FEET across! She is off by a factor of 5,280! Could be a graphics error.

The above image, compliments Wiki, shows, left to right, Vesta, Ceres, and our moon.

3. It is coming to within "1.8x10^-5 Miles"!! Like I said earlier; OMG, LOL, WTH! Quick conversions from scientific notation, moving the decimal point 5 places to the left gets us 0.000018 miles! That's 0.09 feet! 1.1 INCHES!!! THIS 800 MILE WIDE HUNK OF ROCK IS COMING WITHIN 1 INCH OF THE EARTH! WE"RE ALL DEAD! Run, Flee!
FACT: Closest approach is 1.8 MILLION Miles. Off by a magnitude of 11. You can't tell me that an ABC affiliate can't afford a text function that does superscripts! That number should read: 1.8 x 106 miles.

4. Telescope needed. Yeah, right... According to Sky and Telescope Magazine's Tony Flanders, "Locating this asteroid won’t be easy; it requires excellent chart-reading skills and planetarium software capable of showing stars down to magnitude 14.5."
FACT: I have a 10" Orion Dobsonian. I'd never be able to see it with my meager object-finding skills. WTNH, however, stated that, "Backyard astronomers will be able to see it whiz by Thursday night." "Whiz by"? Hardly. According to Tony Flanders, it is moving one arcsecond per clock second. Only trained folks watching it for extended lengths of time will see it move...


Wednesday, July 4, 2012


Image from Science Magazine Online
Click image to Enbiggenate

Well, it finally popped up; the elusive Higgs Boson. Just reported from CERN by two independent research teams comprised of a total of 3000 scientists and engineers! See: Science Daily and Science Magazine Online for details. The Official CERN Press Release is also cool reading.

For those of you not too terribly familiar with the importance of this find, or for my AP Kids who fell asleep in May, allow me some Fizzix Pontification. There is a model (sorta full set of theories and such that works) that explains the way matter is built, how it behaves, what it's made of, and all that particle physics stuff. It's called the Standard Model of Matter (or SM of Particle Physics if you want to sound more imposing at a party...). It's basically a large set of relationships between all those subatomic particles that make up everything we see, touch, feel, or otherwise can detect and we call matter. You can think of it as a recipe for matter and the Universe. A great place to start learning about this stuff is Berkeley Labs The Particle Adventure. A laymen's outline? Sure.

Courtesy (Contemporary Physics Ed Project)
Click image to Encloseupinate

  • All regular matter is made of only 12 Fermions (6 quarks and 6 leptons) and 4 Bosons (Force carriers). The Fermions are 3 "pairs" of each quarks and leptons. You may have heard of the quark somewhere along the line if you were paying attention in class. They make up what used to be called the Protons and Neutrons and a "zoo" of other subatomic particle. A proton is simply an AREA of space where 3 quarks, 2 "ups" and one "down" exist. The neutron is made of 3 quarks also, but 2 "downs" and one "up". The quark "pairs" are whimsically called up & down', charm & strange, and top & bottom. Leptons? Some of them are strange named things, but you have heard of the electron. It's one of the 6 leptons. Leptons are the electron, tau, and muon and their associated neutrinos (electron neutrino, tau neutrino, & the muon neutrino). [NOTE: This does not include Dark Matter! We have no frikkin' clue on what that stuff is yet...]
    Click image to Envestiginate

  • For all of the details included in the Standard Model to work, there HAD TO BE a reason for mass to exist. Believe it or not, even though we've known about all these particles and how they interact, we've never really had a good explanation of what actually caused a particle, and thereby a group of particles that make up an object, to have mass! Why do I have a mass of 110kg? Why is a quark more massive than an electron even though they are the same "size"? Well? WHY?

    Enter English physicist, Peter Higgs. In 1964, he, along with a few others, devised a strange sounding things called "broken symmetry of the electroweak theory". Yeah, just saying that hurts, don't it? In it, he proposed this thing, a field, an invisible force field type thing, that had to permate all of space in order for a particle to actually have mass; otherwise, there was no reason for a particle like an electron to even have mass. Without this Higgs Field, an electron could just fly around at the speed of light and have no mass and be weird like. The Standard Model (which didn't really exist like it does today...) at the time had no explanation of why mass was mass. He further proposed that the Standard Model would be fine if there were a particle that "exuded" this invisible field, called the Higgs Field", and this predicted particle was dubbed the "Higgs Particle".

    So, what does all this mean?

    By the 80's this Higgs Particle had been mathematically shown to be a boson. Boson, besides being what I've called some of my bosses in the past, is the name given to a group of particles called the "force-carrier" particles. They include photons (EM carrier like light), gluons (hold quarks, therefore nuclei, together), and the Z and W Bosons. "Boson" is named after the Indian mathematical physicist, Satyendra Nath Bose, a contemporary of Einstein. Put these two names together and you get the familiar, but very misunderstood, Bose-Einstein Condensate; a topic for a later and much longer post. Bosons obey Bose-Einstein Statistics; meaning they CAN violate the Pauli Explusion Principle and occupy the same place at the same time and even have the exact same properties as each other; the same quantum state. "Regular" particles like the leptons and the protons and neutrons made from quarks must obey Fermi–Dirac Statistics where the Pauli Exclusion Principle holds power; they cannot ever occupy the same quantum states at the same time.

    Here is a simple and great analogy from Dr. Matthew Bobrowsky, Physics Professor at University of Maryland:

    In the 1960s, Peter Higgs and a few other scientists proposed that there’s an energy field throughout the universe. This energy field is now called the “Higgs field.” The reason Higgs proposed this field is that no one yet understood why some particles have more mass than others.

    The energy field that Peter Higgs proposed would interact with particles to give them their mass. The idea is that massive particles interact strongly with the field, low-mass particles interact with the field only weakly, and massless particles don’t interact with the field at all.

    A good analogy for this is to consider things moving through water. The water represents the Higgs field. Some things (like fish) move through water very easily. These would be like low-mass particles. Other things (like me) don’t move through the water easily; so these are like high-mass particles — high-mass because they interact a lot with the water (Higgs field).

    The lightest sub-atomic particle is the electron, and the most massive is the top quark. Its mass is about 350,000 times the mass of the electron — about the mass of a tungston atom. Interestingly, the top quark is not more massive because it’s bigger. It’s actually believed to be the same (infinitesimal) size as the electron. What makes the top quark more massive than the electron is simply that it interacts more strongly with the Higgs field. Now, what you’ve been hearing about is not the Higgs field, but the Higgs boson. What’s the connection? The Higgs boson is the tiniest piece of the Higgs field, just like a single H2O molecule is the tiniest piece of water. So in our previous water analogy, the Higgs boson is to the Higgs field as a single water molecule is to a large ocean of water. Just as water is made of countless individual molecules, the Higgs field is made of countless Higgs bosons.

    CONCLUSION? So, this Higgs Field is an "invisible" energy field that permeates all of space that is caused by the presence of Higgs Bosons (the force carrier) and causes particles in it to have "heft" or mass. With it, the Standard Model is all happy and fuzzy... Yea...

  • Tuesday, June 5, 2012

    Monday, April 30, 2012

    Yet Another "Earth-Like" Planet Found... Yawn....

    COOL, TOO KEWL! Earth-like planet found that MAY have been a larger hunk of rock that split up after an ugly encounter with it's star! As my Super-Hero colleague and close personal friend, The Tick, said, "Gravity is a harsh mistress..."

    See: SPACE.COM for more info...

    I'm still wrapping my head around CT Gov Malloy repealing the death penalty even though 67% of CT folks said it (repeal) was a bad thing... Sigh... Just when did our "representatives" become less than that...

    SUPERMOON Going To Kill Us All This Weekend! AAARRRGGGHHH!

    Seems there are plenty of reasons to believe that our own moon is going to [A] crash into us, or [B] cause severe tides so that Denver becomes beachfront property, or [C] get so close as to pull us off the surface of the earth and fling us all into outer space where we will all explode in a horrible frozen bloody death. Those reasons, in order, are [A] stupid people on the internet or [B] stupid people who read stupid things on the internet written by aforementioned stupid people on the internet or [C] stupid people who run blogs who report on stupid stories about stupid people who read stupid things on the internet written by aforementioned stupid people on the internet or, lastly, [D] folks who have previously claimed to have been abducted by aliens, probed in unspeakable ways, then returned to their loved ones to rattle on and on about being probed in unspeakable ways.

    Compliments SPACE.COM

    Now, as anyone who has ever paid attention to this hysteric type of thing, I can say demonstratively and succinctly that the moon is not, let me repeat, NOT going to kill us this weekend. Nor, is it going to drown, smite, set on fire, collide, send locusts or otherwise spell doom for mankind as set forth by the stupid "2012" subscribers. I much prefer to follow the Armageddon-ish view where Bruce Willis will save us from certain death from a rogue comet originating iron-core asteroid the size of Texas that no one saw till it was too late. [Soliloquy: I'm relatively confident I'd be able to scream to my neighbors, whom I hold no love for, "Look! Here comes Texas!" a few days before Micheal Bay and Jerry Bruckheimer decided the world need to see it...] Anyway, I digress... Which is not a bad thing...

    Anyway, the Moon is at Perihelion this weekend, the closest approach to the Earth in it's sorta wide elliptical orbit. So, yeah. It's larger than normal. DURING THE MONTH! The last time it was this "large: was May 2011! OMG! That was before I was born! Wait... Maybe not...

    Take a look:


    So, yeah, duh.

    Thursday, April 12, 2012

    OMG: Oh My Geosynchronous !

    Check out this video from APOD! It shows a line of geosynchronous satellites as the distant stars "fly" by. These satellites must remain stationary relative to the earth's surface, so have a period of 24 hrs. SO COOL!

    Geostationary satellites in the Swiss Alps from Michael Kunze on Vimeo.

    Feel free to embiggenate for better viewing!

    Tennessee Science Education is Lost Once Again!

    I'm not very savvy on the ins and outs of the political scene. I do my best to keep abreast of what's happening and whose causing it. However, there have been a couple silly (and IMHO downright illegal) political happenings the past week or so.

    First, similar to some of the other anti-science education topics I've tried to cover here, Tennessee's so-called "Monkey Bill" stands to set back science education a good century or more. We've come a long way since the Butler Act of 1925, the law that actually prohibited the teaching of evolution in classrooms in Tennessee. Yikes. However, let's keep in mind that was 1925. Unclothed savages and dinosaurs roamed the Tennessee Valley way back then. Then the (in)famous Scopes "Monkey Trial" backed by the even more (in)famous ACLU challenged this Butler Act via a school teacher named John Scopes. In a long drawn-out battle between Jennings Bryan and Darrow, but the Butler Act was actively on the Tennessee books till 1967.

    Well, it seems our ID.10.T friends from Tennessee are at it again; attacking science at its core. The Monkey Bill has become State Law. What I can't comprehend, beyond even the fact that elected officials can be some dumb when it comes to even what science is, let alone how to teach it, is the fact Governor Bill Haslam didn't even sign it! Yep, that's right! He decided NOT TO SIGN THE BILL and it passed into law anyway. According to the Commercial Appeal newspaper in Memphis TN:

    In a short statement Tuesday afternoon, Haslam said that while he did not see that the bill would change the "scientific standards" taught in Tennessee schools, he also didn't see it accomplishing "anything that isn't already acceptable in our schools." He noted that while the bill passed with a three-to-one margin in the House and Senate, "good legislation should bring clarity and not confusion." "My concern is that this bill has not met this objective. For that reason, I will not sign the bill, but will allow it to become law without my signature." This is the first bill in Haslam's nearly 15 months in office that he has allowed to become law without his signature. Although the governor didn't say so, a veto would likely not have killed the bill. Under the Tennessee Constitution, the legislature can override a governor's veto by simple majority votes of the total membership of each chamber -- 17 votes in the 33-member Senate and 50 votes in the 99-member House. The bill won House approval on a 70-23 vote last year, then Senate approval 25-8 last month.
    Oh, My Proverbial God! That means I can now safely teach my religion in my Fizzix class! I personally subscribe and practice the Flying Spaghetti Monster as my creator.

    Let me be clear here, the language of TN House Bill 368 (Senate Bill 893) states:

    (a) The general assembly finds that: (1) An important purpose of science education is to inform students about scientific evidence and to help students develop critical thinking skills necessary to becoming intelligent, productive, and scientifically informed citizens; (2) The teaching of some scientific subjects, including, but not limited to, biological evolution, the chemical origins of life, global warming, and human cloning, can cause controversy; and (3) Some teachers may be unsure of the expectations concerning how they should present information on such subjects. (b) The state board of education, public elementary and secondary school governing authorities, directors of schools, school system administrators, and public elementary and secondary school principals and administrators shall endeavor to create an environment within public elementary and secondary schools that encourages students to explore scientific questions, learn about scientific evidence, develop critical thinking skills, and respond appropriately and respectfully to differences of opinion about controversial issues. [Emphasis mine...]

    See next post for a crime committed by my own CT Legislature just yesterday...

    Tuesday, March 6, 2012

    Planets Putting On a Show This Month!!

    Howdy! If you are even vaguely interested in viewing stars and planets and aliens, this is your month. The Giants Jupiter and Saturn are hanging out most of the night while all the little 'uns - Mars, Venus, & Mercury - are competing for your attention.

    Let's start with the Little 'uns. Tonight, coincidentally, Mars is in what astronomers like to call "opposition". This doesn't mean it opposes us. It's simply that we are both on the same side of the sun and all lined up. Can you say, "Mayan disaster 2012"? I knew you could. Also, Mars is at it's closest approach to earth in it's 26 month orbit at about 63 Million miles away. This puts Mars prominently on any astronomer's list of "Things To See in March". And if you have a really good telescope, you might even see John Carter fighting 6-legged giant white gorillas in a Martian arena... Maybe not...

    As for Mercury, well! This little elusive guy can't be seen very often due to its close proximity to that Million mile wide ball of fire in the sky. However, tonight, again coincidentally, Mercury makes its highest appearance in the western sky just after sunset. Find Venus and Jupiter, the two brightest things you can see right now other than the sun. Mercury is right beneath them, closer to the horizon.

    The other Little Guy, Venus, is strutting her stuff as usual. Venus is lined up for the next several days with Jupiter. Both are big and bright and not necessarily in the heart of Texas. See image above.

    Image via

    Meanwhile, Saturn, the King of the Rings, not to be confused with the Lord of the Rings, should be giving telescope and good binocular viewers a ring show the rest of the month.

    Wednesday, February 29, 2012

    Catch-up Time! New Planets & Slow Neutrinos...

    WOW. It's been almost 2 months since I've been here? Goes to show you how much time teaching takes out of your day... A few quick tidbits to catch up on recent sciency stuff:
    1. It was the Cable Guy's Fault! CERN made a public announcement about a loose cable possibly being the culprit in the results that pointed to superluminal neutrinos last Fall. Seems a tech didn't attach an optic fiber cable to a computer securely. This computer was essential for interpreting time from a GPS system. Once that was found - coincidentally, not till AFTER they had run a 2nd testing and came up with the same results - it resulted in an additional 60μs; the exact amount of time the neutrinos had beaten light in a race through the earth... However, during the press conference I saw online at, J Gillies said, and I seriously paraphrase here,
    "The cable means the neutrinos got there later than we had originally measured. However, we found another problem with a synchronization of an extrapolated flux capacitor [my term since I don't know what the heck he actually said] that may indicate the neutrinos actually arrived sooner than we originally thought. So, what does this mean? Well, the neutrinos may have been slower than we said, the same speed as we said, or faster than we said..."
    Yeah, thanks, Spanky. That really helps. Stay tuned. Same Bat Time. Same Bat Channel. I personally think this is an International conspiracy to hide the discovery of the Higgs-Boson and his lesser known little brothers, the Higgs-Moron and Higgs-Peon...

    2. Super-Earth found. NASA reported earlier this month of an earth-like planet orbiting one member of a three-star system nearby. Found by Kepler, the orbiting planet-finder telescope thingee, the cleverly named GJ 667Cc is only 22 light-years away (practically in our astronomical backyard if not on the back deck...), is 4 times bigger than earth, and is in the "Goldilocks Zone" of habitation; not too cold, not too hot, just right. reports there are now 1497 exoplanet candidates with 709 solidly confirmed.

    3. And talking about planets, it seems the planet GJ 1214b, first discovered in 2009, is a "waterworld". New info from Hubble indicates this planet, only twice as large as earth, is a steamy watery world. Although this water may not be the type you could comfortably jump into and enjoy on a summer day... From
    “It’s an exciting thing that we don’t have in our solar system,” says Lisa Kaltenegger, an astronomer who divides her time between Germany’s Max Planck Institute for Astronomy in Heidelberg and the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics in Cambridge. “And it’s a fun puzzle trying to figure out what the atmosphere of that planet is really made of.”