Dirt Cheap Muon Detector Puts Particle Physics Within DIY Reach

Subatomic physics is pretty neat stuff, but not generally considered within the reach of the home-gamer. With cavernous labs filled with racks of expensive gears and miles-wide accelerators, playing with the subatomic menagerie has been firmly in the hands of the pros for pretty much as long as the field has been in existence. But that could change with this sub-$100 DIY muon detector.

[Spencer Axani] has been fiddling with the idea of a tiny muon detector since his undergrad days. Now as an MIT doctoral candidate, he’s making that dream a reality. Muons are particles that are similar to electrons but more massive and less likely to be affected by electromagnetic fields. Muons rain down on the Earth’s surface at the rate of 10,000 per square meter every minute after being created by cosmic rays interacting with the atmosphere and are capable of penetrating deep into the planet. [Spencer]’s detector is purposely kept as low-budget as possible, using cheap plastic scintillators and solid-state photomultipliers hooked up to an Arduino. The whole project is as much STEM outreach as it is a serious scientific effort; the online paper (PDF link) stresses the mechanical and electronics skills needed to complete the build. At the $100 price point, this build is well within the means of most high school STEM programs and allows for a large, distributed array of muon detectors that has the potential for some exciting science.

We’ve covered quite a few subatomic detection projects before, from the aforementioned large-scale builds to more modest efforts. But we like this project because it has the potential to inspire a lot of citizen scientists.

Thanks for the tip, [deralchemist]

A Refrigerator Cooled by Rubber Bands

Ever noticed that a rubber band gets warmer when it’s stretched? The bands also get cooler when allowed to snap back to relaxed length? [Ben Krasnow] noticed, and he built a rubber band cooled refrigerator to demonstrate the concept. The idea of stretching a rubber band to make it hotter, then releasing it to make it cooler seems a bit counter intuitive. Normally when things get smaller (like a gas being compressed) they get hotter. When pressure is released the gas gets cooler. Rubber bands do the exact opposite. Stretching a rubber band makes it hot. Releasing the stretched band causes it to get cooler.

No, the second law of thermodynamics isn’t in jeopardy. The secret is in the molecular structure of rubber bands. The bands are made of long polymer chains. A relaxed rubber band’s chains are a tangled mess. Stretching the band causes the chains to untangle and line up in an orderly fashion. By stretching the band you are decreasing its entropy. The energy of the molecules in the band don’t change, but entropy does. All the work one does to stheatwheelretch the band has to go somewhere, and that somewhere is heat. This is all an example of entropic force. For a physics model of what’s going on, check out ideal chains. If you’re confused, watch the video. [Ben] does a better job of explaining entropic force visually than we can with text.

To test this phenomenon out, [Ben] first built a wheel with rubber bands as spokes. Placing the wheel in front of a heater caused it to slowly rotate. [Ben] then reversed the process by building a refrigerator. He modeled his parts in solidworks, then cut parts with his Shaper handheld CNC. The fridge itself consists of an offset wheel of rubber bands. The bands are stretched outside the fridge, and released inside. Two fans help transfer the thermal energy from the bands to the air. The whole thing is hand cranked, so this would make a perfect museum or educational demonstration. Cranking the fridge for 5 minutes did get the air inside a couple of degrees cooler. Rubber is never going to displace standard refrigerants, but this is a great demo of the principles of entropic force.

For more thermodynamic fun, check out [Al Williams] recent article about building a DIY heat pipe.

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You Can Learn a Lot from a Candle

Beginning in 1827, [Michael Faraday] began giving a series of public lectures at Christmas on various subjects. The “Christmas Lectures” continued for 19 years and became wildly popular with upper-class Londoners. [Bill Hammack], aka [The Engineer Guy], has taken on the task of presenting [Faraday]’s famous 1848 “The Chemical History of a Candle” lecture in a five-part video series that is a real treat.

We’ve only gotten through the first episode so far, but we really enjoyed it. The well-produced lectures are crisply delivered and filled with simple demonstrations that drive the main points home. [Bill] delivers more or less the original text of the lecture; some terminology gets an update, but by and large the Victorian flavor of the original material really comes through. Recognizing that this might not be everyone’s cup of tea, [Bill] and his colleagues provide alternate versions with a modern commentary audio track, as well as companion books with educational guides and student worksheets. This is a great resource for teachers, parents, and anyone looking to explore multiple scientific disciplines in a clear, approachable way.

If there were an award for the greatest scientist of all time, the short list would include [Faraday]. His discoveries and inventions in the fields of electricity, magnetism, chemistry, and physics spanned the first half of the 19th century and laid the foundation for the great advances that were to follow. That he could look into a simple candle flame and see so much is a testament to his genius, and that 150 years later we get to experience a little of what those lectures must have been like is a testament to [Bill Hammack]’s skill as an educator and a scientist.

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Symmetry for Dummies: Noether’s Theorem

Einstein referred to her as the most important woman in the history of mathematics. Her theorem has been recognized as “one of the most important mathematical theorems ever proved in guiding the development of modern physics.” Yet many people haven’t the slightest clue of who this woman was, or what she did that was so significant to our understanding of how our world works. If you count yourself as one of those who have never heard of Emmy Noether and wish to enlighten yourself, please read on. I can only hope I do her memory justice. Not just by telling you who she was, but by also giving you an understanding of how her insight led to the coming together of symmetry and quantum theory, pointing academia’s arrow toward quantum electrodynamics.

Emmy Noether

Being a female in Germany in the late 1800s was not easy. She wasn’t allowed to register for math classes. Fortunately, her father happened to be a math professor, which allowed her to sit in on many of his classes. She took one of his final exams in 1904 and did so well that she was granted a bachelors degree. This allowed her to “officially” register in a math graduate program. Three years later, she earned one of the first PhD’s given to a woman in Germany. She was just 25 years old.

1907 was a very exciting time in theoretical physics, as scientists were hot on the heels of figuring out how light and atoms interact with each other. Emmy wanted in on the fun, but being a woman made this difficult. She wasn’t allowed to hold a teaching position, so she worked as an unpaid assistant, surviving on a small inheritance and under-the-table money that she earned sitting in for male professors when they were unable to teach. She was still able to do what professors are supposed to do, however – write papers. In 1916, she would pen the theorem that would have her rubbing shoulders with the other physics and mathematical giants of the era.

Noether’s Theorem – The Basics

Emmy Noether’s Theorem seems simple on the onset, but holds a fundamental truth that explains the fabric of our reality. It goes something like this:

For every symmetry, there is a corresponding conservation law.

We all have heard of laws such as Newton’s first law of motion, which is about the conservation of momentum. And the first law of thermodynamics, which is about the conservation of energy. Noether’s theorem tells us that there must be some type of symmetry that is related to these conservation laws. Before we get into the meaning, we must first understand a little known subject called The Principle of Least Action.

The Universe is Lazy

N_02I would wager a few Raspberry Pi Zeros that many of you already have an intuitive grasp of this principle, even if you’ve never heard of it before now. The principle of least action basically says that the universe has figured out the easiest way possible to get something done. Mathematically, it’s the sum over time of kinetic energy minus potential energy as the action occurs. Let us imagine that you’re trying to program an STM32 Discovery eval board in GCC. After about the 6,000th try, you toss the POS across the room and grab your trusty Uno. The graph depicts the STM32 moving through time and space.


The green points represent particular points of how how high the STM32 is at a given point in time. Note that there are no values for height and time – this example is meant to explain a principle. We can say that at these points (and all points along the curve), the SMT32 has both kinetic and potential energies. Let us call the kinetic energy (kt) and the potential energy (pt). The ‘t‘ subscript is for time, as both the energies are functions of time. The action for each point will be called s, and can be calculated as:

s = k_t-p_t

However, action is the total sum of the difference of energies at each point between t1 and t2. If you’ve read my integral post, you will know that we need to integrate in order to calculate the total action.

S = \int_{t_1}^{t_2} (k - p) dt

Now before you get your jumper wires in a bunch, all that is saying is that we’re taking the difference in potential (p) and kinetic (k) energies at each point along the curve between t1 and t2, and we’re adding them together. The elongated S symbol means a sum, and the (dt) means as it changes over time. The path that the STM32 will take will be the path where the action S is at its minimum value. Check out the video in the source section below if you’re confused. It’s only 10 minutes and goes into this concept in easy to follow details.

Noether’s Theorem – The Details

N_03Noether’s theorem is based upon a mathematical proof. It’s not a theory. Her proof can be applied to physics to develop theories, however. Now that we know what the principle of least action is, we can do just this.

Any law of nature can be traced back to a symmetry and the least action principle. Let’s consider two very simple examples – Newton’s first law of motion and the first law of thermodynamics.

Conservation of Momentum

Space has what is known as translational symmetry. That’s just fancy-pants talk for saying that what you do in one point in space is the same as what you do in another point in space. It doesn’t matter what hacker space you throw your STM32, it will act the same at all hacker spaces on earth. Space itself provides the symmetry. And because the principle of least action applies, you have a natural law – the first law of motion.

Conservation of Energy

Time has the same translational symmetry as space does. If I toss the STM32 now, and toss it tomorrow, it will act the same. It doesn’t matter what point in time I toss it, the results will always be the same. Thus energy is conserved between different points in time. Time is our symmetry, and the 1st law of thermodynamics is the result.

Now, I realize these examples might seem a bit useless. But when you dig a bit deeper, things get interesting. Electrical charge is also conserved. Noether says there must then be some type of symmetry involved. What do you suppose that symmetry might be? Keep following that rabbit hole, and you’ll end up face to face with QED. We’ll get there in a future article, so for now just keep Noether’s Theorem in mind.


Physics Helps, The principle of least action, video link.

Ransom Stephens, Ph.D., Emmy Noether and The Fabric of Reality, video link

OneSolver Does What Wolfram Can’t

Wolfram Alpha has been “helping” students get through higher math and science classes for years. It can do almost everything from solving Laplace transforms to various differential equations. It’s a little lacking when it comes to solving circuits, though, which is where [Grant] steps in. He’s come up with a tool called OneSolver which can help anyone work out a number of electrical circuits (and a few common physics problems, too).

[Grant] has been slowly building an online database of circuit designs that has gotten up to around a hundred unique solvers. The interesting thing is that the site implements a unique algorithm where all input fields of a circuits design can also become output fields. This is unique to most other online calculators because it lets you do things that circuit simulators and commercial math packages can’t. The framework defines one system of equations, and will solve all possible combinations, and lets one quickly home in on a desired design solution.

If you’re a student or someone who constantly builds regulators or other tiny circuits (probably most of us) then give this tool a shot. [Grant] is still adding to it, so it will only get better over time. This may be the first time we’ve seen something like this here, too, but there have been other more specific pieces of software to help out with your circuit design.

A Look Into the Future of Slicing

I’ve had a few conversations over the years with people about the future of 3D printing. One of the topics that arises frequently is the slicer, the software that turns a 3D model into paths for a 3D printer. I thought it would be a good idea to visualize what slicing, and by extension 3D printing, could be. I’ve always been a proponent of just building something, but sometimes it’s very easy to keep polishing the solution we have now rather than looking for and imagining the solutions that could be. Many of the things I’ll mention have been worked on or solved in one context or another, but not blended into a cohesive package.

I believe that fused deposition modelling (FDM), which is the cheapest and most common technology, can produce parts superior to other production techniques if treated properly. It should be possible to produce parts that handle forces in unique ways such  that machining, molding, sintering, and other commonly implemented methods will have a hard time competing with in many applications.

Re-envisioning the slicer is no small task, so I’m going to tackle it in three articles. Part One, here, will cover the improvements yet to be had with the 2D and layer height model of slicing. It is the first and most accessible avenue for improvement in slicing technologies. It will require new software to be written but does not dramatically affect the current construction of 3D printers today. It should translate to every printer currently operating without even a firmware change.

Part Two will involve making mechanical changes to the printer: multiple materials, temperatures, and nozzle sizes at least. The slicer will need to work with the printer’s new capabilities to take full advantage of them.

Finally, in Part Three, we’ll consider adding more axes. A five axis 3D printer with advanced software, differing nozzle geometries, and multi material capabilities will be able to produce parts of significantly reduced weight while incorporating internal features exceeding our current composites in many ways. Five axis paths begin to allow for weaving techniques and advanced “grain” in the layers put down by the 3D printer.

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About Those Gravitational Waves

It was the year of 1687 when Isaac Newton published “The Principia“, which revealed the first mathematical description of gravity. Newton’s laws of motion along with his description of gravity laid before the world a revolutionary concept that could be used to describe everything from the motions of heavenly bodies to a falling apple. Newton would remain the unequivocal king of gravity for the next several hundred years. But that would all change at the dawn of the 20th century when a young man working at a Swiss patent office began to ask some profound questions. Einstein had come to the conclusion that Newtonian physics was not adequate to describe the findings of the emerging electromagnetic field theories.  In 1905, he published a paper entitled “On the Electrodynamics of Moving Bodies” which corrects Newton’s laws so they work when describing the motions of objects near the speed of light. This new description became known as Special Relativity.

It was ‘Special’ because it didn’t deal with gravity or acceleration. It would take Einstein another 10 years to work these two concepts into his relativity theory. He called it General Relativity – an understanding of which is necessary to fully grasp the significance of gravitational waves.

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