Wolfram Physics Project Seeks Theory Of Everything; Is It Revelation Or Overstatement?

Stephen Wolfram, inventor of the Wolfram computational language and the Mathematica software, announced that he may have found a path to the holy grail of physics: A fundamental theory of everything. Even with the subjunctive, this is certainly a powerful statement that should be met with some skepticism.

What is considered a fundamental theory of physics? In our current understanding, there are four fundamental forces in nature: the electromagnetic force, the weak force, the strong force, and gravity. Currently, the description of these forces is divided into two parts: General Relativity (GR), describing the nature of gravity that dominates physics on astronomical scales. Quantum Field Theory (QFT) describes the other three forces and explains all of particle physics. Continue reading “Wolfram Physics Project Seeks Theory Of Everything; Is It Revelation Or Overstatement?”

ESP8266 And Sensors Make For A Brainy NERF Ball

For his final project in UCLA’s Physics 4AL program, [Timothy Kanarsky] used a NodeMCU to smarten up a carefully dissected NERF football. With the addition to dual MPU6050 digital accelerometers and some math, the ball can calculate things like the distance traveled and angular velocity. With a 9 V alkaline battery and a voltage regulator board along for the ride it seems like a lot of weight to toss around; but of course nobody on the Hackaday payroll has thrown a ball in quite some time, so we’re probably not the best judge of such things.

Even if you’re not particularly interested in refining your throw, there’s a lot of fascinating science going on in this project; complete with fancy-looking equations to make you remember just how poorly you did back in math class.

As [Timothy] explains in the write-up, the math used to find velocity and distance traveled with just two accelerometers is not unlike the sort of dead-reckoning used in intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs). Since we’ve already seen model rockets with their own silos, seems all the pieces are falling into place.

The NodeMCU polls the accelerometers every 5 milliseconds, and displays the data on web page complete with scrolling graphs of acceleration and angular velocity. When the button on the rear of the ball is pressed, the data is instead saved to basic Comma Separated Values (CSV) file that’s served up to clients with a minimal FTP server. We might not know much about sportsball, but we definitely like the idea of a file server we can throw at people.

Interestingly, this isn’t the first time we’ve seen an instrumented football. Back in 2011 it took some pretty elaborate hardware to pull this sort of thing off, and it’s fascinating to see how far the state-of-the-art has progressed.

Retrotechtacular: Automotive Suspension Is All About Waves

In addition to driving home the need for Steadicam or Optical Image Stabilization, this eighty-year-old video illustrates some elegant solutions the automotive industry developed in their suspension systems. Specifically, this Chevrolet video from 1938 is aimed at an audience that values science and therefore the reel boils down the problem at hand using models that will remind you of physics class.

Model of a wheel with a leaf spring records the effect of a bump on a piece of paper above

The problem is uneven ground — the “waves in the Earth’s surface” — be it the terrain in an open field, a dirt road, or even a paved parkway. Any vehicle traveling those surfaces will face the challenge of not only cushioning for rough terrain, but accounting for the way a suspension system itself reacts to avoid oscillation and other negative effects. In the video this is boiled down to a 2-dimensional waveform drawn by a model which begins with a single tire and evolves to include a four wheeled vehicle with different suspension systems in the front and the rear.

Perhaps the most illuminating part of the video is the explanation of how the car’s front suspension actually works. The wheels need to be able to steer the vehicle, while the suspension must also allow the tire to remain perpendicular to the roadway. This is shown in the image at the top of this article. Each wheel has a swing arm that allows for steering and for vertical movement of the wheel. A coil spring is used in place of the leaf springs shown in the initial model.

You probably know what’s coming next. The springs are capable of storing and releasing energy, and left to their own devices, they’ll dissipate the energy of a bump by oscillating. This is exactly what we don’t want. The solution is to add shock absorbers which limit how the springs perform. The waveforms drawn by the model encountering bumps are now tightly constrained to the baseline of flat ground.

This is the type of advertising we can wholeheartedly get behind. Product engineers of the world, please try to convince your marketing colleagues to show us the insides, tell us why the choices were made, and share the testing that helps users understand both how the thing works and why it was built that way. The last eighty years have brought myriad layers of complexity to most of the products that surround us, but human nature hasn’t changed; people are still quite curious to see the scientific principles in action all around us.

Make sure you don’t bomb out of the video before the very end. A true bit of showmanship, the desktop model of a car is recreated in a full-sized Chevy, complete with “sky-writing smoke” to draw the line. I don’t think it’s a true analog, but it’s certainly the kind of kitsch I always look for in a great Retrotechtacular subject.

Continue reading “Retrotechtacular: Automotive Suspension Is All About Waves”

Failed: Air Umbrella

About five years ago, a Kickstarter popped up for the air umbrella. It wasn’t long before the project fell apart and the company made at least some refunds. Old news, we know. But [The Action Lab] recently explored the physics behind the air umbrella and why it wouldn’t be very practical. (Video, embedded below.)

Notice we said not very practical, not unworkable. It is possible to shoot rain away from you by using pressurized air. The problem is you need a lot of air pressure. That means you also need a lot of battery. In particular, [The Action Lab] used a leaf blower and even with that velocity, there was only minimal water deflection. In other words, you are still going to get wet.

Continue reading “Failed: Air Umbrella”

Particle Accelerators That Fit On A Chip

If you were asked to imagine a particle accelerator, you would probably picture a high-energy electron beam contained within a kilometers-long facility, manned by hundreds of engineers and researchers. You probably wouldn’t think of a chip smaller than a fingernail, yet that’s exactly what the SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory’s Accelerator on a Chip International Program (ACHIP) has accomplished.

The Stanford University team developed a device that uses lasers to accelerate electrons along etched channels on a silicon chip. The idea for a miniature accelerator has existed since the laser’s invention in 1960, but the requirement for a device to generate electrons made the early proof-of-concepts difficult to manufacture in bulk.

via Scientific American

The electromagnetic waves produced by lasers have much shorter wavelengths than the microwaves used in full-scale accelerators, allowing them to accelerate electrons in a far more confined space – channels can be shrunk to three one-thousandths of a millimeter wide. In order to couple the lasers and electrons properly, the light waves must push the particles in the correct direction with as much energy as possible. This also requires the device to generate electrons and transmit them via the proper channel. With an accelerator engraved in silicon, multiple components can fit on the same chip.

Within the latest prototype, a laser hits a grating from above the chip, directing the energy into a waveguide. The electromagnetic waves radiate out, moving with the waveguide until they reach an etched pattern that creates a focused electromagnetic field. As electrons move through the field, they accelerate and gain energy.

The results showed that the prototype could boost the electrons by 915 electron volts, equivalent to the electrons gaining 30 million electron volts over a meter. While the change is not on the scale of SLAC, it does scale up more easily since researchers can fit multiple accelerating paths onto future designs without the bulk of a full-scale accelerator. The chip exists as a single stage of the accelerator, allowing more researchers to conduct experiments without the need to reserve space in expensive full-scale particle accelerators.

Continue reading “Particle Accelerators That Fit On A Chip”

36C3: Phyphox – Using Smartphone Sensors For Physics Experiments

It’s no secret that the average smart phone today packs an abundance of gadgets fitting in your pocket, which could have easily filled a car trunk a few decades ago. We like to think about video cameras, music playing equipment, and maybe even telephones here, but let’s not ignore the amount of measurement equipment we also carry around in form of tiny sensors nowadays. How to use those sensors for educational purposes to teach physics is presented in [Sebastian Staacks]’ talk at 36C3 about the phyphox mobile lab app.

While accessing a mobile device’s sensor data is usually quite straightforwardly done through some API calls, the phyphox app is not only a shortcut to nicely graph all the available sensor data on the screen, it also exports the data for additional visualization and processing later on. An accompanying experiment editor allows to define custom experiments from data capture to analysis that are stored in an XML-based file format and possible to share through QR codes.

Aside from demonstrating the app itself, if you ever wondered how sensors like the accelerometer, magnetometer, or barometric pressure sensor inside your phone actually work, and which one of them you can use to detect toilet flushing on an airplane and measure elevator velocity, and how to verify your HDD spins correctly, you will enjoy the talk. If you just want a good base for playing around with sensor data yourself, it’s all open source and available on GitHub for both Android and iOS.

Continue reading “36C3: Phyphox – Using Smartphone Sensors For Physics Experiments”

Building Your Own Tensegrity Structure

It seems that tensegrity structures are trending online, possibly due to the seemingly impossible nature of their construction. The strings appear to levitate without any sound reason, but if you bend them just the right way they’ll succumb to gravity. 

The clue is in the name. Tensegrity is a pormanteau of “tension” and “integrity”. It’s easiest to understand if you have a model in your hand — cut the strings and the structure falls apart. We’re used to thinking of integrity in terms of compression. Most man-made structures rely on this concept of engineering, from the Empire State Building to the foundation of apartment building.

Tensegrity allows strain to be distributed across a structure. While buildings built from continuous compression may not show this property, more elastic structures like our bodies do. These structures can be built on top of smaller units that continuously distribute strain. Additionally, these structures can be contracted and retracted in ways that “compressionegrities” simply can’t exhibit.

How about collapsing the structure? This occurs at the weakest point. Wherever the load has the greatest strain on a structure is where it will likely snap, a property demonstrable in bridges, domes, and even our bodies.

Fascinated? Fortunately, it’s not too difficult to create your own structures.

Continue reading “Building Your Own Tensegrity Structure”