When Size Matters: Story of the Incredible Shrinking Proton!

The size of the proton matters in the field of the ultra-small and it seems that no one can agree on the correct value. The answer was long believed to be well-known, but the puzzle seems to be back to haunt the physics community. The proton seems to have suddenly shrunk in size.


How do we look?

The radius of the proton is found out by shooting high energy electrons at it and then finding how it forms a bound state. It’s very much like forming an atom, except that this atom is much smaller than the normal atoms which make up matter. Energetic electrons fired at protons often get bound to the proton, and form a hydrogen-like object. However, since the electron has a lot more energy than the ordinary hydrogen atom electron, it is attached much closer to the proton than the normal hydrogen electron. As a result, the proton can no longer be treated as a point particle, but its spatial extent become important.

So we can form a bound state and then measure the minute transition between energy levels and these now have an imprint of the proton magnetic moment and the proton radius. And thus, the proton radius can be determined.
For a long time, physicists were safe in their determination of the proton radius and their value was 0.8768 femtometers (a femtometer is a millionth of a billionth of a meter, or a meter divided by 10^15). Case closed, right? Wrong…

New experiment

A new experimental result threatens to blow this question of the radius wide open again. The muon is a close cousin of the electron. It has a negative charge and behave very much like the electron in a magnetic field, except that it is 200 times heavier than an electron. Recent experiments shoot these heavy electrons – or muons – at protons and these now form a bound state. The higher mass of the muon (by a factor of 200) means that at same energies, the muon is much closer to the proton (by a factor of 800 million). It can ‘see’ the proton much better and measure the radius to greater accuracy.

However, this has produced a shocking reduction in the accepted value – 0.84087 femtometers – a reduction of 4%. That is huge, well above the experimental uncertainties.

So, what’s going on?

Physicists are not very sure what’s going on. Why should the muon behave any differently from the electron? Is the muon, being closer to the proton experiencing some short range force, other than the usual long ranged electromagnetic and the short ranged weak force, that we just don’t know about? Is a new force of nature at work here? Is there new physics, something beyond the Standard Model of particle physics?

The muon measurements were made by a group of scientists at the Max Planck Institute of Quantum Optics, led by Randolf Pohl. Of course, the crudest explanation to all of this is that the experimentalists simply bungled and got the value wrong. No one’s ruling that explanation out right now, but other avenues are also being explored.

Muon scattering experiments like MuSE will only be ready in a few years, so this debate will continue for some time. When size does matter, we just don’t want it to change.

Giant Roman-Era Mosaic Discovered in Turkey

Crews from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, have unearthed a gorgeous Roman mosaic in the ancient city of Antiochia ad Cragum on the southern Turkish coast. This massive 1,600 square foot work of art is a testament to the craftsmanship of the era and the vast reach of the Roman empire at the time.

Mosaic View from Above
View of the mosaic from above. (Credit: Michael Hoff, University of Nebraska-Lincoln)

Michael Hoff, Hixson-Lied professor of art history at UNL was the director of the excavation. Hoff believes it to be the largest mosaic to be found in this area and explains the finds impact on the history of the region by saying, “We were surprised to have found a mosaic of such size and of such caliber in this region – it’s an area that had usually been off the radar screens of most ancient historians and archeologists, and suddenly this mosaic comes into view and causes us to change our focus about what we think (the region) was like in antiquity.”

The project at Antiochia ad Cragum began in 2001, when Hoff and other researchers discovered small mosaic tiles that had been dug up by a farmer. The find was brought to the attention of the archeological museum in Alanya. Last year the museum asked Hoff to clear the mosaic and help preserve it as a tourist spot and for academic purposes. Hoff directed students from both UNL and Atatürk University in Ezrurum, Turkey.

The mosaic was part of a Roman bath which was a very common feature in Roman antiquity. “This would have been a very formal associated pavement attached to the bath,” Hoff said. “This is a gorgeous mosaic, and its size is unprecedented”. In fact, it is so large, that the team estimates they have only uncovered 40% of it.  Pictured below, you can see a close up view of the bath that was excavated at the site.

Roman Bath
The Roman bath uncovered during the summer. (Credit – Office of University Communications University of Nebraska–Lincoln)

A find like this must make someone like Hoff feel like a kid in a candy store. In a UNL press release, you can almost feel the enthusiasm jump off the page when you read:

“As an archaeologist, I am always excited to make new discoveries. The fact that this discovery is so large and also not completely uncovered makes it doubly exciting,” he said. “I am already looking forward to next year, though I just returned from Turkey.”

For more information, and to see more incredible pictures, please visit UNL’s website at http://go.unl.edu/d0g.

Beauty and the Beak, How an American Bald Eagle’s Life was Saved

It is one of those stomach turning stories showing the ignorance of mankind that turns into a heartwarming story showing the best of mankind. Meet Beauty, pictured below, an American Bald Eagle who was the unfortunate victim of the cruelty of man. She was rescued in Alaska by Janie Fink of the Raptor Chapter located in St. Maries, Idaho. Someone had shot the top part of her beak off and left her to die. The damage was so extensive that officials gave her no chance of survival. However, Ms. Fink refused to give up on her and the story that follows is amazing.

Beauty,an American Bald Eagle, pictured with her damaged beak (Courtesy of Kinetic Engineering Group Portfolio)

Beauty’s damage basically crippled her. Her beak was broken all the way back to her sinus cavity. She was emaciated and couldn’t drink or eat on her own. In fact, the Raptor Chapter folks had to feed her with liquefied food through tubes in order to get her strong enough to eat more solid food. Her injury was so debilitating, they described it as trying to eat food with a single chopstick. Beauty’s luck however, was about to change. On a fateful day when Janie Fink was making a raptor presentation, she ended with the riveting story of Beauty. This story fell on the ear of Nate Calvin, a Mechanical Engineer and founder of Kinetic Engineering Group. It just so happened he had brought his daughters to see the raptors that day and he was compelled to help Beauty get a new chance at life. Against all odds, and many naysayers, Nate and his team used highly advanced CAD software, typically used for aerospace engineering, to develop a prosthetic beak. This was a very complicated design that was a first of its kind. With the help of Nate’s personal dentist, he was able to fit Beauty with a prosthetic beak that actually permitted her to drink water on her own again. See the embedded video below for more details.

[Video Link]

[Beauty and the Beak from Keith Bubach on Vimeo.

Beauty will probably never be able to live in the wild, but hopefully this prosthesis will allow her a second chance at life. If you would like to contribute to Beauty’s cause, you can make donations to the following:

The Raptor Chapter
PO Box 585 St. Maries, Idaho 83861

Email: [email protected]


Make checks out to “Birds of Prey NW” and mail to:

Birds of Prey NW
PO Box 3507
Coeur d’Alene, ID 83816

You may also make donations online using PayPal or VISA/MC, click here.

For more information, visit Kinetic Engineering Group’s website or Birds of Prey Northwest’s website.

Help The Oatmeal and the Tesla Science Center Build a Tesla Museum

Nikola Tesla was the greatest geek ever. This point is not debatable, all your argument against it is invalid and you ought to read more. We grow up all our lives being taught how an X in some corner of the world invented something. However, you will be amazed to know how many of those inventions you can trace back to one single man, Nikola Tesla. It is no co-incidence because Nikola Tesla indeed was the greatest inventor of all times, but the sad truth is that, he was and still remains an unsung hero in the world of science.


We geeks love our geek idols. We might not come off as being serious when we show respect for them with some playful cleverness. However, money is the language of the layman, so let the money speak for itself. The Oatmeal is organizing a major humanitarian effort currently, and you have the rare opportunity to preserve what remains of the eccentric genius’s laboratory. This page at indiegogo is running a fundraiser to save a piece of land that was once home to Tesla’s laboratory, popularly known as Wardenclyffe. The page is attracting donations at nearly $10,000 an hour and it is already approaching $500,000 out of its goal of $850,000 with 44 more days to go. With time, this can turn out to be Internet’s greatest fundraiser and science effort ever.

It all started after Matthew Inman at The Oatmeal wrote a piece on Tesla Museum. Tesla Museum was part of ambitious project, in which a non-profit organization (Tesla Science Center) wanted to build a museum on the exact spot of Wardenclyffe, thereby protecting this historic landmark from the current danger of being replaced with a retail establishment. Inman decided to preserve this endangered heritage through The Oatmeal, and added a humanitarian touch to it by making it a fundraiser. The fundraiser started off pretty well. The next challenge for this effort is to raises $850K, as then, the NY State will match the same amount making the total raised amount to a whopping $1.7 million.

But here is a valid question: Why try to preserve this great man’s biggest failure? Perhaps it is only just, because Tesla failed to build this tower over monetary issues. The sheer amount of bold ambition hidden behind this massive failure will remind us every day of how far we need to push our imagination, in order to make a better world of tomorrow.

Mystery of the Floating Pumice Island Solved!

It was really an underwater volcanic eruption, but then that was already known. What wasn’t known was which underwater vent it was that caused this huge pumice spread. Samples were taken from the unusual island and analysed. Now, a source has been identified.

We reported the news here: http://techie-buzz.com/science/mysterious-island-of-pumice-spotted-on-the-south-pacific.html

The floating island of pumice.

One suspect ruled out, another implicated

Many volcanologists have suggested that an active seamount, the Monowai seamount, erupting along the Kermadec arc was responsible for the huge emission of the light rock. The problem is with the alibi – the island was reportedly spotted as early as 1st of August by an airline pilot, while Monowai erupted only on the 3rd of August. Ruling out time travel, the only logical explanation seems to be another source, a bit farther away.

The offender has been pinpointed as the Havre Seamount, says volcanologist Erik Klemetti, assistant professor of geosciences at Denison University. The data going into this analysis comprises pictures from the Moderate Resolution Imagine Spectrometer (MODIS) aboard the Terra and Aqua satellites and accurate depth mapping of the seabed. Ocean bathymetry, or seafloor topography, maps out the physical features of the seafloor. An erupting underwater volcano is like a new pimple on the face of the seafloor.

How they did it

The seafloor map revealed a volcanic plume and the MODIS images from the 19th of July revealed high ash content in the water and also some pumice in and around the Havre seamount. The MODIS thermal images from a day, taken at 10:50 PM, before revealed a lot of heat in the region, indicating that the volcano was erupting. The eruption was strong enough to breach the surface in under 12 hours, which means penetrating a column of water more than a kilometer in height.

The Havre seamount activity receded around the 21st of July, but, by then, it left off enough pumice residues to create the huge island that was seen.

First hand look

But people are still not satisfied. They want to view the Havre eruption first hand, after going down to the seafloor in a research vessel and photographing the area.

It has been speculated that such underwater vents spewing out pumice can be responsible for replenishing the pumice content in the coral reefs around the world.

Researchers Build First Complete Computer Model of an Organism

Researchers at Stanford University have completed the world’s first complete computer model of an organism. Using research from 900 publications and accounting for over 1900 parameters, they were able to completely simulate the human pathogen, Mycoplasma genitalium. This pathogen is often found in the urinary or respiratory tracts of humans and is known to have the simplest genome of any free-living organism.

Phenotype Model
This image represents the many processes it takes to build a complex phenotype as was done in this study. (Courtesy Science Direct Journal Cell)

The study was partly funded by the NIH Director’s Pioneer Award. “This achievement demonstrates a transforming approach to answering questions about fundamental biological processes,” said James M. Anderson, director of the National Institutes of Health Division of Program Coordination, Planning and Strategic Initiatives. “Comprehensive computer models of entire cells have the potential to advance our understanding of cellular function and, ultimately, to inform new approaches for the diagnosis and treatment of disease.”

The study consisted of vast amounts of data and took a lot of computing power to pull off. But you may ask, “Why are we so interested in simulating an organism?” That is a good question. In the simplest of terms, what these scientists are building is called a phenotype, which basically means they are building a model based on observed behaviors or expressions in this organism. Using data from more than 900 scientific papers to account for every molecular interaction that takes place in the life cycle of Mycoplasma genitalium, the scientists were able to observe things in the computer model that would be hard to see in the real thing. They were also able to reexamine experimental data.

This study opens wide the possibilities of computer aided bio-engineering. If you’ve been around any construction or architectural firms, you know the impact that computer aided design (think AutoCAD) has contributed to the process of planning and engineering a building. In the same way, being able to simulate entire organisms and be able to predict what certain genes will do under certain conditions has so much potential for future applications such as pharmaceuticals and even personalized medicine. However, the study authors are cautious to note that it will be a while before this is possible.

This study was published in the journal Cell. For more information, see Stanford University’s website.

Inventor, Futurist, Genius: Happy Birthday Nikola Tesla

His coolness is unmatched, but the man himself is far more enigmatic than cool. Nikola Tesla is known for being as awesome as scientists get. He was and remains the ultimate mad scientist – calm, mysterious with a will-get-the-job-done attitude and an insane futurist. He conceived of transferring energy wirelessly when people had just about gotten to know about conduction through wires. His great dream of intercontinental wireless transmission of power is still unfulfilled and remains extremely futuristic. Tesla, fulfilling his archetypical mad scientist image, died penniless and in debt.

Happy birthday sir!

Too Far Ahead of His Times

Time and time again, and the world is realizing this now, Tesla has been proven too ahead of the time. Tesla himself knew:

My project was retarded by laws of nature. The world was not prepared for it. It was too far ahead of time. But the same laws will prevail in the end and make it a triumphal success.

Tesla is the pioneer of the modern alternating current generator and the transmission/supply system, the critical components of the worldwide power grid that we see today. He was the greatest electrical engineer the world has ever seen. Not only that, he was the founder of the field of electrical engineering.

Let’s go a level deeper. He wasn’t just an electrical engineer who pioneered the electrical supply system – he created the item that was to be supplied through the lines. In other words, he was the father of Alternating Current. The next time you switch on any electrical device connected to the main power supply of your house/office, say a small thanks to Tesla. He had won the ‘War of Currents’ with Thomas Edison, who wanted DC power to be circulated. Edison, Edison…

Enter Edison

Yes, Edison was no stick in the mud – he wasn’t called a genius for no reason. And he has been vilified in popular culture for no small reason either. Tesla’s famous tussle with Edison meant that Tesla’s genius never got its true value and recognition, unable to come out from under Edison’s clout. And really, Tesla didn’t try hard enough. Tesla and Edison never saw eye-to-eye ever again.

I often doubt whether truth always triumphs. Even if it does – and always – does it do so in time? Not so for Tesla. His genius, once recognized, was never again accepted. Maybe the world can see only so much of a good thing. Maybe being born twice is not for one lifetime.

Living in the Future

Tesla, a genius? What genius?

He identified – and made a source for – X-Rays way back in 1887, a full decade before the year which the world thinks X-Rays were officially discovered. Why the silence then? Primarily because most of his research work was lost in a March 1895 fire and also because he didn’t want to publish anything. He even sent X-Ray photos of his own hand to Roentgen.

Too much for the world in that era. A reconstructed Tesla coil, it measures 18 meters in diameter and can send electricity through 27 meters.

Unfortunately, and this has been demonstrated over and over again, science is not meant for people staying mum.
He felt disgusted by the newer crop of researchers:

That is the trouble with many inventors; they lack patience. They lack the willingness to work a thing out slowly and clearly and sharply in their mind, so that they can actually ‘feel it work.’ We all make mistakes, and it is better to make them before we begin.

Tesla built the first radio transmitter in 1897. But wait, he then built a radio-controlled boat for the military. The military didn’t recognize the significance.

He spoke futuristically on Edison’s bulb:

I predict that very shortly the old-fashioned incandescent lamp, having a filament heated to brightness by the passage of electric current through it, will entirely disappear.

Tesla’s obsession with long distance telegraphy increased with years. He experimented with lightning, and spectacularly so. His meticulous notes in his diaries reveal his level of planning – and his level of daring. Of his many setups, probably the most terrifying – and the most popular – is the ‘Magnifying transmitter’. Transferring millions of volts across several meters, while still ensuring safety is what Tesla was going in for. The world didn’t recognize him. It was too naïve.

Magnifying transmitter. Taken by Tesla himself. The shot was taken using multiple exposure times. (Courtesy: Wikimedia)

No, Tesla was no peace advocate. He built the ‘death ray’, a weapon capable of directed energy release. The death ray would …

send concentrated beams of particles through the free air, of such tremendous energy that they will bring down a fleet of 10,000 enemy airplanes at a distance of 200 miles from a defending nation’s border and will cause armies to drop dead in their tracks.

Madness to Senility

This madness would continue, but it was eating into Tesla himself. He began to develop Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD) manifesting in many ways, such as his extreme fondness for the number 3. He would circle his lab 3 times before entering. His hatred – and probably irrational fear – for round objects or clinking jewelry is well-known. Even professionally, he was faltering. He criticized Einstein’s relativity on grounds which were sometimes quite irrational. They weren’t taken into account in the science circles. Tesla had run aground of his ‘genius’ tag. He had simply gone mad.

Tesla would feed a flock of pigeons, of which one – a beautiful white pigeon – was his favourite. His OCD grew worse, as can be easily seen from what he says:

I have been feeding pigeons, thousands of them for years. But there was one, a beautiful bird, pure white with light grey tips on its wings; that one was different. It was a female. I had only to wish and call her and she would come flying to me. I loved that pigeon as a man loves a women, and she loved me. As long as I had her, there was a purpose to my life.

Hardly a statement from someone who is called the greatest electrical engineer of all times. Tesla’s duration on this planet was over, just the formality of death loomed over his head.

That came peacefully enough on the 7th of January, 1943 in the midst of a global conflict – the Second World War – which he had predicted would be inevitable. Like most of his life, he died alone.

Happy Birthday Nikola Tesla, the genius. We’ll meet again in the future.

Study Shows the Most Contaminated Surfaces in Hotel Rooms

If you’re like me, the first thing you think about when you walk in a hotel room is whether or not the sheets are clean. After reviewing the information provided by Katie Kirsch, an undergraduate student at the University of Houston, I may have to change my priorities. Kirsch led a team that swabbed various surfaces in hotel rooms then tested them for microbials. The results are little stomach turning.

Hotel Room
(Courtesy Wikimedia Commons)

The study was conducted Texas, Indiana, and South Carolina. It was relatively small in scale only evaluating 3 rooms in each state. The study sought out aerobic bacteria, which is the kind most likely to make one sick. The bacterial measurement is called colony forming units or CFU. So who were the big offenders? Well, as expected, the toilet and bathroom sink had high levels of bacteria. What might be less expected however, was the TV remote and the main light switch for the room. Let’s put it this way, in hospitals the cleanliness CFU goal is less than 5CFU per centimeter squared. The TV remote measured close to 70CFU per centimeter squared. The light switch was a whopping 112CFU per centimeter squared. Yikes! Another major problem they found was in the cleaning tools used by housekeepers. For instance, the sponges housed enormous amounts aerobic bacteria which presents a risk of cross contaminating room to room.

The study was not meant to be a scare tactic but rather, it was done as a first step to introduce the Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Points (HACCP) system to the hotel industry. This system was originally designed by NASA as a way to prevent dangerous chemicals and microbes. The food and healthcare industries already use this system to prevent unwanted encounters with biological and chemical hazards. Kirsch said, “Hoteliers have an obligation to provide their guests with a safe and secure environment. Currently, housekeeping practices vary across brands and properties with little or no standardization industry wide. The current validation method for hotel room cleanliness is a visual assessment, which has been shown to be ineffective in measuring levels of sanitation.”

Kirsch presented her findings at the 2012 General Meeting of the American Society for Microbiology. You can watch the video via the YouTube link below.




Future Displays May Consist of Water and Air

Can you say superhydrophobic three times real fast? Yeah, me neither. This is a term that describes something that is extremely resistant to water. If you were superhydrophobic, you would emerge the clear winner in any water gun fight. However, I shall get back to the point. Researchers have long marveled at how the lotus leaf, pictured below, repels water. Its surface is so smooth that water and dirt cannot adhere to it. To achieve this super water repellency on a surface, there have to be structures in place which force air between the water and the surface of the leaf. Researchers have mimicked this effect by developing a surface that allowed them to print letters in the air layer between it and the water above it.

Water Drop on Lotus
Water Drop on Lotus (Courtesy Wikimedia Commons)

Dr. Robin Ras of Aalto University in Finland lead the study along with researchers from University of Cambridge and Nokia Research Center Cambridge. You can watch a really neat display of this technology at work via this link http://youtu.be/AEWPIjLbrSE.  It is pretty impressive to see how they carried this research out. They squirt water directly onto the surface where below, you can see the word “Nokia”. The water just bounces off the surface until it is completely covered. In an effort to keep this simple, what basically happens because of the presence of nano-scale posts on the surface, a layer of air is trapped between the superhydrophobic surface and the water above it. Because of the way the posts are designed, the shape of the air can exist in two “wetting” states. The researchers refer to this as “reversible switching”. All it takes is a pressure change to change the shape of this air layer. “The minimal energy needed to switch between the states means the system is bistable, which is the essential property of memory devices, for example”, Academy Research Fellow Dr. Robin Ras points out. However, there is a feature that makes it all the more interesting: there is a striking optical contrast between the states due to a change in the roughness of the water-air interface. “Combined with the optical effect, the surface is also a bistable reflective display.” Video is also embedded below.

Who knows where this research could lead? It could have applications such as lower power data storage all the way to low power displays. The amazing thing to me is that the original idea came from observing nature. There is so much discovery left in this world and so much to learn. If only, we took more time to ponder nature’s wonders, who knows what amazing innovations we might achieve.

For more information on this research, you can view the published study on the Proceeding of the National Academy of Sciences website at http://www.pnas.org/content/early/2012/06/05/1204328109.



NASA Launches NuSTAR Mission

NASA launched the Nuclear Spectroscopic Telescope Array (NuSTAR) on Wednesday to observe the secrets of the hidden universe including black holes and other “exotic objects”. The telescopic array was carried by a Pegasus XL rocket which dropped from an Orbital Science Corporation “Stargazer” aircraft and launched successfully into space.

Artist Rendering of the NuStar Telescope (Courtesy NASA.GOV)

NuSTAR is unique in that it uses the high energy X-Ray region of the electromagnetic spectrum to capture images of the Universe. In the artist rendering, pictured above, you will notice that there is a very long mast stretching out from the main craft. This mast separates the optics from the focal plane. The reason for this is to help with focus. The visible light that we use in our everyday cameras doesn’t need much distance between the lens and the focal point. However, these X-rays require greater distance to get the proper focus.

According to NASA.GOV website, the NusSTAR mission will accomplish the following:

  1. Take a census of collapsed stars and black holes of different sizes by surveying regions surrounding the center of own Milky Way Galaxy and performing deep observations of the extragalactic sky;
  2. Map recently-synthesized material in young supernova remnants to understand how stars explode and how elements are created; and
  3. Understand what powers relativistic jets of particles from the most extreme active galaxies hosting supermassive black holes.
According to NASA’s Astrophysics Division Director, Paul Hertz, “NuSTAR will open a new window on the universe and will provide complementary data to NASA’s larger missions, including Fermi, Chandra, Hubble and Spitzer.” Researchers hope to explore regions of the Universe previously impossible to see. They boast that NuSTAR beats previous X-ray type observatories by a factor of 10 to 100. Currently the observatory has released its solar charging panels and is communicating successfully back to earth. It is expected to extend its mast in about  a week. You can view the launch via the video embedded below.

For more information about NuSTAR, visit its mission site at http://www.nasa.gov/mission_pages/nustar/main/index.html.