Prepare to be mesmerized by the video above. The folks from Firefight Films piloted a GoPro-equipped quadcopter drone through massive glacial ice caves in Alaska, and the result is stunning. It’s “cool” in both senses of the word, eh?
After I broke free from the slack-jawed catatonia (videos like this do that to me), one thought stuck with me: Why is the ice so blue?
Water is almost entirely transparent to visible light. Like, amazingly so. That’s the reason that life exists in the first place, because photosynthesis could occur near the surface of prehistoric (and modern) oceans. But it’s not totally transparent to visible light. It selectively filters out red stuff, leaving just the blues behind. B.B. King would like that.
So what gives? It’s not because of the reason that the sky is blue. That’s due to a phenomenon called Rayleigh scattering, where air molecules scatter short wavelength (blue) visible light into our eyes (it’s also why sunsets are red, but I made a whole YouTube video about that if you want to know more).
Nope, ice and water are blue thanks to a completely different, and more complex, bit of cerulean science.
Water, even when frozen solid, isn’t rigid. Like any molecule, it vibrates. The hydrogens are ever-so-slightly oscillating around the central oxygen, stretching those covalent bonds to and fro. Since a water molecule has three atoms (N=3), that means it has 3N-6 primary dimensions of vibration (3 total). Check ‘em out below:
Just at ‘em, wavin’ their hydrogens in the air like they just don’t care! You can easily mimic these aquatic dance moves in front of your bedroom mirror, or at the club, just be sure to credit me next time you bust out the “water shuffle”.
And just like a vibrating string, a vibrating molecule can emit overtones. Overtones in molecules are kind of how a guitar (or violin, or banjo, or any stringed instrument) can make harmonics, only with a hefty spoonful of Fourier transforms added. “Fourier transform” may bring back nightmares of sweaty-palmed calculus exams, but in truth they are one of the most elegant principles in math, underlying everything from mp3’s to Homer Simpson’s face.
These vibrating water molecules can absorb energy at very particular wavelengths. The physics behind this absorption gets complicated real quick (you can drink deeper here if you’re so inclined), but you can observe a similar phenomenon right in your kitchen. You know how your microwave heats up food thanks to the molecular shaking induced by long-wavelength radiation? You didn’t know that? Well, that’s how it works. Except when it comes to blue water, instead of long-wavelength microwaves vibrating entire water molecules, we have shorter wavelength radiation sending just the arms of water molecules into harmonic vibrations.
It just so happens that, thanks to all those combined overtones and disco-dancing hydrogens, water absorbs a tiny bit of electromagnetic radiation around 698 nanometers in wavelength. That just so happens to be red light! (Water also slurps up plenty of other wavelengths across the spectrum, but very little of that happens in the visible range):
Liquid or solid, water shines azure, stripping visible light of its reds, and leaving only the blue hues behind to be reflected back to our landlubbers’ eyes thanks to microscopic particulates.
There’s always something to learn, even when it comes to water, a chemical we think know so well. Goes to show, even the clearest of views can unlock curiosities when we look deep enough…
(Bluest of blue image of Crater Lake, via Wikipedia)
When light travels through areas of different air density, it bends. You’ve probably noticed the way distant pavement seems to shimmer on a hot day, or the way stars appear to twinkle. You’re seeing light that has been distorted as it passes through varying air densities, which are in turn created by varying temperatures and pressures.
Schlieren Flow Visualization can be used to visually capture these changes in density: the rising heat from a candle, the turbulence around an airplane wing, the plume of a sneeze … even sound. Special thanks to Mike Hargather, a professor of mechanical engineering at New Mexico Tech, who kindly provided a lot of these videos.
I’m totally Schlieren right now. Amazing sights of sounds.
Gravitational Wave Discovery! Evidence of Cosmic Inflation
Join Derek from Veritasium and take a look at the universe’s adorable baby photos! Aww, who’s a cute widdle universe? YOU ARE! You’re growin up sooooo fast with your inflation, yes you are!!
Smoooshybooshybooboo look how homogenous that made your cosmic background radiation! And those cute little gravity wave lumps, d’awwww, I hope you never lose those.
(I’m baby talking the Big Bang. I think I should get some fresh air.)
It’s a big day for physics.
A team of astrophysicists reported today that they have directly confirmed the existence of gravitational waves, first predicted by Einstein and whose fingerprints tell tales of the first trillionth of a trillionth of a trillionth of a second after our universe came into being. This discovery, one of the most significant of the past 50 years, could explain a few more mysteries of just why things are the way they are in the universe today.
Using a beefy-sounding telescope near the South Pole called “Bicep”, the scientists peered almost 14 billion years into the past, studying the Cosmic Microwave Background, that distant radiation left over from the beginning of the universe itself, its wavelength stretched from unthinkably hot plasma to chilly microwaves as our universe expanded from a subatomic scale to the vastness of today.
(Cosmic microwave background temperature fluctuations, via ESA)
The Bicep team detected peculiar fluctuations in that radiation, not in its temperature, but in its polarization. Like visible light waves, this early radiation can be polarized, wiggling and oscillating in a given direction, or even in a spiral. By analyzing the particular pattern of that polarization, we can then walk backwards and figure out what gave rise to those patterns in the very, very early universe.
This discovery is especially important to deciphering those earliest universal events because in its first 380,000 years the universe was dense enough to be opaque to light, meaning we have no distant radiation fingerprints older than the CMB to tell the early tale. These gravity waves may just decode that story. In essence, it’s the earliest look at the universe we’ve ever gotten.
Long story short, this confirmation of gravitational waves gives the strongest support yet to the idea of “cosmological inflation”, the real “Bang” of the Big Bang, where our universe expanded faster than the speed of light itself, growing so many orders of magnitude in so short an amount of time that it truly boggles the mind. Aatish Bhatia put it like so:
This has implications for everything from multiverse theory to the long search for dark energy and dark matter (and its origins) to why our universe is so flat and even at its observable edges to the quantum scale blips and fluctuations that gave rise to everything from stardust to galaxies. Like any science, this monumental result needs to be confirmed by other groups (which should happen later this year), but this is champagne-worthy science.
Confused? There’s a lot of awesome science to take in. For more in depth explanations, check out the following links (because this has pushed my biologist’s brain to its mushy limit):
I think my favorite part of this is this little tidbit of scientific history from physicist Alan Guth, one of the first to propose the concept of inflation: Back in 1978, when he had just gotten his Ph.D., he scribbled a “spectacular realization” in his lab notebook that predicted the results reported today:
It was a long time coming, but that “eureka!” moment has arrived.
The Physics of Curling
I had no idea that the physics of curling was so complicated, controversial, and downright fascinating. Of course, Destin would be the one to show us that, right?
Check it out Smarter Every Day on YouTube (if for some reason there are a few of you out there that haven’t yet, which would be hard for me to believe)
See that woman? That is not Marie Curie.
I mean, it is Marie Curie, but only in a sense.
If you type “Marie Curie” into Google image search, you’ll likely see this colorized photo pop up several times in the results. You might even find the original black and white. Go ahead. Try it. You’ll see this picture on postage stamps, in meme photos, and even in the form of a Marie Curie bobblehead doll (one of which I own), all purported to be the one, true Marie Curie.
But it’s not her. I know this because I met this Marie Curie, just last week.
Her name is Susan Marie Frontczak. She performs as Maria Sklodowska in a living history stage show called Manya that tours around the world, bringing Madame Curie’s science and soul to life.
The photo shows Susan striking a thoughtful, Curiesque stance, dressed in her period-appropriate Curie garb (It was Marie who famously said “I have no dress except the one I wear every day. If you are going to be kind enough to give me one, please let it be practical and dark so that I can put it on afterwards to go to the laboratory.”) The photo was posted to the web a few years ago, and thanks to that game of internet telephone known as “attribution-free viral image sharing” she has, in a very real way, become Marie Curie. At least in the eyes of Togo.
And Mali, and Zambia, and Guinea-Bissau, and the Republic of Guinea. All have released stamps using Susan’s photo as “Marie Curie”, often alongside real photos of Marie Curie, who Susan looks remarkably like, but not so close that one would be confused when looking at their pictures literally side by side.
Susan has also been immortalized in science’s Last Supper (below), sandwiched between Galileo and J. Robert Oppenheimer, playing the part of the apostle James (son of Alphaeus, not the Zebedee one). It occurs to me that I have no idea which Redditor or other meme-oriented internet user originally made this Last Supper image. The irony does not escape me.
Susan’s trademark pose, with extended right arm holding aloft a mysterious blue liquid we can assume represents the mere tenth of a gram of radium chloride Curie painstakingly extracted from one ton of pitchblende, complete with the thousand-yard stare of Nobelian gravitas, is carved daily by Chinese factory workers into top-heavy, spring-necked plastic figurines. Ah, to be immortalized in bobblehead form, on someone else’s bobblehead!
Did I mention no one has paid Susan for any of this?
This is an entertaining, but all-too-typical tale of the Modern Internet™. Susan doesn’t make a bunch of money from her show. I wonder how much she’s missed out on with people using her likeness without permission? I wonder how many other artists we could put in Marie’s … I mean Susan’s place, who lose out daily as their work is posted online without links or permission, spreading out of control like a radium-induced cancer?
Susan would like to adapt Manya into a film some day, to help spread Marie Curie’s legacy worldwide to new audiences. Maybe Togo, Mali, Zambia, and the various Guineas could see it in their pilfering philatelist hearts to send her a small donation? And maybe we can all be a bit more careful in the future, and treat these wonderfully creative science artists a bit nicer, and show them off, instead of showing off ourselves?
I mean, what would Marie Curie do? I asked her, last week. She said she’d like to be recognized.
Stamp and portrait images courtesy of Susan Marie Frontczak
I'm Joe Hanson, Ph.D. biologist and host/writer of PBS Digital Studios' It's Okay To Be Smart.
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