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July 2009 Archives

With reference to my previous entry, come to think of it, a seismograph is pretty well a mass on a spring.

And a car suspension system isn't much more glorified either.

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This question arises from the 3rd year dynamics paper I'm teaching at the moment. How come in lectures we only ever cover simple examples of things (in the context of this paper, moving things), like a mass bouncing on a spring, rather than realistic examples, like a washing machine or aircraft engine.

It's a fair question - it's not just this paper, or even physics, where we present examples so simplified they seem to have no everyday use. I mean, when do you ever, in practice, build an electrical circuit with a battery and two light bulbs in parallel, or drop a ball from a first floor window and need to know how quickly it hits the ground?


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...and readeth the meter and giveth unto us a very large bill. (Well, the bill got sent by email, but that's beside the point).

Now, I knew it was going to be costly, what with using electricity to heat a house during a cold winter, but I wasn't quite expecting the figure at the bottom of the bill. Rushed out to check the meter myself, but no, the man had read it correctly. So I spent the weekend (no, not the whole weekend, just a tiny bit of it, a physicist I may be, but I have better things to do at home) doing some quick calculations on what it does cost to heat things.

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So, I've now had my fifteen minutes of fame. I'm sure some of you will have read the article about my trip to Germany in The Waikato Times. I have to say that I was quite glad that the reporter (Annette Taylor) kindly left out a remark I made to her during the interview where I said something like "All biology is physics". These kind of statements, though in one sense true (as I'll explain), are not generally very helpful, and probably do nothing except make physicists (which means me) look completely out of touch with the real world. Which I hope I'm not.

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And while I'm on the subject of the moon, I shouldn't forget the anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing. For the record, the first landing was before my lifetime, but some later ones were not. (Not that I remember them).

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I feel it would be inexcusable to let a total eclipse of the sun pass without comment on a physics blog. This is especially true since I am one of the lucky people who have seen a total eclipse - in my case the 1999 eclipse that scythed across Europe.

There will no doubt be millions of photos strewn over the internet, plus movies (have a look at the BBC one here), but I'm sorry to tell you that looking at photos just doesn't come close to the real thing.

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Last week we thought we'd have a go at weighing our cat.  See how much weight he's put on since we got him back in February.  As you can imagine, this isn't an easy process for a number of reasons, but we just about managed it.  We put the kitchen scales on the floor, put a box on the kitchen scales, a couple of cat biscuits in the box (they turn the most uncooperative of felines into putty) and then finally the cat on the biscuits.



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It's close to four weeks since the winter solstice (for us Southern Hemisphere types) and it's already noticeable that the evenings are less dark that they were a few weeks ago. Unfortunately, we can't say the same about the mornings.  This is the equation of time kicking into play again - the darkest morning is AFTER the shortest day, whereas the earliest evening comes before it.

Roll on spring.

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Our second semester of the year started on Monday, and I have begun teaching a course on dynamics of machines, for the first time. (That is, it's the first time I have taught it). Although I'm familiar with a lot of the material, there are bits of the course that are new to me, as well as my students, which I am finding very interesting (the new bits of the course, not the students).  I'll relate one of these to you.

Imagine you have built a small tower in your garden - maybe a tree house for your kids, maybe a structure to put a satellite dish on - it doesn't matter, but it is a structure that will be loaded - that is, a big weight will be placed on it. Now, the question you want answered is how much weight will your structure be able to support before it collapses?



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Last Friday I skived off work (well, I took a day's leave) - it was the last day of the break between our semesters and the last chance for a day off work for a while - and went luging again. But this comment doesn't concern the luge, rather the sky swing which is located at the top of the gondola in Rotorua. For those of you haven't seen it - it's like a conventional playground swing, though rather bigger - you get strapped in, and then mechanically hauled up a rather frightening distance, and you let go. Once you've swung for a bit, they slow you down and let you off.

Now - has anyone else noticed the entirely proposterous sign at the bottom of the swing? It says 0 to 150 kmh in 2 seconds.  One hundred and fifty kilometres an hour? I beg to differ, and here's why.

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For Dan Brown fans. Don't worry, no-one is likely to blow up the world with antimatter.

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I've noticed that when I get a cup of coffee out of our machine, and walk with it back to my office, the small amount of froth on it can start forming patterns. A stripy one is quite common - I get alternate stripes of froth and no froth - maybe about six stripes in total. I strongly suspect that what is happening here is that as I walk, I set up a standing wave across the surface of the cup, and the froth gets pushed to those places where the water is moving the least (the nodes between the crests and the troughs of the waves).

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Last week I received my (dare I say annual?) invitation to be a judge at the Waikato Science Fair. This is a great event where school children get to show off some of the science projects they have been working on.  It fills the pavilion at Hamilton Gardens and is a great exhibition to look at.

It covers all areas of science, though of course the projects that most interest me are the physics ones. There are always some really great, novel projects, like one on range of wireless internet, or measuring the speed of an arrow, but alongside those there are a few experiments (usually comparisions of one thing against another) that crop up again and again every year, and begin to be a little tedious.

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I came back to work last week from Germany to find, as expected, a pile of exam papers to mark. This is par for the course for a university lecturer. Also par for the course, regrettably, is seeing the same mistakes made time and again from students. And the biggest and simplest mistake of them all is simply not reading the question.

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At my recent conference, one of the speakers (Karl Friston) began by remarking on the curious relationship between biological systems and the second law of thermodynamics. What is curious about it, is that there doesn't appear to be one.

As any physicist knows, the second law of thermodynamics is inescapable - things break, electronic equipment gives off heat, hot and cold gives warm, but never can warm be split into hot and cold (well, at least not without some external influence). So why is it that an organism manages to stay living for a hundred years with next to no change, or a termites nest stays a termites nest, or birds still migrate along the same route year after year? Where is the increase in disorder?


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While I was in Dresden, in Germany, I read a leaflet given out by the Dresden tourist office. Most of it was understandably focused towards the main tourist sites of Dresden, but they included a nice little bit describing Dresden industry. The area is of course famous for its porcelain (the first produced in Europe - and they had to out themselves how to make it because the Chinese weren't telling them the secret), but that, according to the leaflet, is just one of the technological achievements of the region. Others, in no particular order, include the SLR camera, the bra, the coffee filter, and the toothpaste tube.


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Yes - PhysicsStop is now 100 - that is, this is the one hundreth entry.

For those of you wishing to indulge in nostalgia, view the first entry here.

Hopefully I've convinced you a that physics can be (at times) a little bit interesting. I've written some serious stuff, some light-hearted stuff, some short entries, some long entries, and some just plain off the wall entries.

Thank you for reading and your comments.  And keep watching this space.

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