Two-Month Physics Blogging Round-Up

As the post title says, it's been a whole two months since the last time I did a round-up of my physics blog posts for Forbes. That's less content than you might think, though, because with the new academic term starting and some deadlines I had for other stuff, I posted basically nothing for most of September. October was a little busier, amounting to more than enough for a links post here:

-- How The History Of Measurement Shapes The Language Of Physics: While writing up some stuff about blackbody radiation, I ran up against the weird thing in optics where we default to talking about wavelength for visible light, frequency for radio waves, and energy for x-rays and gamma rays. This is largely a matter of historical detector technology, which I think is weird and cool.

-- How Hatching Pokemon Eggs Is Like Proving The Existence Of Atoms: The one sort of positive feature of my grand jury sentence was that there's a lot of Pokemon GO action in downtown Schenectady, giving me something to do while lawyers jerked us around. Watching my avatar wander randomly due to GPS errors made me think about Brownian motion, and led to this post.

-- Nobel Prize In Physics 2016: The Phase Transition That Shouldn't Happen: I ended up with some free time on the day the Nobel was announced, and banged out this moderately technical explanation of what it was all about, expecting it to serve as an add-on to the more general explainers I was sure would come from other writers...

-- How This Year's Nobel Laureates In Physics Changed The Game: Sadly, I was very disappointed by the general media response, which was to make jokes about the topology of baked goods, complain that the winners weren't who they wanted, and run like hell from explaining condensed matter physics. So I did a second post about the Nobel, this one a little more general-audience-friendly. Which did remarkably well, traffic-wise, so maybe I should strike the "Sadly" at the beginning of this description...

-- The Surprising Power of Really Simple Physics: A look at how physicists make use of analogies to remarkably basic systems, with great success. Inspired by one of my favorite bits of intro mechanics.

-- Science Needs The Nobels More Than Movies Need The Oscars: A late entry into the annual "Do we really need the Nobel Prizes?" argument.

-- What's Really Fundamental In Physics?: More intro-mechanics-inspired blogging, this time spinning off the fact that you don't really need anything beyond Newton's Laws to explain classical mechanics

-- What Math Do You Need For Physics? It Depends: And just sneaking into November, a post about how huge, glaring gaps in my mathematical background didn't prevent me from making a career as a physicist. Because what math you really, truly need for physics varies enormously depending on what subfield you work in.

So, there you go. That's a bunch of stuff, that is.

Traffic-wise, October was the best month I've had in ages, mostly on the strength of that second Nobel Prize post. Which seems to have filled a need, so I'm glad I wrote it. I still wish more writers would see the complexity of the subject matter as a challenge to rise to, rather than an obstacle to route around in favor of complaining that LIGO didn't win. Condensed matter is an enormously important part of the subject, and there aren't all that many opportunities to explain it to a mass audience, so it's a real shame that so many people missed this one so badly.

Anyway, that's what I've been up to. I'll try to update a little more frequently in the next couple of months, but there are always new and different deadlines heading my way, so I can't guarantee anything...

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I always make that point about the units used for electromagnetic waves/particles when I get to that point in the course. I don't see it as simply a matter of "historical" detector technology. It applies to modern ones as well; we still can't measure directly the frequency of a gamma ray or, AFAIK, a UV photon.

I think it is significant that it also applies to how we make them or transmit them. From what little I know, the THz range is the boundary between where it makes sense to talk about a radio-like frequency and the energy of the source, but there is a distinct overlap with where it also makes sense to talk about the size of a cavity. (Even then there is that fuzzy area where "short" waves are identified as being in the 10 m band -- which is shorter than AM but longer than FM! It is tied to the antenna you need.) And when you get to visible light and x rays, you create it with energy (such as energy levels i an atom) rather than an oscillator or a resonant cavity. And even that gets close to the THz boundary. After all, it does make sense to talk about the energies associated with photons down into the IR region in condensed matter research.

But I agree 100% that this confuses the general publc as well as students, who don't think of radio waves as "light". Even that terminology reflects how we measure (detect) electromagnetic waves with our senses. We refer to "heat" and "light" and "radiation" as if they are different things.

By CCPhysicist (not verified) on 06 Nov 2016 #permalink

A good part of the public and students' confusion probably also stems from the fact that "heat" and "radiation" are not really precise terms. "Radiation" is used for both particle and photon emission, and "heat" is used to refer to energy transfer through conduction and convection as well as radiation. In those senses, they really are something different than just plain "light".

You know, Chad, for a blog subtitled "Physics, Politics, Pop Culture", there has been a notable lack of politics.

Not that it hasn't been done to death.

I make an effort to only post when I think I have something useful and interesting to say. There's been very little of that this election, but I'll likely post something tomorrow morning.