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Tuesday, 21 March 2017

Why water splashes: New theory reveals secrets

New research from the University of Warwick generates fresh insight into how a raindrop or spilt coffee splashes.

Dr James Sprittles from the Mathematics Institute has created a new theory to explain exactly what happens - in the tiny space between a drop of water and a surface - to cause a splash.

Water splash

When a drop of water falls, it is prevented from spreading smoothly across a surface by a microscopically thin layer of air that it can't push aside - so instead of wetting the surface, parts of the liquid fly off, and a splash is generated.

A layer of air 1 micron in size - fifty times smaller than the width of a human hair - can obstruct a 1mm drop of water which is one thousand times larger.

This is comparable to a 1cm layer of air stopping a tsunami wave spreading across a beach.

Dr Sprittles has established exactly what happens to this miniscule layer of air during the super-fast action by developing a new theory, capturing its microscopic dynamics - factoring in different physical conditions, such as liquid viscosity and air pressure, to predict whether splashes will occur or not.

The lower the air pressure, the easier the air can escape from the squashed layer - giving less resistance to the water drop - enabling the suppression of splashes. This is why drops are less likely to splash at the top of mountains, where the air pressure is reduced.

Understanding the conditions that cause splashing enables researchers to find out how to prevent it - leading to potential breakthroughs in various fields.

In 3D printing, liquid drops can form the building blocks of tailor-made products such as hearing aids; stopping splashing is key to making products of the desired quality.

Splashes are also a crucial part of forensic science - whether blood drops have splashed or not provides insight into where they came from, which can be vital information in a criminal investigation.

Dr Sprittles comments:

"You would never expect a seemingly simple everyday event to exhibit such complexity. The air layer's width is so small that it is similar to the distance air molecules travel between collisions, so that traditional models are inaccurate and a microscopic theory is required.

"Most promisingly, the new theory should have applications to a wide range of related phenomena, such as in climate science - to understand how water drops collide during the formation of clouds or to estimate the quantity of gas being dragged into our oceans by rainfall."

The research, 'Kinetic Effects in Dynamic Wetting', is published in Physical Review Letters.

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Tuesday, 14 March 2017

Looking for signs of the first stars

It may soon be possible to detect the universe's first stars by looking for the blue colour they emit on explosion.

The universe was dark and filled with hydrogen and helium for 100 million years following the Big Bang. Then, the first stars appeared, and metals were created by thermonuclear fusion reactions within stars.

Stars in the sky, ESA/Hubble [CC BY 4.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
These metals were spread around the galaxies by exploding stars or 'supernovae'. Studying first-generation supernovae, which are more than 13 billion years old, provides a glimpse into what the universe might have looked like when the first stars, galaxies and supermassive black holes formed. But to-date, it has been difficult to distinguish a first-generation supernova from a later one.

New research, led by Alexey Tolstov from the Kavli Institute for the Physics and Mathematics of the Universe, has identified characteristic differences between these supernovae types after experimenting with supernovae models based on observations of extremely metal-poor stars.

Similar to all supernovae, the luminosity of metal-poor supernovae shows a characteristic rise to a peak brightness followed by a decline. The phenomenon starts when a star explodes with a bright flash, caused by a shock wave emerging from its surface after its core collapses. This is followed by a long 'plateau' phase of almost constant luminosity lasting several months, followed by a slow exponential decay.

The team calculated the light curves of metal-poor blue versus metal-rich red supergiant stars. The shock wave and plateau phases are shorter, bluer and fainter in metal-poor supernovae. The team concluded that the colour blue could be used as an indicator of a first-generation supernova. In the near future, new, large telescopes, such as the James Webb Space Telescope scheduled to be launched in 2018, will be able to detect the first explosions of stars and may be able to identify them using this method.

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Monday, 27 February 2017

The chemistry behind the 'Oscar'

A BIT of a mix up might have dinted the magical chemistry of the Oscars this year, but it didn’t damage the sheen on those golden statuettes! 

So, what exactly IS the chemistry behind the world’s most famous prize? Check out the graphic below to learn exactly WHAT goes into an Oscar statuette. 

Source: Compound Interest

So, who knew the statuette wasn’t made from REAL gold? And what is the history of Britannium? First produced in 1769 or 1770, Britannium metal was created by James Vickers after purchasing the formula from a dying friend. It was originally known as "Vickers White Metal" when made under contract by the Sheffield manufacturers Ebenezer Hancock and Richard Jessop. In 1776 James Vickers took over the manufacturing himself and remained as owner until his death in 1809, when the company passed to his son, John, and Son-in-Law, Elijah West. In 1836 the company was sold to John Vickers's nephew Ebenezer Stacey (the son of Hannah Vickers and John Stacey).

After the development of electroplating with silver in 1846, Britannia metal was widely used as the base metal for silver-plated household goods and cutlery. The abbreviation EPBM on such items denotes "electroplated Britannia metal". Britannia metal was generally used as a cheaper alternative to electroplated nickel silver (EPNS) which is more durable.

In his essay, A Nice Cup of Tea, writer George Orwell asserts that "britanniaware" teapots "produce inferior tea" (when compared to Chinaware).

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Monday, 20 February 2017

On this day in science history: Sakurai's Object was discovered

In 1996, a bright “new” star was discovered in Sagittarius by Japanese amateur astronomer Yukio Sakurai. It was found not to be a usual nova, but instead was a star going through a dramatic evolutionary state, re-igniting its nuclear furnace for one final blast of energy called the “final helium flash.” It was only the second to be identified in the twentieth century. A star like the Sun ends its active life as a white dwarf star gradually cooling down into visual oblivion. Sakurai's Object had a mass a few times that of the Sun. Its collapse after fusing most of its hydrogen fuel to helium raised its temperature so much higher it began nuclear fusion of its helium remains. This was confirmed using its light spectrum to identify the elements present.

Sakurai's Object By ESO, [CC BY 4.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
Sakurai's Object is a highly evolved post-asymptotic giant branch star which has, following a brief period on the white dwarf cooling track, undergone a helium shell flash (also known as a very late thermal pulse). The star is thought to have a mass of around 0.6 M☉. Observations of Sakurai's Object show increasing reddening and pulsing activity, suggesting that the star is exhibiting thermal instability during its final helium-shell flash.

Prior to its reignition V4334 Sgr is thought to have been cooling towards a white dwarf with a temperature around 100,000 K and a luminosity around 100 L☉. The luminosity rapidly increased about a hundred-fold and then the temperature decreased to around 10,000 K. The star developed the appearance of an F class supergiant (F2 Ia). The apparent temperature continued to cool to below 6,000 K and the star was gradually obscured at optical wavelengths by the formation of carbon dust, similar to an R CrB star. Since then the temperature has increased to around 20,000 K.

The properties of Sakurai's Object are quite similar to that of V605 Aquilae. V605, discovered in 1919, is the only other known star observed during the high luminosity phase of a very late thermal pulse, and Sakurai's Object is modeled to increase in temperature in the next few decades to match the current state of V605.

During the second half of 1998 an optically thick dust shell obscured Sakurai's Object, causing a rapid decrease in visibility of the star, until in 1999 it disappeared from optical wavelength observations altogether. Infrared observations showed that the dust cloud around the star is primarily carbon in an amorphous form. In 2009 it was discovered that the dust shell is strongly asymmetrical, as a disc with a major axis oriented at an angle of 134°, and inclination of around 75°. The disc is thought to be growing more opaque due to the fast spectral evolution of the source towards lower temperatures.

Sakurai's Object is surrounded by a planetary nebula created following the star's red giant phase around 8300 years ago. It has been determined that the nebula has a diameter of 44 arcseconds and expansion velocity of roughly 32 km/s.

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Monday, 13 February 2017

Dwarf star 200 light years away contains life's building blocks

Many scientists believe the Earth was dry when it first formed, and that the building blocks for life on our planet - carbon, nitrogen and water - appeared only later as a result of collisions with other objects in our solar system that had those elements.

Today, a UCLA-led team of scientists reports that it has discovered the existence of a white dwarf star whose atmosphere is rich in carbon and nitrogen, as well as in oxygen and hydrogen, the components of water. The white dwarf is approximately 200 light years from Earth and is located in the constellation Bo├Âtes.

The Earth seen from Apollo 17. By NASA/Apollo 17 crew; taken by either Harrison Schmitt or Ron Evans [Public domain or Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Benjamin Zuckerman, a co-author of the research and a UCLA professor of astronomy, said the study presents evidence that the planetary system associated with the white dwarf contains materials that are the basic building blocks for life. And although the study focused on this particular star - known as WD 1425+540 - the fact that its planetary system shares characteristics with our solar system strongly suggests that other planetary systems would also.

"The findings indicate that some of life's important preconditions are common in the universe," Zuckerman said.

The scientists report that a minor planet in the planetary system was orbiting around the white dwarf, and its trajectory was somehow altered, perhaps by the gravitational pull of a planet in the same system. That change caused the minor planet to travel very close to the white dwarf, where the star's strong gravitational field ripped the minor planet apart into gas and dust. Those remnants went into orbit around the white dwarf - much like the rings around Saturn, Zuckerman said - before eventually spiraling onto the star itself, bringing with them the building blocks for life.

The researchers think these events occurred relatively recently, perhaps in the past 100,000 years or so, said Edward Young, another co-author of the study and a UCLA professor of geochemistry and cosmochemistry. They estimate that approximately 30 percent of the minor planet's mass was water and other ices, and approximately 70 percent was rocky material.

The research suggests that the minor planet is the first of what are likely many such analogs to objects in our solar system's Kuiper belt. The Kuiper belt is an enormous cluster of small bodies like comets and minor planets located in the outer reaches of our solar system, beyond Neptune. Astronomers have long wondered whether other planetary systems have bodies with properties similar to those in the Kuiper belt, and the new study appears to confirm for the first time that one such body exists.

White dwarf stars are dense, burned-out remnants of normal stars. Their strong gravitational pull causes elements like carbon, oxygen and nitrogen to sink out of their atmospheres and into their interiors, where they cannot be detected by telescopes.

The research, published in the Astrophysical Journal Letters, describes how WD 1425+540 came to obtain carbon, nitrogen, oxygen and hydrogen. This is the first time a white dwarf with nitrogen has been discovered, and one of only a few known examples of white dwarfs that have been impacted by a rocky body that was rich in water ice.

"If there is water in Kuiper belt-like objects around other stars, as there now appears to be, then when rocky planets form they need not contain life's ingredients," said Siyi Xu, the study's lead author, a postdoctoral scholar at the European Southern Observatory in Germany who earned her doctorate at UCLA.

"Now we're seeing in a planetary system outside our solar system that there are minor planets where water, nitrogen and carbon are present in abundance, as in our solar system's Kuiper belt," Xu said. "If Earth obtained its water, nitrogen and carbon from the impact of such objects, then rocky planets in other planetary systems could also obtain their water, nitrogen and carbon this way."

A rocky planet that forms relatively close to its star would likely be dry, Young said.

"We would like to know whether in other planetary systems Kuiper belts exist with large quantities of water that could be added to otherwise dry planets," he said. "Our research suggests this is likely."

According to Zuckerman, the study doesn't settle the question of whether life in the universe is common.

"First you need an Earth-like world in its size, mass and at the proper distance from a star like our sun," he said, adding that astronomers still haven't found a planet that matches those criteria.

The researchers observed WD 1425+540 with the Keck Telescope in 2008 and 2014, and with the Hubble Space Telescope in 2014. They analyzed the chemical composition of its atmosphere using an instrument called a spectrometer, which breaks light into wavelengths. Spectrometers can be tuned to the wavelengths at which scientists know a given element emits and absorbs light; scientists can then determine the element's presence by whether it emits or absorbs light of certain characteristic wavelengths. In the new study, the researchers saw the elements in the white dwarf's atmosphere because they absorbed some of the background light from the white dwarf.

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Tuesday, 7 February 2017

What makes popcorn pop? The chemistry of popcorn

We’ve all scoffed it in the cinema, but have you thought about the chemistry behind it?  Take a look at the graphic below to find out more about the compounds that give popcorn its flavour and aroma, as well as what makes it pop!

Source: Compound Interest 
So that’s the science! But what about the history of popcorn? 

Corn was first domesticated in Mexico 9,000 years ago.  Archaeologists have discovered that people have known about popcorn for thousands of years. In Mexico, for example, they’ve found remnants of popcorn that dates to around 3600 BC. Many historians even believe that popcorn is the first corn that humans even knew about. Popping of the kernels was achieved manually through the 19th century, being sold on the east coast of the USA under names such as 'Pearls' or 'Nonpareil'. The term 'popped corn' first appeared in John Russell Bartlett’s 1848 Dictionary of Americanisms. Popcorn is an ingredient in Cracker Jack, and in the early years of the product, it was popped by hand. 

Popcorn's accessibility increased rapidly in the 1890s with Charles Cretors' invention of the popcorn maker. Cretors, a Chicago candy store owner, created a number of steam powered machines for roasting nuts, and applied the technology to the corn kernels. By the turn of the century, Cretors had created and deployed street carts equipped with steam powered popcorn makers.

During the Great Depression, popcorn was fairly inexpensive at 5–10 cents a bag and became popular. Thus, while other businesses failed, the popcorn business thrived and became a source of income for many struggling farmers, including the Redenbacher family, namesake of the famous popcorn brand. During World War II, sugar rations diminished candy production, and Americans compensated by eating three times as much popcorn as they had before. The snack was popular at heaters, much to the initial displeasure of many of the theatre owners, who thought it distracted from the films. Their minds eventually changed, however, and in 1938 a Midwestern theatre owner named Glen W. Dickson installed popcorn machines in the lobbies of his theatres. The venture was a financial success, and the trend soon spread.

In 1970, Orville Redenbacher's namesake brand of popcorn was launched. In 1981, General Mills received the first patent for a microwave popcorn bag, with popcorn consumption seeing a sharp increase by tens of thousands of pounds in the years following.

At least six localities (all in the Midwestern United States) claim to be the "Popcorn Capital of the World;": Ridgway, Illinois; Valparaiso, Indiana; Van Buren, Indiana; Schaller, Iowa; Marion, Ohio; and North Loup, Nebraska. According to the USDA, corn used for popcorn production is specifically planted for this purpose; most is grown in Nebraska and Indiana, with increasing area in Texas.

As the result of an elementary school project, popcorn became the official state snack food of Illinois.

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Monday, 30 January 2017

On this day in science history: the world's tallest geyser was discovered

In 1901, the world's tallest geyser was discovered by Dr Humphrey Haines on the North Island of New Zealand. He was following up reports of great clouds of steam, and found the Waimangu Geyser near Rotorua. It appeared after an enormous eruption of Mt. Tarawera in 1886. The Waimangu Geyser was the largest geyser in the world and erupted on a 36 hour cycle for four years, hurling black mud and rocks in the air. Waimangu is Maori for "black water." It stopped in 1904 when a landslide changed the local water table. Eruptions would typically reach 600 feet. Some superbursts are known to have reached 1,600 feet (10 times as high as Yellowstone's famous Old Faithful, and which would be higher than the Empire State Building.)

Geyser activity, like all hot spring activity, is caused by surface water gradually seeping down through the ground until it meets rock heated by magma. The geothermally heated water then rises back toward the surface by convection through porous and fractured rocks. Geysers differ from non-eruptive hot springs in their subterranean structure; many consist of a small vent at the surface connected to one or more narrow tubes that lead to underground reservoirs of water and pressure tight rock.

Steamboat Geyser in Yellowstone. By Brocken Inaglory (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0) or GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html)], via Wikimedia Commons
As the geyser fills, the water at the top of the column cools off, but because of the narrowness of the channel, convective cooling of the water in the reservoir is impossible. The cooler water above presses down on the hotter water beneath, not unlike the lid of a pressure cooker, allowing the water in the reservoir to become superheated, i.e. to remain liquid at temperatures well above the standard-pressure boiling point.

Ultimately, the temperatures near the bottom of the geyser rise to a point where boiling begins which forces steam bubbles to rise to the top of the column. As they burst through the geyser's vent, some water overflows or splashes out, reducing the weight of the column and thus the pressure on the water below. With this release of pressure, the superheated water flashes into steam, boiling violently throughout the column. The resulting froth of expanding steam and hot water then sprays out of the geyser vent.

A key requirement that enables a geyser to erupt is a material called geyserite found in rocks nearby the geyser. Geyserite—mostly silicon dioxide (SiO2), is dissolved from the rocks and gets deposited on the walls of the geyser's plumbing system and on the surface. The deposits make the channels carrying the water up to the surface pressure-tight. This allows the pressure to be carried all the way to the top and not be leaked out into the loose gravel or soil that are normally under the geyser fields.

Eventually the water remaining in the geyser cools back to below the boiling point and the eruption ends; heated groundwater begins seeping back into the reservoir, and the whole cycle begins again. The duration of eruptions and time between successive eruptions vary greatly from geyser to geyser; Strokkur in Iceland erupts for a few seconds every few minutes, while Grand Geyser in the United States erupts for up to 10 minutes every 8–12 hours.

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