Browsing: Physics

I’m a graphic designer, or, in the language of the U.S. Office of Personnel Management, a “Visual Information Specialist.” For the past 18 years I’ve been working at the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), a federal laboratory where some of the best and brightest scientists, engineers, IT specialists, and mathematicians come together to do basic research, develop standards, create new methods of measurement, and win the occasional Nobel prize. In addition to designing exhibits, infographics, and brochures, one of my regular tasks has been to evaluate and process thousands of images created by NIST researchers to accompany the news articles my colleagues in the Public Affairs Office write. These images, which include micrographs made with scanning electron microscopes,…

Do we really need hot stuff? I’m not talking about Donna Summer’s disco hit of 1979 or global warming. I’m not talking about anything so lukewarm as the surface of our sun—a mere 6,000 kelvins. I don’t even mean something as hot as 1,000,000 kelvins. No, the kind of hot stuff I’m talking about is closer to an unimaginable 200,000,000 kelvins! What possible use could we have for something so hot? It should be of no surprise to anyone that we have an insatiable appetite for energy, and that appetite is only going to grow. But how are we going to feed this need for energy? One of the most promising potential ways to generate a practically inexhaustible supply of…

The creation of a new material has long been either an accident or a matter of trial and error. Steel, for instance, was developed over hundreds of years by people who didn’t know why what they were doing worked (or didn’t work). Generations of blacksmiths observed that iron forged in charcoal was stronger than iron that wasn’t, and iron that was forged in a very high-temperature, charcoal-fired furnace and rapidly cooled was even stronger, and so on. While we’re still learning things about steel, we now have all kinds of recipes that we can use to make steels with different properties depending on the application, but those recipes took a lot of time, sweat and toil to develop. Wouldn’t it…

I was always fascinated with science. However, I steered away from pursuing science beyond high school because there was too much math involved (and “MATH,” a four-letter word if ever I saw one, and I never really got along). As a result, much of my teaching experience has centered around things that came more naturally to me. In fact, though this will be my 11th year teaching, it is only my third year teaching science. Throughout my career as an educator, I have had the joy of taking care of a wide variety of “classroom animals,” including a Chinese water dragon, a soft-shell turtle, a kingsnake, chickens, a tarantula, and even a fresh-water eel. This year, as a sixth-grade science…

As I peer into the cardboard box NIST researcher Amanda Forster holds out for me, I can’t help thinking that this mild-mannered materials scientist has an impressive collection of shivs. The handmade prison weapons include a ballpoint pen with a razor embedded in the shaft and a toothbrush — originally designed to be gentle on your gums — that’s been re-engineered to easily puncture flesh. They are vivid evidence of a scary fact of prison life: anything can be turned into a weapon. Corrections officers wear stab-resistant body armor that’s usually made from fibers of extremely strong material such as Kevlar, just like the ballistic body armor worn by police or military personnel. But because ballistic armor is designed to…