austin_dern (austin_dern) wrote,
austin_dern
austin_dern

And now it's solid, solid as a rock

If everyone thinks like I do we share an interest in new states of matter. The current roster includes family-favorite states like solid, liquid, gas, plasma, Connecticut, super-fluid, sub-fluid, Montana, para-gas, Alberta, Bose-Einstein condensate, hyper-plasma, Jell-o, and that pasty stuff you're supposed to make from putting lots of starch into water for science fair projects but when when you actually do it makes papier-mache without the fun part.

The fun part is the newspaper strips you paste over a balloon to make a horribly misshapen, lumpy globe, which about wraps up starch-based states of matter as far as we're concerned. Admittedly we weren't very concerned, spending no more than two hours nightly fretting over what it might be doing in the city at this hour.

Now, it crosses my desk that a couple years ago a Penn State group may have found a new one. My desk is very large, and news like this travels slowly, as protective camouflage against news's natural predators. Formations of moss on top of news return valuable nutrients to the info-sphere, and precious antibiotics have been found under items like ``new shade of blue discovered'' or ``fish make noise'', so don't go thinking a couple of years in getting to me means the news was being too slow.

They said they built a pendulum from a cylindrical container with a thin outer shell of solid helium, then twisted it on its axis, which cold enough produced a small but dramatic change in the frequency of its oscillations. I don't know how dramatic the change is. I like to think it was accompanied by a musical sting, and some research assistants clutching their chests, staggering outside, recovering just enough to announce, ``It's a new state of matter! It's ... it's ... a SUPER-SOLID!''

I trust they did it since who'd claim they did that otherwise? What they didn't announce was how they got on the frozen pendulum idea. I guess they didn't want to mention tries that didn't work, like:

  • Coating a dinner plate with helium and spinning it on the top of a long pole while the temperature rose.
  • Carving a block of wood into a helium squirrel and mounting it on the end of walking stick while the relative humidity grew unseasonably low.
  • Having a singer chant a steady ``A'' note until a wineglass of plastic helium cracks.
  • Putting a bowl full of helium on the rotating tray in the microwave until a toothpick inserted in the center came out clean.
  • Build a mobile of helium spheres representing the solar system and put it over the bus depot as public art until some spoilsport notices the planets are spinning backwards.

But there's no shame in trying any of these, except the toothpick idea, so why be secretive?

That's the sort of question that gets a good controversy going, and so it did. Consider this exchange from the imaginary journal Physica I:

Penn State Researchers: Lookit this, it's a super-solid!

Critics: Is not!

Penn State Researchers: You're crazy!

Critics: You just like putting things into torsional balance measurement apparatuses!

Penn State Researchers: Oh yeah? You never feel like you pluralize ``apparatus'' right!

Then it degenerates with the critics and the researchers making ptoo-ptoo spitting noises at each other. They'd actually spit but being so science-minded they missed the elementary school playground lessons in how to spit so it doesn't just dribble down on your own chin. If they had learned to spit they'd probably just have used the knowledge to impersonate TIE fighters while using the swingset anyway.

The critics may be winning this round since their experiments suggest not only is there no super-solid state, but there's not much of a transition, and the evidence for a ``pendulum'' is pretty sketchy, and nobody's actually seen this so-called ``helium'', and ``Penn State'' itself is actually just a tourist attraction created by University Park, Pennsylvania, to make its name seem less peculiar while they try financing an academia-themed amusement park.

If everyone doesn't think like I do, they probably won't be held responsible for any new states of matter.

Trivia: Lewis Fry Richardson estimated, based on his 1922 experiment in predicting the weather of International Balloon Day, 20 May 1910 (Balloon days were ordinarily the first Thursday of the month; that one was postponed to better synchronize with Halley's Comet), that one would need 64,000 mathematicians calculating the weather numerically, and even then would barely get the weather for more than seconds ahead of real time. Source: Something New Under the Sun, Helen Gavaghan.

Currently Reading: Shipwreck: The Strange Fate Of The Morro Castle, Gordon Thomas, Max Morgan Witts.

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