You May Not Have To Drink Whiskey To Tell How Good It Is Anymore.

Those who know me would tell you that I have partaken in a bit of drinking in my day.  I am Scottish by heritage, yet American born. Therein lies the problem, the great “whiskey” and “whisky” debate has raged in my household for years. A recent article has been published about defining characteristics of American whiskey in comparison to Scotch whisky. American whiskey has been found to leave a brand-specific web-like design behind after it evaporates. Scotch whisky does not. 

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Examples of the web-like designs produced by different whiskeys during the testing process.

The study of fluid dynamics has been an interesting field for a long time. Prior research on Scotch whisky has been performed and these studies found familiar “coffee ring” patterns when the Scotch evaporated.  This phenomenon occurs in many other liquids as well. The coffee ring effect is when different rates of evaporation along the surface induce capillary flow, drawing liquid to the outer edge of the stain, leaving a ring-like outline. Think of a dried drop of coffee on a piece of paper. The outer edges of the stian are defined after the solubles are drawn to the edge and left behind.

Traditionally, Scotch whisky is aged in barrels that are often recycled. American bourbon, or whiskey, is aged in new charred barrels. This distinction may give clues to why the researchers found what they have.

While testing the samples researchers found the American whiskey had higher amounts of solids and water-insoluble content. This difference in the chemical makeup tells researchers the content of the specific liquid has a significant impact on the monolayer composition and behavior. 

Researchers placed 1.0 microliter droplets on sterile glass slides and waited until the whiskey evaporated. Initially, the researchers found that American made whiskeys left nothing unusual behind after it had evaporated. They then diluted the whiskey with water to make a 20 – 25% alcohol by volume. This is when they found nanoscale agglomerates formed at the liquid-air interface. When diluted the micelles in the liquid move to the top of the sample, forming a monolayer that is eventually left behind. As the droplet shrinks during the evaporation process the thin film on the surface creases and folds making the unique web-like design. 

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Image of the different phases of flow and monolayer formation found during the research.

The scientist tested dozens of brands of whiskey using this technique. They were successful in identifying brands 90% of the time. The research also states that out of the 66 samples tested, 65 whiskeys produced the web design. The one which did not was only aged for 42 years, much older than the average whiskey tested. The increased age of the sample increases the surface-active compounds which interrupt the monolayer and prevented the webs from forming. Conversely, unaged samples of the same dilution did not produce the webs either. The research determined the aging process directly contributes to the web design found. 

The researchers suspect this could be used in sample analysis and to identify counterfeit liquors. They will be hopefully pursuing this research with other liquids in order to find other applications, such as identifying characteristics of volatile liquids.  

This type of research engages people. In science, it is important to have people care about what you are doing in order to maintain support.  In this case, I think it is fair to say, “Mission accomplished.” 

Hypertritons Helping Uphold Physics and Explaining What is in the Core of Neutron Stars

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No need to worry the laws of our universe are still holding up. Physics for the most part still seems to be accurate, which is good news for us all. Recent research, published by The STAR Collaboration, has found hypertritons to have the same mass as it’s opposite, the antihypertriton. This discovery has allowed a long-standing theory of physics to be confirmed, that which states there is symmetry in nature.  It also has the potential to give us insight into one of the many unknowns of our universe, what lies in the center of a neutron star?

By confirming the identical mass of the Hypertritons, which are created when heavy element nuclei collide, and antihypertriton solidifies the charge-parity-time, or CPT, symmetry.  CPT is the fundamental base of much of the theories of the universe as no experimental observation has proven this symmetry false. If it was disproven physicists would need to rethink much of what has come to be accepted.  

Nuclei typically consist of protons and neutrons. Each containing quarks, specifically “up” and “down” quarks. The hypertriton is sort of a super-nucleus. Along with protons and neutrons it also contains hyperons.  These strange subatomic particles consist of quarks as well but contain what are known as “strange quarks”.  It has been previously hypothesized that hyperons make up a neutron stars core. However, many refute this theory based on the previously recorded low binding energy. The main debate is over the “softening” of the neutron star, caused by hyperons, which would cause the star to collapse making a black hole. 

In order to conduct the research, the collision of gold nuclei was initiated and the particles produced during the decay of the resulting hypernuclei were observed in the STAR detector. Hyperons have a short decay time but because they are traveling near the speed of light during the experiment the observation is possible.  

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The amount of energy to liberate a hyperon from the hypernuclei was measured during the process.  The energy found was recorded as 0.4 electron volts. Previous measurements were around 0.2 electron volts.  The increase in binding energy changes theories of the makeup of the core of a neutron star. Due to the incredible density of neutron stars, they are unable to be recreated in laboratories and thus little is known for sure.  However, with higher binding energy confirmed it would be possible for these subatomic particles to make up the core of a Neutron Star as the previously theorized softening would not necessarily occur. 

With the STAR collaboration recent discovery physicists will be able to use this newly acquired information to model neutron star’s cores. We are now one step closer to determining what lurks in the center of these elusive stellar objects.

Gillian Knapp at a Glance

Gillian Knapp had just gotten out of prison when she came walking into Princeton Astrophysics Department building. It was a soggy afternoon in New Jersey and she found me sitting in the lobby. She ushered me down a corridor into her office and welcomed me and offered me a seat. I sat down.

An acclaimed astronomer, with over 100,000 citations on published papers, Professor Knapp is also an advocate for education in prisons. Gillian Knapp has been entering New Jersey State prisons for years in order to educate the men closed off to society. She had just returned from teaching these men when we met.

With all her accomplishments and brilliance one could naturally be intimidated, however, her glowing blue eyes, kind demeanor, and slight stature, she has blessed the world with an approachability many others do not possess.  

When Professor Knapp agreed to my interview request I was ecstatic. I had found a recent paper on Kappa Andromeda B which I was eager to discuss, however, the interview turned into so much more than I thought it would. 

Professor Knapp has been involved with the Strategic Exploration of Exoplanets and Disks with Subaru project, SEEDS. Most notably, SEEDS was able to discover “Super Jupiter” which is in the Andromeda galaxy orbiting a massive Star, Kappa Andromeda. Professor Knapp had a bottle of beer named after the exoplanet on her desk, sent to her with a note from the brewery, stating every great accomplishment deserves celebrating. She subsequently told me the beer bottle was empty and we had a laugh. 

The data being collected on Kappa Andromeda B is a joint effort to determine how these cooler stellar objects form. The possibility of fusion within their cores and atmospheric pressure, temperature and composition are also being analyzed. I asked Professor Knapp if her thoughts of Kappa Andromeda B was a brown dwarf or a planet, she simply said those terms did not make much sense and she was merely interested if it was fusing in the core. But she isn’t that much involved with the Kapa Andromeda B research. The exciting thing is what made this type of research possible. Professor Knapp played a pivotal role in a groundbreaking research program that propelled astronomy to new levels.  

The Sloan Digital Sky Survey, or SDSS, officially launched operations in the year 2000, but not without a decade or so of planning and design. SDSS revolutionized astronomy. Not only in the way we are able to observe the universe but the way scientists worked together in order to successfully complete the task. Astronomers have a tendency to get possessive over their specific areas of research. It has been said they will claim galaxies and other stellar objects as their own.  The possessive terms “My Galaxy” and “My Star” have been used from time to time. The SDSS changed this. The agreement was to allow anyone to work on anything at any time. Researchers had the choice to work on anything they chose to, or not. If a researcher did not want to work on a certain topic or with a certain person, this was cool. After some getting used to, the complete freedom made the project incredibly successful.

Prior to the advancement of digital imaging, astronomy was bound by the tedious task of developing and sorting film in order to filter different spectrums. The typical astronomer would point a telescope into the sky and capture a very small area for a few hours. Then they would be faced with the daunting task of sorting out the data collected. This would take months. Not to mention the numerous hours away from actual observation. 

When Professor Knapp’s husband, Professor James Gunn, who is also a Princeton faculty member, developed technology that captured larger areas of the sky by way of digital imaging SDSS was bound to be a success. The only issue was there wasn’t a computing system in place to process all the amount of data this technology produced. Professor Knapp managed the software project which allowed the goals of SDSS to come to fruition. 

Professor Knapp managed a team of research staff, faculty, and students in order to develop a computing software that would handle, analyze and process the data produced by the new imaging software. This development was the first of it’s kind and single handily changed the field of astronomy.  Computational astrophysics origins are firmly rooted in the work of Professor Knapp.  Astronomers could now do things that were never being done before with the new software. 

The SDSS takes detailed photographs of the sky in a large sweeping movement, much like a panoramic photograph you take on a mountainside. This is different because all other telescopes on earth are taking photographs of very small areas. Professor Knapp introduced me to Professor Gunn during our meeting.  Professor Gunn described the operation to me as the telescope is much more efficient because it “scans” the area of the sky. It isn’t snapping pictures of small portions of the sky, rather scanning sections much larger than what had been previously possible. 

This panoramic-like data collection was made possible by the development of large silicon wafers used in conjunction with a spectrograph. This allows astronomers to gather information on 5 different colors of light.  Thirty electronic light sensors, known as charged-coupled devices or CCDs, are used in order to capture images of the sky.  These CCDs were designed specifically for the telescope and are unique as they are able to move electrons on the wafers and generate pictures from the absorption of the light released by the electrons. Each CCD is made up of over 4 million pixels. A CCD receives light through a different color filter, making multiple light observation possible simultaneously. Over 200 Gigabytes of data is collected in a single night, which is then processed by the computing software.

Photograph of the CCD taken by the writer at Princeton University.

I was shown an example of these CCDs while at Princeton, along with the metal plates used in the spectroscopy process. Each metal plate is designated for a particular portion of the sky.  Predrilled holes mark the specific objects, whether a galaxy or other stellar mass, that it is dedicated to observing. Spectrograph fibers are plugged into these small holes, by hand, on the face of the plate in order to measure the spectrum and determining the distance and size of the objects.  The entire process of setting the fibers takes about 45 minutes. Professor Gunn said they had played with the idea of using robotics to perform the task but abandoned the idea.

Photograph of the metal plates taken by the writer at Princeton University.

Mapping our universe is crucial to the understanding of how galaxies, planets, and stars are formed. Professor Knapp explained to me how we are able to see the timeline of the expansion of our universe after the big bang. She made the analogy of throwing a pebble into a pond and the pond immediately freezing.  The ripples in the ice would be saved as they were frozen. We can see these ripples at the edges of the galaxies which is a timestamp of the way they developed. This ripple effect was produced by early hydrogen gas becoming neutral, prior to that it was ionized, and the rapid expansion caused a density fluxation imprint, which is visible in our universe today in the 3-dimensional distribution of galaxies.  

While speaking to Professor Knapp on the success of SDSS, the subject of information sharing came up. SDSS allowed data to be released, by way of the internet, allowing the public to witness the groundbreaking discoveries like never before. This ease of distributing information to the public was also very much a first for astronomy. It allowed for excitement to build around the project and all of the accomplishments to be celebrated. The first five years marked the projected end of the SDSS, however, due to the incredible success the survey was extended, time and time again. SDSS is still going strong after 30 years with the 5th incarnation of the project starting this summer and running into 2025. The most recent project objectives include the search for black holes, further mapping of the Milkyway galaxy, determining the origin of planets and star formations.  

I love celebrating physics in any way, shape or form. I think the best thing about the SDSS is the unique metal plates. The team signs them and sends them off to deserving recipients. It is similar to a rockband signing an album. If that isn’t punk rock, I don’t know what is. The SDSS is expanding just like the universe we are trying to investigate. Without the work of Professor Knapp, literally, none of this would be possible. So when I look into the night sky tonight, having a little more knowledge based on the SDSS data releases. I am going to tip my hat to Gillian Knapp because I do not think that happens nearly as often as it should. Thank you Jill.  Thank you for everything. 

Room Temperature Superconductivity Is Closer Than You Think

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When Heike Kamerlingh Onnes discovered superconductivity he most likely had no idea what he was revealing. Superconductivity is an amazing phenomenon to witness. A typical demonstration involves a disk cooled using liquid nitrogen hovering over a track of magnets.  This demonstration always gathers a crowd at our Faraday Holiday Shows we put on at Rutgers Physics Lecture Hall. Superconductors have the potential to be world-changing if we can make them practical.  

Superconductors are able to transmit electricity with 100% efficiency. There are many other possible applications of these materials including electric circuitry, medical equipment, high energy particle detectors, and electric motors. Materials are kept at extremely low temperatures in order to become superconductors.  This makes real-world applications inefficient. Scientists have been theorizing about room temperature superconductors for a long time. Recently the search for them was proven to be on the right path. 

In September of 2019, a research team published a research paper in Nature reporting they had achieved superconductivity of Lanthanum Hydride compounds at 250K. This is the highest confirmed temperature recorded to date. This achievement is a reassuring confirmation of theoretical room temperature superconductivity.

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Superconductor Lanthanum Hydride structure – LaH10
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In order to achieve superconductivity at a higher temperature, the team compressed a sample of Lanthanum at pressures of a million times atmospheric pressure.  The researchers used a device called a Diamond Anvil Cell in order to carry out the experiment. Using a thin metal foil to encase the sample, two flattened diamond plates are used to compress the Lanthanum. This type of system has a limitation of the type of data that can be recorded due to the small sample size of 0.01 millimeters across. One of the testing methods of superconductors is electrical measurement.  This involves connecting the sample to electrical leads which must remain independent from the foil which the sample is contained in. The team uses an insulator in order to prevent interference between the foil and the sample when measuring the electrical information. 

Diagram of Diamond Anvil Cell experiment.
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Despite the difficulties of the experiment, the researchers were successful and compressed lanthanum into lanthanum hydride while confirming superconductivity at a record high temperature. 

In order to declare a material as a superconductor researchers evaluate three characteristics.  These are: 1) zero electrical resistance; 2) a reduction in the critical temperature under an applied magnetic field; 3) expulsion of magnetic fields from the interior of the material. This expulsion of magnetic fields is known as the Meissner effect. The team was able to obtain the first two characteristics of the material. The Meissner effect was not recorded because of the sample size. The researchers will require additional experimentation with larger samples in order to measure the magnetization. The material themselves must also be evaluated. If samples of the compressed material will maintain their structure at normal pressure, much like a diamond, this may be a viable option for the future of superconductors. 

The implications of this research will likely drive future experiments to test other hydrogen-rich materials in order to achieve room temperature superconductivity. The results are positive and confirm a mathematical theory which predicted the pressure and temperature required. These results are a step in the direction of room-temperature superconductivity.

Fusion Energy Is Becoming Viable

I grew up in the 90’s, a time where the cartoon “The Jetsons,” promised us engineering which would provide our species sanctity over the pollution and destruction prior generations had done to the earth. The cartoon took place in 2062, we are 42 years away from the technology they promised, which is not out of the realm of possibility (other than the flying cars), but given recent projections in global warming, unless we change our habits of energy consumption and greenhouse gas emissions, we are in a lot of trouble.  Long story short, we can no longer produce energy by way of fossil fuels if we want to live on this planet much longer. Fusion energy may be the answer. 

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So what is fusion?  Essentially it is what powers our Sun. The process involves hydrogen atoms colliding and forming heavier atoms, in the form of helium, which are slightly less massive, thus the output of this change in mass (which is very small) is released in the form of energy. Typically, in order to achieve fusion, temperatures and density of the fourth state of matter (plasma) must be extremely high. This is naturally occuring in the core of stars because of the extreme density and temperatures brought on by gravity during their formation. Here on earth however we need to use Tokamak reactors.  These reach temperatures of 15 million degrees celsius, which is much hotter than the surface of the sun. In order to contain the plasma a very strong electromagnetic field is generated. This process takes a lot of energy in order to be successful, thus it has been a struggle for fusion laboratories to produce more energy than what is put in.  

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The fusion lab at Princeton University, Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory, has been involved in the experimentation of fusion energy since 1951. I was lucky enough to tour the facility this winter and was in awe of the process. However the Tokamak reactor used onsite, needs to constantly be shut down to cool and be repaired. Furthermore, the reactor is experimental only and is not equipped to harness energy produced during experiments. The International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor in southern France on track for completion in 2025. The ITER is projected to produce 500 Mw of energy with a 50Mw input when it goes online fully.  This will be the first viable fusion energy plant once it has been completed.  

There is a new technology being used which may result in a safer more efficient fusion energy source.  A company, HB 11 Energy, which originated from research at The University of Southern Wales has recently been awarded patents from several countries, including the United States and China, for their recent developments in nuclear fusion technology.  HB11 Energy has not only changed the process of initiating fusion reaction, they are also using Hydrogen and Boron 11, rather than the radioactive isotope Tritium which is used in other nuclear fusion. Rather than heating the plasma to extreme temperatures, they are reportedly using lasers in order to initiate fusion. A laser is used to generate a magnetic containment field and second laser is used to begin the fusion reaction.  Rather than randomly waiting for atoms to collide, the laser attempts to more definitively begin the reaction by directing the hydrogen through the Boron 11. 
HB11 Energy is still a long way off from producing energy for the world, however they are making advancements in new ways. 

The fusion industry has been struggling with the same problems since its inception. Now that advancements in laser technology, which won a Nobel Prize in 2018, have given new methods to the process, we may see radical changes in the way fusion is achieved. A fresh take on the process may be exactly what the world needs in order to make fusion a reality as a viable energy source. I am eager to see what this team of researchers can accomplish.