Friday, February 26, 2010

JJNN: Neutrino

There are a lot of things out there that we can't see with our naked eyes. There are also a lot of things out there that are extremely hard (or maybe impossible) to detect with even our most sensitive detectors. One example of this was my last post about dark matter. Another example is what I want to talk about today: neutrinos.

Neutrinos are much like the WIMPs that I talked about last time. Neutrinos do not carry a charge so they tend not to interact with matter in the same way that particles that carry a charge interact with matter. That is a little hard to think about so I want to give a concrete example. Imagine a sheet of atoms. This sheet can represent anything, but we shall say that it is the surface of a desk. If you take a close look at all of the atoms they are surrounded by electrons. They electrons are negatively charged and surround the positively charged core of the atom like a cloud. Now, think of another atom falling toward the surface of the desk. This atom also has an electron cloud. From basic physics we know that like charges repel and that is just what happens. Basically one electron cloud hits the other electron cloud and they atoms repel from each other. That is how it it is with a normal atom.

In the case of the neutrino it is different. The neutrino has no electric charge. This means that it is not repelled by the electric charge of the electron cloud. The neutrino can basically slid effortlessly though the electric cloud. In other words the neutrino will not bounce off from the surface and will go though. There is a case where the neutrino will not go though the surface. That is when the neutrino interacts with the atom by smashing into the atoms nucleus. You would think that that would happen a lot, but the fact is that the diameter of a normal atom is about 10^5 times that of its nucleus. This means that a atom is mostly made up of "empty space," and the chances of actually hitting the nucleus are very small indeed. Even though the chances are small that is the only time we actually detect a neutrino. The fact is that 50 million neutrinos that are produced in the sun pass though our bodies every second and hardly any of them actually interact with us. That is how hard it is to detect these things.

Now that the basics of the neutrino are covered, I want to get into this news story. It seems that the High Energy Accelerator Research Organization (Know as KEK for it's Japanese name) located in Ibaragi prefecture produced a neutrino that was detected 295 kilometers (183 miles) away by the Super Kamiokande detector in Gifu prefecture on the 24th of this month.

This is actually amazing because there are a lot of countries that are in the race at the moment to produce and detect neutrinos and this was the first time it has ever happened. The article does not really got into that many details so I wonder how they know this was the neutrino that was produced by the KEK. It could have just been a coincidence that they detector detected a neutrino from the sun at the same time as the neutrino was produced by the group at KEK. I would really like to hear more about this story and see how they set up their experiment. For now all I can say is that it looks like something amazing happened, but I am not so sure yet.

Any way, it is now time for the word of the day. Today's word is ニュートリノ(にゅうとりの). It is pronounced nyuutorino and it means neutrino. It is just another big piece in the puzzle of science.

See you next time at JJNN

Friday, February 19, 2010

JJNN: Dark Matter Detector

There are many mysterious things out there in the universe. Every day scientists come upon things that don't seem to fit into the grand picture as we know it now. Thanks to these things the scientists have to change the way they think about certain parts of the grand picture and our knowledge grows a little bit.

One of the things that scientists are trying to figure out at the moment is dark matter/energy. Put simply, scientists over the years have made many observations of the universe over the years and noticed that there was more stuff (matter) out there than we could see with our instruments. This effect was dubbed "dark matter." What are the effects of dark matter? Well, there are certain gravitational effects such as gravitational lensing (where a place with a lot of matter - and thus a lot of gravity - collects light from behind it like a lens) and the rotation of spiral galaxies, among other things. Scientists also think that the presence of dark matter also led to the anisotropy of the cosmic background radiation. That is why they can make beautiful maps like the one below that shows how "lumpy" the cosmic background radiation really is.

Up until this point in time there has been no way to directly see dark matter. This means we don't really know what it is made up or even if it actually physical matter at all. It could be that if we find out exactly what dark matter is made out of and how it is formed we could find a key to a great amount of knowledge this universe. That is why there are many groups looking to build dark matter detectors. One of those groups is from Tokyo University (even though it is based in Gifu). You can see a picture of their partially completed detector below.

The detector is actually a 1 meter across ball of 60 smaller detectors. The team has dubbed the smaller detectors XMASS. XMASS stands for "Xenon detector for Weakly Interacting MASSive Particles." I don't know about you, but I think they really cheated in their acronym to make the detector sound cool. Technically it should be XDWIMP. I think I like XD-WIMP better than XMASS. I reason I like XS-WIMP better is because WIMPs are exactly what this detector is looking for. By WIMP I don't mean a weak person, I mean particles that probably exist, but are so weakly interacting with normal matter that we have no real way of detecting them. WIMP stands for weakly interacting massive particle.

So, if these particles do not really interact with other particles how do we detect them? That very question has been plaguing scientists that do actually want to detect these particles. The XMASS detectors are filled with liquid Xenon which is as cold as -100C (-148F). Almost all of the WIMPS that pass though the detector do not interact with the xenon, but the ones that do will give a little energy to the liquid. This energy is then again released in the form of light. This light can be detected by the photo sensors on the inside of the detectors. One flash of light equals one WIMP that interacted with the liquid.

This actually leads to a problem. There are a lot of other things that could interact with the liquid to give it energy. Things like high energy particles from the sun or high energy particles that are zooming around the universe. So this leads to the problem that they have to find a way to shield the detectors from these other particles and energies. They do this by basically putting the detector at the bottom of a huge hole. The earth itself (along with some water) will shield the detector from background radiation.

It will be exciting to see what comes out of this detector and what kind of discoveries can be made. I hope it goes a lot smoother than a some other experiments, like the LHC.

Any way, it is now time for the word of the day. Today's word is 暗黒物質(あんこくぶっしつ). It is pronounced ankoku busshitsu and it means dark matter. I wonder what kinds of scientific strides ahead can be made when we figure out just what dark matter is.

See you next time at JJNN

Sunday, February 14, 2010

JJNN: Electric Bus

Everyone is trying to be more ecologically sound lately. That is a good thing. The more we get used to doing things that are good for the planet the the easier it will be for us to live here. That means doing things like recycling is a good thing even though recycling technology is not to the point where it does anything good for the environment, it will get that some day so we should get used to recycling. Another way to help is to walk, ride bikes or use mass transportation. Any little thing helps.

Any way, the reason I am talking about the environment is this article which I found a couple of days ago. It seems that a city in Japan called Toyama decided to try out electric buses in their mass transit system. Starting from today (valentine's romantic) Toyama city will be using 6 electric busses. This is only a trial so they will only be using them for a month. You can see the ceremony for the busses below.

That is a good thing. If you think about it, all that CO2 that would normally be produced by the gas burning busses is not produced. But, wait... There is still a production of CO2, it is just not at the bus. The buses are charged every night just like any other piece of electrical equipment that runs on a battery. If the power plant that produces the power for the electric buses also produces CO2 than the busses really can not be called zero emission vehicles.

After a little looking, I found that the electricity for Toyama city is produced by the power company Hokuriku Denryoku. Hokuriku Denryoku produces a totally of 8.11 million kilowatt hours of electricity. Out of that 4.4 million kilowatt hours is produced at a power plant that burns coal to produce the electricity. It is close enough to half to say that it is half. I could not find the stats for the busses themselves, but I did find the stats for a similar bus used in America so I will use that. The bus runs at 120kW. Let's say that the busses run for 8 hours a day, that is a total usage of 960kWh. Half of that (or 480kWh) is from coal power. According to this study, a coal power plant produces about 2 pounds of CO2 per kWh or a total of 960 pounds of CO2 per bus per day. For 6 buses that is a total of 5760 pounds of CO2 per day.

That seems like a lot, but how much CO2 do gas burning busses release? According to the article the electric busses produce 30 to 40 percent less CO2 than normal diesel busses. Also, the production of NOx is less for power plants than for bus engines. All very good things.

The point that I wanted to make with this article was the fact that there is really no such thing as a no emission vehicle at the present time. Well, that is if you don't count bikes and the Flinstone's car. There is also the possibility of a car that is hooked up to solar panels or the like, but the efficiency and usability is not there at the moment. Maybe some day.

Any way, it is now time for the word of the day. Today's word is 電気(でんき). It is pronounced denki and it means electricity. I always try to save electricity, but on cold days it is hard to live without my electric heater on full blast.

See you next time at JJNN

Thursday, February 11, 2010

JJNN: Konishiki on TV

There are a lot of strange shows on Japanese TV. You have all probably seen clips of old Japanese game shows where people have to run though mazes or crash through walls or have to be careful not to fall into a vat of slime. I don't know if it is because of the Japanese sense of humor or another reason, but it seems that the stranger the show the longer it lasts.

The show that I want to talk about today is not as crazy as a lot of the shows on Japanese TV, but it is weird. The name of the show is Inaka in Tomarou, or "Let's spend the night in the country." The concept of the show is simple. A famous person is taken some small place in Japan and dropped off with just a camera man. They have to talk with the people of the area, find out where they are and complete a task that was decided before they left. After that, the famous person has to get someone from the town to let them stay at their house. This is always the hardest part because the famous person can not stay at a hotel or any other normal place, they must work up the courage to ask someone to let them stay over for the night. If they can not find a place to stay they have to stay outside for the night. If they do find someplace to stay, the next day they have to do something nice for the person that let them stay.

The reason I am talking about Inaka ni Tomarou is a blog post by Konishiki, which gives an interesting view on how hard it really is to sleep somewhere warm on that show. Konishiki (pictured below) is a Hawaiian born sumo wrestler who was on the circuit from 1984 to 1997. He never go to the rank of yokozuna, but he was very popular. After he stopped wrestling he starting making many TV appearances and even got a few TV shows.

Konishi appeared on Inaka ni Tomarou on the 7th of this month. He was dropped off in Kagoshima in Southern Japan. According to his blog, he was so happy to appear on the show and go to a place he has never been to before, but he had a lot of trouble actually asking people to let him stay in their house for the night. He says that it was really hard, but the experience was worth it.

Any way, it is now time for the word of the day. Today's word is 田舎(いなか). It is pronounced inaka and it means countryside. Personally I think it better to live in the country side than in the city. Question of the day: Which would you rather live in: The city or the country side? Which is better place to raise kids?

See you next time at JJNN

Sunday, February 7, 2010

JJNN: Setsubun

Today I want to introduce a modern take on an old Japanese tradition. Every year in early February (usually on the 3rd) the Japanese celebrate a tradition called setsubun. Setsubun occurs on the day before Risshun, which is the technical start of spring according to the old calendar that was used in Japan. Setsubun literally means the separating of the seasons because it is the line in the sand (so to say) between winter and spring. There are actually 3 more setsubun days for the changes between the other seasons, but they really don't get any press for some reason.

So, what do the Japanese people do on setsubun? Well, setsubun is an important part of the year because it marks the beginning of the solar year. As with the start of the solar year, the Japanese people are want to purify themselves for the coming year. As for the beginning of the solar year they have what is called Oosouji, which is basically their version of spring cleaning. In the case of setsubun, it is purification of the soul than a physical purification.

The main tool in the arsenal this time is a roasted soy bean sometimes called a fuku mame. Beans (along with salt and some other foods) have been known as tools for purification for a long time. The head of the household (or sometime another person in the household if that year corresponds with that person's Chinese zodiac) takes the beans and throws them out of the house. He would usually throw them at someone wearing a demon mask while saying "Oni wa soto! Fuku wa uchi!" or, in English, "Demons out! Good luck in!" The family members than all eat a number of beans that corresponds to their age (in some places it is age plus one). That all leads to a home and family that is nicely purified for the coming lunar year (so the tradition goes).

Setsubun can also be seen in temples and shrines on this day. In some places tens of thousands of people gather just to see some famous person throw beans into the crowd. Some schools also do setsubun, but instead of soy beans they usually use shelled peanuts because they can be taken home and eaten by the students later. Below is a video from this year's setsubun in Narita (a place near Tokyo).

I said at the beginning of the post that I wanted to talk about a modern take on setsubun. By that I am not talking about a new high tech soy bean or a robotic demon to throw the beans at. I am talking about a new place to hold setsubun. When I say a new place I am not talking about a weird place in Japan or even another country. I am talking about in space. At this time on the international space station is a Japanese astronaut named Noguchi Soichi. On the first of February Noguchi decided to celebrate setsubun a little early. You can see his picture below. He is holding the mask of a demon that is traditionally used for setsubun.

Unfortunately Noguchi did not have any soy beans so he used chocolate instead. I guess it should work just as good as soy beans because it is also made with a type of bean. Maybe next year I will use chocolate will be more yummy.

Any way, it is now time for the word of the day. Today's word is 鬼(おに). It is pronounced oni and it means demon. I think the demons in Japanese literature are actually cute compared to the ones in the west (though they are just as dangerous.

See you next time at JJNN