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Chris RollinsRSS Feed of this column.

Chris Rollins is a recent graduate in aerospace engineering from Cal Poly, San Luis Obispo. When he's not snowboarding, he's writing about or researching physics, astronautics, or science policy.... Read More »

In physics classes, we are all taught that the acceleration due to gravity on Earth is 9.8 meters/second2. For the purpose of basic physics education, this value is fine - it represents the average value of the gravitational attraction every object experiences at sea level, and is always directed straight down toward the center of the planet. However, the actual gravitational attraction an object experiences is influenced by the presence of irregularities in the shape of the Earth, the non-uniform distribution of mass beneath the crust, and even large buildings.
When most of us, especially in the SB community, think of supercomputers we usually think of large-scale hydrodynamics or fusion reaction simulations which stretch our knowledge of the universe and provide us with a validation or a denial or of some complicated physical theory.

Indeed, this is what most supercomputers are up to: simulating climate change, the structure of proteins, or the dynamics of a supernova, while producing awesome pictures like this one:

An awesome picture of the ascending Space Shuttle and the pressure coefficients of the outside. Photo Credit: NASA Advanced Supercomputing Facility
If you've ever been to a windy beach or a snow-blown landscape, you may have noticed a useless-looking fence with a pile of snow or sand on one side. The fence looks useless because it's full of holes - they're usually about 50% porous - and you might wonder what on earth they could be meant to control. It turns out that in windy conditions such a fence can cause a buildup of snow (or sand) on the downwind side, and that these fences are commonly used to prevent snowdrift across roadways as well as provide a measure of control over where snow or sand might build up.
It's been nearly thirty years since the last application for construction of a nuclear power plant was filed in the United States. Despite the age of the reactors already operating, however, the amount of our power generated using nuclear sources is second only to coal. The energy generated by nuclear plants is also increasing steadily, as delays in refueling shorten and reactors operate for longer periods of time. However, there are still numerous environmental concerns regarding the waste products generated by American nuclear reactors - by 2010, the total amount of dangerous waste will exceed 77,000 tons. Now, researchers have found a way to reprocess that waste using new technology while still generating power.
Cryptography isn't just for spies anymore - it's absolutely everywhere around us. Every time we use an ATM or buy something online we are sending data that we hope isn't intercepted on its way, because that would mean our finances were at risk. Additionally, corporations and the government have an interest in securing communications within their organizations and with other companies or governments so that information doesn't fall into the wrong hands.

How do these large organizations keep malicious people (commonly called "adversaries" in cryptology circles) from intercepting and reading their messages?
Half a mile underground is probably the last place you might expect to be able to observe atmospheric phenomena. If you knew about the MINOS experiment, however, you might think otherwise. MINOS, which stands for Main Injector Neutrino Oscillation Search, was built to detect particles originating far away but of terrestrial origin.

Recently, researchers have noticed that the detectors at MINOS occasionally detect particles from the atmosphere, and that these detections correlate with weather patterns in the high atmosphere.