Trapping A Proton, The Speed of A Muscle, And Switching Attention

6:58 minutes

mount agung eruption
The Mount Agung eruption. Credit: I Gusti Bagus Sudiantara/Flickr/CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

This week in Bali, the volcano Mount Agung began to erupt again, causing authorities there to evacuate over a hundred thousand people from the Indonesian island. Amy Nordrum of IEEE Spectrum joins Ira to give an update on the eruption, and to look at some of the week’s other stories in science.   

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They also talk about efforts to get a more precise measurement of the magnetic properties of protons, a new analysis showing an upper speed limit on the movement of fast muscles, and a 200-millisecond moment of “blindness” in the visual cortices of monkeys switching attention from one task to another.

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Segment Guests

Amy Nordrum

Amy Nordrum is an executive editor at MIT Technology Review. Previously, she was News Editor at IEEE Spectrum in New York City.

Segment Transcript

IRA FLATOW: I’m Ira Flatow. Later in the hour– does the internet need regulation to be the open, decentralized superhighway we’ve grown to rely on for basically everything? But first– this week in Bali, the volcano Mount Agung– I hope I’m saying that right– began to erupt again, and authorities there have evacuated over 100,000 people from the Indonesian island.

And here with the details– and other selected short subjects in science– this week is Amy Nordrum. She’s the news editor at the IEEE Spectrum here in New York. Good to see you again, Amy.

AMY NORDRUM: Thanks, Ira.

IRA FLATOW: Tell me about this volcano.

AMY NORDRUM: Yeah, Mount Agung is currently erupting in Bali. It has been erupting all week, in fact. And basically, volcanologists don’t really know what to expect from this.

It could continue to erupt, and it could potentially get much worse– even possibly so powerful as to temporarily cool the global climate, at least for a couple of years. It could dip temperatures by about a tenth of a degree to 0.2 degrees Celsius worldwide for the next one to two years if it continues to increase in its eruption intensity.

IRA FLATOW: Wow, can you see it online? Can you actually watch it?

AMY NORDRUM: You can see it. There’s livestreams, I mean, it’s– many people have been evacuated from the nearby area. Like you said, over 100,000 people have been evacuated.

The volcano is very dangerous, as well. I mean, it’s a very popular island. Many people live there, as well as a lot of international tourists are visiting. And depending on how close you are, the hazards can be quite different.

So if you’re very close, you could run into these very powerful pyroclastic flows, which are basically clouds of hot gas that destroy almost anything in their path. And if you’re a little bit further away, you can be impacted by what are called lahars, which are these big mudflows of volcanic rock that are coming down the side of the volcano, and those can stretch out almost 100 kilometers.

IRA FLATOW: And that’s a part of the world where there are lots of activity, right? The planet’s moving around down there.

AMY NORDRUM: Exactly, Indonesia’s part of the Ring of Fire. There is more than 100 volcanoes in the country, and about 20 or 30 of those are active at any given time. So it’s not uncommon for a volcano to be acting up there.

And the volcanologists in Indonesia are extremely experienced, and so are the authorities. But this one is in a very popular area, and it’s a very powerful volcano. So we’ll have to be watching it to see what happens.

IRA FLATOW: I know another thing that you’ve been watching this week that’s very exciting is proton news. Tell us why physicists are so excited about this.

AMY NORDRUM: Absolutely. This week, some physicists announced that they were able to measure the magnetic properties of protons more precisely than ever before. So they increased the precision of their measurements by a factor of 11, so now it stretches out to about 11 decimal places.

And this is interesting– first, because of the way that they had to do it. They have to actually trap individual protons. Create a trap with electrical and magnetic fields. Hold it in place, and then be able to measure it in order to do that.

And then it’s useful because by comparing it to the measurements of anti-protons– which are this other parallel entity based on the standard model of physics that we’re expecting to exist in the universe– we can compare the measurements of those two and see if they align. And based on the standard model, they should. And so far, as far as we can measure the precision of these magnetic protons, then we’re able to verify that that’s the case and still existing.

IRA FLATOW: Being a big geek, I want to know the exact way you can actually hold a proton. How do you trap it and hold it?

AMY NORDRUM: Right. So it involves, actually, an electron beam. So they basically have this electron gun. They shoot a beam at this piece of material. It blows these protons out of position. The trap that they’ve created with these electrical and magnetic fields can trap an individual proton.

The trap actually exists of two separate traps. One is meant to measure the spin of the proton. The other one measures other properties. And based on the two together, they can figure out what’s called this magnetic moment of the proton that they’re looking for.

IRA FLATOW: I can’t buy one of those at RadioShack anymore.

AMY NORDRUM: No, it’s quite involved. The isolation– it only takes about 15 minutes to trap on proton.

IRA FLATOW: Is that right?


IRA FLATOW: Wow, two for a half hour.


IRA FLATOW: Let’s move on, because there’s news this week about how fast muscles can move. Exciting!

AMY NORDRUM: Yeah, so certain animals have these really fast muscles, and they use them for different purposes. So you can think about a rattlesnake shaking its rattle, or you could think about a hummingbird flying around, flapping its wings. A new study out this week has taken a look across the animal kingdom and tried to look at all these, what’s called, super-fast muscles and decide if there’s some fundamental limit to how fast a muscle can move.

And it seems that there is. All the fastest of the fastest muscles top out at about 250 movements per second, so that seems to be the most that we can really– the fastest that we can actually get a muscle to move. And this is interesting, because songbirds, for example, can actually train their muscles to move faster over time.

And usually, when you think about building something in a muscle, it’s strength, but songbirds are actually able to build speed. So maybe by studying this closer, we can figure out how that works and what that mechanism is for making their muscles move so quickly.

IRA FLATOW: So what muscle moves at 250 times a second?

AMY NORDRUM: The songbirds that vocalize their songs, they’re using these muscles. The bats that use it for echolocation, and even fish actually have some really fast muscles that they use to produce these hums that they use during their mating calls.

IRA FLATOW: Wow. You know, you know everything. Let’s turn from fast muscles to fast brain activity. Our attention spans, or what’s going on there?

AMY NORDRUM: Right, yeah. Some researchers at Vanderbilt University who are studying macaques, which is a type of monkey– and they were interested in how these monkeys pay attention to different things and what happens when they shift their attention. They noticed something really strange.

They noticed that in their brain scans, the neurons in the visual cortexes of these monkeys just stopped firing when they were switching attention from one test to another, for about 200 milliseconds.

IRA FLATOW: That’s a pretty long time– I mean, considering, isn’t it?

AMY NORDRUM: Right, and so it basically means that these monkeys are going temporarily blind when they’re re-focusing their attention. And it’s not as if they notice it, but it is– like you said– it’s not insignificant amount of time.

And a similar phenomenon has actually been observed in humans. And so when we shift our attention from one task to another, it seems like a similar thing– known as attentional blink– also happens.

IRA FLATOW: So actually, this explains why we’re really not that good at multitasking– even though we may think we are.

AMY NORDRUM: Absolutely, yes. There is a cost to multitasking. And this is the classic situation– when you think about texting and driving– I mean, how much can really happen? You’re just glancing down for a second, but actually, a lot can happen in that time. And it’s really interesting to think about the fact that you can actually go into a state of temporary blindness but really not notice it.

IRA FLATOW: Always good to have you.

AMY NORDRUM: Thanks, Ira.

IRA FLATOW: Thanks for coming on. Amy Nordrum, News Editor at the IEEE Spectrum, here in New York.

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