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Golden Scholars: Berkeley researchers set record for smallest force measured and turn to monkeys to understand why we like alcohol

Berkeley professors ponder the evolutionary basis for drinking alcohol and make a record-setting microscopic measurement.

This monkey must have had plenty of reason to start drinking.
This monkey must have had plenty of reason to start drinking.
Rusty Jarrett

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Following last week's news on RadWatch, we see Professor Peter Hosemann doing more work on public knowledge of radiation, using it to date wine.

Remember Solomon Hsiang's work with modeling climate phenomenon and societal effects and conflicts? Well, he's in the news again for predicting scenarios of changes in mortality, labor productivity, and the economy based on climate change.

Shots shots shotsshotsshots!

Two weeks ago, we tried to understand why people have sex. Such a mystery! This week, we'll try to understand the perplexing conundrum of why people drink alcohol. Away we science!

The only way to understand this phenomenon is to look to evolution with Professor Robert Dudley. Dudley believes that because the sugars in fruit can ferment into alcohol, it may have served as an indicator or pull factor to draw our monkey ancestors towards ripened fruits.

I hypothesize that social facilitation of communication and food sharing and all these bright warm fuzzy feelings we get when we have a drink have basically evolved to facilitate rapid identification of fruit at a distance - you smell a plume, go upwind, and you get to the fruit. Fruit flies do it, we just don't know if primates do or not. But they might. And once you get the fruit, you consume as much as possible before others do, or you share it with your close relatives, which is a well-documented behavior. The positive psychoactive effects of alcohol may simply exist to enhance the efficacy of these behaviors and, ultimately, they are the targets of natural selection.

And while this is not Dudley's area of expertise, he is considering the societal implications of alcohol and battling alcoholism.

I am not a clinician or a social scientist, but one thing is clear: by placing alcoholism in the broader context of diseases of nutritional excess, whatever works to fix diabetes and obesity incidence might be relevant. The only solutions that are going to be effective are ones that regulate supply, since we can't change demand. Look at cigarettes, which represent one of the greatest public health triumphs in the United States. Nicotine is the only addictive substance we have succeeded in controlling by limiting the supply. They did a lot of public informational stuff, but most of this success came from increasing the price and making smoking socially unacceptable.

Berkeley sets a new record

Researchers at UC Berkeley and LBNL have set a record for smallest force ever measured and they did it in a lab, not on someone's wedding night. (Link is down for now, but hopefully that's only temporary; try this one.)

To frame this story, let me remind you that force is some external phenomenon that acts on a body of mass, typically causing a change in location or velocity. The classic example of a force in physics is pushing an object or gravity pulling a body of mass downward. The standard unit used to measure force is the newton (N), named after the famed dessert-maker Fig Newton. 1 N is roughly the weight of a delicious quarter-pound hamburger patty (Sorry vegetarians, but not sorry and sorry I'm not sorry to vegans.) or a medium-ish apple on the planet Earth. (For people a little rusty on physics, let me remind you that weight varies by planet based on its gravity.)

Okay, just a little more background. Just like the prefix "milli" means there are 103 = 10 x 10 x 10 = 1000 millimeters in 1 meter, the prefix "yocto" means there are 1024 = 1-followed-by-24-zeros = 1 poo-poo load of yoctonewtons in 1 newton. These Berkeley researchers, led by Professor Dan Stamper-Kurn, measured a force of 42 yoctonewtons. To give you an idea of just how small this is, know that the "yocto" is currently the smallest existing prefix in science1024 is such a huge scale that the mass of every ocean is over 1024 grams.

This measurement is only four times greater than the most sensitive measurement possible, the Standard Quantum Limit (SQL). Of course, these researchers aren't even celebrating this achievement much, instead thinking about how to make an even smaller measurement for their next study.

While this is certainly impressive, though, it's likely that it's possible to get even closer to the SQL for force sensitivity. In theory, a combination of colder atoms and improved optical detection efficiency should allow researchers to detect an even smaller force. This could mean that, eventually, physicists may be able to measure the SQL itself-or at least very close to it.

"A scientific paper in 1980 predicted that SQL might be reached within five years," said Sydney Schreppler, one of the researchers. "It took about 30 years longer than predicted, but we now have an experiment set-up capable both of reaching very close to the SQL and of showing the onset of different kinds of obscuring noise away from that SQL."

These smaller and smaller measurements will help improve technology in microscopy and test the intersection between Newtonian and quantum physics.