Jalopnik Science Articles

Every once in a while I write about physics stuff for a site that's all about cars.

I’m a sucker for talking about science in places where you might not expect it. Jalopnik is one of those places. It’s the Gawker blog that’s all about cars. You’d expect a lot of science in io9 or Gizmodo, but Jalopnik?

There’s a lot of science involved in cars, from how they’re constructed to how they’re driven. And that’s before we get to crazier car-esque transportation ideas like Elon Musk’s Hyperloop proposal. Besides, plenty of people are interested in both science and cars.

Here are some of my favorite things I’ve gotten to write for them.

Headlights slow your car downBecause light has momentum, turning on your headlights slows you down. It’s like having tiny rockets on the front of your car with the exhaust pointing forward. But how much do your lights slow you down? It turns out that’s a hard question to answer without testing actual headlights, but I do my best hand-waving to figure out that the acceleration due to your headlights will get you from 0 to 60 miles per hour in a quick 20,000 years or so.

Spoilers! Car spoilers work in parth by disrupting laminar flowOnce upon a time, Neil deGrasse Tyson tweeted that, if you drove faster than 165 miles per hour around the turns on the Charlotte Motor Speedway, you’d skid off the track. There’s only one problem: plenty of cars have taken the Charlotte curves at 180 MPH and faster. How’d Tyson get that wrong? I tried to re-create his math, got close to his result, and then explained why my simplistic physics model was all wrong. And I know you won’t believe me about this, but seriously, read the comments on this one. Several people took issue with me describing airplane wings as “throwing air down” to push the airplane up. Pretty soon people busted out Bernoulli’s explanation of pressure, showed mass flow simulations of a car spoiler working by disrupting air flow, and more.

the EM driveEvery once in a while, the EmDrive pops back up in the news. Its makers claim that the EmDrive can push satellites and other spacecraft around without needing to burn fuel. It’s…well, it’s highly speculative. NASA’s put it through some tests with inconclusive results, but a lot of blogs and news outlets announced NASA’s tests with headlines like “NASA Shows ‘Impossible Engine’ Works!”

Not Jalopnik, though. They reached out to several of us science types to ask, “Okay, what’s going on here.” I ended up explaining why the “Impossible Drive” probably is impossible.

Honday FitWhen I bought my Honda Fit, I noticed that rolling down the back windows but keeping the front windows up caused this loud “WHUM WHUM” noise and accompanying pressure wave that made me feel like my head was being rhythmically squeezed. I grumbled about it a lot but didn’t actually figure out what was going on until Jason Torchinsky asked me to write something about it. What I found was a story of resonance, the quest for better gas mileage, and UK aeroplanes.

Concept sketch of Elon Musk's proposed HyperloopElon Musk’s Hyperloop proposal caught a lot of people’s attention. A train that moved through an airless tube like the container at a bank drive-through kiosk? And that could get you from LA to San Francisco in about half an hour?

It’s a super cool concept, but as I explained at Jalopnik, anyone who wants to build one will face both engineering and regulatory challenges.