Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Questions for Young-Earth Creationists

Last Wednesday, Kentucky Governor Steven Beshear announced that millions of dollars in taxpayer funds will be going to Ark Encounter, a planned Christian creationist attraction similar in theme to the infamous Creation Museum (also in Kentucky).  Both attractions are sponsored by Answers in Genesis, a particularly zealous creationist group that adheres to a Young-Earth cosmology as part of their belief in a literal interpretation of the Bible.  According to their beliefs, the Earth and the heavens are somewhere in the vicinity of 6,000 years old.

As you would imagine, this has sparked the usual debate over separation of church and state, and of course I'm inclined to agree with those who really don't want their money going towards such things.  But the Governor seems to have mostly diffused the controversy on economic grounds, noting that the attraction will generate millions in tax revenue and create hundreds of jobs.

In light of this rejuvenated debate, I thought it might be a great time to present my Questions for Young-Earth Creationists, which I promised several months ago.  Here goes:

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Happy Thanksgiving!

Here's wishing you and yours a very happy, safe and relaxing Thanksgiving. We are truly fortunate to live in this time, when we as a species are coming to know the wonders of the universe for the first time in the history of our planet.

Above, a special greeting from crew members aboard the ISS.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

A One-Way Trip To Mars?

Every now and then there is a flurry of news stories about a mission to Mars and what it might look like.  A few scientists, or a former astronaut perhaps, will come out with an opinion and the debate is rejuvenated in the mainstream media for a couple of news cycles.  Well, yesterday seemed like one of those times, with another suggestion that perhaps we ought to send astronauts on a one-way trip to the Red Planet, so that they could build a small colony and live out the rest of their days as the first pioneers on that barren world.  (Make sure you also check out this article from New Scientist on the major obstacles that will complicate any Mars mission plans for the foreseeable future). 

A one-way trip to Mars is a provocative suggestion.  It's certainly an unsettling prospect, but it's also quite imaginative.  And of course there is some basis in history for making such an uncertain voyage: when the first settlers of the New World crossed the Atlantic, they had no more than a dim notion of what to expect when they reached their destination, and a return to Europe was hardly assured.  The vast expanses of ocean were about as immense and inhospitable to them as interplanetary space is to us today.  And then as now, there was no hope of rescue in the event of a catastrophe.  Still, there are some problems with this analogy -- the colonists of the 15th, 16th and 17th centuries could expect there would be fresh water, flora and fauna of some kind when they landed.  Life would be rough, but they would be able to live off the land sooner or later.

Though Mars is by far the most clement world in the Solar System aside from our own, it is hardly hospitable.  The atmosphere is only about 1% as thick as the Earth's, and at its warmest Mars is still very cold.  Mars also lacks a magnetosphere, which means dangerous radiation from the Sun is not deflected from the surface as it is on Earth (the astronauts would also have to deal with hazardous radiation on the journey itself, though perhaps their ship will be equipped with a prototype artificial magnetosphere).  And liquid water on Mars' surface is impossible.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

The World Carl Would See

"For the first time we have the power to decide the fate of our planet and ourselves.  This is a time of great danger.  But our species is young and curious and brave.  It shows much promise."

Carl Sagan would have been 76 years old today, and boy do I wish he were still around.  

The world has seen such astonishing scientific and technological breakthroughs since his death in 1996, and he would have loved to see them. With our telescopes and our spacecraft we have seen farther into the depths of space than ever before, and for the first time we are coming to know a host of new worlds orbiting neighboring suns.  We have witnessed extraordinary achievements in medicine, including the isolation of embryonic stem cells and the mapping of the human genome.  Meanwhile, personal computers have become powerful enough so that anyone can explore the Solar System from home.  The evolution of the internet has put once-arcane scientific knowledge at the fingertips of anyone who seeks it, and it has allowed citizen scientists from all over the world to work on cutting-edge projects in astronomy.  As a species, thanks to advances in telecommunications, we are interconnected as never before, and that has given rise to an awesome array of new phenomena and new challenges.

Among the many advances in the fourteen years since his passing, perhaps nothing would have thrilled Dr. Sagan as much as the search for exoplanets. A handful of planets had been discovered in the last few years of his life, but the explosion of new discoveries -- almost 500 confirmed extrasolar planets to date -- has just occurred in the last decade or so. As new technology comes online, that count is likely to expand dramatically, and we will come to find planets that are more and more Earth-like. The discovery of these small, rocky planets, and most recently the possible discovery of a potentially habitable world, gives us new hope that our galaxy may be brimming with life, that we are not as alone as we feel in the vast expanses of the Universe. We know that we may be centuries away from setting eyes on the unknown wonders beyond our Solar System, but we can dream about the future and ponder the fate of our species.

It's easy to imagine Sagan's enthusiasm for our more local projects, as well. Since his death, three stunningly successful rovers have explored the surface of Mars, and they have returned breathtaking images of its desolate landscape. The Cassini mission, likewise, has given us incredible new pictures of Saturn and its moons. As we speak, the New Horizons spacecraft is zooming away from the Sun for a 2015 rendezvous with Pluto, where it will send us the first ever close-up photographs of that frozen world. The Japanese space program has recently demonstrated the viability of the Solar Sail. And Sagan would have been delighted to know that the twin Voyager spacecraft, now in their 33rd year of operation, are still dutifully calling home from the far reaches of the Solar System, and providing us with valuable data from the edge of the heliosphere.

But these last several years have also been trying times in the country and the world, and Sagan's voice would have been a welcome one in the mix. Through the uncertainty of the Cold War, with the threat of nuclear holocaust constantly on the horizon, he was a champion of peace and reason, and through science he showed us the grandeur of the cosmos and the ultimate pettiness of our worldly squabbles. He taught a healthy skepticism for authority, and a commitment to pursuing the truth no matter where it might lead.  We could use a refresher course in these areas.  Today, as global temperatures continue to rise more or less unchecked, and climate scientists are under attack from conservative ideologues, we need strong advocates for science, and Sagan may have been as good as they come. In this time of religious zealotry, birthers and death panels, Sagan would have reminded us to use our Baloney Detection Kit.

In the wake of a tough election, and the ascendancy of an anti-science majority in Congress, it's easy to embrace a bleak outlook on the future.  But perhaps what was most compelling about Sagan's work was his optimism.  Our future is by no means assured, but we have it within us to transform the world.  If we can protect the planet and confront extremism in any form, we may yet avoid self-destruction.  And one day, perhaps, we may venture to the stars.

And now, another look at one of my favorite videos - Sagan's Pale Blue Dot:

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Climate Change and the GOP

Tomorrow, when the sideshow lunacy of campaign season begins to subside, we will face a new political reality that will dominate the next two years.  By every indicator, Republicans are poised to take control of the House, and perhaps the Senate.  It's possible that Republicans with their new responsibility will try to forge a partnership with the President and govern from the center.  But if the last two years are any guide, we are more likely to see a new level of stagnation, a political stalemate where Congress refuses to take up any of the President's initiatives and the President vetoes everything that comes down the pipes from Congress.  Sounds like a mess.

Party platforms encompass a whole range of issues -- the economy, the budget, and international relations, for instance -- on which reasonable people can disagree.  But a troubling feature of the 2010 political landscape is that there is another stark dividing line between the two major parties.  One side believes in science, the other does not.  Consider this: every single Republican senate candidate this year doubts or denies that humans are responsible for global warming

It wasn't long ago that moderate Republicans like John McCain and Lindsey Graham were willing to break with their party and work on climate change legislation.  Of course they differed with Democrats in the way the legislation should be written, but they genuinely wanted to stop global warming.  But it appears those days are over, at least for now.  It's not that these moderate Republicans have changed their minds on the issue, but that they face enormous pressure from the right to conform with far right ideology.  Any Republican who isn't sufficiently conservative risks a challenge from the right, and as we've seen this year, those challenges have been stunningly successful.

Meanwhile, the science on this issue is unambiguous.  But remarkably, public opinion in the United States has been going in the wrong direction.  A recent Rasmussen poll found that only 39% of Americans believe human activities like burning fossil fuels are chiefly to blame for climate change.  More Americans believe long-term natural trends are causing global warming.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

The Imperative of Asteroid Defense

The aftermath of the Tunguska Event, an impact from space in central Siberia.
Check out this Op-Ed in today's New York Times from Russell Schweickart, former astronaut and co-chair of the Task Force on Planetary Defense.

Asteroid defense is a subject that doesn't get nearly enough attention.  Of course we don't want to alarm people, but at the same time, maybe people need to be a little more alarmed!  That may be the only way to really see some action on this front.

When you think about it, it's sort of surprising that we don't devote more energy to asteroid defense.  We actively scan the skies for near-Earth objects, but in terms of actually deflecting an asteroid from a collision, our plans at this point are only theoretical.  It's surprising because it seems like we should be able to get everyone on board with this mission.  For some people, space exploration is seen as an esoteric endeavor, lacking practical purpose.  But what could be more practical than defending the planet from a clear and present danger?  To me, asteroid defense should be much easier to rationalize than studying the geology of the Moon or sending astronauts to Mars. 

The problem is that this is an issue that sounds fanciful.  We've all seen Armageddon.  You start talking about preventing an asteroid collision and everyone thinks about Bruce Willis flying up there to blow it up, with Aerosmith providing the soundtrack.

But we all know what happened to the dinosaurs.  What's so far-fetched about an asteroid collision? 

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

"Teach the Controversy" - The Treacherous Lingo of Crypto-Creationists

The New Scientist gives us this brief update on the state of Intelligent Design in our schools today.

Creationists and proponents of Intelligent Design love to use tricky language.  One of their favorites lines is, "teach the controversy," a seemingly moderate and innocuous statement that drips with anti-science subtext.  The idea is to attack science on its own terms.  By suggesting that there is some sort of cover-up conspiracy to teach evolution and hide its flaws, it calls into question the scientific integrity of everyone in the field who subscribes to it.  Science, of course, is committed to an unbiased airing of all the facts, and letting those facts speak for themselves.  And only when all the facts are available can we draw an informed conclusion. 

Here's the problem: Creationism at its core is not based on facts, it's based on theology.  And when it comes to science, "for the Bible tells me so" just doesn't pass muster.

Now, Charles Darwin devoted pages and pages in The Origin of Species to discussing problems with his theory of evolution by natural selection.  He even conceded that some of the problems were serious threats to the whole idea.  Of course, many of these problems have since been resolved, but there remain some questions (Darwin writes at length about the gaps in the fossil record, for example -- a favorite talking point for creationists today).  Just because there are questions about a theory does not mean the theory is unproved, however.  For instance, we still have questions about the nature of gravity.  We know how it works in the everyday sense; we know how to calculate trajectories for spacecraft and planets; we know about stellar and galactic formation, including the creation of black holes; and we know how gravity can actually bend light.  But we do not know exactly what happens inside a black hole, and we have yet to reconcile the gravitational force with the other known forces of the universe in a unified field theory.  These are questions for the years to come.  But obviously, no one is questioning the fundamental concept of gravity.  That's probably because it's not considered a serious threat to the existence of God, though it's fun to imagine the wacky beliefs that might be held by non-gravitationalists. 

The problem we face today is not that the creationists want the real unresolved questions of life and evolution to be discussed in class, but that they want their own scientifically unsound complaints to be given equal weight in the science classroom.  Abiogenesis, the study of life's origin on Earth, is still very much an open question.  The gaps in the fossil record, though there is a reasonable explanation for them, deserve to be mentioned in the science classroom, in the proper context.  But irreducible complexity, another favorite talking point for creationists, has been shown to be erroneous time and time again.  For the uninformed, irreducible complexity may sound like a powerful argument, but when we look at the diversity of life on Earth there is plenty of evidence to contradict it. 

These science-deniers, like Republican senate candidate Christine O'Donnell, whose statements on this subject have drawn much publicity in the last several weeks, believe that evolution is a myth.  In their view, presumably, evolution by natural selection was cooked up by Darwin as a thought experiment, wholly unsubstantiated by evidence.  For the past 150 years, they must believe, scientists have blindly held up this single work as unassailable doctrine.  They believe there is no evidence because they have not seen or read about it, or they choose to ignore it.  This being the case, why should these people be dictating the material taught in science classrooms? 

We return to "teach the controversy."  I'm all for teaching the controversy -- in a history class, or in a US government class.  Every student should learn about The Scopes Trial, and the fight over creationism in schools today is certainly worthy of discussion in social studies classes.  But pseudoscience has no place in a science classroom.

In science, we cannot simply make up causes for phenomena in nature.  We can hypothesize, but every hypothesis has to be tested if it is to be given any merit.  Sometimes there is more than one hypothesis that, based on the facts, could adequately explain something in nature, and in those cases the question remains open, waiting for more evidence.  But when we don't understand something, we cannot just give up and say a magician in the sky is responsible.  Science would get nowhere if we did that.  And in spite of their opposition to science, I would bet the creationists enjoy some of the comforts science has provided them.  For example, I'm sure they care about what the weather will be like today, and their local meteorologist is there to help them decide whether they need to take an umbrella.  But what if we thought the rain was just God crying?  And thunderstorms meant God was angry?  If we resigned ourselves to such thinking, we would be unlikely to decode the complexity of our atmospheric patterns.  Unscientific explanations like these provide us with nothing useful, and they can stand in the way of really useful scientific discoveries. 

Creationists tend to think that science is out to prove that God does not exist.  While that is certainly true for some scientists, it is not what science is about at its foundation.  Indeed, few of us would be dismayed to learn that the benevolent God of the New Testament really exists, and that we are all destined for paradise after we die.  And few of us want to prove God doesn't exist so that we can go live hedonistic lifestyles.  Science is merely a tool for understanding the knowable world.  But it's a precious tool, a vital tool, and we must defend it from the corruption of transient ideology.

Update: Listen to this nonsense from Glenn Beck's radio show on October 20th:

And now, enjoy this classic Richard Dawkins showdown, in seven parts:

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Sticks or Carrots? - The Way Forward on Clean Energy

Check out this article from David Leonhardt at the New York Times, examining the pros and cons of Cap and Trade legislation and the benefits of increased funding for clean energy research.  It's worth reading.

Cap and Trade, which at one time was the climate change compromise plan of prominent Republicans like John McCain, failed to get through Congress this year.  But as Leonhardt points out, the defeat is not the end of the road for climate change mitigation.  If anything, it's a chance to start again on a more popular and possibly more effective approach.  Had it passed, Leonhardt says, the Cap and Trade plan might not have been as successful as had been suggested, since it does little to curb the carbon emissions of other nations like China, India, and other developing countries with a growing appetite for cheap (dirty) fuel.  Also, compromises might have made the bill weak to the point that major carbon polluters would be able to cut down on emissions simply by improving efficiency rather than transitioning to new technologies, which means clean energy sources like wind and solar power wouldn't get much of a leg up.  So while the idea was to work within the market to promote a change in our energy economy -- an idea that should appeal to free market conservatives -- the results might have been disappointing, and insufficient.

A new proposal, released jointly from the conservative American Enterprise Institute and the progressive Brookings Institution, calls for an increase in annual federal investment for clean energy research to the tune of $25 billion, up from only $4 billion a year now.  A key aspect of the new plan would stipulate that the money only go to programs that are actually reducing the cost of clean energy alternatives.  That's important, because we can't realistically expect individuals, companies or other countries to spend much more than their neighbors on clean energy sources just because they want to do their part to help the environment.  Many of us want to do our part, but we can't all spend tens of thousands of dollars rigging our houses with solar panels, or $40,000 on the new Chevy Volt.  

If the technology can be produced and consumed at competitive prices, though, everything changes.

Friday, October 8, 2010

Another Amateur Space Balloon! Amazing Footage!

A few months ago I posted a great video from a homemade weather balloon that went 24 miles high.  That one's got a pretty feel-good soundtrack and some nice stop motion work, and they captured some wonderful images.  But they were mainly just stills, taken with a pair of second hand digital cameras.

Well, I think this video may top that one.  Back in August, a father and son from Brooklyn sent up their own weather balloon, equipped with an HD camcorder and GPS.  The footage they got is just fantastic.  Take a look:

Homemade Spacecraft from Luke Geissbuhler on Vimeo.

My favorite moment is the popping of the balloon, around 19 miles high (at that height they estimate its diameter to be more than 18 feet!), and the tumble back towards Earth.  What a spectacular view!  This is what Felix Baumgartner will be seeing as he makes his supersonic freefall from the edge of space. 

Follow on twitter!

Thursday, October 7, 2010

New Poll, and Twitter Page!

Our last poll was wildly successful.  So let's do it again!  If you could fly only one mission to look for life in our Solar System, where would you send it?  I've listed some good places to look, but if your choice is not listed, vote for 'other' and leave your choice in the comments section of this post.  (The poll is on the right side of this page).

Also, I've decided to try out twitter.  I'm a novice, so forgive me if I don't follow protocol right away.  But if you're into this whole twitter thing, follow me!  I promise to get better at it.

Friday, October 1, 2010

Excitement for the First 'Goldilocks' Exoplanet

If you were online yesterday, you probably saw the big news in exoplanetology: astronomers have announced that they have found the first rocky exoplanet that orbits its star in the Habitable Zone, the narrow band of space where it's possible for liquid water to exist on the surface of a planet.  This zone is affectionately known as the Goldilocks Zone, because it is neither too hot nor too cold... it's just right.

Exoplanetology is such a young field that we get to experience new "firsts" all the time.  It certainly is an exciting time in astronomy.  There was the first exoplanet discovered, then the first rocky planet discovered, then the first planet to be photographed, then the first planet to have been discovered with photography.  Now we have a new one: the first planet that could be habitable.

("Habitable" in this case just refers to the planet's rocky composition and its potential for liquid water.  On Earth, of course, it takes more than just water to keep us alive.  Extraterrestrial life, if it is very different from life on Earth, could have radically different requirements for survival.  Planets where liquid water is possible are good places to start looking, but we should be careful not to conflate this potential for liquid water with being Earth-like in the general sense, i.e. a place where humans could live comfortably). 

Gliese 581g's existence has yet to be confirmed by other astronomers, but it is thought to be about 3 to 4 times the mass of Earth, and probably about 1.3 to 2 times as large.  Its surface gravity would be somewhere between 1.1 and 1.7 times that of the Earth, which would be enough to sustain some kind of atmosphere.  It orbits a dim red dwarf star, which puts out much less energy than our own Sun.  But it orbits much closer, with an orbital period of only 37 days, so the energy output of the star is sufficient to allow for liquid water on the surface.  Average temperatures have been estimated to be in the range of -84 to -49 degrees Fahrenheit, but since the planet is tidally locked, with one side permanently facing the star and the other side in permanent shadow, temperatures may range from extremely cold to scorching hot.  Much will depend on the nature of its atmosphere... if it has an atmosphere.  Astronomers have suggested that life could find a happy medium temperature somewhere near the terminator, where light meets darkness.  But an atmosphere of sufficient thickness and appropriate composition could be capable of distributing the heat more evenly about the planet, warming the dark regions.

Amusingly, the media always manages to distort discoveries like these, and yesterday was no exception.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Druyan, Breitbart, and the Persistence of Climate Change Misinformation

Last night, while I was watching Real Time with Bill Maher, I was pleased to see his round table included Ann Druyan, widow of Carl Sagan and collaborator on several of his projects.  She and Sagan were responsible for the Golden Record aboard the Voyager spacecraft, carrying the sounds of the Earth beyond our Solar System.  She also co-wrote two books with Sagan -- Comet and Shadows of our Forgotten Ancestors -- and contributed to parts of a third, The Demon-Haunted World.  Druyan worked with her husband on the monumental PBS series Cosmos, and these days she is president of the Board of Directors for the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML).

The other participants in the round table discussion were Family Guy creator Seth McFarlane, conservative radio host Amy Holmes, and the nearly-intolerable Andrew Breitbart.

As the conversation came around to climate change, Breitbart let loose with the now-debunked criticism of the scientists at the University of East Anglia, site of the so-called "Climategate" scandal.  Unfortunately, it seemed like Ann Druyan was not quite prepared to start barking at Breitbart to refute his claims, so the dogmatic right-winger got away mostly unscathed.  She is, of course, eminently capable of having the argument, but it's not so easy fighting an attack dog on national television... especially on a comedy show.  Perhaps she might have said something like this, had she ample breathing room to get it out of her mouth:

Friday, September 24, 2010

The Private Sector in Space

Check out this rundown of the burgeoning companies who want to get in on the private space industry, courtesy of NBC.  

President Obama's plan for the future of NASA has been controversial, to say the least.  Amazingly, his plan has received considerable attention in the media, and it seems like just about everyone -- informed and uninformed alike -- has weighed in.  I say 'amazingly' because by and the large the American public, or at least the powers that be, really haven't seemed to care much about our manned spaceflight since 1972, except when there has been a tragedy.  True, we like seeing our astronauts wave hello to the Colbert Nation, or wave hello to a classroom of school kids, or wave hello to Wolf Blitzer.  But the enthusiasm and can-do optimism that carried men to the Moon largely evaporated in the wake of the Moon race, and has never really come back. 

It may have been inevitable.  The public interest waned, Mars was considerably more difficult to reach, and maintaining expenditures at the level of the 1960s was impossible to justify.  There was really no need to keep pushing a manned project of that magnitude, anyway, now that we had beaten the Russians to the Moon.  But we knew the Soviets were working on space stations for the purpose of spying on the United States, so yet again our space ambitions were tempered, or driven, by our national security interests.  We put up Skylab with the leftover parts from the Apollo program, and Nixon authorized construction of the Space Shuttle.  And now, almost forty years later, we're still hanging out exclusively in Earth's orbital parking lot.  It's funny how time flies.

Manned spaceflight today, shuttling to and from low-Earth orbit, is not exactly routine.  But it is in the minds of most Americans.  Which is why I was somewhat puzzled by all the negative reactions to President Obama's plan.  (Curiously, the critics of the President's plan have not advocated a dramatic increase in NASA's budget, which might preclude the need for a shuffling of priorities).  

There are several facets to the plan, of course.  Part of it calls for more money to go to unmanned science missions... the kinds of missions that have shown us some of the most dazzling sights of our solar system, and revealed all kinds of wonders in the depths of interstellar and intergalactic space.  Part of it calls for building a spacecraft that can take us much deeper into space, to land astronauts on an asteroid (an unimaginable journey!), and then on to Mars.  But the part that has been most controversial is the plan to farm out these "routine" orbital missions to private companies.

The apprehension is understandable, but it's not necessarily warranted.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Racing for the Supersonic Space Jump

Be sure to check out this fantastic piece from The Guardian which is, I think, the best profile I've read on the Red Bull Stratos project.  As we've discussed a few times before, the Stratos project aims to make skydiver Felix Baumgartner the first man to break the sound barrier as he falls from the edge of space, at a height of 120,000 feet above the surface of the Earth.  A jump of this type has not been successful since Joseph Kittinger made his historic and daring jump from 102,800 feet in 1960.  But Baumgartner, jumping from 17,200 feet higher, will be the first man to break the sound barrier in this way.

Or will he?  The Guardian tells us about another daredevil devoted to the task.  He is Michel Fournier, a 66 year old former paratrooper from France, and since the 1980s he's had his sights on breaking the sound barrier with a space jump of his own.  Unlike Baumgartner, there is no corporate sponsorship for Fournier, so he has invested millions of dollars on the project, all from private donations and his own pockets.  Several previous attempts have been thwarted by technical difficulties, but he plans to make another attempt in the next couple of months... around the same time that Baumgartner is expected to make his jump.

I don't know him personally of course, but Felix Baumgartner seems like a pretty awesome dude, with a cool name to boot.  I've followed this story for months, and I've been eagerly anticipating his jump.  Even so, I wouldn't mind seeing Fournier beat him to the punch.  It's sort of a David versus Goliath story... or Little Mac versus Mike Tyson, or Little Jerry versus Marcelino's bird, or Bill Paxton versus Cary Elwes (use whichever reference you like best).  Except, of course, that Baumgartner is not so much an enemy as simply a better-funded competitor.  And for his part, Fournier is gracious about Baumgartner's chances of beating him to the supersonic skydive: "I'll congratulate him. But you can bet that I'll do it second."

Let's just hope he can do it safely.  Fournier hasn't exactly been on a shoestring budget, but he does lack the team of experts, training facilities and spare-no-expense equipment of his competition.  The jump itself is extraordinarily hazardous, and no one knows for sure what will happen when a human being breaks the sound barrier with his body.  But if he succeeds, even in second place, Fournier's accomplishment will be equally astounding, perhaps more so.  And now we have two space jumps to anticipate!

New Record in Ornithopter Flight!

Well, here's something you don't see everyday.  Back in August, grad student Todd Reichert from The University of Toronto set a new record for the longest flight of an ornithopter powered by a human being.  The aircraft weighs just 94 pounds and has a 32 meter wingspan!

HPO The Snowbird from U of T Engineering on Vimeo.

As its name suggests, the ornithopter is an aircraft that flaps its wings like a bird, and as you can see in the video, it needed a little help from a car towing it to get it going.  But once in the air, the flapping wings took over, and the craft flew for a record 19.3 seconds.

Something tells me we won't see commercial ornithopter flights anytime soon.  But it certainly is a graceful aircraft, don't you think?   And in seeing how difficult it is for us humans to achieve flight in this way -- you need extremely light-weight materials, an enormous wing to payload ratio, and a tow to get it aloft -- we can appreciate the exquisite gift of flight enjoyed by our cousins, the birds... a gift bestowed on them by evolution.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

ARTEMIS goes to the Moon, Meets Lagrangian Points

I love Lagrangian points!

NASA has achieved another first for spaceflight... the first orbit around a Lagrangian point, or libration point. Unlike all other satellites, the ARTEMIS spacecraft is actually orbiting an area of empty space! These orbits aren't entirely stable, so they'll require a little maintenance.  Still, this is a cool thing.  Check out the unusual, kidney-like shape of the orbit.

Lagrangian points are a neat little trick of gravity.  There are five points in a two-body system (like the Sun-Earth system, or the Earth-Moon system) where you can place a third body of negligible mass and it can remain stationary relative to the other two.  The second Lagrangian point of the Sun-Earth system (not to be confused with the Earth-Moon system's L2, pictured above) is about 1.5 million kilometers away, and is the future home of the much anticipated James Webb Space Telescope, which will be launched in 2014.  And the fourth and fifth Lagrangian points on either side of Jupiter are home to a special class of asteroids known as Trojans.

Nice work, JPL.

Friday, September 10, 2010

Look Around You - Maths

If you're a regular reader, you may have noticed a decline in the number of posts recently.  Well, it's the start of the semester, so it's a very busy time at my real job.  But don't worry, I expect to be back to business as usual in a week or so.  In the meantime, please enjoy this splendid parody from Robert Popper and Peter Serafinowicz:

Monday, August 30, 2010

Asteroid Discoveries, 1980 - 2010

Check out this fantastic new video, which shows all of the asteroids in a time lapse as they were discovered over the last 30 years. In the bottom left corner, you can see the year and the number of asteroids steadily climbing:

Notice the huge increase in discoveries towards the end of the 1990s. That's thanks to automated systems like the LINEAR project, which has discovered over 226,000 objects since its inception. Like most illustrations of the solar system, though, this animation is not drawn to scale; the Main Belt look crowded here, but the actual distances between the asteroids are still very large.

I like to think about asteroids. There are so many of them, far more than can probably ever be named. They can seem commonplace and, compared to the pantheon of the planets, they may be mere afterthoughts. They tumble slowly through the blackness of space, utterly unaware of themselves, drifting endlessly on their lone path around the Sun, gently tugged by something or other over the eons. Nothing drives them but the elegant machinery of the universe.

Occasionally two of these austere mountains will meet each other on the lonely road, smash into each other, and cast their smithereens in all directions. Some of those bits may find their way to the Earth, burn up as they rocket to the ground or, astonishingly, survive the trip and end up in a field in Maine, or a car roof in Rome. They will be studied or sold, and put on display. And we know that these rocks are hearty travelers, so we can handle them.

Whenever I get the chance to hold a meteorite I think about how it got here. This small, heavy iron rock is just a tiny fragment of an enormous primordial monolith, and there’s no telling how long ago it was utterly destroyed – or at least transformed radically. Its precise history is unknowable, but its lineage is as ancient as our own.

The asteroids have orbited lazily since the birth of our solar system, intermittently disturbed, and sometimes pieces of them, quite by accident, end up here. But until their fiery arrivals here on Earth, these rocks had known only cold nothingness for billions of years. A rock from the sky reminds me how empty and lonely it is in the vast depths of interplanetary space, to say nothing of the inconceivable distances to our neighboring suns. In realizing how helplessly isolated we are from the friends that may await us among the stars, we can begin to understand at last the preciousness of our fragile world, and the imperative of its protection.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Intelligent Machines and the Search For Extraterrestrial Life

SETI astronomer Seth Shostak has a novel idea: let's look for signs of extraterrestrial Artificial Intelligence, rather than focusing exclusively on the search for biological life. If we were to take his advice, this could mean searching for signs of intelligence around the galactic core and hot young stars, in addition to observing the stable, middle-aged stars like our Sun. We would typically think these young stars are unlikely to have life in their systems (since there has not been enough time for the evolution of complex beings), but they could be attractive destinations for smart machines wanting to soak up the abundant energy given off by these energetic youngsters.

It seems like a great idea, and I wonder why I haven't heard it before. Of course the idea of encountering alien AI in space is nothing new... some scientists even think that somewhere out there there may be aliens who have transformed themselves into intelligent machines. That may sound strange, but with the advent of hearing aids, artificial limbs, pacemakers, and even bionic eyes, futurists have long wondered how far we humans will go in transforming ourselves with technology -- becoming more and more like cyborgs, integrating machinery into our bodies until we are more machine than man, and perhaps one day shedding our biological vehicles altogether, transferring only our consciousness to a super computer. Maybe then we will live in a robot civilization, or perhaps our bodies will be spaceships, and we will travel between the stars for ages, powered by nuclear fusion, or some exceedingly remote technology. These might be our distant relatives, maybe resembling something like the Voyager spacecraft drifting endlessly in the darkness, except that they might still harbor a pioneering spirit carried on from humankind, and some notion of whence they came.

The idea of turning ourselves into machines isn’t exactly heartwarming, but it does have its advantages. Machines could live much longer in space than our fragile bodies. Life support is extraordinarily economical with no food or potables to carry. The vast distances between the stars can be traversed without the human problem of aging, and without the relativistic tragedy of rushing fast into the future and leaving a family behind forever. And of course turning ourselves into spacecraft would mean the capacity to survive a catastrophic event on Earth, like a monstrous cometary collision or the eventual death of our Sun. 

Whether we’re looking for extraterrestrials who have become machines, or just the artifacts of extraterrestrials, it really just becomes a question of odds. On the one hand, we’re opening up new avenues of exploration, thinking about ways to find life (or intelligence) as we don’t know it, and that would seem to increase our chances of finding something. But at the same time, we’re diluting the resources. In other words, the more kinds of intelligence signatures we look for, the less time we can devote to each, and since SETI is now funded primarily by private sources, telescope time is at a premium. That’s probably why Shostak is suggesting we look for these other things only a few percent of the time.

But what are we more likely to find, biological life forms, or their technological offshoots? The case for the latter is compelling.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Richard Hoagland, Pseudoscience and the 2012 Doomsday Prophecies

A reader writes:
Did you see the documentary aired a few weeks ago [on MSNBC]? It was a rerun about those who have studied what everyone believes about what they say will really happen on Dec 20th 2012 Mayan calendar. Even the remaining Mayans are almost sorry people know about it. Me I am more inclined to believe what Richard C. Hoagland said will happen to our Earth. What do you think or have found out anything new on this?
I’m afraid I missed this particular program on MSNBC, but I have seen several shows on the same subject, particularly on The History Channel. Unfortunately, these programs tend to lend more credence to these theories than they really deserve, alternating between interviews with scientists and fringe thinkers as though the evidence is equally compelling on both sides (for a succinct refutation of the various 2012 claims, check out NASA’s page devoted to it here).

I am not very familiar with Richard Hoagland’s views on the Mayan Calendar / 2012 Doomsday Prophecy, but a little research on his background will tell you this gentleman’s claims are suspect. Mr. Hoagland is a proponent of multiple space-based conspiracy theories. For instance, he believes that the United States government is covering up evidence of ancient alien civilizations on the Moon and on Mars. In his view, not only has the photographic evidence been suppressed, but the 12 Apollo astronauts who set foot on the Moon were actually hypnotized upon their return to Earth, so that they have no memory of seeing the semi-transparent structures he claims are all over the surface. Mr. Hoagland also believes that a sect of Nazis escaped into space following World War II, and has been operating there ever since, with superior technology to our own. According to Mr. Hoagland, fears of these space Nazis convinced President Obama to abandon the Constellation program. Mr. Hoagland also believes that Mars’ small moon Phobos is actually an enormous, decaying alien spaceship, and he is a major supporter of the Face on Mars theory.

Let’s be honest. Conspiracy theories are a lot of fun to think about. We have a natural affinity for the idea that the world we see is really just an illusion, that there may be some clandestine underpinning, perhaps with malevolent purposes, and that we are one of the few people able to see beyond the smoke and mirrors. This theme is prominent in many fantastic dystopian films, like The Matrix or Dark City, or one of my favorites, Soylent Green. For years people have speculated about a conspiracy surrounding the assassination of John F. Kennedy, and a popular film like JFK can easily whip up a fresh batch of skepticism over the official account. And of course, we know that many governments around the world really do engage in some covert activity, so it’s only natural to wonder how deep the rabbit hole goes.

The problem is, while most of us dismiss these more outlandish conspiracy theories as little more than entertaining ways of looking at the world, to the conspiracy theorist, or the person falling victim to pseudoscience, these are real world problems that must be solved. In extreme cases some of these people could even develop a Cassandra complex, believing that they alone see the truth and that the rest of us are drones, skipping along happily, ignorant of the dark reality of our lives. And in this respect, sensationalist programming can do a disservice to the general population. They can fill susceptible minds with unfounded fears, and undermine legitimate science. After all, if these scientists are so blind to the coming apocalypse just two years from now, what else do they not know? Can we trust vaccines? Does global warming really exist?

It may be that some conspiracy theories really are true. As a matter of course, these scenarios if real would leave behind little evidence, as the proof would have been necessarily destroyed. But when we come across a career conspiracy theorist like Mr. Hoagland, we should be even more skeptical, because if his livelihood depends on propagating new theories about government secrets and alien civilizations, he would be well advised to come up with new ones all the time.

As Carl Sagan was fond of saying, extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.

Monday, August 16, 2010

Back From Holiday!

I'm catching up on work for my real job today, but I wanted to share with you a picture of the Milky Way I snapped while I was gone. Take a look:

This photo was taken on my Nikon D5000 with a 30 second exposure, wide aperture and 3200 ISO. Brightness and contrast have been manipulated to highlight detail.

I spent the evenings looking at the Milky Way in the southern sky, observing Venus half-lit and Saturn in the west around twilight, and Jupiter rising later in the eastern sky. We could see a distinct band of red clouds around Jupiter, and the four Galilean satellites shining brilliantly. One night, I was thrilled to see an object that I took to be Amalthea (Jupiter V), a small moon interior to the big four, discovered by E. E. Barnard in 1892. It was the highlight of my observations, but I'm forced to confront the possibility that it may have been just a faint background star, as the moon's apparent magnitude seems to be just a hair beyond my telescope's theoretical limits (the other 58 known moons of Jupiter are far too faint to be seen in my modest reflector). It's possible that Amalthea is really what I saw, but I'm afraid the evidence is not conclusive. Ah well.

Unfortunately, the transit of Jupiter's Great Red Spot came at inconvenient times, but of course the Perseid meteor shower was a delight. We were fortunate to have dark skies, though by the end of the week the crescent Moon had begun to creep up in the west.

If it's a clear sky tonight, take a look up.

Friday, August 6, 2010


Going on vacation with my family this coming week, so I'm afraid there won't be any updates while I'm away. Check back here around the 16th. Thanks for reading!

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Citizen Scientists Analyze Stardust Data

The New York Times offers this piece on the citizen science project that's studying the results of the Stardust mission, helping scientists find tiny particles from interstellar space.

This project, known as Stardust@Home, is part of what seems to be a growing movement of non-professional involvement in analyzing vast amounts of scientific data. MoonZoo, for instance, has been employing amateur scientists to help analyze mountains of images from the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter, and other Zooniverse projects are doing the same thing with galaxies, supernovae, and solar storms.

This is an exciting trend. For one thing, allowing the general public to get involved means increased awareness and excitement for these projects. At the same time, the scientists get some relief from what would otherwise be years of tedious analysis, and regular citizens get to work with data that they would not be able to gather on their own. Putting this work in the hands of citizens also challenges the notion that science is strictly the domain of ivory tower academics.

There is a proud history of amateur astronomers making great contributions to space science. Perhaps the greatest of these was the work of William Herschel, a musician and amateur astronomer (later employed by King George III) who built the most powerful telescopes of his day and discovered Uranus -- the first planet discovered since antiquity. His discovery shocked the scientific establishment of Europe, and he went on to discover two moons of Uranus and pioneer the study of double stars (for more on Herschel and the scientific calamity his discovery caused, I recommend The Neptune File by Tom Standage - out of print, so you'll have to pick up a used copy).

Let's hope these projects continue, and given their success, I think they will. These remarkable collaborations have only become possible in the last few years with the dawn of the internet age... a time when virtually all of our collective knowledge is stored somewhere online, and anyone can read about a topic that once would have been known only to professionals in the field. And anyway, many hands make light work, and when it comes to science, the more the merrier.

Pictured above, from the New York Times: "This scanning transmission X-ray microscope image shows a carbon-rich speck collected by the Stardust spacecraft."

Monday, August 2, 2010

The Rundown - August 2nd, 2010

  • A new paper from Wun-Yi Shu at the National Tsing Hua University in Taiwan suggests that the Big Bang model of the universe may be erroneous. According to his cosmology, there is no beginning or end to the universe, and the accelerated expansion of the universe can be explained without dark energy. The theory is not flawless, though... it appears there is no explanation (yet) for the existence of the cosmic microwave background radiation, which is thought to be a left over from the fires of the Big Bang. It also relies on the speed of light being variable, instead of constant as we typically think of it.
  • Another big surpise: The new report from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration says the 2000s was the hottest decade on record:

    The 2009
    State of the Climate report released today draws on data for 10 key climate indicators that all point to the same finding: the scientific evidence that our world is warming is unmistakable. More than 300 scientists from 160 research groups in 48 countries contributed to the report, which confirms that the past decade was the warmest on record and that the Earth has been growing warmer over the last 50 years.

Thursday, July 29, 2010

Creationist Nonsense

This clip has been around for a while but I've just stumbled on it, and it's so astounding I just had to address it here. Take a look (embedding this video was causing problems).

In all my years, I don't know if I've ever come across a more nonsensical argument against evolution. I'm just itching to write the anti-Creationism treatise I promised a while back, but for now I think I'll just stick to the facts of this case. What in the world are these people talking about?!

While this video may be the most puzzling of approaches to debunking evolution, I'm afraid it's not very far from what many people actually believe. It represents a profound failure of education and imagination, along with an unhealthy dose of blind faith.

This gentleman claims evolution doesn't happen because we don't find life spontaneously generating out of a jar of peanut butter* (a version of this argument also figures prominently in Ben Stein's ludicrous documentary on intelligent design). The implication here is that life can't just come from nowhere... which is what scientists apparently believe, right? No, of course it doesn't come from nowhere. But the situation is much more complex than these Bible-thumpers care to read about.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Scientists Developing Artificial Magnetosphere for Interplanetary Exploration

Scientists at the Rutherford Appleton Laboratory in the United Kingdom are working on an artificial magnetosphere that could protect astronauts on a mission to Mars.

Long duration space flights present a special problem: the charged particles of the solar wind are extremely dangerous to the health of astronauts. On a trip to Mars, astronauts would be exposed to this radiation for months. Heavy shields on the craft would be enormously expensive to lift into space, but what if we could create a miniature magnetosphere, like the one that protects us here on Earth?

Monday, July 26, 2010

Are We Living Inside a Black Hole?

A new paper from cosmologist Nikodem Poplawski examines the relationship between the expansion of our universe and a hypothetical rebound force that might counter gravity inside a black hole. Among the implications, it could mean we're all living inside a black hole.

Come again?

Well, early on in the 20th century we figured out the universe is expanding. Here's a concise history:

Friday, July 23, 2010

The Sounds of Pulsars

Here's a little treat for the weekend -- take a listen to the sounds of the pulsars!

Of course, these stars aren't really emitting sound, but rather high energy beams of radiation that are detected on Earth by radio telescopes. Radio signals received by these telescopes can be converted into images, but we can also listen to them! (Remember that radio waves are just one of several different kinds of light).

Pulsars are a special brand of neutron star. As the leftover cores of supernovae, they are extremely dense and small, and rotate at incredible speeds, spitting out energetic beams of radiation along their magnetic poles. When one of these beams passes by the Earth, we see it as a flash, like a lighthouse (in fact, when the first pulsar was discovered, some astronomers thought it might be a sort of cosmic lighthouse, left behind by extraterrestrials). So when we listen to the signal of a pulsar, we hear lots of pulses at regular intervals.

Just how fast are the pulsars spinning? Well, it varies. But check out this website and you can hear how fast! Compare this pulsar, spinning about 1.4 times a second, with this one (the Crab Pulsar), spinning about 30 times a second, and this pulsar, spinning about 642 times a second! (Make sure your volume is not too high, because that's one energetic pulsar).

It's one thing to look at a number and be amazed (that third pulsar has a rotational period of 0.00155780644887275 seconds ... what precision!), but I think listening to it spin makes it more real, in a way. Just imagine this neutron star, 10 or 15 kilometers across, spinning 642 times a second! It's enough to make your head spin.

A Comic Rebuttal of the Moon Landing Conspiracy Theories

Darryl Cunningham brings us this clever rebuttal of the Moon landing conspiracy theories, in comic form:

But as he says, and I've said before, there's really not much you can do to persuade the hardcore conspiracy theorists. And that's the most irritating part -- we feel compelled to confront them with the truth, but it's rarely worth spending the energy, and the hour. After all, what difference does it really make if some guy wants to believe we didn't land on the Moon? It's his loss for missing out on the majesty of reality.

One major exception to this, of course, is climate change. There is a difference between finding fault with scientific findings (which is called scientific debate), and getting your facts from the pundit on Fox News who questions global warming because it's cold outside today. Unlike the Moon landing conspiracies, this sort of thinking-with-your-gut is pervasive, and is a genuine threat to the planet. These views should not be suppressed, of course, but they should be emphatically debunked, because while the Moon landing conspiracy theorists make up little more than a fringe group, usually written off by most serious people, climate change skeptics can and do influence public policy, and set us back in our efforts to reverse global warming. And in the meantime, global temperatures continue to tick upwards, and in the course of a year the United States dumps another 6 billion metric tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

The Science of Inception

CultureLab takes a look at the science of Christopher Nolan's hit film Inception.

If you haven't already, you've got to check out this movie while it's still in theaters. It's a new classic, and I can't wait to go see it again.

The Rundown - July 21, 2010

Lots to cover, not enough time to comment on it all. Here's the rundown:

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Happy Moon Day!

41 years ago today, Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin became the first human beings to set foot on another world. They are two of only 12 men to have ever walked on the surface of the Moon.

The Moon landing is arguably the crowning achievement of life on Earth. Other events may have been more influential for humanity -- domestication of plants and animals, the invention of writing, the advent of modern medicine, or the harnessing of electricity come to mind -- but the journey of men to another world represents a new era for life on Earth: the first time in our history when we Earthlings are able to leave our delicate cradle and discover our place in the vast unknown universe. Forever after, ours will be a space-faring civilization, and if we survive long enough, it seems likely that we will move on to other worlds, perhaps terraforming neighboring planets, establishing permanent colonies beyond the Earth and one day, we hope, venturing to the stars.

For billions of years, life was restricted to the surface of the Earth. A few winged creatures could climb a bit higher, but nothing could push beyond the thin atmosphere that protects us from the cold vacuum of space. Most of our ancestors lived and died without more than a dim notion of anything beyond our planet. But finally, after billions of years of evolution, a curious and determined species emerged, and set about the business of conquering nature's barriers.

After thousands of human generations we, the lucky children of the 20th century, are the first pioneers in space. We see a little farther only because we stand on the shoulders of giants, but for this reason, we owe it to our ancestors and descendants alike to push deeper into the unknown. Nothing less than the survival of humanity may be at stake. But if nothing else, it seems to be our destiny to explore, and to join the community of civilizations that may be humming and zipping about the galaxy. These are just the first few steps of the marathon, but what a marvelous achievement to have gotten this far.

Happy Moon Day.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Southern Hemisphere Moon!

My buddy just returned from South Africa, where he caught a few games at the World Cup. The assignment I gave him was to take a picture of the Moon, so he sent me the photograph you see above.

What's so special about a picture of the Moon from the Southern Hemisphere, you say? Well, the Moon is UPSIDE DOWN. Of course I mean that it appears upside down to those of us living in the Northern Hemisphere --

Compromise Reached on the Future of NASA

Politico is reporting that the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation has reached a compromise on the future of NASA. The bill will now go to the full senate for a vote.

As usual, Politico has buried the policy specifics on the second page... you've got to wade through the political commentary to get to it. But it looks like the key changes are "a more regimented, benchmark-based track" for private sector participation in human spaceflight, and "development of a long-range vehicle [beginning] far sooner than the 2015 date the White House specified." Constellation is still on the chopping block, but the Orion capsule will be retained, presumably as the lifeboat for the space station as the White House proposed. NASA funding will be increased by $6 billion, but it's unclear over how many years that's spread. No mention of whether President Obama's goal of sending astronauts to an asteroid is still in the works.

Overall, this sounds like a good compromise, and the White House is praising it. So let's hope that this controversy is just about finished, so we can get on with it!

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Voyager 1 - 12,000 Days and Counting

Last month we told you Voyager 2 marked its 12,000th day in space... almost 33 years. Well, yesterday Voyager 1 hit the same milestone -- an astonishing 12,000 days since it blasted off on its remarkable journey.

Voyager 1 is the most distant man-made object in space, currently about 11 billion miles from the Sun. And it's still talking to us! Its signal, traveling at the speed of light, takes around 16 hours to reach us here on Earth.

In 1990, with its primary objectives completed, Voyager 1 turned its camera around and took one last picture of the Earth. This famous image, above, is known as the Pale Blue Dot (Carl Sagan's book of the same name is a fantastic read).

You've got to check out this video. It gets me every time:


So Fermilab says news of finding the Higgs boson at their facilities was just a rumor. Bummer.

Ah well, we told you it was only a rumor! And anyway, how often do you get to spread a rumor about particle physics?

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

JAXA Confirms Solar Sail is Working!

the Japanese Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) has confirmed that the solar sail spacecraft IKAROS is indeed being accelerated by photons emitted from the Sun, which means the solar sail really works!

The spacecraft is showing an acceleration from the solar wind pressure on the order of 1.12 milli-Newtons, which was the predicted value (a Newton is a unit of force, representing the amount of net force required to accelerate a mass of one kilogram at a rate of one meter per second per second). So, the Sun is exerting a force on IKAROS of just over one-thousandth of a Newton every second.

Juno Gears Up For Jovian Radiation

The spacecraft Juno, which will blast off for Jupiter in August of next year, has just gotten a slick new Titanium suit.

Juno needs the Titanium armor because Jupiter has an enormously powerful radiation belt that will fry most anything that comes along. Previous missions to Jupiter have had to be careful to avoid the radiation belt so as not to destroy sensitive onboard equipment, but as Juno's mission is partly designed to learn more about the magnetosphere, the radiation will be unavoidable.

Juno is part of the New Frontiers program, a series of medium-cost science missions. The New Horizons spacecraft, which will rendezvous with Pluto in 2015, is the first New Frontiers mission.

Is Gravity Just an Illusion?

Check out this New York Times article on a debate over the nature of gravity. It's pretty wild stuff.

What's this all about, anyway? Why does it matter how we think about gravity? We understand it perfectly well in our everyday experience, whether we're talking about an apple falling from a tree or a spacecraft going to Saturn. Newton's way of thinking about it was ultimately replaced by Einstein's way of thinking about it, but what difference does it make to us whether we think of gravity as a distortion of spacetime? That doesn't change the way I fall down and scrape my knee.

But scientists are in pursuit of a theory of everything -- one unifying theory that will combine all the known forces (electromagnetic, weak, strong and gravitational) into one super theory. The problem is, our understanding of the very small (quantum mechanics) and the very large (general relativity) are pretty good on their own, but they're a devil to combine. This is where all that weird stuff like string theory and 26 dimensions comes into play. Most of us just glaze over.

Monday, July 12, 2010

Has Fermilab Found the Higgs Boson?

The rumors are flying after a blog post suggested the Tevatron at Fermilab may have found the elusive Higgs boson.

I'm a bit out of my element when it comes to particle physics, but the Higgs boson is kind of a big deal. According to the standard model of particle physics, the Higgs boson would be the elementary particle that imbues other particles with mass, but so far no one has been able to detect it. It has been hoped that the Large Hadron Collider at CERN would be able to produce the Higgs... but maybe Fermilab has beaten them to the punch!

Check out this funny and somewhat trippy little New York Times article from a while back, in which a couple of scientists suggest that the Higgs boson "might be so abhorrent to nature that its creation would ripple backward through time and stop the collider before it could make one, like a time traveler who goes back in time to kill his grandfather." Woah.

Stay tuned for developments.

Rosetta's Stone Flyby

This weekend, the European Space Agency's Rosetta spacecraft flew by the asteroid 21 Lutetia and got some great photographs. Take a look at them here.

21 Lutetia is just a pit stop for Rosetta (except that it didn't stop, of course... it whizzed by at over 33,500 miles per hour). The spacecraft is now making its way to rendezvous with the comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko, where it will arrive in 2014. Rosetta will orbit the comet and drop a landing craft, named Philae, to touch down on the surface. If successful, this will be the first mission to land a craft on a comet.

Below, an image of 21 Lutetia captured on July 10th. Saturn can be seen in the background.

Courtesy of wikipedia:
Churyumov-Gerasimenko has a rather interesting orbital history. Comets are regularly nudged from one orbit to another when they encounter Jupiter or Saturn in close proximity. For this comet it was calculated, that before the year 1840 it was completely unobservable due to its perihelion distance of about 4.0 AU. At this time Jupiter shifted that distance to about 3.0 AU. Later on, in the year 1959, another encounter with Jupiter pushed it to about 1.28 AU, where it is now.

Raw data!