A New Shower!

Camelopardalids_2014-Radiant_HD1….Let’s hope it is not equipped with a low-flow shower head though. If you get a chance this evening, find a wide area of sky away from as many lights as you can (it does not have to be perfectly dark, but the darker the better). There is a new meteor shower, the Camelopardalids…. It is new because the comet debris responsible (we’re flying through debris left over from its tail) has not intersected with our orbit before, but things have been changing a bit (apparently due to Jupiter’s gravitational pull) and as a result we’ll go right through it for the first time (as far as records show). It is expected that there’s a good chance that it will be a high event shower, and it has also been said – I forgot where I read this – that the […] Click to continue reading this post

When Stars Go Bang…

I learned* that over on the Huffington Post, Christian Ott (Caltech) wrote a piece describing research on modelling stellar explosions using supercomputers. When a star goes supernova, what exactly happens? Capturing the physics that goes on is a very difficult problem to do, and in the article he explains some of the difficulties, and some of the recent progress.

There’s a slide show showing some of the […] Click to continue reading this post

News From the Front, XI: Holographic Heat Engines!

Yes, you heard me right. Holographic Heat Engines. I was thinking recently about black holes in universes with a cosmological constant and their thermodynamics. I had an idea, it led to another, then another, then some calculations, and then a couple of days of writing, calculating, and thinking… then a day to cool off and think about other things. Then I came back to it, decided it was still exciting as an idea and so tidied it all up as a paper, made some diagrams, tidied some more, and voila! A paper submitted to the arxiv.

I’m sort of pleased with all of it since it allowed me to combine a subject I think is really fun (although often so bleakly dull when presented at undergraduate level) – heat engines – with contemporary research ideas in quantum gravity and high energy physics. So I get to draw some of the cycles in the p-V plane (graph of pressure vs volume) representing the inner workings of engines of particular designs (just like you might have seen long ago in a physics class yourself) and compute their efficiency for doing mechanical work in exchange for some heat you supply. It is fundamental that you can’t heat_enginedo that with 100% efficiency otherwise you’d violate the second law of thermodynamics – that’s why all engines have to have some exhaust in the form of heat, giving an efficiency represented by a quantity [tex]\eta[/tex] that is less than one, where one is 100% efficient. The diagram on the left illustrates the key pieces all engines must have, no matter what working substance you’re using. The details of the design of the engine are what kind of cycle you taking it through and what the properties (“equation of state”) your working substance has. In the case of a car, for example, the working substance is cleverly mixed up with the source of heat – the air/gasoline mix forms a “working substance” that gets expanded and compressed in various ways (in the green bit of the diagram), but the fact that it also burns releasing heat means it is also the source of the heat that comes into the engine (the flow from the red bit) to be (in part) turned to work, and the remainder flowing out to the blue (exhaust). Very clever.

The cool thing here is that I’m using black holes as the working substance for […] Click to continue reading this post

Eclipse Progress

eclipse_progress_15_04_2014_cvjDid you catch the eclipse last Monday? It was wonderful. Here’s a little snap I took of the progress (taken with an iPad camera precariously through the lens of a telescope, pointing out of a bedroom window, so not the best arrangement). One of the striking things about looking at the progress of it is just how extra three-dimensional the moon seems as the earth’s shadow slowly covers it. It really makes one’s whole mind and body latch on to the three dimensional reality of the sky – you really feel it, as opposed to just knowing it in your head. That’s sort of hard to explain – and you’re not going to see it in any photo anyone can show – so I imagine you are not really sure what I’m getting at if […] Click to continue reading this post

Total Lunar Eclipse!

There is a total eclipse of the moon tonight! It is also at not too inconvenient a time (relatively speaking) if you’re on the West Coast. The eclipse begins at 10:58pm (Pacific) and gets to totality by 12:46am. This is good timing for me since I’d been meaning to set up the telescope and look at the moon recently anyway, and a full moon can be rather bright. Now there’ll be a natural filter in the way, indirectly – the earth!

There’s a special event up at the Griffith Observatory if you are interested in making a party out of it. It starts at 7:00pm and you can see more about the […] Click to continue reading this post

Talking with Dinosaurs

20140401-095516.jpgThursday’s event at the Natural History Museum went very well. There was a great turnout, and the audience was very enthusiastic. As you can see from the photos*, there were two fierce-looking large dinosaurs in attendance in the audience, but it did not have any effect on the overall time-keeping, and the lectures ran over the allotted time quite a bit.

But people had fun, and the museum staff were very kind and flexible, so that’s ok. I actually learned a lot from Ed Krupp’s talk about the astronomy and astronomical objects along the Silk Road from the Far East to the Middle East especially. Laura Danly gave a talk that was mostly a detailed history the Internet including at least three internet cat videos as illustration (an emphasis that I found unexpected, I’ll admit, since I was expecting more about contemporary astronomy). It was certainly a modern perspective on the Silk Road, as we promised the audience, and it seemed to go down well. The observation opportunity that Laura arranged outside (with the telescopes that were set up in the new gardens) was also well received. Jupiter and its […] Click to continue reading this post

Under Silk Road Skies

I’m doing a disturbing amount of speechifyin’ this month. One of the occasions is tomorrow, and is open to the general public. Have you been to the Natural History Museum’s “Traveling the Silk Road” exhibition yet? I went to have a look a couple of days ago and it is rather nice. I recommend it. There are even live silk worms!

griffith observatory city view at nightI’ve been coorganizing an event as part of their series of lectures that accompanies the event and I am delighted to announce that I have connected two of the most awesome spaces and institutions in the city for this one. The Griffith Observatory will team up with the Natural History Museum for this one, with a lecture and Q+A session, and then (weather permitting) a bit of stargazing in the new gardens! Please spread the word and come along: […] Click to continue reading this post

Discovery Clarification

[Update: Over the months following the announcement, doubt was cast over exactly what BICEP2 saw, and now it seems that the signal announced by BICEP2 is consistent with polarisation produced by galactic dust. See here.]

I’m actually in hiding and silence for a week. It is Spring Break and I have locked myself away in a seaside town to do some writing, as I did last year. But I must break my silence for a little while. Why? Well there’s been a really great announcement in physics today and while being very happy that it is getting a lot of press attention – and it should since the result is very important and exciting – I’ve been stunned by how confusingly it has been reported in several news reports. So I thought I’d say a few things that might help.

But first, let me acknowledge that there’s a ton of coverage out there and so I don’t need to point to any press articles. I will just point to the press release of the BICEP2 collaboration (yes, that’s what they’re called) here, and urge you once you’ve read that to follow the link within to the wealth of data (images, text, graphs, diagrams) that they provide. It’s fantastically comprehensive, so knock yourself out. The paper is here.

I keep hearing reports saying things like “Scientists have proved the Big Bang”. No. The Big Bang, while an exciting and important result for modern cosmology, is very old news. (You can tell since there’s even a TV comedy named after it.) This is not really about the Big Bang. This is about Inflation, the mechanism that made the universe expand rapidly from super-tiny scales to more macroscopic scales in fractions of a second. (I’ll say more about the super-tiny below).

I also hear (slightly more nuanced) reports about this being the first confirmation of Inflation. That’s a point we can argue about, but I’d say that’s not true either. We’ve had other strong clues that Inflation is correct. One of the key things that pops out of inflation is that it flattens out the curvature of universe a lot, and the various observations that have been made about the Cosmic Microwave Background over the years (the CMB is that radiation left over from when the universe was very young (about 380,000 years old – remember the universe is just under 14 million years old!)) have shown us that the universes is remarkably flat. Another previous exciting result in modern cosmology. Today’s result isn’t the first evidence.

So what is today’s exciting news about then? The clue to the correct […] Click to continue reading this post

Hawking an Old Idea

On the one hand it is good to get members of the general public excited about scientific research, and so having some new excitement about something Stephen Hawking said, driven by gushingly written articles in the press and online, can be good. On the other hand, it is annoying that the thrust of the articles are largely that he’s stunned the world again with a brilliant and unlooked-for idea. People just lap this stuff up, unquestioningly. It is actually an old idea (and in fact one that is being mis-reported – see below). One’s instinct is to just say “Welcome, Stephen, we’ve been waiting for you to join us”, or “Come on in, the water’s lovely”, and just move on, but it seems so unfair. The thing that’s most puzzling in all of this is Hawking’s own paper (which is all of two pages of words – a transcript of a talk he gave in August), which makes no reference at all to (for example) Samir Mathur’s work, which has been explicitly saying essentially the same thing for well over a decade, with a very definite proposal for how it might work. That work has hardly been buried in obscurity. Samir and many other people who have liked his idea have been working out the consequences of the proposal in numerous papers for over a decade and reporting on their results at all the main conferences, and even talking to him about it (I note that Samir was in the audience during the August talk and even politely asked the speaker to compare and contrast the similar-sounding proposals). So it is puzzling that you get no hint from the paper’s citations that this is a well-considered and ongoing idea, even if (perhaps) in detail it may pan out differently from other suggestions.

light cones in  spacetime with a compact mass - a black holeWhat’s the idea?, you ask. Well, it is not, as you might get from most of the articles (somewhat confusingly), that black holes do not exist. It is that the black hole’s event horizon, thought of as a sharp “point of no return” boundary, may not exist. Instead, it is approximation or shorthand for the complicated physics (of both matter and spacetime) that happens in the vicinity of the black hole. Simply put, the horizon arises in classical solutions to classical (i.e. non-quantum) equations (such as in General Relativity) of gravity. (See an earlier post I did about them here, from which came the illustration […] Click to continue reading this post

Celestial Card Games

celestial_cardsI did not get to read the instructions about the games, but pictured are some cards (apparently from about 1830) for a game set. They have images of stars and planets on them, including one planet called Herschel. This is of course the planet to later be called Uranus. It took a while for the planet’s name to be agreed upon.

These are some of the objects from the Doheny Libary’s collection that will be […] Click to continue reading this post

Collecting the Cosmos

i_2014_01_24_CollectCosmos_150x200Don’t forget that on the USC campus on Friday at 4:00pm, we’ll be kicking off the Collecting the Cosmos event! It will be in the Doheny library, and there’ll be a presentation and discussion first, and then a special opening reception for the exhibition. Be sure to get yourself on the waiting list since there’s some chance that you’ll get in even if you have not RSVPed yet. (The image is from the Visions and Voices event site, and includes parts of the artworks – by artists Victor Raphael and Clayton Spada – to be included in the exhibition, so come along and see.) The event description says, in part: […] Click to continue reading this post

The Universe Lives!

universe_shoot_16_01_2014Many people have been asking me whether the show The Universe on the History Channel and its sister channel H2, (now the longest-running science show on commercial TV in the US) has come to an end, and I’ve not actually known the answer (but have been assuming so). Well, the good news is that there are some new episodes being made! I know this since I was involved in some filming for a few segments on two episodes on Thursday. I spent the lunchtime session talking about novae and supernovae, and the […] Click to continue reading this post

Big History is Coming!


You’ll recall that I was in New York a short while ago to film some promotional material for a new TV series. It is called Big History, and it will be on History Channel’s H2 channel (and eventually on various international channels, but I’ve no idea which – similar ones to where you find the other show I’ve mentioned a bit, The Universe, I expect).

Rather than be primarily about astronomical and cosmological things, the show will focus each week on one of a list specific items that have affected our history, and take the long view about that item. How long a view? The longest known possible! So take something like Salt, and examine its role in civilization and culture, bringing in historians, anthropologists, etc… and physical scientists to trace that object back to its roots in the early universe… (the big bang, the cores of stars, etc.) Update: For you Breaking Bad fans, note that it’ll be narrated by Bryan Cranston, by the way.

Here’s one of the promo videos:

[…] Click to continue reading this post

Weinberg on Physics Now

I just spotted (a bit late) that Steven Weinberg (one of the giants of my field) has written a piece in the New York Review ofBooks entitled “Physics: What We Do and Don’t Know”. I recommend it. He talks about astronomy, cosmology, particle physics, and by casting his eye over the arc of their recent (intertwined) histories of ideas, experiments and discoveries, tries to put the Standard Models of particle physics and of cosmology into perspective.

The article is […] Click to continue reading this post