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

Discovery Clarification

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

Fail Lab Episode 11 – Failure

crystal_adam_cvj_patrickThis episode of Fail Lab gets down to the bone of the matter: Failure. The whole point of this excellently conceived series was to look at the fail videos all over the web (as everyone does) and instead of just laughing at the people in them (as most people do), take a different path and try to see the positive in the failure. Sometimes with humour, and/or with tongue in cheek, but with an eye on looking at things a bit differently. Now this special episode turns and looks the issue directly in the eye. I have the honor of being a co-presenter of this one again, again with the excellent Crystal Dilworth, and this time we break the pattern and have yet a third person as a co-presenter – Adam Steltzner from JPL, the chief engineer of the landing stage of the Mars Curiosity mission, you might recall. Crystal and Adam are on the left. (You might also recall that we teamed up for an event earlier this year at the Natural History Museum…)

Together, we talk in the episode about the whole idea of failure, making mistakes, and of course, experimentation. We highlight how it underpins all innovation, scientific, technological, artistic… all corners of human […] Click to continue reading this post

All Space Considered

You may recall that last month I hosted the First Fridays portion of the Natural History Museum’s day of celebration, where I introduced and steered the questions for JPL’s Adam Steltzner (lead engineer of the the “7 Minutes of Terror” Mars Curiosity landing). A fun event indeed. Well, this month I’ll be at another First Friday event, but for the other wonderful classic science space in the city, the Griffith Observatory.

They have a First Fridays series too – not to clash intentionally, I’ve recently learned upon inquiring – and it is a goal of mine to connect the relevant parties and find ways of having these events and spaces intersect with each other fruitfully, maybe. Perhaps participating in both of them is a good way to start. The “All Space Considered” event is a series where there’s a panel of scientists [...] Click to continue reading this post

100th Birthday Bash!

If you’re in town on Sunday 9th June, I strongly recommend coming along to this! The Natural History Museum is having its 100th Birthday celebration with an all day series of events. There’ll be new spaces and exhibits opening, including the new gardens they’ve been building for some time, and so there’s plenty to explore that will be new, and partly outdoors on a (hopefully) lovely day. (See here for an LA Times article on some of the changes.) As the day draws into the evening, there’ll be a real party brewing, with bands, DJs, bars, and so forth (see below). Kicking off the evening part of the proceedings at 6:30pm will be a talk and Q+A with JPL’s Adam Steltzner (of the Mars Curiosity Mission), in a spot hosted by me.

Adam’s a great guy, with lots of interesting things to say and a great sense of [...] Click to continue reading this post

Bad Luck for Kepler

Steinn has a nice post about the sudden ending of the Kepler mission, due to a crucial component failure. As he notes:

“Kepler has discovered almost 3,000 planetary candidates, of which about 100 have been confirmed through a variety of techniques, and, statistically, most of the rest are likely to be real planets.

Kepler has not quite found earth like planets in the habitable zone, yet.
It is heartbreakingly close to doing so.”

Sad to see, especially at a time when science is being hurt so badly by continued [...] Click to continue reading this post

Chasing Tail…

At around 11:15pm, after driving for a while toward the general area, we spotted it. The tail, poking high above the trees, gas station, and power lines, with people walking purposefully groups with only two flows of pedestrian traffic: to or from something that must be a viewing spot. I quickly (and in retrospect, miraculously) found a nearby parking spot (at a prohibited time for that spot, like for all the other cars, but I figured even the parking enforcers were looking at other things at this time) and we walked over to where we saw the tail to find places where we could see the whole craft. And there it was, the space shuttle Endeavour, the youngest of the fleet of re-useable spaceships, the one from which they did the historic and crucial spacewalk that repaired the Hubble telescope that allowed us to see so much about the universe in which we live… parked next to the Randy’s Donuts donut. After a back view of the engines, we found an even closer view, from the side, where most of the people were, and marveled for a while.

[caption id="attachment_12629" align="aligncenter" width="499"] The Space Shuttle Endeavour on its road trip from LAX to the California Science Center, close to midnight on Friday 12th October. Just about to cross Hwy 405. (Click for a larger view.)[/caption]

(There’s something interesting about the whole business of being in a crowd and [...] Click to continue reading this post


[caption id="attachment_12548" align="aligncenter" width="499"] Space Shuttle Endeavour and escort, flying over the California Science Center, its new home where it will soon be on display.[/caption]
Wow, that was amazing. So a group of us (Aimee, Amy, Tameem, and myself) decided to go down to the Rose Garden, across the street from the USC campus and in the grounds of the Califorina Science Center where the Shuttle will be housed. Of all the places in LA where there will be a flyover, surely we ought to get a good view from there. Also, the Rose Garden gives access to a large piece of sky, so even if it does not come super-close, we ought to get a good chance… That was the thinking. (A major landmark here was that this is the most USC people I’ve ever seen in the lovely Rose Garden – not counting people on their way to a game at the Coliseum…)

[caption id="attachment_12549" align="alignleft" width="300"] Shuttle Endeavour and escort, with the Natural History Museum just in view below. It is approaching the California Science Center.[/caption]Well, it worked far better than we imagined. The shuttle eventually appeared from the West, and people began to cheer and wave, and snap pictures and so forth… We all felt very lucky that they did that pass…. you could see the fighter plane (?) escort, and there it was appropriately (sort of) over the buildings where it will live out its days… We’d talked about what it meant to see the very last transport flight of a shuttle, the end of the shuttle program, the future of manned spaceflight, and so forth. We, and the [...] Click to continue reading this post

Endeavour to Look Up!

The Space Shuttle Endeavour will fly (or will be flown by its carrier plane) over Los Angeles this morning, paying special attention to various LA landmarks. Don’t forget to look up! I’ve heard it will be around 10:30am, but double check since I might have heard that time incorrectly. I plan to start looking out by 10:00am, down on the USC campus, since the California Science Center (across the street) where the Shuttle will be housed, is one of the places it will specially fly over… More here.


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Curious about Curiosity?

So, if like many people, you are excited about the (late) weekend landing of Curiosity (the roving Mars Science Laboratory) on Mars, and/or if you want to know more, Kenneth Chang has an article in the New York Times all about it here. (Image right is an artist’s impression done for NASA/JPL.) The sequence of operations that have to go right for Curiosity to, er, stick the landing* is quite amazing, and so let’s all wish them good luck. Have a [...] Click to continue reading this post

Happy Birthday Hubble!

It is the 22nd Anniversary of the launch of the Hubble space telescope today! As you know, this instrument has produced a wealth of scientific information over the years, as well as lots of wonderful pictures for everyone that broadened and deepened our sense of wonder about this remarkable universe we find ourselves in. The Hubble site is here.

Phil Plait has re-posted his 2010 post “Ten Things You Don’t Know About Hubble”, [...] Click to continue reading this post

We’ll have a Shuttle!

Space Shuttle EndeavourThere was a rather great piece of news last week that I did not get around to mentioning at the time of the announcement. Not only will we shortly have the Expo line, a new branch of the subway (or light rail) system down at USC and the city’s California Science Center, Natural History Museum, African American Museum, and so forth, all along Exposition, we’ll have…. A Space Shuttle! NASA announced where all its retired space shuttles will go to pasture, and the California Science Center will be one of the museums around the country chosen for this. It’ll be the Endeavour that comes to town. (I like the fact that the spelling with the “u” in it is the official one. Not noticed that before. Excellent.) (Photo: NASA/Kim Shiflett.)

-cvj Click to continue reading this post

I, For One, Welcome Our New Arsenic-Replacing-Phosphorus-In-DNA Overlords

mono_lakeYeah! This is just the sort of thing I’d hoped that we (human beings) would find soon, in order to strengthen the idea that in looking for forms of life elsewhere, we be not just open to the idea that the basic chemistry for that life may be very different from what we are used to on earth (easier said than done), but that it is maybe even probable that this is what we could find first. Now, given the news today (announced by Felisa Wolfe-Simon and her team in a NASA press conference today and reported on in a paper to appear in Science) we know that it is not just a theoretical construction, but already a reality right here on earth. The researchers have identified a life form with a striking difference. The bacterium (which lives in Mono Lake – see NASA image above right) has DNA (and some other important complex molecules) with a major difference from all other forms we know. phosphorus has been replaced by arsenic!

periodic_tableThis works, by the way, because arsenic is in the same chemical family as phosphorus, being directly below it in the periodic table. Note that this is exactly the sort of thing that has been speculated about a lot in the classic days of science/speculative fiction concerned with alien life, remember? :- Silicon based life forms instead of the Carbon based ones that we know and love on earth. Silicon is again in the same column as [...] Click to continue reading this post

Time Travel a Click Away

cvj_with_wormholeI just noticed that last week’s episode of The Universe on Time Travel, which I told you about here and here, is available online on their website. Click here to learn more about the ins and outs of it, and I show you how to make one too! Kind of.

It is a difficult subject to explain, and one that must be tempting to [...] Click to continue reading this post


hobys_rosette_05 This is a wonderful infrared image (please click on it for lovely larger view) of a region of star formation called the Rosette Nebula.

It comes from the Herschel space observatory, which was launched (along with the Planck observer) by the European Space Agency (ESA) almost a year ago, you may recall.

From the ESA website, here’s a bit more about what this is: [...] Click to continue reading this post

Meteorite Men!

meteorite_men Did you watch Meteorite Men last week? If not, you can probably catch a repeat. It is a new series, airing 9pm ET/PT Wednesday nights, on the Science Channel about two guys who search for meteorites. Check your local listings for times. (Photo cheekily snapped from their site. Copyright aerolite meteorites.)

I learned about it from Bob Melisso, my producer/filmmaker friend (and occasional collaborator: see here, here and here) who made the pilot and is the supervising producer for the series. From [...] Click to continue reading this post

Imminent Launch

wise_on_deltaMy friend, The Universe co-contributor, and colleague Amy Mainzer (JPL) is rubbing gloved hands together in the chilly night air up at Vandenberg. Well, ok, if not this very moment, she probably will be at various points this evening and into the wee hours of the morning. The launch pad for WISE (the mission on which Amy is deputy project scientist) is set, and everything is ready to go! See my earlier post about what [...] Click to continue reading this post

Get Wise to WISE

explore_missionsOnce again I’m excited about a new piece of machinery. This time it is a space mission again. There have been several remarkable missions launched (many in very recent years), doing all sorts of excellent science, helping us discover all sorts of things about our universe, near and far, young and old. I’ve spoken about (and sometimes followed live) the launches of some of them here on the blog, or spoken about the science results they’ve helped produce. See the graphic on the right for some of them.

wiseWell, very soon (possibly as early as December 9th), there will be the launch of WISE, the Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer! I learned from my friend, colleague and fellow presenter on History Channel’s The Universe, JPL’s Amy Mainzer, who is a senior scientist and the deputy project scientist on the WISE mission, that they made a series of exciting videos about WISE for you to learn about the science that WISE will do and how it will go about [...] Click to continue reading this post

The Leonids are almost here!

nasa sky mapAnother meteor shower is almost upon us. Next week it is the turn of the Leonids. Now, as the name implies, these have their apparent origin in the constellation Leo. So how visible it will be for you, if you live in an urban area, might depend upon Leo’s position in the sky relative to your local bright city lights at the time of viewing. But it is worth trying. Look for a public park, rooftop, or other open area of sky. Parks can be better for pulling you away from some of the immediate lights, and then sit still and look at one patch of sky steadily for a while (generally in the right direction!) To get guidance, have [...] Click to continue reading this post

Wet Moon

Aha! So you were thinking the mission last month was a bit of a failure, right? Because there was no big splash (literally) of a plume for the press to gush about? I’m talking about the October LCROSS mission on October 9th that smashed an impactor onto the moon’s surface (at the Cabeus crater) to create a cloud of dust for analysis. I remember people thinking, encouraged by various reports, that the event was rather a damp squib, since it did not produce a Hollywood-style flash and plume. See an NPR report on the mission here from back then.

lcross_dataWell, science is known for being able to carry on steadily even if there are no overt special effects and a catchy soundtrack. Today, NASA announced that their analysis of the data produced from measuring the dust cloud’s properties has shown very definite signs of water (confirming and strengthening the results accumulated by other missions (India’s Chandrayaan-1 and NASA’s Deep [...] Click to continue reading this post

Ten Things That Go Boom!

the_universeWell, ok… Boom is not quite accurate, but the idea is that there will be ten kinds of blasts/explosions/major_energetic_events discussed tonight on the History Channel’s The Universe:

The Universe is full of explosions that both create and destroy. The Chicxulub impact on the Yucatan peninsula, which may have wiped out the dinosaurs 65 million years ago, was two million times more powerful than the largest nuclear bomb ever detonated on Earth. But guess what? That’s only good enough for the very bottom of the Biggest Blasts top ten list. This episode works its way up through supernova explosions and gamma ray bursts all the way to the blast that started it all–the Big Bang.

Sounds good doesn’t it? There’s a lot of good people contributing again, so I know it’ll have some good material and explanations.

In addition, I’m reasonably confident I play a role in this one…This one was a blast (sorry) to film. You saw some posts earlier reporting on some of the filming. Assuming they used the material I did with them, you’ll get to see why I was at the [...] Click to continue reading this post


Forgot to report on this email exchange from last semester:

From one of the staff in the physics office:

Subject: 499 Syllabus
Date: Thu, 09 Jul 2009 14:01:38 -0700
From: Beverly
To: Clifford V. Johnson

I was reading the syllabus you sent over for the 499 class. I am not sure if this is a type-o but in the Extra Books section it reads “/Black *_hoes_* and Time Warps: Einstein’s outrageous Legacy/” should it read
“/Black *_holes_* and Time Warps: Einstein’s outrageous Legacy/”.


My response: [...] Click to continue reading this post

40 Years Ago…

moon_landing_630pxWell, it can’t have escaped your attention. I imagine that whatever news sources you use are full of stories about today being the 40th anniversary of the first landing on the moon. (Well, the first by human beings, anyway. :) )

I won’t be writing a long thoughtful piece reflecting on the matter. Right now, I can’t really think of much to say that has not been said. Perhaps it is just because it is too hot here. I’m not sure.

However, I will encourage you to find a quiet moment sometime today, stop, look [...] Click to continue reading this post

Science and Space on Mayo

On the BBC’s Daily Mayo the other day there was a science focus! Scientists Brian Cox and Jeff Forshaw joined Simon to talk about their new book Why Does ? that looks at Einstein’s famous equation which explores the principles of physics through everyday life. Commander Lee Archambault, currently on … Click to continue reading this post