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.
This 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 →
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 →
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.
At JPL the other day, I stood next to this gentleman as he prepared to take over the controls of the Curiosity craft (now on the surface of Mars, you might recall) for a bit of driving. I don’t know where it was being taken to or from on that [...] Click to continue reading this post →
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]
[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 →
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.
You’ve no doubt heard about some of the images coming from the newly landed Curiosity device on the Martian surface. Above is a 360 degree panorama (from NASA/JPL) assembled from lots of smaller images, showing its surroundings in the [...] Click to continue reading this post →
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 →
I’m guessing that most of you who took pictures during the venus transit on Tuesday (see my modest effort here) did not get something quite as good as the one above. Wow. It is by the JAXA/NASA Hinode craft that is in orbit.
I set up some simple 10×50 binoculars on my tripod, and after a tiny bit of fiddling, out pops the transit in progress from the other end, projected on to the back of an envelope! (The envelope was helpfully held still by a friend so that I could take the photo.) (Click for larger view.) [...] Click to continue reading this post →
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.
There 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.)
Yeah! 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!
This 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 →
I 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.
A wonderful, wonderful new image from Hubble, in the week of its 20th year anniversary*. (There is a nice NPR story on the anniversary here. Also, did you see the [...] Click to continue reading this post →
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.)
My 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 →
Once 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.
Well, 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 →
Another 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 →
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.
Well, 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 →
Well, 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
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/”.
As a follow up to my earlier moon post of the day, here’s a link to the (excellent) Police singing the excellent “Walking on the Moon”. Seems to fit somewhat with the occasion. No embedding, sadly, so you’ll have to come back here to finish your reading. Click on the picture. Enjoy!
Well, 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.
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 →
I just learned from Phil’s blog that the Galileoscopes I mentioned to you some months back (remember? International Year of Astronomy? Not just Darwin year?) are ready for shipping. There were issues with production at first, but now they are ready. The key issue right now seems to be that they are in danger of having to stop production of these lovely things if they don’t get lots of orders by May 31st. Ack!
So please please consider sending in a order for one or a few. Imagine what a delightfully unusual gift it would make for someone. Either someone you know, or someone you don’t know like a neighbour, your local school, church (yes!) or community center, or… even that special someone who you’d like to get to know – what an icebreaker, eh? Here’s a picture from the site of what a happy owner’ll have after assembling it:
The space shuttle mission launching today (around 2:00pm ET) has a very special task. It is going to take some astronauts up to do some crucial repairs (see story here) on the Hubble Space Telescope. It is the last such mission (Hubble will be retired into the Pacific eventually) and has been long awaited. Please keep your fingers crossed for a successful mission to keep such an important scientific instrument working for another five (or so) years to teach us more about the universe. (Go to the Hubble site here.)
NPR had a rather good piece about the special tools that were designed to allow these repairs to be carried out. The point is that the astronauts are not just swapping out parts or modules that were designed to be swapped out (like you do a light bulb, a shower head, or a shaving foil), but they have to go in and take out things deeper [...] Click to continue reading this post →
I had a lot of fun at this year’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) open house. I’m happy to report that there were, once again, lots of people wandering around looking at the displays and demonstrations, asking questions, hanging out, and so forth, and an impressive turnout of JPL staff answering questions and being very enthusiastic about the science (something which is easy to do because it’s such an excellent topic!). I’ve made a video for you that is coming up at the end of this post. (Click on stills for larger views.)
There was the usual huge emphasis on planetary exploration with rovers and robots and so forth – this seems to capture the imagination of everyone, so why not? – but I was more than a little surprised to find virtually no showing for the Planck mission. There was one poster somewhere, but no booth, no model, no description of the truly amazing science that it will do in unlocking more about the origins of the entire [...] Click to continue reading this post →
I learned* that the Kepler craft (NASA artist sketch on right – this is the device that will look for “other earths” – see below) is all go to try for launch later today! Extract from an announcement that went around:
On 6 March (EST, 7 March in UTC) there are two opportunities for a launch into the Earth trailing orbit. The first window is at 6 March, 10:49:57 p.m. EST (UTC: 7 March, 03:49:57) and the second window is at 11:17:44 p.m. EST (UTC: 7 March, 04:17:44). If Kepler is not launched tonight there is a another possibility at approximately the same time tomorrow night.
Countdown will begin 3 hours before launch and Kepler separation into Earth trailing solar orbit will take place 3709 sec into flight. First contact after separation is expected 4640 sec into flight.
For more information, and to follow the launch live, here are some links: NASA TV, Launch Blog, Spaceflight.
I noticed that Amy Mainzer is over at the Kennedy Space Center to see the launch. She begins to talk about it here on her (excellent) blog. You might want to check back there in case she does a nice report on it. Check out Phil’s Bad Astronomy blog for more on this too. He says he’ll be tweeting and all. (Yes. Tweeting. There, I have used that word in its recent new context/meaning in a sentence for the first time. I feel a bit silly.)
Bill Stone is quite an engaging speaker, it has to be said. I heard him on the BBC World Service, being interviewed about his hopes and plans to change the way we do things in space. It is a spirited case that he makes, where he deliberately invokes the spirit and the words of Sir Ernest Shackleton and other great explorers going off into the unknown. The audio is here. (If you come to this late, search their archive here.)
Then I checked and sure enough there was a TED talk from him last year. See here. You can see him in action as well, although the BBC interview is complementary [...] Click to continue reading this post →
Last week the Guardian did a special podcast about Barack Obama’s science policies, and the challenges that lie ahead for the new administration. It’s actually rather good (at least the parts I’ve heard so far – I’m listening to it in pieces while travelling) and I recommend it. They have lots of guests, many of whom you’ve maybe heard of (Lesley Stone, Martin Rees, Diana Liverman, Chris Mason, P Z Myers, Lawrence Krauss, Martin Barstow), and the issue is explored from several angles, from climate change, through stem cells, to the space program. [...] Click to continue reading this post →
As you may have heard, the Phoenix craft on Mars (remember? seven minutes of terror?) which had already been running beyond its design lifetime, has probably sent its final message from Mars. There is not enough daily solar energy (now that it is Winter) coming in to support its energy needs.