Monday, September 30, 2013

Drops of Jupiter

Earth is quite picturesque from a few thousand miles away. It is equipped with beautiful hues of green that are spread between large gaps of rolling seas of blue, and of course, there are large collections of fluffy white clouds that dance across the face of the planet. The images taken from this vantage point remind us that Earth is quite stunning. Out of the rest of the planets in our solar system, only one other planet (Jupiter) has the variety of colors that we are accustomed to seeing when viewing space-based images of our home planet. In all other cases, the bland, colorless worlds are a stark reminder that our planet is very much alive. Ultimately, Earth's colors signify its abundance of life. However, in Jupiter's atmosphere, the intense colors signify something entirely different...

So what do these colors mean? How does Jupiter stack up against our own planet?

To read the full article, see:

Sci-fi to Sci-fact: NASA Finds Magnetic Portals in Earth's Magnetic Field

In another example of how real life often mimics the arts, last year, NASA funded research once again turned science fiction into science fact. This time, hidden "portals" were found in Earth's magnetic field. The so-called portals provide an undisturbed path from our planet to the sun's atmosphere, which is 93 million miles from Earth. Don't get your hopes up though, these portals aren't related to the theoretical constructs that can teleport an object between two distant regions in space (called worm-holes); however, they are pretty interesting and unexpected nonetheless.

To read the full article, see:

Astronomy Picture of the Day: 9/30/13 - New Look at the Prawn Nebula

This newly-released image captures the Prawn nebula (located more than 6,000 light-years from Earth in the constellation of Scorpius) in never-before-seen clarity. The region spans some 250 light-years in diameter, which is equivalent to the length of four full moons in our night sky. Despite its amazingly large size, the region is quite dim because most of the light from embedded stars is emitted at wavelengths that are invisible to the human eye. Therefore, special tools are needed to capture the stars in all of their glory.

Those special tools are present in one of the ESO's most powerful telescopes, known as the VLT Survey Telescope (VST). It shows the colorful fallout of ionization - the process in which ultraviolet radiation changes surrounding hydrogen gas clouds. Through this process, the ultraviolet radiation strips atoms of their electrons, causing them to recombine and shine brilliantly. Furthermore, we can determine the chemical composition of the nebulae based on the spectra of their light. Most notably, in this particular region, hydrogen emission can be seen in red.

References, sources, and further reading can be found here:

Sunday, September 29, 2013

General Relativity in Action: Eclipses & The Mystery of "Shifting" Stars

For something so imperative to our existence (and the existence of the universe in general), the concept of gravity is not well understood. This is unfortunate. Since it is intrinsically tied to space, time, matter, and mass, it is intrinsically tied to our understanding of the cosmos. Without it, matter would not be compelled to accumulate, therefore there would be no attraction for our sun and the Earth to form.(obviously, No sun and no Earth = no us). So we know that gravity is important, but what is it?

To read the full article, see:

5 of the most Amazingly Beautiful (and absolutely terrifying) Sinkholes

Life is rather chaotic. On any given day, we are plagued by a number of unexpected and frightening events—divorce, death, sickness, accidents—the list goes on and on. And this list doesn't even include any of the natural disasters that spring up: tornadoes, hurricanes, volcanic eruptions. Yet, when all is said and done, there is one thing you can rely on…the ground beneath your feet. Although it may quake and tremble from time to time, for the most part, we have solid soil to stand on. And even through the Earth my rumble, we know that it's not really going anywhere. At least, it seems that way...but unfortunately, the Earth is not quite as stable as it seems.

Sinkholes: These terrifying monsters are massive holes that open up in the Earth without warning. They can be as small as a car, or they can span hundreds of acres. Some dip just a few meters into the earth, while others are over 600 meters (2,000 feet) deep. These beasts have swallowed people, cars, trees, and even entire houses or city blocks. Sinkholes are terrifying; they are unstoppable; they are deadly; and they are almost entirely unpredictable.

Learn about some of the most amazing sinkholes at:

Know Your Scientist - Niels Bohr: The Father of the Atom

Born in 1885 to Christian Bohr - a professor of physiology - and Ellen Adler Bohr in Copenhagen, Denmark, Niels Bohr made numerous contributions to the field of physics up over the course of his life, up until his death in 1962.

After studying philosophy and mathematics at the University of Copenhagen in Denmark, he conducted a series of experiments dealing with the properties of surface tension. Said experiments were performed using his father's lab, which was located at the university. Following his initial experiments, the essay on his findings won a competition that was sponsored by the Royal Danish Academy of Science and Letters (quite the accomplishment at the time). This prompted his transition from philosophy, into the field of physics - a subject he would soon find himself taking quite the liking to.

To read the full article, see:

How Advanced Races of Intelligent Beings Could Live in Black Holes

As a species, we all contemplate the existence of extra-terrestrial civilizations living in the far reaches of the universe, and we imagine that they have mind-bogging technology that we can’t even being to drum up using our collective imagination. So far though, there have been no clear indicators (well, depending on who you ask) that there is anything beyond homosapiens, which is equal parts depressing and terrifying. After all, if aliens were real, surely there would be some clear signs of their existence, right? Well, there are all sorts of theories put forth in the Fermi paradox that postulate why there may be no signs…everything ranging from our technology being so basic compared to theirs that we are unable to pick up whatever radio signals they have sent out into the abyss, to ET’s knowing we are here, but choosing not to reach out to us to avoid hindering our progress. However, a new theory has been put forth that, frankly, makes all of the alternatives seem kind of lame.

References, sources, and further reading can be found here:

Astronomy Picture of the Day: 9/29/13 - The Peony Nebula

One of the brightest stars in the Milky Way, known as the 'Peony nebula' star (formally known as WR 102ka), also leaves quite a bit of beautiful destruction in its wake. The star in question is located in the central region of our galaxy, which also happens to be quite dense with interstellar dust clouds. The clouds obscure the light from the stars buried within them, putting a little damper on this spectacular star's shine. So to get some semblance of the full picture, the Spitzer Space Telescope took a look at the region at infrared wavelengths - revealing a region decorated by colorful stellar outflow.

After peering behind the veil, we can see the true extent of a star that is easily (frequently) lost in the noise. Upon closer inspection, a reddish cloud of glowing material is seen encircling a white dot. After taking the luminosity of the star, astronomers now think the star may, in fact, be the brightest star in the galaxy - even outshining Eta Carina (Fun fact: Eta Carina is not one single star, but two, which make up a binary star system). Furthermore, both stars will become even brighter in the not-too-distant-future (cosmically speaking), when both of them go supernova, but which star will be the first to blow is anyone's guess.

References, sources, and further reading can be found here:

Saturday, September 28, 2013

Scientist Find Possible Cure for HIV in an Unusual Place

The battle against HIV and AIDS continues. The virus that causes these conditions has wreaked havoc on millions of lives--the World Health Organization estimates that, in 2011 alone some 1.7 million people died of HIV/AIDS related illnesses. Although the life expectancy for individuals with this virus was initially extremely short, in recent year,s the drugs that are used to combat this condition have improved greatly, allowing individuals with the virus to live without too much pain or duress for decades. However, these drugs are not cures. They treat the condition by essentially keeping HIV replication at a minimum. The drugs must be taken for live or the HIV will proliferate and spread. Thus, they do not cure the patient. That said, in the past few years we have progressed by leaps and bounds, making amazing new headway in the fight against HIV and AIDS.

To read the full article, see:

Tauon - The Supermassive Lepton!

We all like hearing about the biggest and the smallest, the heaviest and the lightest, as these categories represent the extremes of the universe...and they usually they are great for comparisons. Today, we're going to discuss the heaviest of all the leptons, the Tauon (also known as the Tau Lepton or Tau Particle). The Tau lepton has a mass of 1777 MeV/c^2, to put this lepton into perspective, it is several thousand times heavier than the smallest lepton - the electron - and is even heavier than a proton. But before we get into a thorough discussion of these particles, let's have a bit of background in how particles function, just for a bit of context.

To read the full article, see:

What lies beyond the edge of the observable universe? Is there a difference between the observable universe and the actual universe?

References, sources, and further reading can be found here:

To read the full article, see:

Astronomy Picture of the Day: 10/24/12 - Milky Way in X-ray and Infrared

Many of you have probably seen the Milky Way. Whether you’ve seen it in a picture or have been fortunate enough to get away from the city lights to personally observe its dust lane, this picture shows the Milky Way in a whole new light (no pun intended).

This is a picture of the Milky Way taken in infrared and X-ray, allowing astronomers to peer through the dust and observe the galactic core. This image itself covers an area of sky about half a degree across, or the size of one full moon.

References, sources, and further reading can be found here:

Friday, September 27, 2013

Is the Universe Infinite or Finite: Our Changing Universe

In the past, it was believed that either the Universe was infinite in size and age, or that it was a finite size and time was a property that didn't exist until the inception of the Universe. If the latter is was true, any events that happened before this era could have no affect on what is happening now. But ultimately, the question of whether or not it had a beginning was really one of metaphysics or theology. With the limited technological capabilities of previous eras, it was possible to account for what was observed using either theory--that the universe had existed forever, or that it was set in motion at some finite time.

However, the finite vs infinite discussion is far more complex than we'd ever imagined. In an infinite and static Universe, the observed expansion of the cosmos triggered by dark energy is nonsensical; it just doesn't make sense. You can't have something that is static and unchaining...but is expanding. However, let's leave this aside for a moment and delve into the history of our understanding of the cosmos.

To read the full article, see:

How can the Diameter of the Universe the Age?

To answer this question I feel compelled to give you a lot of complicated back story. Instead, i'm going to try to condense several different physics terms into something concise and (somewhat) brief.

First, how do we know the universe is expanding?

To read the full article, see:

From Quark to Quasar: The Observable Universe

Yesterday, we asked "what is the size of the universe." That becomes a complicated question to answer, and each answer or hypothesis has serious ramifications on the nature of the universe we live in. Today, we'll be posting several articles on the nature of the universe's size, but this is (one of the) closest things to an "answer" we can get with today's knowledge.

If you really want a headache (the good kind), take a long look at this "photo" on the left. No, this is not a photo of the cosmic microwave background radiation (which you can actually see for yourself if you change your television channel to one of the "fuzzy" stations), neither is it a collection of graphs of a cell structure. So, instead of telling you what it isn't, how about I tell you what it is? This is, well... everything. Everything we can see and observe anyway. What you're looking at is a map of known galaxies and superclusters in the "observable" universe, with the gaps that lie between the structures contributing to the map's cell-like structure. These gaps, or voids, are regions of space completely lacking in stars, galaxies, and clusters. The largest of these gaps (the Eridanus supervoid) is almost one billion light-years in totality. You and I, and all the things we've ever known, are smack in the middle of this image, along with our Local group (which is a part of the larger Virgo Supercluster).

To read the full article, see:

Astronomy Picture of the Day: 9/27/13 - ArTeMiS Peeps a Look at the Cat's Paw Nebula

The new camera on the ESO's APEX telescope, called ArTeMiS, is at it again. This time, capturing a stunning image of the Cat's Paw Nebula, which is located more than 5,500 light-years from Earth in the southern constellation of Scorpius. The newly released image takes a look at the region at submillimeter-wavelengths, revealing tens of thousands of baby stars; containing the collective mass of 200,000 suns.

With objects like this, submillimeter wavelengths are ideal for observation - as the region is home to a large smattering of cool interstellar dust grains. Not only do said grains obscure visible light, but the light they do emit is emitted at much longer wavelengths, which cause the region to look insignificant at optical wavelengths. But at longer wavelengths, the dust clouds come alive - revealing the star formation activity raging inside.

References, sources, and further reading can be found here:

Thursday, September 26, 2013

Spacetime May Differ For Elementary Particles

Per the big bang theory (the most widely accepted theory that details the origin of the universe), the whole of the cosmos- with its three dimensions of space and one dimension of time - was created in mere nanoseconds almost 14 billion years ago. Notably, the big bang theory does not simply offer an explanation for the origin of the matter that now permeates spacetime, it offers an explanation for creation of spacetime itself. Many believe that the big bang theory is problematic for precisely this reason i.e., it is problematic because it seems to assert that something came from nothing. However, there is an idea that could make sense of this little conundrum, and it is getting a strong foothold among many in the scientific community. This idea proposes something quite interesting - that spacetime may NOT be the same for all elementary particles.

Say what?

For quite a number of years now, physicists have been attempting to reconcile classical quantum mechanics with general relativity in a way that would allow us to determine the laws of quantum gravity. One such model is called loop quantum gravity (or LQG), which we have discussed before. This model postulates that spacetime itself is likely similar in structure to fabric (like a tapestry), comprised of a series of minutely small fibers that are twisted and curved to form loops. Under this scenario, the tapestry would contain some million trillion trillion trillion trillion trillion (10^66) fibers (per square centimeter!)

To read the full article, see:

A Test for Loop Quantum Gravity

Physicists have recently proposed a test to determine whether or not loop quantum gravity exists. Before understanding the importance of the test (or the test itself), first we need to understand what loop quantum gravity is.

Abbreviated LQG, this hypothesis is one of several aiming to understand gravity at the quantum level. This would allow us to unify the four fundamental forces of nature as is required by Grand Unified Theory (or, the Theory of Everything). Under a LQG universe, spacetime is granular, figuratively a very thin fabric of finite loop woven together. These loops exist at the Planck length and give an atomic structure to space itself. That is your introduction to LQG, considering the fact that there is an entire field of science devoted to this possible aspect of reality, I’ll return to the meat of the subject – devising a test to figure out whether or not LQG exists.

To read the full article, see:

How We Stopped Light

Most of us probably know a few basic facts about light: nothing can travel faster than it, it comes in forms that we can’t see (such as x-ray and infrared), it can give you a nasty sunburn or a super cute tan (which will inevitably make you look like old leather), and it can be slowed down. If you didn’t know the last one, allow me to explain.

The speed of light is a constant. It travels at an amazing 186,282 miles per second (299,791km/sec). However, this speed only applies in a perfect vacuum where light will not encounter any other atoms. In a non-vacuum (which exists pretty much everywhere), bits of light smash into other objects. These objects absorb the photon and then re-emit it. In this respect, the slowing of light is an illusion. The photons still travel from at the same speed, but they make a few stops along the way as they are absorbed and refracted by various atoms. And light is absorbed and emitted more slowly through certain substances. For example, diamond makes light travel from A to B significantly slower.

But we can use these principles to essentially stop light. In all likeliness, many of you have already heard about the scientists in Germany who stopped light for a full minute. I’d like to offer a breakdown of how they accomplished this feat.

To begin with, the scientists took an opaque crystal (something that light is not able to penetrate) and fired lasers into it. This caused the quantum states of atoms within the crystal to become disturbed. Ultimately, the scientists were able to make it so that a specific frequency of light could pass through this previously opaque object by altering the crystal in such a say so that the atoms within it had two quantum states.

Next, the researchers shot a laser beam (which corresponded to the specific frequency) through the newly transparent region. Then they turned off the laser beam that was altering the quantum states of the atoms within the crystal. This made the material once more opaque. The result of this was that the second laser beam was halted within the material. The beam was held in place for a whole minute. They were also able to store and retrieve an image using the same technique.

Of course, things are not quite this simple. For starters, the crystal that was frozen to less than negative 450 degrees Fahrenheit (-267C). But the aforementioned is a basic breakdown of the technique. For those interested in more technical information, see this source. Here, I will offer a brief passage which conveys the specifics:

“Light can be slowed down to the point that it comes to a halt: by switching off the control beam when the light is within the sample, the photons can be converted into collective atomic spin excitations (so called spin waves). The spin waves can be stored in the atoms for as long as the coherence between the two spin levels survives, before being converted back into light by turning on the control pulse again. The scheme thus allows the coherent storage and retrieval of light. How long can the storage time be? Since the light is stored in atomic coherences, the limit is given by T2, quantifying the lifetime of the coherence between the two relevant atomic spin states (how long the two spin states can remain in a coherent superposition).”

References, sources, and further reading can be found here:

Astronomy Picture of the Day: 09/26/13 - Little Ghost Nebula

In the spirit of the green trees and shrubbery slowly fading to the lovely colors of orange and red to signifies the coming of Halloween (at least here in the United States), no other nebulae is more appropriate than the Little Ghost Nebula.

With wispy tendrils of interstellar gas and dust clouds, the little ghost nebula (formally known as NGC 6369) is truly a haunting sight. It's located approximately 2,000 light-years from Earth in the constellation of Ophiuchus and is considered to be a planetary nebula since it looks almost spherical like a planet when viewed through a telescope.

Radiating from the center is a faint star that's ending the near of its life-span, causing it to eject massive amounts of its outer envelope of gases into interstellar space through stellar winds. When all is said and done, all that remains of this sun-like star will be a dense core called a white-dwarf. The white-dwarf is emitting large amounts of ultraviolet light into the surrounding gas clouds, stripping electrons from atoms leaving behind ions in a process called ionization. The more faint of the "wisps" were created from the gas the star shed during the start of the ejection process since the ionization process is less advanced the farther the distance from the star is.

References, sources, and further reading can be found here:

Astronomy Picture of the Day: 09/26/13 - Little Ghost Nebula

In the spirit of the green trees and shrubbery slowly fading to the lovely colors of orange and red to signifies the coming of Halloween (at least here in the United States), no other nebulae is more appropriate than the Little Ghost Nebula.

With wispy tendrils of interstellar gas and dust clouds, the little ghost nebula (formally known as NGC 6369) is truly a haunting sight. It's located approximately 2,000 light-years from Earth in the constellation of Ophiuchus and is considered to be a planetary nebula since it looks almost spherical like a planet when viewed through a telescope.

Radiating from the center is a faint star that's ending the near of its life-span, causing it to eject massive amounts of its outer envelope of gases into interstellar space through stellar winds. When all is said and done, all that remains of this sun-like star will be a dense core called a white-dwarf. The white-dwarf is emitting large amounts of ultraviolet light into the surrounding gas clouds, stripping electrons from atoms leaving behind ions in a process called ionization. The more faint of the "wisps" were created from the gas the star shed during the start of the ejection process since the ionization process is less advanced the farther the distance from the star is.

References, sources, and further reading can be found here:

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Positron Emission Topography and the Large Hadron Collider: What Science does for You

When most people think of the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) the first thing that pops into their head is probably the 2012 discovery of the Higgs Boson. This was a major discovery that offered a monumental contribution to our understanding of the standard model, but what else has the LHC accomplished? Has it done anything else that is notable? Looking at the popular science magazines, it doesn't seem like it has--the LHC looks like a one-shot wonder. However, the LHC has done a lot more than discover the Higgs, but unlike NASA, which has a much higher profile and is frequently recognized for its contributions to society, its discoveries often get little to no press. Today, we'd like to rectify this oversight by focusing on the LHC's contributions to the PET Scan.

To read the full article, see:

Solar Cycle 24: How Epic is the 2013 Solar Maximum?

Since we're virtually at the peak of sun's solar maximum for 2013, it makes sense to have a look at how this solar maximum compares to that of previous solar cycles. This discussion may remind some of you that, earlier this year, we had three X-class solar flares within two days, which is rather impressive as X-class flares are the largest and most dangerous kind of solar flare. They are major events that can trigger radio blackouts around the whole world and cause long-lasting radiation storms in the upper atmosphere (hello, aurora).

So, how does this solar maximum stack up against previous cycles? To find out, see the full article at:

Where Did the Big Bang Happen? Where's the center of the Universe?

This is actually a pretty common question; however, the term "the center of the universe" doesn't really mean anything. In short, this is because of relativity--it makes it so that we can define any point that we want as the center of the universe. It makes absolutely no difference. This is because we don't have what you might call "an impartial reference frame," so if we need to make a grid or graph (something that, by its nature, has to have a center) we can put the center wherever we want to and it does not change our results.

To read the full article, see:

Astronomy Picture of the Day: September 25, 2013 - Saturnian System

As usual, Cassini can do no wrong. This beautiful image of Titan, Pan, Pandora (not the same moon), Dione & Saturn's rings clearly shows the dynamics between the moons in Saturn's own "mini-solar system." Thanks to Cassini's position in Saturn's rings, we're given the opportunity to not only study their characteristics and orbital features, but to also understand the evolution of the (arguably) most beautiful planet in our solar system.

This image is a composite put together from false-colored images taken by Cassini, but it does represent what the objects would look like from our perspective if we were to be able to see them with our own two eyes.

Cassini captured the heart of the planet from approximately 1.3 million miles (2.1 million kilometer) away from Dione, back in 2011. It's mind blowing to consider how large the moons appear to be (Titan is actually larger than Mercury) from over a million miles out, but the best part is that the image scale on the photo is equal to about 8 miles (13 kilometers) per PIXEL.

References, sources, and further reading can be found here:

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

NASA's Plutonium Conundrum dubbed "The Problem"

Most of you have probably heard all of the recent media buzz on the wildly successful Voyager probe and Curiosity Mars rover. These little guys zoom about the cosmos and traverse canyons on distant worlds. But what is it that gets them there? Human ingenuity, of course, but more literally--what fuels these devices? Generally, we don't talk too much about what powers our technology throughout the cosmos, neither do we discuss the current stockpile of NASA's inventory. Ultimately, these missions have only been possible because of an unstable isotope, Plutonium 238. The devices we use power themsleves through the decay of this substance. Unsurprisingly, plutonium 238 is a hot commodity (pun intended), and has (unfortunately) been in short supply for years. Now, NASA has almost completely run out. This is obviously a problem...a big problem...

To read the full article, see:

Rhinopharyngitis: What is the common cold? (Myths and Facts)

What is caused by over 150 viruses, has no cure, and causes more than one billion reactions in the united states alone? The common cold (queue scary music). This is of the most common illnesses on the planet, and one of the most frequent sicknesses that people complain about. Despite how commonplace it is, most of the population has been misled, and as a result, individuals tend to be misinformed when it comes to what a “cold” actually is.

To learn facts and myths about the common cold, read the full article at:

Body Invaders and Zombies of the Animal Kingdom

Humans love zombies. They are the source for a multitude of movies, books, television shows, and games--our society can't seem to get enough of them. These fictional zombies are (almost) always twisted and mindlessly aggressive characters that are created from a normal host of some species. They consume others of their species and (sometimes) convert them into horrors like themselves (zombies sound like a lovely bunch, don't they?). The key word in the aforementioned description is "fictional," right? Well, as it turns out, this keyword is a bit misleading. Body invading zombies DO exist, they just affect other species (parasites exist for humans, of course, but they don't really take over our minds or control our bodies). So, let's see how well fiction stacks up against reality and take a look at some of the zombie creatures (and the parasites that create them) that really do exist.

To read the full article, see:

Astronomy Picture of the Day: 9/24/13 - IC 2169

This colorful image takes a look at the lesser known neighbor of the Christmas Tree Cluster and the Cone Nebula; two of the most famous star-forming regions in the galaxy.

IC 2169, as its called, is fed a collection of stars located in a neighboring molecular cloud, called Monoceros R1. Most notable is HD 31038. The star is responsible for the small reflection nebula contained to the west of the Cone nebula. The light from this star scatters when it comes in contact with dense grains of interstellar dust, Since scattering tends to be more effective for light on the bluer end of the electromagnetic spectrum (instead of red), we see te lovely bluish glow that defines reflection nebulae.

All three regions can be found approximately 2,700 light-years from Earth in the constellation of Monoceros.

References, sources, and further reading can be found here:

Monday, September 23, 2013

Classifications of Objects in Space Part 3: Diffuse and Star-forming Nebulae

Because astronomy is an observation-based science, we need to carefully categorize the objects we see. As we explore the cosmos, we discover that not all objects are the same, and even then, some objects that appear the same at first glance differ greatly in the details. Here, we will be discussing the classifications we give the objects we find.

A nebula is basically a large cloud of gas – in that, there are several different categories that define the type of nebula we are viewing.

Today, I wanted to talk about diffuse nebulae and star-forming nebulae.

A diffuse nebula is basically a nebula with no defined edge. The nebula simply blends into interstellar space. In an attempt to stay away from absolutes it is best to say most nebulae can be described as diffuse nebulae. However, I can’t think of or find a single nebula that isn’t diffuse. Diffuse nebulae are normally comprised of reflection nebulae and emission nebulae. You may occasionally hear the term ‘gaseous nebula’ used to describe a diffuse – this is an inaccurate term and isn’t used in any scientific capacity.

Star-forming nebulae, more properly referred to as a molecular cloud and sometimes referred to as a stellar nursery, is a nebula where star formation is actively occurring. The Orion Nebula and the Tarantula Nebula are some such examples of stellar nurseries. These nebulae contain some of the youngest stars in existence and are able to reveal the secrets of the first stages of a stars life.

An example of both a star-forming nebula and diffuse nebula. It is NGC 604 (not pictured) and contains more than 200 of the universes youngest stars. The nebula is about 1,500 light-years across and located about 3-million light-years from Earth in the Triangulum constellation (ironically enough, the nebula also resides within the Triangulum Galaxy.

References, sources, and further reading can be found here:

The Iris Nebula

The spaces between stars and alien solar systems are not a perfect vacuum. Instead, lurking between the stars and galaxies are thin amounts of dust filaments and (mainly hydrogen) gas. Over a large span of time, these gas and dust clouds eventually collect into pockets, forming huge clouds that are so large, light takes hundreds of years to travel from one end of the cloud to the other.

This is one such cloud, which is known as the Iris Nebula. It's easy to see where it got its name as it appears to be blooming like so many flowers do in early spring-time. The Iris Nebula (formally known as NGC 7023 or Caldwell 4) is a bright reflection nebula, which lies about 1,300 light-years from Earth in the constellation of Cepheus and may extend around 30 light-years across.

At the heart of NGC 7023 is a cluster of stars, but none as bright and reflective as LBN 487, which can be seen in the center. It's located near two stars. One of which, shines at a magnitude of +6.8 whilst the other has a magnitude of +3.23.

References, sources, and further reading can be found here:

Astronomy Picture of the Day - 9/23/13: Messier 85

This unusually celestial region is called Messier 85 (also known as NGC 4382), a lenticular galaxy located more than 60 million light-years from Earth (in the constellation of Coma Berenices).

Messier 85 is a member of the Virgo cluster, which is home to more than 1,500 galaxies. Another galaxy among this group, known as NGC 4394, is responsible for the galaxy's unusual structure. (A smaller elliptical galaxy is also involved, but the extent to which remains unknown) The cataclysmic event between the two galaxies took place several billion years ago; when a gravitational perturbation dismantled the galaxy piece-by-piece, leaving behind something very different in its place.

During the collision and merger, Messier 85 lost most of its spiral structure, with the ripples still settling throughout the outer shell despite the amount of time that has since passed.

References, sources, and further reading can be found here:

Clive Wearing: The Man With the 30 Second Memory

References, sources, and further reading can be found here:

To read the full article, see:

Sunday, September 22, 2013

Fall Equinox

HAPPY EQUINOX! Today is officially the first day of fall for the Northern Hemisphere and the first day of spring for the Southern Hemisphere, and you know what that means. The leaves are changing, the cold/warm weather is moving in. Starbucks is bringing back their pumpkin spice latte (for the folks in America at least). I love the seasonal changes.

The day will be roughly 12 hours long followed by a roughly 12 hour night (very extreme latitudes excluded). The sun is setting on the North Pole for the first and last time this year, bringing a 6 month winter, and Antarctica is about to see the first rays of sunshine after their long winter. This change is all caused by the tilt of Earth's axis in relation to the Sun over the course of Earth's 365.25 day orbit.

The equinox is the day the Sun passes the Equator. For the fall equinox, the sun will continue to sink towards the horizon until the winter solstice in the Northern Hemisphere and, in the Southern Hemisphere, it will continue to move higher into the sky until the Solstice (Southern Hemisphere fans, do y'all call this the summer or winter solstice?).

Does anyone have any special September equinox traditions? Personally, within the first few days of the fall equinox, I get a pumpkin spice latte and watch the annual post-equinox wind storm blow all of the leaves off the trees in Oregon.

References, sources, and further reading can be found here:

PSR J1719-1438b: The Star that Turned into a Diamond Planet

PSR J1719-1438 is probably one of the most fantastical cosmic objects that you'll ever encounter. First, 1438 is a neutron star. A neutron star is a stellar object this is amazingly massive (they are at least 1.4 times the mass of our sun), and they are amazingly small (generally only about 20km [12mi] across). And a large mass + a small size = extreme density. Since neutron stars are so dense, on Earth, one teaspoon of this stellar material would weigh about a billion tons.

To lean more, read the full article here:

The Moon's Real Name (and others too)

Yesterday, we asked, "What is the moon's real name." By a decisive majority, "Luna" was the winning guess (an honorable mention goes to a handful of people who said "Sol 3a" because that's clever). A notable number of people also thought the moon didn't have a name and a ton of people also thought this was a trick question, and it was. The moon's real name is...

Drum roll please....

More drum roll...


And the answer is...

The Moon (note the capital "M")

Some people brought up the point about languages, which could change the Moon's "real name" in a culture. but there is a catch. The Moon is the name that's been approved by the International Astronomical Union (IAU), which is the internationally recognized body for naming anything outside of Earth's atmosphere. The Moon is called as such because it doesn't need any other name. It's not just any moon, it's the Moon. The Moon's proper name is reinforced with the realization that in all scientific writings the name that Scientists use to discuss our natural satellite is, you guessed in, the Moon.

The same methodology applies to Earth (the official name being the Earth) and the Sun (with an official name of the Sun). Names like Terra/Gaia/Tellus (for the Earth), Luna (for the Moon), and Sol (for the Sun) are simply poetic. Science fiction writers, scientific journalists/writers (such as the writers on FQTQ), and others will often use these poetic names interchangeably to help add some color to the text. After all, if you're reading some article and every other sentence uses the phrase "the Moon," it gets a little old and boring.

solarsystemWhereas there is nothing wrong with referring to these objects by their more poetic names, I find it valuable to mention that people who adamantly stick to the alternate names the hippies of astronomy. The names aren't proper and are used either to add color to your writing/speech, or they are used as a conscious tool to separate your statement from the traditionally accepted (and officially designated) names for the Earth, the Sun, and the Moon.

As an interesting side note, the Milky Way is technically an improper name as well. Our galaxy is simply called "the Galaxy" as proclaimed by the IAU. In technical writings, the Milky Way is most commonly referred to as "the Galaxy" but it is not unheard of to see it referred to as the Milky Way (and it's certainly not uncommon to hear scientists refer to it by the improper name either).

References, sources, and further reading can be found here:

Astronomy Photo of the Day - 9/22/13: The Cave Nebula (SH2-155)

This incredible beautiful image captures one of the more complex nebulae to get a decent picture of; called SH2-155 (also known as the Caldwell 9 or the Cave Nebula).

The region itself is quite complex as well, containing several different nebulae of various types. First and foremost, we have a dim, but exceptionally bright diffused emission nebula, which in this case, is shrouded by thick pockets of interstellar dust. It alone has a radius of about 35 light-years. To put this in perspective, the closest planetary system to Earth - the Alpha Centauri triple star system - is located more than 4 light-years from Earth. Light would could go from our solar system to Alpha Centauri and back four times before light could make a one way trip from one side of this nebula to the other.

Secondly, we have star formation region that is shaped like a crescent. It is comprised of doubly ionized hydrogen molecules. Said ionization is caused by stars embedded in Cepheus B; a molecular cloud located on the outskirt of the region. Two in particular, dubbed HD 217061 and HD 217086, are responsible for the bulk of the work. Within this same region, we can see a reflection nebula, an emission nebula and a dark nebula. All of which are located about 2,400 light years away in the constellation of Cepheus.

References, sources, and further reading can be found here:

Saturday, September 21, 2013

Categories of Objects in Space Part 2: Reflection Nebula

Because astronomy is an observation-based science, we need to carefully categorize the objects we see. As we explore the cosmos, we discover that not all objects are the same, and even then, some objects that appear the same at first glance differ greatly in the details. Here, we will be discussing the classifications we give the o
bjects we find.

A nebula is basically a large cloud of gas – in that, there are several different categories that define the type of nebula we are viewing.

Today, I wanted to talk about reflection nebulae.

A reflection nebula is a nebula that reflects the light of a nearby star or star cluster. Unlike an emission nebula, this nebula is not ionized. Instead, it scatters the light it receives in a brilliant and visible way. It isn’t uncommon for reflection nebula to be comprised of carbon compounds (like diamond dust), iron, and nickel.

Most reflection nebulae are blue simply because blue is the most efficient at being scattered. It isn’t uncommon to see reflection nebulae and emission nebula in the same region. One of the most famous reflection nebulae is the Witch Head nebulae as seen below.

The Witch Head Nebula (pictured here) is about 900 light-years away in the constellation Orion. Obviously, the Witch Head is the nebula seen near the lower left of the image. Rigel, as you might have already guessed, is the very bright star seen to the right of the Witch Head near frame center.

References, sources, and further reading can be found here:

Question Everything: How the Higgs Helps Decipher How the Universe Will End

Question: After the detection of the Higgs boson, a few articles went up in the news claiming scientists have now figured out exactly how and approximately when our universe will end. Exactly how did they use this information to come to those conclusions?

Answer: Ahh. If there is one thing I like more than talking about the beginning of the universe, it's the end of it. And since physicists working at the Large Hadron Collider have confirmed the existence of a Higgs-like particle, we've had plenty "end of the world" material to speculate on.

Now, before I get down to the nitty gritty and answer your question, let me take a moment to establish what the Higgs Boson is. Firstly (and most importantly) the Higgs Boson fills in one of the last missing pieces to the standard model of particle physics; the so-called "holy grail" of theoretical models. (Let me say that with or without the Higgs, it's still not complete. It doesn't include a full-scale description of gravity, dark matter, dark energy or neutrino oscillations) Not only does it explain how the four forces of the universe work together to produce the characteristics of particles interactions, but it also offers some insight into how the universe might evolve far down the line.

To read the full article, see:

Terraforming Mars

Question: With talk I have heard about Terra forming Mars, how can that even be a possibility with the weakness of it's magnetic field?

Asked by: Cyndy Rex

Answer: I’ll give you three guesses to figure out what continent this picture is centered on.

Nope, it’s not Africa, nor Europe. You’re not looking at the Americas or Asia either. This is actually Mars, specifically, this is an artist’s conception of what a terraformed Mars might look like, turning our favorite red dot into a blue one.

Humans have evolved to breathe a very specific type of air, Earth air. This mixture of nitrogen, oxygen, carbon dioxide, and others is our special sauce. Unlike what you see in science-fiction, if you stepped through the Stargate or beamed down from the Enterprise, chances are you’d start to suffocate – and it doesn’t really matter how ‘earthlike’ the world is; the air is just wrong, it isn’t home. So, as humanity branches out into our solar system and beyond, how will we live on these other worlds. There are two options open to us; we can build biospheres or terraform the entire planet.

To read the full article, see:

How did the Universe Begin?

Question: How did the universe begin? Asked by Nancy Cruz

Answer: That's a good question and the answer is a little unsatisfying. At the moment, we simply don't know how the universe began. It's important to note that a "big bang" did occur (and I stress the "a"). That much we know and are pretty comfortable about. What we don't know is what caused the big bang, what the state of the universe was like during or right before the big bang event, and a few others. I'm going to (briefly) explain what we do know, the limitations with studying the big bang event itself, and some theories as to what caused it.

To read the full article, see:

Cosmological Natural Selection: New Theory on Universe's Origins

In my opinion, the theory of evolution by natural selection is one of the most elegant and by far one of the most encompassing theories humanity has ever come up with. Even though it was originally proposed in biology, the underlying idea has been applied to scientific fields across the board. From a cosmological perspective, scientists are attempting to use the same line of thinking. What if the laws of physics have been fine-tuned over the eons, via evolutionary processes, where universes create offspring through black holes? That idea might not be as insane as you think.

“Cosmological natural selection” (also known as ‘fecund universes theory) was first proposed by Lee Smolin, an eminent theoretical physicist and professor at the Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics more than two decades ago. He has continued to make revisions to his hypothesis, but the basic idea is simple: can we use evolutionary terms to describe the universe.

Such a hypothesis explains several aspects of our universe, such as why the fundamental constants of physics are so conducive to live. After all, universes containing large quantities of matter (which allows for the formation of the things we see) are more likely to spawn black holes – in other words, universes containing the ‘stuff of life’ have a better chance of ‘reproducing’ than those that don’t. Obviously, natural selection in this way would favor universes that were able to produce more offspring.

This theory is basically multiverse theory on crack (or, rather the landscape multiverse which is the traditionally proposed model for the multiverse). These universal offspring would form inside black holes and ‘genetic mutations’ would allow for different physical constants to accompany the new baby universe. Moreover, according to conventional physics, information can’t really travel across the event horizon of a black hole (See: The Black Hole War, My Battle with Stephen Hawking for more on that) – this basically creates a universe isolated and inaccessible to the parent universe.

The point of the cosmological natural selection hypothesis has been made, using darwinistic terms, you can describe the nature of the universe. The hypothesis is very far from having any real physical proof supporting it, problems more conventional physics have had no problems pointing out. From a scientific standpoint, Smolin’s hypothesis does made falsifiable predictions, mainly regarding inflation and the neutron stars, that have held up to scrutiny.

References, sources, and further reading can be found here:

Astronomy Picture of the Day: 09/21/13 - Stephan's Quintet

This is an extremely compact galaxy group known as Stephan’s Quintet; it is located about 300 million light-years from Earth and is the first compact galaxy group ever discovered. All five galaxies in Stephan’s Quintet were originally thought to be interacting with each other. Later surveys revealed that one of the galaxies, NGC 7320 (the large galaxy pictured in the furthermost left-hand corner) is actually about seven times closer to Earth than the rest of the group, lying at a distance of only 40 million light-years.

The other galaxies in the quintet (or, is in now a quartet?) are NGCs 7319, 7318A, 7318B, and 7317.

Moving in a clockwise direction from NGC 7320, the first galaxy we come to is NGC 7319, which is a barred spiral galaxy.

The next galaxy seems to have two galactic cores; this is because it is actually two separate galaxies that orbit extremely close to each other. They are NGC 7318b (on the top) and NGC 7318a (on the bottom).

Finally, the furthest member of this cluster is NGC 7317, pictured near the bottom left side of the image.

The interacting galaxies also tend to be warped and distorted because of the gravitational forces exerted on it by the other galaxies. This image spans a distance of about 500,000 light-years. Not pictured here is another galaxy, NGC 7320C, which is located to the top-right of the cluster. NGC 7320C is also about 300 million light-years away and may be a part this cluster. If that is the case, Stephan’s Quintet will remain a quintet in both name an actuality.

References, sources, and further reading can be found here:

The Big What? New Model Eliminates Need for Big Bang

A new and daring cosmological model of the universe from a university in Taiwan describes the universe without a big bang – an eternal universe with NO beginning and NO end. This new and insane model for the universe is actually crazier than it sounds, so bear with me here while we delve into details.

Professor Wun-Yi Shu (from the National Tsing Hua University), has completely veered off of traditional cosmological thinking by proposing a universe that hypothetically explains our observations better than the current models. Shu means to do away with dark energy altogether, while at the same time explaining the acceleration of the universe more precisely. Shu proposes this model to answer some of the most puzzling questions in cosmology, such as the flatness problem (a problem pertaining to cosmological fine-tuning), and the horizon problem (which deals with the uneven temperatures in the universe) – all in one encompassing new model.

Shu’s cosmology includes a sweeping change of our understanding of the universe. Space, time, mass, and length can all be converted between themselves. The speed of light and the gravitational constant are both variable. Time has no beginning or end (neither a big bang nor a big crunch singularity). The universe is a sphere instead of being flat (a higher-dimensional analogue of a sphere called a 3-sphere) and other seemingly bizarre concepts. At some point in the universe’s history, time converts into space, while mass converts into length. Conversely, the opposite also at some point holds true. Length converts to mass and the universe contracts – eventually causing the conversion to take place again procuring another inflation/expansion event.

Shu argues that the big bang cosmological model does not adequately explain the expansion of the universe; thus forcing scientists to propose the existence of things such as dark energy to help fill the voids in our knowledge. According to the tests he has run using observations of Type Ia supernovae, his model of cosmology is a much better match for the available data. The nature of Shu’s cosmological model eliminates problems facing the big bang event because this model simply does not have one. Furthermore, the 3-sphere nature of Shu’s universe automatically eliminates the flatness and horizon problems – although I would be neglectful if I failed to mention that inflation has (for the most part), solved both of these problems.

Shu’s 'steady state' model of the universe has been published on ArXiv for review from his peers (although ArXiv itself is not a peer reviewed journal). Pending review, Shu’s model might gain some credence– or it will simply remain as an interesting (albeit insane) artifact of mathematics.

References, sources, and further reading can be found here:

Friday, September 20, 2013

Categories of Objects in Space Part 1: Emission Nebulae

Because astronomy is an observation-based science, we need to carefully categorize the objects we see. As we explore the cosmos, we discover that not all objects are the same, and even then, some objects that appear the same at first glance differ greatly in the details. Here, we will be discussing the classifications we give the objects we find.

A nebula is basically a large cloud of gas – in that, there are several different categories that define the type of nebula we are viewing.

Today, I wanted to talk about emission nebulae.

To read the full article, see:

The Exoplanet Discovered That Originated From Another Galaxy

Some extrasolar planets truly are from out of this world...for the first time, astronomers have discovered a planet in the Milky Way that's believed to have came from another galaxy. The planet orbits an elderly star that was ripped from a small satellite galaxy some 6-9 billion years ago. HIP 13044 is about 2,000 light years from Earth in the constellation Formax. It is a part of a stream of stars called "Helmi" that are believed to have originated in another galaxy, entirely apart from our own.

To read the full article, see:

Infographic: The History of the Universe Compartmentalized in 1 Year

If the history of the entire universe was condensed into a single year, with each month representative of one and a quarter billion years long (each day represents forty million years, whilst each second stands for some five hundred years or so):

The CMBR forms on January 1st at 2:30 a.m.

The recombination era begins on January 4th

The Milky Way forms on February 22nd

The first stars and galaxies form on March 15th

The sun forms on September 8th

Earth forms on September 11th (The moon forms shortly afterward)

Following the formation of Earth, the heavy late bombardment period commences on September 11th at 2:30 a.m.

Dinosaurs would have died from a comet or meteorite impact on December 30

The earliest humans (hominids) would have appeared on December 31 at 11:39 pm

The first civilization would have appeared on December 31 at 11:59:30 p.m.

For some more information on the history of the universe, see:

References, sources, and further reading can be found here:

Red-Dwarfs: The Curious Stars That Can Live 10 TRILLION Years

As we mentioned a few days ago, the sun was once thought to be an extraordinary star. When, in reality, the sun is merely average. The only thing that sets it apart from its counterparts is us; the fact that it is the only star known to host a planet with conscious, intelligent lifeforms. This revelation came after the discovery of the true number of red-dwarfs that are scattered about the galaxy. Stars of this type are known to be low-mass, exceptionally dim and kind of unstable - making them very difficult to see without employing special tools. But perhaps more astonishing is the fact that they can survive for trillions of years before becoming obsolete - compared to the expected ten billion year life-spans of sunlike stars.

Before going in to how this is possible; first, we must establish how the stars are classified. Astronomers categorize stars of this type by their mass - with all stars that contain about half of the total mass of the sun included. At the maximum, the mass of these stars can become about 7.5% of the sun. Any less than this and they would no longer be capable of sustaining nuclear fusion in their cores - relegating them to a brown dwarf (or a "failed star").

To read the full article, see:

Life on Mars? Contradictory Evidence Says "Maybe Not"

Recently, Curiosity ran some atmospheric experiments on the Martian surface only to discover some surprising results. The rover did not find any traces of methane on the Martian surface. This result is puzzling because previous surveys of the planet by satellites revealed the presence of methane, only to be contradicted by our on-the-ground experiments. This adds more fuel to the heated debate regarding the history of life on the Red Planet.

To read the full article, see:

Revising the Big Bang? New Theory on Creation.

A team of theoretical physicists has proposed a new idea explaining how the universe burst into existence. According to their research, it's possible the universe was created by a collapsing fourth-dimensional star that ejected debris into the cosmos as it turned into a black hole. This, essentially, is the foundation on which the new theory exists - but it gets much cooler.

As it stands, the prevailing theory states the universe was born from an infinitely dense singularity through some currently unknown mechanism.Actually, the entire big bang event itself is entirely unknown. Our equations have yet to be complete enough to describe the moment of creation, a revelation physicists think will follow the discovery of the theory of everything (which scientists might be one-step closer to doing). Until then, what happened "before the big bang," the nature of the 'singularity' that caused the big bang, and the event itself will remain unknown without some major scientific breakthrough. At the moment, it's anyone's guess what happened. (Important side note: we have a lot of knowledge and experimental evidence talking about what happened immediately after the big bang, up to about 10^-35 or so seconds after the event, so our timeline for cosmology is still preserved.

The standard big bang theory has some limitations and some serious problems. It's limitations are mostly summed up by our inability to mathematically or practically study the big bang singularity, as I mentioned before. On the flip side, the big bang theory doesn't really explain why the universe has a nearly uniform temperature (that's where inflation theory comes in, which suggests the universe went through a period of rapid, faster-than-light expansion in its early history).

This new model is based on the slightly older idea that our universe is basically a three-dimensional membrane floating in a fourth-dimensional "bulk universe." That's the basic idea that's supporting this new model. The tenets for the new theory are as follows:

----The "bulk universe" has fourth-dimensional stars that go through the same life cycle that our three-dimensional stars go through.

----Just as with our stars, the stars in the bulk universe could go supernova and collapse into a black hole.

----This is where things start to get really cool. Just as our three-dimensional black holes have event horizons that appear two-dimensional, it's plausible that the fourth-dimensional black holes have event horizons that appear three-dimensional.

----This three-dimensional event horizon is knows as a hypersphere. This is the region of space in which our universe exists.

This new way of looking at the universe has some strong points in its favor. The model is able to explain the expansion of the universe and is able to describe the universe's nearly uniform temperature - with one (rather large) limitation. The model disagrees with observations made by the Planck telescope, which recently created the most detailed map we have of the cosmic microwave background. The hypersphere model has about a four percent discrepancy, which means the hypersphere needs to be refined before it'll gain any credence.

This new model could go a long way to helping us understand the nature of inflation. Currently, the only thing we really know about inflation is "it's happening." We don't know why or how, but the named mechanism for it is known as dark energy. The model proposes that inflation is caused by the universe's motion through higher dimensions of space.

It's important to note that the Arxiv paper where this study was published does not state whether the paper has been submitted to peer review. So, whereas the hypersphere idea is fantastic and fun, it has a long way to go before we can considered a viable hypothesis.

References, sources, and further reading can be found here:

Astronomy Picture of the Day: 09/20/13 - Andromeda and the Moon

This is a fantastic contrast between our closest natural satellite and our closest large galaxy. I must confess the image is a composite of two separate images and this particular alignment didn't occur; but that doesn't stop the final product from being brilliant.

Firstly, in the foreground, we have the Moon. Arguably everyone's favorite natural satellite, the Moon is the closest celestial body to our planet. A note about this particular photograph, the moon is very bright. If the moon were to pass that close to Andromeda, the galaxy would be invisible to the unaided eye and barely visible or invisible to a camera.

In the background, we have the Andromeda galaxy (also known as M31) dominating the scenery. Andromeda is the largest spiral galaxy to the Milky Way, only lying about 2.5-million light-years from Earth. This deep exposure image reveals M31 is splendid detail. You can see bright blue regions of star formation and star clusters, a bright nucleus, and two of Andromeda's satellite galaxies (M32 in the back, just above the nucleus, and M110, the bright galaxy below Andromeda).

To the unaided eye, Andromeda has an apparent size of half a degree (the moon also is about half a degree in diameter). This is because Andromeda has a very low surface brightness. Photography has the ability to record impressions from photons over time and 'keep that in memory' to say. This allows a photographic image to reveal the galaxy's true angular size of about 2.5 degrees (or about five times larger than the full moon).

References, sources, and further reading can be found here:

Thursday, September 19, 2013

Impossibly Large "Holes" in Space Present Us With a Cosmic Quandary

Cosmological mysteries need not revolve around impossibly strange objects like black holes or neutron stars. The best mysteries may not even need to affect our everyday lives, or leave gaping holes in our scientific models (*ahem* dark energy). Sometimes, the mysteries can merely be the absence of something unexpected. Personally, the one that gets me every time falls in the latter camp: voids - large "holes" in space that are generally absent of *everything* observable (some contain very few galaxies instead of being completely devoid of everything). For the most part, these voids don't have stars, galaxies, planets, clusters, stellar material, or any other visible constituent parts. Our own galaxy, which is a member the local group of galaxies, actually lies at the edge of one of these voids, dubbed the "local void." (One of the most famous is called the bootes void.)

To read the full article, see:

Quoth the Raven, Nevermore? Hardly.

Crows can remember who you are. The University of Washington, Seattle did a set of experiments in 2006 to test the memory of local crow flocks. John Marzluff, the brains behind the experiment had researchers wear rubber masks (one of Dick Cheney) while capturing birds with a net launcher. For three years afterward, the crows remembered the masked faces, and alerted others of their presence. The birds took defensive measures as well by diving at the researchers. If that wasn't scary enough, future generations of birds who had never seen the masks reacted in the same manner, indicating that the crows were passing down the stigma throughout generations.

Read more about these amazing creatures at

New Discovery Simplifies Quantum Physics

That's right ladies and gentlemen, quantum mechanics just got easier to understand. A team of physicists have released a paper showing their discovery of a jewel-like geometric structure that takes equations thousands of terms long and simplifies them to a single term. This discovery is poised to dramatically simplify the equations particle physicists use when calculating particle interactions, proposes the uncomfortable idea that space and time are not fundamental aspects of our reality, and brings us a giant leap forward to unifying gravity and quantum theory under one comprehensive model.

The discovery comes on the heels of decades of research into particle interactions. Particle interactions are some of the most basic and common events found in nature. Traditionally, these interactions have been very difficult to calculate, or completely impossible. Scientists required the use of the world's most powerful computers to calculate even the simplest interactions. This new geometric structure, called the amplituhedron, is so simple that a particle physicist could calculate these interactions on a single sheet of paper.

That, in case you were wondering, is insanely impressive. Harvard University theoretical physicist, Jacob Boujaily, and founder of this idea, said, "The degree of efficiency is mind-boggling. You can easily do, on paper, computations that were unfeasible even with a computer before."

To read the full article, see:

A Mass-less Minute

To read the full article, see:

References, sources, and further reading can be found here:

To read the full article, see:

This is another charming image from Cassini, everyone's favorite Saturn-orbiting probe. What you're looking at is the closest thing we have to a Saturnian solar eclipse.

The centerpiece for this picture is the eclipse itself. Here, we can see Titan passing in front of the Sun to produce an interesting light show. The haze you see is caused as light from the sun is scattered in Titan's thick atmosphere before being processed by Cassini. Also in sillouette against the Sun is the small moon Encelandus. If you look closely, you'll also see a little haze around Enceladus. Geysers shooting out jets of ice into space cause this particular phenomenon. You cannot possibly look at this image for any length of time without noticing Saturn's rings piercing into the field of view.

It's interesting to note that the discovery of the ice geysers on Enceladus have lead many scientist to propose missions to travel to the small moon to search for signs for life. The mission and the proposals take on the same look and feel that missions to the better known moon of Jupiter, Europa, tend to have.

References, sources, and further reading can be found here:

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

An Interesting Turn of Events For Proponents of MoND

The "holy grail" of a scientific theory is one that can make accurate predictions of phenomena in advance. Recently, a group of researchers developing Modified Newtonian Dynamics (MOND), which is a modified law of gravity, successfully predicted the motions of 10 dwarf galaxies in orbit around the Andromeda galaxy in advance. This could be a huge leap forward for MOND. What is MOND? MOND is an alternative to dark matter and attempts to explain the gravitational discrepancies seen in the motions of galaxies. In the early 20th century, astronomers discovered galaxies were moving in a way that didn't make sense with all of the observable matter. This lead to the shocking realization that either there is an invisible substance adding to the mass of the galaxy, or our current laws of gravity were incomplete. Dark matter appeals to the first solution and MOND appeals to the second. Thus far, dark matter has proven itself to be a more reliable theory, providing a little more accuracy when describing the motions of galaxies, but it has some deep seeded problems. The winds might be changing as MOND is developed further.

To read the full article, see:

An Assassin Lurks in the Insect World

To read the full article, see:

A Close Call with a Near-Earth Asteroid

On February 15th, a near-Earth asteroid passed within 17,200 miles of our planet's surface (27,600km). The asteroid, formally designated as 2012 DA14, is an estimated 150 feet across (or about 45 meters wide), which is about half the size of a football field. It is composed of approximately 140,000- tons of stone (instead of metal or ice).

Learn more at:

How Thunderstorms Launch Particle Beams into Space

There have been many discussions on our page (and many other science websites) about the matter vs. anti-matter debacle in recent times. Most of the time, these topics seem pretty far from the realm of our physical reality here on Earth. After all, for the most part, we can see matter, feel it, and touch it... but the same cannot be said concerning anti-matter. Yet, as it turns out, anti-matter is much closer to us than previously thought. As it turns out, there is a palatable connection between anti-particles and our terrestrial thunderstorms.

Learn more about this connection at:

To read the full article, see:

Astronomy Picture of the Day: 09/18/13 - The Dark Doodad and NGC 4372

Deep inside the constellation Musca, south of the Coalsack Nebula and the famous Southern Cross, NGC 4372 can be seen hovering in the distance with the Dark Doodad floating in the foreground as only doodads float.

NGC 4372 is a dark nebula located about 700 light-years from Earth. In our sky, the doodad appears about three degrees long, but in terms of light-years, this nebula cuts a swath of space 30 light-years long. It's part of the much larger Musca molecular cloud. The Musca molecular cloud is an active star-forming region, in fact, it's one of the closest such regions to our Solar System.

Much further away, at a distance of 20,000 light-years, we see the star cluster NGC 4372. Globular cluster are massive groups of stars, containing up to a million stars each. They also orbit close to the galactic nucleus and are a trademark of a larger galaxy. The Milky Way is known to have about 150 such clusters, with sum estimates saying about 10% of these clusters remain undiscovered.

References, sources, and further reading can be found here:

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

An assassin lurks in the insect world

References, sources, and further reading can be found here:

To read the full article, see:

The Value of Scientific Errors

The other day, I saw someone comment on aether and how such an idea held back scientific progress for 50 or so years. An anti-science argument I'm constantly accosted with revolves around "what happens if they are wrong." The 'uncertainty' in science makes some people nervous or uncomfortable, they want absolute 100% certainty that a theory is true. Whereas scientists are mostly certain some of their theories are true (such as evolution or the big bang), new evidence could overturn these theories and we'd be forced to develop a new one. I wanted to take a moment to address the value of scientific errors.

To read the full article, see:

5 of NASA's Most Ambitious Undertakings

References, sources, and further reading can be found here:

To read the full article, see:

This Day in History: 09/17/13 - NASA Unveils the Space Shuttle

"It was a dark and stormy night." Or, rather, it was daylight and the weather wasn't actually that bad, but either way, today, on September 17, 1976, NASA unveiled the newest addition to its space fleet - the space shuttle. After nearly a decade of research and development, tens of thousands of man hours, and nearly $10-billion USD, the Enterprise was ready for her public debut. The Enterprise was the precursor to the five other shuttles that would become an icon of the space program.

On June 4, 1974, when construction on the Enterprise began, NASA originally planned to name OV-101 (it's official designation) the Constitution. The reason was because they planned to unveil the spacecraft on Constitution day, September 17, 2013. At the time, Star Trek: The Original Series was, and legacy that remains, extremely popular. Trekkies from across America launched a massive write in campaign to President Ford to have the name changed. They were successful and Ford directed NASA to rename OV-101 the Enterprise.

Unfortunately, Enterprise never made it to orbit. I guess you could call it a "design flaw" as the Enterprise wasn't designed with a heat shield, engines, or some other things that make spaceflight possible. It was designed as a test vehicle. With the reusable spacecraft concept, NASA needed to run performance tests.

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The Milky Way's Central Bulge in 3D

Earlier today, two groups of astronomers released the most detailed 3D map of the Milky Way's central bulge yet. It was created using data obtained by the VISTA telescope, located at the Paranal Observatory in Chile and the MPG/ESO 2.2-metre telescope. All of this was done to give astronomers a better view and clearer understanding of the structure of the Milky Way's heart. The results were better than expected.

The research teams found the center of the Milky Way was shaped somewhat like e peanut (it's also been described as an "X-shape" but, I mean, look at it. Peanut is far better). How was this map created you asked?

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Astronomy Picture of the Day: 09/17/13 - Triton and Neptune

To date, only one probe has ventured to the Neptunian system, Voyager 2. Neptune was the first planet discovered with the use of mathematical equations instead of chance observation (making it my favorite planet outside of our own). The large gas giant (sometimes, Neptune is also called an "ice giant") on the outskirts of the solar system was relatively unknown until Voyager flew past in August of 1989.

During its brief visit, Voyager 2 managed to teach us a lot about Neptune and his system. Voyager found five moons, a ring system, a "Great Dark Spot" similar to Jupiter's famous Great Red Spot, and nitrogen ice volcano's on Tritan, which also turned out to be the coldest planetary body currently known to us (the black smudges you see on Triton's surface is residue from these volcano's).

References, sources, and further reading can be found here:

Monday, September 16, 2013

Columbia's Final Mission: Moon from Orbit

This spectacular photo was taken on January 26th of 2003 by the Columbia Space Shuttle astronauts on their final mission. You can clearly see the quarter moon visible in the Earth's horizon just above the hazy blueish atmosphere.

Sadly, the Columbia crew present on the mission that recorded this photo were killed on February 1st of 2003 when the shuttle they were riding it broke apart in Earth's atmosphere upon re-entry. This beautiful photograph is a testament to their lives and a desire to learn more about the laws that govern the universe that we are made of.symbol of the human nature to persevere in the face of tragedy. Their sacrifices will not soon be forgotten.

Rest in peace to all seven of the Columbia astronauts that passed away on this mission:

-Commander: Rick D. Husband
-Pilot: Willian C. McCool
-Payload Commander: Michael P. Anderson
-Payload Specialist: IIan Ramon
-Mission Specialists: Kalpana Chawla, Laurel Clark and David M. Brown

You can find more information about the mission and failure to ascend back to Earth safely and successfully here.

References, sources, and further reading can be found here:

Voyager's Legacy

As most of you likely heard (and if you haven't, GOOD NEWS), after more than a year of disappointing headlines, which were promptly retracted; Voyager 1 FINALLY broke through the charged particles surrounding our solar system - officially reaching "interstellar space." At least; it reached what we believe to be interstellar space. Oddly enough, this region isn't well-defined. Regardless of the semantics, this is still a pretty monumental occasion. After all.. we - as in, humankind - built something that now wanders the space between stars. How cool is that?

So, in celebration of the Voyager program, we have complied some cliff notes about Voyager 1.

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The Greatest Questions:


click the image to go to the source

We’ve know about inflation for years, but when you tell a bunch of scientists ‘the universe is expanding’ they are inevitably going to ask, ‘how fast.’ This is one of the greatest questions in cosmology– exactly how fast is the universe expanding, and how fast is this expansion accelerating? Answering these questions will help give us a better understanding of everything from the age of the universe to its ultimate fate. Once again, the Spitzer Space Telescope comes to the rescue.

Michael Werner from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) recently stated, “Spitzer is yet again doing science beyond what it was designed to do. First, Spitzer surprised us with its pioneering ability to study exoplanet atmospheres and now, in the missions later years, it has become a valuable cosmology tool.”


The Newest Accomplishments:


big bang timeline

click the image to go to the source

So, what exactly has Spitzer done? It has provided a more accurate measurement of the Hubble constant. This constant is named after Edwin Hubble who essentially confirmed the universes expansion. Later, it was proved that this expansion is accelerating. The Hubble constant is the value of the expanding universe. While making observations in long-wavelength infrared, Spitzer was able to improve on our past measurements by a factor of three. The new measurement has determined that space is expanding at 74.3 plus or minus 2.1 kilometers per second per megaparsec. In other words, about 74.3 kilometers per second per 3-million light-years – that is about 46 miles per second.


Spitzer was able to obtain these measurements by observing Cepheids – a type of variable star that pulses at precise times. These pulses are also directly related to the stars brightness, so scientists are able to use them as a measuring stick by recording their brightness, comparing it to their know brightness, and using that to figure out how far that object is from Earth. Spitzer took measurements of 10 cepheids located within the Milky Way, then took measurements of 80 cepheids located in the Large Magellanic Cloud (a satellite galaxy to the Milky Way).

The new measurement decreases our uncertainty from percentages in the double digits to 3%, which is a magnificent improvement. That means we are 97% certain the new value for the Hubble constant is accurate. This is an astonishing feat.


Quantum Tunneling: Impossible Physics (Unfinished)

References, sources, and further reading can be found here:

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Moving the Earth: Could this be a Global Warming Solution?

References, sources, and further reading can be found here:

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APOD: 9/16/13 - Cygnus Loop

Following several hundreds of millions of years of sustaining nuclear fusion, massive stars exhaust their supply of the necessary fuel - signaling the beginning of the end of the life of a massive star.

What happens next is one of the most profoundly violent celestial events, capable of releasing more energy in a single second than sun-like stars can throughout their entire lifetime - called a supernova. Whilst destructive, these events can produce some wildly spectacular nebulae.

This is an example of one, called the Cygnus Loop (also known as the Veil Nebula). The nebula formed after a shockwave propagated through the material ejected during the supernova - subsequently heating up the surrounding material - causing it to glow.

The nebula, which covers an expanse of space that is 6 times larger than the full moon, can be found approximately 2,500 light-years from Earth (the estimate varies) in the constellation of Cygnus. Astronomers believe the supernova ignited some 5 to 10,000 years ago. To put that in perspective; the light from the event first arrived on Earth whilst the last ice age was coming to an end.

References, sources, and further reading can be found here:

Sunday, September 15, 2013

Waste in Space You’ve heard of The Circle of Life, but how much do you know about The Circle of Waste? On the International Space Station, nearly all of the wastewater produced by the crew (sweat, urine, bathwater, etc.) is filtered through a recycling system and converted back into clean water. Naturally, this includes the wastewater that is produced by the rats. In fact, on the Space Station, a complement of 72 rats equals about one human in terms of water reclamation. That’s right; astronauts drink rat pee. To learn more, see %URL

You’ve heard of The Circle of Life, but how much do you know about The Circle of Waste? On the International Space Station, nearly all of the wastewater produced by the crew (sweat, urine, bathwater, etc.) is filtered through a recycling system and converted back into clean water. Naturally, this includes the wastewater that is produced by the rats. In fact, on the Space Station, a complement of 72 rats equals about one human in terms of water reclamation.

That’s right; astronauts drink rat pee.

To learn more, see

Laika: The First Earthling in Space Her name was Laika. She was the first Earthling to enter space, and she was the only living creature who was sent without a recovery system in place. Learn about her at %URL

Her name was Laika. She was the first Earthling to enter space, and she was the only living creature who was sent without a recovery system in place.

Learn about her at

What Would our Solar System be like if our Sun were Half its Mass?

Either way you look at it, it would be like terrible, horrible, no good, very bad badness.

But to be a bit more specific, let’s talk about what would happen if our Sun—the Sun as it actually exists—suddenly decreased in mass, plummeting from 1 solar to mass to a mere .5 solar masses. In order to understand what impact this decrease would have, you need to have a basic understanding of how mass is related to gravity. Essentially, an increase in mass means an increase in gravity, while a decrease in mass means a decrease in gravity. So if the Sun spontaneously lost half its mass (gasp, shudder, the horror!) then its gravitational pull on Earth would lower. Since the Sun's pull would be weaker, our orbit would increase.

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APOD: 9/15/13 - New Look at Saturn's Rings

This incredible newly-released image shows Saturn's majestic series of rings from a new perspective - one you've likely never witnessed before.

The image, which was captured by NASA's Cassini spacecraft's wide-angle camera, takes a look at the sunlit side of Saturn's rings - showing them from about 17 degrees about its ring plane. The Cassini division is also pretty noticeable - this gap is generated by one of Saturn's tiny moons - Mimas - which clears the region of the tiny bits of debris that make up Saturn's rings.

At the time of the picture's taking (on June 15, 2013), Cassini was situated merely 657,000 miles (1.1 million kilometers) from Saturn - with each pixel representative of 37 miles (or 60 km). The overall clarity of each ring can be attributed to one of the wide-angle camera's onboard tools, which captures light at near-infrared wavelengths.

References, sources, and further reading can be found here:

Saturday, September 14, 2013

A Screaming Star: Swift J1644+57

Have you ever heard a star scream?

Neither have scientists, but they have come close. 3.9 billion light-years away, there is a star getting ripped apart by a supermassive black hole. Every 200 or so seconds, this star releases bursts of light that scientists liken to cries of torment as it nears the end of its life.

As a star approaches a black hole, the outer layers of the star are stripped away and the star is ‘spaghettified’. The stripped material begins to orbit the black hole and forms a region known as the accretion disk. The material continues to spiral into the black hole in the same way water is drained from the sink. Just as water closer to the drain ‘orbits’ faster, so does the material in the accretion disk orbit faster as it gets closer to spinning into the black hole. The only difference is that this material orbits so quickly, it is super heated and, as a result, some of it is ejected back into space in two massive jets.

Death Cries of a Dying Star:

So, if you could hear the stars last calls for help, what would it sound like? When this particular frequency is converted to sound, it would make an ultra-low D-sharp. This isn’t a unique situation either, similar pulses have been seen from matter as it is gobbled up by both large and small black holes. Rubens Reis, one of the project leaders, says, "This is telling us that the same physical phenomenon we observe in stellar mass black holes is also observed in black holes a million times the mass of the sun, and also for black holes that were previously asleep (not consuming matter). It speaks to the invariant nature of physics, which I think is very beautiful."

References, sources, and further reading can be found here:

Wacky Physics: Are Entangled Particles Connected by Wormholes?

Quantum entanglement (also known as "spooky action at a distance") is one of the most bizarre things we see happening with particle interactions on a microscale. Instead of acting as one solitary particle, certain pairs act as one - always knowing what the other is doing (and changing based on the characteristics of its partner) - despite being located vast distances apart. Obviously, this is problematic. Relativity says that nothing can travel faster than the speed of light. Yet, that's exactly what entangled particles are doing - passing along information at speeds far exceeding light-speed travel - the universal speed limit. We shouldn't rush to make adjustments to general relativity though, as one hypothesis has been put forth that combines quantum entanglement with a darling (yet highly theoretical) concept - Einstein-Rosen bridges (commonly known as wormholes).

According to a paper, published by Juan Maldacena and Leonard Susskind: entangled particles may be connected to one another by infinitesimally small wormholes - tunnel-like portals that connect two distant regions of space. This is how they are able to exchange signals almost instantaneously - even when they are located on opposite ends of the universe. The whole thing centers on a concept called an eternal black hole - another highly theoretical concept that postulates an entirely different universe can be found on the "other side" of a black hole (to get to it, one must delve into the black hole's event horizon - the point of no return - before traveling into the singularity. Assuming you survive the spaghettification process - you would hypothetically pop back out into a different universe than the one you originated from). In layman terms, this indicates black holes are actually bridges that connect separate universes. (Or to put it another way, one single black hole exists in two universes)
References, sources, and further reading can be found here:

The Inner Workings of Particle Accelerators

One of the greatest accomplishments of modern science is the invention of the particle accelerator. These massive machines have allowed scientists to study the fundamental laws that govern matter and they've given us a glimpse into the nature of the universe only a trillionth of a second after the big bang. Particle accelerators have been responsible for confirming, validating, supporting, refuting, and debunking a very large number of theories and hypothesis in specific regards to the standard model of particle physics - a unifying theory combining the strong force, weak force, and electromagnetic force that governs the world of the very small. The accomplishments of particle accelerators are just as exciting as how these behemoths actually work.

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Worlds with Two Stars: The Kepler-47 System

If you think it’s hard to be in a stable orbit around one star, think of how hard it must be to maintain an orbit around two. Binary star systems are the most common type of star system we have found. For quite some time, astronomers have known of exoplanets orbiting binary star systems (these planets are called cicumbinary planets). Recently however, in a binary star system 4,900 light-years from Earth, astronomers have discovered two planets in a stable orbit. This is exciting because it tells us that multiple planets can form and remain in a stable orbit around binary systems…ultimately opening the way for the possibility of the existence of more planets (and, potentially, habitable worlds – how would you like that sunrise?).

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Voyager from Earth and the Sound of Space

Voyager has been doing some cool stuff since it crossed into interstellar space in August. NASA and JLP confirmed the start of Voyager 1's interstellar journey earlier this week, which, thus far, hasn't happened before (so, it seems like Voyager *really* has left the solar system).

The first image I have for you is Voyager as seen from Earth. That little blue dot is none other than the "little probe that could," located some 18.5- billion kilometers (11.5-billion miles) away from the pale blue dot (as of Feb. 21, 2013 when this image was taken). That little blue smug is Voyager's radio signal and required the use of the National Radio Astronomy Observatory's Very Long Baseline Array (VLBA), which is a 8,000 km (5,000 mi) wide telescope that works using astronomical interferometry. This process links telescopes together so they act as one, much larger, much more powerful, and much more sensitive telescope so astronomers can see more detail.

Pictures, Videos, references, sources, and further reading can be found here:

APOD: 9/14/13 - Hubble Spots a Lone Neutron Star

In this old image, which was released back in the late 90's, Hubble spied with its right eye something... well. What is it? As it turns - pictured near the center (where the small arrow points) is a lone neutron star, wandering about the interstellar medium. This is incredible for several reasons, but lets just start with the discovery of the object at all. Neutron stars - the remnants of massive stars that went supernova, without having the appropriate mass to collapse into a singularity - are very small - typically only a few kilometers in diameter. This particular one is believed to be merely 16.8 miles (or about 28 kilometers) across, with its location coming in at an estimated 400 light-years from Earth (it can be found in the constellation of Coronae Australis). Despite being so small and distant, the compact object is still very hot and quite bright; making it stick out like a sore thumb from its immediate surroundings. With that in mind, take a moment to appreciate the fact that Hubble can resolve such an extraordinarily unlikely find. That - paired with the fact that Hubble experienced several major problems during the first ten years of its mission - make a seemingly uninteresting object fascinating.

References, sources, and further reading can be found here:

APOD: 9/1/13 - Machholz & The 7 Sisters

This lovely image captures two celestial beauties in the same frame; captured by noted astrophotographer, Stefan Seip.

First, we have comet Machholz, which made a visit to the inner solar system in 2005. Next, we have the famous Pleiades cluster - containing the seven sisters. The tail of Machholz can be seen streaking across the interstellar medium - seemingly involved in a tango with the sisters. When, in fact, neither feature is anywhere near the other. Instead; they are a vast distance apart - it just looks that way from our perspective.

Comet Machholz itself is magnificently huge - with green coma extending across more than 3 times the width of the diameter of Jupiter. The comet itself, on the other hand, is tiny in comparison - coming in at only a few kilometers across.

Not to negate those other characteristics, but the most profoundly beautiful part of Machholz is its double tail. One of them is an ion tail, which is comprised of electrically charged ions. They tend to be discharged into the surrounding space by solar wind ejected from the sun.

The other tail is a dust tail. Tails of this kind have a tendency to curve around - always pointing away from the star in question.

Undressing the Atom: Imaging its Wave Function

Image Credit: APS/Alan Stonebraker

Image Credit: APS/Alan Stonebraker

That blue, pixilated image, ladies and gentlemen, is the very first image of an atom’s electron orbital structure. In other words, you’re looking at the first picture of an atom’s wave function.

Here, scientists are gazing into the structure of a hydrogen atom, the simplest atom in existence. Until very recently, scientists have been restricted to using mathematical equations and formulas to describe the wave functions of atoms – after all, when you’re dealing with something that small (super-microscopic?), simply sticking a conventional microscope on it won’t work. This is why an international team of physicists turned to a quantum microscope, which is a rather simple name for a device that uses photoinization microscopy to directly measure the atom’s structure.

Examples of four atomic hydrogen states. The middle column shows the experimental measurements, while the column at right shows the time-dependent Schrödinger equation calculations — and they match up rather nicely. Image Credit: APS/Alan Stonebraker

Examples of four atomic hydrogen states. The middle column shows the experimental measurements, while the column at right shows the time-dependent Schrödinger equation calculations — and they match up rather nicely.
Image Credit: APS/Alan Stonebraker

As the name suggests, scientists fired laser pulses at the hydrogen atom. This process ionizes electrons forcing them to follow a particular path. From here, a detector plotted these electrons. The team took a large number of measurements and averaged out the disturbance patterns of the data they collected. The end result is a very ‘crisp’ image of a hydrogen atom’s wave function magnified more than 20,000 times.

You’ve been scienced.

Undressing the Atom: Imaging its Wave Function