The 2016 Ig Nobel Prizes were announced on Sept. 22, revealing the honorees who were deemed to have made achievements that make people laugh and then make them think. In the 26th year of the ceremony, those honored did not disappoint. From rats wearing polyester pants and rock personalities to the science of BS and the satisfaction of mirror scratching, here's a look at this year's winners.
Teleported Laser Pulses? Quantum Teleportation Approaches Sci-Fi Level
Crewmembers aboard the starship Enterprise on the iconic TV series "Star Trek" could "beam up" from planets to starships, making travel between great distances look easy. While these capabilities are clearly fictional, researchers have now performed "quantum teleportation" of laser pulses over several miles within two city networks of fiber optics.
Although the method described in the research will not replace city subways or buses with transporter booths, it could help lead to hack-proof telecommunications networks, as well as a "quantum internet" to help extraordinarily powerful quantum computers talk to one another.
Teleporting an object from one point in the universe to another without it moving through the space in between may sound like science fiction, but quantum physicists have actually been experimenting with quantum teleportation since 1998. The current distance record for quantum teleportation — a feat announced in 2012 — is about 89 miles (143 kilometers), between the two Canary Islands of La Palma and Tenerife, off the northwest coast of Africa.
Quantum teleportation relies on the bizarre nature of quantum physics, which finds that the fundamental building blocks of the universe, such as subatomic particles, can essentially exist in two or more places at once. Specifically, quantum teleportation depends on a strange phenomenon known as "quantum entanglement," in which objects can become linked and influence each other instantaneously, no matter how far apart they are.
Currently, researchers cannot teleport matter (say, a human) across space, but they can use quantum teleportation to beam information from one place to another. The quantum teleportation of an electron, for example, would first involve entangling a pair of electrons. Next, one of the two electrons — the one to be teleported — would stay in one place while the other electron would be physically transported to whatever destination is desired.
Then, the fundamental details or "quantum state" of the electron to be teleported are analyzed — an act that also destroys its quantum state. Finally, that data is sent to the destination, where it can be used on the other electron to recreate the first one, so that it is indistinguishable from the original. For all intents and purposes, that electron has teleported. (Because the data is sent using regular signals such as light pulses or electrons, quantum teleportation can proceed no faster than the speed of light.)
Now, two research groups independently report quantum teleportation over several miles of fiber-optic networks in the cities of Hefei, China, and Calgary, Alberta. The scientists detailed their findings online Sept. 19 in two independent papers in the journal Nature Photonics.
China Claims It Developed "Quantum" Radar To See Stealth Planes
Beijing's state media has made the bold claim that a Chinese defense contractor successfully developed the world's first quantum radar system. The radar can allegedly detect objects at range of up to 62 miles. If true, this would greatly diminish the value of so-called "stealth" aircraft, including the B-2 and F-22 Raptor fighter. But it's a pretty far-out claim.
Quantum radar is based on the theory of quantum entanglement and the idea that two different particles can share a relationship with one another to the point that, by studying one particle, you can learn things about the other particle—which could be miles away. These two particles are said to be "entangled".
In quantum radars, a photon is split by a crystal into two entangled photons, a process known as "parametric down-conversion." The radar splits multiple photons into entangled pairs—and A and a B, so to speak. The radar systems sends one half of the pairs—the As—via microwave beam into the air. The other set, the Bs, remains at the radar base. By studying the photons retained at the radar base, the radar operators can tell what happens to the photons broadcast outward. Did they run into an object? How large was it? How fast was it traveling and in what direction? What does it look like?
Quantum radars defeat stealth by using subatomic particles, not radio waves. Subatomic particles don't care if an object's shape was designed to reduce a traditional, radio wave-based radar signature. Quantum radar would also ignore traditional radar jamming and spoofing methods such as radio-wave radar jammers and chaff.
According to Global Times, the 14th Institute of China Electronics Technology Group Corporation (CETC) developed the radar system last month. The subdivision website describes the "14th Institute" as "the birthplace of Radar industry (sic) in China", employing 9,000 workers on a 2,000-acre research campus.
China isn't the only country working on quantum radar: Lockheed Martin was granted a patent on a theoretical design 2008. Lockheed's plans were more far-reaching, including the ability to "visualize useful target details through background and/or camouflaging clutter, through plasma shrouds around hypersonic air vehicles, through the layers of concealment hiding underground facilities, IEDs, mines, and other threats." In many ways, Lockheed's concept of quantum radar resembles the spaceship and handheld sensors on "Star Trek."
Since the 2008 patent, Lockheed's been silent on the subject of quantum radars. Given what a technological leap such a system would be, it's quite possible the research has gone "black"—highly classified and subject to a high level of secrecy.
Earth Wobbles May Have Driven Ancient Humans Out of Africa
Ancient human migrations out of Africa may have been driven by wobbles in Earth's orbit and tilt that led to dramatic swings in climate, a new study finds.
Modern humans first appeared in Africa about 150,000 to 200,000 years ago. It remains a mystery as to why it then took many millennia for people to disperse across the globe. Recent archaeological and genetic findings suggest that migrations of modern humans out of Africa began at least 100,000 years ago, but most humans outside of Africa most likely descended from groups who left the continent more recently — between 40,000 and 70,000 years ago.
Previous research suggested that shifts in climate might help explain why modern human migrations out of Africa happened when they did. For instance, about every 21,000 years, Earth experiences slight changes to its orbit and tilt. These series of wobbles, known as Milankovitch cycles, alter how much sunlight hits different parts of the planet, which in turn influences rainfall levels and the number of people any given region can support.
Alien Planet Has 2 Suns Instead of 1, Hubble Telescope Reveals
Imagine looking up and seeing more than one sun in the sky. Astronomers have done just that, announcing today (Sept. 22) that they have spotted a planet orbiting two stars instead of one, as previously thought, using the Hubble Space Telescope.
Several planets that revolve around two, three or more stars are known to exist. But this is the first time astronomers have confirmed such a discovery of a so-called "circumbinary planet" by observing a natural phenomenon called gravitational microlensing, or the bending of light caused by strong gravity around objects in space. You can see how researchers found the planet in this video.
In binary-star systems, the two stars orbit a common center of mass. When one star passes in front of the other from our perspective on Earth, gravity from the closer star bends and magnifies the light coming from the star in the background. Astronomers can study this distorted light to find clues about the star in the foreground and any potential planets orbiting the star system.
Glider Will Attempt Record-Breaking Flight to Edge of Space
In a spot in South America known for its powerful winds, scientists and engineers are gearing up to attempt a record-breaking feat: to fly a human-carrying glider to the edge of space.
The expedition, known as Perlan Mission II, aims to take the glider up to an elevation of 90,000 feet (27,000 meters). The project is more than an attempt at aviation history; it's designed to study the layers of Earth's atmosphere. The researchers plan to fly the glider on a series of flights to measure electromagnetic fields, pressure, ozone and methane levels, and more.
To reach such great heights, the glider was built to take advantage of an atmospheric phenomenon called stratospheric mountain waves. Normal mountain waves form between cold and warm air masses as they move across mountain ranges and create high-altitude winds. Stratospheric mountain waves, which the researchers plan to ride, form when the polar vortex — a large, low-pressure and cold air system — reaches peak strength, giving the high-altitude winds more energy.
"The strong winds will be perpendicular to the Andes, and as they come over the mountains, they cause a wave in the air that's invisible unless there are clouds present," Jim Payne, chief pilot for the Perlan Mission II project, told Avionics. "We fly in the area where the air is rising and propagates all the way up to 90,000 feet, although meteorologists say it may go up to 130,000 feet [40,000 m]."
Stratospheric mountain waves occur at peak strength in the Southern Hemisphere's winter months [summer in the Northern Hemisphere], so the Perlan Project team members recently traveled to Patagonia, in South America, where they will await ideal conditions for their first attempt at flying to the edge of space.
"Typically, the polar vortex, which causes the high-altitude wave, is best in August and September," Payne said. "So far, August has been disappointing; we haven't had the high-altitude winds. The one downside of this is that we're totally at the mercy of the weather."
If conditions are right and the flight is successful, Perlan would surpass the world altitude record for a fixed-wing aircraft. The current record of 85,068 feet (25,929 m) was set 50 years ago by the SR-71 Blackbird, a jet-powered spy plane, National Geographic reported. Unlike the Blackbird, the Perlan glider would achieve the feat without a drop of fuel.
Earlier this year, another aviation record was set without consuming any fuel. The Solar Impulse 2, a plane powered entirely by the sun, completed a journey around the world, becoming the first solar-powered aircraft to circumnavigate the globe without using any fuel.
Entangled Particles Reveal Even Spookier Action Than Thought
Sorry, Einstein: It looks like the world is spooky — even when your most famous theory is tossed out. This finding comes from a close look at quantum entanglement, in which two particles that are "entangled" affect each other even when separated by a large distance. Einstein found that his theory of special relativity meant that this weird behavior was impossible, calling it "spooky."Now, researchers have found that even if they were to scrap this theory, allowing entangled particles to communicate with each other faster than the speed of light or even instantaneously, that couldn't explain the odd behavior. The findings rule out certain "realist" interpretations of spooky quantum behavior.What that tells us is that we have to look a little bit deeper," said study co-author Martin Ringbauer, a doctoral candidate in physics at the University of Queensland in Australia. "This kind of action-at-a-distance is not enough to explain quantum correlations" seen between entangled particles, Ringbauer said. Most of the time, the world seems — if not precisely orderly — then at least governed by fixed rules. At the macroscale, cause-and-effect rules the behavior of the universe, time always marches forward and objects in the universe have objective, measurable properties.
But zoom in enough, and those common-sense notions seem to evaporate. At the subatomic scale, particles can become entangled, meaning their fates are bizarrely linked. For instance, if two photons are sent from a laser through a crystal, after they fly off in separate directions, their spin will be linked the moment one of the particles is measured. Several studies have now confirmed that, no matter how far apart entangled particles are, how fast one particle is measured, or how many times particles are measured, their states become inextricably linked once they are measured.
For nearly a century, physicists have tried to understand what this means about the universe. The dominant interpretation was that entangled particles have no fixed position or orientation until they are measured. Instead, both particles travel as the sum of the probability of all their potential positions, and both only "choose" one state at the moment of measurement. This behavior seems to defy notions of Einstein's theory of special relativity, which argues that no information can be transmitted faster than the speed of light. It was so frustrating to Einstein that he famously called it "spooky action at a distance."
To get around this notion, in 1935, Einstein and colleagues Boris Podolsky and Nathan Rosen laid out a paradox that could test the alternate hypothesis that some hidden variable affected the fate of both objects as they traveled. If the hidden variable model were true, that would mean "there's some description of reality which is objective," Ringbauer told Live Science. [Spooky! The Top 10 Unexplained Phenomena]
Then in 1964, Irish physicist John Stewart Bell came up with a mathematical expression, now known as Bell's Inequality, that could experimentally prove Einstein wrong by proving the act of measuring a particle affects its state.
In hundreds of tests since, Einstein's basic explanation for entanglement has failed: Hidden variables can't seem to explain the correlations between entangled particles. But there was still some wiggle room: Bell's Inequality didn't address the situation in which two entangled photons travel faster than light.
In the new study, however, Ringbauer and his colleagues took a little bit more of that wiggle room away. In a combination of experiments and theoretical calculations, they show that even if a hidden variable were to travel from entangled photon "A" to entangled photon "B" instantaneously, that would not explain the correlations found between the two particles.
The findings may bolster the traditional interpretation of quantum mechanics, but that leaves physicists with other headaches, Ringbauer said. For one, it lays waste to our conventional notions of cause and effect, he said.
For another, it means that measurements and observations are subjective, Ognyan Oreshkov, a theoretical physicist at the Free University of Brussels in Belgium, told Live Science.
If the state of a particle depends on being measured or observed, then who or what is the observer when, for instance, subatomic particles in a distant supernova interact? What is the measurement? Who is "inside" the entangled system and who is on the outside observing it? Depending on how the system is defined, for instance, to include more and more objects and things, the "state" of any given particle may then be different, Ringbauer said.
"You can always draw a bigger box," Ringbauer said.
Still, realists should take heart. The new findings are not a complete death knell for faster-than-light interpretations of entanglement, said Oreshkov, who was not involved in the current study.
The new study "rules out only one specific model where the influence goes from the outcome of one measurement to the outcome of the other measurement," Oreshkov said. In other words, that photon A is talking to photon B at faster-than-light speeds.
Another possibility, however, is that the influence starts earlier, with the correlation in states somehow going from the point at which the photons became entangled (or at some point earlier in the experiment) to the measured photons at the end of the experiment, Oreshkov added. That, however, wasn't tested in the current research, he said. [10 Effects of Faster-Than-Light Travel]
Most physicists who were holding out for a nonlocal interpretation, meaning one not constrained by the speed of light, believe this latter scenario is more likely, said Jacques Pienaar, a physicist who was recently at the University of Vienna in Austria.
"There won't be anybody reading this paper saying, 'Oh, my God, I've been wrong my whole life,'" Pienaar, who was not involved in the current study, told Live Science. "Everybody is going to find it maybe surprising but not challenging, they'll very easily incorporate it into their theories."The new study suggests it may be time to retire Bell's Inequality, Pienaar said.
"I think that people are too focused on, too obsessed with Bell Inequalities," Pienaar said. "I think it's an idea which was really amazing and changed the whole field, but it's run its course."
Instead, a tangential idea laid out in the paper may be more intriguing – the development of a definition of causality on the quantum scale, he said. If people focus on cracking quantum entanglement from these new perspectives, "I think lots of cool discoveries could be made," Pienaar said
Dark Matter Just Got Murkier
They say that love makes the world go around and that may well be true. But when you look at things on a much larger scale — say the size of galaxies — love just isn't enough. And, for that matter, neither are the stars of the galaxies themselves. In fact, what makes galaxies go around is a kind of matter that has never been directly observed. That undiscovered "stuff" is called dark matter, and an amazing new measurement was recently announced that is causing the scientific world to rethink long-held thoughts.
New 'Gel' May Be Step Toward Clothing That Computes
A gel-like material that can carry out pattern recognition could be a major step toward "materials that compute," with possible applications for "smart" clothing or sensing skins for robots, according to a new study.
Recent advances in both materials and computer science have prompted researchers to look beyond standard silicon-based electronics and exploit the inherent properties of materials to create systems where the material itself is the computer.
Now, a team from the University of Pittsburgh has designed a material that can solve pattern-recognition problems using changes in the oscillations of a chemically powered gel that pulsates like a heart.
3.7-Billion-Year-Old Rock May Hold Earth's Oldest Fossils
Tiny ripples of sediment on ancient seafloor, captured inside a 3.7-billion-year-old rock in Greenland, may be the oldest fossils of living organisms ever found on Earth, according to a new study.
The research, led by Allen Nutman, head of the School of Earth and Environmental Sciences at the University of Wollongong in Australia, described the discovery of what look like tiny waves, 0.4 to 1.5 inches (1 to 4 centimeters) high, frozen in a cross section of the surface of an outcrop of rock in the Isua Greenstone Belt in southwestern Greenland, a formation made up of what geologists regard as the oldest rocks on the Earth's surface.
The researchers said the ripples are the fossilized remains of cone-shaped stromatolites, layered mounds of sediment and carbonates that build up around colonies of microbes that grow on the floor of shallow seas or lakes.
Planck: First Stars Formed Later Than We Thought
ESA's Planck satellite has revealed that the first stars in the Universe started forming later than previous observations of the Cosmic Microwave Background indicated. This new analysis also shows that these stars were the only sources needed to account for reionising atoms in the cosmos, having completed half of this process when the Universe had reached an age of 700 million years.
Galaxy Cluster 11.1 Billion Light-Years from Earth Is Most Distant Ever Seen
NASA has just discovered a group of galaxies far, far away — so far, in fact, that it set a new record for the most distant ever discovered. The cluster of galaxies, named CL J1001+0220 (or CL J1001 for short), resides a whopping 11.1 billion light-years from Earth. Astronomers found the distant cluster of galaxies using a combination of observations from NASA's Chandra X-ray Observatory and several other space telescopes.
Of the 11 galaxies in the cluster, nine appear to be experiencing a firestorm of new star births. "This galaxy cluster isn't just remarkable for its distance, it's also going through an amazing growth spurt unlike any we've ever seen," Tao Wang of the French Alternative Energies and Atomic Energy Commission (CEA) and lead investigator in the discovery, said in a statement.
What Earth's Oldest Fossils Mean for Finding Life on Mars
If recent findings on Earth are any guide, the oldest rocks on Mars may have signs of ancient life locked up inside.
In a new study, a team of geologists led by Allen Nutman, of the University of Wollongong in Australia, discovered 3.7-billion-year-old rocks that may contain the oldest fossils of living organisms yet found on Earth, beating the previous record by 220 million years. The discovery suggests that life on Earth appeared relatively quickly, less than 1 billion years after the planet formed, according to the new research, published online today (Aug. 31) in the journal Nature.
If that's the case, then it's possible that Martian rocks of the same age could also have evidence of microbial life in them, said Abigail Allwood, a research scientist at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California. Allowed was not involved with the new study but authored an opinion piece about the discovery, which was also published today in Nature.
Earth Just Narrowly Missed Getting Hit by an Asteroid
On Saturday, astronomers discovered a new asteroid, just a few hours before it almost hit us. The asteroid is called 2016 QA2, and it missed the Earth by less than a quarter of the distance to the moon. That puts it about three times as far away from Earth as our farthest satellites. And we never saw it coming.
Astrobiology Primer v2.0 Released
The long awaited second edition of the Astrobiology Primer is now published in the journal Astrobiology.
This version is an update of the Primer originally published in 2006, written by graduate students and postdoctoral researchers to provide a comprehensive introduction to the field. Redone from scratch, the 2016 version contains updated content that addresses the definition of life in scientific research, the origins of planets and planetary systems, the evolution and interactions of life on Earth, habitability on worlds beyond Earth, the search for life, and the overall implications of the research.
The Primer is intended to be a resource for early-career scientists, especially graduate students, who are new to astrobiology.
A new class of galaxy has been discovered, one made almost entirely of dark matter
Much of the universe is made of dark matter, the unknowable, as-yet-undetected stuff that barely interacts with the "normal" matter around it. In the Milky Way, dark matter outnumbers regular matter by about 5 to 1, and very tiny dwarf galaxies are known to contain even more of the stuff.
But now scientists have found something entirely new: a galaxy with the same mass as the Milky Way but with only 1 percent of our galaxy's star power. About 99.99 percent of this other galaxy is made up of dark matter, and scientists believe it may be one of many.
The galaxy Dragonfly 44, described in a study published Thursday in the Astrophysical Journal Letters, is 300 million light years away. If scientists can track down a similar galaxy closer to home, however, they may be able to use it to make the first direct detection of dark matter.
How We Could Visit the Possibly Earth-Like Planet Proxima b
A potentially Earth-like planet has been discovered orbiting a star located right next door to the sun. Should humanity try to send a probe there as soon as possible?
The newly discovered planet, known as Proxima b, orbits the star Proxima Centauri, the closest star to the sun. Proxima Centauri is about 4.22 light-years — or 25 trillion miles (40 trillion kilometers) — from Earth.
That's a daunting distance. But an initiative announced earlier this year aims to send superfast miniature probes to Proxima Centauri, on a journey that would take about 20 years. With the discovery of Proxima b, the founders of that initiative are even more eager to get going.
In 2015, NASA's New Horizons probe completed its 3-billion-mile (4.8 billion km) journey to Pluto after traveling for about 9.5 years. The spacecraft traveled at speeds topping 52,000 mph (84,000 km/h). At that rate, it would take New Horizons about 54,400 years to reach Proxima Centauri.
Last month, NASA's Juno probe reached speeds of about 165,000 mph (265,000 km/h) as it entered into orbit around Jupiter. At that rate, a probe could reach Proxima Centauri in about 17,157 years. (It should also be noted that there is currently no feasible way to accelerate a craft large enough to carry humans to those speeds.)
In other words, sending a probe to the nearest star system would not be easy.
The founders of the Breakthrough Starshot initiative want to send wafer-thin probes to Proxima Centauri at very high speeds. The plan calls for equipping these probes with thin sails, which would capture the energy imparted by a powerful Earth-based laser.
This laser would accelerate the probes to 20 percent the speed of light (about 134.12 million mph, or 215.85 million km/h), according to the program scientists. At that rate, the probes could reach Proxima Centauri in 20 to 25 years.
But first, scientists and engineers have to build the apparatus that will launch the tiny probes on their journey. In a news conference today (Aug. 24), Pete Worden, chairman of the Breakthrough Prize Foundation, said that a group of experts had convened earlier this week and discussed plans to build a prototype of the Starshot system. However, he added that the full-scale apparatus is at least 20 years off.
"We certainly hope that, within a generation, we can launch these nanoprobes," Worden said. "And so perhaps 20, 25 years from now, we could begin to launch them, and then they would travel for 25 years to get there."
He added that building the full-scale apparatus would likely cost about the same as building the Large Hadron Collider, the largest particle accelerator in the world; that project is estimated to have cost about $10 billion.
"Over the next decade, we will work with experts here at ESO [the European Southern Observatory] and elsewhere to get as much information as possible about the Proxima Centauri planet … even including whether it might bear life, prior to launching mankind's first probe towards the star," Worden said.
Worden said the Breakthrough Prize Foundation also hopes to "obtain similar data about the other nearby stars, Alpha Centauri A and B." (The two Alpha Centauri stars lie about 4.37 light-years from Earth; some astronomers think Proxima Centauri and the Alpha Centauri stars are part of the same system.)
The New Horizons mission to Pluto was a good demonstration of the benefits of sending a probe to study a planet (or dwarf planet). Images of Pluto captured by the world's most powerful telescopes could barely resolve any surface features on the icy world. During its 2015 flyby, New Horizons provided an incredibly detailed view of Pluto's surface and a boatload of new information about its history.
Could a wafer-thin probe sent to Proxima Centauri b reveal similar details about the planet, or perhaps even reveal the presence of life?
There would be some significant limitations to how much information the probes proposed by Breakthrough Starshot would be able to send back to Earth. First and foremost, the data would take 4.22 years to travel back to Earth, on top of the 20 to 25 years it would take the probe to get to Proxima Centauri.
Seth Shostak, a senior astronomer at the SETI Institute (SETI stands for "search for extraterrestrial intelligence"), told Space.com that the prospect of sending a miniature probe to Proxima Centauri is "even more interesting now than it was ... six months ago because now we know there is a planet there."
"I think [the discovery of Proxima b] has real implications for sending something physical to the star system because now there's a target of interest," Shostak said.
But he also brought up some of the unknown variables that people will have to consider when investing in Breakthrough Starshot, including what kind of information the probes could send back from the planet. Those wafer-thin probes would have to carry very small instruments, and thus might be able to do only a very rudimentary study of a planet or star.
It's difficult to predict the exact technology that would be on board, because electrical components and other technical gear will likely continue to shrink in size over the next 20 years. Scientists and engineers would have to consider whether, in the time it would take for information to come back from a probe sent to Proxima Centauri, they could build a telescope capable of gathering the same information.
Penelope Boston, director of NASA's Astrobiology Institute, thinks the continuing trend of hardware miniaturization will make it possible to equip a wafer-thin probe with instrumentation that would make a trip to Proxima Centauri well worth the investment. Boston said the intricate details of a planet's surface can create a huge variety of specific habitats, and resolving the details of those environments on a planet outside Earth's solar system is "certainly beyond the resolution of any conceivable telescope."
"I see the trends in all different kinds of instrumentation going in a kind of ['Star Trek'] tricorder direction, where you have more and more capability packaged into ever-small physical space," Boston told Space.com.
'Virtual' Particles Are Just 'Wiggles' in the Electromagnetic Field
There are a few physics terms floating around in the world that are deceptive little buggers. These jargon phrases seem to succinctly describe a topic, encapsulating a complex process or interaction into a tidy, easily digestible nugget of information. But they're liars. The concepts they're intended to communicate are actually radically different from what the jargon would suggest.
Take, for example, "virtual particles." The term is supposed to answer a very old question: How, exactly, do particles interact? Let's say we have two charged particles, and let's call them Charles and Charlene. Let's continue to say that both Charles and Charlene are negatively charged. Maybe they're electrons; maybe they're muons. Doesn't matter. What matters is that if Charlene comes racing toward Charles, they bounce off each other and end up going their separate ways.
How did that bounce happen? What made it possible for Charles and Charlene to communicate with each other so that they knew to head in a new direction when the collision was all said and done?This is a fantastically basic question, so it seems that if we could satisfactorily answer it, we could unlock Deep and Important Mysteries of the Universe.
The modern perspective of quantum field theory recognizes photons — bits of light — as the carriers of the electromagnetic force. Charles and Charlene are charged particles, so they interact with light. But obviously, Charles and Charlene aren't shooting lasers at each other, so the trite explanation for their brief dalliance is that "they exchange virtual photons."
What in the name of Feynman's ghost does that mean?
Let's take a step back. Back in the olden-days (i.e., the 19th century) view of physics, each charged particle generates an electric field, which is basically an instruction sheet for how other particles can interact with it. In the case of a particle, this field is strong nearby the particle and weaker farther out. That field also points out in every direction away from the particle. [The 9 Biggest Unsolved Mysteries in Physics]
So our Charles particle produces a field that permeates all of space. Other particles, like Charlene, can read this field and move accordingly. If Charlene is super-duper far away from Charles, the field she reads has very, very small numbers, so she barely notices any effect from Charles. But when she gets close, her field reader goes off the charts. Charles' electric field is very clearly saying "GO AWAY," and she obliges.
In this view, the field is just as real and important as the particle. The universe is full of stuff, and the fields tell that stuff how to interact with other stuff.
In the early to mid-20th century, physicists realized that the universe is a much, much stranger place than we had imagined. Marrying special relativity with quantum mechanics, they developed quantum field theory, and let's just say the results weren't what anybody expected.
As the name suggests, the field got a promotion. Instead of just being the bookkeeping device that showed how one particle should interact with another, it became — and here come some italics for emphasis — the primary physical object. In this modern, sophisticated view of the universe, the electron isn't just a lonely particle. Oh no. Instead, there's an electron field, permeating all of space and time like milk in French toast.
This field is it — it's the thing. Particles? They're just pinched-off bits of that field. Or, more accurately, they're excitations (like, wiggles) of the field that can travel freely. That's important, and I'll get back to it soon.
Here's where things start to get fuzzy. A particle traveling from one spot to another doesn't exactly stay a particle, or at least not the same kind of particle.
Let's go back to Charles, the charged particle. Since he's charged, by definition he interacts with light, which is the electromagnetic field. So wiggles in the electron field (a field made up of electrons) can affect wiggles in the electromagnetic field. So, literally, as Charles zips around, he spends some of his time as an electron-field wiggle and some of his time as an electromagnetic-field wiggle. Sometimes he's an electron, and sometimes he's a photon — a bit of the electromagnetic (EM) field!
It gets worse. Way worse. Charles-turned-EM-wiggle can become other wiggles, like muon wiggles. For every fundamental particle in the universe, there's a corresponding field, and they all talk to one another and wiggle back and forth constantly.
The summation of all the wiggles and sub-wiggles and sub-sub-wiggles add up to what we call "an electron traveling from one spot to another." It all becomes really nasty mathematically very quickly, but folks like physicist Richard Feynman came up with handy tricks to get some science work done.
Now, after tons of backstory, we can get to the main question. The fields wiggle to and fro (and sometimes fro and to). If the wiggles persist and travel, we call them "particles." If they die off quickly, we call them "virtual particles." But fundamentally, they're both wiggles of fields.
When Charles encounters Charlene, they're not like two little bullets ready to slam into each other. Instead, they're complicated sets of wiggles in all sorts of fields, phasing in and out from one type of field to another.
When they do get close enough to interact, it's … messy. Very messy. Wiggles and counter-wiggles, a frenzied mishmash of intermingling. The machinery of quantum field theory — after many tedious calculations — does indeed provide the correct answer (Charles and Charlene bounce off each other), but the details are headache-inducing.
So, the shorthand — "they exchange virtual particles" — rolls off the tongue quite easily, a little slip of jargon to package up a very complicated process. But, unfortunately, it's not very accurate.
Are tiny BLACK HOLES hitting Earth once every 1,000 years? Experts claim primordial phenomenon could explain dark matter
Earlier this year, experts predicted that dark matter may be made of black holes formed during the first second of our universe's existence.
Known as primordial black holes, they could be hitting out own planet every 1,000 years, the professor behind the theory has now revealed.
The Nasa study claimed this interpretation aligns with our knowledge of cosmic infrared and X-ray background glows and may explain the unexpectedly high masses of merging black holes.
‘Largest structure in the universe’ undermines fundamental cosmic principles
Just in time for the hype surrounding No Man’s Sky, the game that takes cosmic scale to the extreme, a team of astronomers say they’ve discovered what might be the largest structure in the observable universe. The tremendous feature consists of nine gamma-ray bursts (GRB), forming a ring that is streaking across some 5 billion light years through space, according to a paper published in Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society.
The ring’s diameter stretches more than 70 times that of the full moon as seen from Earth. And, as the GRBs each appear to be about 7 billion light years away, the probability that these features are positioned in this way by chance is just one in 20,000, according to lead author Professor Lajos Balazs from the Kinkily Observatory in Budapest.
Amazingly, the team of astronomers discovered the cosmic ring by accident. “Originally, we studied the space distribution of gamma ray bursts,” Balazs told Digital Trends. “GRBs are the most energetic transients in the universe and the only observed objects sampling the observable universe as a whole. In general, we were interested to conclude whether the universe is homogeneous and isotropic on large scale.
“We were totally surprised,” he added, “because we did not expect to find it.”
However, there are reasons to step back and reconsider the discovery — it seems to undermine our established understanding of how the universe developed.
According to the cosmological principle, the structure of the universe is uniform at its largest scale and its largest structures are theoretically limited to 1.2 billion light years across. This new discovery pushes that limit nearly five-fold.
Balazs and his team used telescopes in space and observatories on Earth to identify the structure. They will now investigate whether the cosmological principle and other processes of galaxy formation can account for the ring structure. If not, theories about the formation of the cosmos may need to be rewritten.
“If we are right,” Balazs commented in a press release, “this structure contradicts the current models of the universe. It was a huge surprise to find something this big – and we still don’t quite understand how it came to exist at all.”
"Kitchen Smoke" in nebula offer clues to the building blocks of life
Using data collected by NASA's Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy (SOFIA) and other observatories, an international team of researchers has studied how a particular type of organic molecules, the raw materials for life - could develop in space. This information could help scientists better understand how life could have developed on Earth.
Bavo Croiset of Leiden University in the Netherlands and his collaborators focused on a type of molecule called polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), which are flat molecules consisting of carbon atoms arranged in a honeycomb pattern, surrounded by hydrogen. PAHs make up about 10 percent of the carbon in the universe, and are found on the Earth where they are released upon the burning of organic material such as meat, sugarcane, wood etc.
Croiset's team determined that when PAHs in the nebula NGC 7023, also known as the Iris Nebula, are hit by ultraviolet radiation from the nebula's central star, they evolve into larger, more complex molecules. Scientists hypothesize that the growth of complex organic molecules like PAHs is one of the steps leading to the emergence of life.
Some existing models predicted that the radiation from a newborn, nearby massive star would tend to break down large organic molecules into smaller ones, rather than build them up. To test these models, researchers wanted to estimate the size of the molecules at various locations relative to the central star.
Croiset's team used SOFIA to observe Nebula NGC 7023 with two instruments, the FLITECAM near-infrared camera and the FORCAST mid-infrared camera. SOFIA's instruments are sensitive to two wavelengths that are produced by these particular molecules, which can be used to estimate their size.
The team analyzed the SOFIA images in combination with data previously obtained by the Spitzer infrared space observatory, the Hubble Space Telescope and the Canada-France-Hawaii Telescope on the Big Island of Hawaii.
The analysis indicates that the size of the PAH molecules in this nebula vary by location in a clear pattern. The average size of the molecules in the nebula's central cavity, surrounding the illuminating star, is larger than on the surface of the cloud at the outer edge of the cavity.
In a paper published in Astronomy and Astrophysics, The team concluded that this molecular size variation is due both to some of the smallest molecules being destroyed by the harsh ultraviolet radiation field of the star, and to medium-sized molecules being irradiated so they combine into larger molecules. Researchers were surprised to find that the radiation resulted in net growth, rather than destruction.
"The success of these observations depended on both SOFIA's ability to observe wavelengths inaccessible from the ground, and the large size of its telescope, which provided a more detailed map than would have been possible with smaller telescopes," said Olivier Berne at CNRS, the National Center for Scientific Research in Toulouse, France, one of the published paper's co-authors.
Brian Krill: Evolution of the 21st-Century Scientist
Throughout the past year, I've struggled with how best to define myself as a scientist. At times, I even questioned whether it's appropriate to refer to myself as a scientist.
The thing is, even though I have a PhD in experimental psychology and multiple scientific publications to my name, I no longer work in a traditional scientific setting. That is to say, I don't teach or carry out my own research at a college or university, like many scientists. Indeed, according to a recent survey conducted by the National Science Foundation (NSF), roughly 45 percent of PhD recipients in science work at four-year educational institutions.
I freely chose to leave academia about a year and a half ago because, at the time, doing so was the best thing for my family. Nonetheless, the transition was difficult, especially after so much time devoted to preparation for what I thought would be my lifelong career—four years of undergraduate education followed by five years of graduate training and another two years of postdoctoral training.
After 18 months, I'm at last fully adjusted to life on the outside. But to get to this point, I’ve had to challenge my own heavily ingrained assumptions about what it means to be a scientist. For years, I had clung to the belief, likely held by so many others, that being a scientist necessarily means being an academic and a scholar. This view is wrong—more so now than ever—because the economic landscape for scientists is changing. As such, it might well be time for the entire scientific community to rethink what it means to be a scientist.
Simulated black hole experiment backs Hawking prediction
Prof Jeff Steinhauer simulated a black hole in a super-cooled state of matter called a Bose-Einstein condensate. In the journal Nature Physics, he describes having observed the equivalent of a phenomenon called Hawking radiation - predicted to be released by black holes. Prof Hawking first argued for its existence in 1974. "Classical" physics dictates that the gravity of a black holes is so strong that nothing, not even light, can escape. So Hawking's idea relies on quantum mechanics - the realm of physics which takes hold at very small scales. These quantum effects allow black holes to radiate particles in a process which, over vast stretches of time, would ultimately cause the black hole to evaporate.
But the amount of radiation emitted is small, so the phenomenon has never actually been observed in an astrophysical black hole. Prof Steinhauer, from the Technion - Israel Institute of Technology in Haifa, uncovered evidence that particles were spontaneously escaping his replica black hole. Furthermore, these were "entangled" (or linked) with partner particles being pulled into the hole - a key signature of Hawking radiation. The Bose-Einstein condensate used in the experiment is created when matter, in this case a cloud of rubidium atoms inside a tube, is cooled to near the temperature known as absolute zero, -273C.
In this environment, sound travels at just half a millimetre per second. By speeding up the atoms partway along the tube, to faster than that speed, Prof Steinhauer created a sort of "event horizon" for sound waves. It was packets of sound waves, called "phonons", that played the part of entangled particles on the fringe of a black hole.
The findings do not help answer one of the trickiest puzzles about black hole physics: the Information Paradox. One of the implications of Hawking's theory is that physical information - for example, about properties of a sub-atomic particle - is destroyed when black holes emit Hawking radiation.
But this violates one of the rules of quantum theory. Toby Wiseman, a theoretical physicist at Imperial College London, told BBC News: "Analogues are very interesting from an experimental and technological point of view. But I don't think we're ever going to learn anything about actual black holes [from these simulations]. What it is doing is confirming the ideas of Hawking, but in this analogue setting."
Dr Wiseman, who was not involved with the research, compared idea of the Bose-Einstein condensate simulation to water in a bathtub. "It relies on the fact that there's a precise mathematical analogue between the physics of particles near black holes and ripples in flowing fluids... It's an elegant idea that goes back some way. "If you pull the plug in a bath, you create a flow down the plug, and the ripples on the the water get dragged down the plughole. The flow gets quicker as it gets toward the plughole and if you have a system where the flow is going faster than the speed of the ripples, when those ripples flow past some point near the plughole, they can never come back out." Dr Wiseman said this point was equivalent to the event horizon - the point of no return for matter being drawn in by the gravity of a black hole.
Deuteron joins proton as smaller than expected
According to the international Committee on Data for Science and Technology (CODATA), the charge radius of the proton is 0.8768(69) fm. Few researchers would give that number much thought if not for measurements in 2010 and 2013 that yielded a radius 4% smaller than and 7.2 standard deviations distant from the CODATA value. Randolf Pohl of the Max Planck Institute of Quantum Optics in Garching, Germany, and colleagues obtained the curiously low radius after analyzing the energy-level shifts of muons orbiting hydrogen nuclei. With a mass 207 times that of the electron, a muon has a tighter orbital that more closely overlaps the nuclear charge distribution, which makes the negatively charged particle a useful tool for probing nuclear dimensions. The discrepancy between the results of muon-based and other experimental investigations has come to be known as the proton radius puzzle.
Now Pohl and his colleagues have used the same technique to measure the radius of the deuteron, a nucleus of one proton and one neutron. The researchers shot a beam of muons at a target of D2 gas. Lasers excited some of the atoms whose electrons were replaced by muons and probed the muons’ energy-level transitions. By combining the measurements with theory, the researchers came up with a deuteron charge radius of 2.12562(78) fm. That’s 7.5 σ smaller than the CODATA value (see graph below; the new result is in red). In addition, both the proton and deuteron sizes are in tension with the values obtained by applying the same technique to atoms with electrons rather than muons.
Scientists Identify 20 Alien Worlds Most Likely to Be Like Earth
Astronomers are narrowing the field in their search for a "second Earth."
An international team of researchers has identified the 20 most Earth-like worlds among the more than 4,000 exoplanet candidates that NASA's Kepler space telescope has detected to date, scientists report in a new study.
All 20 potential "second Earths" lie within the habitable zones of their sun-like stars — meaning they should be able to harbor liquid water on their surfaces — and are likely rocky, the researchers said.
Identifying these Earth-like planets is important in the hunt for alien life, said study lead author Stephen Kane, an associate professor of physics and astronomy at San Francisco State University (SFSU).
"[It] means we can focus in on the planets in this paper and perform follow-up studies to learn more about them, including if they are indeed habitable," Kane said in a statement.
Kane and his team sorted through the 216 habitable-zone Kepler planets and candidates found so far. (A "candidate" is a world that has yet to be confirmed by follow-up observations or analysis. Kepler has found about 4,700 candidates to date, more than 2,300 of which have been confirmed; about 90 percent of all candidates should eventually turn out to be the real deal, mission team members have said.)
Second-Earth candidates had to be safely within the habitable zone. If a planet is too close to the inner edge, it could experience a runaway greenhouse effect like the one that occurred on Venus. And if it's too close to the outer edge, the planet could end up being a frigid world like Mars, the researchers said.
‘Alien Megastructure’ Star Mystery Deepens After Fresh Kepler Data Confirms Erratic Dimming
The case of Tabby’s star keeps getting curiouser and curiouser. The star — formally known by its somewhat clunky name KIC 8462852 — has been a source of endless intrigue for astronomers since September, when its bizarre behavior triggered speculations over the existence of an alien civilization around it.
The WTF (Where’s the Flux) star is now back in the news, and it's more mysterious than ever.
Before we delve into the latest findings, released online through the preprint server arXiv, here is a quick lowdown of the story so far:
Last fall, a team of scientists led by Tabetha Boyajian from Yale University, who lends the object its informal name, the “Tabby’s star,” reported that the star was not behaving as it should. Based on observations conducted using NASA's Kepler Space Telescope between 2009 and 2013, the team witnessed two unusual incidents, in 2011 and 2013, when the star's light dimmed in dramatic, never-before-seen ways.
This dimming indicated that something had passed in front of the star — located between the constellations, Cygnus and Lyra. At the time, a swarm of comets was proposed as the most likely explanation.
However, this is not when Tabby’s star captured the public’s imagination. That happened a month later, in October, when Jason Wright, an astronomer from Penn State University, put forth the idea that the swarm of objects around the star is “something you would expect an alien civilization to build.”
In other words, he suggested that the swarm may be an “alien megastructure,” or a giant Dyson sphere, built by a technologically advanced species to harness the star’s energy.
Unfortunately, two subsequent independent searches, especially tailored to detect alien radio signals and laser pulses, drew a blank, and, earlier this year, a study based on analysis of photographic plates of the sky dating back to the late 19th century argued that even the comet swarm idea, which was the best of the remaining proposals, cannot explain the star’s erratic dimming — although the study’s findings were widely disputed.
In the new paper — which is yet to be peer-reviewed — Caltech astronomer Ben Montet and Joshua Simon of the Carnegie Institute detail their analysis of photometric data of the star gathered by the Kepler space telescope.
Their findings — the star was definitely dimming at a rate that defies explanation over the four years Kepler monitored it. For instance, in the first 1,000 days of Kepler’s observations, the star’s luminosity dipped by roughly 3.4 percent per year, before dropping dramatically by 2.5 percent in a span of just 200 days — something that suggests that the long-term dimming hypothesis may very well be true.
“We note these results are apparent in data from each individual detector, not just the combined light curve, suggesting that the decline in flux is an astrophysical effect rather than an instrumental one,” the researchers wrote in the paper. “We offer no definitive explanation that could explain the observed light curve in this work. The effect could be stellar in nature, although there are no known mechanisms that would cause a main-sequence F star to dim in brightness by 2.5 percent over a few months. The effect could also be caused by a passing dust cloud in orbit around KIC 8462852.”
Although the study seems to rule out all the possible explanations that have been put forward so far — a swarm of comets, planetary fragments, or a distorted star — it does not mean the dimming is caused by an alien megastructure. It just means we still don’t have an explanation for what is causing the star’s light pattern to dip erratically.
“The new paper states, and I agree, that we don’t have any really good models for this sort of behavior,” Wright told Gizmodo. “That’s exciting!”
Those looking for a satisfactory explanation would now pin their hopes on a team of researchers led by Boyajian, which recently successfully crowdfunded a campaign to secure observation time at the Las Cumbres Observatory Global Telescope Network — a privately run network of telescopes set up around the globe to ensure continuous monitoring of an object.
For now, though, “the most mysterious star in our galaxy” continues to live up to its fame.
Scientists develop new form of light
Physicists have described a new form of light produced by binding photons to single electrons. According to their study, published Friday in Nature Communications, the mashed-up particles could be used in new photonic circuits and allow the study of quantum phenomena on the visible scale.
“The results of this research will have a huge impact on the way we conceive light,” said lead author Vincenzo Giannini in a statement. Photons are the basic particle component of light. When these particles come in contact with a material, they interact with numerous electrons on the material’s surface. Dr. Giannini, who lectures at Imperial College London’s physics department, sought to study the interaction of photons with a "recently discovered" class of materials called topological insulators.
Giannini’s team of physicists and material scientists developed digital models that would predict the interaction. Their models, which were based on a single nanoparticle made of a topological insulator, showed that light could interact with just one surface electron.
By coupling the two particles, researchers could combine certain properties of both. Light normally travels in a straight line, but when bound to a single electron, it could follow the electron’s path along a material surface. And, while electrons usually stop when they encounter a poor conductor, the addition of photons would allow the coupled particle to continue moving.
New particle hopes fade as LHC data 'bump' disappears
Results from the Large Hadron Collider show that a "bump" in the machine's data, previously rumoured to represent a new particle, has gone away.
The discovery of new particles, which could trigger a paradigm shift in physics, may still be years away. All the latest LHC results are being discussed at a conference in Chicago.
David Charlton of Birmingham University, leader of the Atlas experiment at the LHC, told BBC News that everyone working on the project was disappointed.
"There was a lot of excitement when we started to collect data. But in the [latest results] we see no sign of a bump, there's nothing. "It is a pity because it would have been a really fantastic thing if there had been a new particle."
Speaking to journalists in Chicago at the International Conference on High Energy Physics (ICHEP), Prof Charlton said it was a remarkable coincidence - but purely a coincidence - that two separate LHC detectors, Atlas and CMS, picked up matching "bumps". "It just seems to be a statistical fluke, that the two experiments saw something at the same mass. "Coincidences are always strange when they happen - but we've been looking very hard at our data to make sure we fully understand them, and we don't see anything in the new sample."
Moon Express cleared for lunar landing
Moon Express has become the first private firm to win US approval for an unmanned mission to the moon.
The two-week mission was given the go-ahead by the Federal Aviation Administration's Office of Commercial Space Transportation.
The plan is to send a suitcase-sized lander to the moon in late 2017.
The lander, which is not yet completed, will be carried on a rocket made by Rocket Lab, a start-up firm which has not launched any commercial missions.
Science experiments and some commercial cargo will be carried on the one-way trip to the lunar surface.
Moon Express also plans to beam pictures back to the Earth.
What if you could mine the moon?
"The Moon Express 2017 mission approval is a landmark decision by the US government and a pathfinder for private sector commercial missions beyond Earth's orbit," said Moon Express co-founder Bob Richards.
His partner, Naveen Jain, says the company is keen to explore the possibilities of mining on the moon.
"In the immediate future we envision bringing precious resources, metals and moon rocks back to Earth," he said.
First Reprogrammable Quantum Computer Created
Scientists have created the first programmable and reprogrammable quantum computer, according to a new study.
The technology could usher in a much-anticipated era of quantum computing, which researchers say could help scientists run complex simulations and produce rapid solutions to tricky calculations.
Tiny 'Atomic Memory' Device Could Store All Books Ever Written
A new "atomic memory" device that encodes data atom by atom can store hundreds of times more data than current hard disks can, a new study finds.
"You would need just the area of a postage stamp to write out all books ever written," said study senior author Sander Otte, a physicist at the Delft University of Technology's Kavli Institute of Nanoscience in the Netherlands.
In fact, the researchers estimated that if they created a cube 100 microns wide — about the same diameter as the average human hair — made of sheets of atomic memory separated from one another by 5 nanometers, or billionths of a meter, the cube could easily store the contents of the entire U.S. Library of Congress.
Error fix for long-lived qubits brings quantum computers nearer
Useful quantum computers are one step closer, thanks to the latest demonstration of a technique designed to stop them making mistakes.
Quantum computers store information as quantum bits, or qubits. Unlike binary bits, which store a 0 or a 1, qubits can hold a mixture of both states at the same time, boosting their computing potential for certain types of problems. But qubits are fragile – their quantum nature means they can’t hold data for long before errors creep in.
So researchers wanting to build large-scale computers invented quantum error correction (QEC). This technique encodes a bit of quantum information using many physical qubits.
The code is designed to provide wiggle-room, making it possible to recover from errors. A similar concept is used to handle errors in binary bits on hard drives and DVDs, but things are more difficult in the quantum realm. The rules of quantum mechanics mean you can’t directly read the state of a qubit without destroying it – it’s like opening the box to take a look at Schrödinger’s cat. That means we need more sophisticated codes for quantum computers than for DVDs.
2 Newfound Alien Planets May Be Capable of Supporting Life
NASA's Kepler space telescope has spotted four possibly rocky alien planets orbiting the same star, and two of these newfound worlds might be capable of supporting life.
The four exoplanets circle a red dwarf — a star smaller and dimmer than the sun — called K2-72, which lies 181 light-years from Earth in the Aquarius constellation. All four worlds are between 20 percent and 50 percent wider than Earth, making them good candidates to be rocky, discovery team members said.
Scientists create vast 3-D map of universe, validate Einstein's theories
Hundreds of scientists worked together to map out one-quarter of the sky – and they weren't just plotting landmarks for a road trip to Alpha Centauri.
Through painstaking, complex measurements that reached into the earliest chapters of the universe, they charted a 3-D model of 650 billion cubic light years of space that included 1.2 million galaxies. It was created with an important goal – to measure dark energy.
When scientists recently discovered that the expansion of the universe was accelerating, dark energy was suggested as the “anti-gravity” force responsible for it, perhaps even as the “cosmological constant” that Einstein envisioned. Another theory argued that gravity itself was breaking down – not particularly encouraging in a universe thought to be ruled by its laws.
Results from this massive project, however, have affirmed the laws of gravity and general relativity on a universal level, providing evidence that dark energy is indeed responsible for the accelerated expansion of the universe. The research indicated that this energy is consistent with Albert Einstein’s suggestion of Lambda, a cosmological constant that is a repellent force countering attraction between matter.
New Science Experiment Will Tell Us If The Universe Is a Hologram
Do we live in a two-dimensional hologram? Scientists may discover that we live in a Matrix-like illusion during an experiment from the U.S. Department of Energy’s Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory that will look for “holographic noise” and will collect data over the next years.
Although our world appears three-dimensional to us, this could be entirely illusive. Scientists are theorizing that our universe may operate much like a TV screen; just like a TV screen has pixels which create seamless images, spacetime could be contained in two-dimensional packets that make reality appear three-dimensional to the human eye.
Like a hologram, a three-dimensional image would be coded onto a two-dimensional medium. If this theory is correct, these “pixels” of spacetime would be ten trillion trillion times smaller than an atom.
“We want to find out whether space-time is a quantum system just like matter is,” said Craig Hogan, director of Fermilab’s Center for Particle Astrophysics. “If we see something, it will completely change ideas about space we’ve used for thousands of years.”
If these packets of spacetime exist, then they are expected to be governed by the Heisenberg uncertainty principle. According to this principle, it is impossible to simultaneously ascertain the exact speed and exact location of a subatomic particle. If spacetime consists of two-dimensional fragments, then all of space would potentially be governed by this principle. If this were the case, then space, like matter, would have perpetual quantum vibrations regardless of its energy level.
Three's Company: Newly Discovered Planet Orbits a Trio of Stars
Three's Company: Newly Discovered Planet Orbits a Trio of Stars
A new planet, HD 131399Ab, in a triple star system was recently discovered about 340 light-years from Earth in the constellation of Centaurus.
Credit: ESO/L. Calçada
A newly discovered planet has been spotted orbiting three stars at once, in a highly exotic celestial arrangement.
"The planet is orbiting star A — the lonely star in this scenario," Kevin Wagner, a first-year doctoral student at the University of Arizona, told Space.com. The planet and star A are then orbited by a pair of stars that the scientists call "star B" and "star C. (Check below to see a video of the system's orbital dance).
The strange new world, HD 131399Ab, lies 340 light-years from Earth, in the constellation Centaurus. For about half of its orbit through the system, all three stars are visible in the sky.
A Fifth Force: Fact or Fiction?
Science and the internet have an uneasy relationship: Science tends to move forward through a careful and tedious evaluation of data and theory, and the process can take years to complete. In contrast, the internet community generally has the attention span of Dory, the absent-minded fish of "Finding Nemo"(and now "Finding Dory") — a meme here, a celebrity picture there — oh, look … a funny cat video.
Thus people who are interested in serious science should be extremely cautious when they read an online story that purports to be a paradigm-shifting scientific discovery. A recent example is one suggesting that a new force of nature might have been discovered. If true, that would mean that we have to rewrite the textbooks.
So what has been claimed?
In an article submitted on April 7, 2015, to the arXiv repository of physics papers, a group of Hungarian researchers reported on a study in which they focused an intense beam of protons (particles found in the center of atoms) on thin lithium targets. The collisions created excited nuclei of beryllium-8, which decayed into ordinary beryllium-8 and pairs of electron-positron particles. (The positron is the antimatter equivalent of the electron.)
They claimed that their data could not be explained by known physical phenomena in the Standard Model, the reigning model governing particle physics. But, they purported, they could explain the data if a new particle existed with a mass of approximately 17 million electron volts, which is 32.7 times heavier than an electron and just shy of 2 percent the mass of a proton. The particles that emerge at this energy range, which is relatively low by modern standards, have been well studied. And so it would be very surprising if a new particle were discovered in this energy regime.
However, the measurement survived peer review and was published on Jan. 26, 2016, in the journal Physical Review Letters, which is one of the most prestigious physics journals in the world. In this publication, the researchers, and this research, cleared an impressive hurdle. [What's That? Your Physics Questions Answered]
Their measurement received little attention until a group of theoretical physicists from the University of California, Irvine (UCI), turned their attention to it. As theorists commonly do with a controversial physics measurement, the team compared it with the body of work that has been assembled over the last century or so, to see if the new data are consistent or inconsistent with the existing body of knowledge. In this case, they looked at about a dozen published studies.
What they found is that though the measurement didn't conflict with any past studies, it seemed to be something never before observed — and something that couldn't be explained by the Standard Model.
Neutrinos hint at why antimatter didn’t blow up the universe
It could all have been so different. When matter first formed in the universe, our current theories suggest that it should have been accompanied by an equal amount of antimatter – a conclusion we know must be wrong, because we wouldn’t be here if it were true. Now the latest results from a pair of experiments designed to study the behaviour of neutrinos – particles that barely interact with the rest of the universe – could mean we’re starting to understand why.
Relativistic codes reveal a clumpy universe
A new set of codes that, for the first time, are able to apply Einstein's complete general theory of relativity to simulate how our universe evolved, have been independently developed by two international teams of physicists. They pave the way for cosmologists to confirm whether our interpretations of observations of large-scale structure and cosmic expansion are telling us the true story.
The impetus to develop codes designed to apply general relativity to cosmology stems from the limitations of traditional numerical simulations of the universe. Currently, such models invoke Newtonian gravity and assume a homogenous universe when describing cosmic expansion, for reasons of simplicity and computing power. On the largest scales the universe is homogenous and isotropic, meaning that matter is distributed evenly in all directions; but on smaller scales the universe is clearly inhomogeneous, with matter clumped into chains of galaxies and filaments of dark matter assembled around vast voids.
Quantum computer makes first high-energy physics simulation
Physicists have performed the first full simulation of a high-energy physics experiment — the creation of pairs of particles and their antiparticles — on a quantum computer1. If the team can scale it up, the technique promises access to calculations that would be too complex for an ordinary computer to deal with.
To understand exactly what their theories predict, physicists routinely do computer simulations. They then compare the outcomes of the simulations with actual experimental data to test their theories.
In some situations, however, the calculations are too hard to allow predictions from first principles. This is particularly true for phenomena that involve the strong nuclear force, which governs how quarks bind together into protons and neutrons and how these particles form atomic nuclei, says Christine Muschik, a theoretical physicist at the University of Innsbruck in Austria and a member of the simulation team.
Many researchers hope that future quantum computers will help to solve this problem. These machines, which are still in the earliest stages of development, exploit the physics of objects that can be in multiple states at once, encoding information in ‘qubits’, rather than in the on/off state of classical bits. A computer made of a handful of qubits can perform many calculations simultaneously, and can complete certain tasks exponentially faster than an ordinary computer.
Esteban Martinez, an experimental physicist at the University of Innsbruck, and his colleagues completed a proof of concept for a simulation of a high-energy physics experiment in which energy is converted into matter, creating an electron and its antiparticle, a positron.
The team used a tried-and-tested type of quantum computer in which an electromagnetic field traps four ions in a row, each one encoding a qubit, in a vacuum. They manipulated the ions’ spins — their magnetic orientations — using laser beams. This coaxed the ions to perform logic operations, the basic steps in any computer calculation.
After sequences of about 100 steps, each lasting a few milliseconds, the team looked at the state of the ions using a digital camera. Each of the four ions represented a location, two for particles and two for antiparticles, and the orientation of the ion revealed whether or not a particle or an antiparticle had been created at that location.
The team’s quantum calculations confirmed the predictions of a simplified version of quantum electrodynamics, the established theory of the electromagnetic force. “The stronger the field, the faster we can create particles and antiparticles,” Martinez says. He and his collaborators describe their results on 22 June in Nature1.
Four qubits constitute a rudimentary quantum computer; the fabled applications of future quantum computers, such as for breaking down huge numbers into prime factors, will require hundreds of qubits and complex error-correction codes. But for physical simulations, which can tolerate small margins of error, 30 to 40 qubits could already be useful, Martinez says.
John Chiaverini, a physicist who works on quantum computing at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge, says that the experiment might be difficult to scale up without significant modifications. The linear arrangement of ions in the trap, he says, is “particularly limiting for attacking problems of a reasonable scale”. Muschik says that her team is already making plans to use two-dimensional configurations of ions.
Are we there yet?
“We are not yet there where we can answer questions we can’t answer with classical computers,” Martinez says, “but this is a first step in that direction.” Quantum computers are not strictly necessary for understanding the electromagnetic force. However, the researchers hope to scale up their techniques so that they can simulate the strong nuclear force. This may take years, Muschik says, and will require not only breakthroughs in hardware, but also the development of new quantum algorithms.
These scaled-up quantum computers could help in understanding what happens during the high-speed collision of two atomic nuclei, for instance. Faced with such a problem, classical computer simulations just fall apart, says Andreas Kronfeld, a theoretical physicist who works on simulations of the strong nuclear force at the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory (Fermilab) near Chicago, Illinois.
Another example, he says, is understanding neutron stars. Researchers think that these compact celestial objects consist of densely packed neutrons, but they’re not sure. They also don’t know the state of matter in which those neutrons would exist.
E.T. Phones Earth? 1,500 Years Until Contact, Experts Estimate
"Communicating with anybody is an incredibly slow, long-duration endeavor," said Evan Solomonides at a press conference June 14 at the American Astronomical Society's summer meeting in San Diego, California. Solomonides is an undergraduate student at Cornell University in New York, where he worked with Cornell radio astronomer Yervant Terzian to explore the mystery of the Fermi paradox: If life is abundant in the universe, the argument goes, it should have contacted Earth, yet there's no definitive sign of such an interaction.
We could be on the brink of a shockingly big discovery in physics
It's December 15, 2015, and an auditorium in Geneva is packed with physicists. The air is filled with tension and excitement because everybody knows that something important is about to be announced. The CERN Large Hadron Collider (LHC) has recently restarted operations at the highest energies ever achieved in a laboratory experiment, and the first new results from two enormous, complex detectors known as ATLAS and CMS are being presented. This announcement has been organized hastily because both detectors have picked up something completely unexpected. Rumors have been circulating for days about what it might be, but nobody knows for sure what is really going on, and the speculations are wild.
Scientists have detected gravitational waves for the second time
Scientists with the LIGO collaboration claim they have once again detected gravitational waves — the ripples in space-time produced by objects moving throughout the Universe. It’s the second time these researchers have picked up gravitational wave signals, after becoming the first team in history to do so earlier this year.
No Escape From Black Holes? Stephen Hawking Points to a Possible Exit
“A black hole has no hair.”
That mysterious, koan-like statement by the theorist and legendary phrasemaker John Archibald Wheeler of Princeton has stood for half a century as one of the brute pillars of modern physics.
It describes the ability of nature, according to classical gravitational equations, to obliterate most of the attributes and properties of anything that falls into a black hole, playing havoc with science’s ability to predict the future and tearing at our understanding of how the universe works.
Now it seems that statement might be wrong.
Recently Stephen Hawking, who has spent his entire career battling a form of Lou Gehrig’s disease, wheeled across the stage in Harvard’s hoary, wood-paneled Sanders Theater to do battle with the black hole. It is one of the most fearsome demons ever conjured by science, and one partly of his own making: a cosmic pit so deep and dense and endless that it was long thought that nothing — not even light, not even a thought — could ever escape.
But Dr. Hawking was there to tell us not to be so afraid.
In a paper to be published this week in Physical Review Letters, Dr. Hawking and his colleagues Andrew Strominger of Harvard and Malcolm Perry of Cambridge University in England say they have found a clue pointing the way out of black holes.
“They are not the eternal prisons they were once thought,” Dr. Hawking said in his famous robot voice, now processed through a synthesizer. “If you feel you are trapped in a black hole, don’t give up. There is a way out.”
Black holes are the most ominous prediction of Einstein’s general theory of relativity: Too much matter or energy concentrated in one place would cause space to give way, swallowing everything inside like a magician’s cloak.
An eternal prison was the only metaphor scientists had for these monsters until 40 years ago, when Dr. Hawking turned black holes upside down — or perhaps inside out. His equations showed that black holes would not last forever. Over time, they would “leak” and then explode in a fountain of radiation and particles. Ever since, the burning question in physics has been: When the black hole finally goes, does it give up the secrets of everything that fell in?
Dr. Hawking’s calculation was, and remains, hailed as a breakthrough in understanding the connection between gravity and quantum mechanics, between the fabric of space and the subatomic particles that live inside it — the large and the small in the universe.
But there was a hitch. By Dr. Hawking’s estimation, the radiation coming out of the black hole as it fell apart would be random. As a result, most of the “information” about what had fallen in — all of the attributes and properties of the things sucked in, whether elephants or donkeys, Volkswagens or Cadillacs — would be erased.
In a riposte to Einstein’s famous remark that God does not play dice, Dr. Hawking said in 1976, “God not only plays dice with the universe, but sometimes throws them where they can’t be seen.”
But his calculation violated a tenet of modern physics: that it is always possible in theory to reverse time, run the proverbial film backward and reconstruct what happened in, say, the collision of two cars or the collapse of a dead star into a black hole.
The universe, like a kind of supercomputer, is supposed to be able to keep track of whether one car was a green pickup truck and the other was a red Porsche, or whether one was made of matter and the other antimatter. These things may be destroyed, but their “information” — their essential physical attributes — should live forever.
In fact, the information seemed to be lost in the black hole, according to Dr. Hawking, as if part of the universe’s memory chip had been erased. According to this theorem, only information about the mass, charge and angular momentum of what went in would survive.
Nothing about whether it was antimatter or matter, male or female, sweet or sour.
A war of words and ideas ensued. The information paradox, as it is known, was no abstruse debate, as Dr. Hawking pointed out from the stage of the Sanders Theater in April. Rather, it challenged foundational beliefs about what reality is and how it works.
If the rules break down in black holes, they may be lost in other places as well, he warned. If foundational information disappears into a gaping maw, the notion of a “past” itself may be in jeopardy — we couldn’t even be sure of our own histories. Our memories could be illusions.
“It’s the past that tells us who we are. Without it we lose our identity,” he said.
Fortunately for historians, Dr. Hawking conceded defeat in the black hole information debate 10 years ago, admitting that advances in string theory, the so-called theory of everything, had left no room in the universe for information loss.
At least in principle, then, he agreed, information is always preserved — even in the smoke and ashes when you, say, burn a book. With the right calculations, you should be able reconstruct the patterns of ink, the text.
Dr. Hawking paid off a bet with John Preskill, a Caltech physicist, with a baseball encyclopedia, from which information can be easily retrieved.
But neither Dr. Hawking nor anybody else was able to come up with a convincing explanation for how that happens and how all this “information” escapes from the deadly erasing clutches of a black hole.
Indeed, a group of physicists four years ago tried to figure it out and suggested controversially that there might be a firewall of energy just inside a black hole that stops anything from getting out or even into a black hole.
The new results do not address that issue. But they do undermine the famous notion that black holes have “no hair” — that they are shorn of the essential properties of the things they have consumed.
About four years ago, Dr. Strominger started noodling around with theoretical studies about gravity dating to the early 1960s. Interpreted in a modern light, the papers — published in 1962 by Hermann Bondi, M. G. J. van der Burg, A. W. K. Metzner and Rainer Sachs, and in 1965 by Steven Weinberg, later a recipient of the Nobel Prize — suggested that gravity was not as ruthless as Dr. Wheeler had said.
Looked at from the right vantage point, black holes might not be not be bald at all.
The right vantage point is not from a great distance in space — the normal assumption in theoretical calculations — but from a far distance in time, the far future, technically known as “null infinity.”
“Null infinity is where light rays go if they are not trapped in a black hole,” Dr. Strominger tried to explain over coffee in Harvard Square recently.From this point of view, you can think of light rays on the surface of a black hole as a bundle of straws all pointing outward, trying to fly away at the speed of, of course, light. Because of the black hole’s immense gravity, they are stuck.
But the individual straws can slide inward or outward along their futile tracks, slightly advancing or falling back, under the influence of incoming material. When a particle falls into a black hole, it slides the straws of light back and forth, a process called a supertranslation.
That leaves a telltale pattern on the horizon, the invisible boundary that is the point of no return of a black hole — a halo of “soft hair,” as Dr. Strominger and his colleagues put it. That pattern, like the pixels on your iPhone or the wavy grooves in a vinyl record, contains information about what has passed through the horizon and disappeared.
“One often hears that black holes have no hair,” Dr. Strominger and a postdoctoral researcher, Alexander Zhiboedov, wrote in a 2014 paper. Not true: “Black holes have a lush infinite head of supertranslation hair.”
Enter Dr. Hawking.
For years, he and Dr. Strominger and a few others had gotten together to work in seclusion at a Texas ranch owned by the oilman and fracking pioneer George P. Mitchell. Because Dr. Hawking was discouraged from flying, in April 2014 the retreat was in Hereford, Britain. It was there that Dr. Hawking first heard about soft hair — and was very excited. He, Dr. Strominger and Dr. Perry began working together.
In Stockholm that fall, he made a splash when he announced that a resolution to the information paradox was at hand — somewhat to the surprise of Dr. Strominger and Dr. Perry, who has been trying to maintain an understated stance.
Although information gets hopelessly scrambled, Dr. Hawking declared, it “can be recovered in principle, but it is lost for all practical purposes.”
In January, Dr. Hawking, Dr. Strominger and Dr. Perry posted a paper online titled “Soft Hair on Black Holes,” laying out the basic principles of their idea.
In the paper, they are at pains to admit that knocking the pins out from under the no-hair theorem is a far cry from solving the information paradox. But it is progress.
Their work suggests that science has been missing something fundamental about how black holes evaporate, Dr. Strominger said. And now they can sharpen their questions. “I hope we have the tiger by the tail,” he said.
Whether or not soft hair is enough to resolve the information paradox, nobody really knows. Reaction from other physicists has been reserved.
Surprise! The Universe Is Expanding Faster Than Scientists Thought
The universe is expanding 5 to 9 percent faster than astronomers had thought, a new study suggests.
"This surprising finding may be an important clue to understanding those mysterious parts of the universe that make up 95 percent of everything and don't emit light, such as dark energy, dark matter and dark radiation," study leader Adam Riess, an astrophysicist at the Space Telescope Science Institute and Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, said in a statement.
Riess — who shared the 2011 Nobel Prize in physics for the discovery that the universe's expansion is accelerating — and his colleagues used NASA's Hubble Space Telescope to study 2,400 Cepheid stars and 300 Type Ia supernovas.
Building Blocks of Life Found in Comet's Atmosphere
For the first time, scientists have directly detected a crucial amino acid and a rich selection of organic molecules in the dusty atmosphere of a comet, further bolstering the hypothesis that these icy objects delivered some of life's ingredients to Earth.
The amino acid glycine, along with some of its precursor organic molecules and the essential element phosphorus, were spotted in the cloud of gas and dust surrounding Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko by the Rosetta spacecraft, which has been orbiting the comet since 2014. While glycine had previously been extracted from cometary dust samples that were brought to Earth by NASA's Stardust mission, this is the first time that the compound has been detected in space, naturally vaporized.
The discovery of those building blocks around a comet supports the idea that comets could have played an essential role in the development of life on early Earth, researchers said.
Quantum cats here and there
The story of Schrödinger's cat being hidden away in a box and being both dead and alive is often invoked to illustrate the how peculiar the quantum world can be. On a twist of the dead/alive behavior, Wang et al. now show that the cat can be in two separate locations at the same time. Constructing their cat from coherent microwave photons, they show that the state of the “electromagnetic cat” can be shared by two separated cavities. Going beyond common-sense absurdities of the classical world, the ability to share quantum states in different locations could be a powerful resource for quantum information processing.
Planet 1,200 Light-years Away Is A Good Prospect For Habitability
A distant planet known as Kepler-62f could be habitable, a team of astronomers reports.
The planet, which is about 1,200 light-years from Earth in the direction of the constellation Lyra, is approximately 40 percent larger than Earth. At that size, Kepler-62f is within the range of planets that are likely to be rocky and possibly could have oceans, said Aomawa Shields, the study's lead author and a National Science Foundation astronomy and astrophysics postdoctoral fellow in UCLA's department of physics and astronomy.
NASA's Kepler mission discovered the planetary system that includes Kepler-62f in 2013, and it identified Kepler-62f as the outermost of five planets orbiting a star that is smaller and cooler than the sun. But the mission didn't produce information about Kepler-62f's composition or atmosphere or the shape of its orbit.
Shields collaborated on the study with astronomers Rory Barnes, Eric Agol, Benjamin Charnay, Cecilia Bitz and Victoria Meadows, all of the University of Washington, where Shields earned her doctorate. To determine whether the planet could sustain life, the team came up with possible scenarios about what its atmosphere might be like and what the shape of its orbit might be.
"We found there are multiple atmospheric compositions that allow it to be warm enough to have surface liquid water," said Shields, a University of California President's Postdoctoral Program Fellow. "This makes it a strong candidate for a habitable planet."
Has a Hungarian Physics Lab Found a Fifth Force of Nature?
A laboratory experiment in Hungary has spotted an anomaly in radioactive decay that could be the signature of a previously unknown fifth fundamental force of nature, physicists say—if the finding holds up.
Attila Krasznahorkay at the Hungarian Academy of Sciences’s Institute for Nuclear Research in Debrecen, Hungary, and his colleagues reported their surprising result in 2015 on the arXiv preprint server, and this January in the journal Physical Review Letters. But the report – which posited the existence of a new, light boson only 34 times heavier than the electron—was largely overlooked.
Then, on April 25, a group of US theoretical physicists brought the finding to wider attention by publishing its own analysis of the result on arXiv. The theorists showed that the data didn’t conflict with any previous experiments—and concluded that it could be evidence for a fifth fundamental force. “We brought it out from relative obscurity,” says Jonathan Feng, at the University of California, Irvine, the lead author of the arXiv report.
Four days later, two of Feng's colleagues discussed the finding at a workshop at the SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory in Menlo Park, California. Researchers there were sceptical but excited about the idea, says Bogdan Wojtsekhowski, a physicist at the Thomas Jefferson National Accelerator Facility in Newport News, Virginia. “Many participants in the workshop are thinking about different ways to check it,” he says. Groups in Europe and the United States say that they should be able to confirm or rebut the Hungarian experimental results within about a year.
Silicon quantum computers take shape in Australia
Silicon is at the heart of the multibillion-dollar computing industry. Now, efforts to harness the element to build a quantum processor are taking off, thanks to elegant designs from an Australian collaboration.
In July, the Centre for Quantum Computation and Communication Technology, which is based at the University of New South Wales (UNSW) in Sydney, will receive the first instalment of a Aus$46-million (US$33-million) investment. The money comes from government and industry sources whose goal is to create a practical quantum computer.
At an innovation forum in London on 6 May, hosted by Nature and start-up accelerator Entrepreneur First, two physicists from a group at the UNSW pitched a plan to reach that goal. Their audience was a panel of entrepreneurs and scientists, who critiqued ideas for commercializing a range of quantum technologies, including sensors, computer security and a quantum internet as well as quantum computers.
So far, the UNSW team has demonstrated a system with quantum bits, or qubits, only in a single atom. Useful computations will require linking qubits in multiple atoms. But the team’s silicon qubits hold their quantum state nearly a million times longer than do systems made from superconducting circuits, a leading alternative, UNSW physicist Guilherme Tosi told participants at the event. This helps the silicon qubits to perform operations with one-sixth of the errors of superconducting circuits.
If the team can pull off this low error rate in a larger system, it would be “quite amazing”, said Hartmut Neven, director of engineering at Google and a member of the panel. But he cautioned that in terms of performance, the system is far behind others. The team is aiming for ten qubits in five years, but both Google and IBM are already approaching this with superconducting systems. And in five years, Google plans to have ramped up to hundreds of qubits.
New Support for Alternative Quantum View
An experiment claims to have invalidated a decades-old criticism against pilot-wave theory, an alternative formulation of quantum mechanics that avoids the most baffling features of the subatomic universe.
Of the many counterintuitive features of quantum mechanics, perhaps the most challenging to our notions of common sense is that particles do not have locations until they are observed. This is exactly what the standard view of quantum mechanics, often called the Copenhagen interpretation, asks us to believe. Instead of the clear-cut positions and movements of Newtonian physics, we have a cloud of probabilities described by a mathematical structure known as a wave function. The wave function, meanwhile, evolves over time, its evolution governed by precise rules codified in something called the Schrödinger equation. The mathematics are clear enough; the actual whereabouts of particles, less so. Until a particle is observed, an act that causes the wave function to “collapse,” we can say nothing about its location. Albert Einstein, among others, objected to this idea. As his biographer Abraham Pais wrote: “We often discussed his notions on objective reality. I recall that during one walk Einstein suddenly stopped, turned to me and asked whether I really believed that the moon exists only when I look at it.”
But there’s another view — one that’s been around for almost a century — in which particles really do have precise positions at all times. This alternative view, known as pilot-wave theory or Bohmian mechanics, never became as popular as the Copenhagen view, in part because Bohmian mechanics implies that the world must be strange in other ways. In particular, a 1992 study claimed to crystalize certain bizarre consequences of Bohmian mechanics and in doing so deal it a fatal conceptual blow. The authors of that paper concluded that a particle following the laws of Bohmian mechanics would end up taking a trajectory that was so unphysical — even by the warped standards of quantum theory — that they described it as “surreal.”
Nearly a quarter-century later, a group of scientists has carried out an experiment in a Toronto laboratory that aims to test this idea. And if their results, first reported earlier this year, hold up to scrutiny, the Bohmian view of quantum mechanics — less fuzzy but in some ways more strange than the traditional view — may be poised for a comeback.
Dark matter does not include certain axion-like particles
Scientists believe 80 percent of the universe is made up of dark matter. What exactly constitutes dark matter? Scientists still aren't sure. A new study, published this week in the journal Physical Review Letters, grows the list of particles not found in dark matter. Astronomers have previously hypothesized that axion-like particles, or ALPs, might make up dark matter. Given their diminutive size -- registering at a billionth the mass of a single electron -- it was a logical guess.
But when researchers at Stockholm University used NASA's gamma-ray telescope on the Fermi satellite to look for ALPs in the Perseus galaxy cluster, they came up empty-handed. ALPs can be briefly transformed into light-emitting matter when they travel through intense electromagnetic fields. Likewise, light particles like gamma radiation can briefly transform into ALPs. No such transformations, however, were detected near the center of the Perseus cluster.
While the research didn't offer any revelations on the makeup of dark matter, scientists believe they can now exclude certain types of ALPs in the ongoing search for the elusive matter.
"The ALPs we have been able to exclude could explain a certain amount of dark matter," Manuel Meyer, a physicist at Stockholm University, said in a news release. "What is particularly interesting is that with our analysis we are reaching a sensitivity that we thought could only be obtained with dedicated future experiments on Earth."
So, the hunt for dark matter details continues.
Scientists discover new form of light
Researchers in Ireland have discovered a new form of light. Their discovery is expected to reshape scientists' understanding of light's basic nature.
Angular momentum describes the rotation of a light beam around its axis. Until now, researchers believed the angular momentum was always a multiple of Planck's constant -- a constant ratio that describes the relationship between photon energy and frequency, and also sets the scale for quantum mechanics.
The newly discovered form of light, however, features photons with an angular momentum of just half the value of Planck's constant. The difference sounds small, but researchers say the significance of the discovery is great.
"For a beam of light, although traveling in a straight line it can also be rotating around its own axis," John Donegan, a professor at Trinity College Dublin's School of Physics, explained in a news release. "So when light from the mirror hits your eye in the morning, every photon twists your eye a little, one way or another."
"Our discovery will have real impacts for the study of light waves in areas such as secure optical communications," Donegan added.
Researchers made their discovery after passing light through special crystals to create a light beam with a hollow, screw-like structure. Using quantum mechanics, the physicists theorized that the beam's twisting photons were being slowed to a half-integer of Planck's constant.
The team of researchers then designed a device to measure the beam's angular momentum as it passed through the crystal. As they had predicted, they registered a shift in the flow of photons caused by quantum effects.
The researchers described their discovery in a paper published this week in the journal Science Advances.
"What I think is so exciting about this result is that even this fundamental property of light, that physicists have always thought was fixed, can be changed," concluded Paul Eastham, assistant professor of physics at Trinity.
How light is detected affects the atom that emits it
Flick a switch on a dark winter day and your office is flooded with bright light, one of many everyday miracles to which we are all usually oblivious. A physicist would probably describe what is happening in terms of the particle nature of light. An atom or molecule in the fluorescent tube that is in an excited state spontaneously decays to a lower energy state, releasing a particle called a photon.
When the photon enters your eye, something similar happens but in reverse. The photon is absorbed by a molecule in the retina and its energy kicks that molecule into an excited state. Light is both a particle and a wave, and this duality is fundamental to the physics that rule the Lilliputian world of atoms and molecules. Yet it would seem that in this case the wave nature of light can be safely ignored.
Kater Murch, assistant professor of physics in Arts and Sciences at Washington University in St. Louis, might give you an argument about that. His lab is one of the first in the world to look at spontaneous emission with an instrument sensitive to the wave rather than the particle nature of light, work described in the May 20th issue of Nature Communications.
His experimental instrument consists of an artificial atom (actually a superconducting circuit with two states, or energy levels) and an interferometer, in which the electromagnetic wave of the emitted light interferes with a reference wave of the same frequency.
This manner of detection turns everything upside down, he said. All that a photon detector can tell you about spontaneous emission is whether an atom is in its excited state or its ground state. But the interferometer catches the atom diffusing through a quantum "state space" made up of all the possible combinations, or superpositions, of its two energy states.
This is actually trickier than it sounds because the scientists are tracking a very faint signal (the electromagnetic field associated with one photon), and most of what they see in the interference pattern is quantum noise. But the noise carries complementary information about the state of the artificial atom that allows them to chart its evolution.
When viewed in this way, the artificial atom can move from a lower energy state to a higher energy one even as its follows the inevitable downward trajectory to the ground state. "You'd never see that if you were detecting photons," Murch said.
So different detectors see spontaneous emission very differently. "By looking at the wave nature of light, we are able see this lovely diffusive evolution between the states," Murch said.
But it gets stranger. The fact that an atom's average excitation can increase even when it decays is a sign that how we look at light might give us some control over the atoms that emitted the light, Murch said.
This might sound like a reversal of cause and effect, with the effect pushing on the cause. It is possible only because of one of the weirdest of all the quantum effects: When an atom emits light, quantum physics requires the light and the atom to become connected, or entangled, so that measuring a property of one instantly reveals the value of that property for the other, no matter how far away it is.
Or put another way, every measurement of an entangled object perturbs its entangled partner. It is this quantum back-action, Murch said, that could potentially allow a light detector to control the light emitter.
"Quantum control has been a dream for many years," Murch said. "One day, we may use it to enhance fluorescence imaging by detecting the light in a way that creates superpositions in the emitters. "That's very long term, but that's the idea," he said.
AI learns and recreates Nobel-winning physics experiment
Australian physicists, perhaps searching for a way to shorten the work week, have created an AI that can run and even improve a complex physics experiment with little oversight. The research could eventually allow human scientists to focus on high-level problems and research design, leaving the nuts and bolts to a robotic lab assistant.
The experiment the AI performed was the creation of a Bose-Einstein condensate, a hyper-cold gas, the process for which won three physicists the Nobel Prize in 2001. It involves using directed radiation to slow a group of atoms nearly to a standstill, producing all manner of interesting effects.
The Australian National University team cooled a bit of gas down to 1 microkelvin — that’s a thousandth of a degree above absolute zero — then handed over control to the AI. It then had to figure out how to apply its lasers and control other parameters to best cool the atoms down to a few hundred nanokelvin, and over dozens of repetitions, it found more and more efficient ways to do so.
“It did things a person wouldn’t guess, such as changing one laser’s power up and down, and compensating with another,” said ANU’s Paul Wigley, co-lead researcher, in a news release. “I didn’t expect the machine could learn to do the experiment itself, from scratch, in under an hour. It may be able to come up with complicated ways humans haven’t thought of to get experiments colder and make measurements more precise.”
Bose-Einstein condensates have strange and wonderful properties, and their extreme sensitivity to fluctuations in energy make them useful for other experiments and measurements. But that same sensitivity makes the process of creating and maintaining them difficult. The AI monitors many parameters at once and can adjust the process quickly and in ways that humans might not understand, but which are nevertheless effective.
The result: condensates can be created faster, under more conditions, and in greater quantities. Not to mention the AI doesn’t eat, sleep, or take vacations.
“It’s cheaper than taking a physicist everywhere with you,” said the other co-lead researcher, Michael Hush, of the University of New South Wales. “You could make a working device to measure gravity that you could take in the back of a car, and the artificial intelligence would recalibrate and fix itself no matter what.”
This AI is extremely specific in its design, of course, and can’t be applied as-is to other problems; for more flexible automation, physicists will still have to rely on the general-purpose research units called “graduate students.”
Scientists Talk Privately About Creating a Synthetic Human Genome
Scientists are now contemplating the fabrication of a human genome, meaning they would use chemicals to manufacture all the DNA contained in human chromosomes.
The prospect is spurring both intrigue and concern in the life sciences community because it might be possible, such as through cloning, to use a synthetic genome to create human beings without biological parents.
While the project is still in the idea phase, and also involves efforts to improve DNA synthesis in general, it was discussed at a closed-door meeting on Tuesday at Harvard Medical School in Boston. The nearly 150 attendees were told not to contact the news media or to post on Twitter during the meeting.
Organizers said the project could have a big scientific payoff and would be a follow-up to the original Human Genome Project, which was aimed at reading the sequence of the three billion chemical letters in the DNA blueprint of human life. The new project, by contrast, would involve not reading, but rather writing the human genome — synthesizing all three billion units from chemicals.
But such an attempt would raise numerous ethical issues. Could scientists create humans with certain kinds of traits, perhaps people born and bred to be soldiers? Or might it be possible to make copies of specific people?
“Would it be O.K., for example, to sequence and then synthesize Einstein’s genome?” Drew Endy, a bioengineer at Stanford, and Laurie Zoloth, a bioethicist at Northwestern University, wrote in an essay criticizing the proposed project. “If so how many Einstein genomes should be made and installed in cells, and who would get to make them?”
Dr. Endy, though invited, said he deliberately did not attend the meeting at Harvard because it was not being opened to enough people and was not giving enough thought to the ethical implications of the work.
Continue reading the main story
Scientists Seek Moratorium on Edits to Human Genome That Could Be Inherited DEC. 3, 2015
British Researcher Gets Permission to Edit Genes of Human Embryos FEB. 1, 2016
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George Church, a professor of genetics at Harvard Medical School and an organizer of the proposed project, said there had been a misunderstanding. The project was not aimed at creating people, just cells, and would not be restricted to human genomes, he said. Rather it would aim to improve the ability to synthesize DNA in general, which could be applied to various animals, plants and microbes.
“They’re painting a picture which I don’t think represents the project,” Dr. Church said in an interview.
He said the meeting was closed to the news media, and people were asked not to tweet because the project organizers, in an attempt to be transparent, had submitted a paper to a scientific journal. They were therefore not supposed to discuss the idea publicly before publication. He and other organizers said ethical aspects have been amply discussed since the beginning.
The project was initially called HGP2: The Human Genome Synthesis Project, with HGP referring to the Human Genome Project. An invitation to the meeting at Harvard said that the primary goal “would be to synthesize a complete human genome in a cell line within a period of 10 years.”
Boiling Water May Be Cause of Martian Streaks
The results of Earth-bound lab experiments appear to back up the theory that dark lines on Martian slopes are created by water — though in an otherworldly manner, scientists said Monday.A team from France, Britain and the United States constructed models and simulated Mars conditions to follow up on a 2015 study which proffered “the strongest evidence yet” for liquid water — a prerequisite for life — on the Red Planet. That finding had left many scientists scratching their heads as the low pressure of Mars’ atmosphere means that water does not survive long in liquid form. It either boils or freezes.
Three Newly Discovered Planets Are the Best Bets for Life Outside the Solar System
An international team of astronomers has discovered three Earth-like exoplanets orbiting an ultra-cool dwarf star—the smallest and dimmest stars in the Galaxy—now known as TRAPPIST-1. The discovery, made with the TRAPPIST telescope at ESO's La Silla Observatory, is significant not only because the three planets have similar properties to Earth, suggesting they could harbor life, but also because they are relatively close (just 40 light years away) and they are the first planets ever discovered orbiting such a dim star. A research paper detailing the teams findings was published today in the journal Nature.
"What is super exciting is that for the first time, we have extrasolar worlds similar in size and temperature to Earth—planets that could thus, in theory, harbor liquid water and host life on at least a part of their surfaces—for which the atmospheric composition can be studied in detail with current technology," lead researcher Michaël Gillon of the University of Liège in Belgium said in an email to Popular Mechanics.
The real reasons nothing can go faster than the speed of light
We are told that nothing can travel faster than light. This is how we know it is true
Physicists Abuzz About Possible New Particle as CERN Revs Up
Scientists around the globe are revved up with excitement as the world's biggest atom smasher — best known for revealing the Higgs boson four years ago — starts whirring again to churn out data that may confirm cautious hints of an entirely new particle.
Such a discovery would all but upend the most basic understanding of physics, experts say.
The European Center for Nuclear Research, or CERN by its French-language acronym, has in recent months given more oomph to the machinery in a 27-kilometer (17-mile) underground circuit along the French-Swiss border known as the Large Hadron Collider.
In a surprise development in December, two separate LHC detectors each turned up faint signs that could indicate a new particle, and since then theorizing has been rife.
Are we the only intelligent life in cosmos? Probably not, say astronomers
Alien life: A new paper shows that the discoveries of exoplanets, plus a revised Drake's equation, produces a new, empirically valid probability of whether any other advanced civilizations have ever existed. Astronomers revised the half-century old Drake equation, which attempts to calculate the probability of the existence of advanced alien civilizations, to determine whether any such civilizations have existed at any point in the history of the universe.
They found that the chances that a human civilization evolved on Earth and nowhere else in the universe are less than about one in 10 billion trillion.
Could 'black hole' in a lab finally help Stephen Hawking win a Nobel Prize?
ne of Stephen Hawking's most brilliant and disturbing theories may have been confirmed by a scientist who created a sound “black hole” in his laboratory, potentially paving the way for a Nobel Prize.
Research by Professor Hawking, a cosmologist at Cambridge University, disputes the notion that black holes are a gravitational sinkhole, pulling in matter and never allowing anything to escape, even light. His model, developed in the 1970s, instead suggested that black holes could actually emit tiny particles, allowing energy to escape. If true, it would mean some black holes could simply evaporate completely with profound implications for our understanding of the universe.But such is the weakness of the emitted particle combined with the remoteness of even the nearest of black holes, his mathematical discovery has yet to be verified by observation.
Instead Jeff Steinhauer, professor of physics at the Technion university in Haifa, created something analagous to a “black hole” for sound in his laboratory.
In a paper published on the physics website arXiv, and reported by The Times, he described how he cooled helium to close to absolute zero before manipulating it in such a way that sound could not cross it, like a black hole's event horizon. He said he found evidence that phonons – the sound equivalent of light's photons - were leaking out, rather as Prof Hawking had predicted for black holes.The results have yet to be replicated elsewhere and scientists say they will want to check the effect is not caused by another factor.
If confirmed, it would strengthen Prof Hawking's case for science's greatest prize.
Although his theory has a lot of support, Nobel Prizes for Physics are not awarded without experimental proof.
Earlier this year, Prof Hawking used the BBC's Reith Lecture to make the case that his work was close to being proven, both in the laboratory and from echoes of the very earliest moments of our universe.“I am resigned to the fact that I won’t see proof of Hawking radiation directly.
“There are solid state analogues of black holes and other effects, that the Nobel committee might accept as proof,” he said. “But there’s another kind of Hawking radiation, coming from the cosmological event horizon of the early inflationary universe. “I am now studying whether one might detect Hawking radiation in primordial gravitational waves . . . so I might get a Nobel prize after all.”
Gravitational lens reveals hiding dwarf dark galaxy
Originally, scientists were simply trying to capture an image of the gravitational lens SDP.81 using the Atacama Large Millimeter Array. Their efforts were part of a 2014 survey aimed at testing ALMA's new, high-resolution capabilities. More than a year later, however, the image revealed a surprise -- a dwarf dark galaxy hiding in the halo of a larger galaxy, positioned some 4 billion light-years from Earth.A gravitational lens, or gravitational lensing, is a phenomenon whereby the gravity of a closer galaxy bends the light of a more distant galaxy, creating a magnifying lens-like effect. The phenomenon is often used to study galaxies that would otherwise be too far away to see.
Astronomers initially assumed SDP.81 revealed the light of two galaxies -- that of a more distant galaxy, 12 billion light-years away, and that of the a closer galaxy, 4 billion light-years away.
But new analysis of the image by researchers at Stanford University has revealed evidence of a dwarf dark galaxy.
"We can find these invisible objects in the same way that you can see rain droplets on a window. You know they are there because they distort the image of the background objects," astronomer Yashar Hezaveh explained in a news release.
The gravitational influence of dark matter distorted the light bending through the gravitational lens.
Hezaveh and his colleagues recruited the power of several supercomputers to scan the radio telescope data for anomalies within the halo of SDP.81. They succeeded in identifying a unique clump of distortion, less than one-thousandth the mass of the Milky Way. The work may pave the way for the discovery of more collections of dark matter and also solve a discrepancy that's long plagued cosmologists and astronomers.
Leonardo Da Vinci's Living Relatives Found
Leonardo da Vinci lives on, according to two Italian researchers who have tracked down the living relatives of the Renaissance genius.
It was believed that no traces were left of the painter, engineer, mathematician, philosopher and naturalist. The remains of Leonardo, who died in 1519 in Amboise, France, were dispersed in the 16th century during religious wars. But according to historian Agnese Sabato and art historian Alessandro Vezzosi, director of the Museo Ideale in the Tuscan town of Vinci, where the artist was born in 1452, Da Vinci's family did not go extinct.
Stephen Hawking: We Probably Won't Find Aliens Anytime Soon
Will humanity find intelligent alien life anytime soon? Probably not, according to theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking.
Hawking made the prediction yesterday (April 12) during the Breakthrough Starshot announcement in New York City. At the news conference, Hawking, along with Russian billionaire investor Yuri Milner and a group of scientists, detailed a new project that aims to send a multitude of tiny, wafer-size spaceships into space to the neighboring star system Alpha Centauri.
If these tiny spaceships travel at 20 percent the speed of light, they'll be able to reach Alpha Centauri in just 20 years, Milner said. Once there, the spacecraft will be able to do a 1-hour flyby of Alpha Centauri and collect data that's impossible to gather from Earth, such as taking close-up photos of the star system, probing space dust molecules and measuring magnetic fields, said Avi Loeb, chairman of the Breakthrough Starshot Advisory Committee and a professor of science at Harvard University.
Measurement of Universe's expansion rate creates cosmological puzzle
The most precise measurement ever made of the current rate of expansion of the Universe has produced a value that appears incompatible with measurements of radiation left over from the Big Bang1. If the findings are confirmed by independent techniques, the laws of cosmology might have to be rewritten.This might even mean that dark energy — the unknown force that is thought to be responsible for the observed acceleration of the expansion of the Universe — has increased in strength since the dawn of time.
“I think that there is something in the standard cosmological model that we don't understand,” says astrophysicist Adam Riess, a physicist at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Maryland, who co-discovered dark energy in 1998 and led the latest study. Kevork Abazajian, a cosmologist at the University of California, Irvine, who was not involved in the study, says that the results have the potential of “becoming transformational in cosmology”.
Stephen Hawking Helps Launch Project 'Starshot' for Interstellar Space Exploration
The famed cosmologist, along with a group of scientists and billionaire investor Yuri Milner, unveiled an ambitious new $100 million project today (April 12) called Breakthrough Starshot, which aims to build the prototype for a tiny, light-propelled robotic spacecraft that could visit the nearby star Alpha Centauri after a journey of just 20 years.
"The limit that confronts us now is the great void between us and the stars, but now we can transcend it," Hawking said today during a news conference here at One World Observatory.
'Bizarre' Group of Distant Black Holes are Mysteriously Aligned
A highly sensitive radio telescope has seen something peculiar in the depths of our cosmos: A group of supermassive black holes are mysteriously aligned, as if captured in a synchronized dance.These black holes, which occupy the centers of galaxies in a region of space called ELAIS-N1, appear to have no relation to one another, separated by millions of light-years. But after studying the radio waves generated by the twin jets blasting from the black holes’ poles, astronomers using data from the Giant Metrewave Radio Telescope (GMRT) in India realized that all the jets were pointed in the same direction, like arrows on compasses all pointing “north.”This is the first time a group of supermassive black holes in galactic cores have been seen to share this bizarre relationship and, at first glance, the occurrence should be impossible. What we are witnessing is a cluster of galaxies, that all have central supermassive black holes that have their axes of rotation pointed in the same direction.
“Since these black holes don’t know about each other, or have any way of exchanging information or influencing each other directly over such vast scales, this spin alignment must have occurred during the formation of the galaxies in the early universe,” said Andrew Russ Taylor, director of the Inter-University Institute for Data Intensive Astronomy in Cape Town, South Africa. Taylor is lead author of the study published in the journal Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society.
Isaac Newton: handwritten recipe reveals fascination with alchemy
A 17th-century recipe written by Isaac Newton is now going online, revealing more about the physicist’s relationship with the ancient science of alchemy.
Calling for ingredients such as "one part Fiery Dragon" and "at least seven Eagles of mercury," the handwritten recipe describes how to make "sophick mercury," seen at the time as an essential element in creating the "philosopher’s stone," a fabled substance with the power to turn base metals, like lead, into gold.
The manuscript, which is written in Latin and English, was acquired in February by Philadelphia-based nonprofit the Chemical Heritage Foundation, National Geographic reports. The foundation is now working to upload digital images and transcriptions of the text to an online database.
If there is a planet beyond Neptune, what is it like?
Scientists may not have been able to spot the proposed ninth planet in our solar system, or even confirm that it exists, but that hasn't stopped them from imagining how it looks. Astrophysicists from the University of Bern recently showed off a new model of the possible evolution of Planet Nine, a planet hypothesized to explain the movement bodies at our solar system's edge.
Published in the Journal Astronomy and Astrophysics, the model shows the possible size, temperature, and brightness of the mysterious planet.
The "R" in RNA can easily be made in space, and that has implications for life beyond Earth
New research suggests that the sugar ribose -- the "R" in RNA -- is probably found in comets and asteroids that zip through the solar system and may be more abundant throughout the universe than was previously thought.
The finding has implications not just for the study of the origins of life on Earth, but also for understanding how much life there might be beyond our planet.
Scientists already knew that several of the molecules necessary for life including amino acids, nucleobases and others can be made from the interaction of cometary ices and space radiation. But ribose, which makes up the backbone of the RNA molecule, had been elusive -- until now.
The new work, published Thursday in Science, fills in another piece of the puzzle, said Andrew Mattioda, an astrochemist at NASA Ames Research Center, who was not involved with the study.
Surprise! Gigantic Black Hole Found in Cosmic Backwater
One of the biggest black holes ever found sits in a cosmic backwater, like a towering skyscraper in a small town.
Astronomers have spotted a supermassive black hole containing 17 billion times the mass of the sun — only slightly smaller than the heftiest known black hole, which weighs in at a maximum of 21 billion solar masses — at the center of the galaxy NGC 1600.
That's a surprise, because NGC 1600, which lies 200 million light-years from Earth in the constellation Eridanus, belongs to an average-size galaxy group, and the monster black holes discovered to date tend to be found in dense clusters of galaxies. So researchers may have to rethink their ideas about where gigantic black holes reside, and how many of them might populate the universe, study team members said.
New Bizarre State of Matter Seems to Split Fundamental Particles
A bizarre new state of matter has been discovered — one in which electrons that usually are indivisible seem to break apart.
The new state of matter, which had been predicted but never spotted in real life before, forms when the electrons in an exotic material enter into a type of "quantum dance," in which the spins of the electrons interact in a particular way, said Arnab Banerjee, a physicist at Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee. The findings could pave the way for better quantum computers, Banerjee said.
Is Mysterious 'Planet Nine' Tugging on NASA Saturn Probe?
The hunt is on to find "Planet Nine" — a large undiscovered world, perhaps 10 times as massive as Earth and four times its size — that scientists think could be lurking in the outer solar system. After Konstantin Batygin and Mike Brown, two planetary scientists from the California Institute of Technology, presented evidence for its existence this January, other teams have searched for further proof by analyzing archived images and proposing new observations to find it with the world's largest telescopes.
Just this month, evidence from the Cassini spacecraft orbiting Saturn helped close in on the missing planet. Many experts suspect that within as little as a year someone will spot the unseen world, which would be a monumental discovery that changes the way we view our solar system and our place in the cosmos. "Evidence is mounting that something unusual is out there — there's a story that's hard to explain with just the standard picture," says David Gerdes, a cosmologist at the Universityof Michigan who never expected to find himself working on Planet Nine. He is just one of many scientists who leapt at the chance to prove — or disprove — the team's careful calculations.
Researchers made the smallest diode using a DNA molecule
The study could lead to nanoscale electronic components and devices. A team of researchers from the University of Georgia and Ben-Gurion University has developed an electronic component so tiny, you can't even see it under an ordinary microscope. See, the team used a single DNA molecule to create a diode, a component that conducts electricity mostly in one direction. Further, the DNA molecule they designed for the study only has 11 base pairs. That makes it a pretty short helix, considering a human genome has approximately 3 billion pairs.
To allow a current to flow through the DNA, the team inserted a molecule called "coralyne" into the helix. What the team came up with was a diode, because the current was 15 times stronger for negative voltages than for positive. The study's lead author Bingqian Xu decided to experiment on DNA to create minuscule components, since we can't exactly use silicon for parts that size.
Astronomers Discover Colossal 'Super Spiral' Galaxies
A strange new kind of galactic beast has been spotted in the cosmic wilderness. Dubbed "super spirals," these unprecedented galaxies dwarf our own spiral galaxy, the Milky Way, and compete in size and brightness with the largest galaxies in the universe.
Super spirals have long hidden in plain sight by mimicking the appearance of typical spiral galaxies. A new study using archived NASA data reveals these seemingly nearby objects are in fact distant, behemoth versions of everyday spirals. Rare, super spiral galaxies present researchers with the major mystery of how such giants could have arisen.
"We have found a previously unrecognized class of spiral galaxies that are as luminous and massive as the biggest, brightest galaxies we know of," said Patrick Ogle, an astrophysicist at the Infrared Processing and Analysis Center (IPAC) at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena and lead author of a new paper on the findings published in The Astrophysical Journal. "It's as if we have just discovered a new land animal stomping around that is the size of an elephant but had shockingly gone unnoticed by zoologists."
How a distant planet could have killed the dinosaurs
A new paper revamps the age-old theory of Planet X – a distant planet with an gravitational pull that dislodges stray comets and sends them toward Earth.A theoretical giant planet orbiting at the far edges of our solar system may be redirecting stray comets and asteroids into the inner solar system, one or some of which could have caused the dinosaur extinction event on Earth.
The theory might seem like science fiction, but a study by astrophysicist Daniel Whitmire offers scientific data to back up the claim. Dr. Whitmire, who now teaches math at the University of Arkansas, says the mysterious planet has been causing extinction events at regular intervals – every 27 million years – on Earth. Sound familiar? The new paper, published in the Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society, is a revision of a previous study Whitmore and his partner John Matese proposed in 1985.
Search for alien signals expands to 20,000 star systems
The search for radio signals from alien worlds is expanding to 20,000 star systems that were previously considered poor targets for intelligent extraterrestrial life, US researchers said Wednesday.
Video: ESA Euronews - Is there life on the Red Planet?
The ExoMars spacecraft has blasted off from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan to search for signs of life on the Red Planet. It's a mission that presents incredible scientific and engineering challenges - as it looks to unravel some of the mysteries of our Solar System. Watch this European Space Agency video to understand this mission.
New Tetraquark Particle Sparks Doubts
Exotic particles can be incredibly ephemeral, sticking around for tiny fractions of a second before decaying. The recent discovery of a new type of particle called a tetraquark may turn out to be equally short-lived, according to a new study casting doubt on the finding, although the issue is not yet settled.
The new tetraquark — an arrangement of four quarks, the fundamental particles that build up the protons and neutrons inside atoms — was first announced in late February by physicists taking part in the DZero experiment at the Tevatron collider at the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory (Fermilab) in Illinois. The finding represented a surprising configuration of quarks of four different flavors that was not predicted and could help elucidate the maddeningly complex rules that govern these particles. But now scientists at the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) — the world's largest particle accelerator, buried beneath Switzerland and France — say they have tried and failed to find confirming evidence for the particle in their own data. "We don't see any of these tetraquarks at all," says Sheldon Stone, a Syracuse University physicist who led the analysis for the Large Hadron Collider Beauty (LHCb) experiment. "We contradict their result."
7 Theories on the Origin of Life
Life on Earth began more than 3 billion years ago, evolving from the most basic of microbes into a dazzling array of complexity over time. But how did the first organisms on the only known home to life in the universe develop from the primordial soup? One theory involved a “shocking” start. Another idea is utterly chilling. And one theory is out of this world! This article reveals the different scientific theories on the origins of life on Earth.
NIST Creates Fundamentally Accurate Quantum Thermometer
Better thermometers might be possible as a result of a discovery at the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), where physicists have found a way to calibrate temperature measurements by monitoring the tiny motions of a nanomechanical system that are governed by the often counterintuitive rules of quantum mechanics.
While the method is not yet ready for commercialization, it reveals how an object’s thermal energy—its heat—can be determined precisely by observing its physical properties at the quantum scale. While the initial demonstration has an absolute accuracy only within a few percentage points, the NIST approach works over a wide temperature range encompassing cryogenic and room temperatures. It is also accomplished with a small, nanofabricated photonic device, which opens up possible applications that are not practical with conventional temperature standards.
DNA data storage could last thousands of years
Researchers in Switzerland have developed a method for writing vast amounts of information in DNA and storing it inside a synthetic fossil, potentially for thousands of years. In past centuries, books and scrolls preserved the knowledge of our ancestors, even though they were prone to damage and disintegration. In the digital era, most of humanity's collective knowledge is stored on servers and hard drives. But these have a limited lifespan and need constant maintenance. Scientists from ETH Zurich have taken inspiration from the natural world in a bid to devise a storage medium that could last for potentially thousands of years. They say that genetic material found in fossils hundreds of thousands of years old can be isolated and analyzed as it has been protected from environmental stresse
Hints of new LHC particle get slightly stronger
Hints of a mysterious new particle at the world's largest particle accelerator just got a little stronger. The excess of photons produced by particle collisions at the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) has kept physicists abuzz since it was discovered three months ago: it is now slightly more statistically significant but still falls well short of the certainty needed to claim a discovery.
In December, physicists announced that they had seen an excess of pairs of γ-ray photons with a combined energy of around 750 gigaelectronvolts. The data came from ATLAS and CMS, the two largest detectors at the 27-kilometre LHC, which is at CERN, the European particle physics laboratory near Geneva, Switzerland.
That excess of photons seen by the CMS experiment has now become slightly more significant, owing to a fresh analysis reported on 17 March at a conference in La Thuile, Italy. But to the disappointment of many, the significance seen by ATLAS actually went down a bit, as a result of a more conservative interpretation of the data.
The data used in the latest CMS analysis is 23% larger as it includes collisions from early in the LHC’s 2015 run, when the detector’s magnet was switched off due to a problem in its cooling system. The magnetic field affects detector electronics, so data taken without the field needed careful and separate calibration. “The good news is, we now we have almost as much data as ATLAS,” says James Olsen, CMS physics coordinator and a physicist at Princeton University in New Jersey.
Snake walk: The physics of slithering
Innumerable critters have evolved superb ways to scuttle and slither - or even burrow and "swim" - across the most unhelpful of terrains: those that flow.
If you've ever tried to walk up a sand dune, then you are familiar with the problem: unstable ground makes a mission out of locomotion. Now, imagine doing it on your belly. This is why a team of physicists is playing with snakes in a custom-built sand pit. The way they move is a marvel. (The snakes, not the physicists.) If you've ever tried to walk up a sand dune, then you are familiar with the problem: unstable ground makes a mission out of locomotion. Now, imagine doing it on your belly.
Ms Perrin Schiebel is studying for a PhD in physics at the Georgia Institute of Technology in Atlanta, US. She has spent many months putting 10 of these snakes through their slippery paces in a sand-filled aquarium. "One of the things that's really interesting about snakes is that their entire body is, in this type of locomotion, in sliding contact with the ground," Ms Schiebel explains.
Astronomers discover a new galaxy far, far(ther) away
A team of astronomers say they have discovered a hot, star-popping galaxy that – at 13.4 billion light years away – is much farther than any galaxy previously identified, both in time and distance.
Using a technique that has raised some skepticism among rival astronomers, they say they’ve identified a galaxy from a time when the universe was only about 400 million years old. That’s a time period commonly believed to be impossible to observe with today’s technology.
The discovery far surpasses previous records for distance and time, and may be farthest that can be seen until a new space telescope is launched, the astronomers report in a paper published Thursday in Astrophysical Journal.
Space experts warn Congress that NASA’s “Journey to Mars” is illusory
For the last half-decade, NASA has resolutely declared that it has embarked on a Journey to Mars. Virtually every agency achievement has, in one way or another, been characterized as furthering this ambition. Even last summer when the New Horizons spacecraft flew by Pluto, NASA Administrator Charles Bolden said it represented “one more step” on the Journey to Mars.
But as the end of President Obama’s second term in office nears, Congress has begun to assess NASA’s Mars ambitions. On Wednesday during a House space subcommittee hearing, legislators signaled that they were not entirely pleased with those plans. Comments from lawmakers, and the three witnesses called to the hearing, indicate NASA’s Journey to Mars may receive some pushback in the next year or two.
Some of the most critical testimony came from John Sommerer, a space scientist who spent more than a year as chairman of a National Research Council technical panel reviewing NASA’s human spaceflight activities. That panel’s work, summarized in a 2014 report titled Pathways to Exploration, considered possible pathways to Mars.
Never-Seen-Before Tetraquark Particle Possibly Spotted in Atom Smasher
Evidence for a never-before-seen particle containing four types of quark has shown up in data from the Tevatron collider at the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory (Fermilab) in Illinois. The new particle, a class of "tetraquark," is made of a bottom quark, a strange quark, an up quark and a down quark. The discovery could help elucidate the complex rules that govern quarks — the tiny fundamental particles that make up the protons and neutrons inside all the atoms in the universe.
Protons and neutrons each contain three quarks, which is by far the most stable grouping. Pairs of quarks, called mesons, also commonly appear, but larger conglomerations of quarks are extremely rare. Scientists at the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) in Switzerland last year saw the first signs of a pentaquark—a grouping of five quarks—which had long been predicted but never seen. The first tetraquark was found in 2003 at the Belle experiment in Japan, and since then physicists have encountered a half dozen different arrangements. But the new one, if confirmed, would be special. “What’s unique in this case is that we basically have four quarks, which are all different—bottom, up, strange and down,” says Dmitri Denisov, co-spokesperson for the DZero experiment. “In all previous configurations usually two quarks are the same. Is this telling us something? I hope yes.”
The unusual arrangement, dubbed X(5568) in a paper submitted toPhysical Review Letters, could reflect some deeper rule about how the different types, or “flavors,” of quarks bind together—a process enabled by the strongest force in nature, called, appropriately, the strong force. Physicists have a theory—called quantum chromodynamics—that describes how the strong force works, but it is incredibly unwieldy and difficult to make predictions with. “While we understand many features of the strong force, we don’t understand everything, especially how the strong force acts on large distances,” Denisov says. “And on a fundamental level we still don’t have a very good model of how quarks interact when there are quite a few of them joined together.”
ET search: Look for the aliens looking for Earth
By watching how the light dims as a planet orbits in front of its parent star, NASA’s Kepler spacecraft has discovered more than 1,000 worlds since its launch in 2009. Now, astronomers are flipping that idea on its head in the hope of finding and talking to alien civilizations.
Scientists searching for extraterrestrial intelligence should target exoplanets from which Earth can be seen passing in front of the Sun, says René Heller, an astronomer at the Max Planck Institute for Solar System Research in Göttingen, Germany. By studying these eclipses, known as transits, civilizations on those planets could see that Earth has an atmosphere that has been chemically altered by life. “They have a higher motivation to contact us, because they have a better means to identify us as an inhabited planet,” Heller says.
About 10,000 stars that could harbour such planets should exist within about 1,000 parsecs (3,260 light years) of Earth, Heller and Ralph Pudritz, an astronomer at McMaster University in Hamilton, Canada, report in the April issue of Astrobiology1. They argue that future searches for signals from aliens, such as the US$100-million Breakthrough Listen project, should focus on these stars, which fall in a band of space formed by projecting the plane of the Solar System out into the cosmos. Breakthrough Listen currently has no plans to search this region; it is targeting both the centre and the plane of our galaxy, which is not the same as the plane of the Solar System, as well as stars and galaxies across other parts of the sky.
Physicists create first photonic Maxwell's demon
Maxwell's demon, a hypothetical being that appears to violate the second law of thermodynamics, has been widely studied since it was first proposed in 1867 by James Clerk Maxwell. But most of these studies have been theoretical, with only a handful of experiments having actually realized Maxwell's demon. Now in a new paper, physicists have reported what they believe is the first photonic implementation of Maxwell's demon, by showing that measurements made on two light beams can be used to create an energy imbalance between the beams, from which work can be extracted. One of the interesting things about this experiment is that the extracted work can then be used to charge a battery, providing direct evidence of the "demon's" activity.
The physicists, Mihai D. Vidrighin, et al., carried out the experiment at the University of Oxford and published a paper on their results in a recent issue of Physical Review Letters.
Black holes banish matter into cosmic voids
In recent decades, astronomers have cultivated a picture of the universe dominated by unseen matter, in which – on the largest scales – galaxies and everything they contain are concentrated into honeycomb-like filaments stretching around the edge of enormous voids. Until a recent study, the voids were thought to be almost empty. Now astronomers in Austria, Germany and the United States say these dark areas in space could contain as much as 20% of the ordinary matter of our cosmos. They also say that galaxies make up only 1/500th of the volume of the universe. The team, led by Dr. Markus Haider of the Institute of Astro- and Particle Physics at the University of Innsbruck in Austria, published these results in a new paper in Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society on February 24, 2016.
How NASA's new telescope could unlock some mysteries of the universe
One of the most highly anticipated astronomical missions of the next decade is now officially in the works at the NASA.
The Wide Field Infrared Survey Telescope, or WFIRST, has been under study for years and it was formally decided Wednesday that the project would be moving forward.
“WFIRST has the potential to open our eyes to the wonders of the universe, much the same way Hubble [Space Telescope] has,” said NASA Science Mission Directorate associate administrator John Grunsfeld in an agency release. “This mission uniquely combines the ability to discover and characterize planets beyond our own solar system with the sensitivity and optics to look wide and deep into the universe in a quest to unravel the mysteries of dark energy and dark matter.”
5D Black Holes Could Break Relativity
Ring-shaped, five-dimensional black holes could break Einstein's theory of general relativity, new research suggests.
There's a catch, of course. These 5D "black rings" don't exist, as far as anyone can tell. Instead, the new theoretical model may point out one reason why we live in a four-dimensional universe: Any other option could be a hot mess.
"Here we may have a first glimpse that four space-time dimensions is a very, very good choice, because otherwise, something pretty bad happens in the universe," said Ulrich Sperhake, a theoretical physicist at the University of Cambridge in England.
Reactor data hint at existence of fourth neutrino
n tunnels deep inside a granite mountain at Daya Bay, a nuclear reactor facility some 55 kilometers from Hong Kong, sensitive detectors are hinting at the existence of a new form of neutrino, one of nature’s most ghostly and abundant elementary particles.
Neutrinos, electrically neutral particles that sense only gravity and the weak nuclear force, interact so feebly with matter that 100 trillion zip unimpeded through your body every second. They come in three known types: electron, muon and tau. The Daya Bay results suggest the possibility that a fourth, even more ghostly type of neutrino exists — one more than physicists’ standard theory allows.
Dubbed the sterile neutrino, this phantom particle would carry no charge of any kind and would be impervious to all forces other than gravity. Only when shedding its invisibility cloak by transforming into an electron, muon or tau neutrino could the sterile neutrino be detected. Definitive evidence “would open up a whole new avenue of research,” says particle physicist Stephen Parke of the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory in Batavia, Ill.
Possible evidence for the sterile particle comes from a mismatch between theory and experiment. If a nuclear reactor produces a beam of just one type of neutrino, theory predicts that some should change their identity as they travel to a far-off detector (SN Online: 10/6/15). Analyzing more than 300,000 electron antineutrinos (the antimatter counterpart of the electron neutrino) collected from the Daya Bay nuclear reactors during 217 days of operation, researchers found 6 percent fewer of the particles than predicted by the standard particle physics model. Particle physicist Kam-Biu Luk of the University of California, Berkeley and the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory and colleagues report the findings in the Feb. 12 Physical Review Letters.
One explanation for the deficit is that some of the electron antineutrinos have transformed into an undetectable, lightweight sterile neutrino, about one-millionth the mass of an electron, says Luk. Other nuclear reactor studies, including an experiment at the Bugey reactor in Saint-Vulbas, France, have seen similar electron antineutrino deficits, he notes. Studies with muon antineutrino beams at some particle accelerators have seen an excess of electron antineutrinos, which might be attributed to a different kind of sleight-of-hand by the unseen sterile neutrinos.
The Daya Bay result provides the most precise measure yet of the energies of antielectron neutrinos at a nuclear reactor. Even so, the statistical significance of the deficit is not high enough to rate the finding a discovery. The result is a “three-sigma” finding, meaning that there’s about a 0.3 percent probability that such a paucity of electron antineutrinos would have occurred if no sterile neutrino exists. Physicists generally want a discrepancy to have a significance of five-sigma, or a 0.00003 percent chance of being a fluke, before they will label it a discovery.
Besides the hint of sterile neutrinos, the Daya Bay results reveal a second strange feature — an excess of electron antineutrinos (compared with theoretical predictions) at an energy of around 5 million electron volts. That could be a sign of completely new physics awaiting discovery (or simply that scientists don’t have a detailed enough grasp of the output of nuclear reactors). A revised understanding of that feature might even do away with the need for a lightweight sterile neutrino to explain the overall deficit in electron antineutrinos.
But if definitive evidence for a light sterile neutrino is eventually found, it “would turn the theory community on its head,” says Parke, and could have a bigger impact than the discovery of the Higgs boson, the Nobel-winning finding that explains why elementary particles have mass.
“Finding a sterile neutrino is extremely important because it would be the first discovery of a particle which cannot be accommodated in the framework of the so-called standard model,” says particle physicist Carlo Giunti of the University of Turin in Italy.
One of the earliest experiments that suggested the presence of sterile neutrinos was the Liquid Scintillator Neutrino Detector, which operated at the Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico from 1993 to 1998. The LSND found that muon antineutrinos beamed into 167 tons of mineral oil had morphed into electron antineutrinos in a way that seemed to require a fourth type of neutrino to exist. A follow-up experiment at Fermilab, called MiniBooNE, ran from 2002 to 2012, with equivocal results. Another Fermilab experiment, MicroBooNE, began operation last October. MicroBooNE is the first of three liquid argon detectors, spaced at different distances near neutrino sources at Fermilab, that will track with unprecedented precision the transformation of neutrinos from one type to another.
Located 470 meters from Fermilab’s Booster Neutrino Beamline, MicroBooNE is the middle of the trio, to be joined in 2018 by ICARUS, the farthest detector, at a distance of about 600 meters from the beamline, and the Short-Baseline Near Detector, placed just 100 meters from the source. First results from the trio are expected in 2021, says experimental particle physicist Peter Wilson of Fermilab.
The detectors will also serve as a prototype for the Deep Underground Neutrino Experiment, a large-scale experiment that will send Fermilab-generated neutrinos on a 1,300-kilometer journey to the Sanford Underground Research Facility near Lead, S.D.
In the meantime, the Daya Bay collaboration has teamed up with another Fermilab experiment, the Main Injector Neutrino Oscillation Search, to continue to seek signs of the sterile neutrinos. Although data from accelerator and reactor experiments do not yet paint a consistent picture, “we will soon know better whether a light sterile neutrino is waiting for us to unveil,” says Luk.
If a light sterile neutrino exists, it might have siblings about 1,000 times heavier. These particles could contribute to the as-yet-unidentified dark matter, the invisible gravitational glue that keeps galaxies from flying apart and shapes the large-scale structure of the universe. Fingerprints of this particle will be sought with an experiment called KATRIN, which examines the radioactive decay of tritium, a heavy isotope of hydrogen, at the Karlsruhe Institute of Technology in Germany.
Sterile neutrinos that are even more massive, more than a trillion times heavier than the electron, could explain an ever bigger cosmic mystery — the mismatch between the amounts of matter and antimatter in the cosmos. Possessing an energy at least a million times greater than can be produced at the Large Hadron Collider, the world’s most powerful particle accelerator, a superheavy sterile neutrino in the early universe would have made a smidgen more matter than antimatter. Over time, the tiny imbalance, reproduced in countless nuclear reactions, would have generated the matter-dominated universe seen today (SN: 1/26/13, p. 18).
“For cosmology, the [lightweight] sterile neutrino that we are talking about cannot solve the problem of the matter-antimatter asymmetry, but it is likely that the sterile neutrino is connected with other new particles that can solve the problem,” says Giunti.
Scientists see another, more practical, benefit for studying neutrinos. By recording the antineutrino output of nuclear reactors, detectors can discern the relative amounts of plutonium and uranium, the raw materials for making nuclear weapons. Gram for gram, fissioned plutonium and uranium have distinctive fingerprints in both the energy and rate of antineutrinos they produce, says physicist Adam Bernstein of the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California. Closeup monitoring of reactors, from a distance of 10 to 500 meters, has already been demonstrated; detectors capable of monitoring weapons activity from several hundred kilometers away is possible but will require additional research and funding, Bernstein says.
Single-particle ‘spooky action at a distance’ finally demonstrated
For the first time, researchers have demonstrated what Albert Einstein called "spooky action at a distance" using a single particle. And not only is it a huge deal for our understanding of quantum mechanics, it also proves that the physics genius got something wrong.
Spooky action at a distance, or quantum entanglement, in a single particle is a strange form of entanglement that could greatly help to improve quantum computing and communications. Unlike regular quantum entanglement, which involves two particles being defined only by being opposites of each other, single particles that are entangled have a wave function that's spread over huge distances, but are never actually in more than one place
NASA and 'Star Trek' Combine Forces to Make Replicators a Reality
While it isn't quite the magical wave of hand envisioned in Star Trek, 3D printers are still pretty close to the replicators seen from The Next Generation on, able to fabricate body parts, cars, and even food from raw materials. It's no wonder NASA wants them to build tools, rocket engines, and even housing on Mars. But now, NASA has launched a challenge meant to bring kids into the mix: it wants 3D printed food implements.
It's not quite the same as, say, a 3D printed pizza. But what NASA wants is, essentially, kitchenware and food growing aides. In the Star Trek Replicator competition, it wants "non-edible, food-related item for astronauts to 3D print in the year 2050," which is around when we'll supposedly be on Mars. Ish.
The design guidelines are fairly open ended, but there are a few ground rules. It must not be bigger than 6 inches cubed (6"x6"x6".) The K-12 student designing it must designate where it will be 3D printed, and why it's suited for that environment. It must advance long term space exploration. And it must involve only a single material (so there's no printing, say, a metal alloy and plastic into the same object.)
The contest kicks off today, with entries due by May 1. Four finalists will win a 3D printer for their school and a PancakeBot for themselves, while the grand prize is a tour of the Intrepid Sea, Air, & Space Museum in New York with an astronaut, a bunch of Star Trek swag, and more. There are multiple eligible age groups, so if you have a school aged child, this could be just the contest for them. More information is available here.
'Five-dimensional' glass discs can store data for up to 13.8 billion years
Photographs fade, books rot, and even hard drives eventually fester. When you take the long view, preserving humanity's collective culture isn't a marathon, it's a relay — with successive generations passing on information from one slowly-failing storage medium to the next. However, this could change. Scientists from the University of Southampton in the UK have created a new data format that encodes information in tiny nanostructures in glass. A standard-sized disc can store around 360 terabytes of data, with an estimated lifespan of up to 13.8 billion years even at temperatures of 190°C. That's as old as the Universe, and more than three times the age of the Earth.
The method is called five-dimensional data storage, and was first demonstrated in a paper in 2013. Since then, the scientists behind it say they've more or less perfected their technique, and are now looking to move the technology forward and perhaps even commercialize it. "We can encode anything," Aabid Patel, a postgraduate student involved in the research tells The Verge. "We’re not limited to anything — just give us the file and we can print it [onto a disc]."
In order to demonstrate the format's virtues, the team from the University of Southampton have created copies of the King James Bible, Isaac Newton's Opticks (the foundational text of the study of light and lenses), and the United Nations' Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which was presented to the UN earlier this month. A new paper on the format will be given tomorrow by the team's lead researcher, Professor Peter Kazinsky, at the Society for Optical Engineering Conference in San Francisco.
To understand why these discs can store so much information for such a long time, it's best to compare them to a regular CD. Data is read from a normal CD by shining a laser at a tiny line with bumps in it. Whenever the laser hits a bump. it's reflected back and recorded as a 1; whenever there's no bump, it's recorded as a 0. These are just two "dimensions" of information — on or off — but from them, CDs can store anything: music, books, images, videos, or software. But because this bumpy line is stored on the surface of the CD, it's vulnerable. It can be eroded either by physical scratches and scuffs, or by exposure to oxygen, heat, and humidity.
5D discs, by comparison, store information within their interior using tiny physical structures known as "nanogratings." Much like those bumpy lines in the CDs, these change how light is reflected, but instead of doing so in just two "dimensions," the reflected light encodes five — hence the name. The changes to the light can be read to obtain pieces of information about the nanograting's orientation, the strength of the light it refracts, and its location in space on the x, y, and z axes. These extra dimensions are why 5D discs can store data so densely compared to regular optical discs. A Blu-ray disc can hold up to 128GBs of data (the same as the biggest iPhone), while a 5D disc of the same size could store nearly 3,000 times that: 360 terabytes of information.
These discs can potentially last for so long because glass is a tough material which needs a lot of heat to melt or warp it, and it's chemically stable too. (Think about all those science experiments that use glass beakers to contain reactive materials without anything bad happening to them.) This makes the 5D discs safe up to temperatures of 1,000°C, say the researchers.
The Hubble Space Telescope Just Snapped Photos of the Biggest Black Hole We've Ever Observed
A new photograph of galaxy NGC 4889 may look peaceful from such a great distance, but it’s actually home to one of the biggest black holes that astronomers have ever identified. The Hubble Space Telescope allowed scientists to capture photos of the galaxy, located in the Coma Cluster about 300 million light-years away. The supermassive black hole hidden away in NGC 4889 breaks all kinds of records, even though it is currently classified as dormant.
So how big is it, exactly? Well, according to our best estimates, the supermassive black hole is roughly 21 billion times the size of the Sun, and its event horizon (an area so dense and powerful that light can’t escape its gravity) measures 130 billion kilometers in diameter. That’s about 15 times the diameter of Neptune’s orbit around the Sun, according to scientists at the Hubble Space Telescope. At one point, the black hole was fueling itself on a process called hot accretion. Space stuff like gases, dust, and galactic debris fell towards the black hole and created an accretion disk. Then that spinning disk of space junk, accelerated by the strong gravitational pull of the largest known black hole, emitted huge jets of energy out into the galaxy.
LIGO Discovers the Merger of Two Black Holes
Big news: the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO) has detected its first gravitational-wave signal! Not only is the detection of this signal a major technical accomplishment and an exciting confirmation of general relativity, but it also has huge implications for black-hole astrophysics.
What did LIGO see?
LIGO is designed to detect the ripples in space-time created by two massive objects orbiting each other. These waves can reach observable amplitudes when a binary system consisting of two especially massive objects — i.e., black holes or neutron stars — reach the end of their inspiral and merge.
LIGO has been unsuccessfully searching for gravitational waves since its initial operations in 2002, but a recent upgrade in its design has significantly increased its sensitivity and observational range. The first official observing run of Advanced LIGO began 18 September 2015, but the instruments were up and running in “engineering mode” several weeks before that. And it was in this time frame — before official observing even began! — that LIGO spotted its first gravitational wave signal: GW150914.
One of LIGO’s two detection sites, located near Hanford in eastern Washington. [LIGO] The signal, detected on 14 September, 2015, provides astronomers with a remarkable amount of information about the merger that caused it. From the detection, the LIGO team has extracted the masses of the two black holes that merged, 36+5-4 and 29+4-4 solar masses, as well as the mass of the final black hole formed by the merger, ~62 solar masses. The team also determined that the merger happened roughly a billion light-years away (at a redshift of z~0.1), and the direction of the signal was localized to an area of ~600 square degrees (roughly 1% of the sky).
Why is this detection a big deal?
This is the first direct detection of gravitational waves, providing spectacular further confirmation of Einstein’s general theory of relativity. But the implications of GW150914 go far beyond this confirmation. This detection is a huge deal for astrophysics because it’s the first direct evidence we’ve had that:
“Heavy” stellar-mass black holes exist.
We’ve reliably measured black holes of masses up to 10–20 solar masses in X-ray binaries (binary systems in which a single neutron star or black hole accretes matter from a donor star). But this is the first proof we’ve found that stellar-mass black holes of >25 solar masses can form in nature.
Binaries consisting of two black holes can form in nature.
As we’ll discuss shortly, there are two theorized mechanisms for the formation of these black-hole binaries. Until now, however, there was no guarantee that either of those mechanisms worked!
These black-hole binaries can inspiral and merge within the age of the universe.
The formation of a black-hole binary is no guarantee that it will merge on a reasonable timescale: if the binary forms with enough separation, it could take longer than the age of the universe to merge. This detection proves that black-hole binaries can form with small enough separation to merge on observable timescales.
What can we learn from GW150914?
One of the key questions we’d like to answer is: how do binary black holes form? Two primary mechanisms have been proposed:
A binary star system contains two stars that are each massive enough to individually collapse into a black hole. If the binary isn’t disrupted during the two collapse events, this forms an isolated black-hole binary. Single black holes form in dense cluster environments and then — because they are the most massive objects — sink to the center of the cluster. There they form pairs through dynamical interactions. Now that we’re able to observe black-hole binaries through gravitational-wave detections, one way we could distinguish between the two formation mechanisms is from spin measurements. If we discover a clear preference for the misalignment of the two black holes’ spins, this would favor formation in clusters, where there’s no reason for the original spins to be aligned.
The current, single detection is not enough to provide constraints, but if we can compile a large enough sample of events, we can start to present a statistical case favoring one channel over the other.
What does GW150914 mean for the future of gravitational-wave detection?
The fact that Advanced LIGO detected an event even before the start of its first official observing run is certainly promising! The LIGO team estimates that the volume the detectors can probe will still increase by at least a factor of ~10 as the observing runs become more sensitive and of longer duration.
In addition, LIGO is not alone in the gravitational-wave game. LIGO’s counterpart in Europe, Virgo, is also undergoing design upgrades to increase its sensitivity. Within this year, Virgo should be able to take data simultaneously with LIGO, allowing for better localization of sources. And the launch of (e)LISA, ESA’s planned space-based interferometer, will grant us access to a new frequency range, opening a further window to the gravitational-wave sky.
The detection of GW150914 marks the dawn of a new field: observational gravitational-wave astronomy. This detection alone confirms much that was purely theory before now — and given that instrument upgrades are still underway, the future of gravitational-wave detection looks incredibly promising.
This awesome video (produced by SXS lensing) shows an actual simulation of the black-hole merger GW150914. Time is slowed by a factor of 100, compared to the actual merger. The two black holes — of 29 and 36 solar masses — warp the space-time around them, causing the distorted view.
Einstein's gravitational waves 'seen' from black holes
Scientists are claiming a stunning discovery in their quest to fully understand gravity. They have observed the warping of space-time generated by the collision of two black holes more than a billion light-years from Earth.
The international team says the first detection of these gravitational waves will usher in a new era for astronomy. It is the culmination of decades of searching and could ultimately offer a window on the Big Bang. The research, by the Ligo Collaboration, has been published today in the journal Physical Review Letters.
The collaboration operates a number of labs around the world that fire lasers through long tunnels, trying to sense ripples in the fabric of space-time.
The signals they detect are incredibly subtle and disturb the machines, known as interferometers, by just fractions of the width of an atom. But this black hole merger was picked up almost simultaneously by two widely separated Ligo facilities in the US. The merger radiated three times the mass of the sun in pure gravitational energy. "We have detected gravitational waves," Prof David Reitze, executive director of the Ligo project, told journalists at a news conference in Washington DC. "It's the first time the Universe has spoken to us through gravitational waves. Up until now, we've been deaf."
Prof Karsten Danzmann, from the Max Planck Institute for Gravitational Physics and Leibniz University in Hannover, Germany, is a European leader on the collaboration. He said the detection was one of the most important developments in science since the discovery of the Higgs particle, and on a par with the determination of the structure of DNA. "There is a Nobel Prize in it - there is no doubt," he told the BBC. "It is the first ever direct detection of gravitational waves; it's the first ever direct detection of black holes and it is a confirmation of General Relativity because the property of these black holes agrees exactly with what Einstein predicted almost exactly 100 years ago."
Gravitational waves are prediction of the Theory of General Relativity
Their existence has been inferred by science but only now directly detected
They are ripples in the fabric of space and time produced by violent events
Accelerating masses will produce waves that propagate at the speed of light
Detectable sources ought to include merging black holes and neutron stars
Ligo fires lasers into long, L-shaped tunnels; the waves disturb the light
Detecting the waves opens up the Universe to completely new investigations
That view was reinforced by Prof Stephen Hawking, who is an expert on black holes. Speaking exclusively to BBC News, he said he believed that the detection marked a key moment in scientific history.
"Gravitational waves provide a completely new way at looking at the Universe. The ability to detect them has the potential to revolutionise astronomy. This discovery is the first detection of a black hole binary system and the first observation of black holes merging," he said.
"Apart from testing (Albert Einstein's theory of) General Relativity, we could hope to see black holes through the history of the Universe. We may even see relics of the very early Universe during the Big Bang at some of the most extreme energies possible." Team member Prof Gabriela González, from Louisiana State University, said: "We have discovered gravitational waves from the merger of black holes. It's been a very long road, but this is just the beginning. "Now that we have the detectors to see these systems, now that we know binary black holes are out there - we'll begin listening to the Universe."
The Ligo laser interferometers in Hanford, in Washington, and Livingston, in Louisiana, were only recently refurbished and had just come back online when they sensed the signal from the collision. This occurred at 10.51 GMT on 14 September last year. On a graph, the data looks like a symmetrical, wiggly line that gradually increases in height and then suddenly fades away. "We found a beautiful signature of the merger of two black holes and it agrees exactly - fantastically - with the numerical solutions to Einstein equations... it looked too beautiful to be true," said Prof Danzmann.
Prof Sheila Rowan, who is one of the lead UK researchers involved in the project, said that the first detection of gravitational waves was just the start of a "terrifically exciting" journey.
"The fact that we are sitting here on Earth feeling the actual fabric of the Universe stretch and compress slightly due to the merger of black holes that occurred just over a billion years ago - I think that's phenomenal. It's amazing that when we first turned on our detectors, the Universe was ready and waiting to say 'hello'," the Glasgow University scientist told the BBC.
Being able to detect gravitational waves enables astronomers finally to probe what they call "dark" Universe - the majority part of the cosmos that is invisible to the light telescopes in use today.
Not only will they be able to investigate black holes and strange objects known as neutron stars (giant suns that have collapsed to the size of cities), they should also be able to "look" much deeper into the Universe - and thus farther back in time. It may even be possible eventually to sense the moment of the Big Bang.
"Gravitational waves go through everything. They are hardly affected by what they pass through, and that means that they are perfect messengers," said Prof Bernard Schutz, from Cardiff University, UK. "The information carried on the gravitational wave is exactly the same as when the system sent it out; and that is unusual in astronomy. We can't see light from whole regions of our own galaxy because of the dust that is in the way, and we can't see the early part of the Big Bang because the Universe was opaque to light earlier than a certain time.
"With gravitational waves, we do expect eventually to see the Big Bang itself," he told the BBC. In addition, the study of gravitational waves may ultimately help scientists in their quest to solve some of the biggest problems in physics, such as the unification of forces, linking quantum theory with gravity. At the moment, General Relativity describes the cosmos on the largest scales tremendously well, but it is to quantum ideas that we resort when talking about the smallest interactions. Being able to study places in the Universe where gravity is really extreme, such as at black holes, may open a path to new, more complete thinking on these issues.
A laser is fed into the machine and its beam is split along two paths
The separate paths bounce back and forth between damped mirrors
Eventually, the two light parts are recombined and sent to a detector Gravitational waves passing through the lab should disturb the set-up
Theory holds they should very subtly stretch and squeeze its space. This ought to show itself as a change in the lengths of the light arms (green). The photodetector captures this signal in the recombined beam Scientists have sought experimental evidence for gravitational waves for more than 40 years.
Einstein himself actually thought a detection might be beyond the reach of technology. His theory of General Relativity suggests that objects such as stars and planets can warp space around them - in the same way that a billiard ball creates a dip when placed on a thin, stretched, rubber sheet. Gravity is a consequence of that distortion - objects will be attracted to the warped space in the same way that a pea will fall in to the dip created by the billiard ball.
Einstein predicted that if the gravity in an area was changed suddenly - by an exploding star, say - waves of gravitational energy would ripple across the Universe at light-speed, stretching and squeezing space as they travelled.
Although a fantastically small effect, modern technology has now risen to the challenge. Much of the R&D work for the Washington and Louisiana machines was done at Europe's smaller GEO600 interferometer in Hannover. "I think it's phenomenal to be able to build an instrument capable of measuring [gravitational waves]," said Prof Rowan. "It is hugely exciting for a whole generation of young people coming along, because these kinds of observations and this real pushing back of the frontiers is really what inspires a lot of young people to get into science and engineering."