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Posts Tagged ‘astronomy

“The history of astronomy is a history of receding horizons”*…

 

The closest astronomers have come to directly “seeing” a black hole happened last year, when the LIGO observatory detected the spacetime-warping gravitational waves radiating from a pair of black holes that collided some 1.3 billion years ago.

That’s cool. But for astronomers, it’s not enough. What’s eluded them is a view of the event horizon, the boundary of the black hole from which, when crossed, there is no return. After the event horizon, gravity is so intense that not even light can escape.

We’ve never seen a direct image of a black hole. But if an audacious experiment called the Event Horizon Telescope is successful, we’ll see one for the first time…

Find out how at “Astronomers just turned on a planet-size telescope to take a picture of a black hole.”

* Edwin Hubble

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As we look into it, we might recall that it was on this date in 1006 CE that observers across China, Japan, Iraq, Egypt, and Europe recorded their observation of a supernova (now known as SN 1006).  Likely the brightest observed stellar event in recorded history, it reached an estimated −7.5 visual magnitude (more than sixteen times the brightness of Venus).  Many experts believe that it was also recorded in the Native American petroglyphs in White Tank Mountain Regional Park, Arizona, making them the first North American record of a supernova sighting.

SN 1006 supernova remnant

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Written by LW

April 30, 2017 at 1:01 am

“When the going gets weird, the weird turn pro”*…

 

An international study claims to have found first observed evidence that our universe is a hologram.

What is the holographic universe idea? It’s not exactly that we are living in some kind of Star Trekky computer simulation. Rather the idea, first proposed in the 1990s by Leonard Susskind and Gerard ‘t Hooft, says that all the information in our 3-dimensional reality may actually be included in the 2-dimensional surface of its boundaries. It’s like watching a 3D show on a 2D television…

Just when one thought that things couldn’t get any stranger: “Scientists Find First Observed Evidence That Our Universe May Be a Hologram.”

Pair with this piece on recent experimental confirmation of what Albert Einstein called “spooky action at a distance.”

* Hunter S. Thompson

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As we batten down the hatches, we might send shady birthday greetings to Fritz Zwicky; he was born on this date in 1898.  A distinguished astronomer who worked at Cal Tech most of his life, Zwicky is best remembered for being the first to infer the existence of “dark matter“: while examining the Coma galaxy cluster in 1933, he used the virial theorem to deduce the existence of what he then called dunkle Materie. Colleagues knew him as both both a genius and a curmudgeon. One of his favorite insults was to refer to people of whom he didn’t approve as “spherical bastards”– because, he explained, they were bastards no matter which way you looked at them.

[For more on dunkle Materie:Will We Ever Know What Dark Matter Is?“]

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Written by LW

February 14, 2017 at 1:01 am

“When physicists say ‘we don’t understand what’s going on here,’ they really, really mean it”*…

 

Theoretical physicists and cosmologists deal with the biggest questions, like “Why are we here?” “When did the universe begin?” and “How?” Another questions that bugs them, and likely has bugged you, is “What happened before the Big Bang?”

To be perfectly clear, we can’t definitively answer this question—but we can speculate wildly, with the help of theoretical physicist Sean Carroll from the California Institute of Technology. Carroll gave a talk last month at the bi-annual meeting of the American Astronomical Society in Grapevine, Texas, where he walked through several pre-Bang possibilities that would result in a universe like ours…

Consider the options at: “What Was Our Universe Like Before the Big Bang?

* Theoretical physicist Peter Woit, Columbia University

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As we scrutinize the singularity, we might spare a thought for E. E. Barnard; he died on this date in 1923. Recognized as a gifted observational astronomer, he is probably best known for his discovery of the high proper motion of Barnard’s Star in 1916, which is named in his honor.  But, drawing on his experience as a photographer’s assistant in his adolescence (and building on the work of John William Draper), Barnard also contributed mightily to the development of celestial photography.

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Written by LW

February 6, 2017 at 1:01 am

“What mysterious time and place don’t we know?”*…

 

Several years ago we considered the “Antikythera mechanism” (“A Connecticut Yankee in King Agamemnon’s Court?…” and again in “Leggo My Lego…”), an ancient Greek device considered then to be 1,500 years ahead of its time.

In June of 2016, an international team of experts revealed new information derived from tiny inscriptions on the devices parts in ancient Greek that had been too tiny to read—some of its characters are just 1/20th of an inch wide—until cutting-edge imaging technology allowed it to be more clearly seen. They’ve now read about 35,00 characters explaining the device…

The full story at “An Ancient Device Too Advanced to Be Real Gives Up Its Secrets at Last.”

* Ken Kesey

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As we re-gauge our sense of history, we might spare a thought for Frederick II, Holy Roman Emperor and King of Sicily; he died on this date in 1250.  Frederick considered himself a direct successor to the Roman Emperors; he battled with the papacy, but otherwise practiced religious tolerance, and interacted with learned Jews, Muslims, and Christians.)

A multilingual man of learning, he corresponded with and patronized scholars.  His interests spanned the sciences, but were especially acute in natural history. He kept a menagerie which at various times had not only monkeys and camels, but also a giraffe and an elephant.  His notable contribution to scientific ornithology was with a six-volume work, De arte venandi cum avibus (c.1244-48).  In addition to some treatment of falconry, he presented his own observations (rather than perpetuating accepted hearsay knowledge) with remarks on hundreds of kinds of birds, with generalizations on their behavior, anatomy and physiology.

Frederick II and his falcon. From his book De arte venandi cum avibus

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Written by LW

December 13, 2016 at 1:01 am

“There is in souls a sympathy with sounds”*…

 

We know that there is sound on planets and moons in the solar system – places where there’s a medium through which sound waves can be transmitted, such as an atmosphere or an ocean. But what about empty space? You may have been told definitively that space is silent, maybe by your teacher or through the marketing of the movie Alien – “In space no one can hear you scream”. The common explanation for this is that space is a vacuum and so there’s no medium for sound to travel through.

But that isn’t exactly right. Space is never completely empty – there are a few particles and sound waves floating around. In fact, sound waves in the space around the Earth are very important to our continued technological existence. They also they sound pretty weird!…

More– including another, different opportunity to listen in and info on how you can help– at “What does empty space sound like?

* William Cowper

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As we prick up our ears, we might recall that it was on this date in 1956 that American International Pictures released Shake Rattle and Rock!, a comedy-drama (featuring the music of Fats Domino) directed by Edward L. Cahn, who went on to notoriety, if not fame, two years later with It! The Terror from Beyond Space, the film that inspired the 1979 film Alien.

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Written by LW

December 1, 2016 at 1:01 am

“Behold the hands”*…

 

Is gesture a universal language? When lost for words, we point, wave, motion and otherwise use our hands to attempt to indicate meaning. However, much of this form of communication is intuitive and is not generally seen to be, by itself, an effective substitution for speech.

John Bulwer (1606 – 1656), an English doctor and philosopher, attempted to record the vocabulary contained in hand gestures and bodily motions and, in 1644, published Chirologia, or the Naturall Language of the Hand alongside a companion text Chironomia, or the Art of Manual Rhetoric, an illustrated collection of hand and finger gestures that were intended for an orator to memorise and perform whilst speaking.

For Bulwer, gesture was the only from of speech that was inherently natural to mankind, and he saw it as a language with expressions as definable as written words…

More of the backstory (and more examples) at “Chirologia, or The Natural Language of the Hand (1644).”

* “Behold the hands, how they promise, conjure, appeal, menace, pray, supplicate, refuse, beckon, interrogate, admire, confess, cringe, instruct, command, mock and what not besides, with a variation and multiplication of variation which makes the tongue envious.”   – Montaigne

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As we gesticulate, we might recall that it was on this date in 1967 that Jocelyn Bell Burnell and Antony Hewish discovered the first pulsar— or pulsating radio star– a highly magnetized, rotating neutron star that emits a beam of electromagnetic radiation.

The precise periods of pulsars make them very useful tools. Observations of a pulsar in a binary neutron star system were used to  confirm (indirectly) the existence of gravitational radiation. The first extrasolar planets were discovered around a pulsar, PSR B1257+12.  And certain types of pulsars rival atomic clocks in their accuracy in keeping time.

Schematic rendering of a pulsar

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Written by LW

November 28, 2016 at 1:01 am

“Study hard what interests you the most in the most undisciplined, irreverent and original manner possible”*…

 

Many scientists know the pain of meeting a stranger at cocktail party or sitting down at Thanksgiving and getting this question: So, what’s your research about?

Though trying to distill the function of mRNA in gene expression into a few minutes of intelligible chit chat may seem as hard as earning a Ph.D., the ability to communicate complex research to the general public is of the utmost importance.

So to help academics everywhere, American Association for the Advancement of Science launched the annual “Dance Your Ph.D.” contest. Now in it’s ninth year, the contest requires grad students translate their often complex research into a new format, giving them a different perspective on their work and a chance to communicate their findings with the public. It’s also fun…

The full story (replete with videos of victorious performances) at “Jive to the Academic Beat With This Year’s ‘Dance Your Ph.D.’ Winners.”

* Richard Feynman

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As we let the spirits move us, we might recall that it was on this date in 1993 that the Roman Catholic Church admitted that it had erred in condemning Galileo.  For over 359 years, the Church had excoriated Galileo’s contentions (e.g., that the Earth revolves around the Sun) as anti-scriptural heresy.  In 1633, at age 69, Galileo had been forced by the Roman Inquisition to repent, and spent the last eight years of his life under house arrest.  After 13 years of inquiry, Pope John Paul II’s commission of historic, scientific and theological scholars brought the pontiff a “not guilty” finding for Galileo; the Pope himself met with the Pontifical Academy of Sciences to help correct the record.

Galileo (standing; white collar, dark smock) showing the Doge of Venice (seated) how to use the telescope. From a fresco by Giuseppe Bertini

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