Two weeks in review (October 27-November 9)

The Universal Marathon: 13.8 billion years! You run this race whether you like it or not, so might as well enjoy it.

Evidently I forgot to post one of these roundups last week, so here’s two weeks’ worth of writing all at once! Also, I have a new sticker design you can order, for those of you (like me) who don’t willingly run for exercise, but want to feel you’ve accomplished something anyway. At least in a cosmological sense, we all run this marathon we call existence.

  1. Drown your town, drown the world (Galileo’s Pendulum): My colleague Andrew David Thaler asked how much water would be required to flood the whole world to the height of Mount Everest, so I took up the challenge.
  2. Hellish exoplanet has Earth-like density and composition (Ars Technica): It’s difficult to measure both the mass and the size of exoplanets (planets orbiting other stars), because discovery methods are complementary to each other. A new pair of papers described the first exoplanet with a density similar to Earth’s, meaning it probably has a similar composition. However, the planet is hot enough to melt most rocks. Don’t plan your vacation there.
  3. New LUX experiment: No dark matter in this corner (Ars Technica): Researchers operating the Large Underground Xenon (LUX) dark matter detector announced the results of the first three months of operation. They found: nothing. Well, specifically they found nothing where some other detectors might have found a possible dark matter signature.
  4. Ghosts in the detector: why null results are part of science too (Galileo’s Pendulum): To follow up that previous article, here’s why the LUX detector wasn’t a failure, and definitely why we shouldn’t think dark matter doesn’t exist.
  5. A comment on comments, with cats (Galileo’s Pendulum): Comments on websites have always been a point of some debate. Do we have them? How do we moderate them? What constitutes reasonable commenting, and who makes that decision? Because of an ongoing “debate” between a few vocal people about pterosaur flight (of all things) on an old post about gravity, which I simply don’t have time or willingness to moderate, I decided to close down comment threads on older posts. That riled some people up.
  6. So close, yet so far (Galileo’s Pendulum): The closest star to the Solar System is invisible to the unaided eye, but in many ways it’s a more typical star than the Sun — much less the other stars we see in the night sky.
  7. The census of alien worlds (Galileo’s Pendulum): The Kepler observatory’s primary mission is over, but its legacy lives on. Based on Kepler data, scientists have estimated the possible number of Earth-class planets orbiting at habitable distances from Sun-like stars. Here’s my take on that study.
  8. I don’t believe in science (Galileo’s Pendulum): Oftentimes, big ideas in science — the Big Bang model, evolution, climate change — are regarded as optional, matters of belief. Here are some of my musings about science, belief, and what it means to trust science in the face of bad behavior, fraud, and controversy.
  9. Weekly Space Hangout (Universe Today): Yesterday, I participated in the weekly round-up of space and astronomy news, in conversation with other science writers. Much fun was had!

It’s a 24-hour dance…er, science party!

Please join us tomorrow to raise money so that CosmoQuest can continue to do its good work on science outreach!

Tomorrow, I’ll be spending an hour talking about my work with CosmoAcademy: the online classes offered through CosmoQuest. However, my colleagues Pamela Gay (AKA StarStryder) and Nicole Gugliucchi (AKA the Noisy Astronomer) will be hosting an entire 24 hour fundraising hangout! Please check in tomorrow, watch the conversations, and please please donate if you can. In this era of budget cuts and sequestration, public science education is suffering and you can help. Other guests will include Phil Plait (the Bad Astronomer), the Death by Puppets crew, and a variety of scientists!

I am a RealScientist!

OK, it’s not quite like Pinocchio‘s “I’m a real boy” transformation, but I will be handling the RealScientists Twitter feed this week, talking about what I do as a professional science writer and (of course) physics, astronomy, cosmology, music, comics, or whatever I usually talk about. If you’re on Twitter, follow along, and make sure you stick around: that feed hosts many excellent people from all over the world in a variety of disciplines. (The official introduction is at the RealScientists site.)

Thanks to Upulie DeNovo who invited me to participate in this project, and to the other RealScientists administrators.

Talking about dark matter in a bar

Next Tuesday (June 4, 2013) I will be speaking at SciencePub RVA, a monthly gathering at The Camel in Richmond, Virginia. The doors open at 6 PM, and my talk starts at 7 PM. The event is free, but we’d love it if you would register, so we have an idea of the crowd size. (Also, tip your servers. Seriously. They’re your friends.)

Mining for dark matter

Dark matter makes up about 80% of all the mass in the Universe, but what exactly is it? To see how scientists are trying to answer this question, we’ll examine the evidence for dark matter in the Universe, from the early days of the cosmos to the structure of galaxies. Then, we’ll travel a half-mile underground to the Soudan laboratory in northern Minnesota, where one experiment works to detect dark matter particles directly.

Ryan Gosling has not endorsed this class, but if he knew about it, he would.

Ryan Gosling has not endorsed this class, but if he knew about it, he would.

OK, one part of that title isn’t true, unless Ryan Gosling signs up for the class in the next few days. There are still spots in my new online class “The Universe in a Box”, beginning next Tuesday, April 2. Sign up today!

Also, we’re beginning another new class at CosmoAcademy: “The Sun and Stellar Evolution“, taught by Ray Sanders. He’ll teach you about the life cycle of stars, from formation to death and beyond, and what our own Sun can tell us about the whole process. The class begins April 15.

Learn cosmology with me and Ryan Gosling

Two BIG THINGS coming up!

A box containing a representative sample of the entire Universe.

A box containing a representative sample of the entire Universe.

April will be a busy month for the Bowler Hat: I begin my new gig as Director of CosmoAcademy in earnest, and I will be traveling to New York City to participate in the ScienceOnline Teen conference. Here’s the scoop:

  • The Universe we inhabit inspires some of the biggest questions about meaning, purpose, origins, and endings. However, the study of the Universe is also a serious science, blending aspects of astronomy and physics into one of the most dynamic areas of research. So, in that spirit, CosmoAcademy is offering a new class: Introduction to Cosmology! The class begins April 2; sign up at our EventBrite page, and check out the details over at CosmoQuest.
  • ScienceOnline Teen is designed to create “connections between students & teachers and the online scientific community and discuss how new media is changing the world of science. The conference is informal and based on conversations, not presentations. So participants will interact during the entire event.  Teens will moderate the sessions and ensure that the topics are teen-driven and teen-focused.” The goal: inspiration. The method: bowler hats science! We’ve got some great people from a variety of backgrounds and interests.

question box from Super Mario BrothersWriter/editor David Manly posed a series of questions to scientists and writers, soliciting short responses on topics of broad interest. Those interviewed were shark researcher David Schiffman, paleontology writer/sauropod snogger Brian Switek, and me. If you want to know who would win an arm-wrestling contest between a human and a Tyrannosaurus, or how we know black holes exist if we can’t see them, this post is for you.

A Manly conversation

Black holes don’t suck

Yesterday (November 10, 2012) I spoke about black holes at the Richmond Public Library. For those who couldn’t make it, or who were there but want more information, here’s the essence of the talk, along with the relevant images that formed my slides. Please leave any questions you have in the comments, and thanks to everyone who came out (despite the insane marathon-related traffic)!

Black Holes Don’t Suck

(Yes, I’ve used that joke before. So sue me.)

Discussions of black holes fall into two distinct categories. The first is the sexy string theory/quantum gravity/Stephen Hawking category, all about time warps, wormholes, extra dimensions, Bekenstein entropy, and baby universes; the second discusses the real black holes discovered in our galaxy and beyond. While the sexy stuff is a lot of fun to talk about, that’s not what I discussed: it’s speculative, and at the present time impossible to test. (Some of it by its very nature is impossible to test, since we can’t get access to the region inside a black hole. More on that shortly.) However, I think real astronomical black holes are just as interesting, and over the last several decades astronomers have realized how important they are in shaping the galaxies they inhabit. Continue reading

Ada Lovelace, 1815-1852 [Credit: Wikipedia]

For Ada Lovelace Day, I compiled a list of many of the best science writers I know:

Last year, I celebrated Emmy Noether, perhaps the greatest mathematician of the 20th century. This year (largely because I’m swamped with other work), I’m stealing a great idea from Ed Yong, and celebrating living writers who are my friends, colleagues, and influences. This list is in no particular order, isn’t anywhere close to complete, and has some overlap with Ed’s list. My main criteria are that these are writers I read regularly, so their interests mix with mine to some degree. (Writers marked with an asterisk* are people I have met in Real Life, whatever that signifies.) Leave your own favorites and influences in the comments! [Read more....]

Happy Ada Lovelace Day!

Over the last year, I’ve become very involved with the Science Online community. This is a group focused around an annual (un)conference, whose purpose is the communication of science through electronic media. Here’s an interview I did with Bora Zivkovic, one of the leading figures in the Science Online community. Key excerpt:

I still think of myself as an educator even now, though I’m no longer in the college classroom. I want to share the wonder of physics to those who think of it as something beyond them, or even something to fear. In this era when the very goals of education are being challenged (at least for the children of poor and working-class families), it seems more important than ever to stress the importance of science, not just in daily lives, but in our intellectual structure. Science can be a source of joy and wonder for everyone, whether they are scientists or not.

Science Online and me