This metal plate is perforated with holes, each of which lines up with a galaxy or quasar. The BOSS survey maps the position and distance to a huge number of galaxies using many masks such as this. [Credit: moi]

This metal plate is perforated with holes, each of which lines up with a galaxy or quasar. The BOSS survey maps the position and distance to a huge number of galaxies using many masks such as this. [Credit: moi]

Far from being invisible, black holes are among some of the brightest objects in the Universe. The black holes themselves aren’t emitting light, but the matter they draw in heats up and much of it shoots back out in powerful jets. When that happens, the black hole is known as a quasar, and it can be visible from billions of light-years away. For that reason, mapping the distribution of quasars can help cosmologists understand the expansion rate of the Universe in an earlier era — and constrain the behavior of dark energy. My latest story in The Daily Beast explains:

If dark energy will be the same in billions of years as it seems to be today, the future will be dark and empty, as galaxies continue to move apart from each other at ever-faster rates. If dark energy comes and goes, though, maybe the rate of expansion will slow down again. All of this is a long time from now—trillions of years after the death of the Sun—but we might see hints about it today. We hope to see signs of what is to come by looking at how dark energy behaves now, and how it has acted in the past. Similarly, if dark energy is stronger in some parts of the cosmos, then certain pockets of the Universe would grow faster than in others. That also has implications for how the future cosmos looks. [Read more...]

Using Black Holes to Measure Dark Energy, Like a BOSS

Captain Picard may be a little confused.

Today, researchers with the LHCb experiment at CERN announced the confirmation of a weird object that first appeared in detectors in 2008. This object is made up of four quarks, where other particles are made of two or three quarks (or zero, in the case of electrons, neutrinos, and the like). But what sort of beast is this? As is often the case, more work is needed before we can say for ccertain.

With that much data, physicists were able to determine the composition of the Z(4430)-: it consists of a charm quark, a charm anti-quark, a down quark, and an up antiquark. The “4430″ part of the name indicates its mass: 4,430 million electron-volts, which a little more than four times the mass of a proton (938 million electron volts). The combination of quarks gives the Z(4430)- a negative electric charge, hence the “-” in the label. The particle is highly unstable, so none of them are expected to be seen in nature. [Read more...]

Four quarks for Muster Mark!

Artist's impression of the ringed asteroid Chariklo. While the asteroid is too small and distant to image directly, astronomers found two narrow rings around it — making it the smallest known object with a ring system. [Credit: ESO/L. Calçada/M. Kornmesser/Nick Risinger (skysurvey.org)]

Artist’s impression of the ringed asteroid Chariklo. While the asteroid is too small and distant to image directly, astronomers found two narrow rings around it — making it the smallest known object with a ring system. [Credit: ESO/L. Calçada/M. Kornmesser/Nick Risinger (skysurvey.org)]

Saturn’s magnificent rings have been known since Galileo observed the planet’s “ears” in his telescope. In the last few decades, researchers found rings (albeit less shiny ones) around the other giant planets — Jupiter, Uranus, and Neptune. And now the small asteroid Chariklo has joined the ring cycle: observations revealed it has two narrow rings, probably composed of water ice. It’s an intriguing discovery, since nothing else we’ve found at intermediate sizes has rings, leading to questions of how they form, how stable they may be, and whether there might be other beringed objects out there.

Beyond size, another challenge is Chariklo’s location between Saturn and Uranus. It orbits in a long ellipse, ranging from 13 to nearly 19 times farther from the Sun than Earth. This position, along with its composition of rock and ice, marks Chariklo as a “centaur.” Just like mythological centaurs are half human and half horse, astronomical centaurs combine features of asteroids and comets. (Centaurs would grow comet-like tails if they fell closer toward the Sun.) Tens of thousands of centaurs may lurk among the giant planets, though most of those are much smaller than Chariklo, the largest known centaur. [Read more...]

All the single centaurs

The particles of the the Standard Model and its simplest supersymmetric version. [Credit:  Pauline Gagnon]

The particles of the the Standard Model and its simplest supersymmetric version. [Credit:
Pauline Gagnon]

Symmetry and elegance have proven to be a very successful way to think about the physical Universe. Arguably the greatest successes in 20th century particle physics came from translating mathematical symmetries into predictions about the results of particle collisions. However, not every symmetry thus far has led to a successful theory, and one of the frustrations is that a natural consequence of a symmetry in the theory of relativity hasn’t produced the predicted particles. The currently unfulfilled theory is known as supersymmetry (or SUSY), and so far none of its predictions have borne out experimentally.

However, a completely analogous version of SUSY could exist in certain exotic superconductors. This is not built out of elementary particles, but out of interactions between electrons and atoms, giving rise to a set of particle-like quantum excitations known as quasiparticles.

The new paper discussed the idea of emergent SUSY-like behavior in topological superconductors. In these systems (described in more detail in the sidebar story), the interior of the material conducts electricity without resistance, but the outside is an ordinary conductor. The authors argued that experimentally observed magnetic behavior on the conducting surface could be interpreted super symmetrically. It also exhibits a breaking of SUSY due to the fundamental difference in interior and surface behavior of the system.

In this view, the magnetic excitations (acting like bosons) on the surface are SUSY partners with the topological superconductor quasiparticles, which are fermions. [read more...]

Supersymmetry in…superconductors?

Now it can be told: I will be writing a weekly post for The Daily Beast (making me The Weekly Beast?), on space, astronomy, and such things. My first column is about inflation, and why it’s a big deal:

If you compare any two points on the night sky, their temperature as measured in microwave light is identical to a few millionths of a degree. That light, known as the cosmic microwave background, comes to us from nearly the beginning of the Universe, so it has been traveling for 13.8 billion years. Even with the expansion of the cosmos, two points on opposite sides of the sky were never in the same place, yet they have the same temperature… assuming the current rate of the expansion of the Universe has been roughly the same since the beginning.

But maybe it hasn’t. The cosmic temperature coincidence (which would be a great band name), along with several other annoying aspects of the Universe, led a group of researchers to propose the theory of inflation. [read more...]

The Daily Beast’s latest astronomy columnist is…me!

If you shine light on a barrier with two openings, it produces a distinct pattern of light on a distant screen. Measuring that pattern is standard in introductory physics laboratories. (You could even do it at home, but I recommend a very dark room and a bright laser pointer if you hope to see anything at all.) Where things get fun, though, is if you have a light source capable of sending a slow stream of photons — particles of light — through: you still get the interference pattern, but it emerges slowly from individual points of light. In other words, the photons behave as though the entire wave interference pattern is already present, even though they are single particles.

My latest article for Nautilus shows how researchers have taken this classic experiment, but use single photons to manipulate the interference pattern via the phenomenon known as entanglement. The result is a mind-bending experiment known as the “quantum eraser”:

The best way to see the quantum eraser is to couple the double-slit experiment with another fascinating quantum phenomenon: entanglement. In a typical implementation, light from a laser stimulates a certain kind of crystal, which in turn emits two photons with opposite polarization—one could oscillate left-right, while the other oscillates up-down. (You can see how this works by putting one pair of polarized sunglasses in front of another and rotating one pair. At certain angles, the light going through both lenses will fade to almost nothing, a sign that the light is passing through two filters with perpendicular orientations.)

The polarization of each photon is unknown before measurement, but because of how they’re generated, they are entangled, and measuring one can instantly affect each the other. That holds true no matter how far apart the two particles are or when the measurements are taken. [read more....]

Quantum droplets in an ocean of light

The BICEP2 telescope (foreground) with the South Pole Telescope (SPT) behind. [Credit: Steffen Richter (Harvard University)]

The BICEP2 telescope (foreground) with the South Pole Telescope (SPT) behind. [Credit: Steffen Richter (Harvard University)]

Today was an exciting and stimulating day: the BICEP2 collaboration announced the first measurement of the cosmic microwave background that might tell us whether or not inflation happened. Inflation is the hypothetical rapid expansion of the Universe during its first instants, which explains a lot about why the cosmos appears the way it does. However, data on inflation itself, as opposed to its side-effects, are hard to come by. This new observation could help resolve that…assuming we can figure out why some of its aspects don’t agree with prior observations.

While they do not constitute a direct detection of either primordial gravitational waves (the distortions causing the light polarization) or inflation, the BICEP2 results could provide the best evidence for both that could not be easily explained away by other theories. This observation cannot be the end of the story, however. The measurement of polarization is significantly larger that what is seen in the results of prior observations in a way that cannot be immediately dismissed. Whether the problems are with the interpretation and analysis of the BICEP2 data, or if something more subtle is at work, remains to be seen. [Read more....]

New data offer a peek into the Universe’s first instants

A visual representation of the "axis of evil": the  strange alignment of temperature fluctuations on the largest scales on the sky. [Credit: Craig Copi]

A visual representation of the “axis of evil”: the strange alignment of temperature fluctuations on the largest scales on the sky. [Credit: Craig Copi]

On the largest scales — far bigger than any galaxy or galaxy cluster — the Universe is remarkably smooth and regular. Tiny irregularities in the early cosmos are what gave rise to all the structures we see today, including us, but there’s another irregularity covering the whole sky. The Universe appears to be ever-so-slightly lopsided, an anomaly facetiously known as the “axis of evil”. Cosmologists are concerned with trying to understand whether the anomaly is a significant challenge to our understanding of some of the laws of physics, or whether it can be understood either as a new astronomical source or a random fluke based on the fact that the whole cosmos is much larger than our observable Universe.

In my latest feature article at Ars Technica, I explored why the “axis of evil” could be a big deal and how some physicists are trying to understand it.

The lopsidedness is real, but cosmologists are divided over whether it reveals anything meaningful about the fundamental laws of physics. The fluctuations are sufficiently small that they could arise from random chance. We have just one observable Universe, but nobody sensible believes we can see all of it. With a sufficiently large cosmos beyond the reach of our telescopes, the rest of the Universe may balance the oddity that we can see, making it a minor, local variation.

However, if the asymmetry can’t be explained away so simply, it could indicate that some new physical mechanisms were at work in the early history of the Universe. [Read more....]

The mystery of the lopsided Universe

Astronomers measured the rotation of a black hole from halfway across the Universe.

What, I need to say more?

Astronomers have now used gravitational magnification to measure the rotation rate of a supermassive black hole in a very distant galaxy. From four separate images of the same black hole, R.C. Reis, M.T. Reynolds, J.M. Miller, and D.J. Walton found it was spinning nearly as fast as possible. That likely means it was spun up by a small number of mergers with other black holes rather than a gradual increase from eating smaller amounts of mass.

This marks the first measurement of black hole rotation outside the local Universe…. [Read more]

Measuring black hole rotation halfway across the Universe

How did the biggest black holes form?

X-ray image of two black holes in the galaxy NGC 6240. Binary systems like this are possibly the origin of the most massive black holes in the cosmos. [Credit: NASA/CXC/MPE/S.Komossa et al. ]

X-ray image of two black holes in the galaxy NGC 6240. Binary systems like this are possibly the origin of the most massive black holes in the cosmos. [Credit: NASA/CXC/MPE/S.Komossa et al.]

The most massive known object in the cosmos is the black hole at the center of M87, a huge galaxy in the Virgo Cluster. While most large galaxies (including the Milky Way) harbor supermassive black holes, the very largest are interesting. That’s because galaxies and their black holes seem to share a history, based on the relationship between the mass of the black hole and the mass of the galaxy’s central region. Since large galaxies grew by devouring smaller galaxies, or by two galaxies merging into a larger one, it’s very likely the biggest black holes followed a similar process. My latest piece for Nautilus examines how this process might have taken place, and what it could reveal about the black holes themselves.

Earth emits gravitational waves as it orbits the Sun, though the amount of energy lost is imperceptible over the lifetime of the Solar System. Binary black holes are a different matter: Once they are relatively close, they shed a tremendous amount of energy, bringing them closer together with each orbit. (Binary black stars are thought to emit more gravitational energy as they merge than regular stars emit in the form of UV, IR, and visible light over their entire lifetimes of billions of years.) Eventually their event horizons will touch, and the system emits a lot more gravitational waves in a phase known as “ring-down,” as the lumpy, uneven merged mass becomes a smooth, perfectly symmetrical black hole. [Read more...]