If we could only build one huge observatory….

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Q: Suppose we can only build one big telescope. Should we look for life among the stars or the origins of the universe?

I participated in an experts’ roundtable for Aeon Magazine, in which we were asked (more or less facetiously) what single project we would support to settle either questions about the very early universe or the existence of life elsewhere in the cosmos. Of course my real answer is that we should support all the science, because discovery isn’t about looking for one thing, but seeing what new things we can find. Throwing all our money at one big project might accomplish something, but it’s a bad way to do science. But anyway, taking the question for what it is — a fun exercise in wishing — here’s my answer, along with thoughts from Ross Andersen and Caleb Scharf.

Unless you’re a werewolf, the full Moon isn’t to blame for your problems

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Get Over Your Full Moon Fears

From The Daily Beast:

The full Moon is making everyone crazy. More people get arrested when the Moon is full.
The new Moon is making everyone depressed.

Maybe you’ve heard things like that. Maybe you’ve said them yourself. It seems plausible that the second-brightest thing in the sky, the closest astronomical body to Earth, and the object largely responsible for the tides, could cause measurable changes in human behavior. After all, some animals coordinate their behaviors with the phase of the Moon.

As a result of this style of thinking, hospital workers will sometimes claim more births or injuries happen, police will notice more arrests, mental health professionals will feel their clients change behaviors, and so forth, depending on the Moon’s phase. Despite that, repeated studies have shown no strikingly different behavior: there aren’t big differences in car wreck frequency, births, murders, or depression incidents between the new Moon and full Moon. [Read the rest at The Daily Beast…]

The dinosaur-killing dark matter of DOOM!

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A few weeks ago, several news outlets ran stories based on a press release, in which a researcher claimed that dense clumps of dark matter could be responsible for the extinction of dinosaurs. I found this claim dubious, based on what we know about dark matter. Here’s my response.

Did Dark Matter Doom the Dinosaurs?

From Slate:

he history of life on Earth is marked by occasional mass extinctions, events wiping out huge numbers of species. The most famous of these killed off all the dinosaurs (or at least those that hadn’t evolved into birds) 65 million years ago. But the mass extinction that ended the Permian period 250 million years ago was even more dramatic, killing off 90 percent of all species in an astonishingly short amount of time. As yet, the cause of this devastation is unexplained.

Mass extinctions have happened at least five times. (A sixth great extinction currently in progress, but that’s an anomaly because humans are responsible.) Some researchers have tried to figure out whether they’re periodic, recurring after specific time intervals. If they truly do repeat regularly, maybe there’s a common cause for them. [read more on Slate.com]

Slowing light to measure the creep of glaciers

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My most recent article is an interesting combination of fundamental quantum physics research — the slowing of light inside specially-designed materials — with the study of the impacts of climate change on Greenland glaciers.

How to clock a glacier

From Nautilus:

low-flying airplane buzzes along the coast of Greenland, hovering over a glacier. The belly of the plane holds a laser that bounces light off the glacier’s face. As the light beam returns to the plane, it enters a black box that slows it to a crawl, turning it into a moment-by-moment report on the glacier’s speed. Each flight, each glacier measured, allows researchers to map the diminishment of the Greenland ice cap. Similar planes skirt Antarctica and the coast of Alaska, charting the damage to the ice cover.

These airplanes and their experimental equipment don’t exist yet. But the need to measure glacier flow in real time does exist. The latest report by Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) projected that melting ice may result in as much as one meter of sea-level rise by the year 2100, threatening millions of people in low-lying nations and coastal cities. Knowing how glaciers melt can help researchers predict the future. But glaciers are, well, glacial. Most of them creep roughly two to three kilometers each year, covering less distance than most of us can walk in an hour. The fastest ice flow in Greenland is the glacier Jakobshavn, which moves at the blazingly slow speed of about 16 kilometers in a year—about 180 centimeters per hour. [Read the rest at Nautilus]

A space robot arrives at a new world: Dawn at Ceres

The asteroid dwarf planet Ceres, in a view showing the intriguing two bright spots. [Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA/MPS/DLR/IDA ]

The asteroid dwarf planet Ceres, in a view showing the intriguing two bright spots. [Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA/MPS/DLR/IDA ]

Sunday is my birthday, and NASA kindly decided to give me a whole asteroid. I got to write about it for The Daily Beast.

NASA’s Dawn Spacecraft Made It to Dwarf Planet Ceres

From The Daily Beast:

When I was young, I obsessively read through a National Geographic science book called Our Universe, a good overview of current astronomy and especially the Solar System. Voyager 2 was cutting edge at the time, which gives you a hint of when this was. One chapter was devoted to asteroids, the small rocky bodies scattered throughout the inner Solar System and especially the region between Mars and Jupiter. At that time, we didn’t have clear photos of any of them, so the book had paintings of Ceres, Vesta, Pallas, and several asteroids. My mental image of Ceres for more than 30 years has been that artist’s impression: a perfectly spherical, heavily cratered object, colored a light gray.

I mention this because for the first time in history, we now have real photos of Ceres, thanks to NASA’s Dawn spacecraft. Dawn entered orbit around Ceres today, providing us with our first close-up views during its approach. [Read more at The Daily Beast…]

Of symmetries, the strong force and Helen Quinn

[ I am reviving the Bowler Hat Science blog as a quick way to link all my new publications. Subscribe to the feed to keep up with all my stories! ]

Of symmetries, the strong force and Helen Quinn

From Symmetry:

Modern theoretical physicists spend much of their time examining the symmetries governing particles and their interactions. Researchers describe these principles mathematically and test them with sophisticated experiments, leading to profound insights about how the universe works.

For example, understanding symmetries in nature allowed physicists to predict the flow of electricity through materials and the shape of protons. Spotting imperfect symmetries led to the discovery of the Higgs boson.

One researcher who has used an understanding of symmetry in nature to make great strides in theoretical physics is Helen Quinn. Over the course of her career, she has helped shape the modern Standard Model of particles and interactions— and outlined some of its limitations. With various collaborators, she has worked to establish the deep mathematical connection between the fundamental forces of nature, pondered solutions to the mysterious asymmetry between matter and antimatter in the cosmos and helped describe properties of the particle known as the charm quark before it was discovered experimentally. [Read more at Symmetry…]

Weird X-Rays Spur Speculation about Dark Matter Detection

[ I am reviving the Bowler Hat Science blog as a quick way to link all my new publications. Subscribe to the feed to keep up with all my stories! ]

Weird X-Rays Spur Speculation about Dark Matter Detection

From Scientific American:

Many major discoveries in astronomy began with an unexplained signal: pulsars, quasars and the cosmic microwave background are just three out of many examples. When astronomers recently discovered x-rays with no obvious origin, it sparked an exciting hypothesis. Maybe this is a sign of dark matter, the invisible substance making up about 85 percent of all the matter in the universe. If so, it hints that the identity of the particles is different than the prevailing models predict.

The anomalous x-rays, spotted by the European Space Agency’s orbiting XMM–Newton telescope, originate from two different sources: the Andromeda Galaxy and the Perseus cluster of galaxies. The challenge is to determine what created those x-rays, as described in a study published last month in Physical Review Letters. (See also an earlier study published in The Astrophysical Journal.) The signal is real but weak and astronomers must now determine whether it is extraordinary or has a mundane explanation. If that can be done, they can set about the work of identifying what kind of dark matter might be responsible. [Read more at Scientific American ]