Yesterday, Austrian skydiver Felix Baumgartner (best known for jumping off skyscrapers) successfully completed a 39 kilometer dive from a balloon. Many media outlets described his jump as beginning “at the edge of space”, but the story is a little more complex than that.

One thing bothered me, though, about a lot of the coverage: many people said Baumgartner was jumping “from space” or “from the edge of space”. Don’t get me wrong—39 km is a long way up, about 4 times the altitude of commercial airliners, so I’m not denigrating this accomplishment at all. Atmospheric pressure is about 2% of its value at Earth’s surface at 39 km, and the temperatures are pretty cold, so Baumgartner had to wear a pressurized suit and carry an air supply. (If memory serves, the temperature was -7° C or 19° F when the dive began.) However, it’s not what is conventionally considered “space”: it’s within the region of Earth’s atmosphere known as the stratosphere (which also explains the project’s official name, “Stratos Jump”). So, if Baumgartner didn’t jump from space, where is the boundary of space? [Read more….]

Jumping from the “edge of space”…whatever that means

The ALMA telescopes found a spiral pattern surrounding the dying star R Sculpturis.

Though it may seem sad on the surface, the death of a star is a beautiful thing—and an important precursor to the birth of new stars and planets. The Atacama Large Millimeter Array (ALMA) in Chile has provided a breathtaking view of a star nearing the end of its life. One unexpected feature was a lovely spiral pattern that probably indicates the presence of a hidden companion.

While earlier observations showed a thin spherical shell of gas perfectly centered on R Sculptoris, the ALMA data revealed unexpected structure inside. The details included clumps in the gas shell and a winding spiral pattern, as seen in the image above. Additionally, the amount of mass contained in the surrounding matter is approximately three times what was estimated from earlier observations and models of similar stars. [Read more….]

The beautiful spiral of a dying star

The Nobel Prizes recognize good scientific achievements, but in many ways the attention they get is disproportionate to their value, and presents a false view of how science really works.

Part of the problem instead is that the Nobel Prizes perpetuate the idea of a handful of Great Men (only two women have won the Nobel Prize in physics total since their establishment), toiling alone in their laboratories. The published papers cited in the Nobel literature belie that: many coauthors contribute to the majority of research now, and a single seminal (there’s that masculine imagery again) paper generally isn’t what establishes a research program as worthy of accolades. As a result, every Nobel Prize discussion seems to involve complaints about why some scientists were included, and some ignored. [Read more….]

A Nobel Prize curmudgeon speaks out

Winners of the 2012 Nobel Prize in physics: Serge Haroche (left) and David J. Wineland (right, who may be the same person as Sam Elliott).

The the winners of the 2012 Nobel Prize in physics were announced this morning: Serge Haroche and David J. Wineland. Their work involves trapping and measuring the quantum states of photons and ions, respectively:

A major challenge is measuring the state of a quantum system without modifying it. On the macroscopic scale, we can generally measure mass, size, and the like without worrying about destroying anything, but quantum mechanics is more like medicine. The most reliable way to determine if something is wrong with a person is to cut right in, hack things apart, and extract the bits that are causing problems—but for obvious reasons, that’s a bad idea under most circumstances if you want the patient to live. Just as the treatments that kill cancer cells often can kill healthy cells as well, measurement of a quantum state can alter or even destroy the system under study. [Read more….]

Trapping particles leads to 2012 Nobel Prize in physics

I take it personally when idiot politicians call me and my fellow scientists evil liars. My latest post at Galileo’s Pendulum explains why:

Broun and his compatriots obviously think very bad things about me, my friends, and the work we do. They don’t just disagree or think we’re wrong, they think we’re literally in league with Satan. The work we do—researching, writing, and teaching others about how the Universe works—is evil in their eyes. Broun’s explicit statements that science education is all built on lies aren’t harmless. I hold education to be one of the most noble undertakings in human society, and here we have an elected official trumpeting ignorance while slandering those who work to knowledge. [Read more….]

You may hate me, but don’t spread your lies to children

Since 1995, a team of astronomers led by Andrea Ghez has been studying the motion of stars near the center of the Milky Way. They just announced the discovery that one of those stars is the closest to the black hole yet, with an orbital period of about 11.5 years—short enough that they’ve been able to track its entire orbit. This could be good news for testing general relativity in a new regime of strong gravity.

One of the earliest identified S-stars was S0-2, with an orbital period of about 16 years. Until the discovery of S0-102, it was the only star with a sufficiently short orbital period to enable a complete three-dimensional reconstruction of its trajectory, which provided the best data on the shape of the black hole’s gravitational influence. [Read more….]

Animation of star motion near the central black hole, based on real infrared observations. [Credit: Andrea Ghez et al./UCLA/Keck]

The darkness at the center of the galaxy

“Must have facts,” said Lord Peter, “facts. When I was a small boy I always hated facts. Thought of ’em as nasty, hard things, all knobs. Uncompromisin’.” (from Clouds of Witness by Dorothy L. Sayers)

My latest post over at Galileo’s Pendulum explains why I won’t be writing a book called “1,001 Mind-Blowing Facts About the Universe” any time soon, even when offered money to do so. Bonus: contains “yo momma” jokes.

Style aside, there’s another reason I’m not a big fan of omnibus fact lists: that’s not a very scientific way to organize knowledge. Facts are some of the least useful things in science, so just dumping a list of them on readers will not generally result in much gain in understanding. [Read more….]

Just the facts, ma’am

(This headline was my original choice for the article, which was understandably rejected by my editors. So, you get to read it here instead.)

Pulsars are rapidly-spinning neutron stars, the very small dense remnants of stars at least 8 times more massive than the Sun. Their pulses are intense beams of light that sweep across our field of view each time the neutron star rotates. A pulsar’s rotation slows down over time, though, and some researchers in the UK have proposed a simple physical model that refines the most widely accepted theory.

Observations of the matter expelled by the initial supernova can be used to estimate the age of the pulsar; those numbers can be compared to age estimates based on its spin slowdown. In some cases, these estimates match reasonably well, but in others, they give wildly different results, differing by thousands of years at the extreme. The researchers’ model began with a different assumption: that the superfluid comprised a higher fraction of the core before things start to cool down. The result is pinning: the vortices in the superfluid stick to one spot relative to each other. That means the superfluid’s rotation rate remains the same, while the rest of the pulsar continues to slow down. [Read more….]

Spinning pulsar, got to slow down

There’s just one word for the ‘teens: plastics photovoltaics. A new experiment may have solved a problem in nanostructured silicon solar cells: a type of photovoltaic cell that uses pores to increase the effective surface area for collection of light.

By separating the contribution by surface and interior recombination effects, the NREL study found that Auger recombination—recombination by these interior charges—was actually more damaging to photocell efficiency. In other words, the very pores that offered advantages also led to problems, which was why nanostructured photovoltaics haven’t lived up to their promises thus far.

The researchers found that etching the silicon material with tetramethylammonium hydroxide (TMAH) greatly increased the efficiency of the photocell. The result was shallower, slightly wider, and more irregularly shaped pores. [Read more….]

Pore, pore, pitiful solar cells