Every exoplanet discovery seems to bring us closer to understanding the variety of planetary systems out there in our galaxy. The latest find is particularly exciting: an Earth-mass planet orbiting around Alpha Centauri B, one of three stars in the closest system to the Solar System. The planet isn’t very Earthlike in most respects, but it’s still an incredibly exciting discovery.

However, the discovery is still exciting for a number of reasons. First is the proximity of the star system to us: Alpha Centauri is 4.4 light years away, a tiny distance in cosmic terms. The stars Alpha Centauri A and B are some of the brightest in the sky in the Southern Hemisphere. (Sorry, fellow Northern Hemisphere-dwellers; we can’t see them from here.) We don’t have starship technology to travel there, but we could conceivably send a robotic probe that could arrive within my lifetime, and 4.4 years isn’t a terribly long time for data to travel back to Earth. No one has such a probe in the works yet, but the mere fact of discovery of a planet might encourage investment in that direction. [Read more…]

Alpha Centauri harbors an Earth-mass planet

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!

Information in quantum physics is carried in a system’s quantum state, which is basically a list of all the important properties. An atom’s state, for example, contains the relative orientation of the nucleus and electrons, the energy levels the electrons occupy, and the like. Quantum computing manipulates these states in prescribed ways for calculation purposes, but to get the data from one place to another requires communication:

W. J. Munro, A. M. Stephens, S. J. Devitt, K. A. Harrison, and Kae Nemoto have designed a system where quantum bits (qubits) were transferred by individual photons, but interpreted using a special algorithm designed to contain a lot of redundancy and avoid data loss. Since the states of the transmitter and receiver were not entangled (or copied), they don’t need to remain coherent, obviating the need for quantum memory. The actual data transfer could take place over fiber optic cables, and the receiver could itself be used as a transmitter, forming a repeater for larger networks. [Read more….]

Quantum communication without entanglement

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