My review of Brian Switek’s forthcoming book, My Beloved Brontosaurus, is up at Double X Science!

Suffice to say, these are not the dinosaurs I learned about as a young kid—and in my opinion, they’re much more interesting. Over the last few decades, the basic realization that modern birds are living dinosaurs has grown, and helped us understand their extinct uncles and aunts: the dinosaurs of the distant past. (Many scientists even refer to the classic dinosaurs as the non-avian dinosaurs, meaning these are the ones that aren’t recognizably modern birds.) For example, hollow yet sturdy bones allow modern birds to fly, but they also allowed sauropods to grow into the biggest animals ever to live on land. We also know now, thanks to a number of recent finds, that probably every dinosaur lineage had feathers of some sort. As Switek wrote, “Just think of how cute a fuzzy little Apatosaurus juvenile would be.” I concur. [Read more…]

Dinosaurs belong to all of us

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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

Often in physics, we can separate the object from the environment and the experimental apparatus from what’s being measured, but that separation is approximate. In quantum systems, those distinctions break down, to the point where the environment “measures” the system, in ways we don’t fully understand even after nearly a century of study. (A lot of nonsense has been written about the subject, too, which is a rant for another day.) A new experiment may help mitigate some of the problems of system-environment interaction, through understanding how photons and atoms couple—and when they do not.

One remaining frontier is comprehension of how systems gradually lose coherence via interactions with their environment, which prevents their usefulness in quantum computing. A new set of experiments by Yinnon Glickman, Shlomi Kotler, Nitzan Akerman, and Roee Ozeri revealed part of the mechanism by which environment disrupts quantum systems: photons. They found that photons that interacted with a quantum system can end up correlated with the system’s state, the hallmark of entanglement. By careful preparation of the atom’s state, it may be possible to reduce the loss of quantum information to the environment, and thus extend the life of these systems. [Read more…]

Disentangling environmental influences in photon-atom interactions

Cosmology—the study of the Universe as a whole—requires accurate measurements of the distances to galaxies and other objects billions of light-years away. However, the reliability of those estimates depends on how accurately we know the distance to closer objects, such as the Milky Way’s satellite galaxy known as the Large Magellanic Cloud (LMC). A new study has obtained the most accurate distance to the LMC yet, which in turn leads to better cosmological measurements. The key to the new distance measure: binary systems in the LMC consisting of two aging stars in relatively large orbits.

The researchers used data from the Optical Gravitational Lensing Experiment (yes, it’s nicknamed OGLE), which was designed to look for fluctuations in dark matter density by observing stars in the LMC. While OGLE hasn’t succeeded in its primary goal of spotting clumps of dark matter, it has amassed a lot of data from 35 million stars, going back as far as 1992.

From those 35 million stars, the astronomers identified 12 eclipsing binary stars; of those, they analyzed data from eight pairs for a period of eight years. These pairs they chose are rare, consisting of stars in the helium-burning stage, which occurs after they have exhausted their core’s hydrogen fuel. Aging stars of this type have well-known intrinsic brightness in relation to their color. [Read more…]

Aging binaries provide new calibration for cosmic distances

No question: supermassive black holes get a lot of the glory, thanks to their obvious presence at the centers of many galaxies. However, stars more than 20 times the mass of our Sun leave behind smaller, stellar-mass black holes after their violent supernova deaths. Despite this model’s wide acceptance, astronomers have only identified about 50 stellar-mass black holes in the Milky Way to date, but there must be many more lurking. A new study may have revealed why: the black holes are shrouded by a thick donut of gas that blocks much of their X-ray light from reaching us.

J. M. Corral-Santana and colleagues based this hypothesis on a detailed study of a relatively faint, fluctuating X-ray source in the Milky Way. Their observations in X-ray and visible light revealed the signs of a binary system: an ordinary star in orbit around a black hole, similar to other systems, but with some key differences. For one, the star and black hole were so close together that the orbital period of the system was only 2.8 hours. For another, the matter being drawn off the star was obscuring the black hole when viewed from Earth. The authors hypothesized that many other black holes may be similarly hidden, and future searches should take that possibility into account. [Read more…]

The case of the missing black holes