The physics of dinosaurs!

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Computer model for the swing of a Stegosaurus tail-spike assembly, also known as a thagomizer from a classic Gary Larson cartoon. (Alas, we didn't get permission to reprint this cartoon.)

Computer model for the swing of a Stegosaurus tail-spike assembly, also known as a thagomizer from a classic Gary Larson cartoon. (Alas, we didn’t get permission to reprint this cartoon.)

Like many (most?) of us, I was a huge dinosaur fan as a kid. I read every horrible, outdated book I could get my hands on. I read Robert Bakker’s book The Dinosaur Heresies not long after it was published, with its often-wrong but very provocative reimagining of how dinosaurs lived, moved, and interacted with their environments. My primary scientific love was space, and so I pursued physics as a career, but I never completely forgot my dinosaur obsession. Now in the February 2017 issue of Physics World, I get to combine the two interests!

Deducing how dinosaurs moved

How did dinosaurs dash and their cousins the pterosaurs take flight? Physics-based modelling is helping to solve these mysteries of movement

For Physics World:

Jurassic Park and its sequels are best thought of as monster movies. But they do make dinosaurs look and act like real animals – which, of course, they were. For more than 100 million years, various groups of dinosaur were the largest predators and herbivores on the planet. There were many smaller species too, though we only know about a fraction of them, since fossils of them are rare, and we’re aware of many only through fragments.

Scientists have been able to answer the biggest scientific question posed by Jurassic Park in one of its most tense chase scenes: could a Tyrannosaurus rex outrun a Jeep? (Answer: no.) Knowing the top speed of an apex predator is vital as it tells us what sorts of prey it could catch. To better understand these creatures, scientists also want to know if a Stegosaurus’ fearsome spike-wielding tail could be used as a weapon, and what damage it could do. Another question is how pterosaurs (cousins of the dinosaurs) could evolve to become the largest flying animals.

Answering all of these questions involves understanding what forces and torques these creatures’ skeletons could withstand. [Read the rest at Physics World]

Seeing the invisible monster at the Milky Way center

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This is my second print magazine feature for Smithsonian Air & Space Magazine. The first was about gravitational waves, published not long before the LIGO detector found the first gravitational wave signals. The new piece is about the black hole at the center of our galaxy, published just a few months before…well, read the article to see why this is a good time to be writing about that particular black hole.

The First Sighting of a Black Hole

We know one lurks at the center of the Milky Way, but to these astronomers, seeing will be believing

For Smithsonian Air & Space Magazine:

he center of the galaxy doesn’t look like much, even if you’re lucky enough to live in a place where the night sky is sufficiently dark to see the bands of the Milky Way. In visible light, the stars between here and there blur together into a single brilliant source, like a bright beam hiding the lighthouse behind it.

But in other types of radiation—radio waves, infrared, X-rays—astronomers have detected the presence of an object with the mass of four million suns packed into a region smaller than our solar system: a supermassive black hole.

Astronomers call it Sagittarius A*, or Sgr A* (pronounced “sadge A star”) for short, because it’s located (from our point of view) in the Sagittarius constellation. Discovering the Milky Way’s black hole has helped cement the idea that the center of nearly every large galaxy harbors a supermassive black hole. But despite mounting evidence for black holes, we still haven’t seen one directly. [Read the rest at Smithsonian Air & Space Magazine]

Could gravity have mass?

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Might gravity have mass?

Click on the image to read the whole article for free, courtesy of Physics World.

Click on the image to read the whole article for free, courtesy of Physics World.

From Physics World:

When confronted with something unexplained in the data, scientists face several possibilities. Maybe there’s an error and the result is spurious. Maybe there’s a more mundane explanation they simply overlooked. Or perhaps the unexplained is a sign that a theory needs to be revised or supplanted. That last option is the rarest, at least when the theory in ques- tion is a successful one. After all, any new theory must explain all the same phenomena an old theory explained, and predict something new that can’t be handled with the old.

One unexplained result that’s been bugging physicists for more than 15 years is dark energy, which is the name we give to our ignorance. The universe is expanding at an accelerating rate, but we don’t know why. To make matters worse, dark energy comprises roughly three-quarters of the total energy content of the cosmos, so it’s not a minor thing we don’t get. For that reason, a small but dogged group of physicists thinks the existence of dark energy might be a clue that we need to revise one of the most successful theories we have: general relativity.

One way to revise general relativity is to modify the nature of the gravitational force so that it behaves as though it has mass.

The rest of this story is in the print edition of Physics World, which you can subscribe to through membership in the Institute of Physics, which costs £15, €20, or $25 per year. You can join by clicking here. You can also get a nice mobile- and tablet-formatted version of the story using the Physics World app, available in the Google Play and iTunes stores. However, if you just want to read the rest of this article, Physics World has kindly allowed me to offer it to you as a PDF download, which looks exactly like the printed version!

How standard are “standard candles”?

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Not-so-standard candles

From Physics World:

The story is already legendary. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, two groups of rival researchers set out to measure the deceleration of the expanding universe. These groups often used the same observatory, sometimes even using the same telescope on consecutive nights. And they both found the same thing, publishing their results at roughly the same time in 1998–1999: the expansion of space–time isn’t slowing down at all. In fact, it’s getting faster. The leaders of those collaborations – Saul Perlmutter and Brian Schmidt – along with Adam Riess of the latter’s group, won the Nobel Prize for Physics in 2011 for this discovery. The implication of the result was that the universe consists not only of visible matter and dark matter, but also a gravitationally repulsive substance. Known as dark energy, the nature of this weird stuff remains as mysterious today as when it was first discovered.

Both groups used certain kinds of exploding stars called type Ia supernovae for their measurements. These supernovae brighten and fade in very similar ways and the current thinking is that this is because they have a common source: the explosion of either one or two white dwarfs, which are the stellar remnants of small-to-medium-mass stars such as the Sun. This consistent brightness allows astronomers to determine how far away the object was when the light left it and for that reason, type Ia supernovae are known as “standard candles” – reliable light- houses in the measurement of cosmic distances.

Or so we all thought.

The rest of this story is in the print edition of Physics World, which you can subscribe to through membership in the Institute of Physics, which costs £15, €20, or $25 per year. You can join by clicking here. You can also get a nice mobile- and tablet-formatted version of the story using the Physics World app, available in the Google Play and iTunes stores. However, if you just want to read the rest of this article, Physics World has kindly allowed me to offer it to you as a PDF download, which looks exactly like the printed version!

I Love Q, and now you can too!

I wrote a feature story for Physics World on an interesting little discovery about neutron stars, but unfortunately the article wasn’t in their free online edition. HOWEVER, the editors have kindly let me repost the article here in PDF format for free download! (Here’s the summary I wrote a few weeks ago.)

Physics World is a glossy magazine published by the Institute of Physics (IoP) in Europe. My articles are in the print version, but you can access them online by joining IoP (US$25 per year) and see everything they publish either through the Physics World website (which also has tons of free content) or the app, available on iTunes or Google Play.

The three little words every pulsar wants to hear

[ This blog is dedicated to tracking my most recent publications. Subscribe to the feed to keep up with all the science stories I write! UPDATE: you can now download this article in PDF format! See the follow-up post or the update below.]

I can’t help falling in Love with Q

The first page of my latest print article in Physics World. Unfortunately, there doesn't seem to be an online version.

The first page of my latest print article in Physics World. Unfortunately, there doesn’t seem to be an online version.

From Physics World:

The dancers are an elegant pair. Clothed in the fabric of space–time, they are driven by the music of gravity and make a stately orbit around one another once every two-and-a-half hours. They pirouette as they move – one spins once every few seconds while the other spins many times per second – and each one of their twirls is marked by an intense flash of light. The dancing partners are pulsars – spinning neutron stars that send a regular blip of light our way.

Named PSR J0737-3039, this duo is one of a kind. More commonly known as the “double-pulsar system”, it is the only two-pulsar system where we have observed both partners. Other binary-pulsar systems exist, consisting of a pulsar and, for example, a white dwarf or a (non-radiative) neutron star. However, astronomers find the double-pulsar system particularly valuable because it consists of two flashing beacons rather than one, and the more information they can glean to test their theories, the better.

Unfortunately, this article is currently only available in print, and Physics World isn’t a typical newsstand offering. Update: the editors have kindly let me repost the article here in PDF format for free download! You can also access all the content online by joining IoP (US$25 per year) and see everything they publish either through the Physics World website (which also has tons of free content) or the app, available on iTunes or Google Play.

I am overly proud of the headline, and the concepts I described in the article are very interesting. In brief, measurable properties of neutron star exteriors are independent of the particular physics going on inside. Since neutron stars are some of the most complex objects we know of — they are the density of an atomic nucleus, the mass of a star, and the size of a city on Earth — anything we can learn to help study them is a good thing. A few theorists figured out how to relate observable properties to each other, in particular three parameters labeled I, Q, and the “Love number” (named for a person, not the emotion). The I-Love-Q relations in combination with sophisticated neutron star observations could hopefully help us solve the deep mystery of what’s going inside an object that’s like nothing we can create in the lab.

(If you want some more technical information, here’s the main paper I drew on for background.)

Listening to the sounds of the cosmos

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Last year, I went to a conference in Florida to hear — and in some cases meet — some of the leading thinkers in the study of gravitational waves. These waves are disturbances in the structure of spacetime itself, and could provide information about some exciting phenomena, if we can learn to detect them. The universe as heard in gravitational waves includes colliding black holes, white dwarfs locked in mutual orbits, exploding stars, and possibly chaotic disturbances from the very first instants after the Big Bang. This story marks one of my first big magazine articles, which I wrote for Smithsonian Air & Space magazine.

The Universe is Ringing

And astronomers are building observatories to listen to it

For Smithsonian Air & Space:

Think of it as a low hum, a rumble too deep to notice without special equipment. It permeates everything—from the emptiest spot in space to the densest cores of planets. Unlike sound, which requires air or some other material to carry it, this hum travels on the structure of space-time itself. It is the tremble caused by gravitational radiation, left over from the first moments after the Big Bang.

Gravitational waves were predicted in Albert Einstein’s 1916 theory of general relativity. Einstein postulated that the gravity of massive objects would bend or warp space-time and that their movements would send ripples through it, just as a ship moving through water creates a wake. Later observations supported his conception. [Read the rest at Air & Space….]