An astronomical saga of star births, pancakes, and Kylo Ren

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And if I can be shameless: Forbes pays according to traffic, so the more of you who share and visit and read my stuff, the better they pay me. Ahem.

The Hidden Depths Of The Dark Cloud Hiding Newborn Stars

For Forbes:

The third dimension is one of the biggest obstacles in astronomy. We see the stars, but we don’t know how far away they are without some additional information, which requires scientific cleverness. And when the object we’re studying is a nebula — a cloud of gas or dust — we only see its profile, not its full three-dimensional shape. But a new paper shows that, in some cases, we might be able to deduce the full shape of a nebula by how it vibrates: a kind of magnetic nebulaquake.

Astrophysicists Aris Tritsis and Konstantinos Tassis compared a sophisticated computer simulation to observational data on an object called the “Musca molecular cloud”, also known as the “Dark Doodad”. (“Musca” is the name of the constellation where it’s found, which means “the fly”. It’s only visible in the Southern Hemisphere.) They found that even though the Doodad looks like a filament, it’s actually more like a pancake that we’re seeing edge-on. Beyond the curiosity aspect (who wouldn’t want to study the Dark Doodad?), this result is important for understanding how stars are born.

[Read the rest at Forbes…]

Testing Einstein’s theory with a new space probe to Mercury

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And if I can be shameless: Forbes pays according to traffic, so the more of you who share and visit and read my stuff, the better they pay me. Ahem.

New Mercury Space Probe Will Put Einstein’s Gravity To The Test

orbit of Mercury, including effects from general relativity and other planets in the Solar System

The orbit of Mercury, including effects from general relativity and other planets in the Solar System. I’ve exaggerated the effect for easy viewing; in real life, the orbit is very nearly an ellipse. [Credit: Matthew R Francis]

For Forbes:

Despite the discovery of other galaxies, black holes and other marvelous astronomical bodies, we keep returning to the orbits of planets to understand gravity at its most basic. Partly that’s simplicity: We’re inside the Solar System and can make measurements without spending billions of dollars or building virtual observatories the size of the whole planet. But that doesn’t mean we’ve exhausted all the ways to learn about gravity from the dance of the planets.

In a new paper in Physical Review Letters, University of Florida physicist Clifford Will showed that the upcoming BepiColombo space probe may be able to test an aspect of Albert Einstein’s theory of gravity, general relativity, that’s been out of reach so far. This effect comes from the gravity of other planets in the Solar System, leading to a tiny shift in Mercury’s orbit. But small doesn’t mean unimportant: If general relativity needs to be modified on this tiny level, the BepiColombo probe may be able to spot that discrepancy.

[Read the rest at Forbes…]

Thinking scientists are smarter than other people hurts us

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I’ve started contributing to the Forbes Science page again! This is my second new contribution; stay tuned for plenty more. (And if I can be shameless: Forbes pays according to traffic, so the more of you who share and visit and read my stuff, the better they pay me. Ahem.)

No, Scientists Are Not Smarter Than Non-Scientists

For Forbes:

Often when I mention I have a PhD in physics and astronomy, the response I get from people is “oh, you must be so smart” or “you’re smarter than I am”. (If it’s a medical doctor, the response is usually “I hated physics in college!”, but that’s a different story.) In general, people tend to associate science with “braininess”, often in addition to other less desirable traits. You could reasonably ask if I’m so smart, why I’m a freelance journalist who is perpetually short on money. But this isn’t about me in particular: it’s more about the way society (at least in the United States and like-minded nations) sees scientists versus non-scientists.

Science writer Kat Arney delved into this issue in detail in a recent column for the (UK) Royal Society of Chemistry. As she points out, the problems with the “brainy scientist” stereotype are manifold: that science is a meritocracy, and that non-scientists are somehow less valuable.

[Read the rest at Forbes…]

The gravitational waltz of the Milky Way’s satellites

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I’ve started contributing to the Forbes Science page again! This is my first new contribution, relating to the second data release from the Gaia survey telescope. (And if I can be shameless: Forbes pays according to traffic, so the more of you who share and visit and read my stuff, the better they pay me. Ahem.)

Plotting The Three-Dimensional Dance Of Galaxies

A map of the Milky Way’s satellite galaxies, globular clusters, and other objects in orbit. [Credit: ESA/Gaia]

For Forbes:

The European Space Agency’s Gaia telescope is designed to map the position and speed of a billion stars in the Milky Way and its neighboring galaxies. In fact, some of those galaxies are satellites, which whirl around our home galaxy in a complicated dance. Part of Gaia’s mission is to help us understand that dance.

Many of these satellite galaxies actually orbit inside the halo of the mysterious, invisible dark matter that makes up most of the Milky Way’s mass. For that reason, the dance of the satellites tells us about the structure of the Milky Way, along with the shared history and evolution of all the galaxies involved. The Gaia space telescope’s second data release from last week allowed astronomers to map out the positions and motion of stars inside eleven satellite galaxies, along with other star clusters. The result: new estimate on the mass of the Milky Way, and a fully three-dimensional map of nearly 90 objects in orbit around our galaxy.

[Read the rest at Forbes]

Yerkes Observatory: 1897-2018

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A few years ago, I visited Yerkes Observatory while driving across the country to gather material for a book that never came to fruition. It’s a marvelous relic of astronomy on the cusp of modernity, so when I heard it was closing its doors, I knew I had to write about it. Thankfully, Astronomy Magazine let me use some of my research from my book, including a few photographs. The following is a story of robber barons, huge telescopes, and an early unrecognized discovery of Pluto.

Yerkes Observatory is closing its doors

Once state of the art, this Gilded Age observatory has been left behind by progress. Now astronomers wonder what will happen to this piece of history.

Yerkes Observatory dome for the 40-inch refracting telescope. I rendered this photo in black and white for an old-timey feel, because why not? [Credit: moi]

For Astronomy Magazine:

A piece of astronomical history is closing its doors this year: Yerkes Observatory, which opened in 1897, will cease operations on October 1, 2018.

In many ways, this closure isn’t surprising. Yerkes is very much a relic of a past era, not the type of observatory that is used for major discoveries in the modern day. The University of Chicago, which owns and operates the facility, has decided the observatory is not worth the expense of maintaining it. However, we can hope someone will take over the operations and keep the building open to the public, because it’s truly one of the great pieces of scientific history and architecture. Yerkes Observatory is an impressive late-19th-century structure, housing what is still the largest refracting (lens-based) telescope in the world. The primary lens in the main Yerkes telescope is 40 inches (102 centimeters) in diameter. The observatory was named for the impressively mustached railroad tycoon Charles Yerkes, who bankrolled it in Gilded Age style. (The name is pronounced “YER-keys,” and the less said about how Yerkes ran his businesses, the better. “Yerkes was jerky” is a good mnemonic.)

The observatory stands on the shore of Geneva Lake in Williams Bay, Wisconsin, just across the border from Illinois. The land is sits on is parklike, and the building itself is a marvel of astronomical architecture and engineering from the dawn of the modern era of big science.

[Read the rest at Astronomy Magazine]

Like a tiger’s stripes, Jupiter’s colorful bands are more than just pretty colors

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Jupiter: The Large Adult Son of the Solar System

“We are really learning about a brand new Jupiter in many ways.”

For The Daily Beast:

Everything about Jupiter is large. The planet’s diameter is 11 times Earth’s size, and it is more massive than all other planets, dwarf planets, asteroids, comets, and moons put together. Jupiter’s Great Red Spot is a storm bigger than Earth that has lasted for as long as we humans have built telescopes to see it.

Jupiter’s mysteries are also large. NASA’s Juno mission currently in orbit around the planet is teaching us that we really don’t understand the solar system’s large adult son. Four new papers published in Nature on Wednesday outline the strangeness of Jupiter’s atmosphere, and how none of our current theories about how planets work are adequate to explain that weirdness.

[Read the rest at The Daily Beast]

When testing gravity, no news is good news

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Looking for nothing to test gravity

When they look for violations of Einstein’s general relativity, physicists deliberately plan experiments to find nothing at all.

For Symmetry Magazine:

In 1887, physicists Albert Michelson and Edward Morley performed one of physics’ most famous experiments (at Case Western Reserve University, coincidentally, across the street from where this article was written). Unlike other important experiments, they didn’t find what they were looking for, but unexpectedly their “null” result prepared the way for the theory of relativity.

Sometimes researchers deliberately set out to generate null results—while on the lookout for something new. One type of experiment is looking for deviations from Einstein’s general theory of relativity.

“General relativity has been the staple of gravitational understanding for 100 years,” says Katie Chamberlain, a physics student at Montana State University. “We have to rule out the potential for other existing theories to come in and replace [it].”

[Read the rest at Symmetry Magazine]

Looking for the fifth dimension with wrinkles in spacetime

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Are We Closer to Finding a Fifth Dimension?

For The Daily Beast:

In Madeleine L’Engle’s classic novel A Wrinkle in Time, the characters travel from one place to another in space using a hidden fifth dimension, which they use to “wrinkle” the fabric of space and time. In the book and upcoming movie, this travel is more mystical than it is science. However, some scientists think there might be extra dimensions beyond the four (three space plus one time) that we’re familiar with—and those dimensions might affect the way gravity works.

But how can we know for sure? One way to check uses the collision of two neutron stars, as detected by the gravitational wave observatories LIGO and Virgo in 2017.

While they found no sign of a fifth (or sixth or seventh or…) dimension, researchers—who recently posted their work on the website arXiv—were excited.

That’s because looking for extra dimensions is difficult. We only see three dimensions in space (length, width, and depth) and one in time on the scale of the everyday; if a fifth dimension exists, it has to be hiding from us. That pushes any detectable consequence into the realm of the very small—the regime of particle physics and string theory—or the very large, where LIGO and other astronomical measurements come in.

[Read the rest at The Daily Beast]

Finding mountains on distant alien worlds

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How Astronomers Could Discover Mountains on Distant Planets

Planets too far away to photograph could yield some clues to whether water—and maybe even life—could exist.

For The Daily Beast:

Earth, Venus, Mars, the moon, and Pluto are very different worlds, but they have something in common: mountains. In fact, mountains occur on so many different bodies in the solar system that astronomers are pretty sure many exoplanets—planets orbiting other stars—also have them. And like planets and moons close to home, those mountains can tell us a lot about what’s going on with exoplanets. They might even help us discover how habitable these far-off worlds are.

But first, we have to see exoplanetary mountains. In a new paper to be published in the prestigious journal Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society, Columbia University astronomers Moiya A.S. McTier and David M. Kipping figured out what it might take to detect mountains on a world too far away to photograph even with our most powerful telescopes.

[Read the rest at The Daily Beast]

Snakebots, desert plants, and self-assembling space modules: the world of biomimicry

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“Life, uh, finds a way”—Applying lessons from evolution to go to Mars

Biomimicry looks to living organisms to create the future of sustainable engineering.

A robot designed to move like a sidewinder snake, from Henry Astley’s lab at the University of Akron. [Credit: moi]

For Ars Technica:

As philosopher-mathematician Jeff Goldblum once said, “life, uh, finds a way.”

To phrase that more scientifically, evolution has had billions of years of trial and error to produce species that are well adapted chemically and physically. Many human researchers want to imitate that adaptation, turning lessons from the natural world into practice in engineering, technology, and architecture. The entire venture goes under the name “biomimicry.”

“I think biomimicry is really beautiful,” says Ariel Ekblaw, a student at MIT’s Media Lab, who founded and leads the Media Lab’s Space Exploration Initiative. “It’s both a framework and… a set of tools or learnings from nature that can inform modern engineering and science research projects.”

To see the spectrum of biomimicry research, I attended a three-day workshop called “Nature-Inspired Exploration for Aerospace.” The workshop was cosponsored by NASA’s Glenn Research Center, the Ohio Aerospace Institute, and Great Lakes Biomimicry. Despite the aerospace focus, the program ranged from straight-up biology to philosophical queries about the reasons for doing biomimicry in the first place.

[Read the rest at Ars Technica]