What’s the deal with Google’s quantum computer?

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Google and NASA Team Up on Quantum Computer

The next generation of computers is a few years off, but it’s pretty damn cool

For The Daily Beast:

It’s like no computer you’ve ever seen, nor are you likely to ever own. It promises speed and the ability to tackle problems ordinary computers can’t handle.

The machine is the D-Wave 2X, and the only working model outside the company is in the Quantum Artificial Intelligence Lab. A joint project between Google, NASA, and the Universities Space Research Association, the lab will test-drive the 2X on some sticky problems in high-powered computing.

The 2X is a type of quantum computer, which means it uses devices that exploit quantum physics to replace transistors and other components of ordinary computers. The quantum nature of the inner workings in theory should make the computer solve problems much faster than anything else available, making it useful for a wide range of applications. While there are no fully quantum computers out yet, the 2X is the closest yet—assuming it works as advertised. [Read the rest at The Daily Beast…]

Traces of salty water on Mars … and more mysteries!

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[Credit: Randall Munroe]

Water Found on Mars Could Be First Signs of Martian Life

NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter found traces of water that comes and goes on Mars—aka flowing water

For The Daily Beast:

We seem to discover water on Mars about once a year. Well, that’s not quite true: we’ve known Mars has water for quite a while. However, there are a lot of mysteries still to solve about how that water behaves and where it’s located. In particular, we’d like to know if water sometimes flows on the surface of the planet, which would tell us a lot about the cycles both above and below ground. And of course water is essential for life as we know it—finding flowing water, even transient flows, would make Mars seem a little more Earth-like.

The problem is that any liquid water evaporates quickly in the bone-dry Martian desert, and other processes can leave traces that mimic dried-up flows. When so little water is involved in the first place, it leaves us looking for the Martian equivalent of water spots on a long-dry drinking glass. And those spots are chemical traces—salt and other minerals once dissolved in the water—which must be identified by robotic spacecraft from orbit.

Today, scientists using NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) have identified some of those traces: a little bit of water comes and goes on Mars’ surface. [Read the rest at The Daily Beast…]

Pluto: what’s in a name?

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Pluto and Other Truly Epic Space Photos

For The Daily Beast:

To quote another great space adventurer: “Almost there!”

The New Horizons probe, launched in 2006, will finally reach Pluto next Tuesday, providing the first close-up view of the tiny, icy world since we discovered it in 1930. We’re already seeing features never glimpsed before. It’s a truly historic occasion, right up there with the Dawn mission to the giant asteroid Ceres, known since 1801 but never seen clearly before this year.

But what is Pluto? [Read the rest at The Daily Beast…]

Yes, I dive again into the “is or isn’t Pluto a planet”, and declare a pox upon both parties. Well, at least I call the IAU definition “crap” and make fun of the Pluto monomaniacs who insist that of course Pluto is a planet. Either way, though: I love Pluto, and I am very much looking forward to Tuesday.

P.S. Though we now have some excellent photos of Pluto and are getting more literally daily, the featured picture for my article is the bottom of a frying pan. Go figure.

We aren’t the dinosaurs: we’re the asteroid

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The Sixth Extinction: We’re Not The Dinosaurs, We’re The Asteroid

Yes, humans are probably to blame for the Earth’s sixth mass extinction event, which is wiping out species at a rate 53 times greater than normal.

For The Daily Beast:

Extinction is an inevitable consequence of evolution. Environments change, new species arrive and crowd out the old, any number of factors make a formerly successful species unsuccessful. No less an authority than Charles Darwin wrote in The Origin of Species, “Natural Selection almost inevitably causes much Extinction of the less improved forms of life and induces what I have called Divergence of Character.”

Even without the 19th-century capitalization for emphasis, extinction is a big deal. Earth has experienced at least five major mass extinction events, of which the end of the dinosaurs wasn’t even the largest. (The end of the dinos that hadn’t evolved into birds, of course.) Now the planet is experiencing the sixth mass extinction, and growing evidence points to the culprit. It’s not asteroids or volcanoes or methane this time.

It’s us. [Read the rest at The Daily Beast….]

A multitude of faint and fluffy galaxies

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Scientists Discover Hundreds of Hidden Galaxies

The new type of faint, fluffy galaxy might help resolve a cosmological conundrum

For The Daily Beast:

When we think of galaxies, we tend to focus on the beautiful spirals, like the Milky Way, or possibly the huge elliptical galaxies. However, we know that a lot of galaxies are small, and those are harder to spot. In fact, astronomers have observed far fewer low-mass galaxies than predicted by theory, which has been a puzzle and a problem.

A new discovery might help with the answer. Astronomers using the Subaru telescope in Hawaii found 854 nearly invisible galaxies in the Coma Cluster. These hidden objects are very large—some are roughly the size of the Milky Way—but extremely low density. This new census is a notable increase in the population of the Coma Cluster, which is already a large galaxy cluster. It’s likely that other galaxy clusters could be hiding fluffy faint galaxies too. [Read more in The Daily Beast…]

Unless you’re a werewolf, the full Moon isn’t to blame for your problems

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Get Over Your Full Moon Fears

From The Daily Beast:

The full Moon is making everyone crazy. More people get arrested when the Moon is full.
The new Moon is making everyone depressed.

Maybe you’ve heard things like that. Maybe you’ve said them yourself. It seems plausible that the second-brightest thing in the sky, the closest astronomical body to Earth, and the object largely responsible for the tides, could cause measurable changes in human behavior. After all, some animals coordinate their behaviors with the phase of the Moon.

As a result of this style of thinking, hospital workers will sometimes claim more births or injuries happen, police will notice more arrests, mental health professionals will feel their clients change behaviors, and so forth, depending on the Moon’s phase. Despite that, repeated studies have shown no strikingly different behavior: there aren’t big differences in car wreck frequency, births, murders, or depression incidents between the new Moon and full Moon. [Read the rest at The Daily Beast…]

A space robot arrives at a new world: Dawn at Ceres

The asteroid dwarf planet Ceres, in a view showing the intriguing two bright spots. [Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA/MPS/DLR/IDA ]

The asteroid dwarf planet Ceres, in a view showing the intriguing two bright spots. [Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA/MPS/DLR/IDA ]

Sunday is my birthday, and NASA kindly decided to give me a whole asteroid. I got to write about it for The Daily Beast.

NASA’s Dawn Spacecraft Made It to Dwarf Planet Ceres

From The Daily Beast:

When I was young, I obsessively read through a National Geographic science book called Our Universe, a good overview of current astronomy and especially the Solar System. Voyager 2 was cutting edge at the time, which gives you a hint of when this was. One chapter was devoted to asteroids, the small rocky bodies scattered throughout the inner Solar System and especially the region between Mars and Jupiter. At that time, we didn’t have clear photos of any of them, so the book had paintings of Ceres, Vesta, Pallas, and several asteroids. My mental image of Ceres for more than 30 years has been that artist’s impression: a perfectly spherical, heavily cratered object, colored a light gray.

I mention this because for the first time in history, we now have real photos of Ceres, thanks to NASA’s Dawn spacecraft. Dawn entered orbit around Ceres today, providing us with our first close-up views during its approach. [Read more at The Daily Beast…]

Methane on Mars: life or just gas?

[ I am reviving the Bowler Hat Science blog as a quick way to link all my new publications. Subscribe to the feed to keep up with all my stories! ]

Methane on Mars: life or just gas?

From The Daily Beast:

Methane is a familiar chemical, whether you know it by that name or not. It’s the major component of natural gas, which heats my house and possibly yours too. Methane is also a large part of human gas, which means I could start this article with a fart joke if I really wanted to. (However, it’s not the smelly part, which is provided by sulfur compounds.) Lakes on Titan are full of methane, and the chemical is a major component of the giant planets Jupiter, Neptune, and so forth.

Mars is a different case, and an interesting one: it doesn’t have a lot of methane in its atmosphere at any given moment. However, several probes—most recently the Curiosity rover—have measured methane in the Martian atmosphere. Methane on Mars could possibly reveal that the planet is more active geologically than it seems, or even that it harbors microscopic life. [Read more at The Daily Beast….]

Are comets the origin of Earth’s oceans?

[ I am reviving the Bowler Hat Science blog as a quick way to link all my new publications. Subscribe to the feed to keep up with all my stories! ]

Are comets the origin of Earth’s oceans?

From The Daily Beast:

Water, water everywhere, but where did it come from? One common explanation is that the water in Earth’s oceans was brought by comets, which bombarded the planet during its earliest period. It’s a simple, logical, and testable story.

But that doesn’t mean it’s right. A new study published last week in Science revealed that the water on Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko doesn’t match that found on Earth. Specifically, instruments aboard the Rosetta probe measured the relative amount of deuterium in the comet’s water and found it was roughly three times higher than the amount in Earth’s oceans. Comets are chemically pristine, mostly unchanged over the Solar System’s 4.5 billion year history, so a mismatch in the deuterium content complicates the story of Earth’s water. [Read more at The Daily Beast….]

This metal plate is perforated with holes, each of which lines up with a galaxy or quasar. The BOSS survey maps the position and distance to a huge number of galaxies using many masks such as this. [Credit: moi]

This metal plate is perforated with holes, each of which lines up with a galaxy or quasar. The BOSS survey maps the position and distance to a huge number of galaxies using many masks such as this. [Credit: moi]

Far from being invisible, black holes are among some of the brightest objects in the Universe. The black holes themselves aren’t emitting light, but the matter they draw in heats up and much of it shoots back out in powerful jets. When that happens, the black hole is known as a quasar, and it can be visible from billions of light-years away. For that reason, mapping the distribution of quasars can help cosmologists understand the expansion rate of the Universe in an earlier era — and constrain the behavior of dark energy. My latest story in The Daily Beast explains:

If dark energy will be the same in billions of years as it seems to be today, the future will be dark and empty, as galaxies continue to move apart from each other at ever-faster rates. If dark energy comes and goes, though, maybe the rate of expansion will slow down again. All of this is a long time from now—trillions of years after the death of the Sun—but we might see hints about it today. We hope to see signs of what is to come by looking at how dark energy behaves now, and how it has acted in the past. Similarly, if dark energy is stronger in some parts of the cosmos, then certain pockets of the Universe would grow faster than in others. That also has implications for how the future cosmos looks. [Read more…]

Using Black Holes to Measure Dark Energy, Like a BOSS