Starts With A Bang!

The Universe is out there, waiting for you to discover it.

A Jedi’s Dream Come True

"So, with one of those high-powered lasers in hand, Wicked Lasers came up with the ingenious idea of building an attachment for their powerful lasers that contained a clear sheath the size of a lightsaber with a diffusive optical element inside, along with a magnetic sphere that would be attracted to the top of the clear sheath when the laser is turned on."

When George Lucas freaks out and sues you, you know you’ve done something right. In this case, that’s build a real-life light saber out of lasers!

Do Science and Religion have to be at odds?

"Now, I didn’t do that research myself; in fact, no one person did. Scientific knowledge is built person-by-person, observation-by-observation, experiment-by-experiment, and generation-by-generation. Science is both a process — an additive process where all the data ever scrupulously gathered is cumulative — and also a body of knowledge. The most successful scientific theories explain the widest variety of phenomena with the fewest parameters and assumptions. They have the greatest predictive and post-dictive powers, and the largest range of applicability.

And the scientific truths of the Universe, or what we can learn simply by asking the matter and energy around us questions about itself, are truths that are there for everyone to share in.”

No matter what your religion is, science is there for us all to enjoy, appreciate and benefit from. This week, it’s the kindest Ask Ethan letter I’ve ever received.

The Truth About Solar Storms

"But there is one real risk, and it’s a consequence of our physical laws of electromagnetism.

A charged particle is bent as it moves through a magnetic field because of the connection between electricity and magnetism. But that same connection means that a change in electric currents — which are made by the motion of charged particles — create changing magnetic fields. And if you have a changing magnetic field either around a wire or through a loop or coil of wire, you will generate electric currents!

So while there may not be a danger to you, there is a huge danger to electronics, ranging from automobiles to transformers to — most frighteningly of all — the entire power grid! That’s the real danger of a solar storm: an event similar to the 1859 Carrington event could cause anywhere between an estimated $1-to-$2 trillion of property damage, mostly due to electrical fires.”

What’s going to happen when the Earth gets hit by the next giant solar flare? The aurorae will be a spectacularly pretty sight, but the damage done will be catastrophic!

Is our Universe left-handed?

"Yet a few years ago, Michael Longo went to look for exactly that effect in a sample of galaxies from the Sloan Digital Sky Survey, and found that there was a greater abundance of left-handed galaxies in one direction… and a greater abundance of right-handed galaxies in the other. This, by the way, is exactly what you’d expect to see if there were an excess of one type of intrinsically “handed” galaxies over the other in the Universe."

We think of the laws of physics as symmetric: there’s no preferred location or direction in the Universe that’s more physically valid than any other. And yet, there are some fundamental asymmetries: matter dominates over antimatter, muons decay in one direction and not the other 99.9% of the time, and left-handed spiral galaxies are more common than right-handed one. What, didn’t know that last one? Turns out that’s a real effect, and it’s been noticed in more than one study. But is the fault in the stars, or is it ours?

What happens when the largest objects in the Universe meet their twins?

"On the other hand, even more massive stars end their lives in Type II supernovae, leaving either a neutron star at their core — an object up to 2 or 3 times as massive as the Sun but only a few kilometers in diameter — or a black hole for the most massive ones!

But when two neutron stars merge, there’s nothing left to “fuse” at all.

Instead, a few percent of the mass gets ejected as the heaviest atomic nuclei found in the periodic table, but the rest of the two neutron stars merge into a black hole, emitting a gamma-ray burst!” 

Picture your favorite object in the Universe: an asteroid, planet, star, white dwarf, neutron star or black hole. What happens if you merge it with another such object identical to itself? Here are ALL the answers!

Messier Monday: The Most Perfect Elliptical, M89

"It’s intrinsically on the faint side, so you’ll need a dark, moonless night (like the first half of tonight ought to provide). Like many giant ellipticals, it has a bright (but not point-like) nucleus, surrounded by a much fainter halo of whitish, fuzzy featureless brightness that dims out and fades even farther as you move away from the center. What you’re looking at, unbeknownst to Messier, is a huge galaxy even larger than our Milky Way, more than 50% larger than our galaxy in diameter and more than double the mass.

But while most elliptical galaxies are, well, ellipsoidal, with one long axis and one short axis, Messier 89 appears to be nearly perfectly spherical!”

But is it really fair to call it “elliptical” if it’s a practically perfect sphere?

Weekend Diversion: But will it Bea Art(hur)?

"Dorothy (Bea Arthur) was generally regarded as the smartest and strongest of the four, but also the most reliable and versatile in a crisis. It seems a little silly to say it, but shows like “Sex in the City” and “Girls” would probably have never existed if it weren’t for the Golden Girls.

Well, artist Mike Denison — who it sounds like feels exactly the same way about this show as I do — decided to pay tribute to the witty and acerbic Bea Arthur by creating a new art composition featuring the inimitable lead actress every day for a year, spawning his project “Bea A Day.””

But will it Bea Art(hur)? Have a look at the “Golden” discovery of the artwork of artist Mike Denison: his “Bea A Day” project!

Ask Ethan #46: What is a Quantum Observation?

"Somehow, each electron was interfering with itself as it passed through the slits! So this led physicists to the question of how this was happening; after all, if electrons are particles, they should be passing through one slit or the other, just like pebbles or bullets.

So which one was it? They set up a “gate” (where you shine photons to interact with whatever passes through the slit) to find out which slit each electron passed through, and found, sure enough, that it was always one slit or the other. But when they looked at the pattern that emerged, they found the particle pattern, not the wave pattern. In other words, it looked like the electron somehow knows whether you’re looking at it or not!”

Most people think that making a quantum “observation” requires an observer, but that’s a big misconception. Come find out (and be amazed) at how quantum mechanics works, and leave your biases about interpretations at the door!

Remembering Neil Armstrong

“The important achievement of Apollo was demonstrating that humanity is not forever chained to this planet and our visions go rather further than that and our opportunities are unlimited.” -Neil Armstrong

Something and someone we should all take time to remember, even those of us who aren’t old enough to have been around when it happened.

How the experiment that claimed to detect dark matter fooled itself

"One experiment that has instilled both hope as well as controversy among physicists is the DAMA experiment. The DAMA experiment sees an unexplained annual modulation in the event rate at high statistical significance. If the signal was caused by dark matter, we would expect there to be an annual modulation due to our celestial motion around the Sun. The event rate depends on the orientation of the detector relative to our motion and should peak around June 2nd, consistent with the DAMA data."

The first rule of physics is that you must not fool yourself, and you are the easiest person to fool. Finally, a quality explanation that dark matter may not be the key to the DAMA results at all!