Starts With A Bang!

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

CMB Part 1: The “Smoking Gun” of the Big Bang

"Since that initial detection by Arno Penzias and Robert Wilson (for which they won the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1978), several experiments here on Earth and out in space have measured the CMB with increasing precision. In 1992 the Cosmic Background Explorer (CoBE) showed the first observations of the CMB temperature anisotropies — tiny changes in temperature that are 100,000 times smaller than the uniform 2.73 Kelvin background average. The Wilkinson Microwave Anisotropy Probe (WMAP) expanded our full-sky knowledge of those temperature anisotropies in 2003, and in 2013 Planck gave us our most precise measurement to date. These continued improvements measured not only finer and finer temperature details, but also progressively smaller angular scales."

The “smoking gun” of the Big Bang shows us everything except who pulled the trigger. And that’s coming - if we’re lucky - in just a few weeks!

The Strangest Theory We Know Is True

"Perhaps the weirdest prediction of relativity is that rotating masses twist space around them. This effect is known as frame dragging, and it is most dramatic around black holes. But even the Earth’s rotation twists space ever so slightly. In 2011 a spacecraft known as Gravity Probe B successfully observed this effect due to the Earth.

The frame dragging effect of Earth is so small that it’s astounding we can perceive it at all. To observe these effects, the team had to create quartz spheres so precise that their surface varied no more than 40 atoms from a mathematically perfect sphere. They were then covered with a thin layer of niobium so they could be suspended within an electric field. Their rotation created a small magnetic field, which was measured by superconducting quantum interference devices. Of course all of this is packed into a probe and shot into space for an 18 month mission. Over the duration of the experiment, the rotation of the spheres had to be measured with milliarcsecond precision. Despite the challenges, Gravity Probe B confirmed the Earth’s gravitational curvature of space to within 1% of predictions, and confirmed frame dragging to within 19%.”

When it comes to physics, there sure are some strange theories — and even stranger phenomena — out there. The notion that particles don’t have fixed, intrinsic properties that are simultaneously measurable can only be described as weird, and the fact that you can add as much energy as you want to a particle but it will never accelerate to beyond a particular speed is certainly counterintuitive. Yet one theory has them all beat. For ninety-nine years, now, General Relativity has made a whole host of unique predictions, ranging from time slowing down in a gravitational field to the bending of starlight to the decay of pulsar orbits, that have been observationally confirmed each and every time. It’s the strangest theory we know to be true, and we’re on the brink of testing (and possibly confirming) its predictions to even better precision!

Messier Monday: The Most Elusive Messier Globular, M55

"Because what you’re looking at isn’t just a faint, diffuse cluster of stars, these are stars that date back to some of the earliest times in the history of our galaxy! Our Sun contains lots of heavy elements: carbon, oxygen, silicon, sulphur, iron, and so on, and it’s the abundance of those heavy elements that allowed rocky planets to form around it. Stars that formed longer ago, and in regions that had fewer generations of stars live-and-die to enrich the interstellar medium, tend to be poorer in these heavy elements, and give us a glimpse of the stars that formed when the Universe was much younger.

Globular clusters tend to have older stars, but Messier 55 has just 1.1% of the heavy elements found in the Sun, one of the most metal-poor globulars known to exist!”

Even though Messier knew about this object since the 1750s, and started looking for it in the 60s, it wasn’t until 1778 that he finally found it. Sometimes, the hard work you put in makes the discovery all the more rewarding!

Ask Ethan #55: Could A Manned Mission To Mars Abort?

"Could Mars One turn back en route if they had regrets? Reality would set in seeing out beautiful blue planet get smaller while they head towards a dead toxic planet or if radiation/solar winds [were] to wildly [exceed] safe levels."

The next great leap in human spaceflight is a manned mission to a world within our Solar System: most likely Mars. But if something went wrong along the journey — at launch, close to Earth, or en route — whether biological or mechanical, would there be any way to return to Earth? A fun (and sobering) look at what the limits of physics and technology allow at present.

From Nothing to You in Ten Sentences

"8.) After multiple generations of stars are born, live, burn through their fuel and die, the interstellar medium contains enough of the elements for complex chemistry that all new stars and star systems that form will have substantial amounts of the elements and molecules necessary for life."

The greatest story ever told is the one the Universe tells us about itself: how it went from a state of empty and expanding spacetime to one containing the huge number of galaxies, stars, planets and atoms, not to mention you. Here is the shortest version of that story ever that is still accurate and comprehensive, with ten sentences covering the entire thing!

How to destroy the entire Universe

"But if you wanted to destroy the Universe, relying on the Higgs is a fool’s game. The smart money is to bet on cosmic inflation, and to remember that the only reason our Universe exists as it does is because inflation came to an end. If we could reactivate it — if we could create a new inflationary epoch — the ultra-rapid expansion of the Universe that would ensue, and the incredibly intense energy intrinsic to space itself, would push apart not only the galaxies, but solar systems, people, cells, molecules and even individual atoms."

For all you aspiring supervillains out there, you may have heard that Stephen Hawking recently wrote about the possibility of the Higgs field destroying the Universe. As it turns out, that’s not very likely to happen, not likely to affect us if it does happen, and not something we can control in any case. But there is something we can do if we were intent on destroying the Universe: restore the inflationary state that gave rise to the Universe (and the Big Bang) in the first place!

The Astrologer’s Triumph

"One hundred years after this founding, the rulers of Baghdad would fund one of the greatest astronomical observatories in the world. Equipped with mechanical devices (telescopes were not yet invented), astronomers charted the sky with unsurpassed precision, and first called into question the notion that the planets and stars orbit the Earth on celestial spheres. This observatory and the star maps developed there played a crucial role in the rise of modern astronomy and the ensuing downfall of astrology as a science.

The astrologers that guided the founding of Baghdad had no idea they were contributing to the demise of their own profession.”

When you think of astrology, you likely think of someone who makes false promises and proclaims either platitudes or fabrications as though they were preordained truths. That’s not even an unfair judgment. For many millennia dating to just a few centuries ago, though, astrology was anything but. Our initial thoughts on the idea that what happens in the heavens affects what happens on Earth may have been flawed, but as it turns out, the simple idea of observing the Universe beyond our own world has been able to teach us more than the ancients would have ever dreamed! A fascinating look at the story of where science itself originated, courtesy of James Bullock!

Einstein’s Greatest Legacy

"Einstein, like no other physicist before or after him, demonstrated how the power of human thought alone, used skillfully, can allow us to consider experiments that could never be practically performed. This line of thinking, these experiments performed only in our imaginations, showed we little humans often have the power to deduce equations that govern the natural world by logical deduction alone."

When you think of Einstein — beyond the quotable old guy with the crazy hair — you probably think of trains moving near the speed of light, matter converting into energy (and vice versa), the fabric of space and time or perhaps the equivalence principle. Yet all of these ideas, special and general relativity, E=mc^2 and so on, sprung from the same source, the gedankenexperiment, or thought-experiment. It’s amazing what the human mind, all on its own, can accomplish, including knocking on the door of the newest frontiers in science!

Messier Monday: The First Extragalactic Globular, M54

"What’s amazing is that, over the long term, this galaxy will be completely captured by the Milky Way, but it will likely remain in a very long-period orbit for many billions of years, remaining intact even as its parent galaxy is cannibalized by our own."

You won’t believe where it came from, OR what’s at its core!