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Tag archives: astronomy

BOSS uses 164,000 quasars to map expanding universe

An artist's illustration of how BOSS uses quasars to measure the distant universe (Courtesy: Zosia Rostomian, Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory; Andreu Font-Ribera, BOSS)

An artist’s illustration of how BOSS uses quasars to measure the distant universe. (Courtesy: Zosia Rostomian, Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory; Andreu Font-Ribera, BOSS)

By Calla Cofield at the APS April Meeting in Savannah, Georgia

Scientists looking at data from the Baryon Oscillation Spectroscopic Survey (BOSS), the largest programme in the third Sloan Digital Sky Survey, have measured the expansion rate of the universe 10.8 billion years ago — a time prior to the onset of accelerated expansion caused by dark energy. The measurement is also the most precise measurement of a universal expansion rate ever made, with only 2% uncertainty. The results were announced at a press conference at the APS’s April meeting on Monday, at the same time that the results were posted on the arXiv preprint server.

The rate of universal expansion has changed over the course of the universe’s lifetime. It is believed to have gradually slowed down after the Big Bang, but mysteriously began accelerating again about 7 billion years ago. BOSS and other observatories have previously measured expansion rates going back 6 billion years.

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Could a canned UK-led telescope have discovered B-modes before BICEP2?

The BICEP2 telescope

Researchers working on the BICEP2 telescope announced on Monday that they had detected the first evidence for the primordial B-mode polarization of the cosmic microwave background. (Courtesy: National Science Foundation)

By Michael Banks

This week has seen physics news hit the mainstream in a way not seen since the Higgs boson was discovered at the CERN particle-physics lab in 2012.

On Monday, researchers working on the Background Imaging of Cosmic Extragalactic Polarization (BICEP2) telescope at the South Pole revealed that they have detected the first evidence for the primordial B-mode polarization of the cosmic microwave background (CMB). You can read our news stories about the finding here and here.

Yet could scientists in the UK have got there first if a telescope they had been planning to build – dubbed Clover – hadn’t been axed in 2009?

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Golden-anniversary physics, flaming challenges, smart lists and more

Photo of a rainbow seen in Bristol

How do you explain the science behind a rainbow to a child?

By Tushna Commissariat

It never rains but it pours, they say, and 1964  experienced quite a downpour of amazing “physics firsts” as the first papers about quarks, the Higgs mechanism and the EPR paradox or Belle’s inequality were all published. Also, Arno Penzias and Robert Woodrow Wilson made their first measurement of the cosmic microwave background on 20 May 1964, detecting the whisper of the Big Bang. To celebrate 50 years since these world-changing discoveries were made, the Harvard-Smithsonian Centre for Astrophysics has produced a webcast (you can watch the video on their YouTube page in a week’s time) featuring leading cosmologists Alan Guth, Robert Woodrow Wilson, Robert Kirshner and Avi Loeb. You can read more about it in this fascinating article by David Kaiser on the Huffington Post website, as he take a deeper look at the eventful year of 1964.

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Cruise-ship physics, the many ways to tie a tie, shaken-up carbon dating and more

By Tushna Commissariat

If you like piña coladas and quantum mechanics, then we hope you are currently on the two-week “Bright Horizons 19” Southeast Asia cruise, as on board is physicist and writer Sean Carroll. He will be giving multiple lectures over the next 15 days on everything from the Higgs boson to dark matter and other fundamentals of quantum mechanics. Also floating along with Carroll are other lecturers who will cover topics from natural history to genetics to military strategy. If, like us, you are stuck at home, you can take a look at Carroll’s slides on his blog, maybe have a cocktail while you are at it.

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Intelligent life on a doughnut, how cats and skiers spin, a marriage made at CERN and more

By Hamish Johnston

There’s definitely an educational vibe to this week’s picks from the Red Folder, which begins with Tanner Higgin’s selection of “Five apps that test your physics skills“. Writing on Mind/Shift, a website based in California and dedicated to learning, Higgin highlights Crayon Physics Deluxe, which allows users to draw physical objects and then let gravity and other physical effects take over. Also featured is Amazing Alex, which allows users to combine more than 30 different household objects to create fantastical Heath Robinson/Rube Goldberg contraptions.

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Spacecraft duets, suprise supernovae, the dark side of physics and more

By Tushna Commissariat

While you would not actually be able to hear the uplifting notes of the music in the vast emptiness of space, a newly composed string and piano orchestral piece has unexpected ties to the cosmos. That’s because it is based on 36 years’ worth of data from NASA’s Voyager 1 and 2 spacecraft. Domenico Vicinanza, a trained musician with a PhD in physics who works at GÉANT, a European data-network company, says that he “wanted to compose a musical piece celebrating Voyager 1 and 2 together, so I used the same measurements (proton counts from the cosmic-ray detector over the last 37 years) from both spacecrafts, at the exactly same point in time, but at several billions of kilometres of distance [of] one from the other”. The result of this “data sonification” is a rather beautiful piece of music – one of the best examples of physics and the arts coming together that we have heard. Of course, the story garnered considerable interest…you can read more about on the Wired and Guardian websites.

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Stretching and spinning droplets using sound

Mirror made from tiny polystyrene spheres (Courtesy: Grzegorczyk et al Phys Rev Lett 112) 023902

Mirror made from tiny polystyrene spheres. (Courtesy: Grzegorczyk et al., Phys. Rev. Lett. 112 023902)

By Hamish Johnston

There are two fantastic papers in Physical Review Letters this week that made me smile. Both of them are about controlling macroscopic objects using waves. While there are practical applications for both techniques, I can’t help thinking that the authors did the work for the sheer joy of it.

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Postcard from Rio – following in Einstein’s footsteps

Photo of Einstein visiting Brazil's National Observatory in 1925

Einstein visiting Brazil’s National Observatory in 1925. (Courtesy: Observatório Nacional)

By Matin Durrani in Rio de Janeiro

I don’t think I’ve ever talked to the head of a physics lab with a parrot screeching outside the window. But that was the case today when I visited the Brazil’s National Observatory – the country’s oldest scientific institution, founded in 1827 by Emperor Dom Pedro I just five years after the country won independence from Portugal.

The parrot was somewhere in the lush green trees directly outside the open windows of the director’s elegant first-floor office, which is currently occupied by the physicist Joao dos Anjos, who took over as head of the observatory earlier this year. (He also claimed his secretary had seen a ghost in the office recently, but that’s another story.)

After closing the windows’ shutters and switching on the air-conditioning, Dos Anjos explained how the observatory is now focused on three main activities – astronomy, geophysics and metrology. In fact, the observatory is still the official body in Brazil for setting time, which was one of its original missions, along with determining geographical locations and studying the country’s climate.

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Sun-skimming comets, the future of the Space Race, scientists on record and more

By Tushna Commissariat

This week, professional astronomers and enthusiasts all over the world pointed their telescopes (and satellites) at the comet ISON as it raced towards the Sun and had its closest encounter with our star yesterday. Of course, the big question was whether the “Sungrazing comet” would survive its close call. Now, it seems that no-one is quite sure – early on, it looked as if the comet faded rather dramatically, suggesting that its nucleus disintegrated, and then it disappeared completely as it made its way through the solar atmosphere, making scientists mourn its fiery death. But lo, today a very faint smudge of dust was seen again, and seems to be brightening up once more. For now, researchers are referring to ISON as “Schrödinger’s Comet” and we may have to wait a while to know for sure. Right now, it seems that some of the comet has survived, but just how much of it made it through and if it will be visible in the sky in December is unknown. In case you missed all the action yesterday, take a look at Phil Plait’s Bad Astronomy blog, where he was posting live updates on the comet and Karl Battams’s blog on NASA’s Comet ISON Observing Campaign site, where he explains what happens next.

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Safe graphene, Martian mollycoddling, mathematical tales and more

The

The “Telescope names” comic from xkcd. (Randall Munroe/Creative Commons)

By Tushna Commissariat

Just when we thought that it couldn’t possibly have any more practical applications, everybody’s favourite “wonder material” graphene is going to be used to develop “stronger, safer, and more desirable condoms”. Thanks to a Grand Challenges Explorations grant of £62,123 from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, scientists at the University of Manchester will use graphene to develop new “composite nanomaterials for next-generation condoms, containing graphene”. Unsurprisingly, the story made all the national newspapers with the BBC, the Guardian, the Telegraph and the Independent all having their say. The Guardian also noted that industrial graphene-producer Applied Graphene Materialsshares jumped by 40% during its stock-market debut, the day before the above story broke. You can read more about graphene’s many potential applications on page 50 of Physics World’s anniversary issue, a free PDF download of which is available here.

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