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Tag archives: astronomy

BICEP2′s findings trigger new kind of ‘inflation’

The BICEP2 experiment at the South Pole

Sunrise over the BICEP2 experiment at the South Pole. (Courtesy: National Science Foundation)

By Tushna Commissariat

Scientists and laypeople the world over were intrigued by the announcement made by the BICEP2 collaboration earlier last month, when it claimed to have detected the primordial “B-mode polarization” of the cosmic microwave signal (CMB). Many researchers have hailed it as the first evidence for cosmic inflation – the extremely rapid expansion that cosmologists believe our universe underwent a mere 10–35 s after the Big Bang.

Indeed, after a quick search of the arXiv preprint server, I found nearly 172 papers based on the BICEP2 data that have been written since the team’s announcement on 17 March. Some 200 individual citations to the original BICEP2 paper can also be found on the server.

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Earth’s cousin, alien intelligence, Galileo’s game and more

Illustration of Kepler-186f

Artist’s illustration of Kepler-186f. (Courtesy: NASA/SETI Institute/JPL-Caltech)

By Tushna Commissariat

Early last week, astronomers announced that they had found the first Earth-sized exoplanet that is comfortably within the habitable zone of its parent star, using NASA’s Kepler telescope. The new planet, dubbed Kepler-186f, is a close cousin of the Earth as it has a radius that is only 10% larger than that of the Earth, meaning that it could have liquid water on its surface, allowing for the tantalizing possibility of some form of life to exist upon it. At last count, Kepler has now discovered and confirmed 1706 exoplanets.

So it was rather interesting to come across two stories that looked at the implications of life beyond our planetary neighbourhood. Paul Gilster, who writes the Centauri Dreams blog had a rather interesting post on how artists and illustrators need to work with scientists to depict each new exoplanet, to make the images look visually stunning, while still being scientifically accurate. Gilster also talks specifically about the image (see above) that illustrates the newly found Kepler-186f.

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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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