Sunday Science

June 15th, 2014 · Comments Off on Sunday Science

I wanted to share some interesting science facts from the March 2014 Astronomy issue.

Bob Berman shares:

A single 1 gram pencil eraser contains the same energy released in the larger of the two atomic bombs that fell on Japan in 1945…

If the sun were the size of a period at the end of a sentence, Earth would be 1 inch away and no bigger than a dust mote. The nearest star would be 4.3 miles away. The diameter of the Milky Way would extend halfway to the moon. A galaxy is like billions of sand grains, each separated by miles from its nearest neighbor.

Later in this issue, details on the rapid growth in exoplanet discovery is provided. The first candidate worlds were discovered in 1992 (first confirmed 1995) and Kepler added hundreds more when it started reporting in 2010. (source:

Still later, an article on extraterrestrial neutrinos: Using the IceCube neutrino detector, which is composed of 5160 basketball sized detectors buried deep in Antarctic ice, astronomers have detected neutrinos of extraterrestrial origin. In a two-year run, 28 neutrinos were discovered with energies from 30 – 1,141 TeV. 17 of these had energies too high to have resulted from atmospheric effects, and had to come from cataclysmic events elsewhere in the universe. To give you a reference of how energetic these particles need to be, visible light has energy between 1.5 – 3 eV. That means these nearly massless particles are traveling about as close to the speed of light, as we are likely to see. (Some might be a million times more energetic than neutrinos detected from supernovae like SN 1987A.)

I will leave you with one more encouraging tidbit… A National Academy of Sciences article lays claim that 22 percent of Sun-like stars harbor Earth-sized planets in habitable zones. If true, this is one more refinement on the Drake Equation estimate of the likelihood of finding other civilizations around other stars.

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Tags: Space & Astronomy

Brian Greene on Higher Dimensions

May 18th, 2010 · Comments Off on Brian Greene on Higher Dimensions

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Rare Isotope Rap

June 15th, 2009 · Comments Off on Rare Isotope Rap

I’ve blogged about how cool the FRIB is going to be, now let Alpinekat break it down:

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The National Ignition Facility

June 7th, 2009 · 2 Comments

Finally, fusion in a jar… I am excited about science. Can you tell? It’s 2:27 am and I’ve spent an hour writing up this article, if that’s any indication. (I did just have my fifth glass of Mountain Dew, however.)

I recently blogged about MSU being chosen as the DOE Facility for Rare Isotope Beams (FRIB). Another facility in the news that I am enthusiastic about is the Lawrence Livermore National Ignition Facility (NIF). I think the NIF is NIFTY!

NIF’s 192 giant lasers, housed in a ten-story building the size of three football fields, will deliver at least 60 times more energy than any previous laser system. When all of its beams are fully operational, NIF will focus nearly two million joules of ultraviolet laser energy on a tiny target in the center of its target chamber – creating conditions similar to those that exist only in the cores of stars and giant planets and inside a nuclear weapon. The resulting fusion reaction will release many times more energy than the laser energy required to initiate the reaction.


After several decades of studying fusion and failing to sustain reactions (ignite fusion) in a commercially viable reactor, this effort will up the ante by firing the laser with five hundred trillion watts of power at a small hydrogen fuel cell, called a hohlraum, containing a few milligrams of hydrogen/deuterium fuel. In this indirect drive method, the lasers heat up the tiny metal cylinder, the hohlraum, which in turn generates intense, and uniform x-rays which compress the hydrogen fuel at 100,000,000,000 atmospheres in just a millionth of a second. The fusion reaction should release more energy than was put in, making fusion a highly attractive alternative to fossil fuels, since is a much more efficient reaction and essentially clean, compared to the process of splitting apart atoms, nuclear fission (used in nuclear reactors today).

In addition to its focus on achieving ignition, and eventually showing how sustained inertial fusion can become an economically feasible (an essentially limitless fuel source), NIF will be used for other photon science missions, such as gaining a better understanding of dark energy, black holes, cosmic rays, and the stelar synthesis of heavy elements.

[Wikipedia National Ignition Facility Website]

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The Higgs Field & The Big Bang

May 31st, 2009 · 15 Comments

Think of something with very little energy, very close to zero. The atoms would barely move at all, and this thing would be very close to the lowest temperature there is, absolute zero. As you add energy, the molecules move more (let’s assume this is happening in free space to make it simple). If you add enough, they go from being very ordered (say in a crystal lattice) to being less ordered, and they undergo a phase transition and we call that state of matter a liquid. Hotter gas breaks up into its constituent atoms. At thousands of degrees, electrons are stripped off a gas and it is called a plasma. So, we can go from solid to liquid to gas, and all the way up to a fully ionized plasma at millions of degrees, like at the center of the Sun or in its corona. Along the way, the atoms move about faster and faster.

In nuclear physics, we learn that when hydrogen atoms are moving very fast at the core of a proto-star (at temperatures above 10 million degrees) there is a strong likelihood of a nuclear reaction taking place to convert four hydrogen atoms (single protons, because it is too hot here for electrons to be bound) into a helium nucleus, with energy left over. This is called nuclear fusion, and the reaction space is accessible for temperatures over 10 million K, but nuclear fusion is extremely unlikely for a less energetic scenario. The point is, when temperatures are millions, billions or even trillions of degrees or MORE… as we believe the conditions were like during the first second of the Big Bang, there are many more things likely to occur that we would not expect to observe in our less energetic, less dense world. In accelerators, we have gotten the energy up to a TeV (trillion electron-volts), and we have been able to reproduce how fast particles were going between earlier than a billionth of the first second. Larger accelerators, like the LHC, get the energies even higher, which means we probe even earlier into that first second.

The History of the Universe

Why do we care? Well, scientists are fairly confident that in the first second the fundamental physics of the universe changed to become what it is today, in our much cooler universe. At the earliest tick on the cosmic clock, between t=0 and 10-43 seconds, it is believed that all the fundamental forces behaved the same. Why do we say this? We extrapolate back from what we do know… it was demonstrated in the 1980s that the electromagnetic and weak forces appear the same (their exchange particles appear to have the same properties, like mass and so on), when you get the temperature high enough, above a million billion degrees. This force appeared as one “electroweak” force, which is what the electroweak theory predicted. If we go back further, we have weak, strong and EM forces behaving the same – this was the GUT (grand unified theory) era. And, before that, the earliest and hottest era, with temperatures above 10-32 K, all four forces, including gravity behaved the same way. The reason for this is the behavior of the Higgs field at extremely high temperatures.

Let me back up now, and explain what the Higgs field is. (This is where I begin to call upon Brian Greene’s book, so I present it in a simple manner we can all understand!) Fields are all around us. All the time we are submerged in a sea of electromagnetic fields. From radio signals, cell phones, satellite communications, radar… there’s just about no escaping them! Electromagnetic fields are made up of photons, because they are the EM force carriers. The carriers of the weak force, the W and Z bosons, were discovered (as predicted) in the 1980s, as I mentioned above. The carrier particles of the strong force, that holds the nucleus of an atom together, is the gluon. And, even though we have yet to discover it, probably due to gravity being so much weaker than the other three forces, the graviton is believed to be the mediator of the gravitational force. And, we are quite familiar with living in a gravitational field!

Physicists suggest that there was another field, the Higgs field, mediated by the Higgs boson. During the first second, the temperatures started out so high (during the Planck era) that the Higgs field was wildly fluctuating. As things cooled below a trillion degrees, the Higgs field settled, but it settled to a nonzero value. (See page 258 of The Fabric of the Cosmos where it explains this is like sliding down the sides of a bowl, seeking the lowest point, but not being able to reach zero, because there is a small plateau in the center of the bowl.) This means the Higgs force is all around us. In fact, all of space is permeated with a “Higgs Ocean”. Scientists hope to prove this is the case by uncovering the Higgs particle with next-generation accelerators, like the LHC.

The Higgs field is where objects get their mass, or how we feel inertia. If the Higgs field is there, it explains why the zoo of subatomic particles have the masses they do. Particles that feel more resistance in the Higgs field, are measured to have a larger mass. The photon moves with no resistance, thus has zero mass. In fact, we can see this is why the speed of a photon in the vacuum is the fastest any object can go. Particles with mass MUST feel a greater resistance, and thus a slowing effect as they move through the Higgs Ocean. So, when the Big Bang happened, at first the concept of mass was meaningless. As the universe expanded and cooled, it underwent phase changes, or symmetry breaking, where the different forces “froze out” and their exchange particles “gained mass” (or, at least experienced the effects of it).

Brian Greene answers the question that may be on your mind now, “Isn’t the Higgs Ocean just another way of saying the cosmos is permeated with aether?” He says that yes, “it smacks of aether”. However, the fundamental difference is that aether was introduced as an analogy to how sound waves move through air. At the time, it was needed to explain how light moved through space, but we now know that light does not need a medium to propagate.

Greene goes on to discuss inflationary cosmology, and how it relates to where all the mass/energy making up the cosmos came from. He starts by explaining the work of Guth and Tye in the late 1970s. They believed that the Higgs field was basically fluctuating and ended on a “plateau” temporarily, providing a positive energy and a repulsive force that drove space to expand. Imagine that this field is like a spring. If you stretch it out, it wants to shrink, but if you compress it and confine it to a small volume, it wants to expand. (This is not related the how the Higgs field gives mass to particles, so we refer to it as the “Inflaton field”.) This period of inflation may have lasted only 10-35 seconds, but it drove the universe’s volume to increase by 90 orders of magnitude or more! Thus, the Big Bang theory states that at 10-38 seconds, the universe underwent a violent inflationary period, “the equivalent of blowing a single strand of DNA up to the size of the Milky Way Galaxy in a billionth of a billionth of a billionth of a blink of an eye!”

Which brings me to another amazing distinction. We often try to explain to people how The Universe had to be smaller than an atom, yet contain all the mass and energy we see today in all the galaxies and stars and planets (and we know this makes up less than 5% of the universe, when you consider dark matter and dark energy). Greene explains that when the universe was tiny, about 10-26 cm across, before it underwent the rapid inflationary period, it could have been filled with the inflaton field — and weigh a mere twenty pounds! That would have infused enough energy, through the rapid expansion, to account for the vast universe we see today! [Ref p.313 Fabric of the Cosmos, Greene] (Note: the Planck scale is as much smaller than an atom as an atom is smaller than us, and we are smaller than the entire observable universe!)

Jamming 20 pounds into a volume that tiny is still way, way beyond our present technological capabilities, so the likelihood anyone will be cooking up new universes in the lab are might slim, but it makes the creation of the universe a lot more fathomable. These are the kinds of issues we are trying to resolve with experiments like the LHC. This is what gets scientists excited! Combine that with the possibility that the Planck mission, or other missions to study the patterns of the microwave background in space (left over from the big bang), might tell us about what lies beyond the confines of our “observable universe”. This should blow your mind! Not only are we learning more about the universe, but we may learn things that we said a decade ago we “could” never know.

All of this IS fantastic, and it DOES get scientists excited, but we approach these tasks methodically and with humility. The fact that we can learn some things about the cosmos, does not delude us into thinking we are gods or that we can ever know it all. We accept that the universe is too vast and varied for us to ever fully experience, but we have bitten off a piece, and it tastes good! We no longer need to make up tales to explain our origins. We probe beneath the atom and beyond the galaxies, and we understand that it is all tied together in ways that go beyond our human intuition. We have so many scientific results that fill so much of our natural model of the cosmos, that no dogmatic human can stop our progress and return us to the day when we could put everything in human terms, anthropomorphizing even the stars themselves. We are in the realm where we must rely on science. Not because science has surpassed superstition, and become a religion unto itself, but because it works. Science takes our observations and subjects them to a methodology that removes as much human bias as possible, and lets us understand nature without creating hobgoblins. If we someday found the universe was capricious and the scientific method failed, we would have to seek something better. We do not “believe” in science with a blind and enduring faith, instead we “trust” in science, because it works. We trust that gravity will work the same tomorrow. We do not claim to know this irrefutably, and that is the point of science, as someone recently said to me, “Trust, but verify”. I think that sums up what science is. It is not a religion or a dogma, it is simply a way of thinking and approaching problems. It promises to take us on an amazing journey. After all, look how far we’ve come in 400 years since Galileo had the idea to turn a spyglass to the stars!

[Let me credit Brian Greene for doing such a good job of explaining the concept of the Higgs and inflaton fields in his book, The Fabric of the Cosmos. I highly recommend it. Much of what I am saying here, I am either relating from the astronomy courses I teach, or trying to distill out of his chapters 9-11.]

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Tags: Science & Health · Space & Astronomy

Brian Greene on Strings at TED

March 29th, 2009 · Comments Off on Brian Greene on Strings at TED

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February 26th, 2009 · Comments Off on NSCL Awarded FRIB by US-DOE

Before Christmas, DOE awarded the contract for a “Facility for Rare Isotope Beams” (FRIB) to Michigan State University, National Superconducting Cyclotron Laboratory (NSCL). This is pretty good news for MSU, meaning a new $550 million facility being built over the next ten years. This project is expected to bring $1 billion in economic activity and create 400 new jobs. In addition, this facility will provide an intense beam of heavy ions to address leading edge questions of nuclear structure.

Congratulations to MSU and my old friends and colleagues who work at MSU or attended graduate school there in the 1980s when I was a physics grad student working at NSCL.

[Read the article.]

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Heavy Isotope Facility @ MSU

December 12th, 2008 · 1 Comment

Michigan State University has been selected as the site for the new Facility for Rare Isotope Beams (FRIB). Building on the successful National Superconducting Cyclotron Laboratory (NSCL), this will continue to make Michigan State a premier facility for accelerator and nuclear physics for many years.

Building the $550M facility is expected to bring $1 billion in economic activity and 400 jobs to Michigan, according to an analysis by the Anderson Economic Group.

(* I see NSCL now has a gift shop and their own YouTube channel!)

[Read the article.]

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