Light Seen From Faraway Planet

OK – so this is pretty cool… 

Today it was announced that astromoners have just observed the light directly from a planet outside our solar system.  Previously, scientists have never been able to observe a planet directly (like we can in our own solar system by looking through a telescope) – only indirectly through its eclipse signatures as it moves between us and its own star…

But now, a planet roughly 10 times the size of Jupiter (now that’s huge…) and about 130 light years from Earth has been seen directly…  By looking at the spectrum of this light (both reflected and radiated by the planet), scientists can figure out the type of atmosphere it has.

You can read more about the story here

Multiple Universes?! Hooey!…

I like hearing about new and interesting ideas within science – they help us to explain our world better…

(And now, I step on my soapbox…)  HOWEVER, I do think some ideas are just plain hooey, because they are less science and more intellectual rationalization for why we can’t explain things at the moment…

Take the Many-Worlds interpretation

In quantum mechanics, particles in the universe are represented by things called wavefunctions.  These wavefunctions describe the probabilities that one would observe a particle in a particular state, for example.  However, once we observe the particle in some state, we observe that state and no others, so the quantum physicists describe this as the “collapse” of the wavefunction.

Describing particles this way turns out to be pretty useful in describing some overall behavior, but it doesn’t explain everything, and this is where the “hooey” starts coming in…

Because quantum physicists can’t understand why this “collapse” happens the way it does, they’ve started to come up with consequences that just plain boggle the mind… 

So, since particles are represented by probabilitistic wavefunctions, then some people in the Many Worlds camp think that these particles exist in all states in different proportions in different universes.  So there’s another you somewhere doing something different than you’re doing now (say, not reading this post…) and still others doing things completely different…

The possibilities are literally endless, and there are serious scientists who believe in this hooey with straight faces…

Here’s a link to a video of David Deutsch.  He’s a Dirac Prize winner and in important contributor to the field of quantum mechanics and quantum computation (a favorite subject of mine…).  However, I just don’t buy into this poppycock of multiple universes – it’s hard enough to figure out what’s going on in our  universe, let alone all the other infinitely possible ones… 

And to invent an infinite number of alternative universes as the reason why we can’t fully explain what’s happening here – well, it just plain ain’t science.

For me, scientific theories are ones that can (1) explain the world and the universe around us, and (2) can be proven wrong when it doesn’t explain what happens in our world.   Theories also provide evidence for their truth with each and every time we observe our world. 

The problem with some theories (Many-Worlds is one, String Theory is another…) is that they can’t be proven wrong, so they just hang around, and scientific debate turns more into philosophy than a quest for what really drives the universe…

OK, off the soapbox…  For now…

First Programmable Quantum Computer

A quick note on one of my favorite new technologies – quantum computers.  Quantum computers are coming into reality, and here’s a story about the world’s first programmable one…

Quantum computers can do a number of things exponentially faster than regular computers, such as searching through unsorted databases and factoring integers (which is useful for codebreaking).  While these applications are pretty limited, there are new algorithms that let quantum computers work on important useful problems…

Search for Higgs Keeps Going

On Monday, Europe’s Large Hadron Collider set a record by smashing protons together at energies never achieved before.  This energy, 1.18 trillion electronvolts (TeV), beats the previous record of 0.98 TeV in 2001 by America’s Tevatron collider at Fermilab outside of Chicago.

So, you might be asking, why should we care?

Well, to figure out how the universe works, scientists have needed to build incredibly huge proton-smashers to unlock what’s inside of them.  The Large Hadron Collider (or LHC) is buried 300 feet under the border between France and Switzerland and is actually a large circular tunnel that is 17 miles round, used to accelerate protons to near the speed of light.

Physicists have a pretty strong model for what makes up all the stuff in the universe; it’s called the Standard Model (catchy, isn’t it?…). In that model, everything in the universe is made up of atoms. The atoms are made up of protons, neutrons, and electrons. And the protons and neutrons are made of things called quarks (confused, yet?…)

Well, in addition to these fundamental particles, there are other particles that carry forces, bonding these particles together and pushing others apart. Some of these are called photons, gravitons, and gluons (these actually hold quarks together, like glue…).

So, with other big proton-smasing colliders, like the one at Fermilab, scientists have discovered all of the quarks, including the most illusive one, the so-called top quark, in 1995.  This was pretty tough, because the top quark has a lot of mass, so it requires a lot of energy to bust protons apart to see it.

However, we haven’t discovered all of the other particles, particularly the Higgs boson, which scientists believe is the answer to why particles have mass in the first place.   Discovering the Higgs boson would complete the Standard Model. 

One problem is that the Standard Model doesn’t predict what the mass of the Higgs boson is, so we don’t really know how much energy it would take to observe it.  It’s possible that the LHC still isn’t powerful enough to observe this particle…

Hopefully, the LHC will result in some additional hard evidence to confirm science’s thoeries of the universe.  Let’s see what comes out of it…  For more on the LHC record, you can read about it here or here

Dinosaurs Aren’t Extinct

60 Minutes has a fascinating piece this past Sunday on paleontologist and Montana State University professor Jack Horner.  He is your classic scientific rebel – doing things that confound the scientific establishment… and coming up with amazing and new findings as he does it…

So basically, even though we know the story about how a giant meteor crashed into the Earth 68 million years ago and killed all the dinosaurs, Horner says, “Not so fast”.  All of them didn’t go extinct – some survived and evolved into what we know today as birds.

Here’s what another post has to say about Horner and his unorthodox methods:

“Horner’s practice of breaking the bones apart and studying their insides to further his research has landed him in the middle of a huge controversy following his team’s discovery of blood vessels within the dinosaur bones.”

In Horner’s new book, “How To Build A Dinosaur“, (co-authored by New York Times deputy science editor James Gorman) he talks about the possibility of recreating dinosaurs – yes, real dinosaurs!  Here’s part of a summary from his new book:

“A kind of reverse genetic engineering could make it possible to ” build” a dinosaur embryo from the embryo of a modern bird – a chicken, say – since birds are the evolutionary descendants of dinosaurs.”

Hmmm…  Dino-chickens?

Horner is a MacArthur Award-winning paleontologist, advised director Steven Spielberg on his movie Jurassic Park, and apparently became the inspiration for Sam Neill’s character in the movie.

“The Moon Is Alive”

In today’s Los Angeles Times, John Johnson Jr. reports the latest from NASA’s “moon crater creator” mission.  Of course, the goal of the $79 million Lunar Crater Obsevation and Sensing Satellite mission isn’t merely to see if we can hit the moon with a rocket – it’s intended to impact the moon so that we can see what lies underneath the dusty surface.  Scientists beliieve that there may be deposits of hydrogren and water that lie in craters near the Moon’s poles, where the Sun’s light hasn’t shone for billions of years.

It turns out that multiple instruments have picked up strong signatures of water from the October 9 impact of the mission’s Centaur rocket – about 25 gallons of water in the form of vapor and ice in a crater about 100 feet across.  So what does this mean?  This leads to the real possibility for manned moon colonies – science fiction stuff that’s looking more real.

According to the LA Times story,

“NASA’s plans, currently under review by the Obama administration, call for a return to the moon at the end of the next decade, and construction of a lunar base in which astronauts could live and work for months at a time.  The presence of large quantities of water would make that plan more practical, since water could be used for drinking, breathing and even making rocket fuel.”

And based upon these scientific results, Anthony Colaprete, chief scientist of the mission, declared, “The moon is alive.”  Very cool stuff…