Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Dark Thoughts

Supernova 1987A imaged in X-rays by the XMM-Newton spacecraft. X-rays are produced when the expanding shock wave interacts with surrounding materiel. Astronomers have found many such bubbles around supernova remnants. Though supernovae are expected to have neutron stars at their centres, none has been found for 1987A. Some astronomers speculate that the core has collapsed completely into a Black Hole.

When all the galaxies, including "dark" mass, are weighed the total is only about 30% of the mass necessary to close the Universe. This has fueled more speculation about a "dark energy." Observations of clusters by Alain Blanchard's team indicate that dark matter is 4 times as prevalent as thought, comprise the 95% of mass that is not baryons. But where is it?

Radio astronomers have found entire dark galaxies in the vicinity of the Milky Way and Andromeda. These galaxies are composed entirely of "dark" mass. These have been found because they are relatively nearby. A dwarf spheroidal galaxy called Tucana exists far from any visible galaxy. No astronomer knows how many more dark galaxies are out there.

In this month's SCIENTIFIC AMERICAN astronomers Wallace Tucker, Harvey Tananbaum and Andrew Fabian write about immense Black Holes at the centres of galaxy clusters. These Black Holes create immense bubbles of high-energy particles, like a supernova but 100 million times more powerful! Tananbaum is director of the Chandra X-ray Centre and will be principal investigator of the CONSTELLATION-X spacecraft, assuming "dark energy" doesn't delay the project.

It is comforting to see similiar processes working at a variety of scales. Black Holes have a huge influence on structure, from stars to galaxy clusters. Could they get any bigger? Astronomers Margaret Geller, John Huchra and the Sloan Digital Sky Survey have shown that galaxies are arranged in enormous walls with bubble-shaped voids in between. These could be home to ultra-massive BIG GULP Black Holes. Early in the Universe's history they would have swallowed everything within reach, leaving behind great voids. The missing mass ascribed to "dark energy" could be hidden in those voids.

Big Gulp Black Holes would swallow any radiation and be nearly impossible to detect visually. They could be detected by their immense magnetic fields. Astronomers have found powerful magnetic fields of unknown origin in intergalactic Space. Those fields may be the sign of the Universe's missing mass.

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Monday, February 26, 2007

Waikoloa and Supernova

This week we celebrated the 20th anniversary of Supernova 1987A's discovery. The supernova, in the Large Magellanic Cloud, was the closest observed since Kepler's supernova in 1604. More than one meeting was held to celebrate the event, including one at the Hilton Waikoloa Village. Never mind the conference, just look at that pool!

Observing a Supernova relatively close-up is always fascinating. One mystery involves a neutron star--one hasn't been found yet! Astronomers are not sure whethre something is blocking it or whether it has collapsed completely into a Black Hole. If the latter is true, maybe there was a Black Hole there all along.

For obvious reasons the resort attracts many conferences, like Protostars to Planets in 2005 and the Seismological Society of America April 11-13. The resort is huge, covering nearly 60 acres of former lava field on the Kohala Coast. It's not actually in Waikoloa Village, but they had to call it something. The grounds contain enclosures for many native birds, even Nene birds.

Guests can get around either on those little boats or on the sleek electric train. As we know, supernovae have become very important for cosmology. On that subject, there may be good news about publishing soon.

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Friday, February 23, 2007

The Slayer and Ever-Changing Moods

Among the audience at Sunday's talk on "Dark Energy and Multiverses" were Jennifer Ouelette and Sean Carroll. With Lawrence Krauss giving the introductory talk, we had the authors of "Physics of Star Trek" and "Physics of the Buffyverse" in the same crowded room! Jennifer was able to stay an extra day and autograph some books.

Buffy was once a seemingly ordinary girl. She didn't choose to be the Slayer--the responsibility was thrust upon her. I hope you will excuse Buffy for occasionally being combative or showing attitude. Slayers have to defend ourselves.

Another fascinating book picked up at AAAS was "Brave New Universe" by Paul Halpern and Paul Wesson. This is an entertaining book suitable for the general reader. One chapter is entitled: "Ever-Changing Moods: Did Nature's Constants Evolve?" How the world has changed!

"If signals once traveled from one part of the universe to another faster than they do now, that could explain why space is so uniform. Through a rapid and far-reaching process of thermal equilibrium, temperatures in the early universe would have had ample opportunity to even out. Also, any significant pockets of high or low-density matter would tend to even out over time through either the release or accumulation of energy. Although such processes would violate standard conservation laws, they would be permitted of the speed of light could vary. This levelling out would lead automatically to a flat cosmos. Hence, the horizon and flatness issues would vanish, with no inflationary smoothing needed to accomplish these feats.

"Furthermore, alterations in the speed of light would affect astronomers' measurements of the velocities of distant galaxies. The supernova results of Schmidt's and Perlmutter's groups, among other measurements, would require re-interpretation. Consequently, the universe might not be accelerating after all."

The odds are a thousand to one against, but we are winning!

Thursday, February 22, 2007

Photons Behind Bars, Busting Loose

Quantum mechanics teaches us that light has both wave and particle qualities. For decades Niels Bohr's Complementarity Principle was thought to prevent the wave and particle qualities of light from being measured simultaneously. Recently physicist Shahriar Afshar proved this wrong with a very simple experiment. As a reward, the physics community attacked everything from Afshar's religion to his ethnicity. Prevented from publishing a paper, even on arxiv, he "went public" to NEW SCIENTIST magazine.

Afshar's apparatus is based upon the familiar two-slit experiment. Because of the wave nature of light, beams passing through Pinhole 1 and Pinhole 2 form an interference pattern of light and dark fringes. Here Afshar put light behind bars, adding a grid corresponding to the null (dark) fringes. Behind this he placed a lens to refocus the light onto photon detectors.

Because the bars correspond to null fringes, no light is lost in passing through. The photon count at the far end is exactly the number of photons going in. This demonstrates both wave and particle nature of light in a single experiment. This doesn't necessarily conflict with quantum mechanics, but it does prove Bohr's interpretation wrong.

Despite the simplicity and importance of Afshar's experiment, or maybe because of it, he was treated too poorly to describe. Where have we seen behaviour like that? It could have been worse--he could have been female. Afshar's paper will finally be published in Foundations of Physics.

Old theories about light are bound to change. For decades teachers would tell us to shut up, the speed of photons is flat, like the Earth. There is still huge resistance to a changing speed of light. Now look how far we have come!

New Scientist's cover features "DARK ENERGY: It's the Biggest Mystery in the Universe." At one time repulsive energy was thought to solve many problems, even providing support to inflation. This would lead to more respect and funding for physicists. As Lawrence Krauss and others agree, the repulsive energy hypothesis is falling apart. Now the big brains are at a complete loss.

"That honeymoon period is now well and truly over. Although dark energy is a ubiquitous term in cosmological conversations, no one actually knows what it is. As (Rocky) Kolb says, 'Naming is not explaining.'

"Although there are plenty of tentative explanations, each one seems to suffer from some fatal flaw. The simplest of the solutions on offer is the so-called cosmological constant...unfortunately physicists are having trouble finding a way to fit a cosmological constant into their best existing theories.

"A small non-zero dark energy is more difficult to explain than zero," says Sean Carroll, "so we are driven to wilder ideas...dark energy could be the ether of the 21st century."

As readers know, a simple equation like GM = tc^3 solves the problem precisely, without any hypothetical energies. It also provides a successor to inflation. It makes predictions about the speed of light, the CMB, the 4.507034% of baryons and many other things. Finding the answer to a problem is very, very satisfying.

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Dark Energy as an Environmental Science?!

Atrium of San Francisco's Museum of Modern Art. The huge SF Hilton was filled past the bursting point by AAAS, with additional events spilling over to the Nikko and Parc 55 hotels. One of the most crowded spaces was Franciscan Room C on Sunday afternoon. The seminar was titled: "Multiverses, Dark Energy and Physics as an Environmental Science." Despite the confusion and lack of answers, the crowd size hows how much interest is out there.

Lawrence Krauss intoduced the session as: "Why Scientists Have Gone Mad." He reviewed the same old evidence for inflation and "dark energy" with a very skeptical eye. He emphasised that current cosmology is observation-driven rather than theory-driven. Regarding supernova data, he said it "naively implied that the universe was accelerating."

According to the "dark energy" idea, the era of cosmic structure formation is over. The facts that stars continue to form, galaxies collide and life builds complex structures ought to sink that idea. Alain Blanchard's team has observed that there are even more clusters forming in our era, when DE is supposed to have taken over. The evidence is overwhelmingly against a repulsive energy.

Introducing Lenny Susskind, the term "sinking ship" arose in regards to strings. Lenny was good-natured as always, and giving an entertaining talk on the landscape. Andrei Linde's talk finished the session by calling strings an "eternal feast" with 10^1000 vacua! Rather than seeing the glass as empty, Linde and others think this is a benefit. (Disclaimer: Susskind gave this author an A in a theoretical physics course.)

The theme of this year's AAAS Meeting was "Science and Technology for a Sustainable Well-Being." Despite the session title, there was no attempt to connect strings or cosmology to the environment. Though the Supernova Cosmology Project is right across the Bay in Berkeley, no "dark energy" researchers spoke at the session. The job of promoting DE was left to senior people like Steven Chu and Burt Richter. Even if strings or DE exist, they have no possible use for improving the environment or our energy problems.

A cosmology with a changing speed of light has direct bearing on our environment. It solves the "Faint Young Sun" paradox of Earth's temperature, telling us whether that temperature will grow uncontrollably. Cosmology also contributes to the question of whether greenhouse gases warmed Earth in the past. Including Type Ia supernovae, we have corroborating data from truly independent sources indicating that c has changed in precisely the amounts predicted. It may someday lead to an energy source even greater than nuclear fusion.

Sunday night was a reception for the Association of Women in Science. Every year more young women show up at the AAAS Meeting. Sometimes they come in groups, encouraged by their schools or colleges. We were supposed to be addressed by San Francisco's mayor, but he has cut public appearances and gone into seclusion. Gavin, if you had shown up you would have met many attractive, intelligent women.

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Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Dwarf Planets at AAAS

As of this week, Technorati ranks this blog at number 99,790. In a universe of 60 million blogs, that is pretty good. Thank you Cuddihy, Swinesworld, Samwise, Curmudgeons Corner and many others too numerous to mention.

Sunday morning in the Hilton Franciscan Room D Vivien White talked about project ASTRO, an initiative to provide astronomers for K-12 classrooms. Saturday afternoon in Continental Ballroom 3 astronomer Michael Brown talked about minor planets. He is known for discovery of 2003 UB313, the largest known dwarf planet. Originally he wanted to name it Xena, and its satellite Gabrielle. Finally the IAU settled on the name Eris for UB313 and Dysnomia for its satellite. Eris is goddess of discord and Dysnomia of lawlessness. As we all know, Lucy Lawless played Xena!

Object 2003 EL61 orbits at a 30-degree inclination to the solar system, spinning end over end like an American football. It also has a moon, which has allowed astronomers to calculate its mass. These objects were located by an automated telescope atop Mount Palomar, and noticed by an automated system searching thousands of images. The sky is a big place--at this scale Earth's orbit would be inside the yellow dot!

Eris is approximately 2400 km in diameter. Her orbit is inclined 45 degrees to the solar system plane, a fact which astronomers are at a loss to explain. If these dwarf planets formed around singularities, they could have any inclination. Orbits of these tiny Black Holes initially surrounded the Sun like an electron cloud. Even a 500 km moon like Enceladus may contain a singularity. Our galaxy may still be surrounded by a Black Hole cloud, leading to signs of dark mass.

Tuesday, February 20, 2007

Exploring Space at AAAS

Pilots get used to waking up early. At 0800 Saturday in Hilton Continental Ballroom 8 former astronauts Rusty Schweickhart and Edward Lu led a symposium on predicting asteroid impacts. If the gravity tractor intercepted Apophis by 2027, just 12 days of "towing" would move the asteroid to a safer orbit. This week Schweickhart is addressing a UN committee in Vienna concerning asteroid impacts.

Saturday afternoon in Continental Ballroom 6 was a symposium on "Destination Moon," including astronaut Harrison Schmitt of Apollo 17. A huge amount of useful science can be accomplished from our nearest neighbour. The lunar far side is the perfect quiet place for a radio telescope. The lunar surface provides a stable base for space-based interferometers. A lunar base could be the location of a large optical telescope. As we saw in Corals and Cosmology, the Lunar Laser Ranging Experiment from 1969 provides one more proof that the speed of light has been slowing.

Saturday night Dr. Steven Chu of LBL gave his invited talk about energy. After reviewing well-known alternatives like ethanol and solar power, he launched into a proud defence of "dark energy." He placed the 1998 discovery of an accelerating universe alongside Smoot and Mather's work on the CMB, implying that DE researchers belong in the Nobel Prize club. Don't buy your ticket to Stockholm too soon, boys.

The remainder of the evening was spent atop San Francisco's Bank of America building, a meeting that stretched late into the night. I wish more could be said, but this technology will make human spaceflight safer, more comfortable and less expensive by many millions of dollars. Already we can save NASA about a billion by not wasting a mission on "dark energy." RemeMber that, even if it existed, DE would have zero practical use. As Larry Page said, scientists should focus on improving the lives of others.

The Climate at AAAS

The American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) annual meeting began Thursday in San Francisco. The AAAS doesn't shy from controversial issues. In the opening talk, AAAS President John Holdren showed a plethora of evidence favouring global warming. Climate change was one everyone's minds, for we were gifted with unseasonably warm weather.

February 16 issue of SCIENCE showed evidence of liquid water on Mars. That same morning in the Hilton's Franciscan Room C we heard about "The New Mars: Habitability of a Neighbor World." A photo from the High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment (HIRISE) aboard the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter shows alternating layers of dark and light-coloured rock in western Candor Chasma. The evidence shows that fluid once flowed along these fractures. NASA's Chris McKay delvered an entertaining summary talk.

Friday afternoon was a business meeting of the AAAS Astronomy section, from which one rushed to "A New Frontier in Particle Physics" in Continental Ballroom 3. David Gross of UCSB began with with "Deep Questions About Matter, Energy, Space and Time." Other talks in the session described possibilites for the LHC and ILC. Burton Richter of SLAC finshed by describing other frontiers, including "dark energy." Richter and Gross made a friendly bet on whether SUSY will be discovered by LHC.

Friday night we heard from Larry Page, co-founder of GOOGLE. He believes that scientists should address human problems and do more to promote science. No argument here. One reason for trouble with physics is that the public sees no benefit. More than a half century ago physicists gave us nuclear power. That led to funding for higher energies, bigger collaborations and bigger science. Physicists were encouraged to seek ever-more theoretical particles. Around 1974 Richter and others discovered the J-psi particle, a success of the Standard Model. For the past 30 years physics has been stuck in a rut.

Even assuming "dark energy" exists, it has no conceivable use. It would be so diffuse in Space that it could not power a penlight. We need to develop a real source of energy, something to make even nuclear fusion look small. If there had been a 1907 talk at AAAS about the energy future, it would have been about coal and oil. Someone had already written that E = mc^2. Less than 40 years later we had nuclear power.

Saturday, February 17, 2007

Latest Spin on Neutron Stars

I hope everyone had a happy St. Valentine's Day. The afternoon was spent huddling together by the ocean watching the sunset. The Sun is fascinating to contemplate. Though our lives depend on it, humans know shockingly little about how the sun works. We should remember on Valentine's Day how important the heart is.

In Larry Niven's story, Beowulf Schaeffer rides a spacecraft to the vicinity of a NEUTRON STAR. These stars are the created in the aftermath of huge supernovae. As this month's ASTRONOMY magazine reports, even the energy source of supernova explosions is a mystery! Neutron stars are dense enough to make atoms collapse, so their outer layers are composed of pure neutrons. A cubic centimetre of neutron star would weigh a hundred million tons. They are denser than any object except for a Black Hole, which should be clue #1.

As reported by SPACE.com, astronomers using the ESA INTEGRAL satellite have found that neutron star XTE J1739-285 spins at 1,122 revolutions per second. The neutron star drains materiel from a companion object, giving off X-rays that astronomers can measure. XTE J1739-285 spins faster than any known neutron star, and faster than any object save for a Black Hole. This ought to be clue #2.

Some neutron stars are pulsars, emitting spinning beams of radiation like a lighthouse. The first pulsar was discovered by astronomer Jocelyn Bell in 1967. Being a woman, she was denied proper credit for her discovery. The beams spin because the axis of the source is independent of the neutron star's spin axis. As Dr. Roger Blandford noted last week, the source of these coherent beams has been a complete mystery. Something hidden within creates the twin beams. This should be clue #3.

Recently some neutron stars have been discovered to be magnetars. Their magnetic fields are so powerful that astronomers aren't sure how strong they get. They are more powerful than the magnetic field of any object except a Black Hole. Do we have enough clues, Scooby Gang?

The birth of stars, including our Sun, is triggered when tiny singularities collide with gas clouds. The clouds contain the elements for stars, but cannot turn into stars on their own. Presence of singularities causes the clouds to collapse until nuclear fusion is ignited. Outward radiation pressure balances gravity's inward pull to create an equilibrium that can last billions of years. A Black Hole can comfortably exist in the second-last place humans would look for one, inside the Sun.

Only occasionally do Black Holes reveal their presence. When a star of greater than 1.4 solar masses uses up all its fuel, the equilibrium between radiation and gravity is abruptly broken. The star collapses at nearly one quarter of the speed of light into the singularity. This sudden infusion of mass produces a titanic explosion, a supernova.

In the aftermath of a supernova, only the most dense of materiels survive. Superdense neutrons form an outer layer. The heart of a neutron star is a Black Hole. If the Black Hole has enough spin, it produces a magnetic field and twin jets exactly as observed. The Black Hole spins independently of the outer neutron layers, emitting the spinning beams of a pulsar.

Lack of a Black Hole explains why humans have been unable to recreate conditions inside the Sun for any length of time. Nuclear fusion has been reproduced only for brief moments, as in a hydrogen bomb. Containing a stable reaction requires the attractive force of a Black Hole. If humans understood this simple principle, energy generation would not be a problem. Scientists should learn from Luke Skywalker, push the computer away and follow the heart.

Tuesday, February 13, 2007

They Found the Remains of a Rebel Base...

"They found the remains of a Rebel base, but estimate that it has been deserted for some time." The STAR WARS Rebel base (also seen in MOONRAKER) was in Tikal, 300 kilometres South. This is Uxmal, which has indeed been deserted for some time. The name is usually translated as "Built Three Times." Starting in 500 AD, successive cultures have built on the same site. Old regimes eventually are overthrown by newer ideas.

Many of us grew up on those movies, and dreamed about rebelling against an evil Dark Side. Now we appear to be gripped by "dark energy." Its disciples occupy the media, journals and universities. They tell us that DE dominates the Universe, and will eventually tear everything apart. They insist that we join the crowd or be barred from grants and positions.

As in the movies, the odds seem overwhelming. DE has enveloped hundreds of researchers, allegedly the most elite brains. Despite their numbers, they have not, repeat have not offered a compelling solution. All they give us are measurements inferring that DE exists. A single open mind can understand something like GM = tc^3, which solves the problem in one line.

Though things sometimes look tough, the Rebellion is winning. DE is losing support every day as more people question it. Their prize project is the approaching train wreck. Those who dismissed "c change" are the ones without funding or tenure (sorry CV). Now big wheels like Michael Turner list "varying constants" as a #1 priority.

As you have seen from photos, the writer is a slender thing. Someone can outwit 100 opponents because a greater Force stands behind me than hides behind them. As Roger Blandford said, eventually those who dismiss "c change" will claim that they knew it all along. I invite them to join the winning side while they still can.

You must walk around to see how big these Maya cities are. Uxmal's population has been estimated at 25,000 but could have been much bigger. Does this look like a town of a few thousand? The Pyramid of the Magician is unique for its rounded plan. It was built right over an earlier, smaller pyramid. Newton's Gravity served as foundation for Einstein's Relativity, which in turn will be the basis for newer ideas.

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El Caracol

El Caracol (The Snake) at Chichen Itza was once thought to be just some kind of pavilion. Now we know that it was a sophisticated astronomical observatory. During solstice days, sunlight entering certain windows would produce a snake image on the inner walls. With its circular dome it even looks like an observatory.

Yesterday we saw the tallest structure, called Kukulkan's Pyramid. During Vernal and Autumnal equinox days, the stairway's shadow would appear as a snake descending the pyramid steps. This symbolised the serpent-god Kukulkan's descent to Earth. Arranging this display required advanced knowledge of astronomy and geometry.

The Mayans believed that Space and Time were a unity. More than 1000 years later Einstein would codify this idea into Special Relativity. Humans are hardwired to think this way. Few people know exactly how many kilometres are between work and home, but nearly everyone knows the time it takes to get to work, down to the minute. The conversion factor is the speed of your vehicle. Before accurate maps existed, the distances between towns was measured in days travel.

Special Relativity can be reduced to this simple principle: Space and Time are one phenomenon related by c. The light cone in 3 dimensions looks like the expanding spherical waves from a radio transmitter. If you are outside the light cone our separation is spacelike and you can't read this anyway. If you are within the sound of my voice, our separation is timelike. Our separation is then literally a matter of time.

The conversion factor between Space/Time is c. Factor c is more than just the speed of light, it is the speed of any massless particle. The effects of Special Relativity apply even in a dark room with the lights out. To convert Time into Space, just multiply by c.

Applied to our Universe, there is no centre in Space. Every bit resembles every other bit. There is a centre in Time, what we call a "Big Bang." Near the Big Bang, the Universe was a tiny volume. Scale R of the Universe is our timelike separation t from that centre, multiplied by today's conversion factor c. In equations, R = ct.

That is all you really need to understand the expanding Universe. The Universe can't expand at the same rate c forever, for gravity slows it down. From a simple principle come GM = tc^3 and predictions about expansion, redshift and structure formation. It also produces invitations to the most interesting places.

Monday, February 12, 2007

Chichen Itza

Hello again! For the entertainment of Tommaso and others, here are photos (some seen before) from trips in Yucatan. This was taken the top of the big pyramid in Chichen Itza, what someone looks like after spending the night on a bus to get here. I am in the little doorway on top of this.

The Yucatan is largely rain forest yet has no rivers, lakes or large bodies of water. The meteorite that wiped out the dinosaurs impacted here, creating Chicxulub crater. This 65 million-year old crater was only discovered in 1990, but it has left the ground very spongy. Rainwater is directly absorbed by the ground, creating enormous sinkholes or cenotes. Chichen Itza is built near one of the biggest, 50 metres in diameter. The cenotes lead to a vast system of underground rivers, leading all the way to the sea. Our lives have been affected by Space in many ways, some still undiscovered.

It is possible to go cave diving in the cenotes, but this is very dangerous and should only be done with a guide. For many years there were rumours of skeletons lurking down there. Those were dismissed as ghost stories until someone brought a skeleton to the surface. It was dated at 13,000 years old, the oldest human remains found in the Americas! This has forced revision of theories about human migration. Human nature is to seek new worlds.

Above is the view from that (West) side of the pyramid. Down there is the Ball Court and Temple of the Jaguar. To be a Mayan, it helps to stay in shape.

Visible from the back (East) side is the Temple of the Warriors, also called the Hall of a Thousand Columns. Watch out for that first step!

Sunday, February 11, 2007

Jefferson Starship Flies Again

My boring abstract (P18.1) from the GLAST Symposium:

The puzzle of supermassive Black Holes may be answered by new (GLAST) observations. Discovery by Mobasher et al. from the Hubble Ultra Deep Field indicates that the central Black Hole in galaxy HUDF-2 reached a mass greater than the Milky Way only 800 million years after the Big Bang. The object is considered too massive to have formed from mergers of smaller objects. This adds to discoveries by Romani and the Sloan Digital Sky Survey of SDSSp J1306, SDSS J1030, and Q0906+6930; supermassive objects also formed shortly after the Big Bang.

Since mass of a primordial Black Hole is dependent upon horizon distance, discovery of these objects indicates whether physical values are truly constant. Future gamma ray observations will shed futher light on Black Hole formation.

Something more fun: These performers were part of a concert this week by Jefferson Starship. The classic band from the 1960's was called Jefferson Airplane before they upgraded. Recently they have reformed and gone on tour sponsored by Windows Vista. Sponsorship has not kept them from dissing Microsoft. Rockers must be rebellious, but they love Space exploration!

GLAST Symposium

Stanford University was site of the First International GLAST Symposium. The Gamma-ray Large Array Survey Telescope involves researchers from Europe to Japan. Gamma rays are the most powerful form of radiation in the sky. They come from Black Holes, active galactic nuclei and even our Sun. Thr source of high-energy cosmic rays is still a mystery. Starting later this year, GLAST will open a new window to studying the Universe.

Thursday's concluding talk was given by Roger Blandford, head of Kavli Institute for Particle Astrophysics and Cosmology. As a young man he introduced the Blandford-Ivanek process for Black Hole jets. He is also close to those currently controlling supernova research. Barely 2 years ago, he was corralled into giving a public talk about "dark energy." To a big audience including children, Blandford tentatively "put forward the idea" that the Universe is filled with a repulsive force.

During Thursday's conclusion Blandford didn't mention "dark energy" at all. (He didn't mention DE at his AAS HEAD talk in October either.) One of the first issues he mentioned was "Violations of Lorentz Invariance." That's scientist talk for a changing speed of light. He said that once Lorentz Invariance is discovered, other researchers will claim that they knew it all along. Thanks for seeing my presentation, Dr. Blandford!

More of his bullet points: Study of solar flares will aid in travel to the Moon and Mars. Violent flares could release harmful radiation with a warning time of minutes! Such radiation would pose a big hazard to spaceflight. (Cosmic rays turned a spaceship crew into the Fantastic Four, and gamma rays created the Hulk.)

Blandford continued that the discovery of Gamma Ray Bursts (GRB's) has led to "epicyclic theories." Current physics can not adequately explain these huge sources of energy. Blandford acknowledged that "even the emission mechanism is up for grabs." These objects can be explained with supermassive Primordial Black Holes. Such objects could only form with a higher speed of light.

Pulsars were discovered by Jocelyn Bell in 1967, though she was late in receiving credit. At first people suspected they were signals from ET's. Even today their source of energy is a mystery. Blandford noted how little we know about them. "How do pulsars shine?" he asked, "How does coherent radiation form?" The behaviour of pulsars and their spinning jets can be explained with internal singularities.

This blog has reported on both the Vision for Space Exploration and the Beyond Einstein programme. Concerning the Vision, in the February 1 issue of NATURE Blandford is quoted as saying, "Everybody has to band together; the only way that any of this makes sense economically is as a global enterprise." He is smart enough to know that some scientist's grumbling about the Vision is counter-productive. He even shows how GLAST can aid the Vision by helping understand solar flares.

This year a decision will be announced on Beyond Einstein which may disappoint supernova researchers. In the same issue of NATURE, programme manager Michael Salomon assures us that "NASA is committed to the entire Beyond Einstein programme. There is no 'winner takes all' scenario here." My experience with senior people in science (Blandford, Michael Turner, Alan Guth, John Huchra) is that they are very receptive to new ideas. Though they will not jump into a new idea, they know a good thing when they see it.

Friday, February 09, 2007

So Who Wants To Be an Astronaut?

A few thoughts on this week's unfortunate events. The typical astronaut candidate waits 7+ years to go into Space. A woman can graduate from the US Naval Academy, become a test pilot and an astronaut, yet still wait 10 years for her one flight into Space. Most of us need time to care for emotional needs, yet astronaut candidates undergo a punishing schedule. It is a tribute to the quality of people selected that more of them don't snap.

In 2003 the General Accounting Office concluded that NASA was overmanned with astronauts. Nevertheless in 2004 NASA held an astronaut selection, their first in 4 years. They selected 11 candidates from over 3,000 applications. Today there are about 125 active-duty astronauts (minus one). The term "Astronaut Corps" is a misnomer. A corps is 3 divisions or about 50,000 soldiers. Since 100 soldiers form a company, Astronaut Company would be a more accurate term.

14 more Space Shuttle missions are planned between now and 2010, when the system is scheduled to be retired. (Room has also been made for 2 additional contingency missions.) Even if each flight carries seven crewmembers, there are only 91 seats left. Some of those seats will be occupied by those who have already flown. At least 1/4 of the current astronaut company will never get to fly the Shuttle again.

Following retirement of the shuttles, there will be a 4-year gap when the US will have NO manned spacecraft. That will be the longest such gap since 1975-1981, between the Apollo-Soyuz mission and Columbia's first flight. 13 manned flights are planned for Orion leading to a Moon landing in December 2019. If the average mission carries four crewmembers, that is only 52 total seats.

Each year Hollywood releases hundreds of feature films. With all the odds against being a successful actor, one's chances are greater of starring in a movie than of becoming an astronaut. That should not stop us from trying. The dream of spaceflight drives us to accomplish great things.

Thursday, February 08, 2007

More Photos from Disneyland

Entrance to Tomorrowland with the Astro Orbitor ride. The castle is 90 degrees to the left, but this blog looks to the future.

Tom Morrow, animatronic star of Innoventions, the (literally) rotating exhibit that welcomed ASIMO as a guest. The circular exhibit was originally part of the 1964 New York World's Fair.

Cannibal throne from PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN 2, displayed in the Disney gallery adjacent to the ride. This was the last attraction Walt worked on. Recently it has been jazzed up with characters from the movie.

Wednesday, February 07, 2007


Disney's Tomorrowland has been a showcase for new technology. Honda's ASIMO is the result of 20 years' research into robot mobility. The robot was demonstrated for us at Tomorrowland. ASIMO follows instructions, recognises faces, negotiates stairs and dances. With its backpack and helmet-like head, it looks (intentionally?) like a Space traveller. From the Enchanted Tiki Room to Star Tours, Disneyland has always featured robots.

Today's search for supernovae is mostly conducted by machines. The Hubble Space Telescope, and even many Earth-based telescopes, operate automatically. Hubble's Advanced Camera for Surveys produced images of milllions of galaxies. Only a computer could search through all these images to locate supernovae. Human contribution was limited to programming the computers and telescopes, not coming up with original theories.

Machines still break down and need fixing. Currently Hubble's ACS is down, possibly indefinitely. Other items on Hubble are already scheduled to be repaired on the next servicing mission. That mission is currently scheduled to launch September 11, 2008. It will be the last flight of shuttle Atlantis.

Researchers live in dread of losing grants, tenure or position. Someday robots will be able to replace most cosmologists. They will regurgitate anything programmed into them, even strings and "dark energy." They will write unoriginal papers which will be automatically cited many times, ensuring them safe positions.

The fastest and sleekest computers are simply number-crunchers. The human mind, due to some process that no one can understand, can think of original ideas. Computers may never be able to come up with new Theories on their own. Humans: if you want to ensure your own future, be original.
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Tuesday, February 06, 2007

Disney's Rocket to the Moon

Rocket to the Moon, presented by TWA, was an original Disneyland attraction in 1955. At the time going to the Moon seemed supernatural to most people. Walt believed that Tomorrowland dreams of spaceflight were as much a part of our dreams as Cinderella. Visitors sat in a circular spaceship interior while films showed the view out the windows.

In the early 1950's the popular Collier's Magazine invited Wernher Von Braun to publish a series of features on spaceflight. The articles were spectacularly illustrated by artists like Chesley Bonestell. It is wonderful being able to publish! After working in anonymity for decades, Von Braun had the opportunity to sell his ideas to the public. For the first time Collier's 4 million readers saw exciting and realistic images of spaceflight.

By the early 1950's there were 15 million television sets in the US. To promote his theme park, Walt Disney introduced the "World of Disney" TV show. Von Braun collaborated closely with Disney on three shows about "Man in Space." They used Von Braun's technical input and Disney animation to reach even more people. They showed multi-stage rockets, wheel-shaped space stations, and nuclear spaceships travelling to Mars. The first show, aired March 9, 1955 was enjoyed by 42 million viewers. 3 months later President Eisenhower announced plans to put a satellite in orbit.

This Rocket to the Moon is a 2/3 scale mockup of the 1955 original. The attraction was reworked as Flight to the Moon in 1967, and Mission to Mars in 1975. The Submarine Voyage will shortly return with a FINDING NEMO theme. Tomorrowland has seen more changes than any other part of the Magic Kingdom.

When You Wish Upon a Star...Your dreams come true! Scientists should never lose the child's desire to find the truth. In the Lego store, I met a famous advocate of "dark energy." He's fictional, but so is DE.

Monday, February 05, 2007

To Infinity and Beyond (Einstein)

NASA's FY 2008 budget was released today, and it could have been much worse. Some programs have suffered, notably the Space Interferometer Mission. The SIM budget has been cut by 117 million dollars, leaving only enough for technology development. The Terrestrial Planet Finder, of which my friend Geoff Marcy was to be Principal Investigator, is still on hold indefinitely. Good news: Hubble will be serviced, SOFIA will be reinstated, and Beyond Einstein survives with a budget increase.

At the Beyond Einstein meeting, Caltech's Richard Ellis handed me a copy of his NATURE paper "Dark matter maps reveal cosmic scaffolding." (Where was the gang from Asymptotia and CV?) The Very Short Paper on GM=tc^3 predicted those strange masses in seemingly empty Space. Following my suggestion, NASA now refers to DE as "dark energy." The choice of which Beyond Einstein mission will fly is up to the committee.

Boring abstract of last week's talk:

Observations from Beyond Einstein may signal new physics. A top goal (Turner, COSMO2006) is the investigation of varying constants. The model with hc constant and c given by GM=tc^3 provides a precise explanation for supernova redshifts. This model also explains the “Faint Young Sun” paradox of astrophysics. Together we have complementary data from truly independent sources indicating a c change. Another indicator is discovery (Romani, et al.) of supermassive primordial Black Holes. Further supporting data comes from the Lunar Laser Ranging Experiment.

The next step for supernova observations is from Space. A piggyback search using JWST, (Kirshner et al.) will be the next opportunity. Locating 50-100 supernovae will help distinguish Theory from accelerating universe ideas. X-ray observations of supermassive Black Holes provide further indications of a higher speed of light. Observations of early galaxy clusters (Blanchard) via X-rays will also shed light on “dark energy.” Since Space/Time leads to predictions not epicycles, theory should be considered as an alternative to more cumbersome ideas.

Other news: Queen Mary 2 entered San Francisco's Golden Gate for the first time yesterday. The Queen has gained fans, for every viewing spot was jammed. The best place for ship-spotting is the bridge walkway, where you can see a ship slide beneath you like a Stardestroyer. More cruise pictures coming soon!

Sunday, February 04, 2007

OC Sunset

Beautiful Newport Beach in Orange County, California is backdrop for the "OC" television series. That cute little craft at the dock is rented from Duffy Electric Boat Company. You may pilot your own non-polluting cruise around the harbour. Last week Newport Beach was also the setting of a Beyond Einstein meeting. Many scientists were in attendance, including Ned Wright, Kip Thorne, and George Ellis.

Our talks were limited to 5 minutes. Thanks to NASA's Beyond Einstein Program, this writer has enjoyed great benefits. My little presence seems to scare people, for a changing speed of light is not popular with this crowd. Belief in "dark energy" will mean funding for many researchers--that's what they think.

As Steinn Siggurdson has written, the Beyond Einstein Program will shortly have to choose which one of 5 planned Space missions will go up. These meetings are being held around the US to hear input from the physics community. Proponents of Constellation-X, a Joint Dark Energy Mission and others live in fear that their project will be deferred another decade.

Monday February 5 at 1300 EST will be a news conference concerning NASA's budget. After a vote by the US House of Representatives January 31 the NSF, DOE and NIST budgets will grow but NASA's budget will not. To pay for the Vision and close down the Shuttle programme, something has to be cut. Beyond Einstein is the sort of programme that would be on the chopping block, and the Space Interferometry Mission is also endangered.

Some of you out there may consider promoting "dark energy." If you do, you will live your life in fear of being exposed and losing your funding. If a Joint Dark Energy Mission is funded, Robert Kirshner says you will spend the next 10 years of your life in meetings instead of doing science. Long before a Dark Energy mission flies, there will be enough data to prove that DE doesn't exist.

One nice thing about the Dark Side of the Force--black leather clothes!

Saturday, February 03, 2007

Astronaut Farmer

One advantage of visiting California is invitations to movie previews. During the runup to the Screen Actors Guild awards, movies are free to someone with SAG membership. THE ASTRONAUT FARMER is a good-natured movie with Billy Bob Thornton as a man building an Atlas rocket in his barn. This would be a big project for a homebuilt, but maybe he found some used Atlases in the junkyard. Look for Bruce Willis in an uncredited role.

A few minor technical errors: When we first see the rocket it looks too short, probably due to the limitations of the soundstage. I think Astronaut Farmer sees this too. By the time the rocket becomes a special effect the length has been corrected. The views of Earth are incorrect for low Earth orbit, but we shouldn't let nitpicking interfere with our enjoyment.

The movie rocket is shown standing upright without fuel. To save weight, the original Atlas hull doubled as its fuel tank. It was built of steel so thin that a knife could have punctured it. Only with the pressure of fuel could Atlas stand erect without collapsing. This pressure-stabilised structure gave Atlas a mass fraction big enough to reach orbit.

The movie rocket ends up being fueled by kerosene, somewhat similiar to the RP-1 of the original Atlas. The spacecraft returns to Earth on a very small parachute. It lands on the ground in the continental US, as Orion spacecraft are planned to. The Atlas V that Lockeheed and others are developing is a direct descendant.

The new heroes of Space movies are private citizens. In movies from ARMAGEDDON to SPACE COWBOYS the NASA astronauts are portrayed as unbearable twits. The "ordinary people" always save the day. Private spaceflight has garnered more publicity than NASA. Everyone identifies with the private citizen going into Space. This cute movie opens February 23.

NEXT: What I was really doing in Southern California
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