Tag Archives: astrophysics

The physics of the multiverse of madness

The Dr. Strange movie (Dr. Strange in the Multiverse of Madness released May 6, 2022) has inspired an essay on physics. From a May 9, 2022 news item on phys.org

If you’re a fan of science fiction films, you’ll likely be familiar with the idea of alternate universes—hypothetical planes of existence with different versions of ourselves. As far from reality as it sounds, it is a question that scientists have contemplated. So just how well does the fiction stack up with the science?

The many-worlds interpretation is one idea in physics that supports the concept of multiple universes existing. It stems from the way we comprehend quantum mechanics, which defy the rules of our regular world. While it’s impossible to test and is considered an interpretation rather than a scientific theory, many physicists think it could be possible.

“When you look at the regular world, things are measurable and predictable—if you drop a ball off a roof, it will fall to the ground. But when you look on a very small scale in quantum mechanics, the rules stop applying. Instead of being predictable, it becomes about probabilities,” says Sarah Martell, Associate Professor at the School of Physics, UNSW Science.

A May 9, 2022 University of New South Wales (UNSW; Australia) press release originated the news item,

The fundamental quantum equation – called a wave function – shows a particle inhabiting many possible positions, with different probabilities assigned to each. If you were to attempt to observe the particle to determine its position – known in physics as ‘collapsing’ the wave function – you’ll find it in just one place. But the particle actually inhabits all the positions allowed by the wave function.

This interpretation of quantum mechanics is important, as it helps explain some of the quantum paradoxes that logic can’t answer, like why a particle can be in two places at once. While it might seem impossible to us, since we experience time and space as fixed, mathematically it adds up.

“When you make a measurement in quantum physics, you’re only measuring one of the possibilities. We can work with that mathematically, but it’s philosophically uncomfortable that the world stops being predictable,” A/Prof. Martell says.

“If you don’t get hung up on the philosophy, you simply move on with your physics. But what if the other possibility were true? That’s where this idea of the multiverse comes in.”

The quantum multiverse

Like it is depicted in many science fiction films, the many-worlds interpretation suggests our reality is just one of many. The universe supposedly splits or branches into other universes any time we take action – whether it’s a molecule moving, what you decide to eat or your choice of career. 

In physics, this is best explained through the thought experiment of Schrodinger’s cat. In the many-worlds interpretation, when the box is opened, the observer and the possibly alive cat split into an observer looking at a box with a deceased cat and one looking at a box with a live cat.

“A version of you measures one result, and a version of you measures the other result. That way, you don’t have to explain why a particular probability resulted. It’s just everything that could happen, does happen, somewhere,” A/Prof. Martell says.

“This is the logic often depicted in science fiction, like Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, where five different Spider-Man exist in different universes based on the idea there was a different event that set up each one’s progress and timeline.”

This interpretation suggests that our decisions in this universe have implications for other versions of ourselves living in parallel worlds. But what about the possibility of interacting with these hypothetical alternate universes?

According to the many-worlds interpretation, humans wouldn’t be able to interact with parallel universes as they do in films – although science fiction has creative licence to do so.

“It’s a device used all the time in comic books, but it’s not something that physics would have anything to say about,” A/Prof. Martell says. “But I love science fiction for the creativity and the way that little science facts can become the motivation for a character or the essential crisis in a story with characters like Doctor Strange.”

“If for nothing else, science fiction can help make science more accessible, and the more we get people talking about science, the better,” A/Prof. Martell says.

“I think we do ourselves a lot of good by putting hooks out there that people can grab. So, if we can get people interested in science through popular culture, they’ll be more interested in the science we do.” 

The university also offers a course as this October 6, 2020 UNSW press release reveals,

From the morality plays in Star Trek, to the grim futures in Black Mirror, fiction can help explore our hopes – and fears – of the role science might play in our futures.

But sci-fi can be more than just a source of entertainment. When fiction gets the science right (or right enough), sci-fi can also be used to make science accessible to broader audiences. 

“Sci-fi can help relate science and technology to the lived human experience,” says Dr Maria Cunningham, a radio astronomer and senior lecturer in UNSW Science’s School of Physics. 

“Storytelling can make complex theories easier to visualise, understand and remember.”

Dr Cunningham – a sci-fi fan herself – convenes ‘Brave New World’: a course on science fact and fiction aimed at students from a non-scientific background. The course explores the relationship between literature, science, and society, using case studies like Futurama and MacGyver.

She says her own interest in sci-fi long predates her career in science.

“Fiction can help get people interested in science – sometimes without them even knowing it,” says Dr Cunningham.

“Sci-fi has the potential to increase the science literacy of the general population.”

Here, Dr Cunningham shares three tricky physics concepts best explained through science fiction (spoilers ahead).

Cunningham goes on to discuss the Universal Speed Limit, Time Dilation, and, yes, the Many Worlds Interpretation.

The course, “Brave New World: Science Fiction, Science Fact and the Future – GENS4015” is still offered but do check the link to make sure it takes you to the latest version (I found 2023). One more thing, it is offered wholly on the internet.

Jean-Pierre Luminet awarded UNESCO’s Kalinga prize for Popularizing Science

Before getting to the news about Jean-Pierre Luminet, astrophysicist, poet, sculptor, and more, there’s the prize itself.

Established in 1951, a scant five years after UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization) was founded in 1945, the Kalinga Prize for the Popularization of Science is the organization’s oldest prize. Here’s more from the UNESCO Kalinga Prize for the Popularization of Science webpage,

The UNESCO Kalinga Prize for the Popularization of Science is an international award to reward exceptional contributions made by individuals in communicating science to society and promoting the popularization of science. It is awarded to persons who have had a distinguished career as writer, editor, lecturer, radio, television, or web programme director, or film producer in helping interpret science, research and technology to the public. UNESCO Kalinga Prize winners know the potential power of science, technology, and research in improving public welfare, enriching the cultural heritage of nations and providing solutions to societal problems on the local, regional and global level.

The UNESCO Kalinga Prize for the Popularization of Science is UNESCO’s oldest prize, created in 1951 following a donation from Mr Bijoyanand Patnaik, Founder and President of the Kalinga Foundation(link is external) Trust in India. Today, the Prize is funded by the Kalinga Foundation Trust(link is external), the Government of the State of Orissa, India(link is external), and the Government of India (Department of Science and Technology(link is external)).

Jean-Pierre Luminet

From the November 4, 2021 UNESCO press release (also received via email),

French scientist and author Jean-Pierre Luminet will be awarded the 2021 UNESCO Kalinga Prize for the Popularization of Science. The prize-giving ceremony will take place online on 5 November as part of the celebration of World Science Day for Peace and Development.

An independent international jury selected Jean-Pierre Luminet recognizing his longstanding commitment to the popularization of science. Mr Luminet is a distinguished astrophysicist and cosmologist who has been promoting the values of scientific research through a wide variety of media: he has created popular science books and novels, beautifully illustrated exhibition catalogues, poetry, audiovisual materials for children and documentaries, notably “Du Big Bang au vivant” with Hubert Reeves. He is also an artist, engraver and sculptor and has collaborated with composers on musicals inspired by the sounds of the Universe.

His publications are model examples for communicating science to the public. Their scientific content is precise, rigorous and always state-of-the-art. He has written seven “scientific novels”, including “Le Secret de Copernic”, published in 2006. His recent book “Le destin de l’univers : trous noirs et énergie sombre”, about black holes and dark energy, was written for the general public and was praised for its outstanding scientific, historical, and literary qualities. Jean-Pierre Luminet’s work has been translated into a many languages including Chinese and Korean.

There is a page for Luminet in both the French language and English language wikipedias. If you have the language skills, you might want to check out the French language essay as I found it to be more stylishly written.


De par ses activités de poète, essayiste, romancier et scénariste, dans une œuvre voulant lier science, histoire, musique et art, il est également Officier des Arts et des Lettres.


… Luminet has written fifteen science books,[4] seven historical novels,[4] TV documentaries,[5] and six poetry collections. He is an artist, an engraver, a sculptor, and a musician.

My rough translation of the French,

As a poet, essayaist, novelist, and a screenwriter in a body of work that brings together science, history, music and art, he is truly someone who has enriched the French cultural inheritance (which is what it means to be an Officer of Arts and Letters or Officier des Arts et des Lettres; see English language entry for Ordre des Arts et des Lettres).

In any event, congratulations to M. Luminet.

Loop quantum cosmology connects the tiniest with the biggest in a cosmic tango

Caption: Tiny quantum fluctuations in the early universe explain two major mysteries about the large-scale structure of the universe, in a cosmic tango of the very small and the very large. A new study by researchers at Penn State used the theory of quantum loop gravity to account for these mysteries, which Einstein’s theory of general relativity considers anomalous.. Credit: Dani Zemba, Penn State

A July 29, 2020 news item on ScienceDaily announces a study showing that quantum loop cosmology can account for some large-scale mysteries,

While [1] Einstein’s theory of general relativity can explain a large array of fascinating astrophysical and cosmological phenomena, some aspects of the properties of the universe at the largest-scales remain a mystery. A new study using loop quantum cosmology — a theory that uses quantum mechanics to extend gravitational physics beyond Einstein’s theory of general relativity — accounts for two major mysteries. While the differences in the theories occur at the tiniest of scales — much smaller than even a proton — they have consequences at the largest of accessible scales in the universe. The study, which appears online July 29 [2020] in the journal Physical Review Letters, also provides new predictions about the universe that future satellite missions could test.

A July 29, 2020 Pennsylvania State University (Penn State) news release (also on EurekAlert) by Gail McCormick, which originated the news item, describes how this work helped us avoid a crisis in cosmology,

While [2] a zoomed-out picture of the universe looks fairly uniform, it does have a large-scale structure, for example because galaxies and dark matter are not uniformly distributed throughout the universe. The origin of this structure has been traced back to the tiny inhomogeneities observed in the Cosmic Microwave Background (CMB)–radiation that was emitted when the universe was 380 thousand years young that we can still see today. But the CMB itself has three puzzling features that are considered anomalies because they are difficult to explain using known physics.

“While [3] seeing one of these anomalies may not be that statistically remarkable, seeing two or more together suggests we live in an exceptional universe,” said Donghui Jeong, associate professor of astronomy and astrophysics at Penn State and an author of the paper. “A recent study in the journal Nature Astronomy proposed an explanation for one of these anomalies that raised so many additional concerns, they flagged a ‘possible crisis in cosmology‘ [emphasis mine].’ Using quantum loop cosmology, however, we have resolved two of these anomalies naturally, avoiding that potential crisis.”

Research over the last three decades has greatly improved our understanding of the early universe, including how the inhomogeneities in the CMB were produced in the first place. These inhomogeneities are a result of inevitable quantum fluctuations in the early universe. During a highly accelerated phase of expansion at very early times–known as inflation–these primordial, miniscule fluctuations were stretched under gravity’s influence and seeded the observed inhomogeneities in the CMB.

“To understand how primordial seeds arose, we need a closer look at the early universe, where Einstein’s theory of general relativity breaks down,” said Abhay Ashtekar, Evan Pugh Professor of Physics, holder of the Eberly Family Chair in Physics, and director of the Penn State Institute for Gravitation and the Cosmos. “The standard inflationary paradigm based on general relativity treats space time as a smooth continuum. Consider a shirt that appears like a two-dimensional surface, but on closer inspection you can see that it is woven by densely packed one-dimensional threads. In this way, the fabric of space time is really woven by quantum threads. In accounting for these threads, loop quantum cosmology allows us to go beyond the continuum described by general relativity where Einstein’s physics breaks down–for example beyond the Big Bang.”

The researchers’ previous investigation into the early universe replaced the idea of a Big Bang singularity, where the universe emerged from nothing, with the Big Bounce, where the current expanding universe emerged from a super-compressed mass that was created when the universe contracted in its preceding phase. They found that all of the large-scale structures of the universe accounted for by general relativity are equally explained by inflation after this Big Bounce using equations of loop quantum cosmology.

In the new study, the researchers determined that inflation under loop quantum cosmology also resolves two of the major anomalies that appear under general relativity.

“The primordial fluctuations we are talking about occur at the incredibly small Planck scale,” said Brajesh Gupt, a postdoctoral researcher at Penn State at the time of the research and currently at the Texas Advanced Computing Center of the University of Texas at Austin. “A Planck length is about 20 orders of magnitude smaller than the radius of a proton. But corrections to inflation at this unimaginably small scale simultaneously explain two of the anomalies at the largest scales in the universe, in a cosmic tango of the very small and the very large.”

The researchers also produced new predictions about a fundamental cosmological parameter and primordial gravitational waves that could be tested during future satellite missions, including LiteBird and Cosmic Origins Explorer, which will continue improve our understanding of the early universe.

That’s a lot of ‘while’. I’ve done this sort of thing, too, and whenever I come across it later; it’s painful.

Here’s a link to and a citation for the paper,

Alleviating the Tension in the Cosmic Microwave Background Using Planck-Scale Physics by Abhay Ashtekar, Brajesh Gupt, Donghui Jeong, and V. Sreenath. Phys. Rev. Lett. 125, 051302 DOI: https://doi.org/10.1103/PhysRevLett.125.051302 Published 29 July 2020 © 2020 American Physical Society

This paper is behind a paywall.

My name is Steve and I’m a sub auroral ion drift

Photo: The Aurora Named STEVE Couresty: NASA Goddard

That stunning image is one of a series, many of which were taken by amateur photographers as noted in a March 14, 2018 US National Aeronautics and Space Agency (NASA)/Goddard Space Flight Center news release (also on EurekAlert) by Kasha Patel about how STEVE was discovered,

Notanee Bourassa knew that what he was seeing in the night sky was not normal. Bourassa, an IT technician in Regina, Canada, trekked outside of his home on July 25, 2016, around midnight with his two younger children to show them a beautiful moving light display in the sky — an aurora borealis. He often sky gazes until the early hours of the morning to photograph the aurora with his Nikon camera, but this was his first expedition with his children. When a thin purple ribbon of light appeared and starting glowing, Bourassa immediately snapped pictures until the light particles disappeared 20 minutes later. Having watched the northern lights for almost 30 years since he was a teenager, he knew this wasn’t an aurora. It was something else.

From 2015 to 2016, citizen scientists — people like Bourassa who are excited about a science field but don’t necessarily have a formal educational background — shared 30 reports of these mysterious lights in online forums and with a team of scientists that run a project called Aurorasaurus. The citizen science project, funded by NASA and the National Science Foundation, tracks the aurora borealis through user-submitted reports and tweets.

The Aurorasaurus team, led by Liz MacDonald, a space scientist at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, conferred to determine the identity of this mysterious phenomenon. MacDonald and her colleague Eric Donovan at the University of Calgary in Canada talked with the main contributors of these images, amateur photographers in a Facebook group called Alberta Aurora Chasers, which included Bourassa and lead administrator Chris Ratzlaff. Ratzlaff gave the phenomenon a fun, new name, Steve, and it stuck.

But people still didn’t know what it was.

Scientists’ understanding of Steve changed that night Bourassa snapped his pictures. Bourassa wasn’t the only one observing Steve. Ground-based cameras called all-sky cameras, run by the University of Calgary and University of California, Berkeley, took pictures of large areas of the sky and captured Steve and the auroral display far to the north. From space, ESA’s (the European Space Agency) Swarm satellite just happened to be passing over the exact area at the same time and documented Steve.

For the first time, scientists had ground and satellite views of Steve. Scientists have now learned, despite its ordinary name, that Steve may be an extraordinary puzzle piece in painting a better picture of how Earth’s magnetic fields function and interact with charged particles in space. The findings are published in a study released today in Science Advances.

“This is a light display that we can observe over thousands of kilometers from the ground,” said MacDonald. “It corresponds to something happening way out in space. Gathering more data points on STEVE will help us understand more about its behavior and its influence on space weather.”

The study highlights one key quality of Steve: Steve is not a normal aurora. Auroras occur globally in an oval shape, last hours and appear primarily in greens, blues and reds. Citizen science reports showed Steve is purple with a green picket fence structure that waves. It is a line with a beginning and end. People have observed Steve for 20 minutes to 1 hour before it disappears.

If anything, auroras and Steve are different flavors of an ice cream, said MacDonald. They are both created in generally the same way: Charged particles from the Sun interact with Earth’s magnetic field lines.

The uniqueness of Steve is in the details. While Steve goes through the same large-scale creation process as an aurora, it travels along different magnetic field lines than the aurora. All-sky cameras showed that Steve appears at much lower latitudes. That means the charged particles that create Steve connect to magnetic field lines that are closer to Earth’s equator, hence why Steve is often seen in southern Canada.

Perhaps the biggest surprise about Steve appeared in the satellite data. The data showed that Steve comprises a fast moving stream of extremely hot particles called a sub auroral ion drift, or SAID. Scientists have studied SAIDs since the 1970s but never knew there was an accompanying visual effect. The Swarm satellite recorded information on the charged particles’ speeds and temperatures, but does not have an imager aboard.

“People have studied a lot of SAIDs, but we never knew it had a visible light. Now our cameras are sensitive enough to pick it up and people’s eyes and intellect were critical in noticing its importance,” said Donovan, a co-author of the study. Donovan led the all-sky camera network and his Calgary colleagues lead the electric field instruments on the Swarm satellite.

Steve is an important discovery because of its location in the sub auroral zone, an area of lower latitude than where most auroras appear that is not well researched. For one, with this discovery, scientists now know there are unknown chemical processes taking place in the sub auroral zone that can lead to this light emission.

Second, Steve consistently appears in the presence of auroras, which usually occur at a higher latitude area called the auroral zone. That means there is something happening in near-Earth space that leads to both an aurora and Steve. Steve might be the only visual clue that exists to show a chemical or physical connection between the higher latitude auroral zone and lower latitude sub auroral zone, said MacDonald.

“Steve can help us understand how the chemical and physical processes in Earth’s upper atmosphere can sometimes have local noticeable effects in lower parts of Earth’s atmosphere,” said MacDonald. “This provides good insight on how Earth’s system works as a whole.”

The team can learn a lot about Steve with additional ground and satellite reports, but recording Steve from the ground and space simultaneously is a rare occurrence. Each Swarm satellite orbits Earth every 90 minutes and Steve only lasts up to an hour in a specific area. If the satellite misses Steve as it circles Earth, Steve will probably be gone by the time that same satellite crosses the spot again.

In the end, capturing Steve becomes a game of perseverance and probability.

“It is my hope that with our timely reporting of sightings, researchers can study the data so we can together unravel the mystery of Steve’s origin, creation, physics and sporadic nature,” said Bourassa. “This is exciting because the more I learn about it, the more questions I have.”

As for the name “Steve” given by the citizen scientists? The team is keeping it as an homage to its initial name and discoverers. But now it is STEVE, short for Strong Thermal Emission Velocity Enhancement.

Other collaborators on this work are: the University of Calgary, New Mexico Consortium, Boston University, Lancaster University, Athabasca University, Los Alamos National Laboratory and the Alberta Aurora Chasers Facebook group.

If you live in an area where you may see STEVE or an aurora, submit your pictures and reports to Aurorasaurus through aurorasaurus.org or the free iOS and Android mobile apps. To learn how to spot STEVE, click here.

There is a video with MacDonald describing the work and featuring more images,

Katherine Kornei’s March 14, 2018 article for sciencemag.org adds more detail about the work,

Citizen scientists first began posting about Steve on social media several years ago. Across New Zealand, Canada, the United States, and the United Kingdom, they reported an unusual sight in the night sky: a purplish line that arced across the heavens for about an hour at a time, visible at lower latitudes than classical aurorae, mostly in the spring and fall. … “It’s similar to a contrail but doesn’t disperse,” says Notanee Bourassa, an aurora photographer in Saskatchewan province in Canada [Regina as mentioned in the news release is the capital of the province of Saskatchewan].

Traditional aurorae are often green, because oxygen atoms present in Earth’s atmosphere emit that color light when they’re bombarded by charged particles trapped in Earth’s magnetic field. They also appear as a diffuse glow—rather than a distinct line—on the northern or southern horizon. Without a scientific theory to explain the new sight, a group of citizen scientists led by aurora enthusiast Chris Ratzlaff of Canada’s Alberta province [usually referred to as Canada’s province of Alberta or simply, the province of Alberta] playfully dubbed it Steve, after a line in the 2006 children’s movie Over the Hedge.

Aurorae have been studied for decades, but people may have missed Steve because their cameras weren’t sensitive enough, says Elizabeth MacDonald, a space physicist at NASA Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, and leader of the new research. MacDonald and her team have used data from a European satellite called Swarm-A to study Steve in its native environment, about 200 kilometers up in the atmosphere. Swarm-A’s instruments revealed that the charged particles in Steve had a temperature of about 6000°C, “impressively hot” compared with the nearby atmosphere, MacDonald says. And those ions were flowing from east to west at nearly 6 kilometers per second, …

Here’s a link to and a citation for the paper,

New science in plain sight: Citizen scientists lead to the discovery of optical structure in the upper atmosphere by Elizabeth A. MacDonald, Eric Donovan, Yukitoshi Nishimura, Nathan A. Case, D. Megan Gillies, Bea Gallardo-Lacourt, William E. Archer, Emma L. Spanswick, Notanee Bourassa, Martin Connors, Matthew Heavner, Brian Jackel, Burcu Kosar, David J. Knudsen, Chris Ratzlaff, and Ian Schofield. Science Advances 14 Mar 2018:
Vol. 4, no. 3, eaaq0030 DOI: 10.1126/sciadv.aaq0030

This paper is open access. You’ll note that Notanee Bourassa is listed as an author. For more about Bourassa, there’s his Twitter feed (@DJHardwired) and his YouTube Channel. BTW, his Twitter bio notes that he’s “Recently heartbroken,” as well as, “Seasoned human male. Expert storm chaser, aurora photographer, drone flyer and on-air FM radio DJ.” Make of that what you will.

Sounding out the TRAPPIST-1 planetary system

It’s been a while since a data sonification story has come this way. Like my first posting on the topic (Feb. 7, 2014) this is another astrophysics ‘piece of music’. From the University of Toronto (Canada) and Thought Café (a Canadian animation studio),

For those who’d like a little text, here’s more from a May 10, 2017 University of Toronto news release (also on EurekAlert) by Don Campbell,

When NASA announced its discovery of the TRAPPIST-1 system back in February [2017] it caused quite a stir, and with good reason. Three of its seven Earth-sized planets lay in the star’s habitable zone, meaning they may harbour suitable conditions for life.

But one of the major puzzles from the original research describing the system was that it seemed to be unstable.

“If you simulate the system, the planets start crashing into one another in less than a million years,” says Dan Tamayo, a postdoc at U of T Scarborough’s Centre for Planetary Science.

“This may seem like a long time, but it’s really just an astronomical blink of an eye. It would be very lucky for us to discover TRAPPIST-1 right before it fell apart, so there must be a reason why it remains stable.”

Tamayo and his colleagues seem to have found a reason why. In research published in the journal Astrophysical Journal Letters, they describe the planets in the TRAPPIST-1 system as being in something called a “resonant chain” that can strongly stabilize the system.

In resonant configurations, planets’ orbital periods form ratios of whole numbers. It’s a very technical principle, but a good example is how Neptune orbits the Sun three times in the amount of time it takes Pluto to orbit twice. This is a good thing for Pluto because otherwise it wouldn’t exist. Since the two planets’ orbits intersect, if things were random they would collide, but because of resonance, the locations of the planets relative to one another keeps repeating.

“There’s a rhythmic repeating pattern that ensures the system remains stable over a long period of time,” says Matt Russo, a post-doc at the Canadian Institute for Theoretical Astrophysics (CITA) who has been working on creative ways to visualize the system.

TRAPPIST-1 takes this principle to a whole other level with all seven planets being in a chain of resonances. To illustrate this remarkable configuration, Tamayo, Russo and colleague Andrew Santaguida created an animation in which the planets play a piano note every time they pass in front of their host star, and a drum beat every time a planet overtakes its nearest neighbour.

Because the planets’ periods are simple ratios of each other, their motion creates a steady repeating pattern that is similar to how we play music. Simple frequency ratios are also what makes two notes sound pleasing when played together.

Speeding up the planets’ orbital frequencies into the human hearing range produces an astrophysical symphony of sorts, but one that’s playing out more than 40 light years away.

“Most planetary systems are like bands of amateur musicians playing their parts at different speeds,” says Russo. “TRAPPIST-1 is different; it’s a super-group with all seven members synchronizing their parts in nearly perfect time.”

But even synchronized orbits don’t necessarily survive very long, notes Tamayo. For technical reasons, chaos theory also requires precise orbital alignments to ensure systems remain stable. This can explain why the simulations done in the original discovery paper quickly resulted in the planets colliding with one another.

“It’s not that the system is doomed, it’s that stable configurations are very exact,” he says. “We can’t measure all the orbital parameters well enough at the moment, so the simulated systems kept resulting in collisions because the setups weren’t precise.”

In order to overcome this Tamayo and his team looked at the system not as it is today, but how it may have originally formed. When the system was being born out of a disk of gas, the planets should have migrated relative to one another, allowing the system to naturally settle into a stable resonant configuration.

“This means that early on, each planet’s orbit was tuned to make it harmonious with its neighbours, in the same way that instruments are tuned by a band before it begins to play,” says Russo. “That’s why the animation produces such beautiful music.”

The team tested the simulations using the supercomputing cluster at the Canadian Institute for Theoretical Astrophysics (CITA) and found that the majority they generated remained stable for as long as they could possibly run it. This was about 100 times longer than it took for the simulations in the original research paper describing TRAPPIST-1 to go berserk.

“It seems somehow poetic that this special configuration that can generate such remarkable music can also be responsible for the system surviving to the present day,” says Tamayo.

Here’s a link to and a citation for the paper,

Convergent Migration Renders TRAPPIST-1 Long-lived by Daniel Tamayo, Hanno Rein, Cristobal Petrovich, and Norman Murray. The Astrophysical Journal Letters, Volume 840, Number 2 https://doi.org/10.5281/zenodo.496153 Published 2017 May 10

© 2017. The American Astronomical Society. All rights reserved.

This paper is open access.

Planets beyond the solar system at Vancouver’s (Canada) Nov. 25, 2014* Café Scientifique

Vancouver’s next Café Scientifique is being held in the back room of the The Railway Club (2nd floor of 579 Dunsmuir St. [at Seymour St.], Vancouver, Canada), on Nov. 25,  2014. Here’s the meeting description (from the Nov. 17, 2014 announcement),

… Our speaker for the evening will be Dr. Aaron Boley. The title of his talk is:

More Than Science Fiction: Planets beyond the Solar System

For centuries we have relied on only the Solar System for understanding our origins. To dream of distant worlds was a mixture of reasoning, conjecture, and science fiction. Now, thousands of planets have been discovered outside of the Solar System, and we continue to learn more about the Solar System itself. In this talk, we will explore the wide variety of planetary systems that have so far been observed in the Galaxy. These new worlds, both alien and familiar, challenge our theories, but also give us new information for unlocking planet formation’s secrets.

You can find out more about Dr. Aaron Boley, astrophysicist, on his eponymous website where you’ll also find a link to Simulation movies such as this,

 Uploaded on Oct 27, 2010

The protoplanetary disk around a young, isolated star evolves over 16,000 years. Bright, dense spiral arms of gas and dust gradually develop and then collapse into denser clumps that could form planets. NCSA/NASA/A. Boley (Univ. of Florida)

* The event date in the headline was corrected to read: Nov. 25, 2014.

Canada’s ‘nano’satellites to gaze upon luminous stars

The launch (from Yasny, Russia) of two car battery-sized satellites happened on June 18, 2014 at 15:11:11 Eastern Daylight Time according to a June 18, 2014 University of Montreal (Université de Montréal) news release (also on EurekAlert).

Together, the satellites are known as the BRITE-Constellation, standing for BRIght Target Explorer. “BRITE-Constellation will monitor for long stretches of time the brightness and colour variations of most of the brightest stars visible to the eye in the night sky. These stars include some of the most massive and luminous stars in the Galaxy, many of which are precursors to supernova explosions. This project will contribute to unprecedented advances in our understanding of such stars and the life cycles of the current and future generations of stars,” said Professor Moffat [Anthony Moffat, of the University of Montreal and the Centre for Research in Astrophysics of Quebec], who is the scientific mission lead for the Canadian contribution to BRITE and current chair of the international executive science team.

Here’s what the satellites (BRITE-Constellatio) are looking for (from the news release),

Luminous stars dominate the ecology of the Universe. “During their relatively brief lives, massive luminous stars gradually eject enriched gas into the interstellar medium, adding heavy elements critical to the formation of future stars, terrestrial planets and organics. In their spectacular deaths as supernova explosions, massive stars violently inject even more crucial ingredients into the mix. The first generation of massive stars in the history of the Universe may have laid the imprint for all future stellar history,” Moffat explained. “Yet, massive stars – rapidly spinning and with radiation fields whose pressure resists gravity itself – are arguably the least understood, despite being the brightest members of the familiar constellations of the night sky.” Other less-massive stars, including stars similar to our own Sun, also contribute to the ecology of the Universe, but only at the end of their lives, when they brighten by factors of a thousand and shed off their tenuous outer layers.

BRITE-Constellation is both a multinational effort and a Canadian bi-provincial effort,

BRITE-Constellation is in fact a multinational effort that relies on pioneering Canadian space technology and a partnership with Austrian and Polish space researchers – the three countries act as equal partners. Canada’s participation was made possible thanks to an investment of $4.07 million by the Canadian Space Agency. The two new Canadian satellites are joining two Austrian satellites and a Polish satellite already in orbit; the final Polish satellite will be launched in August [2014?].

All six satellites were designed by the University of Toronto Institute for Aerospace Studies – Space Flight Laboratory, who also built the Canadian pair. The satellites were in fact named “BRITE Toronto” and “BRITE Montreal” after the University of Toronto and the University of Montreal, who play a major role in the mission.  “BRITE-Constellation will exploit and enhance recent Canadian advances in precise attitude control that have opened up for space science  the domain of very low cost, miniature spacecraft, allowing a scientific return that otherwise would have had price tags 10 to 100 times higher,” Moffat said. “This will actually be the first network of satellites devoted to a fundamental problem in astrophysics.”

Is it my imagination or is there a lot more Canada/Canadian being included in news releases from the academic community these days? In fact, I made a similar comment in my June 10, 2014 posting about TRIUMF, Canada’s National Laboratory for Particle and Nuclear Physics where I noted we might not need to honk our own horns quite so loudly.

One final comment, ‘nano’satellites have been launched before as per my Aug. 6, 2012 posting,

The nanosatellites referred to in the Aug.2, 2012 news release on EurekALert aren’t strictly speaking nano since they are measured in inches and weigh approximately eight pounds. I guess by comparison with a standard-sized satellite, CINEMA, one of 11 CubeSats, seems nano-sized. From the news release,

Eleven tiny satellites called CubeSats will accompany a spy satellite into Earth orbit on Friday, Aug. 3, inaugurating a new type of inexpensive, modular nanosatellite designed to piggyback aboard other NASA missions. [emphasis mine]

One of the 11 will be CINEMA (CubeSat for Ions, Neutrals, Electrons, & MAgnetic fields), an 8-pound, shoebox-sized package which was built over a period of three years by 45 students from the University of California, Berkeley, Kyung Hee University in Korea, Imperial College London, Inter-American University of Puerto Rico, and University of Puerto Rico, Mayaguez.

This 2012 project had a very different focus from this Austrian-Canadian-Polish effort. From the University of Montreal news release,

The nanosatellites will be able to explore a wide range of astrophysical questions. “The constellation could detect exoplanetary transits around other stars, putting our own planetary system in context, or the pulsations of red giants, which will enable us to test and refine our models regarding the eventual fate of our Sun,” Moffatt explained.

Good luck!

You say pants, I say underpants when it’s all about the scientific lingerie

I’d forgotten the Brits say pants where we Canucks say underpants, a type of linguistic confusion which can lead to crosscultural snafus, as it did for me this morning (Aug. 23, 2013) on reading Stuart Clark’s Guardian Science blog posting, Pants named after astronomer Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin (Note: Links have been removed),

You know that science communication has reached a whole new level when someone names a pair of women’s pants after an astronomer.

Today [August 23, 2013], internet-based retailer Who Made Your Pants? launches a line of women’s pants called Cecilia, named after Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin, the pioneering 20th century astronomer who explained the composition of the stars.

I’ve been an admirer of Payne’s achievements for a long time and couldn’t resist using her as a character in my novel The Day Without Yesterday.

She changed the face of astrophysics with her 1925 PhD thesis, in which she demonstrated that the sun was made almost exclusively from hydrogen and helium. Only 2% of its mass came from the other chemical elements, such as iron, oxygen and silicon.

Her name was chosen for the undergarment in a popular vote on the Who Made Your Pants? Facebook page. Customers were offered a choice between Cecilia, cell donor Henrietta Lacks and astronaut Sally Ride.

Becky John, who runs the company, and is also an organiser of the Winchester Science Festival says, “We will always name our pants after women who have been forgotten.”

Clark’s piece is amusing (he’s got a good punch line at the end) and informative and I recommend reading it.

As for Becky Johnson’s company,  Who Made Your Pants?, here’s a bit about the company from the About Us page,

Who Made Your Pants? is a campaigning lingerie brand based in Southampton, UK. We’re about two things – amazing pants, and amazing women.

We think that every day should be a good pants day, and that there should be a little bit of gorgeous under everyone’s clothes, something just for them. So we buy fabrics that have been sold on by big underwear companies at the end of season, stop them ending up as waste and turn them into gorgeous new pants that have a great start in life. They’re designed to sit flat under clothes, have no VPL [visible panty line], and be comfortable and all day fabulous.

We also think that it’s not really on for anyone to be made to work in bad conditions just for a cheap pair of pants. Who could feel lovely in something made in a bad place? So we make our pants in a great place. We’ve a little factory in Southampton where we create jobs for women who’ve had a hard time. The first job everyone learns is making the pants. We hope that all jobs within the business can be filled by the women as they gain skills though – if someone is interested in marketing, or finance, we’ll arrange training

When I first clicked through to the company website I was expecting to see what the Brits call trousers and found this instead,

Named for astronomer Cecilia Payne, our first side seamed shortie is made from smooth comfortable strecth fabrics and topped with reclaimed lace. A pretty lettuce edge hem finishes them off - and we can't wait to show you the next colours we have planned... [downloaded from http://www.whomadeyourpants.co.uk/pages/shop]

Named for astronomer Cecilia Payne, our first side seamed shortie is made from smooth comfortable strecth fabrics and topped with reclaimed lace. A pretty lettuce edge hem finishes them off – and we can’t wait to show you the next colours we have planned… [downloaded from http://www.whomadeyourpants.co.uk/pages/shop]

The company also has a ‘Rosalind’ as in a Rosalind Franklin pant,

Named for Rosalind Franklin, the higher cut shortie is based on a shape our designer saw and loved in Brazil. Smooth lycra or jersey is edged with reclaimed stretch lace for a stay put, no VPL, all day every day style. A great shape to show off gorgeous print fabrics [downloaded from http://www.whomadeyourpants.co.uk/pages/shop]

Named for Rosalind Franklin, the higher cut shortie is based on a shape our designer saw and loved in Brazil. Smooth lycra or jersey is edged with reclaimed stretch lace for a stay put, no VPL, all day every day style. A great shape to show off gorgeous print fabrics [downloaded from http://www.whomadeyourpants.co.uk/pages/shop]

It seems to be a ‘Rosalind Franklin’ week here as I embedded a rap created by a grade seven class for Tom McFadden’s Battle Rap Histories of Epic Science (Brahe’s Battles) about her in an Aug. 19, 2013 posting (scroll down to the end of the post for the video). For anyone not familiar with Rosalind Franklin and the controversy, here’s an essay about it and her on the San Diego Supercomputer Center website.

Glass bubbles on the moon contain nanoparticles

There’s something quite charming about this June 12, 2012 news item on Nanowerk,

A stunning discovery by Queensland University of Technology (QUT) soil scientist Marek Zbik of nano particles inside bubbles of glass in lunar soil could solve the mystery of why the moon’s surface topsoil has many unusual properties.

Dr Zbik, from Queensland University of Technology’s Science and Engineering Faculty, said scientists had long observed the strange behaviour of lunar soil but had not taken much notice of the nano and submicron particles found in the soil and their source was unknown.

Dr Zbik took the lunar soil samples to Taiwan where he could study the glass bubbles without breaking them using a new technique for studying nano materials call synchrotron-based nano tomography to look at the particles. Nano tomography is a transmission X-ray microscope which enables 3D images of nano particles to be made.

“We were really surprised at what we found,” Dr Zbik said.

“Instead of gas or vapour inside the bubbles, which we would expect to find in such bubbles on Earth, the lunar glass bubbles were filled with a highly porous network of alien-looking glassy particles that span the bubbles’ interior.

“It appears that the nano particles are formed inside bubbles of molten rocks when meteorites hit the lunar surface. Then they are released when the glass bubbles are pulverised by the consequent bombardment of meteorites on the moon’s surface.

“This continuous pulverising of rocks on the lunar surface and constant mixing develop a type of soil which is unknown on Earth.”

This video from the Queensland University of Technology is in 3-D (I believe this is the first I’ve hosted a 3-D video here),

Here’s more about this video and Zbik’s work from the YouTube page,

Discovery of possible source of the lunar regolith fine fraction from liberation of particles born within impact generated vesicles in the lunar impact glass. 3D image obtained using Transmission X-Ray Microscope (TXM), shown here as the anaglyph, reveals fine structure within vesicle in the lunar impact glass.
Marek S. Żbik, Yen-Fang Song, Chun-Chieh Wang, and Ray L. Frost, “Discovery of Discrete Structured Bubbles within Lunar Regolith Impact Glasses,” ISRN Astronomy and Astrophysics, (2012), Article ID 506187, 3 pages.

More details about the discovery can be found in the June 12, 2012 news item on Nanowerk or in the Queensland University of Technology June 12, 2012 news release,

“Lunar soil is electro-statically charged so it hovers above the surface; it is extremely chemically active; and it has low thermal conductivity eg it can be 160 degrees above the surface but -40 degrees two metres below the surface.

“It is also very sticky and brittle such that its particles wear the surface off metal and glass.”

I loved the video and watched it twice, all 17 secs. of it.

Carbon nanotubes the natural way; weaving carbon nanotubes into heaters; how designers think; robotic skin

Today I’ll be focusing, in a very mild way, on carbon nanotubes. First, a paper in Astrophysical Journal Letters (Feb. 2010 issue) titled, The Formation of Graphite Whiskers in the  Primitive Solar Nebula, is where an international team of scientists have shared an intriguing discovery about carbon nanotubes. From the news item on physorg.com,

Space apparently has its own recipe for making carbon nanotubes, one of the most intriguing contributions of nanotechnology here on Earth, and metals are conspicuously missing from the list of ingredients.

[Joesph] Nuth’s team [based at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center] describes the modest chemical reaction. Unlike current methods for producing carbon nanotubes—tiny yet strong structures with a range of applications in electronics and, ultimately, perhaps even medicine—the new approach does not need the aid of a metal catalyst. “Instead, nanotubes were produced when graphite dust particles were exposed to a mixture of carbon monoxide and hydrogen gases,” explains Nuth.

The structure of the carbon nanotubes produced in these experiments was determined by Yuki Kimura, a materials scientist at Tohoku University, Japan, who examined the samples under a powerful transmission electron microscope. He saw particles on which the original smooth graphite gradually morphed into an unstructured region and finally to an area rich in tangled hair-like masses. A closer look with an even more powerful microscope showed that these tendrils were in fact cup-stacked carbon nanotubes, which resemble a stack of Styrofoam cups with the bottoms cut out.

Since metals are used as catalysts for creating carbon nanotubes, this discovery hints at the possibility of a ‘greener’ process. In conjunction with the development at McGill (mentioned on this blog here) for making chemical reactions greener by using new nonmetallic catalysts, there may be some positive environmental impacts due to nanotechnology.

Meanwhile here on earth, there’s another new carbon nanotube development and this time it has to do with the material’s conductivity. From the news item on Nanowerk,

An interesting development using multifilament yarns is a new fabric heater made by weaving CNTEC® conductive yarns from Kuraray Living Co., Ltd. This fabric generates heat homogeneously all over the surface because of its outstanding conductivity and is supposed to be the first commercial use of Baytubes® CNTs from Bayer MaterialScience in the Japanese market.

The fabric heater is lightweight and thin, compact and shows a long-lasting bending resistance. It can be used for instance for car seats, household electrical appliances, for heating of clothes and as an anti-freezing material. Tests revealed that it may for example be installed in the water storage tank of JR Hokkaido’s “Ryuhyo-Norokko” train. Inside this train the temperature drops to around -20 °C in wintertime, because so far no heating devices other than potbelly stoves are available. According to JR Hokkaido railway company the fabric heater performed well in preventing the water from freezing. A seat heating application of the fabric heater is still on trial on another JR Hokkaido train line. It is anticipated that the aqueous dispersions might as well be suitable for the compounding of various kinds of materials.

I sometimes suspect that these kinds of nanotechnology-enabled applications are going to change the world in such a fashion that our ancestors (assuming we survive disasters) will be able to understand us only dimly. The closest analogy I have is with Chaucer. An English-speaker trying to read The Canterbury Tales in the language that Chaucer used to write, Middle English, needs to learn an unfamiliar language.

On a completely different topic, Cliff Kuang at Fast Company has written an item on designers and the Myer-Briggs personality test (industrial designer Michael Roller’s website with his data),

Designers love to debate about what personality type makes for the best designer. So Michael Roller took the extra step of getting a bunch of designers to take the Myers Briggs personality test, and published the results …

In other words, designers are less akin to the stereotypical touchy-feely artist, and more like engineers who always keep the big picture in mind.

This reminds me of a piece I wrote up on Kevin Dunbar (here) and his work investigating how scientists think. He came to the conclusion that when they use metaphors and analogies to describe their work to scientists in specialties not identical to their own, new insights and breakthroughs can occur. (Note: he takes a more nuanced approach than I’m able to use in a single, descriptive sentence.) What strikes me is that scientists often need to take a more ‘artistic and intuitive’ [my words] approach to convey information if they are to experience true breakthroughs.

My last bit is an item about more tactile robotic skin. From the news item on the Azonano website,

Peratech Limited, the leader in new materials designed for touch technology solutions, has announced that they have been commissioned by the MIT Media Lab to develop a new type of electronic ‘skin’ that enables robotic devices to detect not only that they have been touched but also where and how hard the touch was.

The key to the sensing technology is Peratech’s patented ‘QTC’ materials. QTC’s, or Quantum Tunnelling Composites, are a unique new material type which provides a measured response to force and/or touch by changing its electrical resistance – much as a dimmer light switch controls a light bulb. This enables a simple electronic circuit within the robot to determine touch. Being easily formed into unique shapes – including being ‘draped’ over an object much like a garment might, QTC’s provide a metaphor [emphasis mine] for how human skin works to detect touch.

Yes, I found another reference to metaphors although this metaphor is being used to convey information to a nontechnical audience. As for the ‘graphite whiskers’ in the title for the article which opened this posting, it is another metaphor and here, I suspect, it’s being used to describe something to other scientists who have specialties that are not identical to the researchers’ (as per Kevin Dunbar’s work).