Year in Cool – 2012

I’ve been MIA here, lately. Turns out, writing a research-heavy historical memoir is massively time-consuming. Who’d have thought?

However, there’s no way I’d miss our annual Year in Cool post, because writing this post is more fun than spending a day at Disneyland with the entire cast of The Avengers. Below are my ten favorite news stories of 2012 involving physics celebrities gone wild.

I’m totally kidding. They’re totally about physics. But I promise – this stuff is way cooler than celebrities gone wild. (Although to be honest, maybe not quite as cool as spending the day at Disneyland with Downey, Jr. and Hemsworth and Hiddleston. But they’ve all stopped returning my calls.)

Ladies and Gents…presenting.

1. SCIENCE FICTION, MINUS THE FICTION

Set your phasers to stunned – it’s about to get freaky in here.

Remember in Apollo 13, when the astronauts got stuck in space and had to jerry-rig things out of stuff they had on board, like duct tape and toilet paper rolls? Remember how it would have been really helpful if someone on Earth could’ve punched something into a computer and then a Star-Trekky “replicator” in space could’ve produced the items? Like a printer, only for three-dimensional objects?

Welcome to the twenty-first century, where we have such things.

This video shows a 3-D printer scanning a crescent wrench, then “printing” an actual, working crescent wrench with moving parts, out of a powder solidified with a binding material and resin.

I love it when the guy says that this company is “one of the world’s leading manufacturers of 3D printers.” As if the world is casually overflowing with companies that make 3D printers…a sci-fi technology that I heretofore didn’t even know existed.

Seriously – watch the video. It’s fan-freaking-tastic.


2. APPROACHING THE FINAL FRONTIER

Way back in 1977, NASA launched Voyager I and II, two small spacecraft originally designed to explore Jupiter and Saturn. Once they checked that off their lists, they kept going – and any time now, 35 years after we sent it into space (carrying a gold-plated audio/visual disc inscribed with voice greetings and music by Mozart and Chuck Berry), Voyager I is preparing to become the first man-made object to leave our solar system.

https://i0.wp.com/voyager.jpl.nasa.gov/mission/images/interstellar_1.gifThe spacecraft is currently some 11 billion miles from the Sun, inside the Heliosheath, an outer section of our solar system where winds from our Sun interact with outer space, creating 100 million-mile-wide bubbles in the “air.” Astonishingly, it still sends data back to Earth via radio waves. And sometime within the next year or so, Voyager I is expected to cross the Heliopause, the theoretical edge of our solar system, to take its place among the stars.

Voyager I is traveling at a speed of around 37,000 mph, and has enough nuclear power to propel itself until at least 2020. After that, it will drift forever, trillions of miles away, accompanied by its own perfect Motown soundtrack.

Go, Johnny, go.

3. HOW MUCH IS THAT SPACE-TIME ALL AKIMBO

But when will humans travel to the stars? Even at Voyager’s fast clip, it would take an exasperating 76,000 years to arrive at Alpha Centauri, our nearest star. Clearly, we’re gonna need a faster ship. Fortunately, we have some ideas.

https://i1.wp.com/img.gawkerassets.com/img/186idp39rpm13jpg/original.jpgIn 1994, a physicist named Alcubierre came up with a theory for moving a starship through space by putting it inside a chunk of space-time (created via a giant ring) and then moving the chunk of space-time faster than the speed of light. The starship itself would not be moving faster than the speed of light within the bubble, so it would not violate Einstein’s special theory of relativity.

The only fly in the theoretical ointment has been the amount of energy needed to power the ring containing the space-time bubble – it would take a ball of antimatter that’s 317 times the size of Earth. And as of now, antiparticles are rarely even found in the observable universe, only in radioactivity and cosmic rays.

But this September, at the annual 100-Year Starship Symposium (and how much do you love that we have such a thing?), researchers announced that by changing the shape of the ring, they’ve worked out a design that could be powered by only 500 kilograms of antimatter!

Never mind that 500 kilos of antimatter would be dangerous enough to destroy all life on Earth. Never mind that we don’t even technically know if the whole ring concept would actually work.

We’re inching ever closer, peeps.

4. HOLE-Y MOLEY

Since the 1980’s, astronomers have maintained that every large galaxy has a black hole at its center – an extremely dense chunk of space-time that allows nothing to escape, not even light.

In October, scientists announced they’d found not just one, but two black holes at the center of the Milky Way, each about 10-20 times larger than our Sun (and please remember: our Sun is the size of a million Earths.)

But hold on to your britches, because just last week, astronomers announced that within the smallish NGC 1277 galaxy, they’ve discovered a black hole that has a mass equal to 17 billion Suns.

http://www.dailygalaxy.com/.a/6a00d8341bf7f753ef015433ac9868970c-800wiThe bad news about these bad boys? They gobble up surrounding space matter like candy, and if you were to fall into one, your body would compress to a single point of infinite density. (Sounds kind of cool, except for the part where you wouldn’t survive.) The good news? Black holes are formed when stars explode from compression of their own gravity, and our Sun’s relatively weak gravity ensures that that’ll never happen to it. So yay! We’re far, far away from any black hole danger.

Well, unless we get that starship working.

5. YES, VIRGINIA, (WE’RE 5.9-SIGMA LEVEL SURE) THERE IS A HIGGS BOSON

In the last half of the 20th century, physicists created the “Standard Model,” a theory that explains the most basic building blocks of the universe. As far as I can tell, the theory includes 12 matter particles, 12 antiparticles, and 5 elementary bosons (force particles). For a long time, the elusive “Higgs” boson (or as I like to call it, the Scarlet Pimpernel boson) was the only one of the bunch that had never actually been seen.

Basically, so the theory goes, all other particles have to interact with an unobservable “Higgs” energy field in order to obtain mass (unless they’re photons, in which case they don’t care to have any mass whatsoever, much like Victoria Beckham, but I digress.)

The Higgs particle is interesting. It has no spin. It is its own antiparticle. It has no electric charge or color. And, oh yes, it decays almost instantly upon creation, which is why it’s almost impossible to detect.

Enter the Large Hadron Collider (about which I’ve already written.) This July, two groups of scientists, working independently, analyzed 800 trillion proton collisions within the LHC and found, bingo, a never-before-seen particle that is “consistent with a Higgs boson.”

In other words, they’re pretty pretty pretty sure they’ve found what they’re looking for.

6. CALL ME DATA

So, you know how computers store data in something called “bytes,” which consist of 8 “bits” (binary digits) of 1’s or 0’s, which is absolutely as far as my understanding of such things goes, so don’t ask me to explain any further, because it makes no sense to me how a computer can turn numbers into…other things.

Anyway, scientists have figured out how to store data (the 1’s and 0’s about which I’m unclear) in human DNA. To the tune of 700 terabytes (one trillion bytes, and please stop talking) per one gram of DNA.

https://cathylagrow.files.wordpress.com/2013/01/700terabytedna.jpg?w=300Conceivably, you could store text, pictures, and Javascript in your strands of DNA. So, 10,000 years from now, someone could dig up my bones and find out just what books Cathy was reading, which videos she was watching…heck, they could read this blog post. On (okay, in) my bones.

Of courses, we are decades away from practical applications for such technology. Still – human DNA as data storage space? I love that there are people smart enough to figure out how to do these things that I am not even smart enough to explain.

Speaking of not being smart enough…

7. DO YOU SEE WHAT I SEE?

Never before in history have I tried so hard to understand a technology. Never before have I so utterly failed.

In July, scientist announced that they had discovered a way to take pictures through opaque objects, using natural light instead of lasers (X-rays.) Meaning they can now take pictures from around corners.

https://i2.wp.com/www.extremetech.com/wp-content/uploads/2012/07/seeing-around-corners-diagram.jpgIn short, when you’re trying to look at an object but there is a barrier in the way (a piece of paper, skin, a wall), the barrier is interfering with the photon beams – changing their directions (in the case of something opaque), or changing their wavelengths (in the case of something semi-transparent.) The barrier is said to be “scattering” the beams.

Spatial Light Modulators correct the scattering, allowing you to see the image as it really is (for a jolly good tumble down the rabbit hole, google phases and sine waves and ha ha, have fun with that) by turning the barrier into a mirror. Or something.

I asked three of my smartest friends to help me decipher this technology. They each wrote back a beautiful essay on the subject. One of the explanations was so sweeping and elegant, I nearly wept with joy.

And it all still makes zero sense to me. But anyway: we’ve developed a camera that can see around corners. Super cool, yes?

8. DIAMONDS, DIAMONDS EVERYWHERE…

The largest diamond ever found on Earth was discovered in 1905 – the Cullinan Diamond, a whopping 3,106.75 carats. The biggest stone cut from the Cullinan, at 530.4 carats, is part of the Crown Jewels in London and is worth an estimated 400 million dollars.

Sounds impressive – but should we ever manage to get our grubby little hands on a certain Super Earth zooming around a star named 55 Cancri, even the Cullinan would be rendered worthless.

https://i0.wp.com/i.space.com/images/i/22659/iFF/55-cancri-e-diamond-planet.jpg55 Cancri e (yes, that’s the planet’s completely boring official name) is twice as big as Earth, but it’s a fast-moving behemoth – it orbits its Sun, a journey that takes us a full year, once every 18 hours! Two months ago, astronomers announced that this planet is likely a “carbon planet.” Meaning a third of it could be pure diamond.

Sadly, this impressive piece of bling is 40 light years away from us. (NOW do you see why we need that starship?)

A bone to pick. Could we please find a more interesting name for this beauty? I vote for Latin – Puellae Optimus Amicus. Rough translation: Girl’s Best Friend.

9. MARS DREAMING

On August 6, with millions of people (including me) watching live, NASA’s one-ton Curiosity rover landed safely on Mars, after completing an astonishing sequence of events that all had to occur automatically and perfectly within a seven minute timeframe in order to not have the $2.5 billion project, well, literally crash and burn.

Since then, Curiosity has been making geeks happy by driving around the surface of Mars taking photographs, conducting experiments, and generally being adorable. (It beamed a song – “Reach for the Stars” by will.i.am – back to Earth, and used the Foursquare mobile app to generate the first “check-in” from another planet! C’mon…does it get any cuter?)

https://i0.wp.com/upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/thumb/7/7d/Mars_atmosphere.jpg/220px-Mars_atmosphere.jpgHowever, Curiosity may soon be made obsolete by the appearance of – well, people on Mars. In 2010, the U.S. scrapped plans for another moon mission and instead authorized a 2030(ish) manned Mars mission. Not to be outdone, those renowned space experts the Dutch have spearheaded Mars One – a planned actual human colony on Mars which has a (wildly) optimistic target date of 2023.

Well, you can imagine how much all of this excites me. Although there is 0.00% chance of me going to Mars, myself…

10. SO YOU WANNA BE AN ASTRONAUT

I’ve already written about how no-way no-how could I ever go into space. (I’m a big fat scaredy-cat, etc.) The video below, complete with audio remastered by the folks who brought you Star Wars, lets you (sort-of) experience traveling out of our atmosphere on the Space Shuttle. Pay attention to the numbers on the upper right – that’s the shuttle’s speed in mph.

Note the heart-pounding force that pushes the shuttle off the launch pad. Note the amazing sounds of the rockets and the pierced-through atmosphere. Note how fast the shuttle is accelerating.

Note me soiling my pants like a little baby.

 

Huhns in Space

As you may have heard, that intrepid man-about-town Richard Branson has developed a spaceflight program for civilians, Virgin Galactic. Anyone who can cough up $200,000 is now eligible to venture into the great unknown. (The latest person to sign up was Ashton Kutcher. Don’t ask me; I have no idea.) (Side note: is anyone else concerned that nearly every member of VG’s official “Team” is touted as a leader of business or finance? Shouldn’t someone working on this program have, I don’t know, worn a space suit at some point in their lives?)

Anyway, you would think Virgin Galactic would be a perfect fit for my brothers and I, because even before we discovered we had an honest-to-God astronaut as a cousin (that’s him on the right, in the picture below), we were utterly transfixed by everything having to do with outer space. Astrophysics. The Final Frontier. Light years and black holes and strings, oh my.

And astronauts are frickin’ rock stars to us. Continue reading

Emmanuel

Last week, I purchased the Blu-ray edition of “Planet Earth.” We’d missed the series when it originally aired in the U.S. because at that time, I was still nursing my firstborn and was such a bleary, exhausted mess, the entire Ringling Brothers circus could have paraded through my living room and I wouldn’t have noticed.

But since my boys are out of diapers now, and since we’d recently acquired the prettiest TV on God’s green earth (a 47-inch LED) and a Blu-ray player, I figured this was the perfect time to view this series I’d heard so much about.

And, holy smokes.

After turning on the first episode, I found myself paralyzed, unable to tear my eyes from the screen. For the longest time I stood there, slack-jawed in the middle of the room, because I couldn’t glance down long enough to take a seat. For someone who’s developed a later-in-life love of all things science, this presentation is magical…breathtaking. I kid you not, it makes me weak in the knees.

Continue reading

When Dreams Don’t Come True

Presenting…my first-ever cameo guest post!

A few months ago, wanting to reference Sally Ride in a post I was writing, I Googled “first female U.S. astronaut” – only to discover that Sally Ride does not hold that distinction. And I stumbled upon a wonderful, heartbreaking story that I knew I wanted to write about.

My friend Tony Alicea has been running a series on his blog, called Awaken the Dreamers. When I approached him about writing a guest post for the series, featuring my newly-found story, Tony said, “Absolutely!”

Writing this post kicked me squarely out of my comfort zone. I do not usually write “devotional” posts, but I am so happy to be doing my first one for Tony. Please read it by clicking here.

I hope you like it.

Into the (Not So) Deep

Hollywood has a long and fruitful history of making disaster movies that feature large quantities of humans being wiped out by “off-planet” forces: asteroids, solar flares, aliens, and so forth. From Armageddon to Deep Impact to War of the Worlds to Independence Day, we eat this stuff up like candy.

So how many people in history have been killed by space matter or aliens?

None. (Well, there was a dog that was allegedly killed by a meteorite in Egypt in 1911. But the single eyewitness account was pretty sketchy, so the story is considered to be the Egyptian version of crop circles, or Bigfoot.)

How about people being killed by events originating from this volatile, molten planet we live on? Well, last year alone, the figure was over 250,000.

You’d think we would have examined this place a little more closely. Continue reading

We Are Who-ville

I used to think Planet Earth was a pretty big place. That was before I gained a little perspective.

A few months ago, my husband and I were driving to a friend’s house. While looking up at a streaky afternoon sky, I was jabbering on about how far away the moon was, since it was already visible. (I had only recently started reading up on the subject, and the whole thing was freaking me out, quite frankly.)

When I mentioned how big our galaxy is, my husband paused for a moment, then proclaimed, “We are Who-ville!”

And that’s a very good way to wrap your mind around it. Remember the book Horton Hears a Who by Dr. Seuss? Our Earth (which seems so very, very huge to us), is equivalent to a speck on a clover being carried around by an elephant on top of something else that is the size of our Earth.

Except, actually, we’re much, much smaller than that. Continue reading

Capturing the Final Frontier

If you aren’t bewitched, baffled, boondoggled, and bedazzled (okay, maybe not that last one) by outer space, then you haven’t been paying attention.

Here’s the story. Of a scope named Hubble.

(Stick with me. This gets fantastic.)

In 1923, a German physicist named Hermann Oberth speculated that it would be possible to send a telescope out into Earth’s orbit. More than two decades later, the American physicist Lyman Spitzer wrote a paper pushing for such an instrument. And nearly twenty years after that, Spitzer was put in charge of developing a plan for this space telescope. Continue reading