Category: Space & Physics

Did Voyager 1 Leave the Solar System or Not?

By Sarah Scoles | March 20, 2013 3:22 pm

The thing about crossing into uncharted territory is that you may not know when, exactly, you have crossed into it. No one needs to tell that to the Voyager 1 spacecraft, which is currently at the center of a controversy about where the solar system ends and interstellar space begins.

Today, a press release from the American Geophysical Union initially stated Voyager had left our solar system. Two hours later, though, they issued a correction calling Voyager’s current location a “new region of space,” which is considerably less flashy (but equally scientifically valuable). The NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory, which oversees the spacecraft, weighed in with a press release saying that no, in fact Voyager was still in the solar system.

So why the controversy? What is the debate about the boundary of the solar system? And what is this “new region” of which the scientists speak?

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Space & Physics, Top Posts
MORE ABOUT: solar system, voyager

How the Aurora Borealis Nearly Started World War III

By Guest Blogger | March 11, 2013 3:32 pm

By Amy Shira Teitel

The year was 1962. The Cuban Missile Crisis was at its peak, and it had been only days since President Kennedy learned that the Soviet Union was establishing missile sites in Cuba. The U.S. Air Force was on DEFCON-2. American and Soviet military forces were an order away from launching a nuclear attack.

But on Saturday, October 27, it wasn’t a military general or political leader who nearly upended that delicate world balance and set off World War III. It was the aurora borealis.

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Space & Physics, Top Posts

Soviet Space Flights Were Designed for Maximum Effect—Even if That Meant Fudging

By Guest Blogger | November 20, 2012 12:27 pm

Amy Shira Teitel is a freelance space writer whose work appears regularly on Discovery News Space and Motherboard among many others. She blogs about the history of spaceflight at Vintage Space, and tweets at @astVintageSpace.

This month marked the 55th anniversary of the first living being launched into orbit. It wasn’t a simple fruit fly or bean sprout, but a stray dog from the streets of Moscow.

As the first space traveler, Laika was a hero of her time, extensively trained and outfitted in a custom-designed space suit. But even on those early missions, the Soviet Union was establishing a pattern in its space flights: missions were designed to stay one step ahead of the Americans, often at the cost of quality and safety—and sometimes fudged for good measure.

Preceding Laika’s flight on Sputnik 2 was the first Sputnik, the more famous one, which scored a significant psychological coup for the Soviet Union. The 184-pound beeping satellite shot fear into the hearts of Americans and began a decade of Soviet leadership in space that challenged the United States’ position as the world’s technological superpower. But Sputnik was an innocuous satellite, far simpler than the sophisticated payloads the Soviets had been developing. Speed had trumped sophistication in the quest to launch before the Americans.

Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev felt the power of Sputnik just like the Americans did. He was so pleased with the satellite’s success that the day after its launch—October 5, 1957—he met with the Soviet space program’s Chief Designer Sergei Korolev to plan the next launch. Khrushchev wanted another satellite on an astounding timetable: November 7 that year marked the 40th anniversary of the Great October Socialist Revolution and Khrushchev wanted another satellite to mark the occasion with something grand. So Korolev suggested they launch a dog.

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How a Baseball Star's Tricky Pitch Strikes Out Hitters—and Baffles Physicists

By Guest Blogger | November 14, 2012 3:07 pm

Andrew Grant is an associate editor at DISCOVER. His latest feature, “William Borucki: Planet Hunter,” appears in the December issue of the magazine.

Last night Major League Baseball announced the winners of the Cy Young Award, given to the year’s best pitchers in the American and National leagues. The National League victor was New York Mets pitcher R.A. Dickey. That he won the award is remarkable, and not just because he is a relatively ancient 38 years old or because he plays for the perennial punch line Mets. Dickey is the first Cy Young winner whose repertoire consists primarily of the knuckleball, a baffling pitch whose intricacies scientists are only now beginning to understand.

Most pitchers, including the other Cy Young finalists, try to overwhelm hitters with a combination of speed and movement. They throw the ball hard—the average major league fastball zooms in at around 91 miles per hour—and generate spin (up to 50 rotations a second) that makes the ball break, or deviate from a straight-line trajectory. Dickey does neither of those things. Rather than cock his arm back and fire, he pushes the ball like a dart so that it floats toward the plate between 55 and 80 mph. The ball barely spins at all—perhaps a quarter- or half-turn before reaching the hitter.

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The Higgs, Boltzmann Brains, and Monkeys Typing Hamlet

By Amir Aczel | October 31, 2012 4:14 pm

Amir D. Aczel writes often about physics and cosmology. His book about the discovery of the Higgs boson, Present at the Creation: Discovering the Higgs Boson, is published in paperback by Broadway Books in November 2012. 

If somebody told you that there are angels floating in space, observing our world and forming their impressions of our everyday reality, you would think that this person is nuts—a religious fanatic with an active imagination, and certainly not a scientist. Scientists, as we all know, are rational beings who believe only in what nature reveals to us through experimentation and observation, coupled with theory that is never divorced from the physical measurements they make. The link between the two remains tightly regulated through the strict rules of the scientific method.

So how do you explain the bizarre fact that, for about five years now, some of the world’s most prominent physicists have been describing a scenario—which they seem to truly believe may be real—in which, instead of the Biblical angels, space is permeated by disembodied brains?

These compact, conscious observers, called “Boltzmann brains,” cruise the vastness of intergalactic space, and beyond it, to the infinite “multiverse” that some scientists believe exists outside the reaches of the universe we observe through our telescopes and satellites. Their consciousness makes the Boltzmann brains recreate our reality. They imagine life such as the one you and I believe we are experiencing here on Earth, to the point that these brains in space may think that they are living on a planet like ours, that they may even be us. Some recent physics papers and commentaries have even explored the possible limits on the number of Boltzmann brains in the universe as compared with “real” brains, in an effort to estimate the probability that we are real rather than Boltzmann entities.

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How Many Galaxies Are There in the Universe? The Redder We Look, the More We See

By Guest Blogger | October 10, 2012 1:22 pm

Ethan Siegel is a theoretical astrophysicist living in Portland, Oregon, who specializes in cosmology. He has been writing about the Universe for everyone since 2008, and can’t wait for the launch of the James Webb Space Telescope. A different version of this post appeared on his blog, Starts With a Bang. 

“It is by going down into the abyss that we recover the treasures of life. Where you stumble, there lies your treasure.” –Joseph Campbell

One of the bravest things that was ever done with the Hubble Space Telescope was to find a patch of sky with absolutely nothing in it—no bright stars, no nebulae, and no known galaxies—and observe it. Not just for a few minutes, or an hour, or even for a day. But orbit-after-orbit, for a huge amount of time, staring off into the nothingness of empty space, recording image after image of pure darkness.

What would we find, out beyond the limits of what we could see? Something? Nothing? After a total of more than 11 days of observing this tiny area of the sky, this is what we found:

The Hubble Ultra Deep Field—the deepest view ever of the Universe, was the result. With all those orbits spent observing what appears to be a blank patch of sky, what we were really doing was probing the far-distant Universe, seeing beyond what any human eye—even one aided by a telescope—could ever hope to see. It took literally hundreds of thousands of seconds of observations across four separate color filters to produce these results.

What you’re seeing—in practically every point or smear of light—is an individual galaxy. The result gave us the information that a very large number of galaxies exist in a minuscule region of the sky: around 10,000 in the tiny volume surveyed by the Hubble Ultra Deep Field image, below.

Image credit: NASA, ESA, S. Beckwith (STScI) and the HUDF Team

By extrapolating these results over the entire sky (which is some 10 million times larger), we were able to figure out—at minimumthat there were at least 100 billion galaxies in the entire Universe. I even made a video about it.

But that’s not the end of the story; not by a long shot. You see, there might be at least 100 billion galaxies, based on what we’ve observed, but there might be more. Galaxies that are too dim to observe with “only” 11 days of Hubble data. Galaxies that are redshifted too far for even Hubble’s farthest infrared filter to pick up. Galaxies that might appear, if only we had the patience to look for longer.

So that’s exactly what we did, looking for a total of 23 days over the last decade—more than twice as long as the Ultra-Deep Field—in an even smaller region of space. (There are over 1,000 observing proposals submitted to Hubble every cycle, so getting that much time, even spread over a decade, is remarkable.) Ladies and Gentlemen, may I present to you the Hubble Extreme Deep Field!

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Space & Physics, Top Posts

It’s a Boson! The Higgs as the Latest Offspring of Math & Physics

By Amir Aczel | July 30, 2012 1:18 pm

Amir D. Aczel ( writes about mathematics and physics and has published 18 books, numerous newspaper and magazine articles, as well as professional research papers.


Higgs candidate ATLAS
A Higgs candidate event from the ATLAS detector of the LHC.
Courtesy of CERN

What made me fall in love with theoretical physics many years ago (in 1972, when I first met Werner Heisenberg) was its stunningly powerful relationship—far beyond any reasonable expectation—with pure mathematics. Many great minds have pondered this mysteriously deep connection between something as abstract as mathematics, based on theorems and proofs that seem to have little to do with anything “real,” and the physical universe around us. In addition to Heisenberg, who brilliantly applied abstract matrix theory to quantum physics, Roger Penrose has explored the deep relation between the two fields—and also, to a degree, between them and the human mind—in his book The Road to Reality.

And in 1960, the renowned quantum physicist and Nobel Laureate Eugene Wigner of Princeton wrote a fascinating article that tried to address the mysterious nature of this surprising relationship. Wigner marveled at the sheer mystery of why mathematics works so well in situations where there seems to be no obvious reason why it does. And yet, it works.

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Space & Physics, Top Posts

The Surprising Connection Between Card-Shuffling and the Higgs Boson

By Guest Blogger | July 16, 2012 12:00 pm

Alex Stone is the author of Fooling Houdini: Magicians, Mentalists, Math Geeks and the Hidden Powers of the Mind. His writing has appeared in DISCOVER, Harper’sScienceThe New York Times, and The Wall Street Journal.

There was a time when people thought of playing cards as cosmic instruments. Fortunes were told, fortunes were lost, and the secrets of the universe unveiled themselves at the turn of a card. These days we know better. And yet, a look at the mathematics of card shuffling reveals some startling insights.

Consider, for instance, the perfect, or “faro” shuffle—whereby the cards are divided exactly in half (top and bottom) and then interleaved so that they alternate exactly. Most people think shuffling tends to mix up a deck of cards, and usually that’s true, because a typical shuffle is sloppy. But a perfect shuffle isn’t random at all. Eight consecutive perfect shuffles will bring a 52-card deck back to its original order, with every card in the pack having cycled through a series of predictable permutations back to its starting place. This holds true for any deck, regardless of its size, although eight isn’t always the magic number. If you have 25 cards, it takes 20 shuffles, whereas for 32 cards it only takes 5; for 53 cards, 52 shuffles are needed. You can derive a formula for the relationship between the number of cards in the deck and the number of faro shuffles in one full cycle.

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Space & Physics, Top Posts

We (Apparently) Found the Higgs Boson. Now, Where the Heck Did It Come From?

By Amir Aczel | July 9, 2012 1:14 pm

Amir D. Aczel has been closely associated with CERN and particle physics for a number of years and often consults on statistical issues relating to physics. He is also the author of 18 popular books on mathematics and science, and has been awarded both Guggenheim Foundation and Sloan Foundation fellowships. Many thanks to Steven Weinberg of the University of Texas at Austin and to Barton Zwiebach of MIT for their helpful comments.

Event display showing particle tracks from a collision as seen by the CMS experiment

Readers of this blog have probably heard the standard fare about how the Higgs boson “gives mass” to everything in the universe, probably with some kind of analogy, like the one about a famous person walking through a crowded room, pulled every which way by admiring crowds, and that these connections “make the person massive“—as the Higgs field does with particles. Now that we finally seemed to have pinned down the elusive particle, I want to explain where the Higgs came from and what it does. While our understanding of the particle comes from some complicated math, the formulas actually tell a fascinating story, which I’ll recount in this post. All you need to keep in mind is that in the modern understanding of physics, categories aren’t as starkly separate as you might think: particles can be represented as waves or fields, and a force can also be viewed as a particle or a field.

So, a fraction of a second after the Big Bang, the universe had four kinds of “photons” floating around—the usual photon of light, and three other massless particles that “look” and act just like the photon. We label them: W+, W-, and Z. They are bosons, meaning carriers of force, as is the usual photon.

At the Big Bang, the universe also had one, unified, mighty force called the Superforce ruling it. But a tiny fraction of a second before the era I am talking about, the Superforce began to break down, successively “shedding off” part of itself to make the force of gravity, and another part of itself to make the strong nuclear force, which later would be active inside the nuclei of all matter, holding quarks inside protons and neutrons once these composite particles came into being. The two forces, gravity and the strong force—important as they are—do not enter our main story today.

The remnant we have of the Superforce at the time we are talking about, a tiny fraction of a second after the Big Bang, has three forces of nature held together inside it: electricity, magnetism, and something called the weak nuclear force, which later would be responsible for beta decay, a form of radioactivity. You may remember from a physics course that “electromagnetism” unifies electricity and magnetism, as Maxwell taught us over a century ago. But, during the era I am talking about, there are really three linked forces: electro-magnetic-weak; all three are held together as the electroweak force that remained from the Superforce after it had shed off gravity and the strong force.*

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Space & Physics, Top Posts

Venus’s Day in the Sun: How the Transit Will Help Us Search for Other Earths

By Guest Blogger | June 4, 2012 8:30 am

Mark Anderson has an M.S. in astrophysics, is a contributor to Discover, and has written about science and history for many other publications. His new book The Day the World Discovered the Sun: An Extraordinary Story of Scientific Adventure and the Race to Track the Transit of Venus has just been published by Da Capo.

Also see Paul Raeburns’s explanation of what investigating Venus can teach us about our own planet.

The 2004 Venus transit at sunrise

On Tuesday afternoon—for those in North, Central and parts of South America—the planet Venus will pass directly in front of the sun for seven hours. This rare spectacle, called the Venus transit, occurs twice within a decade, then not again for more than a century. But as fleeting as they are, transits of the past provided invaluable information about our place in the solar system—and, astronomers hope, this transit could help us glean more information on planets elsewhere in the galaxy.

In the 1760s, some of the age’s top explorers and scientists collaborated on dozens of expeditions across the planet to observe the Venus transit. These voyages launched the legendary careers of Captain Cook and the surveyors Mason and Dixon. The expeditions also represented the world’s first big science project—forefather to today’s Large Hadron Collider and Human Genome Project, in which an international community of hundreds or thousands collaborates on a single fundamental scientific problem at the frontier of human knowledge.

In the balance hung two of the greatest scientific and technological puzzles of the 18th century: discovering the Sun’s distance from the Earth and finding one’s longitude at sea.  Read More

MORE ABOUT: astronomy, exoplanets, Sun, Venus

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