Category: Top Posts

The Demise of a Discovery: BICEP2 and Gravitational Waves

By Sarah Scoles | February 2, 2015 11:28 am
The BICEP2 telescope at twilight. Credit Steffen Richter, Harvard University

The sun sets on the BICEP2 telescope in Antarctica. Credit Steffen Richter, Harvard University

Last week, BICEP2 scientists — who in March announced evidence of cosmic inflation, a potentially Nobel-worthy find — threw handfuls of dust on the grave of their own results. The official paper [pdf], just published on the BICEP website, tells the story of how they mistook cosmic dust for “primordial gravitational waves,” and why everybody needs to calm down and stop trying to bury inflation, too.

What’s inflation?

Just 10-35 seconds after the Big Bang, cosmologists (or at least most of them) believe the universe expanded in hyperdrive — faster than it ever has since and faster than it ever will again. This ballooning, called inflation, smoothed everything out. It turned the cosmos into the roughly homogenous place we see today, and perhaps created other universes that add up to the sci-fi-sounding “multiverse.”

But it’s difficult to find direct evidence that inflation actually happened (after all, it was a long time ago). That’s where B-modes, which the BICEP2 team saw, come in.

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Space & Physics, Top Posts
MORE ABOUT: Big Bang, cosmology

BICEP2 Was Wrong, But Publicly Sharing the Results Was Right

By Shannon Hall | January 30, 2015 3:58 pm
This Planck image shows that dust emission is strongest along the plane of the Galaxy, in the upper part of the image, but that it cannot be neglected even in other regions of the sky. Credit: ESA/Planck Collaboration

This Planck image shows that dust emission is strongest along the plane of the galaxy, in the upper part of the image, but that it cannot be neglected even in other regions of the sky. Credit: ESA/Planck Collaboration

The claim made headlines worldwide, hailing one of the biggest scientific discoveries in decades. After 35 years of research, astronomers said in March, they had found evidence that the universe underwent a brief but ultra-fast expansion when it was roughly a trillionth of a trillionth of a trillionth of a second old. The research team could see a Nobel Prize looming in the distance. So they popped bottles of bubbly in celebration and shared their excitement with the world.

But results confirmed today indicate that the fizz has long gone out of those findings. A second team of astronomers, which includes the initial BICEP2 team itself, used the European Space Agency’s Planck satellite to show that the twisting patterns did not come from the cosmic microwave background at all. They’re nothing but swirling patterns of dust.

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Space & Physics, Top Posts
MORE ABOUT: Big Bang, cosmology

Virtual Bodyswapping Can Reduce Racial Bias

By Manos Tsakiris, Royal Holloway | January 30, 2015 1:00 pm

bodyswap

This article was originally published on The Conversation.

In 1959, John Howard Griffin, a white American writer, underwent medical treatments to change his skin appearance and present himself as a black man. He then traveled through the segregated US south to experience the racism endured daily by millions of black Americans. This unparalleled life experiment provided invaluable insights into how the change in Griffin’s own skin color triggered negative and racist behaviors from his fellow Americans.

But what about the changes that Griffin himself might have experienced? What does it mean to become someone else? How does this affect one’s self? And how can this affect one’s stereotypes, beliefs and racial attitudes? That was the key question that my colleagues and I set out to answer in a series of psychological experiments that looked at the link between our bodies and our sense of who we are.

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Mind & Brain, Top Posts

What Does Space Sound Like?

By Trevor Cox | January 28, 2015 3:40 pm

earth from space

“Space, the final frontier,” announces James T. Kirk at the start of the first Star Trek episode. As the spaceship Enterprise flies past the screen, the voice sounds as though it was recorded in a very reverberant cathedral. I know space is a big place, but where are the reflections meant to be coming from? And anyway, space is silent or, to quote the catchy tag line from the 1979 movie Alien, “in space, no one can hear you scream.”

For an astronaut unfortunate enough to be caught outside the spaceship without a space suit, screaming to occupy the moments before asphyxiation would be pointless, as there are no air molecules to carry the sound waves. But Hollywood does not let anything as trivial as physics get in the way of a compelling soundtrack. The latest Star Trek film showed the outside of the soaring Enterprise accompanied by lots of powerful engine noises; the photon torpedoes sounded pretty impressive as well.

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Space & Physics, Top Posts

The Bloodthirsty Truth of the Beautiful Orchid Mantis

By James Gilbert, University of Sussex | January 27, 2015 11:05 am

orchid mantis

This article was originally published on The Conversation.

In his 1879 account of wanderings in the Orient, the travel writer James Hingston describes how, in West Java, he was treated to a bizarre experience:

I am taken by my kind host around his garden, and shown, among other things, a flower, a red orchid, that catches and feeds upon live flies. It seized upon a butterfly while I was present, and enclosed it in its pretty but deadly leaves, as a spider would have enveloped it in network.

What Hingston had seen was not a carnivorous orchid, as he thought. But the reality is no less weird or fascinating. He had seen – and been fooled by – an orchid mantis, Hymenopus coronatus, not a plant but an insect.

We have known about orchid mantises for more than 100 years. Famous naturalists such as Alfred Russell Wallace have speculated about their extraordinary appearance. Eschewing the drab green or brown of most mantises, the orchid mantis is resplendent in white and pink. The upper parts of its legs are greatly flattened and are heart-shaped, looking uncannily like petals. On a leaf it would be highly conspicuous – but when sitting on a flower, it is extremely hard to see. In photos, the mantis appears in or next to a flower, challenging the reader to spot it.

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Living World, Top Posts
MORE ABOUT: animals, evolution

Where Will We Live After Earth?

shutterstock_164724506

This article originally appeared on The Conversation.

Some climatologists argue it may be too late to reverse climate change, and it’s just a matter of time before the Earth becomes uninhabitable – if hundreds of years from now. The recent movie Interstellar raised the notion that we may one day have to escape a dying planet. As astrophysicists and avid science fiction fans, we naturally find the prospect of interstellar colonization intriguing and exciting. But is it practical, or even possible? Or is there a better solution?

Science fiction has painted a certain picture of space travel in popular culture. Drawing on stories of exploration from an age of tall ships, with a good helping of anachronisms and fantastical science, space exploration is often depicted in a romantic style: a crew of human travelers in high-tech ships wandering the galaxy, making discoveries and reporting back home. Perhaps they even find habitable words, some teeming with life (typically humans with different-colored skin), and they trade, colonize, conquer or are conquered. Pretty much, they do as humans have always done since the dawn of their time on Earth.

How closely do these ideas resemble what we may be able to achieve in the next few hundred years? The laws of physics and the principles of engineering will go a long way to helping us answer this question.

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Space & Physics, Top Posts
MORE ABOUT: space exploration

Ebola’s Possible Future as an Endemic Disease

By Kari Lydersen | January 19, 2015 11:36 am

Last fall as the Ebola epidemic continued unabated, experts started discussing something that had never before been bandied about: the idea of Ebola becoming endemic in parts of West Africa. Endemic diseases, like malaria and Lassa fever in that region of Africa, are constant presences. Instead of surfacing periodically, as it always has before now, Ebola in an endemic form would persist in the human population, at low levels of transmission, indefinitely.

The debate was stoked by a paper written by the World Health Organization (WHO) Ebola Response Team and published in October in the New England Journal of Medicine. The sentence that grabbed the world’s attention was saved till near the very end: “For the medium term, at least, we must therefore face the possibility that EVD [Ebola virus] will become endemic among the human population of West Africa, a prospect that has never previously been contemplated.”

What would it mean exactly for Ebola to become endemic, and how would it change things?

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Health & Medicine, Top Posts

Thorium Power Is the Safer Future of Nuclear Energy

By David Warmflash | January 16, 2015 10:57 am

nuclear plant

Nuclear power has long been a contentious topic. It generates huge amounts of electricity with zero carbon emissions, and thus is held up as a solution to global energy woes. But it also entails several risks, including weapons development, meltdown, and the hazards of disposing of its waste products.

But those risks and benefits all pertain to a very specific kind of nuclear energy: nuclear fission of uranium or plutonium isotopes. There’s another kind of nuclear energy that’s been waiting in the wings for decades – and it may just demand a recalibration of our thoughts on nuclear power.

Nuclear fission using thorium is easily within our reach, and, compared with conventional nuclear energy, the risks are considerably lower.

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Technology, Top Posts

When Women Are Rare, Men Are Less Promiscuous

By Ryan Schacht and Monique Borgerhoff Mulder | January 14, 2015 12:21 pm

bar talkingThe Conversation

This article was originally published on The Conversation.

Popular wisdom and established evolutionary science hold that the sexes seek fundamentally different relationships: men want short-term, no-strings-attached relationships whereas women value longer-term, loyal partnerships.

The explanation generally comes down to biological differences between men and women. Because women invest more in reproduction than men do – think pregnancy, morning sickness and stretchmarks – being picky becomes important because choosing poorly can be costly, even devastating. However, for men, reproduction may only entail a brief sexual liaison and a bit of sperm – there are potentially no long-term costs. This calculus has been built into our psychology, many argue.

Think about it more carefully, though. Where do all the women sleeping with these guys come from? Shouldn’t it be difficult for men to find so many willing partners? As theorist Hanna Kokko noted, it takes two to tango.

If we go by the numbers, in a group with an equal number of both sexes, it is impossible, on average, for men to have more partners than women. So why do we expect male psychology to be so hellbent on one-night stands? And why, clearly in opposition to this notion, are many men often so devotedly paternal?

Here’s where an established body of literature in sociology and demography – called mating market theory (MMT) – can help out. According to MMT, relationship preferences are expected to follow not simply from these fixed biological propensities, but also to be heavily influenced by partner availability.

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Mind & Brain, Top Posts
MORE ABOUT: sex & reproduction

The “Pillars of Creation” Have Been, Are Being, and Will Be Destroyed

By Sarah Scoles | January 6, 2015 12:00 pm

pillars of creation

The “Pillars of Creation,” a photograph of part of the Eagle Nebula, is one of the most iconic images ever taken by the Hubble telescope. Yesterday, astronomers released a bigger, better, sharper version of the pillars, taken almost two decades after the first.

But an ironic twist – and what we didn’t know twenty years ago – is that the Pillars might have been long ago torn apart by a distant explosion. The photos we snap of them today are high-tech and modern but their subject is clouded by thousands of light-years of remove. Like the post-mortem photography of the Victorian era, the resulting images are lifelike, and beautiful, and sad.

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Space & Physics, Top Posts
MORE ABOUT: stars
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