There are many way to celebrate your 70th birthday. You could sit down in front of a cake packed tight with flaming candles. You could go bowling with your buds wearing a T-shirt that says, “Over the hill–and picking up speed.” Or you could help put together the most amazing, three-dimensional map of the universe ever created.
Brent Tully opted for door #3.
Tully, a cosmologist at the University of Hawaii’s Institute for Astronomy, has probably done more than any other single living scientist to help uncover what the universe looks like in three dimensions. That’s no small challenge. As anyone knows from looking up a the night sky, appearances alone tell you almost nothing about which stars are near and which are far. The same goes for galaxies. Measuring their distances is so difficult that less than a century many astronomers doubted that other galaxies even existed. At the time, some of the leading researchers thought that what we now call galaxies were actually “spiral nebulae”–small, nearby clouds of gas that were turning into individual stars. That is the kind of challenge that Tully has taken on, with staggering results. Read More
…and there is also a human figure, several faces, a bunny rabbit, a gun, a small chair, a large forest, and pretty much every other shape the human eye can piece together given a very large number of random shapes to contemplate. They are all real, in the sense that people genuinely do register them in the mind. As many writers have noted, the tendency of the eye and the brain to collaborate on creating recognizable objects is a well-known and quite powerful psychological phenomenon known as pareidolia.
From an evolutionary point of view, pareidolia is a very useful thing. Babies are hard-wired to look for their mothers’ faces, because that is their source of food and protection (and eye contact is an important social bond). There is also a significant upside in perceiving the shapes of both predators and prey half-hidden in abstract clumps of leaves; seeing some animals that are not actually there is far less of a problem than missing some that are. Read More
In an anonymous corner office on the 7th floor of the Sony Building, M. Night Shyamalan lounges on a large butterscotch leather sofa. Is this really the director of The Sixth Sense, Signs, and The Happening? Shyamalan is a name-brand filmmaker known for his idiosyncratic, high-concept plots. The man sitting in front of me, dressed in a faded Iron Man T-shirt and jeans, looks cheery, relaxed, and decidedly modest.
Then he starts discussing how housecats would survive the coming apocalypse and it becomes clear that, yes, this is the same guy. Read More
The Ring Nebula is one of the most famous celestial objects because of its delicate beauty. That shimmering oval of rainbow colors has popped up everywhere from dorm-room posters to book jackets to album covers to just about every TV backdrop in the history of sci-fi. But it is more than mere eye candy. The Ring is also fascinating for what it tells us about our future.
Middleweight stars like the sun expand and cool in their old age, briefly turning into red giants. After the red giant stage, the outer layers puff off, leaving behind a white dwarf: a dense, super-hot stellar cinder. Those puffed-out layers glow brightly before they disperse. That is exactly what we are seeing in this brand-new Hubble image of the Ring Nebula, along with the video interpretation of that image–a snapshot of what will happen to the sun as it runs out of nuclear fuel in about 5 billion years. The Hubble data also add a completely new twist to what astronomers know about the Ring. For the first time, researchers can get an accurate, three-dimensional understanding of the structure of the nebula.
Put that information together with other images taken using different filters and imaging techniques, and scientists have an incredibly detailed picture of how a sunlike star dies.
If you judged by the recent buzz in the media world, you might think that 3D printers are good for one thing only: creating untraceable guns, on demand, in the privacy of your home. What makes the 3D printer such an intriguing technology, though, is the extremely broad nature of their applications. They can be used to print replacement auto parts (or maybe, someday, entire vehicles). They are great for cranking out rapid prototypes of new kinds of objects–anything from sculptures to false teeth to custom iPod cases. The focus on gun ethics misses the big picture.
Two recent developments demonstrate that 3D printers have a more uplifting potential as tools for exploration, by opening up new ways to feed astronauts and build crucial components for satellites and spacecraft. Spin-offs from those efforts could raise the quality of life all across the globe. Read More
After more than four years in space, restlessly searching for planets orbiting other stars, NASA’s Kepler space telescope may have met its demise.
The Kepler project is typically described in terms of raw numbers. As of the last official announcement, it had found 2,740 likely new planets–including 1,200 Neptune-size planets, 350 Earth-size planets, and at least 4 planets that orbit within the “habitable zone” where liquid water can exist. All of those numbers are sure to increase, as more observations are confirmed and as mission scientists continue to dig through a trove of archived data. But spirit, not statistics, is what really defines Kepler. It is a modern version of the expedition of Lewis and Clark, or the great voyages of Vasco da Gama and Ferdinand Magellan. It is a headlong plunge into the unknown cosmic territory around us.
Extrapolating from Kepler’s results, astronomers now estimate there are at least 17 billion Earth-size planets in our galaxy. That is another number, yes, but one with a powerful message: Another age of exploration awaits, one that may very well lead to the discovery that humanity is not alone in the universe. Read More
Dark energy is the single most important element in the universe. It influenced how the cosmos was born, how it is evolving today, and how it all will end trillions of years in the future. Right now, this energy is causing the universe to expand faster and faster; in the far future, the expansion may become so rapid that space itself will be torn apart. And yet we know next to nothing about what dark energy is. We don’t even have a proper name for it—the very term “dark energy” is little more than a scientific shrug.
Small wonder, then, that our recent DISCOVER magazine cover story about the mystery of dark energy (Confronting the Dark by Zeeya Merali) produced such an outpouring of curious reader mail. In a previous post, I addressed some of the key cosmological questions submitted by our readers. But really, that first set of responses only scratched the surface. For every letter writer who asked broadly about the nature of the Big Bang, someone else who wanted to know more about dark energy itself.
So as promised, here is a second installment addressing how scientists came to realize that energy, not matter, rules the universe. Read More
Fifteen years ago, a small cabal of researchers took some of the most firmly held notions about how the universe works and turned them on their head. Until then, everyone was sure that the expanding universe was born in an explosive Big Bang and had been slowing down ever since, dragged by the gravitational pull of untold billions of galaxies. But in fact the expansion is speeding up. Everyone was sure that matter was what dominated the overall behavior of the universe. But in fact it seems that “dark energy,” not matter, is running the show. Whoops.
The May cover story in DISCOVER magazine (Confronting the Dark by Zeeya Merali) chronicles that game-changing discovery, and lays out the latest thinking about what dark energy is and how it affects the fate of the universe. As soon as the article was published, DISCOVER’s inbox began to fill with letters from curious readers wanting to know more. Here I will address sweeping, big-picture questions about cosmology. I’ll consider more specific queries about dark energy and dark matter in a following post. Read More
Last Thursday, a team of scientists working with NASA’s Kepler space telescope described three intriguing new planets circling distant stars. They are just slightly larger than Earth and orbit in the “habitable zone” where temperatures could be right for liquid water and for life. The names of these amazing worlds? Kepler 62f, Kepler 62e, and Kepler 69c. Not to be confused with other much-celebrated recent discoveries like Kepler 64b, Kepler 22b, or Gliese 581g.
Alan Stern, a former NASA associate administrator and founder of a startup called Uwingu, thinks these newfound worlds should have real names, and that the general public should be able to have a say. The International Astronomical Union–the organization the organization that officially validates astronomical nomenclature–strongly objects to Uwingu’s approach, and has effectively thwarted it. After the IAU’s blistering April 12 press release attacking Uwingu, submissions to Uwingu’s fee-based online planetary naming database plummeted. Stern calls it a “torpedo attack.” Read More
Or perhaps you would like to name it “Tatooine” or “Wrigley’s Pleasure Planet”? If so, you are in luck–all you need to pay a small fee and keep voting. A startup company called Uwingu is holding a “people’s choice contest” to pick a name for the nearest planet outside our solar system. It orbits Alpha Centauri B, an orange star located just 4.3 light years from Earth, and currently has the ungainly name Alpha Centauri Bb. For $4.99 you can propose a name of your own, and for $0.99 you can vote on the winner. The contest runs until April 22; there is also a broader, ongoing campaign for other alien worlds.
Uwingu’s name-that-planet project has a noble aim. Alan Stern–the founder of the company, lead scientist for the New Horizons mission to Pluto, and a former associate administrator at NASA–is using the money raised by the contest to restore funding to NASA’s education and outreach efforts, which have been hit hard by sequester-related budget cuts. [Full disclosure: DISCOVER magazine and its sister publication, Astronomy, have partnered with Uwingu on its efforts to raise private funds for astronomical research.] But as one side effect, Stern has found himself embroiled in a battle with the International Astronomical Union (IAU), the self-described arbiter of “unambiguous astronomical nomenclature.” In a testy statement released on April 12, the IAU declared that private competitions (the union never cites Uwingu by name) will “have no bearing on the official naming process.”
All of which raises a big question for the rest of us: Who gets to name new astronomical objects, and how exactly do they get that right?