On His 135th Birthday, Einstein is Still Full of Surprises

By Corey S. Powell | March 14, 2014 1:31 pm

Update: The breathtaking announcement that cosmologists may have found the gravitational fingerprint of the Big Bang adds a lot of support to the theory that the universe began with a runaway phase of expansion known as “inflation.” That theory builds on the idea that empty space is full of intense energy fields–an idea that in turn traces its roots back to a factor that Einstein called Lambda in his pioneering cosmological explorations from a century ago. It is one more illustration of Isaac Newton’s famous quote about standing “on the shoulders of giants.”

You would think by now we would have exhausted the mysteries of Albert Einstein. As perhaps the most famous scientist in history, nearly every idea he expressed and every thing he did has been studied, commented on, written about. Yet on his 135th birthday (born March 14, 1879) there are still new details coming out–details that offer insight both into the workings of Einstein’s mind, and into the biggest mysteries of the cosmos.

Albert Einstein in 1921, caught (as usual) in mid-thought. (Credit: Ferdinand Schmutzer)

Albert Einstein in 1921, caught (as usual) in mid-thought. (Credit: Ferdinand Schmutzer)

One big Einstein shocker was unearthed recently by Irish cosmologist Cormac O’Rafferty while digging through the Einstein Archives at Hebrew University in Jerusalem. There he found a completely overlooked manuscript–undated, but probably from 1931–that showed Einstein trying to create a model of the universe that satisfied both his scientific insights and his philosophical inclinations. The manuscript, entitled “About the Cosmological Problem,” envisioned a universe that expands but that (through a clever trick of physics) never really changes.

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Defending Giordano Bruno: A Response from the Co-Writer of “Cosmos”

By Corey S. Powell | March 13, 2014 6:11 pm

My recent post questioning the Giordano Bruno segment in the first episode of the new Cosmos has attracted a gratifying amount of attention, both on this site and elsewhere around the web. It has also prompted a heartfelt reply from Steven Soter, a resident research associate at the American Museum of Natural history and Cosmos‘s co-writer (along with Ann Druyan).

Giordano Bruno, as animated in Cosmos. (Image courtesy of Fox)

Giordano Bruno, as animated in Cosmos. (Image courtesy of Fox)

It is very much in the spirit of Cosmos, and of the scientific process in general, to engage in debate in the search for deeper truths. It is also a powerful tribute to the new series that so many people are now discussing Bruno, Thomas Digges, and the intertwined relationship of science and religion during the 16th century–not your usual day-after TV conversations. In that spirit, I am pleased to present Steven Soter’s essay here in full, followed by a response from me. Soter, in turn, will soon provide some additional closing thoughts.

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Did “Cosmos” Pick the Wrong Hero?

By Corey S. Powell | March 10, 2014 1:07 pm

UPDATE: Cosmos writer Steven Soter responds to my critique here.

The first episode of the ambitious reboot of Cosmos, which debuted last night, closely follows the template of the first episode of the original. It also differs in some important ways–most of them right on target, but one of them unfortunately off the mark.

Giordano Bruno: cosmologist, heretic, martyr, jerk. (Credit: David Oliver)

Giordano Bruno: cosmologist, genius, heretic, martyr, jerk. (Credit: David Oliver)

Special effects have advanced greatly since Carl Sagan’s 1980 original; the new visualizations are both more dramatic and more realistic. Science has advanced greatly as well. The updated Cosmos discusses free-floating planets between the stars, shows real images of Uranus and Neptune, and gives a precise age to the universe (that would be 13.8 billion years). All of these things were unknown 34 years ago.

In overall content, the new series introduces two major innovations. One is a tribute to Carl Sagan, a moving segment  in which host Neil DeGrasse Tyson recalls his teenage encounter with the revered astronomer. The other is an extended tribute to the 16th-century Italian philosopher and theologian Giordano Bruno.

Here is where Cosmos 2.0 runs into its big problem, missing out both on a chance to set history straight and to embrace the generous, forward-looking spirit of Sagan.

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Four Great Eras of Exploration (and #4 is Happening Now)

By Corey S. Powell | March 6, 2014 6:57 am

Last week’s discovery of 715 planets orbiting other stars was more than just a remarkable piece of astronomical detective work. It was also a bold confirmation that we have entered a new era of cosmic exploration. Sara Seager of MIT, one of the scientists leading the search for other Earths, beautifully expressed this sentiment to me in a recent interview: “For exoplanets, I see ourselves like the generation of Christopher Columbus. We are leaving a legacy in terms of us as a generation, and as a society.”

The multitude of worlds found by the Kepler space telescope. (Conceptual illustration by NASA.)

The multitude of worlds found by the Kepler space telescope. (Conceptual illustration by NASA.)

Often it is hard to recognize a revolution while you are right in the middle of it, but that is what I believe is happening right now. When future generations look back, as Seager suggests, I think they will recognize this time as the fourth great era of exploration, comparable to…well, let’s go back and look at the previous three great eras of exploration for context.

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The Astonishing Trend Line of Planetary Discovery

By Corey S. Powell | February 28, 2014 6:42 am

Earlier this week, two NASA-affiliated teams announced the discovery of 715 new planets around other stars. I have to pause on that number for a moment. From the dawn of Mesopotamian astronomy around 2000 BC until 1992 AD, astronomers discovered a grand total of three planets: Uranus, Neptune, and Pluto. (I’m still counting Pluto as a planet. So sue me.) Now, in a single data release, scientists have found 715, bringing the total number of known alien worlds to 1,750.

A brief history of planetary discovery. Blue shows early discoveries, red shows previous Kepler discoveries. The gold bar displays the 715 new planets announced this week. (Credit:  NASA Ames/SETI/J Rowe)

A brief history of planetary discovery. Blue shows early discoveries, red shows previous Kepler discoveries. The gold bar displays the 715 new planets announced this week.
NASA Ames/SETI/J Rowe)

And the news is even more amazing than the raw numbers convey. Through almost all of history, our solar system contained the only real estate that we knew about. Yes, astronomers studied other stars and nebulae, but they knew nothing of planets–the only places where life can exist, so far as we know, the only places where humans might set down and explore. Now we know that other planets exist, and that they come in a wide variety of exotic forms never before imagined. Read More

Waiting for the Next Pompeii (It Won’t Be Long)

By Corey S. Powell | February 25, 2014 11:33 pm

As a would-be Hollywood blockbuster, Pompeii is fizzling out. But when you watch the movie through the eyes of a volcanologist, things look quiet a bit different.

“I thought, oh boy, another volcano movie. There’s already been Dante’s Peak, Volcano…but I was positively surprised. Actually, I was blown away,” says Florian Schwandner of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab. “Some of the effects that were used to show eruptive events in Pompeii were so realistic that I wasn’t sure if they used actual footage from eruptions of if it was animation. They got a lot of things very right, right enough that as a specialist I was excited seeing it.”

The AD 79 eruption of Vesuvius, as envisioned in the movie Pompeii. (©2014 Constantin Film International GmbH and Impact Pictures (Pompeii) Inc.)

The  79 AD eruption of Vesuvius, as envisioned in the movie Pompeii. (©2014 Constantin Film International GmbH and Impact Pictures (Pompeii) Inc.)

To Schwandner, the real drama in Pompeii is not the love story or the swords-and-sandles battles, but the meticulous depiction of what happens when Earth’s inner heat finds its way to the surface. (Um…you didn’t need a spoiler alert for that, did you?) He also regards the movie as a fabulous teaching moment: an opportunity to remind people that the eruption of Vesuvius in 79 AD is just one small example of what our planet is capable of.

More than 500 volcanoes around the world have erupted in historical times, and more 1,500 are likely to be active. “That’s a lot of volcanoes,” Schwandner laughs. “There are over 60 appreciable eruptions every year. Stromboli in Italy erupts every 20 minutes.” Every 20 minutes? Who knew? Read More

Dinosaur Bones and Jelly Donuts on Mars

By Corey S. Powell | January 29, 2014 9:49 pm

When something strange shows up on Mars, Jim Bell is the guy to call for answers. For the past decade he has watched Mars through the eyes of the Spirit, Opportunity, and Curiosity rovers. He’s written popular books about Mars (including one in 3D), published extensively about the planet’s geology and mineralogy, and he’s president of the Planetary Society. As the Opportunity rover celebrates its 10th anniversary on the Red Planet, I spoke with Bell to get the consummate insider’s impressions of what it is like living virtually on another world.

Jelly Doughnut

The “Jelly Donut” rock appeared on Mars during a 12-day period when Opportunity wasn’t looking. Its appearance and composition are also odd. (Credit: MER/Cornell/JPL/NASA)

Just as the anniversary celebrations were going on, Mars threw out a little surprise: an odd rock, nicknamed the Jelly Donut, that seemingly materialized out of thin Martian air right in front of Opportunity. Add that to the list of other strange sightings on Mars–the lizard, the rat, the mermaid, the bunny, etc–that eager sleuths have spotted in the Mars images (discussed in an earlier post). As you’ll see, Bell has plenty to say about those as well.

[For more updates, follow me on Twitter: @coreyspowell]
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10 Lessons from the “Comet of the Century”

By Corey S. Powell | January 5, 2014 9:58 pm

Remember Comet ISON? Last year began with a blizzard of hype, with stories repeating the mantra that this mysterious celestial visitor could become the “comet of the century.” This year begins with Comet ISON obliterated, an invisible cloud of debris expanding and traveling outward from the sun.

Comet ISON comes in from the bottom right and moves out toward the upper right, getting fainter and fainter, in this time-lapse image from the ESA/NASA Solar and Heliospheric Observatory. The image of the sun at the center is from NASA's Solar Dynamics Observatory. ESA/NASA/SOHO/SDO/GSFC

Death of Comet ISON: It entered the frame from lower right and fled the sun toward the upper right, falling apart as it went, in this time-lapse SOHO image from November 28, 2013.

For the millions of enthusiasts hoping to see a glowing dagger of light hanging in the night sky, the premature demise of Comet ISON was a crushing disappointment. But for the astronomers who had pinned great hopes on the comet as an object of study, Comet ISON fully lived up to its billing (see my preview article, The Life and Death of Comet ISON).

It is already the most closely observed comet in history. It inspired the Comet ISON Observing Campaign, which coordinated studies not only from around the world but from across the solar system. Some of the first scientific papers will be coming out this week at a meeting of the American Astronomical Society; expect the flow to keep going for a long time. Amateurs will get to participate as well, since much of the data on the comet will be released openly to the public.

But why wait? We’ve already learned some illuminating lessons from the late, great Comet ISON. [For more news, follow me on Twitter: @coreyspowell] Read More

MORE ABOUT: comet, ISON, meteor, UFO

Is This the Death of Comet ISON?

By Corey S. Powell | November 28, 2013 1:25 pm


All along, astronomers knew that there was a real possibility that Comet ISON would not survive its passage by the sun. Now it seems like the comet may in fact be in the middle of a catastrophic disintegration, based on the latest images from NASA’s SOHO observatory. In this view, the comet’s tail splits in two, and the trail of the comet seems to shrink and peter out closer to the sun. It’s not clear yet what is happening, but this sure looks like the comet’s last act.

Comet ISON's last stand? NASA's SOHO spacecraft watches the trail of the comet toward the sun (blotted out in the middle). Credit: NASA/SOHO

Comet ISON’s last stand? NASA’s SOHO spacecraft watches the trail of the comet toward the sun (blotted out in the middle). Credit: NASA/SOHO

I previewed this possibility in my feature article in Discover magazine several weeks ago:

Maybe some diminished portion of the comet will remain intact; maybe it will break apart and disperse entirely. Either way, the public unraveling of Comet ISON will be cause for celebration, not mourning. “Comet ISON is an extraordinarily rare object,” says Carey Lisse of Johns Hopkins University, who is coordinating an international observing campaign. “It isn’t just hyperbole. We are going to go to town on it. And we are going to learn a lot.” Read More

MORE ABOUT: comet, Comet ISON

Comet ISON’s Moment of Truth

By Corey S. Powell | November 28, 2013 9:58 am

Astrophotographer Damian Peach captured this view of Comet ISON and its complicated tail on November 15. The field of view is 2.5°, five times the width of the full moon (Credit: Damian Peach)

Today is make-or-break time for Comet ISON as it reaches perihelion, the point closest to the sun. At 1:25PM EST the comet will zoom just 730,000 miles above the solar surface, traveling at a speed of about 225,000 miles per hour. You can track the comet’s progress live here. What happens during that passage will determine a lot about what the comet will look like in the next few weeks. Will it be a faint smear or a bright fuzzball with a long, lingering tail? Will it fizzle entirely? We are about to find out.

Depending on the comet (and also depending on your skills as an observer and your local weather conditions) you might actually be able to watch as Comet ISON swings around the sun today. That’s right: It is possible you could see it in broad daylight, though it won’t be easy and you need to be very careful. Our friends at Universe Today have created a great guide for how to look for Comet ISON right next to the much, much brighter glare of the sun. Read More


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