Stephen Hawking & the Science of the Midterm Elections

By Corey S. Powell | November 5, 2014 11:55 am
Taking a cosmic view could be healthy for our politics. (Credit: NASA/ESA/HFF Team)

Taking a cosmic view could be healthy for our politics. (Credit: NASA/ESA/HFF Team)

Out There is not a political blog. Quite the opposite: It is a celebration of the outer boundaries of human exploration, where I deliberately steer away from most of the issues associated with our daily grind. Nevertheless, there are times when science contributes something to the political conversation (and vice versa), and this is one of them.

As I was reading about yesterday’s election, I was reminded of a quote from my recent interview with James Marsh, director of the new film The Theory of Everything. “That’s an interesting part of science, that you have to be open to changing your mind…It’s a hallmark of that thinking, that you’re open to the evidence changing your ideas,” he said. (His comments echo the famous quote from Carl Sagan.) Marsh was speaking in reference to Stephen Hawking’s u-turn rejection of his early cosmological ideas in favor of the no-boundary proposal, but it has a surprising resonance to election politics as well.

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The Hand and Eye Behind “The Theory of Everything”

By Corey S. Powell | November 4, 2014 2:10 pm

Stephen and Jane Hawking on their wedding day, in film (left) and real life (middle and right). [Credit: Jane Hawking; Liam Daniel/Focus Features]

Stephen and Jane Hawking on their wedding day, in film (left) and real life (middle and right). [Credit: Jane Hawking; Liam Daniel/Focus Features]

The Theory of Everything–the long-awaited biopic about physicist Stephen Hawking, opening this Friday–is admirable for the things that it does not do. There are no scenes in which glowing equations hover around Hawking’s head. There are no swirling camera angles intended to convey a genius’s convulsive thought process. There are no floating grids attempting to depict space and time, and not a single CGI black hole to be seen. Simply by negating those cliches, the movie is a revelation.

But praising The Theory of Everything for its omissions does it a disservice. The film achieves far more than sidestepping the common pitfalls of beautiful-mind storytelling; it takes a full-on, no-safety-net dramatic plunge. It presents Stephen Hawking (Eddie Redmayne, every bit as good as you’ve heard) as a cocky, witty, prickly, passionate, arrogant, lovable, and–yes–prodigiously intelligent character. It retraces his romance with Jane Wilde (Felicity Jones, equally impressive in a quieter and more controlled role) in exquisite and sometimes painful detail. Most remarkably, the movie worms its way into the philosophical heart of science, exploring unflinchingly what it means to think like a open-minded physicist.

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How the Comet with the Funny Name Became a Globe-Trotting Internet Meme

By Corey S. Powell | October 24, 2014 1:48 pm

I consider the Rosetta spacecraft one of the most exciting space voyagers in years. It is the first probe to orbit a comet, returning images of unprecedented richness. On November 12 it will place a lander on the comet’s surface, another exploratory breakthrough. Rosetta’s target, Comet 67P (its mouthy full name is Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko) is a frozen relic from the early days of the solar system. Studying it up close will teach us a lot about how the planets formed, how Earth got its water, maybe even how life began.

Comet 67P in its native environment. (Credit: ESA/Rosetta/Navcam)

Comet 67P in its native environment. (Credit: ESA/Rosetta/Navcam)

Now I should add a caveat that I’m an unbridled fan of space exploration. Things that thrill me don’t always resonate the same way with the broader public, so I am  heartened to see that the Rosetta mission has gone mainstream. Not only is it inspiring a great deal of news coverage and image sharing, it has achieved that distinctive sign of modern approval: It has spawned its own Internet meme.

The process began with a Photoshop of Comet 67P into downtown Los Angeles. The juxtaposition drives home the point that Comet 67P is tiny by planetary standards–just 2.5 miles wide–yet it is a whole complex world unto itself. Soon others digital artists jumped on the idea, bringing the comet onto a global tour. The result? Well…I’ll let the pictures speak for themselves.

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Unlocking The Other Senses of Space

By Corey S. Powell | October 23, 2014 4:30 pm

These days it’s no surprise to come across a gallery of amazing astronomy images. The Hubble Space Telescope, the other NASA great observatories and space probes, the European Space Agency and European Southern Observatory, and many, many dedicated amateurs (among other sources) provide a steady flow of visual riches. Mind-boggling beauty shows up every day; I can barely keep up with it in my Twitter feed.

Sure, Comet G-C looks incredible, but what does it smell like? Read on. (Credit: ESA/Rosetta/NAVCAM)

Sure, Comet G-C looks cool, but what does it smell like? Read on. (Credit: ESA/Rosetta/NAVCAM)

But what of the other human senses? Our appreciation of the natural world is bolstered not just in sights but in sounds, smells, and tactile sensations. A walk in the woods would not be the same without birdsong, the loamy odor of decaying leaves, the brush of branches. It’s a shame we don’t have access to the same kinds of experiences to connect us with the universe beyond our planet.

Wait a second! Actually we do, or at least we are starting to.

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Invisible Hands, Peeping Toms, and the First Physics Nobel Prize

By Corey S. Powell | October 7, 2014 4:09 pm

Sometimes the Nobel prize in physics requires a fair bit of decoding for the non-expert (such as last year’s award for the theory behind the Higgs boson, or the award the year before “for ground-breaking experimental methods that enable measuring and manipulation of individual quantum systems”). There’s little room for confusion about this year’s prize, which recognizes the inventors of the blue LED, the crucial technology for energy-efficient indoor LED lighting. But in terms of public acclaim, nothing compares to the very first Nobel prize in physics, awarded in 1901 for work that had already been a source of excitement, scandal, and quackery for 5 years.

Hand of Anna Bertha Röntgen, the first medical X-ray ever made.

Hand of Anna Bertha Röntgen, the first medical X-ray ever made.

The story goes back to November of 1895, when Wilhelm Röntgen was experimenting with cathode-ray tubes–the predecessors of the old vacuum tube television sets. During his tests, he noticed that when he powered up the tubes, they caused a fluorescent screen in his lab to light up. On November 8 he studied the effect in detail and confirmed that something from the tubes was making his screen light up even if the tube was completely sealed in light-proof cardboard. He suspected, correctly, that the tube was producing some novel kind of invisible ray.

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MORE ABOUT: LED, Nobel Prize, X-ray

Step #11 in the Human Conquest of Space

By Corey S. Powell | October 1, 2014 4:22 pm

In my previous post I talked about the magical quality of an orbit: Each time a spacecraft settles into a permanent path around a new object, humanity has taken one more step in venturing off this little blue world of ours and becoming colonizers of the universe. When the Rosetta reached Comet Churyumov-Gerasimenko on August 6 it marked the 11th celestial body we’ve orbited: Step #11 in the human conquest of space.

No need to dream. It's happening.

No need to dream. It’s happening.

Going from zero to 11 has taken just under 57 years; the anniversary of Sputnik, the very first orbiter, arrives this weekend. It’s been a remarkable journey from Russia’s pioneering artificial satellite–hardly more than a metal ball with a radio beeper inside–to the European Space Agency’s Rosetta, which is conducting detailed scientific studies of its comet and deploying a lander onto the surface.

And yet, as momentous as each of these new orbits has been, many of them are now largely overlooked. At least one is forgotten almost entirely. (I’m thinking about the first spacecraft to orbit the sun. Can you name it? I couldn’t. See below for the answer.) So here is a look back at the 11 robotic emissaries that brought us out of our planetary cocoon, and the new perspectives that they provided. For more about space exploration, past, present, and future, you can follow me on Twitter: @coreyspowell

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Taking Inspiration from India’s Mars Probe, and from Mr. Sulu

By Corey S. Powell | September 26, 2014 2:53 pm

To my mind, “standard orbit, Mr. Sulu” are more exciting words than “beam me up, Scotty.” An orbit contains a promise of ongoing excitement and adventure: When a spacecraft settles into orbit around another world, that means we have come to stay and explore, not just snap a few quick pictures and move on (maybe pausing briefly to break the Prime Directive). Two recent historic achievements speak to the thrill of the orbit, and its importance in establishing humans as a truly space-faring species.

Sulu didn't have the best catchphrase, but maybe the most important job. (Credit: Paramount/Desilu)

Sulu didn’t have the best catchphrase, but maybe the most important job. (Credit: Paramount/Desilu)

The first, obviously, is India’s Mars Orbital Probe–also known as Mangalyaan, “Mars craft” in Sanskrit–which began circling the Red Planet earlier this week. With this achievement, India has taken its first step into deep space, joining the United States, Russia, and the multi-nation European Space Agency (ESA) at Mars. Expect more company soon. China aimed for Mars in 2011 but missed when Yinghou-1‘s Russian rocket malfunctioned; the nation plans to try again in 2015. Japan also failed in its first Mars attempt, but will join with the ESA to send the BepiColombo probe into orbit around Mercury.

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Will the Higgs Boson Destroy the Universe?

By Corey S. Powell | September 12, 2014 3:36 pm
Higgs boson seen on May 18, 2012. The world did not end. (Credit: CERN)

Higgs boson, detected at the Large Hadron Collider on May 18, 2012. The world did not end. (Credit: CERN)

Improbable as it may seem, this question has been pinging around the Internet a lot this past week, because of a mix of Stephen Hawking and shameless sensationalism. Life is short (with or without the help of the Higgs), so I’ll answer it as succinctly as I can.


If you want to get technical, a Higgs doomsday is possible. No device on Earth could trigger it, though, and in nature it probably wouldn’t happen for 10100  years. So basically, essentially, fundamentally: No. Now let’s move on and worry about more serious concerns.

[You can also follow me on Twitter, where I promise not to spread unnecessary doomsday rumors.]

Why We Explore: A Comet Tale Told in Four Pictures

By Corey S. Powell | September 11, 2014 5:57 pm

There are many ways to explain the reasons for space exploration: the technological spin-offs, the science-education value, the commercial potential of space, the pragmatic lessons back home in everything from space-weather forecasting to mineral exploration. I’ve seen plenty of evidence that all these things are true, yet they dance around the most essential and least tangible motivation.

We explore because it is what living things do. Movement and the acquisition of knowledge are integral to the definition of life. When we explore, we feel more alive. I certainly feel it. When I see the images from afar and begin to understand alien worlds, a spark stirs inside me. One of the greatest sparks I have felt recently comes from the European Space Agency’s Rosetta spacecraft, now executing a complex orbit around a comet called 67P/Churyumov–Gerasimenko. (The name is such a mouthful that scientists often call it Churry, C-G, or just 67P).

This is the first time in history a spacecraft has orbited a comet. What we are seeing there is already spectacular, and is getting steadily more so as Rosetta edges closer to the comet and gets steadily sharper views. Then in November a small lander named Philae will touch down on the comet, analyze its composition, and take pictures from the surface. But I’m getting ahead of myself. There is no need to anticipate the future. The thrill is happening right now, as documented in these four extraordinary images. For more imagery, follow me on Twitter: @coreyspowell

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MORE ABOUT: comet, ESA, NASA, Rosetta, selfie

The End of the Old Solar System, the Beginning of the New

By Corey S. Powell | August 25, 2014 4:41 pm

Today marks not one but two milestones in planetary exploration. It is the 25th anniversary of Voyager 2’s flight past Neptune, the most distant planet ever seen up close. It is also the exact day that the New Horizons spacecraft is crossing Neptune’s orbit on its way to Pluto, the mysterious world that marks the boundary between the solar system we know and the one we don’t.

Flight path of New Horizons. Don't look for Earth's orbit--it's too small to see. (Credit: NASA/JHUAPL)

Flight path of New Horizons. Don’t look for Earth’s orbit–it’s too small to see. (Credit: NASA/JHUAPL)

The known solar system has planets that come in three well-studied varieties: rocky (like Earth), gas giant (like Jupiter), and ice giant (like Neptune). Beyond Neptune, things get complicated and confusing. There’s Pluto, but there’s also the whole Kuiper Belt, a vast collection of other, related objects. Most are the size of small planetary moons, but a few are roughly the size of Pluto and some, yet unseen, might be even bigger. Beyond that is a region called the “scattered disk,” where recurring comets come from. And beyond that comes the really shadowy territory: The Oort Cloud, an inferred swarm of dormant comets stretching almost halfway to the next star.

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