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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Did NASA Validate an “Impossible” Space Drive? In a Word, No.

By Corey S. Powell | August 6, 2014 3:27 am

Physicist John Baez has another, more colorful word to describe the spate of recent reports about a breakthrough space engine that produces thrust without any propellant. The word starts with “bull–.” I won’t finish it, this being a family-friendly web site and all. Baez himself has softened his tone and now calls it “baloney,” though his sentiment remains the same: The laws of physics remain intact, and the “impossible” space drive is, as far as anyone can tell, actually impossible.

Yes, that would be cool, but we still have no idea how to do it. (Credit: Paramount Pictures)

Yes, that would be awesome, but we still have no idea how to do it. (Credit: Paramount Pictures)

The story begins several years back with a British inventor named Roger Shawyer and his EmDrive, a prototype rocket engine which he claimed generated thrust by bouncing microwaves around in an enclosed metal funnel. Since no mass or energy emerged from the engine, Shawyer’s claim was another way of saying that he’d found a way to violate the conservation of momentum. In Baez’s words, “this is about as plausible as powering a spaceship by having the crew push on it from the inside.” Shawyer argued that he was exploiting a loophole within general relativity. Baez calls his explanation “mumbo jumbo.”

Everything in science is open to questioning, of course, but nobody is going to throw out all the textbooks on the say-so of a single inventor trying to raise money for his company, SPR Ltd. Conservation of momentum is one of the most fundamental and thoroughly confirmed principles in physics. The EmDrive therefore got little notice outside of the “weird science” web sites. Last year, a Chinese group reported success with a similar device, prompting another blip of fringe coverage but little more.

Then Guido Fetta (a self-described “sales and marketing executive with more than 20 years of experience in the chemical, pharmaceutical and food ingredient industries”) built a third version of the EmDrive, renamed the Cannae Drive. Fetta convinced a sympathetic group of researchers at the Eagleworks Laboratories, part of NASA’s Johnson Space Center, to give it a test. The results were maybe, tentatively, a little bit encouraging. And that is when the nonexistent propellant really hit the fan.

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The Silent Centennial of Space Exploration

By Corey S. Powell | July 20, 2014 7:46 am

The drawing that launched a thousand ships: Goddard’s liquid-fueled rocket, patented July 14, 1914.

Noisy revolutions often emerge from quiet beginnings. So it was with the revolution of the Space Age. Forty five years ago today, a Saturn V rocket roared off from Cape Kennedy and carried the first humans to the moon; Buzz Aldrin and many others are marking the anniversary with live and virtual reminiscences (NASA has some information here, or you can find a lot using the #Apollo45 tag on Twitter). Lost in these worthy celebrations of Apollo 11’s achievement, though, is the simultaneous centennial of the much less tumultuous event that helped make it all possible.

One hundred years ago this week, Robert H. Goddard received a pioneering patent for a liquid-fueled rocket–just like the one that took Buzz Aldrin, Neil Armstrong, and Michael Collins to the moon. It was the one small step that led to one small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind.

The patents marked a crucial turning point in the life of Goddard, as he transformed his early musings about rocketry and space exploration into concrete schemes. In 1913 he had come down with tuberculosis so severe that his doctors were unsure he would ever recover. He made the best of his long period of convalescence and, as his health slowly improved, drew up his first two rocketry patents. The first, for a multi-stage solid fuel rocket was granted on July 7, 1914.  The second, for the liquid-fueled rocket, was approved a week later on July 14. (You can view the former patent here, and the landmark liquid-fuel rocket patent here.)

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“How Can You Talk About Space Exploration at a Time Like This?”

By Corey S. Powell | July 18, 2014 1:48 pm

That is the question that a colleague of mine posed in response to the horrific events unfolding in Ukraine, Iraq, and Gaza (not to mention Pakistan, Afghanistan, Tunisia, Burma, and many other places that have been pushed out of the headlines in the hierarchy of bad news). In essence she was saying: “Time for some perspective. Stories about space sails and black holes are fun, but there comes a time when you have to focus on the real problems right here on Earth.”

LightSail-1 will surf on sunlight: not a distraction, but a way forward for humanity.

LightSail-1 will surf on sunlight: not a distraction, but a way forward for humanity. (Credit: Josh Spradling/the Planetary Society)

I agree, and I disagree completely.

I’ve thought a lot about this question, since it comes up often in my life. I report extensively on topics in physics, space, and astronomy. The people I write about rely heavily on university and government support. They are well aware that, in most cases, their research has no immediate, hard practical benefits, yet they care passionately about their work. I do, too. The reason I feel so strongly is that I agree about the need for perspective, but I think this kind of big-picture science offers exactly the kind of perspective people need–especially in times of trouble.

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Deep Digital Science Behind “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes”

By Corey S. Powell | July 12, 2014 8:20 am

Over the years, Planet of the Apes has been many things: a satirical French novel, a landmark science fiction movie, a series of uneven sequels, a disastrous Tim Burton reboot. But ever since the book hit the screen, the most memorable thing about the franchise has been the effects. (OK, Charlton Heston’s ripe line readings are pretty memorable, too.) The latex masks of the original 1968 movie were revolutionary at the time, and are still remarkably effective, but they’re nothing compared to the digital wizardry of the latest series Apes movies, which began with 2011’s Rise of the Planet of the Apes and continues this weekend with the powerful new Dawn of the Planet of the Apes.

Uh oh, here comes trouble. Incredibly well-crafted digital ape trouble. (Credit: WETA/20th Century Fox)

Uh oh, here comes trouble. Incredibly well-crafted, digital ape trouble. (Credit: WETA/20th Century Fox)

I checked in with Joe Letteri, the visual effects supervisor for both Rise and Dawn and director of Weta Digital, to find out how he created the film’s remarkably detailed world. Letteri’s long resume also includes key work on Avatar and the Lord of the Rings movies. His answers led into a deep, thoughtful exploration of the technology of modern movie-making, along with the unexpected connections between digital effects and zoology, medicine, and even particle physics. I had originally expected I would just quote Letteri in my story, but he proved such an engaging interview that I’m sharing his comments in full.

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