March 17, 2013

6 Mind Blowing Things Nobody Taught You About Black Holes

Filed under: Big Bang, Black Holes, Cool, Cosmology, Gamma Ray Bursts, Supernova, Wierd — bferrari @ 7:02 pm

Black holes are what happens when the universe divides by zero and eats anything that tries to notice. They’re cosmological grizzly bears: an inevitable result of nature that is majestic and terrifying to every species intelligent enough to comprehend them.

Black holes happen when reality has an overflow error: you put too much stuff in one place, and it breaks both the stuff and the place with gravity. Gravity is usually the responsible older sibling of the universe, always pulling things together. Black holes are where gravity goes full Al Capone, calls a meeting of all the fundamental forces of existence and makes a big showy spectacle of crushing them. It doesn’t just crush matter; it crushes the quantum laws that define matter, stomps them all into a compacted nugget until matter stops existing so much. It simply overrides reality.

And yet, most people treat them like cosmic vacuum cleaners. Science fiction characters are worse at understanding black holes than they are at aiming laser weapons, and the coverage they get in most schools only encourage students to kill themselves with trampolines and bowling balls. That’s a shame, since black holes are literally the ultimate everything, so we’re looking at how cool they are.

#6. They’re the Brightest Things in the Sky

“Black hole” is as simple and descriptive a title as “Pied Piper of Hamelin,” and equally misleading. The one thing everybody knows about black holes is that not even light can escape, meaning they’re pictured as the interstellar equivalent of open manhole covers: pitch-black doom awaiting the unwary. But black holes are often the brightest points in the sky.

A black hole.

A black hole.

What people forget is that while there is an “event horizon” boundary inside of which light can’t escape, there’s also an “entire rest of the universe” where it can, often in galaxy-blinding quantities. When a rotating black hole consumes a cloud of interstellar gas, the material is drawn into a spiral, like fluid swirling down the plughole of existence … which is actually what’s cosmologically happening.

The hair around the universe's plughole is ENTIRE GALAXIES.

The hair around the universe’s plughole is ENTIRE GALAXIES.

Meteors light up because a thin layer of gas is being compressed by plummeting space rock and further heated by friction. When gas clouds fall into a black hole, the whole thing is being compressed, plummeting, and being heated by friction. The consumed cloud is its own meteor and atmosphere, and both are burning with cosmic fire. They get so hot, they don’t just glow white, they glow X-ray, converting 10 percent of their total mass into pure energy. For comparison, fusion warheads only convert 0.5 percent of their mass into energy. Understand: Black holes create a place where dropping something releases 20 times more energy than thermonuclear detonation. And our galaxy’s central black hole, Sagittarius A*, will be doing that this year.
Black holes can glow so brightly that they defeat their own gravity. Supermassive black holes can reach the Eddington limit, where continuum radiation force defeats the otherwise irresistible gravitational attraction. (That sentence contains more band names and anime series subtitles than anything else I’ve ever written.) The radiation becomes so intense that it blows away the incoming material. And this isn’t radiation as in “nuclear”; this is radiation as in “light.” As in “move toward the light, except in the real heavens, the light can be so intense that it shoves you back.”

Click here to read the next five!

Higgs boson discovery confirmed

Filed under: Big Bang, Black Holes, Cool, Gadgets, Wierd — bferrari @ 6:38 pm

Subatomic ‘God particle’ would explain why matter has mass

Event recorded with the CMS detector in 2012 at a proton-proton center of mass energy of 8 TeV. The event shows characteristics expected from the decay of the Standard Model Higgs boson to a pair of photons (dashed yellow lines and green towers). The event could also be due to known standard model background processes.

Event recorded with the CMS detector in 2012 at a proton-proton center of mass energy of 8 TeV. The event shows characteristics expected from the decay of the Standard Model Higgs boson to a pair of photons (dashed yellow lines and green towers). The event could also be due to known standard model background processes.

A new subatomic particle discovered at the world’s most powerful particle accelerator is indeed a much sought-after Higgs boson, scientists confirmed Thursday.

That discovery could help to answer fundamental questions about the Big Bang and how the universe came to be.

“To me it is clear that we are dealing with a Higgs boson, though we still have a long way to go to know what kind of Higgs boson it is,” said Joe Incandela, spokesperson for CMS, in a statement. CMS is one of the two experimental efforts at the Large Hadron Collider near the French-Swiss border that have been hunting for the elusive particle.

The statement accompanied the release of the latest results from both CMS and ATLAS, the LHC’s other Higgs boson-hunting experiment, at the Moriond physics conference in the Italy.

RELATED: 6 reasons why the ‘God particle’ matters
According to the Standard Model of Physics, the prevailing theory explaining the physical laws of nature, the Higgs boson imparts mass to other particles. The Higgs boson, nicknamed “the God particle” is the only particle in the Standard Model of Physics that had never been observed.

However, Higgs bosons also exist in some other models of physics that have been proposed, and it is not yet possible to rule out one of the lightest Higgs bosons that exist in a theory called supersymmetry, said Richard Teuscher, the deputy spokesperson for the Canadian scientists involved in ATLAS. Supersymmetry allows for the existence of multiple Higgs bosons, while the Standard Model allows for only one.

The results released Thursday by CERN, the European Organization for Nuclear Research that runs the LHC, include an analysis of all the data collected by CMS and ATLAS in 2012.

Back in July, CERN announced that researchers had found a Higgs-like particle with the right mass to be a Higgs boson, but stopped short of saying they had discovered a Higgs boson.

At that time, Teuscher said in an interview from CERN, researchers had collected only 65 per cent of the 2012 data. With the data gathered during the rest of the year, they were able to reduce the margin of error in the signals and measure not only the mass of the particle, but some other characteristics that are key to identifying it.

For example, researchers have been able to measure a property called spin, and based on that, they have just about ruled out the possibility that the particle they’re seeing is something called a graviton, said Teuscher, an associate professor of physics at the University of Toronto and a research scientist with the Canadian Institute of Particle Physics.

“It’s a beginning. And it so far looks like a Standard Model Higgs,” he said. “But there’s still many properties that we just don’t have the data [for] yet. And there might still be surprises in the future.”

The researchers are hoping to get that better data when the LHC is back up and upgraded to run at a higher energy in 2015, following a two-year shut-down that started late last year. In the meantime, they are continuing to analyze data that was already collected and are upgrading their particle detectors.

The ATLAS and CMS experiments hunt for the Higgs boson by smashing larger particles together at high speeds so that they break apart into smaller particles. Some of those particles decay into even smaller particles. Detectors look for signals left by the particles, and reconstruct what happened in a way that is similar to the way police reconstruct a vehicle collision based on the evidence at the scene. The two experiments use different techniques and detectors to home in on different kinds of signals.

Initially, with just a small amount of data, the signals had a large margin of error, giving a somewhat “blurry” picture of what the researchers may have found. However, the error decreases and the signals come into sharper focus as more and more data is gathered.


March 8, 2013

It’s a date! Millionaire Dennis Tito to send couple on manned Mars mission on Jan. 5, 2018

Filed under: Cool, Gadgets, Inner Solar System, Mars, Space Exploration, Space Ships, Wierd — bferrari @ 9:45 am
An artist's illustration of the Inspiration Mars Foundation's spacecraft for a 2018 mission to Mars by a two-person crew. The private Mars mission would be a flyby trip around the Red Planet. (Inspiration Mars Foundation)

An artist’s illustration of the Inspiration Mars Foundation’s spacecraft for a 2018 mission to Mars by a two-person crew. The private Mars mission would be a flyby trip around the Red Planet. (Inspiration Mars Foundation)

A maverick millionaire obsessed with space travel vowed to send a manned mission to Mars, even announcing the date the rocket carrying one man and one woman would set off for the Red Planet: Jan. 5, 2018.

On that date, a preferably married couple yet to be chosen will enter a tiny space capsule for the longest date in history — rocketing into the heavens and the record books, promised Dennis Tito, the brains behind The Inspiration Mars Foundation and the American businessman who paid about $20 million to visit the International Space Station in 2001 aboard a Russian spacecraft.



“This is humanity’s first flight out to Mars, and humanity should be represented by both genders,” Dennis Tito said.

“We hope that we can find a married couple. When you’re out that far and the Earth is a tiny blue pinpoint, you’re going to need someone you can hug. What better solution to the psychological problems you’re going to encounter with that isolation?” Read more


After a trip of about 140 million miles, the brave couple will be the first humans ever to peer out a window at Mars — but not set foot there.

Their spacecraft will not stop on the surface of the planet, instead orbiting around the Red Planet at a distance of 100 miles out before using the planet’s gravity to slingshot back to the Earth, he said.

“This will be a Lewis and Clark mission to Mars,” explained Taber MacCallum, CEO for space development company Paragon and one of the scientists working on the Inspiration Mars program.

Why now? Why 2018?
f we don’t seize the moment, we may miss the opportunity to explore Mars, the group claims. That’s because the Jan. 2018 deadline is a hard one: According to a 1996 paper that inspired the private project, the planets only come together perfectly for a mission like this once every 15 years. And while the next window is just five short years away, the follow-up won’t be until 2031.

“The planets realign every 15 years, and who wants to wait for 2031?” Tito said. “By that time, we might have company.”

Tito himself won’t be flying on this mission; rather, it will be an unnamed, middle-aged crew consisting of a man and a woman.

“I will not be one of the crew members. And if I were 30 years younger, I still would not be,” Tito said. Instead mechanically trained (and likely much younger) astronauts will pilot the craft on its mission.


‘This will be a Lewis and Clark mission to Mars.’

– Taber MacCallum chief technology officer for space development company Paragon


The trip is relatively straightforward, according to the various presenters at the event, akin to a low-earth orbit trip in complexity. But due to the distances involved, there are obvious, glaring risks to the 501-day mission.

“It’s 1.4 years, no chance for abort. If something goes wrong, there’s no chance of coming back … and we’re going to re-enter at record speeds, 14.2 kilometers per second,” explained MacCallum. The trip is conceptually feasible, he said, but the technical details to make it happen have yet to be completed. There are a wealth of spacecraft being developed at present, giving them a wealth of options, however.

He called it a demonstration that could lead to further exploration of Mars.

“We’re trying to be a stepping stone toward that” he said. But “a program of record is really needed to make that happen.”

How will astronauts make it to Mars?
Technology aside, will people be able to survive such a mission however, trapped in a tiny capsule and breathing the same air day in and day out, month after month, all the way to Mars and back?

Absolutely, explained Jonathan Clark , chief medical officer for Inspiration Mars — and the medical officer for Felix Baumgartner’s recent dramatic plunge from space.

“This is going to be the Apollo 8 moment for the next generation,” he said. “It’s about inspiring our children, particularly my son. To me this really strikes a deep personal note.”

To keep the crew alive in deep space, where we have limited experience, he would rely on past experience working in micro gravity. Radiation may be an issue, he said. Clark said individual genomic analysis of the astronauts would allow them to tailor protection to the mission. And other advanced studies and research would be necessary to protect the astronauts, whom he said would be “middle-aged.”

“Do we have our work cut out for us? Yes, absolutely,” he said. Beyond merely sustaining the crew, the team will be challenged by the psychological stress of such a mission.

“It’s a really long road trip, you’re jammed into an RV that goes the equivalent of 32,000 times around the Earth…and they’ll have about 3,000 pounds of dehydrated food that they’ll get to rehydrate with the same water they drank two days ago,” explained Jane Poynter, also of Paragon and also a member of the project.

A system that provides all of the basic needs of the crew already exists, she said, based on the system in place on the International Space Station, though it is simpler and more robust.

It’s important that we have a man and woman on the mission, she said, because they reflect humanity. And having both genders reflect should serve further to inspire the next generation to look to the stars — and open their science text books.

“Getting a tweet from a female astronaut, from Mars, and looking down at what she’s seeing and describe it for us? And then turning around and looking back at Earth and describing that tiny dot that she’s seeing? These two astronauts will take all of us along on the ride,” Poynter said.

The cost of the mission is still not determined, Tito explained, although reports say it could cost as much as $1 billion. But it will clearly be a money-loser for the former NASA scientist, who founded the investment firm Wilshire Associates that eventually made him a millionaire.

“This is not a commercial mission,” he said. “Let me guarantee, I will come out a lot poorer as a result of this mission. But my grandchildren will come out a lot wealthier because of the inspiration they will get from this mission.” But the mission will be cheap, he stressed.

“This is really chump change compared to what we’ve heard before.”

The team already has a signed space act agreement with NASA, and says they will launch the craft from Moffitt Field at NASA’s Ames facility in California. The space agency on Wednesday applauded the goals of Inspiration Mars.

“This type of private sector effort is further evidence of the timeliness and wisdom of the Obama Administration’s overall space policy,” said NASA spokesman David Steitz, in a statement posted on

“It’s a testament to the audacity of America’s commercial aerospace industry and the adventurous spirit of America’s citizen-explorers.”


March 7, 2013

Scientists zero in on identifying ‘God particle,’ but still require more to say for sure

Filed under: Big Bang, Cool, Cosmology, Gadgets — bferrari @ 1:34 pm
Dec. 10, 2011: Two high-energy photons shown as red towers are smashed together in the LHC. The yellow lines are the measured tracks of other particles produced in the collision -- possible evidence in the hunt for the Higgs Boson. (CERN)

Dec. 10, 2011: Two high-energy photons shown as red towers are smashed together in the LHC. The yellow lines are the measured tracks of other particles produced in the collision — possible evidence in the hunt for the Higgs Boson. (CERN)

WASHINGTON –  Physicists in Italy are achingly close to concluding that what they found last year was the Higgs boson, the elusive “God particle.” They need to eliminate one last remote possibility that it’s something else.

The long theorized subatomic particle would explain why matter has mass and has been called a missing cornerstone of physics.

With new analyses, scientists are closer to being certain they found the crucial Higgs boson. But they want to be 99.9 percent positive, said Pauline Gagnon, a physicist with the European Center for Nuclear Research.


‘It looks more and more like a Higgs boson.’

– Pauline Gagnon, a physicist with the European Center for Nuclear Research


Last July scientists with the world’s largest atom smasher, the $10 billion Large Hadron Collider on the Swiss-French border, announced finding a particle they described as Higgs-like, but wouldn’t say it was conclusively the particle. Now thousands of checks show them even closer.

“It looks more and more like a Higgs boson,” said Gagnon after an update presented Wednesday at a conference in the Italian Alps.

Gagnon compared finding the Higgs to identifying a specific person. This looks, talks, and sings like a Higgs, but scientists want to make sure it dances like the Higgs before they shout “Eureka.”

She said there is only one last thing the particle they found could also be: a graviton. That’s another subatomic particle associated with gravitational fields, not mass.

By checking the spin of the particle, scientists will be able to tell if it is a Higgs boson, which is far more likely, or a graviton. If it has no internal spin, it’s the Higgs boson; if it has a lot of spin it’s a graviton.

Wednesday’s presentation was by one team of researchers and another team will present more findings next week.

Physicist Sean Carroll of the California Institute of Technology, who isn’t involved in the research, said scientists are just being careful, covering all bases.

Without the Higgs boson to explain why electrons and matter have mass, Carroll said, “there would be no atoms, there would be no chemistry, there would be no life, so that’s kind of important.”

Blog at