The Universe is Dying (Albeit Slowly)

It can be argued that death is pretty much the only constant in the universe: from living organisms to entire galaxies, everything has an expiration date — including the universe itself.

This is the conclusion of the international Galaxy and Mass Assembly (GAMA) project, which presented its recent findings at an international astronomical gathering in Hawaii. As NPR reported:

“The universe will decline from here on in, sliding gently into old age,” said Simon Driver, a professor at the University of Western Australia who also leads the GAMA team. “The universe has basically sat down on the sofa, pulled up a blanket and is about to nod off for an eternal doze,” Simon said in the statement.

Scientists have known for about two decades that the universe is fading. Using ground-based and space telescopes, the GAMA study aims to map and model all energy within a large portion of space to get a better understanding of how this is happening.

The GAMA research is the largest-ever multi-wavelength survey and includes energy output at 21 energy wavelengths, from the ultraviolet to the far infrared, according to the group.

What the researchers found is that the decline is seen across all wavelengths.

As NPR’s Nell Greenfieldboyce reported for All Things Considered, “that may be because the fuel needed to make stars and keep them going is just running out.”

“Once you’ve burned up all the fuel in the universe, essentially, that’s it,” says Joe Liske of the University of Hamburg, one of the members of the research team. “The stars die, like a fire dies, and then you have embers left over that then glow but eventually cool down. And the fire just goes out,” Liske told NPR.

As this is the most comprehensive study yet conducted on the universe, the finding “pretty much closes the case”, as one physicist and astronomer put it.

But not to worry: the universe still has several billion years ahead of it.

Link

Happy 194th Birthday Léon Foucault

Two centuries ago, it was difficult for scientists to model intricate planetary orbits. Léon Foucault helped devise a method to make celestial orbits a bit easier to understand. 

Wednesday marks the 194th anniversary of the French physicist’s birth. To celebrate Mr. Foucault and his breakthrough pendulum, let’s take a look at how he was able to model Earth’s rotation.

Jean Bernard Léon Foucault was born in Paris in 1819. While Foucault received a medical education, the profession did not quite suit him. The young doctor is said to have a distaste for bloody medical dissections. But Foucault was brilliant when it came to making models, tools, and devices. 

And Foucault’s craftsmanship came in handy.

Foucault and a series of teachers, bosses, and partners tackled many scientific questions by building contraptions that could make hard-to-grasp phenomenas more tangible. Foucault was able to measure the speed of light. He improved the daguerreotype, an early form of photography. He found a way to prove that light is a wave, not a beam of particles. He named the gyroscope, a stabilizing tool found in everything from toys to the International Space Station. 

In 1851, Foucault made one of his best-remembered experiments: the scientist devised the first model to demonstrate the rotation of the earth on its axis.

People had tried many different ways to explain Earth’s rotation before Foucault. One group had even launched cannon balls up into the air with the hopes that the world would spin enough that they could measure the deviation once the ball plummeted back to earth. Compared to that loud, inaccurate (and dangerous) plan, Foucault’s solution was remarkably elegant. He strung up a brass weight at the end of six-foot wire. The metal ball hung over a pile of damp sand, just close enough that the brass brushed against the sand as it swung slowly back and forth. At first, the pendulum simply carved a straight line in the sand. But over the course of several hours, the line turned into a bow-tie shape.

Newton’s laws of motion state that an object will not change direction unless another force hits it. This means that while Foucault’s pendulum kept swinging in the same direction, the earth (and the sand on the ground) turned underneath it. It’s as if you drew a line back and forth repeatedly on a piece of paper, but then slowly rotated the sheet as you kept drawing – eventually the lines would form a circle.  

Foucault’s experiment became a sensation. The French government even ordered a large-scale version that would hang inside the Pantheon in Paris, with a 219-foot, 61-pound pendulum suspended from the building’s dome. Modern-day pendulums hang in the United Nations headquarters in New York, the California Academy of Sciences in San Francisco, the Boston Museum of Science, and many other locations.

Origin of the Universe

Following my recent musings about the scale and nature of the universe, I’ve pondered an even more perplexing question: where did our universe even come from in the first place? How did it begin and develop, and why is it the way that it is?

One of the most difficult concepts for anyone – nonreligious or otherwise – to wrap their head around, is the notion that everything we know within this vast universe (including said universe itself) apparently came about for no reason and without any origin. While that’s putting it crudely, many average people find it hard to imagine anything having existed without the designs of an omnipotent entity, despite that raising  a similar issue as to where this entity itself came from.

In any case, I lack both the time and the expertise to adequately address this topic, so I’m leaving it to someone who’s more than qualified in the matter: prominent theoretical physicist and cosmologist Lawrence Krauss. In the video below, he gives us a picture of what we know so far about our universe, where its heading (indeed, it is changing), and how it’s possible that all of it could have emerged from nothing, without a first cause. It’s kind of long, at around an hour, but it was a very illuminating discussion.

There’s clearly quite a lot about this universe we don’t know about – indeed, there’s much about the human body, Earth, and numerous other complex systems that we still have to learn and discover. But humans have come a very long way in understanding everything around  us, and there’s no telling what remarkable illuminations we’ll come across in the future. Even if we never find the answers, it doesn’t make the journey any less education, riveting, and beautiful. As Krauss states early on, it is the mysteries of reality – the not knowing – that makes science so exciting and worthwhile in its pursuit.

Happy Belated Birthday to Sir Isaac Newton

I do not know what I may appear to the world, but to myself I seem to have been only like a boy playing on the sea-shore, and diverting myself in now and then finding a smoother pebble or a prettier shell than ordinary, whilst the great ocean of truth lay all undiscovered before me.

January 4, 1643 was the birthday of one of the greatest thinkers and scientists the world has ever known. Newton, like Einstein, is a household name for genius, and he’s generally one of the first and best known figures in any study of science. Just about any grade-school student can recall the famous anecdote for which he is best known, involving the seemingly trivial fall of an apple from a tree. It is a testimony to his greatness that Newton could view a mundane phenomenon such as that, and from there lead himself to understand the intricate mechanics of the universe that we take for granted. As one anecdote by a friend described:

We went into the garden, and drank tea under the shade of some apple trees, only he and myself. Amidst other discourse, he told me, he was just in the same situation, as when formerly, the notion of gravitation came into his mind. “why should that apple always descend perpendicularly to the ground,” thought he to him self: occasion’d by the fall of an apple, as he sat in a comtemplative mood: “why should it not go sideways, or upwards? but constantly to the earths centre? assuredly, the reason is, that the earth draws it. there must be a drawing power in matter. & the sum of the drawing power in the matter of the earth must be in the earths centre, not in any side of the earth. therefore dos this apple fall perpendicularly, or toward the centre. if matter thus draws matter; it must be in proportion of its quantity. therefore the apple draws the earth, as well as the earth draws the apple

His reputation is greatly deserved, and his contributions to physics – spurred on by that greatest of human qualities, curiosity – fundamentally changed what we know about physical world around us. To this day he is rightly extolled as one of the most influential contributors to human intellectual endeavors in history.
 
Though he befits a far long post, the time available to devote to him is sadly short, so I strongly encourage you all to take a moment to read up on him yourselves. He’s well-worth the effort, if only for the wonder that he inspires to aspiring minds everywhere.

Magnet Madness!

Like most children, I was fascinated by magnets, as I’m sure many of you could relate. My experience of magnetic phenomena was among my first introduction to the very concept of science. I learned about magnetism in class, saw magnets do remarkable things on various science shows, and found them in just about every science shop or home science kit. They’re a defining symbol of science, encapsulating the invisible but natural forces that define most foundations scientific observations, from gravity to atomic structures.

It’s great to see that they can still impress me beyond belief. Being all grown up, I didn’t think I could find much amusement in the same old magnetic properties I’ve long encountered. But thanks to a good friend of mine, I was able to see one of the most remarkable applications of magnetic force yet, courtesy of Gizmodo (a tech site I’m becoming increasingly in love with). Though there’s a video in the hyper-linked article, I’ll re-post a similar video, with more explanations, below.

The phenomenon being display is known as quantum locking, and it looks unreal to me. Just imagine the applications with respect to hover technology, particularly on a mass-transit scale. I’m sure it’s far and away from that implementation, but it remains a likely possibility I think.

If anyone is curious to learn more about the mechanics and history of QL, check out a site created solely to explain it, based out of Tel Aviv University in Israel (where the experiment we saw was presented). These sorts of fascinating displays really brings out the kid in me. There is a certain nostalgia to seeing my imagination rocked this hard.

Neutrinos Defy Laws of Physics?

I know I’m quite late in getting to this topic, especially as it’s been making its rounds all over the web. But aside from my computer being down, I was also hesitant to jump the gun on it without knowing more. In this so-called “Information Age” of the never ending news cycle, it’s easy for all kinds of claims to be made and immediately proliferated across the endless mediums of data – even if they might be mistaken, falsified, or misunderstood.

But it also means that the entire world is scrutinizing any given report, allowing a sort of global peer-review to take hold and determine the validity of the claims made. With that being said, I think it’s been long enough to determine that this remarkable discovery is worth some serious analysis, even if it’s not yet certain.

The claim in question, for those not yet aware, is that subatomic particles known as neutrinos have gone faster than the speed of light, which is essentially an iron-clad “speed limit” established in Einstein’s universally accepted Theory of Relativity. Now, I’m aware there is a lot of background information to cover here, so I’ll do my best to do so clearly and concisely; if all else fails, I’ve got links to the relevant sources. I’m going to consider this practice for writing more science-based articles, so by all means, scrutinize my writings intensely. Otherwise, this blog gives a nice and brief summary.

Firstly, neutrinos are very strange things to begin with. They’re elementary particles, meaning that they are as small as matter gets. Despite what we learned in grade school science, electrons – which are found in atoms, the smallest unit of matter – are not the smallest component of matter, though they too are elementary particles. I had a hard enough time wrapping my head around the existence of atoms, let along electrons, let alone something even smaller! In fact, neutrinos aside from being so small, are also electrically neutral, which means that unlike most types of matter, big or small, they can’t be acted upon my electromagnetic force. This gives them the ability to pass through matter with ease. As this New York Times report notes:

Neutrinos are among the weirdest denizens of the weird quantum subatomic world. Once thought to be massless and to travel at the speed of light, they can sail through walls and planets like wind through a screen door. Moreover, they come in three varieties and can morph from one form to another as they travel along, an effect that the Opera experiment was designed to detect by comparing 10-microsecond pulses of protons on one end with pulses of neutrinos at the other.

Hence why scientists are so interested. The OPERA experiment mentioned in the quote refers to the European project that first reported this finding: the Oscillation Project with Emulsion-Tracking Apparatus, which is based in the San Grasso Lab in Italy. In turn, this group is part of CERN, the European Center for Nuclear Research, best known for it’s Large Hadron Collider (though that played no part in this experiment). Basically, a beam of neutrinos from the main CERN laboratory based in Geneva, Switzerland was fired to the San Grasso facility in Italy. All of their highly precise measuring equipment found it to have arrived faster than the speed of light – not by a huge amount, but enough to merit much interest and speculation. For anyone that is interested, they first posted these results here.

The reason this is such a big deal, as I mentioned earlier, is that it would defy Einstein’s Theory of Relatively, which is a major basis for the nature of  reality (and is made up of two other theories; for the sake of simplicity I won’t get into specifics. The speed of light is supposed to be a universal constant: no form of matter can transcend, because it would require infinite energy to do so (and that in turn doesn’t exist). As an MSNBC article succinctly explains:

Einstein’s theory, which he proposed in 1905, describes the relativity of motion, particularly the motion of anything moving at or close to the speed of light. At the time, people believed that light waves, just as sound waves, ocean waves or shock waves, had to travel through a medium. But rather than air, water or ground, they believed light waves traveled through a substance called ether, less tangible than air, that pervaded the universe.

Scientists assumed that the laws of physics would be different for an object at rest with respect to the ether, and with the proper experiments it would be possible to figure out what was truly at rest, according to Peter Galison, a professor of physics and the history of science at Harvard University. [Twisted Physics: 7 Mind-Blowing Findings]

“Einstein got rid of that,” Galison said. “There are no physical properties that go with the statement ‘I am truly at rest.’ That’s really what special relativity is about.”

In other words, the properties of physics are the same for me whether I am riding my bicycle or sitting on a park bench. Special relativity, however, does not apply to acceleration. Einstein would tackle this later in his general theory of relativity.

Special relativity is also based on a second assumption that gives the speed of light — 186,000 miles per second — in a vacuum a special status. Einstein postulated that light always travels at the same speed for every observer, regardless of that observer’s speed, Galison explained.

So, if you have a fast enough car, in theory, you could catch up to a bullet. But you could never catch up to, or even reduce the apparent speed of a pulse of light, regardless of whether you were driving toward it or away from it.

Thus, the stakes are high. If this result is confirmed to be accurate, then it would undo a lot of what we’ve based our understanding of the universe on. I don’t want to overstate this point, however: it’s not like physics as we know it would be jeopardized and we’d have to start from scratch. But it does means we’d have to re-assess a lot of what we’ve held as matter of fact, including more than a century of experiments  and developments in physics.

If the finding of the OPERA experiment does pan out, the implications are much more mind-bending. Under special relativity, if something travels faster than the speed of light, it goes backwards in time. Such a proposition could interfere with the basic rule that cause precedes effect, called causality.

“The reason a lot of physicists are very unmoved by these claims is that it could make causality itself very problematic,” Galison said. In other words, it could raise the prospect of time travel.

There is another issue too. Einstein introduced the speed of light as a mathematical constantc. If neutrinos can indeed exceed the speed of light, then c loses its special status, giving rise to a host of other problems elsewhere in physics, where c has been used in calculations, such as the famous formula E=mc2.

It would also call into question all the experiments done to test the notions of special relativity, and why they had never yielded anything like this. After all, scientists didn’t just assume all of this was true: it’s remained rock-solid since the very day Einstein postulated it. That’s precisely why there’s been so much surprise and incredulity. On the other hand, given the robust nature of the technology involved, it seems unlikely – though by no means impossible – for such an error in measurement to have been made.

Then there is the middle-ground that suggests that neutrinos, even if they are moving that fast, haven’t violated the theory of relativity at all. The exact origin of those tested is unknown, and they may simple be a firm that would fit neatly into the established foundations of physics. I won’t get into the complex arguments made in this particular case, but it’s another angle to consider.

It is for these reasons that most scientists and scientific publications have remained more-or-less neutral on the subject pending more experiments. Indeed, I’m not scientist myself, and I’m very skeptical of trying to take a position on one side or the other just yet. As the saying goes, extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. It’ll take a lot more confirmation – and most importantly, repeated observations in tests – to give this any solid credence; there are important questions to consider too. It’s just interesting, and frankly fun, to consider the implications regardless.

Indeed, to their credit, many of the senior scientists involved wanted to distance themselves from any publication of this study barring more research. And even those that agreed to publish it did so for the sake of peer-review and analysis. That is what I love about science: it’s all about fact-checking, evidence, and a rigorous standard for truth. This is a textbook example of how any claim or argument should be treated and dealt with. I always get excited to see science work in such an ideal way.

Lastly, I’ve noticed a popular new meme that has emerged that claims Nikola Tesla had predicted all this almost a century ago. Sadly, as neat as that would’ve been, this isn’t the case. Even I had been susceptible to it, until I did further research. Always check your facts folks! Never shy from doubt or inquiry, and always consult as many credible opinions, perspectives, and source as possible. The scientific way of doing things is useful far beyond the realm of science.

Time

There are moments in life when I just wish time would stop. Is it just me, or does it seem to accelerate as more of it passes by? I feel the weeks going by faster nowadays than they did just years ago, though I know that is apparently a normal result of the brain developing and becoming more apt at processing the world around it.

I find the idea of time, and how it relates to us and our perceptions, to be fascinating, if not poorly understood.

In any case, it’s hard to believe how far I’ve come. I’ve been on this Earth 23 years. I’ve seen so many things change and occur even in my relatively short life span. Time seems to move quickly now, not only because of the neurological reasons I noted before, but perhaps because of the increasing complexity and advancement of society and technology. We have so much more to do now, and so many ways to do it. Everything is about speed and efficiency, and with that we lose the opportunity to truly sit back and enjoy life, to soak it all in. Paid vacations and weekends last only so long, especially when people are still worrying about bills, debt, what awaits when they return, and so on.

None of this is meant to sound cynical – it’s merely an observation. It can be argued that the overwhelming information stimulus of our modern age is a small price to pay for it’s great achievements, such as the advancements in medicine and the great reductions in poverty .

I suppose I’m simply finding myself mire in a common concern for our generation (if not all young people): being overwhelmed by choices, having so much to do and so little time to do it, and feeling that – despite being so young and looking forward to a longer life – I  still nonetheless feel as if I’m old. Obviously, relative to the past, I’m older. But I’m not just speaking in technical terms: I truly feel as if time is running out for me in some way. Even though I may hopefully have decades of life left to enjoy, I keep feeling this sense of impending doom, as if crossing a certain age threshold within the next few years will trigger a downward spiral in which I won’t be able to have much fun anymore. I know none of this makes sense, but that doesn’t stop me from feeling this way.

I’m reflecting on current events throughout my life time too.  As I write this, economies are in turmoil, riots are intensifying in several cities, rebel movements are trying to change history in their nations, powers are rising – there is an incalculable number of events transpiring throughout the world, some of which the significance won’t be known. What will be the consequences of  all these things a few years down the road? Or a few decades? Will they end up being world-changing in unexpected ways? Will some of the minor occurrences I’m reading about be looked back on decades from now, only knowing then what we couldn’t have possibly known now? It’s both scary and captivating, as a news junkie, to see so much going and on and having no idea how it will end or what will follow. Maybe that’s why I’m so addicted to self-saturation of media.

With so many more things happening at once, and in quick succession, it’s no wonder time moves fast: what is time but the measurement of the duration of events, the intervals between them, and the movement of everything – us and the world – in relation to it all. Some say time is a real thing, a fundamental and measurable structure of the universe that exists objective (aka Newtonian time). Others hold it to be nothing more than subjective, something that exists only in our minds – a concept and nothing more.

Who’s to say time moves in a linear fashion either? Numerous cultures, particularly ancient and Eastern ones, such as the Mayan, Ancient Greeks, Babylonians, Buddhists, and Hindus (among others), held time to by cyclical. It would be strange to imagine time repeating itself as opposed to progressing endlessly, but a part of me finds that to be somewhat more preferable for some reason.

I think I’m way over my head in trying to make sense of it all. In any case, all any of us can do is go with the flow. As the saying goes, time waits for no one. So on that note, I’ll do the best I can to make every minute of it count. Even if I’m just lounging around or getting lost in some mindless video game (which I don’t do that often anyway), it’s all just part of the experience.

What is life and the passage of time but a series of experiences, good or bad, small or big?

Stephen Hawking’s “Curiosity: The Questions of Life”

While I’m on the subject of science, I thought I’d share a great show that recently debuted on the Discovery Channel hosted by none other than Stephen Hawking  (hint: one of the answers to the “Name that Scientist” quiz I posted earlier). Given the channel’s tragic decline from actual science to the watered-down pop variety – packaged mostly in reality television form no less – it’s refreshing to see some small resurgence in scientific topics. I really hope it starts a trend.

The show’s premise is aimed at tackling the bigger questions of science, such as how the universe was created and how it operates. It even explicitly touches on the subject of God and whether such an entity could have been responsible for it all. I consider this to be ground breaking, since – to my knowledge – no popular science show has ever directly sought to address whether there is a God based on what we know of the universe. Even discounting this contentious question, I think the show gives a great explanation of how remarkable our universe’s workings are.

Anyway, here are the four parts that comprise the very first episode. I leave it up to you all to judge for yourselves.

Part 1:

Part 2:

Part 3:

Part 4:

Hope you all enjoy. Feel free to leave any feedback here as well. If anyone is interested, there is also a two-part post-episode “conversation” between Hawking and some other scientists and theologians concerning the topic of God and physics.

Part 1:

Part 2: 

I personally think it’s quite interesting and I look forward to seeing more shows like this continue to encourage frank discussion and dialogue on the subject, especially to a mass audience (I can only hope they’re as receptive to at least hearing out the premise as I am).