Tuesday, June 26, 2012

The *big* picture (part 2)

In "The *big* picture (part 1)" we reviewed astronomical news of Mercury, Venus, Earth, and (some) asteroids. Today we'll start with Mars and head on out ...

Beginning with the possibility that maybe Mars isn't as dry as it has seemed. Indeed, perhaps "Parts of Mars's interior are as wet as Earth's." Studies of meteors of Martian origin indicate that:
... the mantle from which the meteorites derived contained between 70 and 300 parts per million (ppm) of water. Earth's mantle,  for comparison, holds roughly 50-300 ppm water, researchers said. 
Does (or has) Martian life made use of that water? I'm skeptical of models that get ahead of experiment, but it's nonetheless interesting to read the argument -- reliant on comparative mathematical complexities -- that "Mars Viking Robots 'Found Life.'" Here's an overview of the approach:

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

The *big* picture (part 1)

A long overdue, news of astronomy post.

Let's begin with reports from MESSENGER -- MErcury Surface, Space ENvironment, GEochemistry and Ranging. (How long did someone labor to come up with that acronym -- still to cheat, repeatedly?) This mission learned a lot about our solar system's innermost planet. Recursively, perhaps, I consider findings about that world's innermost parts the most fascinating:
Mercury's core is huge for the planet's size, about 85% of the planetary radius, even larger than previous estimates. The planet is sufficiently small that at one time many scientists thought the interior should have cooled to the point that the core would be solid. However, subtle dynamical motions measured from Earth-based radar combined with parameters of the gravity field, as well as observations of the magnetic field that signify an active core dynamo, indicate that Mercury's core is at least partially liquid. 
Moving out ...

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Of strangenesses great, small, and virtual

There's lots of news this post from the realms of physics, technology, and SF.

(But first ... a few days ago this blog added a syndication outlet, through my authorial page at the massively popular book-review site Goodreads. If you're a newcomer to SF and Nonsense: welcome! [And an FYI: for unknown reasons, formatting and layout suffer a bit in the syndication. Posts are easier to read if you click through the link "View more on Edward M. Lerner's website."])

A Higgs going to pieces?
Is the Higgs boson coming out of hiding? If yes -- which would mean particle physics is finally going to have a basis for believing it understands the notion of mass -- will the long-reigning Standard Model of particle physics be collateral damage? From Ars Technica a few weeks ago, see: "Hiding in the Higgs data: hints of physics beyond the standard model."

Proof that the Higgs exists would be hugeEven a hint that it had been found was a major story. But the biggest physics news in 2011 was the evidence for faster-than-light neutrinos. Hardly anyone believed the FTL measurement -- least of all the researchers reporting it -- but that's what the preliminary data seemed to say.

And so, there were crosschecks, retests, and independent experiments. That's how science is (or should be) done -- even when  the results aren't surprising. And the outcome? In March, "2nd neutrino team refutes faster-than-light find." In April, the "Leader of Controversial 'Faster-Than-Light' Physics Experiments Resigns" amid growing controversy over the flawed experiments. And just days ago, from "Final Nail? Faster-Than-Light Neutrinos Aren't, Scientists Conclude"): 
The same lab that first reported the shocking results last September, which could have upended much of modern physics, has now reported that the subatomic particles called neutrinos "respect the cosmic speed limit. 
Bottom-lining it, Einstein once again has his laurels intact. That's a big part of what makes the is-it-or-isn't-it status of the Higgs boson so interesting. The Standard Model is part and parcel of quantum mechanics, and the quantum-mechanical view of the universe is inherently discontinuous. (Hence those quirky quanta. Say that quickly ten times.) Relativity has an inherently continuous view of the universe. For more than a century, physicists have tried to reconcile these two great -- and very different -- models of The Way Nature Works.

As physicist John Wheeler brilliantly summarized Einsteinian general relativity, "Matter tells space-time how to curve, and space-time tells matter how to move." Imagine that the Higgs boson shows up tomorrow to validate the particle physicist's understanding of matter's attribute of mass. We'll still need an explanation for how space-time gets curved.

But that's enough (heh heh) heavy stuff for one post. Let's lighten things up. 

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

The Crudetastrophe cometh ...

An oil-well explosion and blowout in the Gulf of Mexico.

Deepwater Horizon disaster
Chaos, revolution, and oil-supply disruptions across the Middle East. 

Post-tsunami meltdowns of four Japanese nuclear power reactors, leading to the total shutdown of all fifty reactors across the country.

Sanctions and a looming oil embargo to persuade Iran to halt its nuclear program, countered by Iranian threats to blockade others' oil exports through the Gulf of Hormuz.

Those are just recent energy-related crises -- and they don't hold a candle to the Crudetastrophe.