Tuesday, November 11, 2014

This wild universe

The universe is a strange and fascinating place, about which we continue -- in fits and starts, two steps forward and (hopefully only) one step back -- to learn. Consider a few recent items:

Remember Toon Town?
"Much like characters on a television show would not know that their seemingly 3-D world exists only on a 2-D screen, we could be clueless that our 3-D space is just an illusion. The information about everything in our universe could actually be encoded in tiny packets in two dimensions."

A newly begun experiment will, just maybe, ascertain that we're all toons. See (from the University of Chicago, one of my alma maters), "Do we live in a 2-D hologram? New Fermilab experiment will test the nature of the universe."

A knotty bit of string theory
String theory is a discipline within physics that set out (among its modest aspirations) to unify the nuclear strong force, the nuclear weak force, and the electromagnetic force with gravity. For decades, having failed to come up with any testable hypotheses, string theorists have struggled to show their subject is anything more than fun with numbers. They're trying yet again. See "M-Theory Repositions: Now You Can Thank Us For Quantum Mechanics Too."

Or perhaps the quirkiness of quantum mechanics -- like cats that can be at once neither dead nor alive -- has to do with a different unprovable: the Many Worlds Interpretation. As in, "Parallel Universes Exist - And Could Explain All Physics, Says Griffith University Study."

Odd as the next clause reads, we'll now narrow our focus to a single universe. In it, stars happen. We're accustomed to thinking stars live in galaxies. The thing is, newly crunched data from NASA's Cosmic Infrared Background Experiment (CIBER) suggests otherwise. See "Starstruck: half of universe's stars are orphans with no galaxy."

Stars are very distant -- but how exactly distant are they? It's not an easy question to answer; different techniques and measurements have yielded different estimates. What we (think we) know is that stars are so distant that -- given the finite speed of light -- to see a star is to look (at the least) years into the past. When we peer into the far distance, we look into -- and form our understanding of -- the remote past.

The estimated distances to particular types of nearby stars and star clusters are used to extrapolate the distances to similar stars and star clusters observed in remote galaxies. Hence, any uncertainty in nearby stellar-distance measurements affects our characterization of the universe as a whole. That would make it a Big Deal (TM) if, in fact, "Pleiades distance debate resolved, say radio astronomers."

A solar system being born
Where the stars are, can planets be far behind? Prevailing theory says not. As for that prevailing theory, which asserts that a star (system) and its planets emerge together out of a collapsing primordial nebula, astronomers have never had hard proof ... till now. See "Stunning Snapshot Shows Birth of Alien Solar System: A Chilean observatory catches a protoplanetary disk in action."

Pluto and moons
And speaking of planets, "Pluto may become a planet again! "A dwarf hamster is still a small hamster," says Harvard-Smithsonian."

And for one physics-intensive post, that seems like ample string-theorying you along :-)

No comments: