2016 in space and looking ahead

16 12 2016

2016 has been an interesting year for good and bad reasons. It certainly didn’t top 2015 for raw amounts of space news, but there were still some real gems! Here’s Cosmoboy’s Top 5 stories for the year and a things to look out for in 2017.

5. The beginning of Cassini’s death spiral

cassini-saturnGiven Saturn’s incredible beauty it should be no surprise that the Cassini mission has been a huge hit with the public. Image after image has revealed new discoveries, from icy plumes coming from Enceladus to the incredible polar hexagon and plenty more (heck I didn’t even mention Huygens and images from Titan!)  But all good things must come to an end. And so NASA engineers have begun Cassini on a series of maneuvers that will plunge over the poles of Saturn, past the edges of the rings and eventually into the cloud tops of the planet in September 2017. There’s still a bit more science to come, but the final waltz has started!

4. The space race

spaceXexplo.pngOK, I’m cheating again! But everyone must have noticed that Blue Origin is quietly sneaking up on SpaceX in terms of achieving multiple launches and landing of the same vehicle. Their suborbital flights are of course easier than the launches SpaceX is doing, but they have an impressive flight record. Competition is good, hopefully they can make rapid progress on their New Glenn lift vehicle. SpaceX had a mixed year, making its first barge landing but also suffering its first launch pad accident during fueling. Delays also pushed back the first test of Falcon Heavy. Perhaps not so quietly, Virgin Galactic returned to testing with a new SpaceShipTwo, following the crash of VSS Enterprise in October 2014. Virgin won’t comment on an expected date for first passengers at this time. A wise move.

3. Juno reaches Jupiter

junojupiter.jpgGood news and bad with this one! The good is obvious: Juno reached Jupiter after one of the most incredibly complicated flight plans NASA has ever flown. Borrowing energy from the Earth’s orbit, Juno was flung like a slingshot stone towards Jupiter in 2013. At the other end of its journey it had to slow down and take up a highly elliptical orbit around Jupiter’s polar region. The plan was to first get it into a large 53-day orbit, and then a smaller 14 day orbit called the “science orbit.” The first one was achieved  but alas not the second. A faulty valve is preventing NASA from making orbital corrections. Scientists working on the project have reported they’ll still be able to do the groundbreaking science that was planned, focusing primarily on the structure of Jupiter and how it formed, but they’ll just have fewer orbits of data. Being farther out most of the time Juno will be less impacted by Jupiter’s powerful radiation and so the mission can be extended to allow more orbits if necessary. Remember, the end of the mission will see Juno plunged into Jupiter!

2. Proxima Centauri B

proxima_centauribFinding a planet around our nearest stellar neighbour is a really big deal. Being so close, it offers the possibility of studying with the James Webb Space Telescope and the next generation of 30m class telescopes that will be completed in the 2020s. There was initially a lot of speculation about the possibility of life, however the likelihood isn’t good. Proxima Centauri is a flare star, so it regularly releases burst of high energy particles which could be expected to hit the planet. With the planet so close to the star (it orbits at only 1/20th of the Earth-Sun distance) it would be amazing if it managed to hold on to an atmosphere. I can’t wait for JWST to give us some clues on that in just a year or two!

1 Discovery of Gravitational Waves

ligo.jpgJust imagine it – two black holes, one 29 times the mass of the Sun, another 36 times the mass of the Sun inspiralling together at almost half the speed of light. They’d be just 100s km across each, and in the collision three times the mass of the Sun would be released in gravitational wave energy! In that split second the rate of gravitational energy release is greater than the light energy from all the stars in the observable universe! Announced in February of 2016, the LIGO gravitational wave detector picked up the signal from this truly mindboggling event. That marked the end of a 50 year quest to confirm the existence of gravitational waves, first predicted by Einstein a century ago. The detection also opens up an entirely new branch of astronomy: gravitational wave astronomy. Who knows what amazing new discoveries are around the corner?

What’s coming in 2017? While there are plenty more, here’s just three things!

Space X has pushed back a first launch of Falcon Heavy until Q2 of 2017. Remember this is “super heavy-lift vehicle” and is supposed to be capable of putting more mass into orbit than the Apollo rockets. It’s also powerful enough to put 14 tonnes on trans-Martian orbit. And of course, that’s where Elon wants to go!

Want to know more about extrasolar planets? The Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS) is scheduled to launch in December 2017 on board a Falcon 9 from Space X. Needless to say a lot of astronomers are hoping Space X gets their fueling process sorted out to avoid any more launch pad explosions! TESS  will survey over 500,000 stars looking for signs of extrasolar planets and will be an important part of finding the closest ones to Earth for next generation telescopes to look at.

And continuing their interest in the Moon, China will launch the Chang’e 5, the first sample return mission to the Moon in over 40 years! It’s flight plan will be similar to the Apollo missions in that after leaving the surface it will rendezvous with the orbiting return module before flying back to Earth.

Wishing you all a wonderful 2017!


2015 In space – Cosmoboy’s Picks

14 12 2015

2015 has been a cracking year for space in the news. Every week a new story caught our attention. While everyone has different favourites, here are my Top 5 for the year!

5. Super Blood Moon

Although lunar eclipses are fairly common, the coincidence of the Moon being as close as it can be (a ‘super moon’) and being in an eclipse is rare. The previous one was in 1982, the next will be in 2033. So if you missed it – you’ve got a bit of a wait! The eclipse was also unusual in that it was the last in series of four, known as a tetrad, that have happened in the last two years. Tetrads are even rarer than super moon eclipses – sometimes going hundreds of years between them. Needless to say, it was a lot of fun to observe and talk to people about it over social media.superbloodmoon_s

4. Alien Megastructures?

dyson_sphereOK, OK, maybe this one shouldn’t be on the list, but it’s fun for a number of reasons. Firstly, this story is the tip of a scientific iceberg. We’re reached the point that we’re monitoring so many stars with the Kepler telescope that we’re finding really, really weird things happen more and more often. Two, the discovery itself, which was really that the light from a star, KIC8462852, was going up and down due to something blocking it, was made by amateur astronomers working with the Kepler data. Three, we can sensibly question what alien megastructures would look like in data. Of course more data is being taken, especially in radio but nothing unusual has been found so far. Most people still like the family of comets idea for blocking the light.

3. Space X and Blue Origin (updated!)

spaceXBOBit of a cheat, since SpaceX made multiple launches this year. And actually, SpaceX probably think 2015 was not a great year for them, with the spectacular Falcon 9 failure on June 28th, as well as failing to land on the sea platform on April 14th following the unsuccessful test in October 2014. But credit them for keeping their “foot on the gas” and coming back with the successful landing on 22nd December!  Of course, on Nov. 23, Blue Origin beat SpaceX to the landing punch by successfully piloting their New Shepard rocket back down to Earth following a sub-orbital launch to 100km. And Jeff Bezos got some stick on twitter for emphasizing that SpaceX’s first stage is suborbital. But remember, SpaceX are trying to do something more difficult, even though the first stage doesn’t reach orbit, the lateral speed of Falcon 9 is much higher. Oh and Elon, we really could do without all the people cheering, it’s a launch not a street party. Grump, grump! 🙂

2. Art McDonald (shared) Nobel Prize for determining neutrinos have mass

neutrino_timbitsIs it ironic that an experiment 2km down in a mine should be the second top space story? Not really! The SNO equipment needed to be kept shielded from high energy cosmic rays that would mess up the experiment – going beneath the Earth’s surface is thee only way to do that. On a personal note: having been at Queen’s and having had the pleasure of Art’s guidance and thoughtfulness, I can testify that he really is a wonderful role model. For him, SNO, Dr Kajita, and Super-Kamiokande to receive the recognition they deserve is truly fitting. Plus it’s shown that Canada can compete if we use our unique resources, heavy water being produce by CANDU reactors being one of them, in creative ways! Oh, and who can forget Art explaining neutrino physics with TimBits!

1. Pluto

pluto_memesEveryone’s favourite underdog stole the headlines for 2015. The New Horizons fly-by delivered breathtaking image after breathtaking image. Combined with a clever social media strategy, in July it was hard not to miss how this little dwarf planet caught the public’s attention. But even months later, the slow download rate along with improved analysis is still providing new insights into the surface of Pluto. It seems to be far younger and more active than we thought possible. Hearts, mountains of ice 14,000 ft high, weird plain features, the list goes on. And hey, naming features on Charon after Star Trek characters never hurts!

And one sad note for 2015. Leonard Nimoy, forever a fan favourite as Mr Spock, passed away this year, aged 83. He lived long, and prospered! Goodbye Spock! spock


Aquatic environments videos

1 09 2015

While developing and revising “ENVS 3450 – Aquatic Environments”, I’ve been discovering quite a few good aquatic environments videos, animated GIF files & interactive pages.  Inspired by Meghan Duffy’s Dynamic Ecology post on videos for teaching, I thought I’d compile a list of useful aquatic environments videos and share those here. Many thanks to Dr. Andrea Kirkwood who passed along great links!

The videos must illustrate an important scientific concept related to aquatic environments, and be useful for undergraduate and graduate classes. Beautiful photography and compelling storytelling also helps!

I’ve added another important criteria which is overlooked too often. The videos must be accessible through the use of subtitles and captions, published scripts or other visual cues within the video itself. This symbol (cc) indicates high quality captioning / subtitling already included in the video.

The list is far from complete. If you see missing videos or gaps below, please do let me know in the comments or send me a message via Twitter / email. I will continue updating this list. [New links will have a date next to them.]

Now, the videos and animated GIFs, loosely organized by category:

Water Science (physics, chemistry)

The Water Cycle


Limnology & oceanography (science & conservation)

Lakes & other aquatic habitats of the world

Plankton & microscopic organisms

Macroalgae (seaweed)


Macrophytes (aquatic plants)







How humans use & impact upon aquatic resources

Fisheries & overfishing:


Ecosystem impacts & manipulation

Series & Collections

Do you know of any other aquatic environment videos and animated GIFs which should be included in this list?

Hawking’s latest…

30 08 2015

So what’s the big idea? To borrow a phrase… “It’s complicated!

quantumfields20 years ago this year, Cosmoboy started his PhD working with Don Page, a collaborator of Stephen Hawking, and enjoyed chats with colleagues working on the black hole information loss problem. The crux of the issue can be explained comparatively simply – we are all aware of the concept of determinism, namely that from one moment to the next all things are determined by their previous properties (how they were moving and so on). In a very loose sense it’s `cause and effect’. Even quantum mechanics appears to obey this idea as well – and even goes further, that you should be able to use current properties to be able to determine previous ones (for the technically minded, that the evolution operator has an inverse).

hawkingWhen you combine the physics of black holes with quantum mechanics these ideas seem to break. Firstly, black holes are described by very simple properties, mass, charge and spin. As complicated as their mathematical description may be, the properties that describe them are nonetheless trivial. That means any two black holes of the same mass, regardless of how they formed, are exactly equivalent. Given that they evaporate over time through Hawking radiation we come to the conclusion that the information embedded in their formation has been destroyed, and all those things we want to be able to do about predicting from one time to another cannot be done. The technical details are of course mindbogglingly complex.

hawkingandpreskillResearchers have been wrestling with this conundrum for 40 years (there have been famous bets about it as well). There are actually probably more answers than questions now (see the wikipedia article for six(!) possible resolutions). The underlying problem remains that we don’t really have the proper tool to describe the physics, namely a theory that completely combines quantum mechanics and gravity – a theory of quantum gravity. Nonetheless, researchers make progress with approximate theories.

hawkingkthSo what’s new about the latest idea from Hawking? (And let’s be honest about how amazing it is that at 73, after suffering from ALS for 50 years, and some serious health incidents, he is still active in research.) Well strictly speaking it seems to have been inspired by Harvard physicist Andy Strominger and there is a third co-author Malcolm Perry, also of Cambridge. In a nutshell, the idea is that the information doesn’t actually go into the black hole – it stays on its “edge”, the so-called and beautifully apt, event horizon. And to make things even more interesting, all the information about what collapsed into the black hole is actually stored in that 2-dimensional surface in something called “super translations“, meaning that it stores 3-d information. Sounds a bit like a holograph – and that’s a good analogy. As Hawking radiation comes out it interacts with the information in the event horizon (we don’t know precisely how yet) and essentially carries the information back out, but in a such a scrambled way that it is essentially impossible to recover the information.

As a quick comment, this highlights the growing interest in looking for theories that reduce the apparent complexity of a system. As we try to understand more and more complicated systems, so the need for simplifying approaches becomes greater. Sometimes we find ways to described the evolution of space or system using just its boundary – that reduces the number of dimensions. Such “dualities” are indicative that there is a hidden unifying theory working in a system that we are yet to fully understand.

t'hoofthawkingBut coming back on-topic: The idea presented by Hawking sounds great! However, while the technical details maybe new, the overall concept doesn’t appear to be. A similar idea was put forward by Nobel prize winning physicist Gerard t’Hooft in 1993, and further developed within a string theory framework by Leonard Susskind. A quote from t’Hooft in the Wall Street Journal is somewhat skeptical:

“I claim he is now where I was 20 years ago,” he said. “If he announces this as a new idea, I won’t be thrilled.”

The biggest problem we have right now is that the paper on the research is not yet available, and so far only Malcolm Perry has given an extended talk to a comparatively small number of researchers. Hawking, Perry and Strominger say they will be submitting it to the physics archive in September. But given the stature of the researchers involved the idea is being taken seriously. Undoubtedly, there will be differences to t’Hooft’s original work and new ideas.

nobelHowever, this highlights one of the considerable challenges in media presentation of science. When the accompanying article is not available for review, experts cannot comment on the validity of an idea. The most striking example of this happened last year with the BICEP2 announcement of the detection of gravitational waves from the Big Bang. After intense scrutiny of the results it became clear that the detection claim was not accurate. But at the time everyone was speculating about Nobel prizes – if the result held up... It didn’t.

So the field awaits the publication of the Hawking, Perry and Strominger article. Much like the subject of their research, it will be interesting to see how much information is stored in their paper!

For a more detailed and excellent discussion of the physics please take a look a Sabine Hossenfelder’s excellent blog “Backreaction“.

Pluto here we come!

20 06 2015

New-Horizons1After almost nine and a half years of travelling, the New Horizons probe is almost at Pluto (July 14th closest approach)! Whatever happens in the next few days, New Horizons will always be a unique mission: when it launched (January 2006) Pluto was still a planet… not so when it arrived!

plutodemotedLots of people ask why astronomers “demoted” Pluto to the status of a dwarf planet. Why couldn’t we just have kept it at the same status? We could get into the formal definitions of what a planet is now considered to be, but there’s no point in doing that here (after all, the fact there was a *vote* means that not everyone agreed!). What’s more important, IMHO, is that the astronomers put the scientific consensus above historical, monetary and personal concerns. And that’s how science should work.

But really, the issue is pretty moot! What we choose to call Pluto hasn’t changed what it is, and heck, we’re about to find at a whole whack of a lot more about it over the next few days. Even the best shots we have from the Hubble of Pluto are blurry…

Venetia_Burney– Oh, and while we’re at it… Where did the name for Pluto (discovered in 1930 by American astronomer Clyde Tombaugh) come from? It isn’t that well known but it was actually suggested by an 11 year old girl named Venetia Burney. She passed away in 2009 –

At its closest approach New Horizons will be a mere 13,000 km above the surface of Pluto – that’s almost the same distance as flying from Los Angeles to Melbourne Australia. That might sound like a lot to us Earthbound humans, but on the scale of the solar system it is tiny. When you consider the distance of Pluto from the Earth, it’s the equivalent to the width of a hair at 50 metres! And what’s the fly-by speed? A “mere” 59,000 kph – about 70 times faster than a commercial jet.

Payload-FULLSo what are we going to learn? Well by the standards of Voyager and Pioneer, New Horizons is a pretty small probe. It’s about the size of a grand piano.The scientific payload, i.e. the thing that you want to actually get to the planet(!), has a mass of only 30 kilos – about half the mass of a person. Obviously one of the key components are cameras. They work at a number of different wavelengths to help us determine not only how the surface looks but also what it’s made of. There’s also a radio transmitter named REX that will beam radio waves through the atmosphere of Pluto back to the Earth. From the received signals we’ll be able to determine the structure of the atmosphere (and it will also help us look for an atmosphere around the moon Charon).

There will also be instruments that measure how Pluto interacts with the solar wind from the Sun, but perhaps the most intriguing instrument on board is the Venetia Burney (remember her?) student dust counter. This experiment, designed and conceived by students at the University of Colorado, Boulder, will measure the size of dust particles around Pluto (the space between planets isn’t completely empty…!)

KBOAnd New Horizons mission doesn’t just stop at Pluto. Astronomers involved in the mission have been using the Hubble Space Telescope (and others) to find other icy bodies in the outer regions of the Solar System (the “Kuiper Belt“) that the probe could visit. Of course, they have to be in the right place, New Horizons is travelling so fast that only small course corrections are possible. Right now, the best candidate for another rendezvous suggests we’ll have to only(!) wait 4 years!

But the next few days are really the most important part of the mission. We’re about to learn a whole heck of a lot more about Pluto – can’t wait!

The Burke-Gaffney Observatory – Cosmoboy’s unveiling speech

11 11 2014

Ecogirl suggested that I post my speech from the press conference – so here it is!

speech“Thank you everyone for being here for this celebration!

While our Observatory Director Dave Lane is going to tell you about the Medjuck telescope and our plans for the Burke-Gaffney Observatory in detail, I just want to take a couple of minutes of your time to talk about the impact of astronomy on campus.

Everything you are is a product of your experiences and choices.

And a great education informs both of these; by exposing you to new – sometimes breathtaking – experiences, and providing you with the knowledge and frameworks you need to make good choices.

press_confThose thoughts are really what drove the renovation of the Burke-Gaffney Observatory. Any student that studies astronomy, whether in introductory courses for non-scientists or the more specialized honours program, will have a chance to use the Medjuck telescope for observing projects. Thanks to our enthusiastic telescope operators you don’t even have to know your eyepiece from your elbow to be able to use the telescope!

laneBut even more exciting is the possibility of robotic control. Dave Lane has done a remarkable job in bringing the observatory up-to-date. He can now control it entirely from home, and as you’ll see today, a social media interface is in the works. Need to get a picture of a galaxy for your ASTR1000 project? Try tweeting.

But access alone isn’t the most amazing thing about the renovation. The gorgeous new 24.5 inch Medjuck telescope is the second largest campus telescope in Canada. With a modern optical design it produces stunning images, significantly better than our beloved Ealing telescope. It is a fantastic piece of research grade equipment – indeed a model just like it has been cold tested for deployment in the Arctic. We know it works down to -35 C, so I guarantee we’ll still be running in the middle of winter!

But to give you an idea of its capabilities, just a day before one of the first viewing sessions with the new telescope, a supernova went off in a neighbouring galaxy (and for those of you that don’t know, the first supernova ever discovered in Canada was discovered from the BGO in 1995). But how far away was that supernova? 11.5 million light years. To put that in context, the light from that supernova left before the great-apes had truly started evolving on the savannah of Africa. There were no humans anywhere.

I’ll leave it to the words of seven year old girl to describe what she thought of seeing the supernova and how old it was: “That’s soooo cool!!!

But this isn’t even close to pushing the limits of the Medjuck Telescope. The most distant object it will be able to see, the not very romantically called 3C273, is 2.5 billion light years away. The light that we are now receiving from it left when the only form of life on Earth was single cell bacteria. No plants. No higher forms of life. The fossil cliffs at Joggins were still 2.2 billion years from being formed.

Just think about this for a second:

BGOYou now have a chance to put light in your eye that has travelled across almost 20% of the entire Universe. To be influenced by something that is unimaginably distant, something incredibly old. That’s a breathtaking experience. It may not be full of heart pumping adrenaline, but it makes you realize something quite profound – that even the most distant of things can have an impact on how you see the world and yourself.

And by now you’ve also realized that astronomy isn’t just about charting the skies. It’s about time-travel too. You probably didn’t think of the Medjuck Telescope as a time-machine, but in some sense that’s exactly what it is.

medjuckAbove all this, we should see the chance to have these experiences, and the knowledge that comes with them, as a gift. Thanks to the generosity of Dr Medjuck the support of the University, and hard work by dedicated individuals, we’re incredibly excited and just a little bit proud in Astronomy and Physics to be able to share these experiences both with everyone on campus, and also the community of Halifax. And through social media, perhaps soon the world!

So please, come to the BGO and be amazed.

The Universe is yours to discover.

Thank you.”

The “All New!” Burke-Gaffney Observatory

1 11 2014

bgopreviewOver the past 18 months Cosmoboy has been honoured to be a part of the Burke-Gaffney Observatory renovations at Saint Mary’s University. Built in 1972 to honour Father Burke-Gaffney, it has become an icon of the Saint Mary’s campus. But in all that time it has never had significant renovations – beyond CCD upgrades – and much has changed in astronomy technology. By the time of the 40th anniversary it was clear that revitalization of the BGO was needed!

Plans were hatched by the Observatory Director Dave Lane and Cosmoboy in the fall of 2012. The ambitious renovation proposal included a new 24.5 inch telescope (from Planewave, their CDK24 model), and adding an observing deck so we could show more of the sky at a given time. That would also increase the student and visitor capacity of the observatory – we’ve had days when the queue went down the stairs… Which doesn’t make it much fun anyone.

Medjuck_familyThe University was supportive from the get-go, but budgets were tight and we were asking for significant funds. In the end, our Office of Advancement came to the rescue and through our President’s Office the well known local philanthropist Dr Ralph M. Medjuck was approached. As many people in town are aware, Dr Medjuck and his wife Mrs Shirlee Medjuck (right with their daughter Linda) have donated considerable sums to Halifax universities in support of education. To cut to the chase, Dr Medjuck agreed to support the project, and we named the telescope in his honour.

I’ve said thank you to our benefactors so many times already, but I can’t write this blog post without saying thanks again to Dr and Mrs Medjuck. Without their support, and that of Saint Mary’s University at large, this project would not have been possible.

bgo_titleBut cut to April 2013, things were moving forward. At that point we decided the project was a “sufficiently big deal” for the university and the department that we should make a short documentary on it. Local filmmaker and astronomy fan Martin Hellmich agreed to take the challenge on! The resulting film can be seen here – watch it in HD! There are some really fantastic time-lapses in there – we were pretty gobsmacked when Martin first showed them to us! Go watch it!

BGO_telescopePainting of the dome and mount happened during the summer of 2013 and turned out to be much more of an adventure than we had anticipated. To cut a long story short, you really need to prime well! But we all think the final look is great – the white of the pier matches the black and white of the Medjuck telescope perfectly, while the blue accents the small details on the ‘scope. Kudos to Dave Lane for picking out the colours! Note, the paint has to stand up to some tough conditions – the observatory gets brutally hot in the summer and cold in the winter (snow will often sneak into the dome through the gap between the rotating and stationary parts).

obsdeckFencing off the observatory deck also encountered a few glitches. The initial drilling was done at the end of exam time and understandably some complaints were made about the noise! So we held off finishing that until all the exams were done. But the end product looks great, and we all agree the view from 22 floors up is simply mind-blowing – especially at night! So if we get parents that aren’t too interested in astronomy bringing their children along to open houses, we still have something to take their breath away.

install_scopeOf course, the most fun part of the whole project was the new telescope arrival and installation! With a 6 month delivery time, we had our fingers crossed it would be delivered just before Christmas 2013 so that we could swap it in for the new term starting in January 2014. Everything went to plan. But installing a new telescope in the middle of December in Canada is a chilly proposition! So we had to borrow a 5kW heater to warm things up. The 40 year old mount bolts were just fine as well, despite us being very worried about the possibility of things breaking!

press_confAnd finally bringing the story up-to-date, this week (October 2014) we’ve been able to celebrate the installation and thank everyone involved! There’s still a lot of work to be done on the social media side, but the hardware is all in place. The press events this week went off fantastic, and some of our friends in the media did an awesome job of letting people in Halifax know about the renovations (here, here, here, here). We’re just over the Moon (sorry! 🙂 ) to have everything get to this point!

So please, if you’re in Halifax and want to take look, reserve a ticket and come to a public night! We’d love to see you there!

Gravitational waves from inflation – Top Ten fun facts about BICEP2 and the results

17 03 2014

Today’s announcement of gravitational waves being detected coming from the original Big Bang (well not really, but we’ll get into that below) which was measured by the BICEP2 telescope at the South Pole has got a ton of attention on the internet. (So much so the web servers broke down under the load!). This is big news because it confirms theories about the expansion of the universe since the Big Bang, and opens up the doors to some new discoveries. There’s even a really quite wonderful YouTube movie of Dr Andrei Linde, one of the co-developers of the so-called ‘Inflationary Cosmology’ theory,  being told about the results.

The fact is though, this isn’t an easy topic to explain. The discovery of the Higgs Boson particle came with its own simple explanations (“Oh…it’s the thing that gives things mass..”). However, for the BICEP2 results, it’s much harder to explain the implications. Most people can get that the team of BICEP2 scientists are telling us something important about what happened just after the Big Bang – which happened 13.8 billions of years ago – but what exactly? And why should we care?

So here’s my top ten list of facts and questions about the results 1 that may help put things in perspective!

10. What are gravitational waves and why do they matter?

ImageOn an everyday basis we think of space and time as just there. But many people know that Dr Albert Einstein showed space and time are actually combined into one four dimensional object known as space-time. With his General Theory of Relativity, Einstein also showed that space-time can have very specific ripples pass through it – these ripples are called ‘gravitational waves‘. Gravitational waves are very, very weak and hard to detect. Indeed decades of direct detection experiments that measure distortions of space-time have failed to come up with a true measurement. Yet those measurements are indicative of incredibly powerful events, like merging black holes or, as in today’s announcement, the phenomenal energies of the Universe just after the Big Bang.

9. What does BICEP2 stand for and how has the BICEP2 experiment detected gravitational waves?

First the easy one: Background Imaging of Cosmic Extragalactic Polarization. OK, so there’s a bunch of things in the name alone, and let’s start there. The polarization aspect is really the key one. BICEP2 has been measuring the  Cosmic Microwave Background, relic radiation left over from 380,000 years after the Big Bang (which is still about 13.4 billion years ago!) We’ve actually made a lot of measurements of this radiation before, but the key part of BICEP2 is that it has measured the polarization of radiation (light waves have a specific direction for their wave form, that direction measures the polarization, see here) to exquisite precision. Here’s a map from today’s press release:


Great! Erm, why is this polarization interesting? Well because the polarization encodes within it the signal of gravitational waves. The distortions of space produced by gravitational waves can induce a distortion that is kind of spiral-like, and you can see evidence of those patterns in the above image. It’s this signal that BICEP2 has been able to find… and it wasn’t an easy process due to other types of distortions occurring during the massive changes after the Big Bang (in fact I wasn’t expecting to see a detection like this for while!).

8. Haven’t we found evidence of gravitational waves before?

Indirectly, yes. In fact the 1993 Nobel prize in Physics was awarded to Hulse and Taylor for the study of a binary pulsar whose orbital decay (i.e. loss of energy) is beautifully explained by the launching of gravitational waves that take energy away from the system.

You might be thinking that today’s measurement is also indirect, in the sense we’re measuring the distortions on the polarization of photons at one particular point in time — namely when the light that forms the cosmic microwave background was emitted (its energy is reduced as the Universe expands making the wavelength change from around visible light to microwaves). Perhaps this is somewhat indirect, but it isn’t all that different from measuring the changes in space time that direct-measurement experiments try to find, in some experiments, such as LIGO lasers are used to measure space-time distances and gravitational changes in the universe 2.

7. What is the inflationary theory and why do we need it?

OK… This is a tough one to do in a short paragraph, but basically we don’t understand why the Universe appears so uniform over such large scales. If we wind the clock back with our conventional models for the evolution of the Universe, then we find there are regions that couldn’t possibly have shared information due to the limit on the speed of light – so why would they look similar? You could argue that everything had started similarly at the very beginning after the Big Bang somehow (!?). Scientifically, that idea isn’t very popular because it lacks a true explanation.

The ‘Inflationary Cosmology’ theoretical model solves this problem quite neatly by having a period of expansion that was much faster (that’s waaaaay faster) than standard cosmological models predict. That way, regions that were thought not to be in contact actually were at one point… Rapid inflation also helps a explain a few other things too, such as why it looks like the energy densities of the Universe add up to an almost perfectly balanced number (the so-called critical density). Many people think that without the ‘Inflationary Cosmology’ theory, we have a hard time explaining why the Universe is still in existence!

6. BICEP2 (grey dish on top of blue building) doesn’t look much like a telescope, it looks like a satellite dish why’s that?

ImageYou’ve pretty much nailed it. The BICEP facility is detecting similar wavelengths to some satellite or communication dishes – microwaves. So it isn’t going to look like a nice tube similar to an optical telescope. (Actually the big white dish in the photo is the South Pole Telescope – a competing facility!)

5. Why did they put it at the South Pole?

Aside from being miles and miles away from signals that would interfere with the telescope, the South Pole is also incredibly dry. That’s really important because the microwaves carrying all the information from just after the Big Bang have to travel billions of light years across our observable Universe to reach us. But then that radiation still has to get through the water vapour in our atmosphere. Why is that a problem? Well because water vapour is a really strong absorber of certain wavelengths of microwaves (that’s how we heat up things in a microwave oven for example!). So the less water vapour above your microwave telescope, the better 3.

4. Could this possibly be a false detection?

That seems pretty unlikely, but isn’t impossible. The team announcing the results have tried to be as careful as possible, although there is always concern about false signals and misinterpretations of data.  However, it seems very unlikely that the signal is coming from dust in interstellar space, or from a very specific type of electromagnetic radiation called synchroton radiation, which also produces the particular patterns measured. A few blogs are also talking about the fact that perhaps the statistical tests look almost “too good” and that they may possibly be “systematic errors”, namely errors that basically enforce their results rather than being merely random. This is another tough issue which will be subject to much scrutiny over the next few weeks. That’s how science works! You can be sure these results will rigourously investigated.

3. Are we going to need another experiment to confirm this one?

Well, perhaps not to confirm this particular set of data — but yes, we are going to need better measurements, preferably on larger and smaller scales on the sky. That’s because if we really do want to start pinning down the physics precisely, then absolutely, more measurements are needed! (see below!) But the good news is that upcoming data from the European Union’s Planck satellite measuring microwave radiation polarization over the entire sky, and possibly BICEPs competitor the South Pole Telescope, which is another microwave telescope, this time run by University of Chicago, may well add to the evidence. Actually a few people are saying they won’t trust today’s results until they see those from the Planck satellite.

2. Some people are talking about “quantum gravity” as well, why’s that?

ImageThe quantum theory of gravity is considered by many as the Holy Grail of theoretical physics (Albert Einstein was deeply interested in it in his later years).  The quantum theory of gravity seeks to reconcile gravity, one of the four fundamental forces in our current universe with quantum mechanics. After decades of study, we have candidate theories (e.g. string theory) but we do not yet have complete working description of this mindbogglingly complex physics. It’s important because the quantum theory of gravity describes the highest energies we can think about, and that means it is the the theory that is most relevant to the Big Bang.

A number of theorists have pointed out that the gravitational waves that have been detected today are most probably the direct result of quantum gravity (see here for a really very technical discussion!) That makes today’s announcement even more profound. But that said, there is a slight fly in the ointment, namely there may be other methods of producing primordial gravitational waves.

But regardless, many people are incredibly excited about the possibility that with this signal, or perhaps better measurements, we can start putting real bounds on theories of quantum gravity. At this early stage though, a large number of important details make it difficult to predict the precise impact. But I think it’s important to remember this is a field with close to zero experimental information, so any useful measurements are going to be of enormous value.

1. Why should I care and what is this “new physics” that people are talking about?

Although particle accelerators can probe high energies for individual sub-atomic particles, they are still 12 orders of magnitude away from investigating the fundamental energies present during inflation after the Big Bang (as suggested by today’s results). And you really don’t want a Big Bang happening in your backyard anyway – there’s too much energy! The BICEP2 results arguably give us the first deep insight into the state of the Universe when it had an energy under 1/100th of that associated with the highest energy theorists spend time thinking about, which is the “Planck energy“.

Why should you care? Firstly, it is incredible that humanity has pretty much figured out the nature of the Universe all the way back to just before the Creation Event. We’ve been at this game since the late 1960’s (arguably) and we inhabit a fairly innocuous planet, around a comparatively unimportant star, in a seemingly unimportant galaxy! Those facts alone are enough to make your head spin… We only figured out that our planet revolved around the Sun 450 years ago!

Secondly, almost every time we learn something profound about the nature of the cosmos, whether it’s time and space, or the particles within it, our culture has been notably impacted. From relativity to neutrinos, new ideas soak back into our common lexicon and impact how we think about the Universe and the world we inhabit. As I mentioned above we may be making our first baby-steps toward figuring out problems that Einstein made little to no impact on.

Thirdly, we’re never going to be able probe this new physics in a laboratory – the energies are just too high! So the Universe is the only lab we have for measuring these physical theories!

Lastly, if you watch the Big Bang Theory tv program, you can be sure that they’ll have an episode on this result soon, and you want to be ahead of the game for that don’t you? 🙂

Congrats to the BICEP2 group – hopefully this result will stand-up to scrutiny. If it does, it’s a really, really big deal!

1.A note: this post is not for specialists. For those who’d like delve more into this amazing discovery, there have been some spectacular posts by others at that technical level (e.g. here, here and here and plenty of others).

2. Update – there’s actually a big debate over this in professional circles, but really it’s a good detection method, IMHO.

3. Of course the absolutely best thing to do is just to simply build a telescope in space like the Planck satellite. But building and operating such a space telescope is incredibly expensive…

Dueling cameras

8 03 2014

OK first post in a while! This one is going to carry on the photography theme, but as a first, this one is from Cosmoboy…

On Feb 21-23 I went on a photo tour of the Valley of Fire (just outside Las Vegas) promoted primarily by Steve Huff and organized by Todd Hatakeyama, with pro-togs Jay Bartlett and Albert Evangelista helping to make things run smoothly. To say it was a welcome relief to get away from all the snow in Nova Scotia was an understatement – two days in the Sun was absolute luxury. I felt like a gecko enjoying the Sun in the Sahara! It was great to meet all the other participants on the tour and I think everyone had a awesome time.

Although the daylight Sun was still fairly low, lighting was nonetheless quite harsh. So I found myself drawn to black and white. The backdrop of wavelike rock formations also made for some great tones. The shot I’ve chosen to post about – “Dueling cameras” – shows both the amazing tones, and also some of the fun we were having that afternoon.


The big shoulders in the foreground belong to Jay Bartlett, and workshop participant Sumant Nagarkar is standing on the rock in the distance. For a few seconds before I took this shot they had been shouting back and forth about how things looked and who had the better shot – and at the moment I couldn’t resist just capturing the two of them dueling over who was going to get the better image!

I didn’t frame the shot perfectly, I’d have liked Jay to be slightly more to the left because I wanted to mirror the symmetry of the two “head-like” rock formations (the white one in the right middle, to the darker one in the top right) in the positions of Jay and Sumant. But I didn’t have time to do that! The shot is also about a stop under exposed, which I could have corrected in post, but hey this is just a little study…

The direction of Jay’s hat is really important to the picture too. Again it isn’t absolutely perfect, since it directs you down the line of symmetry of the two rock formations, and it should probably be a little more toward Sumant, but maybe the compositional tension works? It does create a strong diagonal, while Jay’s right arm pulls you back in the direction of Sumant nicely.

Lastly, I lucked out a bit on the darker tones at the bottom of the shot naturally framing things. I new the sky would be reasonably dark, but I was pretty fortunate to have just a line of darker tone along the bottom to stop your eye wondering out the bottom of the frame. If you cover that last piece up the image just doesn’t look balanced at all.

Overall, I’m really quite happy with this image as it captures a lot of the fun we were having in the afternoon, and unlike many of the shots I took that afternoon it was composed in literally a second!

PS Special thanks to Jay for a great dinner chat about the ups and downs of pro photography!

Portfolio 6 – Transformation

28 09 2013

As I wondered around Lunenburg on a beautiful calm Sunday morning, my attention was primarily on reflections on the calm waters.   However, the soft light also cast interesting shadows and enhanced colours on the buildings around me.  Even industrial components and weather-battered surfaces had a lovely glow due to the sunlight and refractions softening the shadows.  The photograph here is of three electric transformers and their floating shadows along an old red shed.  Strong vertical lines created by the supporting pole, its shadow and the two white lines on the shed balance the image. Horizontal electric wires and their shadows connect all the shapes.  The squat trio of transformers and their shadows keep the image centred among all the criss-crossing lines.