An amazing person!

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ABOUT :: BIOGRAPHY

Planetary scientist Carolyn Porco

Carolyn Porco is the leader of the imaging science team on the Cassinimission presently in orbit around Saturn, a veteran imaging scientist of theVoyager mission to the outer solar system in the 1980s, and an imaging scientist on the New Horizons mission on its way to Pluto and the Kuiper Belt. Carolyn has co-authored over 115 scientific papers on a variety of subjects in astronomy and planetary science and has become a regular public commentator on science, astronomy, planetary exploration, and the intersection of science and religion. Her popular science writings have appeared in such distinguished publications as the London Sunday Times, The New York Times, the Guardian, Astronomy magazine, the PBS and BBC websites, the Arizona Daily Star, Sky and Telescope, Scientific American, and American Scientist.

Carolyn’s research over the past 40 years has ranged across the outer solar system to the interstellar medium. The majority of her time has been spent studying the planetary rings encircling the giant planets and the interactions between rings and orbiting moons. In particular, she has been responsible for the discovery of one of the Neptune ring arcs; for elucidating the behavior of the non-axisymmetric rings and ring edges in the rings of Saturn, Uranus and Neptune; and for predicting in 1993 (along with then University of Arizona graduate student Mark Marley) that acoustic oscillations within the body of Saturn could produce specific wave features in Saturn’s rings. This prediction was verified 20 years later using Cassini observations, resulting in the first demonstration that planetary rings could serve as a seismograph and ultimately provide the means to improve knowledge of a planet’s internal structure.

Carolyn has also been responsible for leading the Cassini imaging team in a host of seminal discoveries on Jupiter and its ring during Cassini’s flyby of that planet in 2000/2001, and on Saturn and its rings and moons since the spacecraft’s arrival there in 2004.

In recent years, Carolyn has increasingly turned her attention to the study of Enceladus, the small Saturnian moon whose south polar region was found, in images taken by her Cassini team, to be the site of over 100 tall geysers of icy particles erupting from four distinct, deep fractures crossing the region. This and other Cassini findings point to a sub-surface, salty, organics-rich sea beneath the south polar terrain as the geysers’ source, making Enceladus home to the most accessible extraterrestrial habitable zone in the solar system.

Carolyn Porco speaking

Carolyn continues to be active in the presentation of science to the public as the leader of the Cassini Imaging Team. She is the creator/editor of the team’sCICLOPS website where Cassini images are posted, and she writes the site’s homepage “Captain’s Log” greetings to the public. Carolyn is a popular public lecturer and speaks frequently on the Cassini mission and planetary exploration in general. She has appeared at such renowned cross-disciplinary conferences as TED (2009, 2007) and PopTech (2006, 2005). She is the CEO and President of Diamond Sky Productions, LLC.

For the 1997 film Contact, based on the novel by fellow astronomer Carl Sagan, Carolyn served as the consultant on the main character, Ellie Arroway. In 2008, she was invited by J.J. Abrams, the director/producer of the 2009 release, Star Trek, to join the film’s production crew as a consultant on planetary imagery.

Carolyn was responsible for the proposal to honor the late renowned planetary geologist Eugene Shoemaker by sending a portion of his cremains to the moon aboard the Lunar Prospector spacecraft. She also conceived of the epitaph, engraved on a thin brass foil, which accompanied the ashes to the moon.

Carolyn played instrumental roles in the taking of three iconic photographs of planet Earth from the outer solar system. She participated, along with Carl Sagan, in planning the 1990 “Portrait of the Planets” taken with the Voyager 1 spacecraft, which included the famous Pale Blue Dot image of Earth. Later with Cassini, she and her team took one of Cassini’s most beloved images of Saturn and its rings during the planet’s solar eclipse, with Earth visible in the distance. And she is the creator of The Day The Earth Smiled, an event that took place on July 19, 2013, when Cassini once again pointed sunward to image Saturn, its rings and the Earth. This time, however, a long-distance photo of Earthwas taken with the full advance knowledge of members of the public, who were invited to take part in a day of reflection and celebration of humanity’s place in the cosmos.

Carolyn has been the recipient of a number of awards and honors for her contributions to science and the public sphere. She is the namesake of Asteroid (7231) Porco, which was named to honor her work in planetary science. In 1999, she was selected by the London Sunday Times as one of 18 scientific leaders of the 21st century, and by Industrial Week as one of “50 Stars to Watch”. In 2009, New Statesman named her as one of the “50 People Who Matter Today.” In 2010 she was awarded the Carl Sagan Medal, presented by the American Astronomical Society for Excellence in the Communication of Science to the Public. And in 2012, she was named one the 25 most influential people in space byTIME magazine.

-Seth Andrews of The Thinking Atheist just interviewed her and she is the most incredible person! Voyager, Cassini, Humanist of the Year, technical adviser on TWO of my favorite movies? This person has lived life to the fullest and is good without gods! What a refreshing interview.

The next theory that will become absolute fact!

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How the Big Bang discovery came about

By Meg Urry
updated 10:03 AM EDT, Sat March 29, 2014

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This long-exposure image from the Hubble Telescope is the <a href='http://hubblesite.org/newscenter/archive/releases/2014/01/full/' target='_blank'>deepest-ever picture taken of a cluster of galaxies. The cluster, </a>called Abell 2744, contains several hundred galaxies as they looked 3.5 billion years ago; the more distant galaxies appear as they did more than 12 billion years ago, not long after the Big Bang.<!-- -->
</br> This long-exposure image from the Hubble Telescope is the deepest-ever picture taken of a cluster of galaxies. The cluster, called Abell 2744, contains several hundred galaxies as they looked 3.5 billion years ago; the more distant galaxies appear as they did more than 12 billion years ago, not long after the Big Bang.
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NASA’s NuSTAR telescope array generated the first map of radioactivity in the remnants of an exploding star, or supernova. Blue in this image of Cassiopeia A represents radioactive material. Click through to see other wonders of the universe.//
A supernova was spotted on January 21 in Messier 82, one of the nearest big galaxies. This wide view image was taken on January 22.//
The M82 supernova, seen here, has been designated SN2014J because it is the 10th supernova detected in 2014. At 11.4 million light years from Earth, it is the closest Type Ia supernova recorded since systematic studies with telescopes began in the 1930s.//
Is that a giant hand waving at us? Actually, it’s what’s left of a star that died and exploded a long time ago. Astronomers nicknamed it the “Hand of God.” NASA’s Nuclear Spectroscopic Telescope Array, or NuSTAR, took this image in high-energy X-rays, shown in blue. The image was combined with images from another space telescope, the Chandra X-ray Observatory. //
The Hubble Space Telescope captured this image of the Southern Pinwheel Galaxy, one of the largest and closest galaxies of its kind. The center of the galaxy is mysterious, researchers say, because it has a double nucleus — a supermassive black hole that may be ringed by a lopsided disc of stars, giving it the appearance of a dual core.//
Hubble scientists say this is the best-ever view of the Tarantula Nebula, which is located in one of our closest galactic neighbors, the Large Magellanic Cloud.//
Those spots on our sun appear small, but even a moderate-sized spot is about as big as Earth. They occur when strong magnetic fields poke through the sun’s surface and let the area cool in comparison to the surrounding area.//
This Hubble image looks a floating marble or a maybe a giant, disembodied eye. But it’s actually a nebula with a giant star at its center. Scientists think the star used to be 20 times more massive than our sun, but it’s dying and is destined to go supernova.//
 
 
STORY HIGHLIGHTS

  • Meg Urry describes the sequence of discoveries that lead to evidence of “inflation”
  • Urry: Inflation, far faster than speed of light, happened in the first instant of the universe
  • Urry: Theory began 80 years ago with Edwin Hubble: Telescope named after him
  • Urry: After inflation, the universe went into more “sedate” pace of Big Bang we see now

Editor’s note: Meg Urry is the Israel Munson professor of physics and astronomy at Yale University and director of the Yale Center for Astronomy and Astrophysics.

(CNN) — For the past week-and-a-half, people have been marveling over the discovery of evidence supporting “inflation,” the theory describing the birth pangs of the Big Bang 13.7 billions years ago. What do these findings mean and how did they come about?

 

Lots of articles reported the news, but I am going to try to explain it in depth. Stick with me, because this is one of the most exciting astrophysical discoveries in decades.

 

Meg Urry

Meg Urry

Humans have wondered about the origin of the universe for millennia, and last week’s news brought us a little closer to an answer. What this development means, basically, is that for the first time, we may be seeing what happened in the first billionth of a trillionth of a trillionth of a second of the universe.

 

Assuming this discovery is verified by other similar experiments, it means the very birth of the universe can be studied. These will tell us about the physics of matter and energy well beyond the reach of earthly particle accelerators like the Large Hadron Collider.

 

In a press conference on March 17, leaders of the Background Imaging of Cosmic Extragalactic Polarization (BICEP2) experiment announced their discovery of evidence of gravitational waves — predicted by Einstein’s theory of General Relativity — that were generated by the near-instantaneous expansion of the universe by some 50 factors of 10, or a factor of 100 million, trillion, trillion. Those waves were predicted by the theory of inflation, developed 30 years ago by Alan Guth, Andrei Linde and others.

 

Inflation is the instantaneous initial expansion, far faster than the speed of light, that “describes the propulsion mechanism that drove the universe into the period of tremendous expansion that we call the Big Bang,” as Alan Guth put it. Incidentally, the term “Big Bang” was coined as an insult by a physicist who didn’t like the theory.

 

The Big Bang idea itself is simple. Edwin Hubble — after whom the Hubble Space Telescope is named — showed more than 80 years ago that our universe is expanding. Objects in space are not hurtling outward: Space itself is becoming bigger over time. That means the distance between two galaxies grows even if neither galaxy is moving through space at all.

 

By extrapolating the Hubble expansion backward, we have long known that the universe was once smaller by many, many factors of 10. All the mass and energy of the entire universe squeezed into such a tiny volume would have been much hotter and denser. Then, as the universe expanded over time, the energy density went down, so the temperature cooled. This Big Bang idea implied that cool relic radiation should be visible today.

 

Indeed, this Big Bang glow of radiation was discovered in the early 1960s by two Bell Labs engineers, Arno Penzias and Robert Wilson, who were trying to build the world’s best radio antenna.

 

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Watch this video
 

Ripples in space-time revealed

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Watch this video
 

A Big Bang breakthrough?

Their instrument recorded a mysterious irreducible low-level noise from every direction. Apparently worried that the surface of the antenna horn had been corrupted by, um, debris from pigeons roosting inside, the engineers repeatedly disassembled and cleaned the antenna, to no avail.

 

Physicists later connected this measurement to the Big Bang prediction of a cosmic microwave background, for which Penzias and Wilson were awarded the Nobel Prize in 1978. As a colleague at Bell Labs joked, referring to their obsession with pigeon droppings, “They went looking for dung and came up with gold. For most of us [scientists], it works the other way.”

 

The Big Bang idea was well established by the 1980s. But it did not explain important pieces of the story.

 

First, the universe looks pretty homogeneous and isotropic — that is, galaxies in any one direction look very similar to galaxies in the opposite direction, no matter how distant. The number of galaxies, their masses, their shapes and their stellar content are remarkably similar, to the furthest reaches we can observe.

 

This is surprising because the Big Bang-Hubble expansion implied that very distant regions should never have been in causal contact. How then could they be so similar? Here is a simple analogy: Imagine a thermos of ice water and a thermos of hot tea. As long as these two liquids are separate, they will have different temperatures. But if the two liquids are combined, the mixed liquid will quickly reach an intermediate temperature. Similarly, two well-separated regions of the universe can be alike only if they were at one time in contact.

 

The theory of inflation explains this quite naturally: If at the beginning the universe inflated at an extraordinarily rapid rate — much faster than the Hubble-measured expansion today — then all parts of the universe visible today were once in contact. That means they had the same initial physical conditions (such as temperature and density), so that similar stars and galaxies eventually formed out of the cosmic soup.

 

Inflation also explains why the universe has a very “flat” geometry — something revealed in the 1990s by analysis of the spatial distribution of tiny fluctuations (hot and cold spots) in the cosmic microwave background radiation.

 

In principle, other geometries of space were possible. For example, a two-dimensional surface can be flat like a table; convex like the surface of a sphere (also called open); or concave like the surface of a saddle (also called closed).

 

For the universe to be flat requires a very precise balance. It has infinitely more ways to be open or closed, with strong curvature, weak curvature, or anything in between. But to be flat — well, that’s like balancing on a knife edge. Inflation naturally explains this odd fact.

 

Specifically, the idea is that, at the very beginning, the universe must have inflated enough to stretch the fabric of space until no trace of curvature remained. Imagine inflating a beach ball to the size of the Earth: you can easily see the curvature of the beach ball in your hands but once it’s hyper-inflated, any piece of its surface seems very flat, just as the Earth feels flat locally.

 

The enormous inflation in size would effectively erase the initial conditions in the universe. Whatever the initial temperature, for example, inflation would cool the universe to absolute zero. Even if the initial universe were very lumpy, after inflation we can see only a very smooth, local part of the original volume — and it would seem perfectly flat.

 

After about one hundred millionth of a trillionth of a trillionth of a second, according to theorists, whatever repulsive gravity caused inflation then transformed into a hot, dense soup of particles and energy. At this point, the Big Bang expansion that Hubble discovered took over.

 

How inflation began and how it ended are not yet understood, but this simple idea of inflation neatly explains otherwise odd characteristics — isotropy and flatness — of our universe.

 

Still, until now, there had been no direct evidence of inflation. What BICEP2 saw was the imprint of inflation on the cosmic microwave background radiation.

 

Specifically, inflation should have generated a lot of gravitational waves — that is, it would cause propagating ripples of space itself. Such waves have a characteristic pattern, squeezing space rhythmically in one direction then the perpendicular direction, like two hands pressing a rubber ball top to bottom then side to side.

 

This distortion of space causes a special pattern of polarization in the Cosmic Microwave Background radiation. So what is polarization?

 

Light is a wave that oscillates back and forth — polarized light oscillates preferentially in one plane. Because most light is a mix of random directions of polarization, its net polarization is zero. But any scattered light, like sunlight reflected off water, is polarized — which is why polarized sunglasses cut down substantially on glare.

 

BICEP2 scientists searched for that special pattern of polarization in the cosmic microwave background that would show the evidence of inflation, working for several years analyzing and reanalyzing their data.

As they ran through every possible check of the analysis, team members finally began to believe they had detected the first direct signs of inflation.

 

Now other experiment teams are redoubling efforts to find the same signal — or to find contradictions. The reported BICEP2 signal is unexpectedly strong, so it should be within reach of at least some of these experiments.

 

Physicists around the world know: the BICEP2 discovery is only the beginning of the story. If this result is verified by independent experiments, new, more accurate experiments will be designed to better measure the polarization imprint. This in turn will tell us about how matter and energy behave in conditions much hotter and denser than on Earth or any other place in the cosmos.

 

As Carl Sagan once said, “Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.” Let the observations begin.

– The big deal between believers and reasonable people is the constant reference to the Big Bang Theory as ‘it’s just a theory.’ Now the “smart stupid people, ” as Bill Maher calls them, the scientists who can actually cling to the fairy stories of the bible and still have lofty science degrees, I can’t tell you why they could remain so deluded. I can only speak of those who blithely speak of scientific things and haven’t a clue as to what they are disparaging. It takes thousands, if not millions of hours of research and fact basing to establish a scientific ‘theory.’ People constantly throw the word around for their own thoughts but would shrivel under the rigors of scientific research that establishes a theory. These experiments must turn out exactly the same every time that they are performed or the theory is thrown out and the science team goes back to the drawing board. 

Theists just blindly accept a wild bunch of fairy stories written in the Bronze Age by people speaking to a crowd of complete illiterates. I, for one, would not be able to look an intelligent person in the eye and say that I believed the stories of the bible, and I refuse to cherry-pick things that I like over those more unsavory things in the doctrine. Therefore, I have to use skepticism, logic and reason to come to a sensible conclusion rather than stick to fables followed by fearful delusional shepherds dancing around a campfire fearing the wrath of a genocidal maniac.

I have it on enough authority that the above is the best evidence on the evolution of the universe and will keep looking to science to answer my questions instead of Bronze-age fear mongering. 

 

Atheists are from Venus…

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Atheists are funny people, so caught up in logical thinking and free thought, so allied to evidence and proof that they sometimes fail to see the wonder in that which they know nothing of. I speak, of course, about the things that we know nothing of!! That which is a mystery, something without a human rationale or explanation if you will. Well bloody Hell, I guess that I’m speaking of that which actually lead me to atheism over blind faith; wonderment! The vacuous theist is always asking the non-believer what they could possibly see in rote science and absolute fact, I say that the expansive domain of science and the fact that it dangles the carrot of eventual explanation over my head causes me ceaseless awe! The constant discovery of astronomical phenomenon continues to generate thousands upon thousands of questions that set us on a constant quest for answers, and this takes time. This is time spent thinking and coming up with reams of information beyond ‘Gawd did it.’

Theists do not stop to think for one minute that the image that we are seeing in the telescope could actually be God for freethinking nerds! We see these discoveries in the skies and on Earth as giving us the incredible wonders that belief in God gives theists, we just happen to defer to proof over hearsay and myth. To us, the atheist nerds of the world, we see the myopic belief in deities as a cop-out for actual research that would take a closed-minded person outside the insular little box. Many believers would cite scientists that are believers, but we all know that since 90% of people are sheep and 10% are forward thinkers, there will be many educated ‘dumb’ people, as Bill Mahar says, that continue to hold onto baseless beliefs such as the belief in sky fairies. 

I know that when I go outside on a cloudless night, I spend several minutes just staring at the expanse of the visible universe. I find awe in the breathtaking immensity of it all and of the wondrous light show that it puts on day after day. I am literally knocked over by the fact that it is so many billions of years old and that it will exist long after man has passed from this Earth. The sad and small-minded thing about belief is the tiny little thinking that man is actually important in all of this. Human beings keep inventing gods so that they can continue to convince themselves that they are somehow the center of this whole thing and that they are relevant. This is complete sentient foolishness brought on by a primitive fear of the dark and a desire to constantly create the need for oppression of one’s fellow beings. The wonder is in the discovery, not in the limitations of explaining things off to superstition through a myriad of faulty morally bankrupt gods. The minority, the 10% can’t even begin to describe these wonders that go beyond the closed-minded constructs of religion because the believer is too busy holding their hands over their ears to keep from actually learning something beyond theology. This isn’t ALL of the religious, but it is most. As long as one chalks up vastly incredible things to a God that couldn’t even share that the world was round to His closest confidants, a large portion of humanity will continue to resist the advances of science. 

I am skeptical of most things. I am skeptical of many atheist agendas, mainly because as an atheist, I do not wish to lead others astray with false information. I wish only to expose foolishness where it exists, and to spotlight the need for more non-believers to come out of the closet. I wish to share the great relationship that I have with reason and to have others see the incredible wonders of human scientific discovery that I see now and will see in the future, science willing. I realize that there are Orwellian things that science will allow man to do, but I also am very well read in the historical horrors of religious conquest. Man is a fallible being and seems to always choose the path of least resistance, but when faced with religion and science; I choose that science be the dominant factor. 

I close this for all science geeks everywhere by saying that when I need to experience awe, I turn to images from the Hubble, not to the empty promises of unfounded myth. If there is a chance that some would be insulted by this than I would direct future visitors to the ‘About’ page which explains that this site is for those who think for themselves and exercise logic and reason over superstition, and that I do not exist to rub salve on the wounds of those offended by things that they don’t agree with. 

Pale blue dot.

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An Early Draft of Carl Sagan’s Famous ‘Pale Blue Dot’ Quote

A peek into the evolution of a beloved passage.
FEB 3 2014, 2:10 PM ET
 
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NASA/Rebecca J. Rosen

There is something about Carl Sagan’s famous “Pale Blue Dot” passage that is, to me at least, perfect. 

From this distant vantage point, the Earth might not seem of any particular interest. But for us, it’s different. Consider again that dot. That’s here, that’s home, that’s us. On it everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever was, lived out their lives. The aggregate of our joy and suffering, thousands of confident religions, ideologies, and economic doctrines, every hunter and forager, every hero and coward, every creator and destroyer of civilization, every king and peasant, every young couple in love, every mother and father, hopeful child, inventor and explorer, every teacher of morals, every corrupt politician, every “superstar,” every “supreme leader,” every saint and sinner in the history of our species lived there—on the mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam.

Each word, each category, the overall rhythm—all of it is just right. I’ve read that passage (or listened to Sagan read it) countless times; it’s hard to imagine it any other way. 

Which is why I was so intrigued to come across an earlier draft of the passage among the recently digitized items in the Library of Congress’s new Carl Sagan archive. The draft bears the date February 20, 1993. The first edition of the book would be published a bit less than two years later, in November of 1994. 

You can see in red where Sagan has added in, “every ‘superstar’, every ‘supreme leader’,” an alliterative touch that would survive to the final draft, many, many revisions later. (The Library holds 20 drafts of the full book, of which this is the second.) But the superstar/supreme leader line is only the most visible of the edits we can ascertain from this passage. Take a listen to the final version:

Here, I’ve marked up every line that’s changed:

The rhythm has improved, helped along by added repetition of “every”; aliens have been excised (too distracting, perhaps?); acts of heroism and betrayal have become heroes and cowards, fitting in more neatly with the rest of the passage. Overall, the effect of the edits is a better flow, which, at least in Sagan’s sonorous voice, is what gives the section its punch. Or perhaps I’m just more familiar with it, and that’s why it sings to me.

Interestingly, the one substantively significant change between the 1993 draft and Sagan’s recording is one that proves enigmatic upon further digging. Are wea mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam? Or, are we the mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam? The draft says “a,” but the voice says “the.” It seems that Sagan’s verdict, in the end, was for “the.” A definite article! We are not just any mote of dust but the mote of dust.

But one detail adds a bit of ambiguity: The book agrees with the draft, not the recording, plainly calling Earth a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam.

So, in a way, Sagan has left us with the answer that we are both. We are just amote of dust suspended in a sunbeam. But at the same time, “for us it’s different,” Sagan says. For us, we’re the mote of dust: That’s here. That’s home. That’s us.

Supernova!

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STORY HIGHLIGHTS

  • In one of the nearest big galaxies, M82, a rare type of supernova exploded
  • Meg Urry: Its uniform luminosity makes it valuable in measuring cosmic distance
  • She says finding supernovae has led directly to the discovery of dark energy
  • Urry: We are seeing this light 11.4 million years after the real explosion

Editor’s note: Meg Urry is the Israel Munson professor of physics and astronomy at Yale University and director of the Yale Center for Astronomy and Astrophysics.

(CNN) — The other night, as I sat in the telescope operation room at the Keck Observatory in Waimea, Hawaii, preparing with colleagues to measure light from some of the most distant galaxies known, the phone rang with startling news.

An exploding star had been sighted in M82, one of the nearest big galaxies. The “supernova” (as such stellar explosions are called) was a special, rare “Type Ia” — the kind that led to the Nobel-worthy discovery of dark energy.

Type Ia supernovae have happened in our galactic neighborhood only three times in the last 80 years. Like astronomers around the world, we were excited to be at a world-leading telescope, where we could collect new information about this rare event.

Meg Urry

Meg Urry

The new supernova, SN2014J, is 11.4 million light-years from Earth, a mere stone’s throw in cosmic terms. The previous record-holders were found in 1937 (14 million light-years away) and 1972 (16 million light-years away).

Supernovae occur at the end of a star’s life when its furnace runs out of fuel. Because gravity then overcomes the star’s ability to remain puffed up, there is a violent collapse, followed by an explosion that produces radioactive elements such as nickel and cobalt. Most of the light we see from a supernova is emitted as those radioactive elements decay, so the brightness falls sharply over a period of weeks.

Incidentally, all the iron in your blood came from the decay of radioactive nickel manufactured in a stellar explosion. So most of the atoms in your body were once in the interiors of stars.

Because supernovae change brightness very quickly compared with galaxies (months compared with billions of years for galaxies), we quickly diverted the Keck telescope from our intended targets to SN2014J. Our galaxies will look the same another night, but the supernova won’t.

Amazingly, a professor and his students at the University of London Observatory had discovered SN2014J well before it reached its peak brightness.

“The weather was closing in, with increasing cloud,” said professor Steve Fossey. “So instead of the planned practical astronomy class, I gave the students an introductory demonstration of how to use the CCD camera on one of the observatory’s automated 0.35-meter telescopes.”

Deciding to look at M82 was almost pure luck — there were fewer clouds in that direction, and the galaxy was pretty and bright. But Fossey quickly noticed M82 didn’t look right: It seemed to contain a bright new star. He realized this might be a supernova and, together with his students, worked feverishly to rule out other explanations (such as a flaw in the camera or an asteroid in our galaxy appearing to pass by M82). In short order, the discovery of the new supernova was confirmed, and the e-mail alerts and notifications began.

Tom Wright, one of the students, said, “One minute we’re eating pizza, then five minutes later we’ve helped to discover a supernova. I couldn’t believe it.”

The only supernova that’s more extraordinary is SN1987A, which was discovered in 1987. It is in a tiny satellite galaxy orbiting the Milky Way, about 160,000 light-years away and 70 times closer than SN2014J.

Here’s an analogy for the vast distances across which we see supernovae: Imagine if 1987A were on the back porch. Then SN2014J would be just down the street; a garden-variety nearby supernovae would be in the next town, and the most distant supernovae would be over in the next state.

Space is very empty — there are only a few big galaxies near us. On average, the distance to the nearest big galaxy is about 100 times its size. But space is also huge, and there are billions of galaxies.

In an ordinary big galaxy such as the Milky Way, one supernova — of any type — happens only every hundred years or so. But since there are so many galaxies in the universe, millions of supernovae go off every year. From Earth, we can see hundreds of these.

One recipe we can use to find a supernova is to take pictures of a few hundred galaxies, repeat a few weeks later and look for the difference. The supernova will look like an overly bright star compared with the galaxy in which it lies.

Finding one supernova in several hundred galaxies is equivalent to staring at one galaxy for several hundred years.

M82 is an unusual galaxy because it has a high rate of star formation. That’s why two other supernovae were found in M82 as recently as 2008 and 2004. But they were not the special Type Ia supernovae. Because we have a good idea of how much light is emitted by Type Ia supernovae, the brightness we observe is a direct indicator of the distance to the host galaxy. This makes Type Ia supernovae incredibly valuable for measuring cosmic distances.

Careful observations of Type Ia supernovae across the universe were essential to measuring the expansion history of the universe over billions of years. This led directly to the discovery of dark energy, a sort of fifth fundamental force that is now one of the most important unknowns in physics or astronomy.

The reason Type Ia supernovae are special is their uniformity. Basically, they all explode at about the same mass, so they are all roughly equally luminous. Better understanding the physics of that explosion and the effect of local galactic environment will make Type Ia supernovae even better “standard candles” and improve our understanding of the properties of dark energy and the cosmological evolution of the universe. The more data we can get, and the closer the supernova, the better the calibration.

We are lucky that SN2014J was discovered about two weeks before it will reach its maximum brightness, rather than after. For the next week or so, the data will get better as the supernova gets brighter.

On Tuesday night, it was reported to be 11th magnitude (astronomer units), which is about 100 times fainter than can be seen with the naked eye. But it should get at least 10 times brighter, with a maximum around 8th magnitude — not visible to the naked eye but certainly discernible with a good pair of binoculars.

M82 lies far north in the sky, in the constellation Ursa Major, near the Big Dipper, above the Dipper’s bowl and about a third of the way over toward Polaris, the North Star. So if you can see the Big Dipper and the North Star, take a shot at seeing one of the most unusual supernovae in your lifetime.

Of course, you can’t get too excited about the timing. We see this light 11.4 million years after the explosion happened, because of the time light takes to reach our galaxy. So it was a really special time in M82 11.4 million years ago.

11 Badass Neil deGrasse Tyson Quotes    1437   Share Chris Higginsfiled under: 111111, astronomy, celebrities, education Neil

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11 Badass Neil deGrasse Tyson Quotes

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Neil deGrasse Tyson is America’s preeminent badass astrophysicist. He’s a passionate advocate for science, NASA, and education. He’s also well-known for a little incident involving Pluto. The man holds at least seventeen honorary doctorates in addition to his real one; we’re dealing with a badass over here. Now, eleven of our favorite NDT quotes.

1. On science: “The good thing about science is that it’s true whether or not you believe in it.” From Real Time with Bill Maher.

2. On NASA funding: “‘As a fraction of your tax dollar today, what is the total cost of all spaceborne telescopes, planetary probes, the rovers on Mars, the International Space Station, the space shuttle, telescopes yet to orbit, and missions yet to fly?’ Answer: one-half of one percent of each tax dollar. Half a penny. I’d prefer it were more: perhaps two cents on the dollar. Even during the storied Apollo era, peak NASA spending amounted to little more than four cents on the tax dollar.” From Space Chronicles, p. 25.

3. On God and hurricanes: “Once upon a time, people identified the god Neptune as the source of storms at sea. Today we call these storms hurricanes…. The only people who still call hurricanes acts of God are the people who write insurance forms.” From Death by Black Hole, p. 361.

4. On the benefits of technology invented for use in space: “… Countless women are alive today because of ideas stimulated by a design flaw in the Hubble Space Telescope.”

From Space Chronicles, p. 24.

5. On the demotion of Pluto from planet status: “I knew Pluto was popular among elementary schoolkids, but I had no idea they would mobilize into a ‘Save Pluto’ campaign. I now have a drawer full of hate letters from hundreds of elementary schoolchildren (with supportive cover letters from their science teachers) pleading with me to reverse my stance on Pluto. The file includes a photograph of the entire third grade of a school posing on their front steps and holding up a banner proclaiming, ‘Dr. Tyson—Pluto is a Planet!'” From The Sky Is Not the Limit, Kindle locations 1537-1540.

Image credit: PBS

6. On the climax of the movie Titanic: “In the movie, the stars above the ship bear no correspondence to any constellations in a real sky. Worse yet, while the heroine bobs… we are treated to her view of this Hollywood sky—one where the stars on the right half of the scene trace the mirror image of the stars in the left half. How lazy can you get?” From Death by Black Hole, p. 330.

7. On death by asteroid: “On Friday the 13th, April 2029, an asteroid large enough to fill the Rose Bowl as though it were an egg cup will fly so close to Earth that it will dip below the altitude of our communication satellites. We did not name this asteroid Bambi. Instead, we named it Apophis, after the Egyptian god of darkness and death.” From Space Chronicles, p. 53.

8. On the motivations behind America’s moonshot: “[L]et us not fool ourselves into thinking we went to the Moon because we are pioneers, or discoverers, or adventurers. We went to the Moon because it was the militaristically expedient thing to do.” From The Sky Is Not the Limit, p. 70.

9. On who named the stars: “After the 9/11 attacks, when President George W. Bush, in a speech aimed at distinguishing the U.S. from the Muslim fundamentalists, said, ‘Our God is the God who named the stars.’ The problem is two-thirds of all the stars that have names, have Arabic names. I don’t think he knew this. This would confound the point that he was making.” From The Amazing Meeting Keynote Speech, 2008.

10. On 2012 apocalypse predictions: “There’s no greater sign of the failure of the American educational system than the extent to which Americans are distracted by the possibility that Earth might end on December 21, 2012. It’s a profound absence of awareness of the laws of physics and how nature works. So they’re missing some science classes in their training in high school or in college that would empower [them] to understand and to judge when someone else is basically just full of it. Science is like an inoculation against charlatans who would have you believe whatever it is they tell you.” On Late Night with Jimmy Fallon, June 24, 2009.

11. Practical advice in the event of alien contact: “[I]f an alien lands on your front lawn and extends an appendage as a gesture of greeting, before you get friendly, toss it an eightball. If the appendage explodes, then the alien was probably made of antimatter. If not, then you can proceed to take it to your leader.” From Death by Black Hole, p. 107.

AUTHOR’S NOTE

I included citations for each quote because I prefer research to reassurance, and want to give you primary sources for this stuff — and our man NDT has been intentionally misquoted before. Check out his books and movies and audiobooks for top-notch science content. And stay tuned for his Cosmos sequel.

November 13, 2012 – 4:11am

 

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