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Weekend Diversion: The Evolution of Man?

May 31, 2008 on 9:30 am | In Random Stuff | 28 Comments

I dispute the scientific accuracy of this claim…

…hey, wait! Is that a Slurpee? Umm… I have to go out now…

Quasars: Worth a million bucks!

May 30, 2008 on 1:50 pm | In Astronomy, Hubble | 3 Comments

What would you do if you were a radio astronomer, looking up at the night sky with your giant radio telescope, and you saw a bunch of powerful radio waves being emitted from one point? Well, you’d point your other telescopes that are sensitive to visible light at it and see what the big idea was.

Sure, sometimes you’d see a galaxy or star cluster or planetary nebula, because those can emit radio waves. But sometimes you’d see just a little star-like dot in the sky, and sometimes you’d see nothing at all in the direction of the radio waves:

Well, what would you call such an object? The scientists who saw them called them Quasi-Stellar Radio Sources. QSRS, they wrote down. How do you pronounce that? Oh right, quasars! (See the wikipedia article for a false etymology.)

So what are these things? Well, we know from measuring their redshifts that they’re very far away, and from measuring their magnitudes that they’re extremely bright. From the emission lines, we can measure their masses, too; they typically weigh in at a few hundred million times that of our Sun. Occasionally, we get lucky, and can detect that they emit jets like quasar 3C 273:

So what makes them? Well, we now know that they’re collapsed clouds of matter that surround extremely massive black holes! The spinning black holes accelerate the matter and cause the emission of lots of different types of light, including radio waves, and we observe them. Close up, a quasar looks like this (the image is of quasar 3C 120, as taken by the Hubble Space Telescope):

Well, this year’s Kavli Prize for astrophysics goes to Maarten Schmidt and Donald Lynden-Bell for their discoveries that quasars are both so far away and so energetic, and how they get to be that way. And the award comes with a hefty cash sum, too. How much, you ask?

One Million Dollars! Have a great weekend, folks, and don’t forget to check out this week’s Carnival of Space, with a ton of articles about Mars and the Phoenix mission, as well as a special tribute to the NASA astronauts who lost their lives as part of the space program.

The Leaning Tower of Pisa!

May 29, 2008 on 4:40 pm | In Physics | 83 Comments

Back in 1999, I was an undergraduate, majoring in both Physics and Classics (Ancient Greek and Latin languages and Greek and Roman history). I was studying abroad, living in Rome, working part-time as a server in a kitchen to help pay the bills. And one of the opportunities I had was to go to Pisa, which is just a short train ride away from Rome. After all, who wouldn’t want to go see the famous Leaning Tower of Pisa? (Allegedly, even Galileo had some interesting dealings there.)

The tower is over 800 years old, and started leaning from the time it was first constructed. In fact, if you look closely, you can see that the tower isn’t completely straight. Why not? Because it started leaning during construction, they started to build the top stories at an angle, to counteract the leaning!

Back in 1999, it was not open to the public, and you certainly couldn’t go inside. Why not? Because the Tower not only started leaning when it was first being built, but it continued to shift, and shift, and shift, as the tremendous pressure on the weak ground beneath it continued to give way.

Little did I know what was really going on. Deep beneath the Earth, engineers were working on a project to dig out 70 tonnes (154,000 pounds) of dirt from the northern side of the tower, to encourage it to right itself. The truly amazing thing? They managed to do it for only 26 million Euros (40 million dollars). What’s more, is that they embedded sensors in the ground to monitor the stresses and positions of the tower.

Guess what? In the aftermath of this, two remarkable things have happened.

  1. The tower actually shifted back the other way, and is now 19 inches (or 0.5 meters) more upright than it was before.
  2. Most shockingly, the removal of 70 tonnes of Earth beneath the tower has actually stabilized it, and for the first time in its 800 year history, the Leaning Tower of Pisa isn’t shifting any more.

This is great! And here I was worried we were going to have to call in the big guns to fix it…

What Spins the Fastest in Space?

May 28, 2008 on 3:43 pm | In Astronomy, Physics, black holes | 30 Comments

Almost every object in space doesn’t just move, but also rotates about its own axis. As those of you who know my Jewish heritage can attest, we are fascinated with spinning things. How else to explain this:

But seriously, what objects spin the fastest in space? Well, most people know that we spin once per day, and that’s a good place to start, as we’re a lot faster than our Sun, which takes about 25 days to spin around once. But we’re not even the fastest spinner out of the planets: Jupiter and Saturn both beat us, as despite their huge size, they each rotate once in just about 10 hours, with Jupiter a little bit faster and Saturn a little bit slower.

Well, amazingly, there are things in our solar system that rotate even faster, and the new record holder for our solar system was just discovered… by an amateur astronomer! Congratulations to Richard Miles of Dorset, in the UK, who discovered that the near-Earth asteroid 2008 HJ rotates once every 42.7 seconds, making it the first natural object in the solar system to rotate with a period under a minute! Despite being only 12 meters by 24 meters (about the size of a tennis court), it weighs over 10 million pounds (or about 5,000 tonnes, for the metric kids). For comparison, this is teeny-tiny, as the larger asteroids measure tens or even hundreds of kilometers across:

But what if we go outside of our solar system? Are there other things that rotate faster? Sure there are: collapsed stars!

Those of you who took physics might remember that a few things are always conserved: Energy, Momentum, and Angular Momentum among them. Well, what angular momentum means is that if I have a massive rotating body and collapse it, it rotates faster and faster. It’s the same principle behind this:

Well, let’s take our Sun; it has an angular momentum that’s proportional to its radius2 times its angular velocity. But the Sun is big. It has a radius of 700,000 kilometers. But someday the Sun will become a white dwarf, shrinking to roughly 1% of its current size. If it conserves angular momentum, that means instead of taking 25 days to rotate, it will spin around once in just 3.5 minutes. And when we look at other white dwarf stars, we find that this is just the right rotation speed for them, with the fastest one clocking in at 33 seconds!

Meh, you may say. 33 seconds is barely faster than our asteroid in our solar system. Well, I’ll show you. I’ll show all of you! Wait, no, sorry, that was my villain-voice. What I meant was, not all stars collapse to white dwarfs, with radii of thousands of kilometers. Some of them collapse even further, to form neutron stars, with radii that are only a few kilometers! Well, again, conserve angular momentum, and what would we expect for our Sun? A period of about 20 milliseconds. Crazy talk? Let’s see what we find when we tabulate observed neutron star periods:

They range from the slowest at 8.3 seconds to the fastest at only 1.4 milliseconds! If you do a little math, and ask how quickly is a star with, let’s say, a 5 km radius spinning with a period of 1.4 milliseconds, and you’ll find it’s about 10% the speed of light. You want to spin faster than that in space, and you’ll have to turn into a black hole. The only problem is, if you’re a black hole, I can’t measure how quickly you’re spinning, because you aren’t letting any light out for me to see. But I can measure the stuff orbiting you, and that’s moving about 10% the speed of light; I can only imagine the internal rpms you’ve got going on! Any ideas for how to measure that?

The Lunar Housing Market?

May 27, 2008 on 8:49 am | In Politics, Solar System | 17 Comments

One of the crowning achievements of humanity has been our exploration of space. Although there has, of course, been a cost, we’ve also realized the dream of many people from two generations ago: to be able to send your loved ones to the Moon.

There’s a catch, though. We haven’t been able to sustain humans on the Moon; just a quick visit and romp, and then they come home.

But what about colonizing the Moon? After all, we’ve already learned that lunar soil is made up of the same stuff as Earth’s soil, just without the 600 million years of life history and the heaviest metals. In fact, you may have heard that by crushing up moonrocks, you can grow some hardy plants on the Moon, which is true (hi, marigolds):

But how do we get people to invest in living on the Moon? Well, there’s a great debate going on, and Dave Wasser has emailed me to let me know one side: the side of privatizing Moon ownership. A group is trying to answer the following question:


This is a tough political thing to argue, but I’m going to quote the court case of Finders vs. Keepers, and take the stance that possession is 9/10ths of the law. But that’s just it, isn’t it? Where is all of the money to finance colonizing other worlds coming from? Well, it could come from private enterprise if there’s incentive to be profitable. And what’s been the most profitable venture of the last 100 years? Real Estate. And so the Boston Globe chimes in on this issue, and states:

In the small community of people who think seriously about space exploration, a few are arguing that exporting the idea of private property into space is exactly what we need to do to launch a bold new space race.

Well, of course! What this basically offers is that if private enterprise gets in on the ground floor to spur and fund space colonization, they get the payoff of owning some of the extraterrestrial real estate. An interesting idea; I’m all for it, as I think that the ability to fund this exploration outweighs the ethical issues of colonization. Anyone want to take the “con” position? Oh, you? How do you say that? Ig-nig-nokt?

Of course, it sounds ficticious and far-fetched at this point. But if we’re serious about making this happen, we have to put an incentive in place for private companies to invest. And I don’t mean a moral or ethical incentive, I mean a financial one. The hope of turning a profit someday might be enough to do it. Can we get an international coalition together to help make it happen? And what would be more valuable, the equatorial lands or the polar ones?

But I look at the potential benefits of investing in this for energy generating technologies, biological growth and food production, not to mention ecological resource management (air, water, soil, minerals, etc.), and perhaps more than anything, increasing public interest and awareness in science and space exploration. What do you think?

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