Category Archives: Beary Scientist

The Solar Eclipse That Made Einstein Famous

It seems impossible, given how instantly recognizable Albert Einstein’s shock of white hair, bushy mustache and lined face remain six decades after his death, but there was a time when he was not famous. In fact, there was a time when the German-born prodigy was not a full-fledged physicist. Instead, he was patent examiner in Bern, Switzerland, who conducted scientific research in his off hours.

In 1905, when he was 26, Einstein began revolutionizing physics with his theory of special relativity, which helped redefine the relationship between space and time. One of the world’s most iconic mathematical equations — E=mc2 — grew out of special relativity.

Einstein Memorial in Washington, DC

That work secured Einstein a series of academic positions, but it didn’t make him famous. Neither did his theory of general relativity, which he published in 1915. Einstein argued that what we understand as gravity is, in fact, from the curvature of space and time — a hotly debated notion among physicists at the time.

Then came the solar eclipse of 1919 — more than six minutes of darkness along a path that stretched from South America to Africa and changed the course of Einstein’s life. Some people refer to the May 29, 1919, event “Einstein’s eclipse.”

Albert Einstein delivers a lecture to the American Association for the Advancement of Science in Pittsburgh on Dec. 28, 1934. (AP)

Nearly a century later, on Aug. 21, a solar eclipse will sweep across the United States in one of the most anticipated astronomical events in the country’s history. It will give scientists an opportunity to study the sun’s volatile corona, the wisps of plasma that billow and sometimes explode around the star.

In 1919, British astronomers, led by Sir Arthur Eddington, used the eclipse to prove that the light from stars was being deflected by the sun’s gravitational field at exactly the degree Einstein’s theory predicted.

Newspapers around the world celebrated the accomplishment. “Einstein Theory Triumphs,” the New York Times reported on November 10, 1919. “Men of Science More or Less Agog Over Results of Eclipse Observations.”

New York Times, November 10, 1919

What Einstein had done, effectively, was change the conversation about space, and how people understood and related to it. Just as importantly, the scientific breakthrough offered a reprieve from the devastation of World War I, which had claimed the lives of an estimated 17 million people.

“Europe was in mourning,” said Jimena Canales, author of The Physicist and the Philosopher: Einstein, Bergson, and the Debate That Changed Our Understanding of Time. “The public was thirsty for news that was not about what was going on around them.”

Einstein won the Nobel Prize in 1921. Afterward, he traveled the world, hobnobbing with royalty and Hollywood stars. Charlie Chaplin invited him to the premiere of his new movie, City Lights, in 1931, and reportedly said to him, “They’re cheering us both, you because nobody understands you, and me because everybody understands me.”

Einstein fled Germany in 1933 as the Nazis came to power and began ousting Jewish scientists from the country’s universities. In a speech to a packed audience at London’s Royal Albert Hall on October 3, 1933, Einstein warned of the dangers Hitler posed.

“If we want to resist the powers which threaten to suppress intellectual and individual freedom we must keep clearly before us what is at stake,” he said, “and what we owe to that freedom which our ancestors have won for us after hard struggles.”

He sailed to the United States four days later, eventually taking a position at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, NJ, where his fame grew. He was a pacifist and an outspoken champion of civil rights, joining the NAACP and corresponding with W.E.B. Du Bois, a co-founder of the organization.

British scientist Stephen Hawking speaks in New York in 2016 while an image of Albert Einstein looms behind him on a video screen. (EPA/JASON SZENES)

“Einstein, in that time, was becoming more than a public scientist,” Canales said. “He became oracular, and he didn’t shy away” from it. “He created this new role [now inhabited] by people like Stephen Hawking and Carl Sagan.”

By the time he died in 1955 at the age of 76, Einstein’s name had become a synonym for genius. And it all began in 1919, after the moon briefly blocked the sun.

Original article in The Washington Post.

A Magical Time at the ArtScience Museum

Little bears have entered a magical world!

Crystal Universe

Crystal Universe
Interactive Installation of Light Sculpture, Endless
Artwork & Sound by teamLab

This monumental, immersive and interactive work by teamLab, puts the viewer at the heart of the universe, enabling them to experience astrophysical phenomena such as planets, stars, galaxies and even the recently detected gravitational waves predicted by Einstein a century ago. The viewer experiences the universe from within, it surrounds them and responds to their presence, helping them understand their part of the vastness of celestial space.

Crystal Universe

The ArtScience Museum in Singapore is devoted to the exploration of art and science and the connection between them. In the permanent exhibition, Future World – Where Art Meets Science, the creative threads by which art, science, technology and culture are inextricably bound are expressed in immersive, interactive works by teamLab, a globally renowned Japanese group of ultra-technologists and multi-award winning art collective.

ArtScience Museum
ArtScience Museum

The exhibition was launched in 2016 to mark the museum’s fifth anniversary.

Crows are Chased and the Chasing Crows are Destined to be Chased as well, Transcending Space
Crows are Chased and the Chasing Crows are Destined to be Chased as well, Transcending Space

Crows are Chased and the Chasing Crows are Destined to be Chased as well,
Transcending Space
Digital Installation, 4 min 20 sec

This immersive audio-visual installation depicts the creation of life and takes visitors (and little bears!) inside the heart of nature. The artwork features crows, rendered in light, that fly around the space leaving trails of light in their path. Swooping through the space and chasing one another, the crows collide, creating colourful flowers in their wake. They represent the Yatagarasu, a three-legged crow described in Japanese mythology, which is believed to be the embodiment of the Sun. The formation of flowers resulting from the crows’ collisions alludes to the genesis of life from the Sun’s energy.

An incredible experience!

Crows are Chased and the Chasing Crows are Destined to be Chased as well, Transcending Space
Crows are Chased and the Chasing Crows are Destined to be Chased as well, Transcending Space
Black Waves
Black Waves

Black Waves
Digital Installation, Continuous Loop
Artwork by teamLab, Sound by Hideaki Takahashi

Black Waves is an expression of nature, rendered entirely by digital technology. It depicts the sea in the style of traditional Japanese painting. In the Japanese tradition, oceans, rivers and bodies of water are often represented as a series of curvilinear lines. The movement of those lines gives the impression that water itself is alive.

Black Waves
Sliding through the Fruit Field
Flowers and People, Cannot be Controlled but Live Together – A Whole Year Per Year
Sketch Town
Sketch Aquarium
Light Ball Orchestra
Light Ball Orchestra
Media Block Chairs

Consisting of fiberglass light cube chairs, these cubes can be seen as the building blocks. Adults and children alike are invited to construct high-tech furniture, like chairs and benches, or architectural structures such as walls and partitions. Each block communicates information to each other when they are connected, changing colour in the process. The installation encourages visitors to be both innovative and practical in the process of creation.

Little bears thought the cubes had the right idea, some time out to recharge 🙂

Media Block Chairs
Please leave me alone – I’m recharging.

Cosmic Ballet

Yummy…. Starry biscuits!

When I close my eyes, I see the planets as pirouetting dancers in a cosmic ballet, choreographed by the forces of gravity.

Very poetic!

I’m quoting Neil deGrasse Tyson…

We’re beary friends now! 🙂

From a distance, our solar system looks empty. If you enclosed it within a sphere – one large enough to contain the orbit of Neptune, the outermost planet – then the volume occupied by the Sun, all planets and their moons would take up a little more than one-trillionth of enclosed space. But it’s not empty, the space between the planets contains all manner of chunky rocks, pebbles, ice balls, dust, streams of charged particles and far-flung probes. The space is also permeated by monstrous gravitational and magnetic fields.

Planetary Lineup: This montage of photos, taken by various NASA spacecraft, shows the order of planets in the solar system. Mercury, the closest planet to the sun, is at the top, followed by Venus, Earth (with its moon), Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune. Image: NASA/JPL

Interplanetary space is so not-empty that Earth, during its 30 kilometre-per-second orbital journey, plows through hundreds of tons of meteors per day – most of them no larger than a grain of sand. Nearly all of them burn in Earth’s upper atmosphere, slamming into the air with so much energy that the debris vaporizes on contact. Our frail species evolved under this protective blanket. Larger, golf-ball-size meters heat fast but evenly, and often shatter into smaller pieces before they vaporize. Still larger meteors singe their surface but otherwise make it all the way to ground intact. You’d think that by now, after 4.6 billion trips around the Sun, Earth would have “vacuumed” up all possible debris in its orbital path. But things were once much worse. For a half-billion years after the formation of the Sun and its planets, so much junk rained down on Earth that heat from the persistent energy of impacts rendered Earth’s atmosphere hot and our crust molten.

Earth’s atmosphere burns up most of the 20 million meteorites zipping toward Earth each day (producing two million pounds of dust)

One substantial hunk of junk led to the formation of the Moon. The unexpected scarcity of iron and other higher-mass elements in the moon, derived from lunar samples returned by Apollo astronauts, indicates that the Moon most likely burst forth from Earth’s iron-poor crust and mantle after a glancing collision with a wayward Mars-sized proto-planet. The orbiting debris from this encounter coalesced to form our lovely, low-density satellite. Apart from this newsworthy event, the period of heavy bombardment that Earth endured during its infancy was not unique among the planets and other large bodies of the solar system. They each sustained similar damage, with the airless, erosionless surfaces of the Moon and Mercury preserving much of the cratered record from this period.

Not only is the solar system scarred by the flotsam of its formation, but nearby interplanetary space also contains rocks of all sizes that were jettisoned from Mars, the Moon and Earth by the ground’s recoil from high-speed impacts. Computer studies of meteor strikes demonstrate conclusively that surface rocks near impact zones can get thrust upward with enough speed to escape the body’s gravitational tether. At the rate we are discovering meteorites on Earth whose origin is Mars, we conclude that about a thousand tons of Martian rocks rain down on Earth each year. Perhaps the same amount reaches Earth from the Moon. In retrospect, we didn’t have to go to the Moon to retrieve Moon rocks. Plenty come to us, although they were not of our choosing and we didn’t yet know it during the Apollo program.

Most of the solar system’s asteroids live and work in the main asteroid belt, a roughly flat zone between the orbits of Mars and Jupiter. By tradition, the discoverers get to name their asteroids whatever they like. Now in the hundreds of thousands, the asteroid count might soon challenge our capacity to name them. There are asteroids out there named Merlin, James Bond, Santa, Tyson, Unsold…

Often drawn by artists as a region of cluttered, meandering rocks in the plane of the solar system, the asteroid belt’s total mass is less than five percent that of the Moon, which is itself barely more than one percent of Earth’s mass. Sounds insignificant. But accumulated perturbations of their orbits continually create a deadly subset, perhaps a few thousand, whose eccentric paths intersect Earth’s orbit. A simple calculation reveals that most of them will hit Earth within a hundred million years. The ones larger than about a kilometre across will collide with enough energy to destabilise Earth’s ecosystem and put most of Earth’s land species at risk of extinction.

That would be bad…

Asteroids are not the only space objects that pose a risk to life on Earth. The Kuiper belt is a comet-strewn swath of circular real estate that begins just beyond the orbit of Neptune, includes Pluto, and expands perhaps as far again from Neptune as Neptune is from the Sun. The Dutch-born American astronomer Gerard Kuiper advanced the idea that in the cold depths of space, beyond the orbit of Neptune, there reside frozen leftovers from the formation of the solar system. Without a massive planet upon which to fall, most of these comets will orbit the Sun for billion more years. As is true for the asteroid belt, some objects of the Kuiper belt travel on eccentric paths that cross the orbits of other planets. Pluto and its ensemble of siblings called Plutinos cross Neptune’s path around the Sun. Other Kuiper belt objects plunge all the way down to the inner solar system, crossing planetary orbits with abandon. This subset includes Halley, the most famous comet of them all.

Gerard Kuiper, the father of modern planetary science. Kuiper founded the Lunar and Planetary Lab in Arizona in 1960.

Far beyond the Kuiper belt, extending halfway to the nearest stars, lives a spherical reservoir of comets called the Oort cloud, named for Jan Oort, the Dutch astrophysicist who first deduced its existence. This zone is responsible for the long-period comets, those with orbital periods far longer than a human lifetime. Unlike Kuiper belt comets, Oort cloud comets can rain down on the inner solar system from any angle and any direction. The two brightest of the 1990s, comets Hale-Bopp and Hyakutake, were both from the Oort cloud and are not coming back anytime soon.

Jan Hendrik Oort, comet pioneer, was one of the greatest astronomers of the 20th century.
Comet Hale–Bopp, at a distance of nearly two billion kilometres from the Sun. Credit: ESO
Image of Comet Hale-Bopp taken by Wally Pacholka on April 5, 1997 from the Joshua Tree National Park in California.
Image of Comet Hyakutake taken by Michael Williams on March 28, 1998 from the Mt. Rainier National Park in Washington.

If we had eyes that could see magnetic fields, Jupiter would look ten times larger than the full Moon in the sky. Spacecraft that visit Jupiter must be designed to remain unaffected by this powerful force. As the English physicist Michael Faraday demonstrated in the 1800s, if you pass a wire across a magnetic field you generate a voltage difference along the wire’s length. For this reason, fast-moving metal space probes will have electrical currents induced within them. Meanwhile, these currents generate magnetic fields of their own that interact with the ambient magnetic field in ways that retard the space probe’s motion.

There are hundreds of moons in our solar system – even a few asteroids have been found to have small companion moons. There are so many, that we no longer keep count, especially since scientists using improved ground-based telescopes and orbiting observatories discover moons by the dozens! By some measures, the solar system’s moons are much more fascinating than the planets they orbit.

Earth’s Moon is about 1/400th the diameter of the Sun, but it is also 1/400th as far from us, making the Sun and the Moon the same size in the sky – a coincidence not shared by any other planet-moon combination in the solar system, allowing for uniquely photogenic total solar eclipses. Earth has also tidally locked the Moon, leaving it with identical periods of rotation on its axis and revolution around Earth. Wherever and whenever this happens, the locked moon shows only one face to its host planet.

The total solar eclipse seen from Ellis Beach north of Cairns, Australia, November 14, 2012
The Diamond Ring effect is shown following totality of the solar eclipse at Palm Cove in Australia’s Tropical North Queensland on November 14, 2012.
Greg Wood/AFP/Getty Images

Jupiter’s system of moons is replete with oddballs. Io, Jupiter’s closest moon, is tidally locked and structurally stressed by interactions with Jupiter and with other moons, pumping enough heat into the little orb to render molten its interior rocks; Io is the most volcanically active place in the solar system. Jupiter’s moon Europa has enough H2O that its heating mechanism – the same one at work on Io – has melted the subsurface ice, leaving a warmed ocean below. If ever there was a next-best place to look for life, it’s here.

Pluto’s largest moon, Charon, is so big and close to Pluto that Pluto and Charon have each tidally locked the other: their rotation periods and their periods of revolution are identical. We call this a double tidal lock, which sounds like a yet-to-be-invented wrestling hold.

Selected moons of the solar system , showed to scale with Earth’s Moon. Credit: NASA

By convention, moons are named for Greek personalities in the life of the Greek counterpart to the Roman god after whom the planet itself was named. The classical gods led complicated social lives, so there is no shortage of characters from which to draw. The lone exception to this rule applies to the moons of Uranus, which are named for assorted protagonists in British lit. The English astronomer Sir William Herschel was the first person to discover a planet beyond those easily visible to the naked eye, and he was ready to name it after the King, under whom he faithfully served. Had Sir William succeeded, the planet list would read: Mercury, Venus, Earth, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn and George. Fortunately clearer heads prevailed and the classical name Uranus was adopted some years later. But his original suggestion to name the moons after characters in William Shakespeare’s plays and Alexander Pope’s poems remains the tradition to this day. Among its twenty-seven moons we find Ariel, Cordelia, Desdemona, Juliet, Ophelia, Portia, Puck, Umbriel and Miranda!

The Sun loses material from its surface at a rate of more than a million tons per second. We call this the “solar wind”, which takes the form of high-energy charged particles. Traveling up to a 1600 kilometre per second, these particles stream through space and are deflected by planetary magnetic fields. The particles spiral down toward the north and south magnetic poles, forcing collisions with gas molecules and leaving the atmosphere aglow with colourful aurora. The Hubble Space Telescope has spotted aurora near the poles of both Saturn and Jupiter. And on Earth, the aurora borealis and australis serve as intermittent reminders of how nice it is to have a protective atmosphere.

Astronomers are using NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope to study auroras — stunning light shows in a planet’s atmosphere — on the poles of the largest planet in the solar system, Jupiter.
Credits: NASA, ESA, and J. Nichols (University of Leicester)
Saturn has its own unique brand of aurora that lights up the polar cap, unlike any other planetary aurora known in our solar system. This odd aurora revealed itself to one of the infrared instruments on NASA’s Cassini spacecraft.

Earth’s atmosphere is commonly described as extending tens of kilometres above Earth’s surface. Satellites in “low” Earth orbit typically travel between 150 and 600 kilometres up, completing an orbit in about 90 minutes. While you can’t breathe at those altitudes, some atmospheric molecules remain – enough to slowly drain orbital energy from unsuspecting satellites. To combat this drag, satellites in low orbit require intermittent boosts, lest they fall back to Earth and burn up in the atmosphere. An alternative way to define the edge of our atmosphere is to ask where its density of gas molecules equals the density of gas molecules in interplanetary space. Under that definition, Earth’s atmosphere extends thousands of kilometres.

Orbiting high above this level, 38,000 kilometres up (one tenth of the distance to the moon) are the communications satellites. At this special altitude, Earth’s atmosphere is not only irrelevant, but the speed of the satellite is low enough for it to require a full day to complete one revolution around Earth. With an orbit precisely matching the rotation rate of Earth, these satellites appear to hover, which makes them ideal for relaying signals from one part of Earth’s surface to another.

Newton’s laws specifically state that, while the gravity of a planet gets weaker and weaker the farther from it you travel, there is no distance where the force of gravity reaches zero. The planet Jupiter, with its mighty gravitational field, bats out of harm’s way many comets that would otherwise wreak havoc on the inner solar system. Jupiter acts as a gravitational shield for Earth, a burly big brother, allowing long (hundred-million-year) stretches of relative peace and quiet on Earth. Without Jupiter’s protection, complex life would have a hard time become interestingly complex, always living at risk of extinction from a devastating impact.

We have exploited the gravitational fields of planets for nearly every probe launched into space. The Cassini probe, for example, which visited Saturn, was gravitationally assisted twice by Venus, one by Earth (on a return flyby) and once by Jupiter. Like a multi-cushion billiard shot, trajectories from one planet to another are common. Our tiny probes would not otherwise have enough speed and energy from our rockets to reach their destination.

From Astrophysics for Bears in a Hurry 🙂 by Neil deGrasse Tyson.

A Special New Course

In this post-truth world, the power of facts is much diminished. Whether it is the conspiracy theories of US president Trump, fake news, mendacious political campaigns in the UK or the filter bubbles we find ourselves trapped inside, it seems factual information is in retreat from public discourse.

Some educators are coming to the rescue. The University of Washington in Seattle is now offering students course credits for a new class titled Calling Bullshit in the Age of Big Data. Seriously!

The world is awash in b..t. We expect it in some spheres, but the hype surrounding Big Data has provided ample cover for b..t to infiltrate the sciences as well. Through readings and discussions, this course will develop the critical thinking skills for spotting and refuting b..t wherever it may occur.

Evolutionary biologist Carl Bergstrom and data scientist Jevin West describe their syllabus by way of a succinct mission statement: Our world is saturated with b..t. Learn to detect and defuse it.

A non-partisan effort, the pair explain that the course is neither a veiled critique of certain individuals nor a satirical offering. Adequate b..t detection strikes us as essential to the survival of liberal democracy, they write on the course homepage.

If you’re a long way from being a Seattle student (either in kilometres or years), don’t despair. The syllabus and most materials are online and available to anyone who wishes to enrol.

Someone who doesn’t need additional training to detect b..t, either in big data or in big talk, is German Chancellor Angela Merkel 🙂

T: I invented the Internet.
M: No you didn’t.
T: I can see through brick walls.
M: No you can’t.
T: I own fourteen dinosaurs, all alive.
M: Please stop!

Musical Higgs

On 4 July 2012, the ATLAS and CMS spokespersons announced during a seminar at CERN that their experiments had found a particle consistent with the long sought-after Higgs boson. (Image: Maximilien Brice, Laurent Egli/CERN)

“I think we have it, no?” was the question posed by the then CERN Director General Rolf Heuer on 4 July in the CERN auditorium.

The data from the Higgs discovery has been used for many things, but one of the most innovative is music! The “sonification” project was the brainchild of physicist and composer Domenico Vicinanza and you can read about it on the Cylindrical Onion blog.

Then Piotr Traczyk decided to find out what would the Higgs discovery sound like as a heavy-metal song.

Happy anniversary Higgs Boson! It’s cake time 🙂