Make Science for All

For the next few weeks, you have the opportunity to contribute to NOVA and David Pogue on their Kickstarter project NOVA: Make Science for All. I’m a big fan of Kickstarter, and have been supporting projects through crowdfunding on the site for years now. This particular project is obviously something I especially support at Little Bits of Science. While I’m currently only donating at the “Download the Special” level, I’m considering increasing my contribution to the “Pay It Forward: Adopt A Teacher” level and sending the disc media to one of my childrens’ teachers.

Please check out this important Kickstarter project and support science for the world at large.

The Wow! Signal

Proving that there is still much about the universe we don’t know, the Wow! signal from 1977 confounds to this day. So what is the Wow! signal, and why is it still of interest roughly 40 years later?

Should another civilization somewhere in the universe want to communicate with us and announced their presence, it is theorized that these alien beings will most likely broadcast at 1420 megahertz (MHz), a natural emission frequency of hydrogen. The thinking is that given hydrogen’s natural abundance in the universe, all intelligent creatures will be aware of it and therefore attempt to communicate at this natural emission line. So back in the 1970s, when Ohio State University was re-purposing the Big Ear telescope in Delaware, Ohio to help with SETI, the telescope was tuned to watch the 1420 MHz frequency.

Big Ear was set to scan the sky in 72 second intervals, changing locations scanned after that time due to the earth’s rotation. The signal was only heard on a single frequency with no accompanying static on surrounding frequencies. A signal created from something in nature would normally be expected to have static along with the signal.

The signal also “rose and fell” during the 72 seconds, as would be expected from something originating in space. When the radio telescope is pointed at the sky, any such signal will appear to increase in intensity as it first moves across the observational beam of the telescope, then peak when the telescope is pointed straight at it and then decrease as it moves away from the telescope. This also makes a mere computer glitch a less likely explanation, although not impossible.

Subsequent checks in the same approximate area for additional signals have turned up nothing. So we haven’t seen anything that helps us determine for certain if this is a natural “noise” from elsewhere in the universe or if it was created by another intelligent species.

However, recently Professor Antonio Paris of St. Petersberg College in Florida has put forward a hypothesis as to what the Wow! signal really is. He believes it could have been reflections from one of two comets believed to be in the area of the Big Ear’s orientation back in 1977. And he’s crowdfunding the money needed to test his hypothesis.

Comet 266P/Christensen will pass the Chi Sagittarii star group again on 25 January 2017, while 335P/Gibbs will make its passage on 7 January 2018. Paris plans to observe these events to look for a recurrence of the mystery signal. But time is not on his side for using an existing radio telescope – they are all booked out.

So by this time next year we should be able to tell if Professor Paris is right or not. Look for a follow-up then. In the meantime, if you’d like to hear more about the Wow! signal, I recommend a read or listen to the Skeptoid Wow! episode which better covers much of what we know or think we know about the signal.

Electron Lifetime 66,000+ Yottayears

This is a bit of news that actually came out late last year, but still interesting and worth reading about. electron photoScientists have done research and determined that the lifetime of an electron is at least 66,000 yottayears (6.6 × 1028 yr).

This latest search for electron decay was made using the Borexino detector, which is designed primarily to study neutrinos. It is located deep under a mountain at the Gran Sasso National Laboratory to shield it from cosmic rays and comprises 300 tonnes of an organic liquid that is viewed by 2212 photomultipliers.

Photo by Peter Zuco

Lider Mapping Oregon’s Williamette River

In the “Science makes art” category of life, f-poster-WillametteStreamChannelswe have this mapping of Oregon’s Williamette River as created from Lidar mapping:

This lidar-derived digital elevation model of the Willamette River displays a 50-foot elevation range, from low elevations (displayed in white) fading to higher elevations (displayed in dark blue). This visually replaces the relatively flat landscape of the valley floor with vivid historical channels, showing the dynamic movements the river has made in recent millennia. This segment of the Willamette River flows past Albany near the bottom of the image northward to the communities of Monmouth and Independence at the top. Near the center, the Luckiamute River flows into the Willamette from the left, and the Santiam River flows in from the right. Lidar imagery by Daniel E. Coe.

Full information on this can be found on The Oregon Department of Geology and Mineral Industries (DOGAMI) web site.

A Possible Fourth Neutrino

To understand this potential discovery, we must first look at the basics of neutrinos as we currently understand them. There are currently 3 known neutrinos: ve, vµ, and vτ. These neutrinos each relate to a charged particle: electron (e), muon (µ), and tau (τ) respectively.

IceTop Tanks sit on the Antarctic surface (IceTop) to detect cosmic ray showers and other atmospheric phenomena.
Photo by: D. Hubert/NSF

Neutrinos are the smallest bits of matter we currently know. They are bits of matter which only react to gravity and the weak nuclear force. Because of this, they travel extreme distances and through pretty much all matter with very little interaction.

Very recently, we have had experimental anomolies which hint of a 4th type of neutrino:

In tunnels deep inside a granite mountain at Daya Bay, a nuclear reactor facility some 55 kilometers from Hong Kong, sensitive detectors are hinting at the existence of a new form of neutrino, one of nature’s most ghostly and abundant elementary particles.

This serendipitous discovery (well, not technically a discovery, due to the probabilities involved although other experiments have seen similar results) came about when scientists saw fewer antineutrinos than expected in the output of a nuclear reactor. Along with this, there is potentially new physics to be worked out to explain the excess of electron antineutrinos at an energy of around 5 million electron volts.

Exciting times!

On the Skill of Balancing while Riding a Bicycle

For something a little more light-hearted and fun, we will take time to look at the skill of riding a bicycle. Or rather, we will look at research done by others who have looked at the skill of balancing while riding a bicycle:

Humans have ridden bicycles for over 200 years, yet there are no continuous measures of how skill differs between novice and expert. To address this knowledge gap, we measured the dynamics of human bicycle riding in 14 subjects, half of whom were skilled and half were novice. Each subject rode an instrumented bicycle on training rollers at speeds ranging from 1 to 7 m/s. Steer angle and rate, steer torque, bicycle speed, and bicycle roll angle and rate were measured and steering power calculated.

This article discusses the methodology behind the study, the protocol and instruments used, and provides the math involved in the process of riding and balancing. Steering, leaning, and the differences between riders and non-riders are all examined.

Hubble Discovers Most Distant Galaxy Yet

Galaxy gn-z11 photo
Galaxy GN-z11

First launched on April 24, 1990, the Hubble Telescope has been a boon to astronomers for decades now.

hubble photoAnd still today, we are learning new things about our universe thanks to Hubble. hubble photoNews today published on reveals that Hubble has now seen a galaxy that formed around 400 million years after the Big Bang. This is remarkable for showing us the distance Hubble is capable of resolving:

“Our spectroscopic observations reveal the galaxy to be even further away than we had originally thought, right at the distance limit of what Hubble can observe,” explains Gabriel Brammer of the Space Telescope Science Institute and second author of the study.

This puts GN-z11 at a distance that was once thought only to be reachable with the upcoming NASA/ESA/CSA James Webb Space Telescope (JWST).

The galaxy, as we can see it now in the Hubble’s photographs, is tiny compared to the size of our own Milky Way. However, it is also forming stars at a rate about 20 times what our galaxy currently does. What we’re learning from GN-z11 will likely further change our understanding of the universe’s early life:

Marijn Franx, a member of the team from the University of Leiden highlights: “The discovery of GN-z11 was a great surprise to us, as our earlier work had suggested that such bright galaxies should not exist so early in the Universe.” His colleague Ivo Labbe adds: “The discovery of GN-z11 showed us that our knowledge about the early Universe is still very restricted. How GN-z11 was created remains somewhat of a mystery for now. Probably we are seeing the first generations of stars forming around black holes?”

Photo by NASA on The Commons

Photo by NASA Goddard Photo and Video

Photo by NASA Goddard Photo and Video

On Blowing Bubbles

Surprisingly, how bubbles form is poorly understood. It’s not an area that has received a lot of study. In fact, until recently, there wasn’t an established understanding of the physics of blowing bubbles.

The phenomenon, the researchers found, can be explained as a contest between the pressure the gas jet exerts on the film and the surface tension of the film, which resists any increase in curvature. Bubbles form when the jet’s pressure is large enough to deform the film into a hemispheric dimple of the same width as the jet. At that point, the film has reached its maximum curvature, and the bubble can fill with gas and float away.

More information is available at Physical Review Letters, although it is unfortunately hidden behind a paywall.

Bubbles photo
Photo by Dykam