Many of you are probably familiar with the show Game of Thrones on HBO based on the A Song of Ice and Fire novels by George R. R. Martin. To me, one of the most interesting aspects of the world that Martin creates is the seasonal cycle. For those of you unfamiliar, basically seasons can last many years at a time before changing. I have not been able to find exact numbers referenced, but it is implied that a season typically lasts around ten years. However, in the mythology of the world, some winters last much longer than that, though that only happens every thousand years or so. I found these cycles interesting and wanted to know if such cycles might have a scientific basis. Read on to find out what kind of explanation I came up with. Continue Reading
So, as I pointed out before, last week was the annual APS March Meeting. For those of you unfamiliar with the conference, it consists of thousands of presentations given by professors, post-doctoral students, graduate students, and even undergraduate students. Most presentations are scheduled to last ten minutes followed by two minutes of questions for the speaker. This schedule is enforced by the chair of the session. This person is tasked with deciding how many questions should be asked and informing the speaker if they are running out of time. I noticed as the week went on that the talks always seemed to be rushed toward the end and there were often very few questions allowed by the session chair. This observation brought out the scientist side of me. I decided to take data and determine how long the talks were actually taking. So, this is what I did: starting on Thursday, I timed each presentation I went to and recorded the time at the end of the presentation and then again at the end of the question period. To see the results of the experiment read on! Continue Reading
I was recently watching an episode of The Universe, the show from the History Channel, which detailed ten different ways to destroy the Earth (Season 4 Episode 6). One of the proposed destruction techniques was to instantly stop the rotation of the Earth. This would cause everything on the surface of the Earth to be violently thrown as the ground beneath it instantly stands still. It would be quite a violent stop. For some perspective, in New England, where I am located, you would be thrown at a velocity of about 800 miles an hour to the East. It is very unlikely that anybody could survive an impact with anything at that speed. That is not to mention that every building would be thrown at that velocity as well. However, the contributors to the show, professional astrophysicists, claimed that if you could survive the initial stop it is still unlikely that you could survive the aftermath. Specifically, the atmosphere would not be stopped, so there would be windspeeds of up to 1000 miles per hour as it continued rotating at its initial velocity. The show claims that this wind would create so much energy that it would heat up the atmosphere enough to melt rock. This claim seemed a bit too dramatic to be true, so I decided to do some calculations to see how credible it is. Brace yourselves, quite a bit of math is ahead as we fact-check…The Universe! Continue Reading
For those of you outside the physics community something big is happening next week that you may not know about. It is the annual March Meeting of the American Physical Society (APS). It is the single largest physics conference in existence and it just so happens to be taking place in Boston this year. To give you an idea how big, last year, there were over 7700 submitted abstracts meaning that there were that many people with posters or giving a talk about their research. That does not include the thousands more physicists that go to keep up with current research and foster collaborations with other groups. Needless to say, I will be there almost all of next week soaking it all in as it will be the first conference I have ever been to. I will try to post updates about the meeting throughout the week so stay tuned!
The next neighbor on the block we are setting out to meet can be, without a doubt, considered mayor of the celestial neighborhood: The Sun.
Just the Facts:
The Sun is by far the biggest thing in our solar system. It contains 99.8% of all of the mass in the solar system. The Sun is about 93 million miles away from the Earth, just the right distance away so that we are not too hot or too cold. However, if the sun were to suddenly stop shining, we would not know about it on Earth for about 8.3 minutes because that is how long it takes light to get here from the Sun. There are two things that are vital to keep in mind when discussing the Sun; it is MASSIVE and HOT. The radius of the sun is a bit over 430,000 miles. That is almost twice the distance between the Earth and the moon. Meanwhile, the temperature at the surface is a sweltering 10,000 degrees Fahrenheit (5800K) while at the core it is an unconceivable 28 million degrees Fahrenheit (15.6 million Kelvin).
Where did it come from?:
To understand where the Sun comes from, we need to know what is inside of it. The Sun contains about 73% Hydrogen and 25% Helium. However, there is still 2% of the Sun that is made up of heavier elements like iron, lithium, carbon, and basically any other element you can think of. The Sun creates it’s energy by taking Hydrogen atoms and fusing them into Helium atoms thus releasing energy and light. In fact, the famous equation E=mc2 is what governs energy creation in the Sun. Every second in the Sun, 700 million tons of Hydrogen atoms are converted to 695 million tons of Helium atoms. The missing mass is converted into energy through the proportionality constant the speed of light squared, c2. If the sun were big enough, it could also fuse Helium atoms together to make Lithium and so on down the periodic table, creating heavier and heavier elements. However, due to the structure of heavier atoms, Iron is the most massive element that can be produced in the center of a star. However, we know that heavier elements than Iron can be found in our solar system, Uranium for example. There is only one way that elements heavier than Iron can be created naturally; in a supernova. That’s right, our solar system was created from the remains of a supernova.
Our Sun and the rest of our solar system was created from the stuff left over from a dead star that exploded as it died. The gas and dust that was left over from the supernova slowly gathered together through gravity. As most of the material gathered in one central point, friction heated the material up. Once it got hot enough, Hydrogen was fused into Helium and our Sun was born. If this is still confusing, I will defer to Stephen Hawking and Benedict Cumberbatch to explain the origins of our solar system:
Why should I care about it?:
Well, I think we all know that we owe the existence of life to the Sun, but here are some other interesting things about the Sun that impact our lives.
Reason 1: The Sun is Dynamic (and dangerous)
The Sun looks pretty boring from the surface of the Earth; it is round and bright. However, it is so much more than a glowing ball. The surface is churning with tremendous energy, equivalent to many many nuclear warheads and all of this energy manifests itself in several ways.
On Earth, we have earthquakes, where two tectonic plates slide against one another; but on the Sun there are sunquakes, caused by the massive turbulence of superheated gas churning within the sun. The rapid movement of gas causes shockwaves that propagate through the Sun. They are so powerful that we can actually measure them using satellites because the surface of the sun is constantly shaking and moving due to them. In fact, this is exactly what NASA’s SDO project does.
In addition to sunquakes, there are events called flares, prominences, and coronal mass ejections. These three events are related to one another and are all caused by fluctuations in energy and the Sun’s magnetic field. Basically these events shoot plasma out of the sun. If the material loops back and returns to the Sun, it is called a prominence. If it extends straight out of the sun, it is called a flare. Finally, the material that is flung out of the sun through a flare is called a coronal mass ejection (CME). These CMS’s can be especially important for Earthling’s because if they are powerful enough, they could knock out any satellites in its way. For this reason, there are many satellites orbiting the sun giving a space weather forecast to try to avoid such complications.
Reason 2: The Sun is our Protector
Remember how those CME’s are caused by the Sun’s magnetic field? Well it turns out that we rely upon the magnetic field of the Sun to protect us from the harsh radiation of space. The magnetic field of the Sun is incredibly powerful and incredibly complicated. It is so powerful in fact that its influence can be felt far outside of Pluto. It creates a shell around our solar system called the heliosphere. If we were to travel outside of the heliosphere, we would be bombarded by radiation from deep space. These particles don’t normally reach Earth because they are deflected away by the Sun’s large magnetic field. On a side note, Voyager I is close to becoming the first man-made object to ever travel outside of the heliosphere.
Summing it all up:
The Sun can giveth and the Sun can taketh. On one hand, the Sun is necessary for life on Earth though the light and energy heating our planet and making photosynthesis possible. On the other hand, CME’s pose a risk to space travel and satellites. Also, in about 5 billion years or so, the Sun will begin to run low on Hydrogen fuel. When that happens, it will expand in size, engulfing and incinerating our planet. So, next time you wake up to a bright sunny day, remember that there is a lot more than meets the eye when it comes to the Sun.
This is a series of posts about our celestial neighbors, highlighting facts you may not have known about them. In this first installment we will learn about how we owe our very existence to the closest neighbor on the block: The Moon.
Just the Facts:
The moon is a bit over a quarter million miles away from the Earth, or about 60 times the radius of the Earth. The moon has a radius roughly one quarter of the radius of the Earth and the mass is about 1/80 that of Earth. Putting those facts together means that the gravity you would feel on the moon is about 1/6 of that on Earth. The moon has little to no atmosphere which means no wind to erode craters or astronaut footprints.
Where did it come from?:
There have been many different origin stories for the moon throughout human history ranging from the supernatural to the scientific. However, the currently accepted theory, first seriously proposed in 1976, is called the giant impact hypothesis. To fully understand the power of this theory, we need to travel back in time to the early days of the solar system.
As most people are aware, planets form slowly over time as particles and atoms are gravitationally attracted to one another and coalesce into a bigger body. As the object becomes bigger, it gets hotter. Eventually it gets hot enough that all of the material in it melts into a giant ball of magma. However, just like how oil floats on top of water, the more dense elements such as uranium and iron (the metals in general) slowly sank down to the center of this ball of magma while the lighter elements (the ones that make up rock and the atmosphere) stayed closer to the surface. This separation process is called differentiation and as the Earth was well underway with this process is when something incredible happened.
Roughly around the time that the outermost layer of the Earth would have been cool enough to solidify, a planet roughly the size of Mars collided with Earth at an oblique angle. Such a collision would have been terrifically violent. Think about a meteor hitting earth today. There is a crater that is left behind from the rock and dirt that is ejected out from the impact. Now, scale that up to the size of another planet hitting Earth. There was so much material flung out into the far reaches of space that much of it is probably still flying through space somewhere, never hitting anything since. However, there was also a significant amount of material that was ejected with just the right amount of energy to fall into an orbit around the Earth. This stuff eventually coalesced into what we now call our Moon. There are many good reasons to think that the giant impact hypothesis is true (and a few to not think it is true or not entirely), but for the sake of brevity I will let you look at them yourself or do a separate post about it.
Why should I care about it?:
I will try to convince you that if it were not for the moon, human life, or even life itself, would not have evolved on Earth or had much of a hope of becoming a technologically advanced society.
Reason 1: The Tides and the Beginnings of Life
As everybody knows, the Moon is what has the biggest influence over the ocean tides. Also, many know that the Moon is slowly (38mm per year) moving farther away from Earth. However, this slow motion away from earth, over billions of years, is quite significant. Billions of years ago, when the first oceans were forming on Earth, the Moon was much closer to the Earth. That means that its gravitational influence on the tides would have been much greater. In fact, it would have been so great that as the Earth rotated there would have been two massive tidal waves that traveled around the Earth pointing to and opposite the Moon the whole time. It sounds too incredible to be true, but in this early Earth there was a massive wave that washed over the entire Earth twice a day!
You might be wondering how massive waves could help life develop, but you have to keep in mind the state of the Earth at that time. It was still quite volcanically active and hot. All of this thermal energy would have been able to initiate countless chemical reactions creating new, organic compounds left and right. However, this in itself would be unlikely to be sufficient for self-sustaining life. What needed to happen is the organic compounds created at one part of Earth to get to some other organic compounds created elsewhere. This is where the massive tidal waves play an integral part. These waves would have made sure that the oceans stayed well mixed so that every organic compound could interact with every other compound, eventually creating the right mix to form life!
Reason 2: Our Axis and the Seasons
All of us are familiar with the seasons that happen every year. We have summer, fall, winter, and then spring. These four seasons come one after another year after year. Most of you are also probably familiar with the fact that seasons happen because the Earth is tilted in relation to the sun. As the Earth revolves around the sun different sides of the Earth face the sun more directly at different times, creating the seasons. The regularity of the changing of the seasons have become so important for life on earth that all different kinds of life have adapted to them: trees, birds, fish, insects, mammals. Many different species have some behavioral trait, whether it be migration, hibernation, or shedding leaves that depends on the regular changing of the seasons.
What you may not realize is that we owe this steady progression to the moon. If we did not have such a large celestial satellite orbiting our planet, the axis of Earth’s tilt would be very different today than it is now. In fact, there is no way to really predict what it would be. The moon pulls on the Earth strongly enough to stabilize the tilt axis so that it virtually does not change over time. However, without the moon there, the axis would have been very unstable and would change quite unpredictably. This means that what is the north pole one year could lie on the equator only 1000 years later. This means that there would have been massive climate swings all over the planet; making the steady seasonal cycles we are accustomed to quite impossible.
Having stable seasons was a big requirement for the development of advanced life because it allowed plants, that cannot move to avoid arctic conditions, to take root in one location and flourish and evolve. More importantly for humans, regular seasons make things like farming and agriculture possible. It was our ability to grow our own food that allowed humanity to grow out of the hunter/gatherer phase of existence and create civilization.
Summing it all up:
The moon is a pretty cool neighbor to have. It is at once familiar because we see it every day and mysterious. For example, it was just recently proposed that the Earth had two moons at one time that merged into the one we have today. It may just be a big lump of rock for the most part, lacking the sex appeal of some other moons in the solar system; but it has inspired and helped the human race reach out and touch it. And now, as we strive to go further, let us not fall into the trap of selling the moon short in this wondrous thing called the universe, because without it, we would never have made it this far.
So, this post is not directly about science, but I want to share a blog with everybody. The Meniscus is a blog written by a friend of a friend. He writes about current scientific research and breaks it down to terms that a non-scientist can understand. I strongly recommend checking it out, there is some really interesting stuff there. For example, he explains how to make submarines invisible to sonar! Plus, it is his birthday, so check out his blog to wish him a happy birthday. I will be adding his blog to my blogroll if you want to check it out in the future and forget what it is called.