BICEP2 Telescope and B-mode signal
BICEP2 Telescope and B-mode signalCourtesy BICEP2 Collaboration, NSF, Steffen Richter (Harvard)
Einstein predicted their existence nearly a hundred years ago as part of his theory of general relativity, then in the 1980s theorists honed them into inflation theory, and now astronomers working at a radio telescope near the South Pole have proof of their existence.

John Kovac of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics and his collaborators (including co-leader Clem Pryke, an associate professor of physics and astronomy at the University of Minnesota) have reported detecting gravity waves from the very beginnings of the known universe. These space-time ripples are remnants from the very earliest moments of the Big Bang - when it was just a trillionth of a trillionth of a trillionth of a second old!

The elusive waves were detected by a telescope located at the South Pole at the Amundsen–Scott South Pole Station using 250 dime-sized detectors to scan the cosmic microwave background (CMB), the weak radiation remnant of the Big Bang found throughout the known universe. For two years, from January 2010 to December, the experiment known as BICEP2 (Background Imaging of Cosmic Extragalactic Polarization2), searched for distortions in the CMB.

Einstein general theory of relativity predicted that gravitational waves accelerated by the Big Bang would have produced ruffles across the fabric of space-time. Inflation theory predicted that the very first of these waves, composed of hypothetical quantum particles that carry gravity (gravitons), would have been stretched in the very earliest moments of the Big Bang from imperceptible sized wavelengths into ones large enough to be detectable in the CMB. The cosmic microwave background radiation becomes polarized by scattering off electrons in space, and subtle changes in that polarization pattern, twists the fabric of the CMB into swirls called B-mode polarization.

If these primitive distortions in the CMB fabric stand up to future scrutiny (and preliminary reports indicate they will) then not only will they constitute the first direct evidence of Einstein's predicted gravity waves but they'll also strongly confirm the inflationary theory first developed by physicist Alan Guth in the early 1980s.

"Detecting this signal is one of the most important goals in cosmology today," Dr. Kovac said in a statement. He also said the chance it was a fluke was only one in 3.5 million, ranking it as a "5-sigma level of certainty", which, in the vernacular of discovery, is statistically about as good as you can get.

"It is absolutely mind-boggling that we've actually found it," said Clement Pryke.

Dr. Kovac personally delivered news of the discovery to a number of colleagues, including Dr. Alan Guth, now a professor at M.I.T, who said he was bowled over by the news and hadn't expected confirmation of his theory during his lifetime.

Chao-Lin Juo, a member of Dr. Kovac's BICEP2 team, and one of the experiment's developers, recorded his visit to the house of Dr. Andrei Linde as he surprised him with the discovery. Back in 1983, Linde described a variety of inflation theory called chaotic theory.

The discovery is considered "huge" in astrophysics and cosmology circles, and could lead to solving other cosmological riddles such as dark matter and dark energy. It could very well be a contender for the Nobel Prize.

Theoretical physicist, Lawrence Krause, wrote this for the New Yorker:

"If the discovery announced this morning holds up, it will allow us to peer back to the very beginning of time—a million billion billion billion billion billion times closer to the Big Bang than any previous direct observation—and will allow us to explore the fundamental forces of nature on a scale ten thousand billion times smaller than can be probed at the Large Hadron Collider, the world’s largest particle accelerator. Moreover, it will allow us to test some of the most ambitious theoretical speculations about the origin of our observed universe that have ever been made by humans—speculations that may first appear to verge on metaphysics. It might seem like an esoteric finding, so far removed from everyday life as to be of almost no interest. But, if confirmed, it will have increased our empirical window on the origins of the universe by a margin comparable to the amount it has grown in all of the rest of human history. Where this may lead, no one knows, but it should be cause for great excitement.“

Marc Kamionkowski, professor of physics and astronomy at Johns Hopkins University, agrees.
""It’s not every day that you wake up and find out something completely new about the early universe," he said. "To me this is as Nobel Prize–worthy as it gets.”

Wired magazine
New York Times
New Scientist
Scientific American


Science education for the masses: World Science U offers online courses in physic-related topics.
Science education for the masses: World Science U offers online courses in physic-related topics.Courtesy Kyle McDonald
World Science U is a new platform for teaching science to the masses. Brian Greene, professor of physics and mathematics at Columbia University, has launched a new online website open to anyone. All you have to do is register and start learning. Participants can get questions answered, enroll in short or long (8-10 weeks) courses covering everything from basic physics to quantum entanglement to black holes and parallel universes.

Professor Greene has written several books on physics and cosmology such as The Fabric of the Cosmos and The Elegant Universe and will be involved in teaching the initial topics.

The World Science U website allows users to post questions, or (if they think they know more than professor Greene) post their own topics and hypotheses.

Signing up is easy so you can get started learning right away. Plus there's no homework or prerequisites and it's free! You can take a quick tour here if you'd like.

I watched one of the short courses that were available right now (The Special Theory of Relativity) and found it fascinating and relatively (pun!) easy to understand. Each module is comprised of a lecture followed by an "office hours" session for questions with Professor Greene (this part confused me) and a discussion period with other students. Versions of the courses with more emphasis on mathematics are also available. The site is in the process of being launched so none of the longer university-level courses were available yet - but should be soon. When they do go live, students will be able to earn World Science U certification upon their successful course completion. Greene will also participate in occasional live discussions on the site.

If you have an interest in physics, I'd say it's well worth your time to enroll in World Science U.

World Science U

Look at us!

by Anonymous on Mar. 14th, 2014

What's that up in the sky?: it's the planet Earth seen from the Martian surface.
What's that up in the sky?: it's the planet Earth seen from the Martian surface.Courtesy NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS/TAMU
Check out this NASA photograph of Earth taken January 31st from the surface of Mars by the Curiosity rover. I hope everyone had their eyes open. If you're having trouble making out our dazzling planet in the Martian evening sky, NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory page points it (and our moon!) out for you here.

Pi Day comes around again

by Anonymous on Mar. 14th, 2014

Today is March 14 (3-14) which means it's once again Pi Day, a time to celebrate that irrational number, 3.14, whose post decimal digits go on forever and ever ad infinitum and is represented by the Greek letter pi. Civilizations have known about it and used it for centuries. This short video gives a good overview of its importance.


World Wide Web began 25 years ago
World Wide Web began 25 years agoCourtesy bob8son (spiderweb); (graphic by Mark Ryan)
This month marks the 25th anniversary of the World Wide Web. According to this PEW Internet Project website, the ubiquitous system now connecting much of the world was started back in 1989 as a European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN) project named ENQUIRE. The internet service, America On Line (AOL), began that same year.

I was an early subscriber to AOL and one of my earliest memories of discovering the power of the web was in the spring of 1991. My brother and I wanted to view the total solar eclipse taking place that July across Hawaii and Mexico and were trying to find flights to either place. The demand was high and remaining flights to Hawaii turned out to be way out of our price range (which was just as well since most eclipse viewers there got clouded out). We considered driving into Mexico from someplace in the southern US but that was predicted to be a nightmare of frozen traffic, so we tried to find flights into Mexico but were having no luck finding anything reasonable on the phone with airline reservationists. So I searched on-line (strictly text-only; no graphics whatsoever) for something in our time and price range and came up with flights to and from the Mexican west coast town of Puerto Vallarta for a very reasonable price. Armed with that information I called the airline directly and guided the reservationist to the specific flights (which she seemed unaware of) and purchased our tickets.

Puerto Vallarta, by the way, was located just on the outside of the predicted edge of totality but we hooked up with an astronomy expedition that bussed us a few kilometers north and into the path of moon's shadow. A very satisfying eclipse watching experience thanks in part to the Internet.

Happy anniversary to the World Wide Web!

PEW Internet Project website

I want to fly like an eagle to the sea.....
fly like an eagle, let my spirit carry me.


Virus: Giant viruses are genetically more complex and about 25 percent larger.
Virus: Giant viruses are genetically more complex and about 25 percent larger.Courtesy jiparis
A husband-and-wife-led research team has announced finding an ancient virus laying dormant in Siberian permafrost for more than 30,000 years!

Jean-Michel Claverie and Chantal Abergel of Aix-Marseille University in France and their colleagues cut up pieces of permafrost samples - supplied by scientists from the Russian Academy of Science - and added them to petri dishes of amoebae only to see the one-celled animals ripped apart by unknown viruses. They isolated the attacking, larger-than-usual virus and named it Pithovirus sibericum, because of its resemblance to an earthenware jar. The permafrost samples had been collected from a frozen riverbank in Siberia in 2000.

The discovery brings the total number of known "giant viruses" to three. The extra-large viruses are about 25 percent larger than normal, genetically more complex, and composed of hardier stock.

"Among known viruses, the giant viruses tend to be very tough, almost impossible to break open," said Claverie and Abergel. "Special environments such as deep ocean sediments and permafrost are very good preservers of microbes because they are cold, anoxic and in the dark."

Two other giant viruses Mimivirus and Pandoravirus were also discovered by Claverle and Abergel in the last decade. The latter, in my opinion, is a disturbingly great name for this type of thing. But so far only the pithovirus has been observed in the laboratory infecting contemporary life forms. Luckily, none of them pose a threat to humans, but that's not to say future giant viruses thawed out of frozen environments or released by retreating ice caps won't be.

"I don't see why they wouldn't be able to survive under the same conditions," said Claverie.

Results of the research appear in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

National Geographic story
Sydney Morning Herald
More about giant viruses


Numbered days?: Zebra mussels totally cover a piece of underwater equipment from Lake Michigan.
Numbered days?: Zebra mussels totally cover a piece of underwater equipment from Lake Michigan.Courtesy M. McCormick
For more than 20 years, zebra mussels have gone unchecked in midwest waters. Introduced to North America as stow-away passengers on the bottoms of Great Lakes shipping vessels that came from Europe, the invasive species have exploded to fresh waters in 34 states at an alarming rate.

But their days may be numbered. A New York-based researcher has discovered a bacterium that can kill zebra mussels (and also the related invasive species quagga mussels) without disrupting the rest of the food web.

After rounds of lab testing, the Environmental Protection Agency has okayed the commercial production of Pseudomonas fluorescens strain CL145A, which can then be applied to waters and kill the menacing mussels. In lab tests, the bacterium killed over 90 percent of the the invasive mussels in came in contact with.

Along with pushing out other species in the waters, the invasive mussels have also become a nuisance by clogging up intake pipes at water plants and attaching themselves to docks, piers and other submerged water equipment. Plans are still being developed on how to apply this new bacterium to the waters. All wise zebra mussels might want to start packing their bages and heading back to Europe before they find out what this new bacterium has in store for them!


Is it possible to deflate hurricanes by wind energy?: Huge wind turbines off the coast of Denmark show a small-scale version of an off-shore wind farm that could sap the energy of hurricanes and tropical storms.
Is it possible to deflate hurricanes by wind energy?: Huge wind turbines off the coast of Denmark show a small-scale version of an off-shore wind farm that could sap the energy of hurricanes and tropical storms.Courtesy Leonard G.
A new study claims that positioning large, off-shore wind farms in the path of oncoming tropical storms and hurricanes can reduce the damage those storms inflict. The extra electricity they produce is just an added bonus.

The study's findings contend that "tens of thousands of turbines can lower a hurricane's wind speed up to 92 mph and reduce its storm surge up to 79%."

But is it realistic to think that such a big wind operation could actually be built? Currently there are no operating water-based wind farms in the United States. The largest off-shore wind turbine sites being considered for construction have about 200 turbines planned. Those facilities are being planned off the coasts of Texas and New England. There are small-sized off-shore wind plants in Europe and China.

But if a huge wind operation was feasible, the study estimated that such a plant would have saved a lot of damage in the 2005 Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans. Somef 78,000 wind turbines — each 50 feet tall — could have slowed Katrina's wind speeds up to 78 mph and cut its storm surge up to 79%, the report from Stanford University said.

What do you think? Is this an idea ahead of its time? Is it pie – make that blowing pie – in the sky? Share your thoughts here with other Science Buzz readers.

Moon-Saturn occultation

by Anonymous on Feb. 22nd, 2014

Moon Saturn Occultation - 22 Feb 2014 from Colin Legg on Vimeo.

Photographer Colin Legg in Perth, Australia shot this very cool real-time video of our Moon passing in front of the planet Saturn. The event, which in astronomical circles is known as an occultation, occurred on Saturday (a day named after the same planet) February 22, 2014.