Particles Traveling Backwards Through Time? Watch Out DeLorean Motor Company.

On March 14, 2018 Stephen Hawking passed away leaving an enormous intellectual legacy behind. Ten days prior to his death Hawkins was still working on his final paper titled, “A Smooth Exit from Eternal Inflation.” The co-author, Thomas Hertog, made a few small revisions to the paper, but nothing significant after Hawking’s death. The paper was officially published on May 2, 2018 in the Journal of High Energy Physics. The paper addressed an extremely complex topic many physicists struggled with, the theory of the multiverse. 

Multiverse theory states after the big bang inflation occurred causing the rapid expansion of space and time. This expansion continues on forever in most areas, but in some small areas it did not. This formed new universes running parallel to that in which we exist.  

Hawkin’s original theory of “no boundary” stated the multiverse was infinite. This meant there were infinite parallel universes and they kept multiplying as expansion happened. This theory was abandoned during his final paper in order to simplify the theory, making the multiverse tangible and measurable. However, this paper did not prove the multiverse theory, nor did it give any way to test the theory. So until recently, the multiverse theory was still a far reach in theory only. 

Almost exactly two years later physicists working in Antarctica may have stumbled upon evidence which confirms parallel universes, in which everything is moving in the opposite direction relative to our own.  

Peter Gorham and a team of researchers were working in Antarctica with the instrument ANITA.  They were measuring cosmic radiation and neutrinos which are constantly bombarding us on earth. These microscopic particles rain down from space constantly, some interacting with matter here on earth and some, like low energy neutrinos, do not.  Neutrinos have the ability to pass through earth as if it wasn’t even there. 

Photo Credit: https://www.hep.ucl.ac.uk/uhen/anita/
Diagram of the operation of ANITA

The research involved flying a large balloon high above the frozen landscape while attempting to gather readings from the high energy particles entering the atmosphere from space. Initially, the research was fruitless and only flashes of background radiation were being recorded. These were ignored and the experiment was repeated a second time. Again it produced the same results, or what was thought to be lack thereof.  

After the team decided to review the data of the initial flights again, they found the “background noise” they had initially ignored were indicative of high energy particles. These particles were not coming from space, rather they were jettisoned from the earth itself. This shocking discovery was made back in 2016 and propelled research by numerous teams and individual physicists to explain the mysterious particle’s origin. 

Modern physics could not explain what the researchers were finding. Presumably, the particles being recorded were entering through the earth on the opposite side and exiting through the ground in the Antarctic. Based on the standard model this did not make sense. 

As I have explained briefly before, low energy neutrinos would have no problem traveling through the earth unobstructed. The issue was that the readings from the equipment did not show interactions with low energy particles.  The energy recorded was from high energy particles. 

These high energy neutrinos would not be able to pass through the earth, like their low energy counterparts. They have the tendency to collide with matter here on earth. Cosmic rays can not pass through the earth either, due to their high energy and similar inability to avoid interaction with the earth. 

Photo credit: https://www.sciencefriday.com/segments/neutrinos-caught-in-the-act-of-collision/

Photograph of neutrino collision. 

Initially the researchers proposed the neutrinos were transforming from a tau neutrino to a tau lepton and then back again.  This was a shaky explanation of the findings of the team and many were not satisfied with it. The chances of this transformation allowing the particles to survive their entry through earth was possible, but unlikely. 

In 2018 another burst of high energy particles was recorded by the Gorham’s team. The data was then analyzed by a third party, Derek Fox of the Pennsylvania State University. 

These new findings complicate matters. Fox found that the chances of this phenomenon occurring on two separate occasions was dubious. The likelihood of a neutrino making its way through earth and successfully exiting the other side are said to be one in a million. For this to happen twice is an impossibility. The team needed to find a better explanation for their findings. 

Particle physics is governed by the standard model. This is a list of known particles and their specifications which are known to be extremely accurate. The standard model has been confirmed time and time again in laboratory tests. In some cases, such as the ANITA discovery, researchers are often forced to broaden the search of possible particles involved because the standard model can not account for the experimental findings. 

Supersymmetry has been called upon as a possible explanation. Supersymmetry is a theory that states all particles have a twin, which is more massive, and that these twins would be more likely to act as those high energy particles the team found did.  The problem with this theory is that no attempts to create and observe the “twins” have been successful, thus many physicists do not consider supersymmetry viable. 

Neil Turok at the Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics in Waterloo, Canada, is a theoretical physicist who bases his work in simplicity. He is not an advocate for the tendency some physicists have to manufacture tons of new particles to explain what we find. His work was able to lead the researchers to their current understanding of what they found in Antarctica.  

Turok was working on how CPT symmetry would have affected the early universe if present during the big bang.  They found what particles would have been created. One of these was the heavy right-handed neutrino. The neutrino gets its name due to the direction it spins. Turok research found the right-handed neutrino’s mass fit our universe’s most elusive substance, dark matter. The mass of this dark matter candidate was directly in line with that which was found by the researchers in Antarctica. This went unnoticed for sometime until eventually the connection was made.

Luis Anchordoqui at the City University of New York made the connection first. He theorized these particles were collected by earth’s gravity and they were stored in the center of the earth until they decay into Higgs boson and tau neutrino pairs and released, which was being observed by the researchers in Antarctica. 

Turok’s prediction of the multiverse states that after the big bang the majority of matter settled in our universe and the majority of antimatter settled in another. Anti matter is opposite of matter, thus would appear to travel backwards through time. Everything in the alternate universe would be opposite of how we see our own.  Stars and planets would consist of antimatter, but what is even more mind bending is the theory the universe itself would be contracting rather than expanding.

Big Bang - Wikipedia
Photo credit: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Big_Bang
Photo depicts the time line after the big bang: How our universe is expanding

Our perception of what is forwards, backwards, up or down is relative to our own experience. So the universe’s behavior is relative to the one experiencing it. There is no way to tell what universe we are in, that which consists of the “right” or “wrong” matter. The only thing we can predict is that the alternate universe would be opposite of what we experience. 

A second research team set out to confirm Gorham’s findings but were reportedly unsuccessful.  IceCube’s team were looking for a flash of light present when a neutrino crashed through the ice in Antarctica, however they found no high energy neutrinos in the area Gorham’s team found them.   It is believed that high-energy tau neutrino can be mistaken for that of a lower-energy muon neutrino. If this was the case, IceCube has spotted at least one low energy neutrino thus supporting the multiverse theory.

Detector
Photo Credit: https://icecube.wisc.edu/science/icecube/detector
Diagram of the experiment/observation being conducted in Antarctica by IceCube

Today in Antarctica, Gorham and his team have continued with their research. They are attempting to track larger particles escaping from the ice and are currently analyzing newly collected data from the fourth balloon launch. We are eagerly awaiting the release of their data once they have completed their review. 

A Black Hole: Not the void in my chest where my heart should be.

Artist’s depiction of HB 6819

A recent paper published by astronomers from the European Southern Observatory, ESO, states astronomers have discovered a new black hole. The recently found stellar object is reportedly the closest to earth to be found and has given supporting evidence of many more black holes present throughout our universe.  

Black holes are not a recently discovered phenomena. Albert Einstein referenced these objects in 1916, when he developed his famous theory of general relativity. Since Einstein, many astronomers have worked to confirm their existence.  The first black hole was finally confirmed to exist in 1971.

Millions of black holes are thought to exist in isolation, with nothing orbiting them, thus making them impossible to observe. Some black holes however have been found to have orbiting companions where the invisible black hole is acting as the center of the system keeping objects in orbit with its gravitational pull, much like the sun in our solar system. 

What makes ESO’s recent discovery so interesting is that this particular black hole lies within the confines of what was originally thought to be a double star system. Due to the recent discovery of a third object, the black hole, the double star system is now categorized as a triple star system. 

Eloquently named HR 6819, the triple star system is 1000 light years from earth and is part of the constellation Telescopium. Based on HR 6819’s seemingly robot-generated name one assumes astronomers are not worried about creative names for objects beyond our solar system. HR 6819 is close enough to be seen with the naked eye on a clear night which is a first for a black hole and it’s companion stars.

Black holes are a major area of research in the field of astronomy though minimal observation has been accomplished due the fact they are essentially invisible. No visible light is emitted due to the extreme gravitational force generated by the singularity at the black holes center. They are observed primarily by tracking the gravitational behavior of visible objects orbiting them or, under the right conditions, by electromagnetic radiation jettisoned out into space during the early stages of their life cycle. Meaning black holes are not unstoppable destroyers of their surrounding environments.  Essentially black holes will collect a certain amount of matter from their surroundings and eventually stop. This leaves them dormant and completely silent. 

Artist’s depiction of a black hole emitting x-rays and with an accretion disk.

Black holes are formed upon the death of super massive stars in our universe. Once fusion ceases with these stars the relentless battle against gravity is finally lost. This defeat causes the star to explode violently in the form of a supernovae. The remnants of the star’s core which is expelled during the explosion eventually collapse upon themselves, creating a singularity. These singularities cause space time to warp radically leaving an event horizon upon which being crossed nothing will escape unless traveling faster than the speed of light. 

Artist’s depiction of a black hole warping space time

In this type of extreme environment our known laws of physics break down. The intense gravity warps space time so radically nothing beyond the event horizon can not be released. Accretion disks, which consist of swirling gas and particles, form around the outskirts of the black hole’s perimeter. These disks consist of remnants of objects being drawn into the black hole. This matter and gas are heated to extreme temperatures by friction. This super-heated gaseous disk emits electromagnetic radiation in the X-ray part of the spectrum. Astronomers observe this radiation using X-ray telescopes in order to determine the presence of these invisible objects. 

Once black holes stop devouring surrounding objects they no longer emit x-rays.  Therein lies the problem with finding black holes throughout the universe. Astronomers theorize there should be millions of these relatively small, idle black holes throughout the universe.  

How do the researchers identify them? Frankly, not necessarily by looking for them directly. Astronomers stumble upon their presence by the luck of the draw, as seen in the ESO’s recent findings. 

Using the FEROS Spectrograph, which is installed within the MPG/ESO 2.2-metre telescope in La Silla, Chile, the team were tracking the orbits of two companion stars within HR 6819. While analyzing the data they recorded the team found a massive invisible gravitational object in the center of the system. The astronomers found one of the stars was in fact orbiting this invisible object once every forty days. This black hole has the mass four times that of our sun. Using the information gathered while tracking the gravitational movement of the companion stars, the research team was able to determine the mass of the invisible object they were bonded to. Something this size, which is not emitting any electromagnetic source must be a black hole.

This recent discovery has influenced astronomers to attempt identify more black holes within similar systems and closer to earth. The star system, LB-1, has been identified to be a potential triple system.  Additional observation and research will be needed in order to confirm this however.  LB-1 will be observed in attempts to determine if the system contains a black hole as well. 

By studying black holes astronomers are attempting to gather more information on the formation and life cycle of super massive stars. The recent discovery of the black hole in HR 6819 gives evidence to supernovas being in some cases symmetrical. It has been thought that supernovae explosions send matter into the cosmos asymmetrically, meaning more matter is emitted in one direction and the remaining black hole is propelled in another. Finding a black hole bonded to a star leads astronomers to believe that the supernovae explosion, which caused the formation of the black hole, was in fact symmetrical and allowed the black hole to stay in place. 

Supernovae Explosion from Hubble Space Telescope

As astronomy moves forwards with advancements in instrumentation, theory and observation, more and more of our questions will be answered.  We are living in an exciting time, having access to these advances and discoveries. We are finding hidden mysteries of the universe more and more often.  With all these strides being taken, eventually a bigger mystery will be unveiled and I for one eagerly await the show.

Chalk A Win Up For The James Webb Space Telescope

James Webb Space Telescope
Photo Credit: https://www.nasa.gov/image-feature/james-webb-space-telescope-mirrors-will-piece-together-cosmic-puzzles

In the midst of the COVID-19 shutdowns, many things are uncertain during these turbulent times. The team at Northrop Grumman located in Redondo Beach, CA has begun limiting the number of people working on the James Webb Space Telescope testing procedures. Even with the reduction in personnel the James Webb Space Telescope just met a significant goal. 

NASA has released information on the testing of the origami-like mirror component of Webb. It was an impressive sight and a huge success for the project. 

The James Webb Space Telescope will be the successor of the famous Hubble Space Telescope.  According to NASA, once successfully launched into orbit Webb will be the premier observatory. Webb will provide thousands of astronomers access to new information about our universe never before obtainable. Equipped with a smorgasbord of revolutionary technology the Webb telescope will be able to observe stellar objects up to 13 billion light-years away. Early formed galaxies on the outskirts of the universe will be just one of the many areas of study of the mission.  

In order to collect enough light to accomplish these observations Webb’s designers equipped the telescope with a 6.5 meter mirror. The team working on the mirror’s design faced the challenge of managing the massive mirror’s weight. If designed similar to Hubble’s mirror it would be too heavy to be launched. The mirror was created using beryllium which is light but also very strong. A very thin layer of gold coats the face of each mirror.   

The primary mirror consists of eighteen hexagonal-shaped individual pieces.  Hexagon were chosen as they have a high filling capacity, meaning they fit together nicely.  They also have a six-fold capability which allows the mirror to fold into a small enough shape to fit in the spacecraft for launch. The 18 hexagons are divided into 3 groups depending on the optical prescription. In order to focus the mirrors actuators are used for adjustment of curvature and alignment. 

The mirror is required to maintain temperatures around 50 degrees Kelvin or -220 Celsius.  This allows the telescope to observe mid-infrared light radiating off far away and very faint objects. It will also have the capability to observe visible orange and red light as well as ultraviolet. 

Webb will be sent very deep into space in order to maintain this frigid temperature. It will be placed approximately 1,500,000 kilometers away from earth, this is almost 4 times more than the distance of the moon. During the mid-infrared imaging, a cryocooler will help with the cooling of the instrument. Webb is equipped with solar shields to block the sun’s heat and separate the mirror from the other components. 

Webb’s position in space and orbital path around the sun.
Photo Credit: http://blogstronomy.blogspot.com/2010/03/are-lagrangian-points-fixed-with.html

Several months ago the team successfully deployed the five-layer sun shield that sits beneath the mirror. The success of the mirror deployment is another link in the chain of success the Webb has been having after a long history of roadblocks.

A major concern with Webb was the mirror deployment. The sheer size of Webb’s mirror prevents it from fitting into the Ariane 5 rocket for launch.  In order to circumvent this issue, it was designed to fold for transport to space. Upon deployment into orbit, the mirror will be unfolded. This portion of the mission is crucial. If the mirror does not deploy properly the telescope would not be capable of capturing light properly. The distance from the earth when in place in orbit around the sun would prevent a manned mission for repairs. This recent success of the mirror’s operation is a big step towards getting Webb into space. 

The team used gravity compensation supports attached to the telescope in order to simulate the conditions Webb will experience in space.

Mirrors are the primary optical device on space telescopes.  The larger they are the more sensitive they are. This sensitivity to light collection allows for incredible imaging of very distant objects.  

Diagram of Webb’s configuration
Photo Credit: https://jwst.nasa.gov/content/observatory/ote/backplane.html

Webb’s scheduled launch date is still listed as March 2021, however, due to the recent Coronavirus shutdown, NASA will be suspending further testing for the time being.  The next portion of the scheduled work is the installation of the deployable tower assembly prior to the 2021 launch in French Gauna. Upon completion, testing will be suspended indefinitely due to the lack of crucial NASA personnel present during the limited operations. 

The COVID-19 shutdowns are affecting the country as a whole. These shutdowns, though necessary, have thrown the proverbial wrench into the gears of the scientific community. This may delay the launch once again. However, astronomers are a patient group and seeing how the Universe has been around for 14 billion years, I suppose another delay might not do too much damage to the research.

You May Not Have To Drink Whiskey To Tell How Good It Is Anymore.

Those who know me would tell you that I have partaken in a bit of drinking in my day.  I am Scottish by heritage, yet American born. Therein lies the problem, the great “whiskey” and “whisky” debate has raged in my household for years. A recent article has been published about defining characteristics of American whiskey in comparison to Scotch whisky. American whiskey has been found to leave a brand-specific web-like design behind after it evaporates. Scotch whisky does not. 

Photo credit: https://pubs.acs.org/doi/10.1021/acsnano.9b08984#
Examples of the web-like designs produced by different whiskeys during the testing process.

The study of fluid dynamics has been an interesting field for a long time. Prior research on Scotch whisky has been performed and these studies found familiar “coffee ring” patterns when the Scotch evaporated.  This phenomenon occurs in many other liquids as well. The coffee ring effect is when different rates of evaporation along the surface induce capillary flow, drawing liquid to the outer edge of the stain, leaving a ring-like outline. Think of a dried drop of coffee on a piece of paper. The outer edges of the stian are defined after the solubles are drawn to the edge and left behind.

Traditionally, Scotch whisky is aged in barrels that are often recycled. American bourbon, or whiskey, is aged in new charred barrels. This distinction may give clues to why the researchers found what they have.

While testing the samples researchers found the American whiskey had higher amounts of solids and water-insoluble content. This difference in the chemical makeup tells researchers the content of the specific liquid has a significant impact on the monolayer composition and behavior. 

Researchers placed 1.0 microliter droplets on sterile glass slides and waited until the whiskey evaporated. Initially, the researchers found that American made whiskeys left nothing unusual behind after it had evaporated. They then diluted the whiskey with water to make a 20 – 25% alcohol by volume. This is when they found nanoscale agglomerates formed at the liquid-air interface. When diluted the micelles in the liquid move to the top of the sample, forming a monolayer that is eventually left behind. As the droplet shrinks during the evaporation process the thin film on the surface creases and folds making the unique web-like design. 

Photo credit: https://pubs.acs.org/doi/10.1021/acsnano.9b08984#
Image of the different phases of flow and monolayer formation found during the research.

The scientist tested dozens of brands of whiskey using this technique. They were successful in identifying brands 90% of the time. The research also states that out of the 66 samples tested, 65 whiskeys produced the web design. The one which did not was only aged for 42 years, much older than the average whiskey tested. The increased age of the sample increases the surface-active compounds which interrupt the monolayer and prevented the webs from forming. Conversely, unaged samples of the same dilution did not produce the webs either. The research determined the aging process directly contributes to the web design found. 

The researchers suspect this could be used in sample analysis and to identify counterfeit liquors. They will be hopefully pursuing this research with other liquids in order to find other applications, such as identifying characteristics of volatile liquids.  

This type of research engages people. In science, it is important to have people care about what you are doing in order to maintain support.  In this case, I think it is fair to say, “Mission accomplished.” 

Hypertritons Helping Uphold Physics and Explaining What is in the Core of Neutron Stars

Photo credit: https://theconversation.com/unexpected-find-from-a-neutron-star-forces-a-rethink-on-radio-jets-103843

No need to worry the laws of our universe are still holding up. Physics for the most part still seems to be accurate, which is good news for us all. Recent research, published by The STAR Collaboration, has found hypertritons to have the same mass as it’s opposite, the antihypertriton. This discovery has allowed a long-standing theory of physics to be confirmed, that which states there is symmetry in nature.  It also has the potential to give us insight into one of the many unknowns of our universe, what lies in the center of a neutron star?

By confirming the identical mass of the Hypertritons, which are created when heavy element nuclei collide, and antihypertriton solidifies the charge-parity-time, or CPT, symmetry.  CPT is the fundamental base of much of the theories of the universe as no experimental observation has proven this symmetry false. If it was disproven physicists would need to rethink much of what has come to be accepted.  

Nuclei typically consist of protons and neutrons. Each containing quarks, specifically “up” and “down” quarks. The hypertriton is sort of a super-nucleus. Along with protons and neutrons it also contains hyperons.  These strange subatomic particles consist of quarks as well but contain what are known as “strange quarks”.  It has been previously hypothesized that hyperons make up a neutron stars core. However, many refute this theory based on the previously recorded low binding energy. The main debate is over the “softening” of the neutron star, caused by hyperons, which would cause the star to collapse making a black hole. 

In order to conduct the research, the collision of gold nuclei was initiated and the particles produced during the decay of the resulting hypernuclei were observed in the STAR detector. Hyperons have a short decay time but because they are traveling near the speed of light during the experiment the observation is possible.  

Photo credit: https://phys.org/news/2018-10-star-detector.html

The amount of energy to liberate a hyperon from the hypernuclei was measured during the process.  The energy found was recorded as 0.4 electron volts. Previous measurements were around 0.2 electron volts.  The increase in binding energy changes theories of the makeup of the core of a neutron star. Due to the incredible density of neutron stars, they are unable to be recreated in laboratories and thus little is known for sure.  However, with higher binding energy confirmed it would be possible for these subatomic particles to make up the core of a Neutron Star as the previously theorized softening would not necessarily occur. 

With the STAR collaboration recent discovery physicists will be able to use this newly acquired information to model neutron star’s cores. We are now one step closer to determining what lurks in the center of these elusive stellar objects.

Gillian Knapp at a Glance

Gillian Knapp had just gotten out of prison when she came walking into Princeton Astrophysics Department building. It was a soggy afternoon in New Jersey and she found me sitting in the lobby. She ushered me down a corridor into her office and welcomed me and offered me a seat. I sat down.

An acclaimed astronomer, with over 100,000 citations on published papers, Professor Knapp is also an advocate for education in prisons. Gillian Knapp has been entering New Jersey State prisons for years in order to educate the men closed off to society. She had just returned from teaching these men when we met.

With all her accomplishments and brilliance one could naturally be intimidated, however, her glowing blue eyes, kind demeanor, and slight stature, she has blessed the world with an approachability many others do not possess.  

When Professor Knapp agreed to my interview request I was ecstatic. I had found a recent paper on Kappa Andromeda B which I was eager to discuss, however, the interview turned into so much more than I thought it would. 

Professor Knapp has been involved with the Strategic Exploration of Exoplanets and Disks with Subaru project, SEEDS. Most notably, SEEDS was able to discover “Super Jupiter” which is in the Andromeda galaxy orbiting a massive Star, Kappa Andromeda. Professor Knapp had a bottle of beer named after the exoplanet on her desk, sent to her with a note from the brewery, stating every great accomplishment deserves celebrating. She subsequently told me the beer bottle was empty and we had a laugh. 

The data being collected on Kappa Andromeda B is a joint effort to determine how these cooler stellar objects form. The possibility of fusion within their cores and atmospheric pressure, temperature and composition are also being analyzed. I asked Professor Knapp if her thoughts of Kappa Andromeda B was a brown dwarf or a planet, she simply said those terms did not make much sense and she was merely interested if it was fusing in the core. But she isn’t that much involved with the Kapa Andromeda B research. The exciting thing is what made this type of research possible. Professor Knapp played a pivotal role in a groundbreaking research program that propelled astronomy to new levels.  

The Sloan Digital Sky Survey, or SDSS, officially launched operations in the year 2000, but not without a decade or so of planning and design. SDSS revolutionized astronomy. Not only in the way we are able to observe the universe but the way scientists worked together in order to successfully complete the task. Astronomers have a tendency to get possessive over their specific areas of research. It has been said they will claim galaxies and other stellar objects as their own.  The possessive terms “My Galaxy” and “My Star” have been used from time to time. The SDSS changed this. The agreement was to allow anyone to work on anything at any time. Researchers had the choice to work on anything they chose to, or not. If a researcher did not want to work on a certain topic or with a certain person, this was cool. After some getting used to, the complete freedom made the project incredibly successful.

Prior to the advancement of digital imaging, astronomy was bound by the tedious task of developing and sorting film in order to filter different spectrums. The typical astronomer would point a telescope into the sky and capture a very small area for a few hours. Then they would be faced with the daunting task of sorting out the data collected. This would take months. Not to mention the numerous hours away from actual observation. 

When Professor Knapp’s husband, Professor James Gunn, who is also a Princeton faculty member, developed technology that captured larger areas of the sky by way of digital imaging SDSS was bound to be a success. The only issue was there wasn’t a computing system in place to process all the amount of data this technology produced. Professor Knapp managed the software project which allowed the goals of SDSS to come to fruition. 

Professor Knapp managed a team of research staff, faculty, and students in order to develop a computing software that would handle, analyze and process the data produced by the new imaging software. This development was the first of it’s kind and single handily changed the field of astronomy.  Computational astrophysics origins are firmly rooted in the work of Professor Knapp.  Astronomers could now do things that were never being done before with the new software. 

The SDSS takes detailed photographs of the sky in a large sweeping movement, much like a panoramic photograph you take on a mountainside. This is different because all other telescopes on earth are taking photographs of very small areas. Professor Knapp introduced me to Professor Gunn during our meeting.  Professor Gunn described the operation to me as the telescope is much more efficient because it “scans” the area of the sky. It isn’t snapping pictures of small portions of the sky, rather scanning sections much larger than what had been previously possible. 

This panoramic-like data collection was made possible by the development of large silicon wafers used in conjunction with a spectrograph. This allows astronomers to gather information on 5 different colors of light.  Thirty electronic light sensors, known as charged-coupled devices or CCDs, are used in order to capture images of the sky.  These CCDs were designed specifically for the telescope and are unique as they are able to move electrons on the wafers and generate pictures from the absorption of the light released by the electrons. Each CCD is made up of over 4 million pixels. A CCD receives light through a different color filter, making multiple light observation possible simultaneously. Over 200 Gigabytes of data is collected in a single night, which is then processed by the computing software.

Photograph of the CCD taken by the writer at Princeton University.

I was shown an example of these CCDs while at Princeton, along with the metal plates used in the spectroscopy process. Each metal plate is designated for a particular portion of the sky.  Predrilled holes mark the specific objects, whether a galaxy or other stellar mass, that it is dedicated to observing. Spectrograph fibers are plugged into these small holes, by hand, on the face of the plate in order to measure the spectrum and determining the distance and size of the objects.  The entire process of setting the fibers takes about 45 minutes. Professor Gunn said they had played with the idea of using robotics to perform the task but abandoned the idea.

Photograph of the metal plates taken by the writer at Princeton University.

Mapping our universe is crucial to the understanding of how galaxies, planets, and stars are formed. Professor Knapp explained to me how we are able to see the timeline of the expansion of our universe after the big bang. She made the analogy of throwing a pebble into a pond and the pond immediately freezing.  The ripples in the ice would be saved as they were frozen. We can see these ripples at the edges of the galaxies which is a timestamp of the way they developed. This ripple effect was produced by early hydrogen gas becoming neutral, prior to that it was ionized, and the rapid expansion caused a density fluxation imprint, which is visible in our universe today in the 3-dimensional distribution of galaxies.  

While speaking to Professor Knapp on the success of SDSS, the subject of information sharing came up. SDSS allowed data to be released, by way of the internet, allowing the public to witness the groundbreaking discoveries like never before. This ease of distributing information to the public was also very much a first for astronomy. It allowed for excitement to build around the project and all of the accomplishments to be celebrated. The first five years marked the projected end of the SDSS, however, due to the incredible success the survey was extended, time and time again. SDSS is still going strong after 30 years with the 5th incarnation of the project starting this summer and running into 2025. The most recent project objectives include the search for black holes, further mapping of the Milkyway galaxy, determining the origin of planets and star formations.  

I love celebrating physics in any way, shape or form. I think the best thing about the SDSS is the unique metal plates. The team signs them and sends them off to deserving recipients. It is similar to a rockband signing an album. If that isn’t punk rock, I don’t know what is. The SDSS is expanding just like the universe we are trying to investigate. Without the work of Professor Knapp, literally, none of this would be possible. So when I look into the night sky tonight, having a little more knowledge based on the SDSS data releases. I am going to tip my hat to Gillian Knapp because I do not think that happens nearly as often as it should. Thank you Jill.  Thank you for everything. 

Room Temperature Superconductivity Is Closer Than You Think

Image result for lanthanum hydride
Photo credit: https://science.thewire.in/the-sciences/under-enormous-pressure-a-new-superconductor-star-is-born/

When Heike Kamerlingh Onnes discovered superconductivity he most likely had no idea what he was revealing. Superconductivity is an amazing phenomenon to witness. A typical demonstration involves a disk cooled using liquid nitrogen hovering over a track of magnets.  This demonstration always gathers a crowd at our Faraday Holiday Shows we put on at Rutgers Physics Lecture Hall. Superconductors have the potential to be world-changing if we can make them practical.  

Superconductors are able to transmit electricity with 100% efficiency. There are many other possible applications of these materials including electric circuitry, medical equipment, high energy particle detectors, and electric motors. Materials are kept at extremely low temperatures in order to become superconductors.  This makes real-world applications inefficient. Scientists have been theorizing about room temperature superconductors for a long time. Recently the search for them was proven to be on the right path. 

In September of 2019, a research team published a research paper in Nature reporting they had achieved superconductivity of Lanthanum Hydride compounds at 250K. This is the highest confirmed temperature recorded to date. This achievement is a reassuring confirmation of theoretical room temperature superconductivity.

illustration of LaH10
Superconductor Lanthanum Hydride structure – LaH10
Photo Credit : https://www.sciencenews.org/article/new-hydrogen-rich-compound-may-be-record-breaking-superconductor

In order to achieve superconductivity at a higher temperature, the team compressed a sample of Lanthanum at pressures of a million times atmospheric pressure.  The researchers used a device called a Diamond Anvil Cell in order to carry out the experiment. Using a thin metal foil to encase the sample, two flattened diamond plates are used to compress the Lanthanum. This type of system has a limitation of the type of data that can be recorded due to the small sample size of 0.01 millimeters across. One of the testing methods of superconductors is electrical measurement.  This involves connecting the sample to electrical leads which must remain independent from the foil which the sample is contained in. The team uses an insulator in order to prevent interference between the foil and the sample when measuring the electrical information. 

Diagram of Diamond Anvil Cell experiment.
Photo credit: https://www-nature-com.proxy.libraries.rutgers.edu/articles/d41586-019-01583-y

Despite the difficulties of the experiment, the researchers were successful and compressed lanthanum into lanthanum hydride while confirming superconductivity at a record high temperature. 

In order to declare a material as a superconductor researchers evaluate three characteristics.  These are: 1) zero electrical resistance; 2) a reduction in the critical temperature under an applied magnetic field; 3) expulsion of magnetic fields from the interior of the material. This expulsion of magnetic fields is known as the Meissner effect. The team was able to obtain the first two characteristics of the material. The Meissner effect was not recorded because of the sample size. The researchers will require additional experimentation with larger samples in order to measure the magnetization. The material themselves must also be evaluated. If samples of the compressed material will maintain their structure at normal pressure, much like a diamond, this may be a viable option for the future of superconductors. 

The implications of this research will likely drive future experiments to test other hydrogen-rich materials in order to achieve room temperature superconductivity. The results are positive and confirm a mathematical theory which predicted the pressure and temperature required. These results are a step in the direction of room-temperature superconductivity.

Fusion Energy Is Becoming Viable

I grew up in the 90’s, a time where the cartoon “The Jetsons,” promised us engineering which would provide our species sanctity over the pollution and destruction prior generations had done to the earth. The cartoon took place in 2062, we are 42 years away from the technology they promised, which is not out of the realm of possibility (other than the flying cars), but given recent projections in global warming, unless we change our habits of energy consumption and greenhouse gas emissions, we are in a lot of trouble.  Long story short, we can no longer produce energy by way of fossil fuels if we want to live on this planet much longer. Fusion energy may be the answer. 

Image Credit: https://www.discovermagazine.com/technology/why-nuclear-fusion-is-always-30-years-away

So what is fusion?  Essentially it is what powers our Sun. The process involves hydrogen atoms colliding and forming heavier atoms, in the form of helium, which are slightly less massive, thus the output of this change in mass (which is very small) is released in the form of energy. Typically, in order to achieve fusion, temperatures and density of the fourth state of matter (plasma) must be extremely high. This is naturally occuring in the core of stars because of the extreme density and temperatures brought on by gravity during their formation. Here on earth however we need to use Tokamak reactors.  These reach temperatures of 15 million degrees celsius, which is much hotter than the surface of the sun. In order to contain the plasma a very strong electromagnetic field is generated. This process takes a lot of energy in order to be successful, thus it has been a struggle for fusion laboratories to produce more energy than what is put in.  

Image credit: https://damoosemafia-starslife.weebly.com/nuclear-fusion.html

The fusion lab at Princeton University, Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory, has been involved in the experimentation of fusion energy since 1951. I was lucky enough to tour the facility this winter and was in awe of the process. However the Tokamak reactor used onsite, needs to constantly be shut down to cool and be repaired. Furthermore, the reactor is experimental only and is not equipped to harness energy produced during experiments. The International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor in southern France on track for completion in 2025. The ITER is projected to produce 500 Mw of energy with a 50Mw input when it goes online fully.  This will be the first viable fusion energy plant once it has been completed.  

There is a new technology being used which may result in a safer more efficient fusion energy source.  A company, HB 11 Energy, which originated from research at The University of Southern Wales has recently been awarded patents from several countries, including the United States and China, for their recent developments in nuclear fusion technology.  HB11 Energy has not only changed the process of initiating fusion reaction, they are also using Hydrogen and Boron 11, rather than the radioactive isotope Tritium which is used in other nuclear fusion. Rather than heating the plasma to extreme temperatures, they are reportedly using lasers in order to initiate fusion. A laser is used to generate a magnetic containment field and second laser is used to begin the fusion reaction.  Rather than randomly waiting for atoms to collide, the laser attempts to more definitively begin the reaction by directing the hydrogen through the Boron 11. 
HB11 Energy is still a long way off from producing energy for the world, however they are making advancements in new ways. 

The fusion industry has been struggling with the same problems since its inception. Now that advancements in laser technology, which won a Nobel Prize in 2018, have given new methods to the process, we may see radical changes in the way fusion is achieved. A fresh take on the process may be exactly what the world needs in order to make fusion a reality as a viable energy source. I am eager to see what this team of researchers can accomplish.