This week’s Nature is a very good one

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Not what the planet looks like

Lots of water...but probably NOT what the planet looks like.

This week’s edition of Nature is chock full of really interesting articles and papers, the formost of which is an astronomy paper you’ve undoubtedly heard about unless you hide from all major media sources (you’ll need an academic IP or subscription to access that link and most of the others here).  For those with access of some sort, here is an excellent summary.

The short of the paper, if you have indeed missed the news, is the discovery of a ‘super-Earth’ orbiting a nearby red dwarf star.  Of course, the discovery of planets around other stars is quite common place now, but what makes this particular planet special is that it’s the second least massive planet yet discovered outside of the solar system (2.7 Earth masses) and its mass and size are such that it may be comprised of a large amount of water. Now, the planet is also expected to be very warm, above the boiling point of water at normal pressure. It is possible that pressures on this planet are such that liquid water may exist as water boils at a higher temperature under higher pressure but it would also be a large leap to say that this is planet very suitable for life (though one never knows…) Regardless, we’re getting better at finding planets which are small and close to their stars, like Earth. This is a tricky task because stars are bright and big and planets are dim and small…but that is a topic for another post.

For press releases and media attention news of a watery super-Earth is plenty enough to garner attention.  I’m excited by this discovery for another reason: it was found around a red dwarf and done with a bunch of small telescopes. The latter reason is simply awe at the ingenuity and thriftiness involved–8 40cm  mirror telescopes with CCDs! The former reason excites me because red dwarfs are very common and also small enough that it is easier to discover Earth-like planets around them. This means that more discoveries like this are probably on the way. In fact, this system is close enough that observations with better instruments (e.g. Hubble and Spitzer)  could provide insight into the make-up of the atmosphere of this planet…I imagine they’ll have an easy time getting a proposal through for time on any telescope for that kind of  research…expect to hear about this system again. I’d love to be in this research group right now!

And what else is good about this week’s edition?


A review of a physics pop-up book. The book sounds really interesting. I’m quite fascinated by science of visual information. I loved maps as a child and am still mesmerized by graphics of any sort…one day I’ll post about it.

A cool kind of microscope (summaries)

And a really interesting sounding paper about modeling of  “the ecology of human insurgency.” I’m curious to see if the headline, “Modelers claim wars are predictable,” is a valid description of the paper, and I really want to know how they came to such a conclusion. Here is a Nature News story about it (that link might be open to anyone).


I have to link to the ScienceDaily story on the Super-Earth. They quote the graduate student who initially discovered the planet. That just makes the discovery that much cooler.

Update: The authors have posted (pdf) a version of the paper on the physics arXiv. Now anyone can access it.

Lots of News

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So much to write about!

  • Carl Sagan Day?

Saturday was dubbed Carl Sagan Day in honor of what would have been the 75th birthday (on Monday) of Carl Sagan. Broward College in Florida hosted a celebration and New Scientist had a blog post, from which I learned about the celebration.

Carl Sagan, with Richard Feynman and several others, was one of the great communicators of science of the 20th century. His miniseries Cosmos introduced the wonders of modern astrophysics to people around the world. If you have not seen an episode of Cosmos, watch one: they’re on Hulu; although they’re old and some of the science is outdated, they remain a classic. The movie Contact was conceived by Carl Sagan (though released after his death) and inspired the book, which by the quirks of history, was published well before the movie. The novel Contact, in my opinion, is deeper than the movie. It’s a great  “What if?’ on first contact with extraterrestrials and a wonderful meditation on the relationship between science and religion by an agnostic/skeptic who knew how approach the issue with class and respect. Sagan was not my inspiration to go into physics or into astronomy, but exposure to his works certainly egged me on and he helped nourish public interest in astronomy at a time when the end of the Apollo program meant that national interest was fading.

  • Behavioral Genetics Shapes Sentencing of Murderer

This deserves its own blog post but the summary is that an Italian court has shortened the sentence of a murderer because genetic testing suggested he was predisposed to violent behavior. Here is the Nature news story. Apparently this is first time such a decision has been made in Europe, but a few similar decisions have been made in the US. This story raises some really interesting ethical questions, about which I’m not at all qualified to write, but nonetheless, which I think could make for an interesting post.

  • Babies Cry in Native Language

This is interesting. A German study suggests that babies’ cries differ by language even in the days immediately after birth. This follows up with studies that suggest that language recognition begins in the third trimester, with response to native language. Really cool stuff if you ask me….I wonder if there is also response to other sounds too? Music? I’m not so much thinking of the Mozart Effect, which hasn’t really been proven, but of the effect of prenatal exposure to music in regard to later musical preference.

  • Art and Science

I attended an excellent talk by an artist who works with the Jet Propulsion Laboratory. Blog post to come.

  • Went for a walk in Rock Creek Park…Miss the Cuyahoga Valley.


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Here is a panorama of the Milky Way created by a Central Michigan University professor.

Credit: Alex Mellinger 2009

Read more about it here

See the full image and learn about the process its creation here:

Fermi Releases All-Sky Image

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The telescope formally known as GLAST, now called the Fermi Gamma-ray Space Telescope, has released an all-sky image.

NASA has an excellent description of the image (its also where I got the image) which I cannot surpass, so read it.

I remember being at Goddard Space Flight Center, where Fermi was built, when it launched. There was a launch party in a large auditorium where I watched a video feed of the rocket launch surrounded by hundreds of giddy astrophysicists and engineers. It was cool. Plus they had snacks.

Credit: NASA/DOE/Fermi LAT Collaboration:

Ever look at a scale and realize you weight half as much as you thought you did?

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A paper published in the Astrophysical Journal by a team from the Sloan Digital Sky Survey (SSDS-II) reported that the Milky Way may be as little as half as massive as previous research suggested. Baring in mind that the revised mass is still on the scale of a trillion solar masses (and that the sun has a mass on the scale of 10^30 kg or 1,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 kg), our galaxy is, compared to a human, or even the Earth, quite massive. Want a mental picture?

Suppose we choose for our example a person with a mass of 100 kg. (For those who perfer their units in the English system, this person weighs something like 220 lbs on Earth). This person is 10^28 times more massive than a water molecule. The comparison to the person and the sun is roughly the same also. So a person is to the sun what a water molecule is to a person, in terms of mass at least.

And how does a trillion compare to the number one? Well a strand of hair is on the order of a micrometer thick. There are a million micrometers in a meter and a billion micrometers in 1 km. There are a trillion micrometers in 1000 km. So put together a trillion strands of hair, width wise, and you have 1000 km, which is something like 621 miles.

So the galaxy is huge…and there are likewise a huge number of galaxies in the universe!

There is a nice press release at Science Daily which quotes two Big 10 university astronomers, including one from MSU (in fact I remember Prof. Beers talking about SSDS during the first astronomy class I took at State).

SSDS is a pretty cool colaboration, using a very fascinating setup, and their data is online, free to the public. Even if you don’t have a professional use of the data, check out the web page because there are some great educational resources!