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.

FRIB Updates

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Last December I wrote about the Department of Energy’s (DOE) selection of Michigan State University (MSU) as the site of the Facility for Rare Isotope Beams (FRIB, pronounced F-Rib). FRIB is a next generation nuclear physics facility that will study topics such as nuclear structure and the processes by which stars created the elements. The primary aim of the research is to learn more about the nucleus of the atoms, the origin of the elements, and the evolution of the universe.

-Last week, just in time for the NSCL open house, MSU and DOE signed an agreement for the construction of FRIB.

Story Here

To understand what FRIB does, you need to know something about the atom. Atoms are composed of a nucleus of protons and neutrons (except for the one version of hydrogen which lacks neutrons and perhaps a short lived version of lithium which also lacks neutrons) and a ‘cloud’ of electrons. FRIB will study the proton and neutron nucleus. Elements are defined by the number of protons in a nucleus, so carbon always has 6 protons, oxygen always 8, uranium always 92. Most elements have many possible isotopes, defined by the number of neutrons, so carbon 12 is carbon with 6 protons and 6 neutrons , but there is also a carbon 11 with 5 neutrons and carbon 13 with 7 neutrons and even a very short lived carbon 22 with 16 neutrons. The short lived nuclei like carbon 22 are what FRIB will use in their research. Hence the term rare isotope.

While nuclear physics brings to mind bombs and power plants, the field involves much more. Among other things, nuclear physics has contributed to advances in the detection and treatment of cancer. In fact some large hospitals have their own nuclear medicine research groups.

If you want to learn more about FRIB and nuclear physics in general, watch alpinekat’s newest video-the Rare Isotope Rap. Best known for the Large Hadron Rap which became a youtube phenomena, alpinekat’s newest video brings her back to MSU-her undergrad institution. As former NSCL employee and Science Theatre collaborator of Katie, I was fortunate enough to have the chance to help with this video. I’m a backup dancer…so you know it’ll be funny. But it’s also quite educational.


To learn more about FRIB visit its website.

Picture Source: MSU, FRIB,

Interesting happenings in Engineering and Physics

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Suddenly there seems to be an abundance of very interesting press releases at Science Daily and Nature.

Here’s the summary:

-A New Approach to ‘Cloaking’

Researchers from BAE, Towson, and Purdue have developed a method for rending an object invisible which does not require the use of metamaterials and can cover the full visible spectrum. In their experiment they cloaked an object the width of human hair!

Press Release from Purdue (HT to ScienceDaily for story)

-Super DVD’s in the Future?

Australian researchers have developed a way to store well over a terrabyte of memory on a diskthe size of a DVD. Using wavelength and polarization as additional ‘dimensions’ the researchers can store and retrieve much more information than on an ordinary DVD which normally uses a single wavelength and polarization for storage. Though serious technological hurtles remain, the developers suggest that in the next decade, commericial protypes could be produced.

Press Release from Swinburne: (HT to ScienceDaily)

Nature News Story (subscription or academic access may be required)

Nature Article (subscription or academic access required for whole article, but abstract available)

I’ll post some more tomorrow.

FRIB goes to MSU

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The Department of Energy has selected Michigan State University (MSU) as the site for the future Facility for Rare Isotope Beams (FRIB): press release from DOE. MSU is the current home to the National Superconducting Cyclotron Laboratory, one of the leading nuclear science facilities in the world. The research done at NSCL has helped expand our knowledge of the nature of atomic nuclei and brought insight into how the elements are formed in the interiors of stars and in cataclysmic events like supernovae. NSCL is currently undergoing upgrades to make it the only facility in the world which allows researchers to use stopped, accelerated, and reaccelerated beams. The upgrades are expected to be completed in 2010. In large part due to the presence of NSCL, MSU is ranked second in the nation for graduate programs in nuclear physics.

FRIB will take a decade to design and construct, at a cost of 550 million dollars. Hundreds of jobs are expected to directly result from its construction, with additional boosts to the local economy resulting from the presence of the facility which will attract visiting researchers from all over the world. Like NSCL, FRIB will be used for studying the nucleus of the atom. Insight into the origin of the elements, processes within stars, and possible applications in medical physics and stockpile control are expect results of research in this field.

This is incredibly exciting news. I spent three years working as an undergraduate assistant at NSCL (see my post on helping with an experiment). It was an experience which taught me more about science than any of my classes did. The presence of FRIB at MSU will continue to provide opportunities for students to participate in such research.

Back in October, students at MSU, I included, held a public awareness day about FRIB, educating the student body and local community about MSU’s bid for FRIB and of the implications of winning the bid.

Congratulations MSU and NSCL.


Michigan State has posted its press release later in the day.

NSCL has also posted information.

An extensive press release is on the DOE page.

More information about the impact of the decision on MSU.