• The Universe Waved and We Heard It

    More than 100 years ago Einstein predicted the existence of gravitational waves—ripples in spacetime, where space is stretched in one direction and compressed in the other. The prediction is a consequence of his theory of general relativity, fitting nicely with his mathematical model. It wasn’t until September 14, 2015 that anyone observed a gravitational wave. It’s not that the Earth hasn’t been hit by them. We haven’t had a way to detect them. Gravitational waves are very tiny. Really tiny. Like 1/1000 the diameter of a proton. To measure something like that, you need a very special instrument—an interferometer, and not just an off-the-shelf model. 

    The Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO) is designed specifically to detect these waves. The project is a collaboration of many scientists, technicians, colleges, and universities. LIGO uses two interferometers, one located in Hanford, Washington and the other in Livingston, Louisiana. Each is identical, even in its orientation.  They are very large instruments, as you can see in these images (courtesy of LIGO CalTech). This is the Hanford site. The next image is the Livingston site.

    When a gravitational wave encounters the Earth, it will reach one of the locations first. This gives scientists clues to the origin of the wave. When the wave arrived on September 14, it was seen at both locations, but with a 7 millisecond difference—the time it took for the wave to travel from one location to the other. 

    The wave is so tiny that you might wonder if LIGO really detected a gravitational wave. They weren’t sure either, which is why they did not announce their finding until February 11, 2016. This gave scientists a chance to complete various verification protocols that gave the confidence of almost 100% that they did indeed observe a gravitational wave. 

    It is an extraordinary observation considering that footsteps, storms, traffic, ambient temperature, and just about anything else you can think of that causes motion can be detected by LIGO. It is an incredibly sensitive instrument. So sensitive, it can detect the motion of ocean waves during a storm. The scientists use a variety of techniques to tease out the signal of a gravitational wave from the noise of everything else. For example, to subtract out the ground vibrations contributed at each location, they place an array of 100 seismic detectors at each interferometer site. Using the seismic signals and machine learning techniques (statistics) scientists can figure out which vibrational “squiggles” are from the site and which are not. They have to use a different technique for each type of unwanted noise source. 

    What is actual signal like? It’s a short chirp. 

    This is relatively old news, so why am I writing about it? Barry Barish is speaking at STARMUS 2016 on “Einstein, Black Holes and a Cosmic Chirp.” I will be attending STARMUS and decided to find out what role Barry Barish had in the discovery.  

    The National Science Foundation first funded exploratory studies in 1980. By 1989 the project started in in full force, more or less.  An experiment of this magnitude requires a special person to run the project. It’s a big budget, with personnel and instruments spread over several locations. It’s cutting edge science. It had to be precisely executed. The people in charge, though extremely smart and well meaning, weren’t able to make sufficient progress. It wasn’t until Barry Barish was appointed laboratory director in 1994 that LIGO took off. One person can make a difference. I look forward to his talk.

  • Canaries, Wild and Free

    Although the Canary Islands are home to the wild canary, the islands were not named after the bird. It’s the other way around.  Canary Islands, or Islas Canarias, actually means Island of the Dogs. So the  bird is named after an island named after dogs. Why dogs? No one is quite sure whether there were actually large dogs on the island at one time, a cult of dog worshippers, mummified dogs, or sailors who mistook monk seals for dogs. (Image from Wikimedia, by Juan Emilio. Licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic license.)

    There are no more monk seals on the islands. I’ll find out about the dogs when I arrive at Tenerife for STARMUS 2016 at the end of June. I'm excited that I’ll finally get to see canaries, wild and free, as they should be. 

  • Good Vibrations: Brian Greene and String Theory

    At STARMUS 2016 Brian Greene will tell us about String Theory and the Nature of Reality. He will do this in just 20 minutes. So I’ll try to explain it to you in just a few paragraphs but from the perspective of a non-physicist.

    String theory rose from the quest to explain inconsistencies in existing theories in physics. Gravity seems to be the bad boy that doesn’t fall in line with quantum physics and general relativity. If scientists could reconcile that, they might even have the holy grail—one theory that explains everything in the physical universe. 

    The idea of unifying explanations of the universe is laudable, but the “stringicists” have given rise to even more theories—strings, superstrings, supersymmetry, branes, m-branes, and more. They  generated so many types of string theories—Type 1, Type IIA, Type IIB, Type HO, Type HE, and so on—that they themselves had to devise a unified theory of string theory call M-Theory (the mother of all string theories). 

    So what’s it all about? Strings are tiny, one-dimensional vibrating entities. The vibrational state of the string manifests itself as different physical particles. We don’t see a string, but we can observe ordinary particles and measure the particle’s mass and charge. But under the hood, that particle is just vibrations. The apple in the image is, ultimately, good vibrations! (Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.)

    Scientific theories are supposed to have predictive power—you should be able to predict a consequence of the theory and then measure those consequences in the real world. So far nothing has panned out for string theory, which is why some people refer to it as a “theoretical framework.” There are some elegant mathematics behind strings, which is the primary reason why this area of study has survived from 1960’s until now. That and the fact it has cool jargon.

    For more information, see Brian Greene's TED Talk on string theory. 

  • Asymptotic Freedom: David Gross

    The STARMUS Festival in the Canary Islands claims to make “the most universal science and art accessible to the public.” The speakers are some of the best in their field and include physicists, astrophysicists, chemists, biochemists, biologists, neuroscientists, and economists. Many of them are nobel laureates. Although the festival claims to be aimed at the “public”, I suspect that many of those brainy nobel laureates don’t have a good idea of where the intellect of the pubic lays. That’s why I am looking at the conference program now to investigate some of the conference speakers’ areas of expertise. I hope that by knowing a bit more about some of the speakers’ interests, I’ll get more out of the conference.

    On the first day David Gross, who won the Nobel Prize in Physics in 2004, will discuss the great challenges faced by physics. One of his challenges was explaining the behavior of quarks by introducing the property of asymptotic freedom, an explanation for which he (and two others) received the Nobel prize. 

    What exactly is asymptotic freedom, or AF as I’ll call it? It doesn’t sound too daunting. I know what freedom is—being free to do or think what you want without being constrained. I know what an asymptote is—a line that approaches a curve but does not meet is. How does that relate to physics? Why would someone get a nobel prize for that?

    To understand AF, you need to have a basic understanding of atoms, those tiny things that make up matter. Atoms in turn are made up of subatomic particles—protons, neutrons, and electrons. While most of us are worried about how to keep our lives togethers, people like David Gross are concerned with how an atom keeps itself together. Physicists know there is a strong nuclear force that holds protons and neutrons in place in an atom, but they wanted to know more about that force, as it is one of the four fundamental forces in the universe. (The other forces are electromagnetic, weak, and gravitational.) 

    How strong is the strong force? Over very tiny distances—atomic nucleus sized—the strong force is 100 times stronger than the electromagnetic force that repels positively charged protons. That’s why an atomic nucleus stays together under normal circumstances.

    Both protons and neutrons are themselves made up of quarks—precisely three quarks. These days, quarks are assigned “colors”, either red, green or blue. This might see like an homage to the pixel, but using color as a metaphor in physics helps to explain a lot of subatomic particle interactions that I’m not going to explain in this discussion. (I’ll also ignore quark “flavors.”) Suffice it to say that subatomic particle interactions have to result in white. Red, green, and blue combine to white.  (Image from Wiki Commons.)

    So far you know that the quarks are held in place by a strong force. The theory behind this strong force is named quantum chromodynamics (QCD) because of the arbitrary use of color. That finally brings us to AF.

    AF is important because it explains some baffling behavior of quarks. You can’t see quarks, which indicates they are trapped in matter by the strong force. If they weren’t confined, you’d be able to see them, right?  Yet a big smash up at the linear accelerator down the road from me—Stanford Linear Accelerator (SLAC)—showed that in a high-energy reaction  the force between the quarks weakens and the distance between them decreases asymptotically. That is, they get closer and closer, but don’t run into each other.

    What  it boils down to is that quarks have two phases—confinement and AF. Much like water and steam, the phases depend on temperature. In the case of quarks, temperature (which is really energy) is measured in Mega electron Volts, or MeV. The phase change occurs at 160 MeV. Quarks are mostly confined below that energy level, and mostly have asymptotic freedom above that level.

    So what’s the lesson for the lay person? Although your personal life may seem to be falling apart, take comfort in the fact that the atoms around you are quite stable. You might need to expend a lot of energy to keep things together, but atoms are just the opposite.  

    AF isn’t all that Dr. Gross is known for. He is one of the signers of the Humanist Manifesto.

  • STARMUS 2016: Taking a Chance on a Warm Weather Vacation

    If you look at some of the places I’ve traveled—Jukkasjärvi, Barrow, Fairbanks, Puntas Arenas, Patagonia, Andes, Himalaya, and Antarctica—you might conclude that I am a cold weather person. I’m not. But when it comes to a vacation, the idea of sitting around on a beach might sound idyllic, bur for a week I think it would be quite boring. That’s what attracts me to STARMUS.

    STARMUS is a biennial festival celebrating astronomy, art, and music. Held in the Canary Islands, the festival is aimed at the public, but the speakers are luminaries like Stephen Hawking, Brian May (astrophysicist and guitarist in Queen), Jill Tarter (astrophysicist), and Roger Penrose (mathematical physicist). The conference sessions get underway at 3:00 PM each day and end at 8:00 PM. The parties start at 9:30 PM and last until 1:00 AM. There is just enough time in the late morning to sit by the sea, but not so much time that I’ll get bored. Most of my time in this warm weather destination will be spent doing interesting things. Or at least I hope so.

    The conference takes place June 27 to July 2. Between now and then I plan to do a little background reading so I can get the most out of the conference. Although I know who many of the speakers are, there are many whose names are unknown to me. It’s time to find out who they are! 

    This video from STARMUS 2014 gives an idea of what goes on at this festival.

  • Wild Cars and Climate Change in Texas

    I really had no idea what I was getting into when I made my way to the Art Car Museum  in Houston. I expected to see painted and decorated cars, but I found much more. 

    Located in a nondescript area of Houston, from the outside the museum looks more like a garage than a museum. When I arrived, there was a very hairy, friendly guy who turned out to be the art car mechanic. Most of the cars require special care and maintenance, especially when getting ready for a parade.

    When I entered the museum I learned that any donations would be given to the victims of the recent Texas floods. I also found out that although the museum has cars in it, there weren’t as many as I thought. About half the space is given over to rotating contemporary art exhibits. The cars themselves are a rotating exhibit. Only some of the several dozen available to show are actually in the museum at any one time.

    This day the museum had about 7 cars, including a Prius painted with flora and fauna found on the owner’s property, a two-seater clad in metal and with menacing faces, a sea-shell encrusted car, a bat mobile, and one that looked like my worst nightmare. The mechanic, who kindly gave me a tour, said some of the hoods is quite heavy and require several people to pop them open. 

    The non-car exhibits were just as intriguing. Mark Chen showed a series of lenticular art pieces—To Inhabit—which have a climate change theme. As I walked from side-to-side images changed from what we see today to what we will see when sea levels rise. Central Park to a Central Lake. Times Square with taxi cars to Times Square with taxi boats.

    Ken Watkins’ collection of photos of random people from Main Street in Houston presented an interesting slice of life in a Texas city. The art car photos of Irvin Tepper made the perfect backdrop to the art car space.

    The museum employees guaranteed that next time I’m in Houston, everything in the museum is sure to be different. I might just go there again, or better yet, make it to Texas for the Houston Art Car Parade where I’ll be able to see the cars in action.

  • Cozy in a Container

    I never thought I’d be sleeping in a shipping container. Yet here I am and I am grateful. We are at over 4,000 m (13,123 feet). The wind blows harder as the sun begins to set. It’s cold. One of our traveling companions is fixated on measuring the temperature. She reports it in Celsius. I am tired of doing the conversion. I ask her “What does that mean. Do you feel cold or warm?” 

    I’m feeling a little cold, but when I step into my container room I warm up. It is a small container, split in two. My half has enough room for two sleeping cots, one night stand, and a small crate that can hold one suitcase. There are eight hooks, which come in handy for hanging coats and day packs. There is a door and a small vent. The container doesn’t have any heat, but it has an LED light and a jug of water. That’s it. 

    As the wind picks up, I appreciate the windowless container even more. It is air tight and great protection from the wind. After a few hours, the heat exuded from two people noticeably warm the container. I am thankful we don’t have to stay in a tent. 

    This is really a small container “village.” Each of the two couples on this trip gets a container room for sleeping. A separate container contains the bathroom. Each couple gets their own bathroom with a flush toilet, sink, and shower. There is hot and cold running water. The bathroom has a gas lantern. It provides light as well as heat. I wonder why we don’t have one in our bedroom, but I know why. The altitude is so high that a gas lantern would use too much oxygen for living quarters. As no one stays in the bathroom too long, I assume having a bit less oxygen is okay. But I wouldn’t want to lose any oxygen in my sleeping area.

    There is a kitchen container that we gather in for meals. I really like the compactness of it. There is everything a chef needs to cook—pans, spices, gas stove, and sink. We sit at a table with bench seating. It is all quite civilized. I am amazed at the supplies they bring. This is far better than backpacking fare. We have hors d’ouvres of empañadas followed by homemade soup followed by an entree of quinoa and dried llama. Finally a fruit desert. Those who like to drink at high altitude can enjoy wine. I avoid the wine in favor of a better night’s sleep at altitude. Our French-Canadian travel companions opt for wine and end up complaining about a poor night’s sleep.

    After dinner, we were sent to our container bedrooms with a hot water bottle. It amazed me how long that bottle felt hot. It warmed the sleeping bag so much that I didn’t miss the lack of heat. I was quite cozy in the bag.  (All photos courtesy of Glen Gould.)

  • Crossing to Bolivia

    San Pedro de Atacama is about one hour driving time from the border with Bolivia. I wondered why our van had to stop in San Pedro to complete the exit paperwork for Chile. My guide said that someone who lived up the road, let’s say a half hour towards the border, would have to drive to San Pedro to complete the paperwork. Only then could that person turn back proceed to the border. How inconvenient for the traveller!  

    I wondered why border control wasn’t close to the border. But when I arrived at the Chilean-Bolivian border I understood completely. There is absolutely nothing there except a hut for the Bolivian border control personnel and a few modest one-story buildings which I assume are for the border people who drew the lot to be stationed at this outpost. 

    The altitude is high enough for me to feel, so I assume it is at least 3,657 m (12,000 ft). The wind is blowing, and the cold biting. The door to the border control office is wide open. Two men sit at a modest wooden table. I can’t imagine working in an unheated building in this cold, but they seem to manage. I present my paperwork for them to stamp. 

    Outside, our Chilean driver stays on the Chilean side of the border. He unloads our van and passes our luggage and supplies to our Bolivian driver. This exchange makes me feel as if I am a spy being passed from one country to another. But it is all for the good. From this point on, the road system is pretty much non-existent. Our Bolivian driver is supposed to be one of the best. I’ve been told he has memorized the entire countryside—every rut and every crevice—and he can navigate from point to point without GPS. Let’s hope this is true. 

    When all of our crew—Oscar our guide  and my three traveling companions—are finished with the border control paperwork we hop into the van with our new driver, Felix. 

    I see ten different vans at the border control. I assume we’ll leapfrog each other as we get farther and farther into Bolivia. But is turns out that we will never see these people again. From here on out, there isn't a road as I know it. (Try to find one in this image.) You have to wend your way through the altiplano. Felix seems to know routes that no one else takes. The Bolivian adventure begins!

  • A Tale of Two Salars

    Every great adventure starts with a flat tire. Or at least that what I hoped. We drove for an hour and a half south of San Pedro de Atacama to hike to two different salars—Salar de Talar and Salar de Capur. While I was gazing at a nearby volcano, the van stopped. The driver announced we had a flat tire.

    I find myself standing outside well above 4,000 m (13,100 ft) pummeled by a biting cold wind. It is sunny and I am surrounded by incredible beauty. Our group of five is anxious to get to the start of the hike. We know it is only a few miles away. But the tire must be fixed first. The roads are so rough around here, or at least the roads we take, that flats are common. It takes our guide and driver about 20 minutes to make the fix, and we are on our way.

    The wind seems to be a constant factor in Atacama, as are sunny, cloudless skies during the day. I put on my windbreaker and set out with my companions to the first salar—Salar de Talar. The cold wind tricks me into thinking I see snow in the distance. I remind myself this is salt.  As I descend towards the plain, I spy a lone vicuña. That’s unusual because they typically travel in groups. Maybe this one is antisocial. 

    The brown-and-white landscape is broken by pink dots. As I get closer, I realize I am looking at flamingos. There are a couple of species in Chile—James, Andean, Chilean. You need to get a good look at the feet and head markings to identify each. Our guide explains the difference, but I know I will not remember once I get home. So I appreciate gazing at the birds and appreciating their ability to exist in this environment. 

    When we’ve walked from one end to the other of Salar de Talar, we start an uphill walk to the crest of a distant hill. The altitude is noticeable, but it’s not too taxing. As we ascend, the wind becomes much stronger. As I fight the head wind, I wonder if the compression of the air results in getting more oxygen. Probably not, but I tell myself it does. That helps me appreciate the fierceness of the wind.

    As I come over the crest of the hill, I see an amazing sight—Salar de Capur. It’s pure white basin contrasts with delicately hued mountains. No one is here except us. It seems as if we are on another planet.

    We’ve been hiking for some time, and I’m hungry. Farther down the hill, our van and driver appear. He sets up a buffet lunch in the windshadow of the van. Spectacular view, wonderful food. A great adventure indeed!

  • The Valley of the Moon (or is it Mars?)

    I’ve never been to the moon, and I doubt whoever named this valley has been there either. In fact, I am certain that Valley of Mars would be a better name. Parts of this landscape are remarkably similar to the photos taken by the Mars rover and are in the book Mars 3D. 

    The Valley of the Moon is one of most popular sites in Atacama. It’s close to San Pedro de Atacama, so just about every tourist makes the drive to the most scenic viewpoint to snap a photo at sunset. My guide is determined that our group of seven will have a wilderness experience and not see anyone. 

    We leave from the hotel at 5:00 PM. As instructed, I have a windbreaker and a warm coat in my backpack. Oscar, our guide, says the temperature drops and wind increases at sunset. I also have a buff to wear around my mouth. It is already windy and the sand is blowing. I don’t want a mouthful of the desert.

    The van drives us into the park. We pass tour groups until we get to a stretch of the road where we don’t see anyone. We hop out of the van and start claiming up a dune. The van pulls away. 

    The sun is still illuminating this otherworldly landscape, creating sharp shadows as we hike up and down the ancient dunes and through the salt studded, cracked earth. When the sun starts to dip towards the horizon, we climb a dune and see the Licancabur volcano in the distance. But we don’t see any people.

    We perch ourselves on the edge of the dune, sun behind us, and watch the landscape change from brownish hues to bright red. The sun sets. The wind becomes gale force. The temperature starts to drop. That’s our cue to descend from the dune. It’s easy and fun to run down the dune. There is also a bit less wind below. In the distance, I see a van. It’s ours. 

    It takes the van about 45 minutes to wend its way in the dark over the rutted landscape and get to a real road. I begin to appreciate how important it is to have a skilled off-road driver and a solid vehicle in this part of the world.