New from Space: Simulations and X-Rays Point to Dark Matter

center_universe2The cosmic hunt for dark matter has been turning up some interesting clues of late. And during the month of June, two key hints came along that might provide answers; specifically simulations that look at the “local Universe” from the Big Bang to the present day and recent studies involving galaxy clusters. In both cases, the observations made point towards the existence of Dark Matter – the mysterious substance believed to make up 85 per cent of the mass of the Universe.

In the former case, the clues are the result of new supercomputer simulations that show the evolution of our “local Universe” from the Big Bang to the present day. Physicists at Durham University, who are leading the research, say their simulations could improve understanding of dark matter due to the fact that they believe that clumps of the mysterious substance – or halos – emerged from the early Universe, trapping intergalactic gas and thereby becoming the birthplaces of galaxies.

universe_expansionCosmological theory predicts that our own cosmic neighborhood should be teeming with millions of small halos, but only a few dozen small galaxies have been observed around the Milky Way. Professor Carlos Frenk, Director of Durham University’s Institute for Computational Cosmology, said:

I’ve been losing sleep over this for the last 30 years… Dark matter is the key to everything we know about galaxies, but we still don’t know its exact nature. Understanding how galaxies formed holds the key to the dark matter mystery… We know there can’t be a galaxy in every halo. The question is: ‘Why not?’.

The Durham researchers believe their simulations answer this question, showing how and why millions of halos around our galaxy and neighboring Andromeda failed to produce galaxies. They say the gas that would have made the galaxy was sterilized by the heat from the first stars that formed in the Universe and was prevented from cooling and turning into stars. However, a few halos managed to bypass this cosmic furnace by growing early and fast enough to hold on to their gas and eventually form galaxies.

dark_matterThe findings were presented at the Royal Astronomical Society’s National Astronomy Meeting in Portsmouth on Thursday, June 26. The work was funded by the UK’s Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC) and the European Research Council. Professor Frenk, who received the Royal Astronomical Society’s top award, the Gold Medal for Astronomy, added:

We have learned that most dark matter halos are quite different from the ‘chosen few’ that are lit up by starlight. Thanks to our simulations we know that if our theories of dark matter are correct then the Universe around us should be full of halos that failed to make a galaxy. Perhaps astronomers will one day figure out a way to find them.

Lead researcher Dr Till Sawala, in the Institute for Computational Cosmology, at Durham University, said the research was the first to simulate the evolution of our “Local Group” of galaxies, including the Milky Way, Andromeda, their satellites and several isolated small galaxies, in its entirety. Dr Sawala said:

What we’ve seen in our simulations is a cosmic own goal. We already knew that the first generation of stars emitted intense radiation, heating intergalactic gas to temperatures hotter than the surface of the sun. After that, the gas is so hot that further star formation gets a lot more difficult, leaving halos with little chance to form galaxies. We were able to show that the cosmic heating was not simply a lottery with a few lucky winners. Instead, it was a rigorous selection process and only halos that grew fast enough were fit for galaxy formation.

darkmatter1The close-up look at the Local Group is part of the larger EAGLE project currently being undertaken by cosmologists at Durham University and the University of Leiden in the Netherlands. EAGLE is one of the first attempts to simulate from the beginning the formation of galaxies in a representative volume of the Universe. By peering into the virtual Universe, the researchers find galaxies that look remarkably like our own, surrounded by countless dark matter halos, only a small fraction of which contain galaxies.

The research is part of a program being conducted by the Virgo Consortium for supercomputer simulations, an international collaboration led by Durham University with partners in the UK, Germany, Holland, China and Canada. The new results on the Local Group involve, in addition to Durham University researchers, collaborators in the Universities of Victoria (Canada), Leiden (Holland), Antwerp (Belgium) and the Max Planck Institute for Astrophysics (Germany).

ESO2In the latter case, astronomers using ESA and NASA high-energy observatories have discovered another possible hint by studying galaxy clusters, the largest cosmic assemblies of matter bound together by gravity. Galaxy clusters not only contain hundreds of galaxies, but also a huge amount of hot gas filling the space between them. The gas is mainly hydrogen and, at over 10 million degrees celsius, is hot enough to emit X-rays. Traces of other elements contribute additional X-ray ‘lines’ at specific wavelengths.

Examining observations by ESA’s XMM-Newton and NASA’s Chandra spaceborne telescopes of these characteristic lines in 73 galaxy clusters, astronomers stumbled on an intriguing faint line at a wavelength where none had been seen before. The astronomers suggest that the emission may be created by the decay of an exotic type of subatomic particle known as a ‘sterile neutrino’, which is predicted but not yet detected.

dark_matter_blackholeOrdinary neutrinos are very low-mass particles that interact only rarely with matter via the so-called weak nuclear force as well as via gravity. Sterile neutrinos are thought to interact with ordinary matter through gravity alone, making them a possible candidate as dark matter. As Dr Esra Bulbul – from the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics in Cambridge, Massachusetts, USA, and lead author of the paper discussing the results – put it:

If this strange signal had been caused by a known element present in the gas, it should have left other signals in the X-ray light at other well-known wavelengths, but none of these were recorded. So we had to look for an explanation beyond the realm of known, ordinary matter… If the interpretation of our new observations is correct, at least part of the dark matter in galaxy clusters could consist of sterile neutrinos.

The surveyed galaxy clusters lie at a wide range of distances, from more than a hundred million light-years to a few billion light-years away. The mysterious, faint signal was found by combining multiple observations of the clusters, as well as in an individual image of the Perseus cluster, a massive structure in our cosmic neighborhood.

The supermassive black hole at the center of the Milky Way galaxy.The implications of this discovery may be far-reaching, but the researchers are being cautious. Further observations with XMM-Newton, Chandra and other high-energy telescopes of more clusters are needed before the connection to dark matter can be confirmed. Norbert Schartel, ESA’s XMM-Newton Project Scientist, commented:

The discovery of these curious X-rays was possible thanks to the large XMM-Newton archive, and to the observatory’s ability to collect lots of X-rays at different wavelengths, leading to this previously undiscovered line. It would be extremely exciting to confirm that XMM-Newton helped us find the first direct sign of dark matter. We aren’t quite there yet, but we’re certainly going to learn a lot about the content of our bizarre Universe while getting there.

Much like the Higgs Boson, the existence of Dark Matter was first theorized as a way of explaining how the universe appears to have mass that we cannot see. But by looking at indirect evidence, such as the gravitational influence it has on the movements and appearance of other objects in the Universe, scientists hope to one day confirm its existence. Beyond that, there is the mystery of “Dark Energy”, the hypothetical form of energy that permeates all of space and is believed to be behind accelerations in the expansion of the universe.

As with the discovery of the Higgs Boson and the Standard Model of particle physics, detecting these two invisible forces will at last confirm that the Big Bang and Cosmological theory are scientific fact – and not just working theories. When that happens, the dream of humanity finally being able to understand the universe (at both the atomic and macro level) may finally become a reality!

Source: sciencedaily.com, (2)

The Large Hadron Collider: We’ve Definitely Found the Higgs Boson

higgs-boson1In July 2012, the CERN laboratory in Geneva, Switzerland made history when it discovered an elementary particle that behaved in a way that was consistent with the proposed Higgs boson – otherwise known as the “God Particle”. Now, some two years later, the people working the Large Hadron Collider have confirmed that what they observed was definitely the Higgs boson, the one predicted by the Standard Model of particle physics.

In the new study, published in Nature Physics, the CERN researchers indicated that the particle observed in 2012 researchers indeed decays into fermions – as predicted by the standard model of particle physics. It sits in the mass-energy region of 125 GeV, has no spin, and it can decay into a variety of lighter particles. This means that we can say with some certainty that the Higgs boson is the particle that gives other particles their mass – which is also predicted by the standard model.

CERN_higgsThis model, which is explained through quantum field theory  – itself an amalgam of quantum mechanics and Einstein’s special theory of relativity – claims that deep mathematical symmetries rule the interactions among all elementary particles. Until now, the decay modes discovered at CERN have been of a Higgs particle giving rise to two high-energy photons, or a Higgs going into two Z bosons or two W bosons.

But with the discovery of fermions, the researchers are now sure they have found the last holdout to the full and complete confirmation that the Standard Model is the correct one. As Marcus Klute of the CMS Collaboration said in a statement:

Our findings confirm the presence of the Standard Model Boson. Establishing a property of the Standard Model is big news itself.

CERN_LHCIt is certainly is big news for scientists, who can say with absolute certainty that our current conception for how particles interact and behave is not theoretical. But on the flip side, it also means we’re no closer to pushing beyond the Standard Model and into the realm of the unknown. One of the big shortfalls of the Standard Model is that it doesn’t account for gravity, dark energy and dark matter, and some other quirks that are essential to our understanding of the universe.

At present, one of the most popular theories for how these forces interact with the known aspects of our universe – i.e. electromagnetism, strong and nuclear forces – is supersymmetry.  This theory postulates that every Standard Model particle also has a superpartner that is incredibly heavy – thus accounting for the 23% of the universe that is apparently made up of dark matter. It is hoped that when the LHC turns back on in 2015 (pending upgrades) it will be able to discover these partners.

CERN_upgradeIf that doesn’t work, supersymmetry will probably have to wait for LHC’s planned successor. Known as the “Very Large Hadron Collider” (VHLC), this particle accelerator will measure some 96 km (60 mile) in length – four times as long as its predecessor. And with its proposed ability to smash protons together with a collision energy of 100 teraelectronvolts – 14 times the LHC’s current energy – it will hopefully have the power needed to answer the questions the discovery of the Higgs Boson has raised.

These will hopefully include whether or not supersymmetry holds up and how gravity interacts with the three other fundamental forces of the universe – a discovery which will finally resolve the seemingly irreconcilable theories of general relativity and quantum mechanics. At which point (and speaking entirely in metaphors) we will have gone from discovering the “God Particle” to potentially understanding the mind of God Himself.

I don’t think I’ve being melodramatic!

Source: extremetech.com, blogs.discovermagazine.com

News From Space: Cosmic Inflation and Dark Matter

big bang_blackholeHello again! In another attempt to cover events that built up while I was away, here are some stories that took place back in March and early April of this year, and which may prove to be some of the greatest scientific finds of the year. In fact, they may prove to be some of the greatest scientific finds in recent history, as they may help to answer the most fundamental questions of all – namely, what is the universe made of, and how did it come to exist?

First up, in a development that can only be described as cosmic in nature (pun intended), back in March, astrophysicists at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center announced the first-ever observation of gravitational waves. This discovery, which is the first direct evidence of the Big Bang, is comparable to significance to CERN’s confirmation of the Higgs boson in 2012. And there is already talk about a Nobel Prize for the Harvard crew because of their discovery.

big_bangThis theory, which states that the entire universe sprung into existence from a tiny spot in the universe some 13.8 billion years ago, has remained the scientific consensus for almost a century. But until now, scientists have had little beyond theory and observations to back it up. As the name would suggest, gravitational waves are basically ripples in spacetime that have been propagating outward from the center of the universe ever since the Big Bang took place.

Originally predicted as part of Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity in 1916, these waves are believed to have existed since a trillionth of a trillionth of a trillionth of a second after the Big Bang took place, and have been propagating outward for roughly 14 billion years. The theory also predicts that, if we can detect some gravitational waves, it’s proof of the initial expansion during the Big Bang and the continued inflation that has been taking place ever since.

bicep2-640x425Between 2010 and 2012, the BICEP2 – a radio telescope situated at the Amundsen–Scott South Pole Station (pictured above) – the research team listened to the Cosmic Microwave Background (CMB). They were looking for hints of B-mode polarization, a twist in the CMB that could only have been caused by the ripples of gravitational waves. Following a lot of data analysis, the leaders announced that they found that B-mode polarization.

The work will now be scrutinized by the rest of the scientific community, of course, but the general consensus seems confident that it will stand up. In terms of scientific significance, the confirmation of gravitational waves would be the first direct evidence that the universe started out as nothing, erupted into existence 13.8 billion years ago, and has continued to expand ever since. This would confirm that cosmic inflation really exists and that the entire structure of the universe was decided in the beginning by the tiniest flux of gravitational waves.

planck-attnotated-580x372And that’s not only discovery of cosmic significance that was made in recent months. In this case, the news comes from NASA’s Fermi Gamma-ray Space Telescope, which has been analyzing high-energy gamma rays emanating from the galaxy’s center since 2008. After pouring over the results, an independent group of scientists claimed that they had found an unexplained source of emissions that they say is “consistent with some forms of dark matter.”

These scientists found that by removing all known sources of gamma rays, they were left with gamma-ray emissions that so far they cannot explain. And while they were cautious that more observations will be needed to characterize these emissions, this is the first time that potential evidence has been found that may confirm that this mysterious, invisible mass that accounts for roughly 26.8% of the universe actually exists.

darkmatter1To be fair, scientists aren’t even sure what dark matter is made of. In fact, it’s very existence is inferred from gravitational effects on visible matter and gravitational lensing of background radiation. Originally, it was hypothesized to account for the discrepancies that were observed between the calculations of the mass of galaxies, clusters and entire universe made through dynamical and general relativistic means, and  the mass of the visible “luminous” matter.

The most widely accepted explanation for these phenomena is that dark matter exists and that it is most probably composed of Weakly Interacting Massive Particles (WIMPs) that interact only through gravity and the weak force. If this is true, then dark matter could produce gamma rays in ranges that Fermi could detect. Also, the location of the radiation at the galaxy’s center is an interesting spot, since scientists believe that’s where dark matter would lurk since the insofar invisible substance would be the base of normal structures like galaxies.

fermi_gamma-raysThe galactic center teems with gamma-ray sources, from interacting binary systems and isolated pulsars to supernova remnants and particles colliding with interstellar gas. It’s also where astronomers expect to find the galaxy’s highest density of dark matter, which only affects normal matter and radiation through its gravity. Large amounts of dark matter attract normal matter, forming a foundation upon which visible structures, like galaxies, are built.

Dan Hooper, an astrophysicist at Fermilab and lead author of the study, had this to say on the subject:

The new maps allow us to analyze the excess and test whether more conventional explanations, such as the presence of undiscovered pulsars or cosmic-ray collisions on gas clouds, can account for it. The signal we find cannot be explained by currently proposed alternatives and is in close agreement with the predictions of very simple dark matter models.

Hooper and his colleagues suggest that if WIMPs were destroying each other, this would be “a remarkable fit” for a dark matter signal. They again caution, though, that there could be other explanations for the phenomenon. Writing in a paper submitted to the journal Physical Review D, the researchers say that these features are difficult to reconcile with other explanations proposed so far, although they note that plausible alternatives not requiring dark matter may yet materialize.

CERN_LHCAnd while a great deal more work is required before Dark Matter can be safely said to exist, much of that work can be done right here on Earth using CERN’s own equipment. Tracy Slatyer, a theoretical physicist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and co-author of the report, explains:

Dark matter in this mass range can be probed by direct detection and by the Large Hadron Collider (LHC), so if this is dark matter, we’re already learning about its interactions from the lack of detection so far.This is a very exciting signal, and while the case is not yet closed, in the future we might well look back and say this was where we saw dark matter annihilation for the first time.

Still, they caution that it will take multiple sightings – in other astronomical objects, the LHC, or direct-detection experiments being conducted around the world – to validate their dark matter interpretation. Even so, this is the first time that scientists have had anything, even tentative, to base the existence of Dark Matter’s on. Much like until very recently with the Big Bang Theory, it has remained a process of elimination – getting rid of explanations that do not work rather than proving one that does.

So for those hoping that 2014 will be the year that the existence of Dark Matter is finally proven – similar to how 2012 was the year the Higgs Boson was discovered or 2013 was the year the Amplituhedron was found – there are plenty of reasons to hope. And in the meantime, check out this video of a gamma-ray map of the galactic center, courtesy of NASA’s Goddard Space Center.


Sources:
extremetech.com, IO9.com, nasa.gov, cfa.harvard.edu, news.nationalgeographic.com

Work Begins on Successor to Large Hadron Collider

CERN_upgradeIn 2012, scientists working for the CERN laboratory in Switzerland announced the discovery of the Higgs Boson. After confirming this momentous discovery, CERN scientists indicated in April of 2013 that the Large Hadron Collider was being taken offline in order to upgrade its instruments for the next great project in its ongoing goal of studying the universe. And this past February, work began in earnest on planning for the LHC’s successor.

This massive new marvel of scientific instrumentation, which has been dubbed the “Very Large Hadron Collider”, will measure some 96 km (60 mile) in length – four times as long as its predecessor – and smash protons together with a collision energy of 100 teraelectronvolts (which is 14 times the LHC’s current energy). All of this will be dedicated to answering the questions that the first-time detection of the Higgs Boson raised.

Peter Higgs (who proposed the Higgs boson), hanging out at LHC’s CMS detector
Peter Higgs (who proposed the Higgs boson), hanging out at LHC’s CMS detector

While this discovery was a watershed moment, its existence poses more questions than it answers; and those answers probably can’t be answered by the LHC. Thus, to keep high-energy physics moving forward, the international team of scientists at CERN knew they needed something more accurate and powerful. And while the LHC is slated to remain in operation until 2035, it is the VLHC that will addressing the question of how the Higgs get’s its mass.

Basically, while the discovery of the Higgs Boson did prove that the Standard Model of particle physics is correct, it raised some interesting possibilities. For one, it suggests that particles do indeed gain their mass by interacting with a pervasive, ubiquitous Higgs field. Another possibility is that the Higgs boson gains its heaviness through supersymmetry — a theory that proposes that there’s a second, “superpartner” particle coupled to each and every Higgs boson.

CERN_LHCScientists have not yet observed any of these superpartners, and to discover them, a stronger collider will be necessary. It is hoped that, when the LHC powers up to 14 TeV by the end of 2014, its scientists will discover some signs of supersymmetry. This will, in turn, inform the creation of the LHC’s successor, which still remains a work in progress. And at this point, there are two groups presenting options for what the future of the VLHC will be.

One group consists of Michael Peskin and a research group from the SLAC accelerator in California, who presented an early VLHC concept to the US government back in November. This past February, CERN itself convened the Future Circular Collider study at the University of Geneva. In both cases, the plan calls for a 80-100km (50-62mi) circular accelerator with a collision energy of around 100 TeV.

large_hadron_colliderAs the name “Very Large Hadron Collider” implies, the plans are essentially talking about the same basic build and functionality as the LHC — just with longer tunnels and stronger magnets. The expected cost for either collider is around $10 billion. No telling which candidate will be built, but CERN has said that if it builds the successor, excavation will probably begin in the 2020s, so that it’s completed before the LHC is retired in 2035.

In the shorter term, the International Linear Collider, a 31-kilometer-long (19.2 mile) particle accelerator, is already set for construction and is expected to be completed in or around 2026. The purpose of this device will be to conduct further tests involving the Higgs Boson, as well as to smash electrons together instead of protons in order to investigate the existence of dark energy and multiple dimensions.

center_universe2The future of high-energy physics is bright indeed, and with all this research into the deeper mysteries of the universe, we can expect it to become a much more interesting place, rather than less of one. After all, investigating theories does not dispel the mystery of it all, it only lets you know where and how they fell short. And in most cases, it only confirms that this thing we know of as reality is beyond what we previously imagined.

Sources: extremetech.com, indico.cern.ch

Looking for Dark Matter: The DarkSide-50 Project

darkmatter1If 2013 will go down in history as the year the Higgs Boson was discovered, then 2014 may very well be known as the year dark matter was first detected. Much like the Higgs Boson, our understanding of the universe rests upon the definitive existence of this mysterious entity, which alongside “dark energy” is believed to make up the vast majority of the cosmos.

Before 2014 rolled around, the Large Underground Xenon experiment (LUX) – located near the town of Lead in South Dakota – was seen as the best candidate for finding it. However, since that time, attention has also been directed towards the DarkSide-50 Experiment located deep underground in the Gran Sasso mountain, the highest peak in the Appennines chain in central Italy.

darkside-50This project is an international collaboration between Italian, French, Polish, Ukrainian, Russian, and Chinese institutions, as well as 17 American universities, which aims to pin down dark matter particles. The project team spent last summer assembling their detector, a grocery bag-sized device that contains liquid argon, cooled to a temperature of -186° C (-302.8° F), where it is in a liquid state.

According to the researchers, the active, Teflon-coated part of the detector holds 50 kg (110 lb) of argon, which provides the 50 in the experiment’s name. Rows of photodetectors line the top and bottom of the device, while copper coils collect the stripped electrons to help determine the location of collisions between dark matter and visible matter.

darkside-50-0The research team, as well as many other scientists, believe that a particle known as a WIMP (weakly interacting massive particle) is the prime candidate for dark matter. WIMP particles have little interaction with their surroundings, so the researchers are hoping to catch one of these particles in the act of drifting aloof. They also believe that these particles can be detected when one of them collides with the nucleus of an atom, such as argon.

By cramming the chamber of their detector with argon atoms, the team increases their chance of seeing a collision. The recoil from these collisions can be seen in a short-lived trail of light, which can then be detected using the chamber’s photodetectors. To ensure that background events are not interfering, the facility is located deep underground to minimize background radiation.

darkmatterTo aid in filtering out background events even further, the detector sits within a steel sphere that is suspended on stilts and filled with 26,500 liters (7000 gallons) of a fluid called scintillator. This sphere in turn sits inside a three-story-high cylindrical tank filled with 946,350 liters (250,000) of ultrapure water. These different chambers help the researchers differentiate WIMP particles from neutrons and cosmic-ray muons.

Since autumn of 2013, the DarkSide-50 project has been active and busy collecting data. And it is one of about three dozen detectors in the world that is currently on the hunt for dark matter, which leads many physicists to believe that elusive dark matter particles will be discovered in the next decade. When that happens, scientists will finally be able to account for 31.7% of the universe’s mass, as opposed to the paltry 4.9% that is visible to us now.

planck-attnotated-580x372Now if we could only account for all the “dark energy” out there – which is believed to make up the other 68.3% of the universe’s mass – then we’d really be in business! And while we’re waiting, feel free to check out this documentary video about the DarkSide-50 Experiment and the hunt for dark matter, courtesy of Princeton University:

Sources: gizmag.com, princeton.edu

Creating Dark Matter: The DarkLight Project

https://i2.wp.com/scienceblogs.com/startswithabang/files/2011/08/dark_matter_millenium_simulation.jpegFor several decades now, the widely accepted theory is that almost 27% of the universe is fashioned out of an invisible, mysterious mass known as “dark matter”. Originally theorized by Fritz Zwicky in 1933, the concept was meant to account for the “missing mass” apparent in galaxies in clusters. Since that time, many observations have suggested its existence, but definitive proof has remained elusive.

Despite our best efforts, no one has ever observed dark matter directly (nor dark energy, which is theorized to make up the remaining 68% of the universe). It’s acceptance as a theory has been mainly due to the fact that it makes the most sense, beating out theories like Modified Newtonian Dynamics (MOND), which seek to redefine the laws of gravity as to why the universe behaves the way it does.

https://i2.wp.com/www.extremetech.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/04/cdms.jpgLuckily, MIT recently green-lighted the DarkLight project – a program aimed at creating tiny tiny amounts of dark matter using a particle accelerator. In addition to proving that dark matter exists, the project team has a more ambitious goal of figuring out dark matter behaves – i.e. how it exerts gravitational attraction on the ordinary matter that makes up the visible universe.

The leading theory for dark matter used to be known as WIMPs (weakly interacting massive particles). This theory stated that dark matter only interacted with normal matter via gravity and the weak nuclear force, making them very hard to detect. However, a recent research initiative challenged this view and postulates that dark matter may actually consist of massive photons that couple to electrons and positrons.

https://i1.wp.com/www.extremetech.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/10/prototype-a-prime-dark-matter-detector.jpgTo do this, DarkLight will use the particle accelerator at the JeffersonJefferson Lab’s Labs Free-Electron Laser Free Electron Lase in Virginia to bombard an oxygen target with a stream of electrons with one megawatt of power. This will be able to test for these massive photons and, it is hoped, create this theorized form of dark matter particles. The dark matter, if it’s created, will then immediately decay into two other particles that can be (relatively) easily detected.

At this point, MIT estimates that it will take a couple of years to build and test the DarkLight experiment, followed by another two years of smashing electrons into the target and gathering data. By then, it should be clear whether dark matter consists of A prime particles, or whether scientists and astronomers have barking up the wrong tree these many years.

https://i2.wp.com/scienceblogs.com/startswithabang/files/2012/12/sim3dnew.pngBut if we can pinpoint the basis of dark matter, it would be a monumental finding that would greatly our enhance our understanding of the universe, and dwarf even the discovery of the Higgs Boson. After that, the only remaining challenge will be to find a way to observe and understand the other 68% of the universe!

Source: extremetech.com

News in Science: CERN Getting an Upgrade!

CERN_upgradeNot that long ago, the CERN laboratory announced that they had found the first evidence of the Higgs Boson. After this momentous discovery, many were left wondering what would be next for CERN and their instrument, the Large Hadron Collider. While they had confirmed that what they had found was a Higgs Boson, it might not necessarily be the Higgs Boson. Other such particles might exist, and questions about how these particles interact and explain the nature of the universe still need to be unlocked.

Well, it just so happens that this past April, the researchers who run the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) decided to take it offline so they could give it some long-awaited upgrades. These upgrades will take two years and cost a pretty penny, but once they are done, the LHC will be almost doubled in power and be able to do some pretty amazing things. First, they will be able to see if their Higgs Boson is the real deal, and not some random subatomic particle simply imitating its behavior.

Peter Higgs (who proposed the Higgs boson), hanging out at LHC’s CMS detector
Peter Higgs (who proposed the Higgs boson), at the LHC

After that, according to CERN, they will take on the next big step in their ongoing research, which will consist consist of testing the theory of supersymmetry. Having demonstrated the Standard Model of particle physics to be correct, which the existence of the Higgs Boson confirms, they are now seeking to prove or disprove the theory that seeks to resolve its hierarchy problems.

Originally proposed by Hironari Miyazawa in 1966, the theory postulates that in nature, symmetry exists between two elementary particles – bosons and fermions – which are partnered to each other. Not only does this theory attempt to resolve theoretical problems stemming from the Standard Model (such as how weak nuclear force and gravity interact), it is also a feature of Superstring Theory, which attempts to explain how all the forces of the universe coexist.

universe_expansionFor some time, scientists have been trying to ascertain how the four major forces of the universe  – electromagnetism, strong nuclear forces, weak nuclear forces, and gravity – interact. Whereas the first three can be explained through quantum theory, the fourth remains a holdout, explainable in terms of Einstein’s Theory of Relativity, but inconsistent with quantum physics. Because of this, scientists have long sought out the missing pieces of the puzzle, hoping to find the subatomic particles and relational forces that could explain all this.

A number of theories have emerged, such as Superstring and Loop Quantum Gravity, but testing them remains a very difficult process. Luckily, by the time the LHC comes back online in 2015, not only will the researchers at CERN be able to confirm that they have found the real Higgs Boson, they will also have a far better shot at unlocking the greater mysteries of the universe…

Exciting news, I just wish it didn’t take so long to upgrade the darn thing! At this rate, it could be decades before we get to see gravitons, the other bosons, or whatever the heck those subatomic particles are that hold the universe together. I don’t know about you, but I’m eager to see how it all works!

universe

Source: Extremetech.com

Higgs Boson Confirmed!

CERN_tunnelIn July of 2012, scientists working for the CERN Laboratory in Geneva, Switzerland announced that they believed they had found the elusive “God Particle” – aka. the Higgs Boson. In addition to ending a decades-long search, the discovery also solved one of the greatest riddles of the universe, confirming the Standard Model of particle physics and shedding light on how the universe itself came to be.

But of course, this discovery needed to be confirmed before the scientific community could accept its existence as fact. The announcement made in July indicated that what the CERN scientists had found appeared to be the Higgs Boson, in that it fit the characteristics of the hypothetical subatomic particle. But as of last Thursday, they claimed that they are now quite certain that this is what they observed.

CERNJoe Incandela, a physicist who heads one of the two main teams at CERN (both made up of over 3000 individuals) claimed that: “To me it is clear that we are dealing with a Higgs boson, though we still have a long way to go to know what kind of Higgs boson it is”. In essence, he and his staff believe that may be several types of Higgs to be found, each of which behaves a little differently.

This was no small challenge, as the Higgs will only make an appearance once in every trillion collisions. Originally theorized in 1964 by British physicist Peter Higgs to explain why matter has mass, it has long been suspected that the Higgs stood alone, explaining how the six “flavors” of quarks, six types of leptons, and twelve gauge bosons, interact. Now, it may be the case that there are several, each of which moves differently and are responsible for different functions.

Higgs-bosonAnd of course, there are several larger mysteries that remain to be solved, which the discovery of the Higgs is expected to shed light on. These include why gravity is so weak, what the dark matter is that is believed to make up a large part of the total mass in the universe, and just how all the major forces of the universe work together to define this thing we know as reality.

These include gravity, weak and strong nuclear forces, and electromagnetism. The Theory of Relativity explains how gravity works, while Quantum Theory explains the other three. What has been missing for some time is a “Grand Unifying Theory”, something which could explain how these two theories could co-exist and account for all the basic forces of the universe.

If we can do that, we will have accomplished what Stephen Hawking has dreamed of for some time, and in effect be one step closer to what he described as: “understanding the mind of God”.

Source: nytimes.com

NASA’s Cold Fusion Technology

cold_fusionIn 1989, two scientific researchers – Martin Fleischmann and Stanley Pons – announced the achievement of cold fusion. In a press release that garnered massive amounts of publicity, they stating that their experiment, involving a electrified palladium rod placed in a solution of heavy water, had succeeded in absorbing hydrogen and compressing it within the rod to the point that individual atoms began to fuse and helium was formed.

Naturally, other labs began to test their method and found that the same did not happen for them. With time, the experiment was revealed to be the result of a false positive as more and more labs claimed they unable to replicate the results. In the end, their announcement appeared premature and their claims unscientific. Still, the men never retracted their claim and moved their labs overseas.

NASA_coldfusionAnd interestingly enough, the declaration that they had achieved the dream of clean, abundant, cheap energy fueled the public’s imagination. Henceforth, the concept of cold fusion, as they had preached it, was featured in numerous movies and stories, even though it was now believed to be something of a pipe dream. And for some, the idea of the technology never died. Cold fusion remained a scientific dream similar to a Grand Unifying Theory or the elusive Higgs Boson.

One such organization is NASA, who continues work on this science through the development of their low-energy nuclear reaction (LENR) technology. It is their hope that one day the technology will be sophisticated enough to become commercially viable, making cold fusion reactors that could power everything  – from homes, to cars, to planes – a reality.

lner-nickel-hydrogen-latticeAnd unlike previous attempts that sought to harness basic fusion, the technology behind the LENR is really quite revolutionary. Rather than rely on strong nuclear forces to meld atoms and produce energy, LENR harnesses the power of weak nuclear force.

This is done by using an oscillating nickel lattice that takes in hydrogen atoms and then exchanges electrons with them. This has the effect of forming slow-moving neutrons which are absorbed, making the nickel unstable. To regain its stability, the nickel strips a neutron of its electron so that it becomes a proton — a reaction that turns the nickel into copper and creates a lot of energy in the process.

The big upside to this process is the fact that it produces zero ionizing radiation and zero radioactive waste, making it the safest and cleanest nuclear process to date. In addition, NASA claims that relying on reactors like these, it would only take 1% of the world’s nickle production to meet the world’s current energy needs, and at a quarter of the cost of dirtier fuels like coal. On top of that, they’ve also indicated that the same process can be done using a carbon lattice instead of nickel, making it even more versatile.

???????????????????????????????So the question remains, why isn’t every household running on a LENR reactor already? Well, two problems. For one, the amount of energy needed to get the ball rolling is quite high. Initially, the LENR requires a 5-30THz frequency burst of energy to make the nickel lattice begin oscillating, which is difficult to efficiently produce.

Second, other labs have experienced a few… uh, accidents… trying to reproduce the process, which included a few explosions and some melted windows. No deaths were reported, mind you, but it does demonstrate that the process can generate a LOT of power if not properly controlled.

Still, other means of generating electricity, such as nuclear fission, have experienced some bumps along the way (i.e. Chernobyl and Three Mile Island) and we still rely on them. And oil and coal are what we’ve come to think of as “dirty means” of generating power, meaning they cause tremendous amounts of pollution or can lead to environmental debacles, such as oil spills. And natural gas can only last so long. So realistically, there may be hope for LENR and cold fusion yet.

Fingers so very crossed! And be sure to check out NASA’s video explaining the process:


Source:
Extremetech.com

More Top Stories of 2012

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With 2012 now officially behind us, and more and more stories trickling into this humble bloggers account about what was accomplished therein, it seems that the time is ripe for another list of breakthroughs, first, and achievements that made the news during the previous year!

Last time, I listed what I saw as the top 12, only to find that there were several others, some of which I actually wrote about, that didn’t make the cut. How foolish of me! And so, to remedy this and possibly cover stories that I neglected to cover the first time around, I have produced another list of the top stories from 2012.

And much like last time, I have listed them according to alphabetical order, since I couldn’t possibly assign them numbers based on importance.

Abortion Study:
anti-abortion-pushAbortion has always been a contentious issue, with one side arguing for the rights of the unborn while the other argues in favor of women’s right to control her own body and reproduction. And as it happens, 2012 saw the publication of the first longitudinal study of what happens to women who are denied this right.

The UC San Francisco research team, Advancing New Standards in Reproductive Health (ANSIRH), studied nearly 1,000 women from diverse backgrounds across the U.S. over several years. All of these subjects were women had sought out abortions but been denied access for one reason or another. What they discovered was that these women were more likely to slip below the poverty line, be unemployed, remain in abusive relationships, and suffer from hyper stress. What this ongoing study demonstrates is that abortion is an economic issue for women, with dire consequences for those denied them.

Autism Reversed:
mice
2012 was an especially significant year in medical advances thanks to a team at McGill University in Montreal announced that they’ve successfully reversed the symptoms of autism in mice. Using mice with autism-like symptoms caused by a genetic mutation, the researchers figured out how to administer a protein that reversed the symptoms.

Naturally, this development is a step in the long process of understanding a disorder which remains largely misunderstood. In addition, it may, in time, lead to the development of a gene therapy that will prevent autism from being triggered in children and even weed it out of parent’s genetic code, ensuring that their children will be immune.

Commercial Space Travel:
virgin_galacticIt has long been the dream of financiers, captains of industry and enthusiasts to create commercial space travel; a means for the average person to go into space, the moon, and even beyond. And all at a reasonable price! This dream is still the subject of speculation and fantasy, but 2012 was a year of firsts that made it seem that much closer.

For starters, Virgin Galactic, the brain-child of Richard Branson, began flight tests on SpaceShipTwo, the rocket ship that will take people into orbit. Then came Reaction Engines Limited with the proposed design for the hypersonic aerospace engine. And finally, there was the creation of Golden Spike, a company made up largely of former astronauts, who want to make commercial flight to the moon a go by 2020.

Electricity-Creating Virus:
M13_virusA breakthrough virus named M13 made news in 2012 for being the first ever virus that could turn physical activity into electricity. The key is what is known as the “piezoelectric effect,” which happens when certain materials like crystals (or viruses) emit a small amount of power when squeezed. Created by a  team of scientists at the Berkeley Lab, this genetically engineered M13 viruses was able to emit enough electricity to power a small LED screen, but poses no threat to humans. One day, all devices could be powered through the simple act of typing or walking, and buildings could be powered by absorbing people’s activity.

Encyclopedia of DNA (ENCODE):
encodeThe publication of the human genome back in the late 90’s was a major breakthrough for genetics and medical science. And in 2012, another breakthrough was achieved by researchers at USC with the publication of ENCODE – The Encyclopedia of DNA Elements Project. Unlike the previous project, these researchers were able not only to catalog the human genome’s various parts, but what those components actually do.

Among the initiative’s many findings was that so-called “junk DNA” – outlier DNA sequences that do not encode for protein sequences – are not junk at all, and are in fact responsible for such things as gene regulation, disease onset, and even human height. These findings will go a long way towards developing gene therapy, biotechnology that seeks to create artificial DNA and self-assembling structures, and even cloning.

Face Transplant:
FaceTransplant_6062012 was also the year that the first full-face transplant was ever conducted. The recipient in question was a man named Richard Norris, a man who lost significant portions of his face from a gunshot accident back in 1997. And after years of attempted reconstructive surgeries, doctors working out of the University of Maryland Medical Center performed a procedure that gave Mr. Norris a has face, teeth, tongue, and a completely new set of jaws.

Not only that, but within days of the surgery, Norris was able to move his facial muscle and jaw. Combined with the nature of the surgery itself, this is not short of unprecedented, and could mean a new age in which severe accident victims and veterans are able to recover fully from physical traumas and live perfectly normal, happy lives.

The Higgs Boson Discovered:
higgs_boson
I can’t believe I didn’t include this story last time, as it is possibly the biggest story of 2012, and perhaps one of the biggest stories since the millennium! 2012 will forever go down in history as the year that the Higgs Boson was discovered. After some 40 years of ongoing research, and fears that it would never be discovered, the last missing piece of The Standard Model of particle physics was found.

Not only does the existence of the Higgs Boson confirm that the Standard Model is valid, it also helps explain how other elementary particles get their mass. This will herald a new step in the advance of particle and the quantum physics, and could lead to the development of quantum computing, quantum generators, and a greater understand of the universe itself.

High-Tech Condom:
condom1Using a revolutionary nano-fabrication process known as electrospinning, researchers at the University of Washington have produced the world’s first female condom that not only prevents pregnancy and protects against HIV, but also evaporates after use. In addition, the manufacturing method used is a step in the direction of viable nanotechnology. Score one for safe sex, public health, and a waste free future permeated by tiny machines and smart materials! That’s a big score card…

Infinite Capacity Wireless:
vortex-radio-waves-348x1962012 was also the year that it was proven that it could be possible to boost the capacity of wireless communication infinitely. The discovery was first made by Bo Thide of the Swedish Institute of Space Physics and some Italian colleagues in Venice, and then confirmed by a team of American and Israeli researchers who used the technique to transmit data at a rate of 2.5 terabytes a second.

Conventional radio signals are transmitted on a flat plane, but Thide twisted the transmitting and receiving antennae into the shape of corkscrew. By adding another dimension to the mix, the technique added a lot of extra bandwidth. As a result, the problem of bandwidth crunches might be a thing of the past, not to mention problems of slow download/upload.

Google Neural Net:
googleneuralnetwork1
Another first and definitely one of the biggest headlines of 2012, far as I was concerned. So why I forgot to include it last time is beyond me! For generations scientists have contemplating the idea of AI and wondered how and where the first leap might be made from basic computing towards true machine intelligence. And as it turns out, Google X Labs, the same place where Project Glass was conceived, seems to have accomplished just that.

The accomplishment came when the labs created a neural network based on sixteen core processors and a connectome with a billion connections. The network accomplished its first task by studying millions of images on Youtube and then demonstrating the ability to differentiate between the faces of cats and humans. This act of independent reasoning that went beyond mere image recognition, and is a major step towards the achievement of a fully-functional artificial intelligence.

Stem cell mammal:
stem_cellsFor the first time in history, researchers at Kyoto University created a mouse by using eggs derived from stem cells alone. The achievement once again shows the remarkable possibilities presented by regenerative technologies like stem cells, while raising pressing ethical questions about the potential for human births in which parents might not be required.

Water in the Solar System:
titan_lakes2012 was also the year that an unprecedented amount of discoveries were made in our solar system. In addition to all the interesting revelations made by the Curiosity Rover, a number of probes discovered water on Europa, Mercury, Titan, and other Saturnalian moons. Usually, this comes in the form of water saturated with hydrocarbons, as was evident on Titan, but the discoveries remain monumental.

In addition to Titan’s methane lakes and Nile-like river, ice and organic molecules were discovered near the poles of Mercury. Evidence of water was found on Mars, indicating the existence of rivers and oceans at one time, and the Cassini space probe confirmed that Enceladus has its own oceans. All of this bodes well for the future of space exploration and colonization, where domestic sources of water may be used for hydrogen cells, hydroponics and even drinking water.

World’s First Tractor Beam:
tractor_beamIn another interesting first, NASA scientists demonstrated in 2012 that another staple technology from Star Trek may be realizable. Yes, in addition to the warp drive, scientists scientists David Ruffner and David Grier demonstrated that a tractor beam may also be realizable in the not-too-distant future. And given the 100 Year Starship Project and other desires to commit to space exploration, such a device could come in mighty handy!

Using a prototype optical beam to pull a small sphere of silica (30 micrometers) suspended in water, Grier and Ruffner pioneered the use of a Bessel beam, a long-established concept, to pull an object of discernible size and mass around. Naturally, NASA hopes to create a more high-powered version of the technology for use on space craft down the road.

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Thank you once more for attending this symposium on technological breakthroughs during the year of 2012! It was a good year, wouldn’t you say? And barring the advent of killer robots sometime in the near future that unleash a nuclear holocaust on us and force us all to work as slaves, I think people will look back on these developments in a positive light.

Yes, assuming humanity can keep its wits about itself and ensure the ethical application of all we’ve accomplished, 2012 may be seen as a turning point, where incurable diseases became preventable, AI’s became realizable, and limitless communications, super-fast computations, paper-thin flexible devices, green technology, commercial spaceflight, and Solar planet colonization all became truly viable.

Source: extremetech.com, IO9.com