Looking Forward: Science Stories to Watch for in 2014

BrightFutureThe year of 2013 was a rather big one in terms of technological developments, be they in the field of biomedicine, space exploration, computing, particle physics, or robotics technology. Now that the New Year is in full swing, there are plenty of predictions as to what the next twelve months will bring. As they say, nothing ever occurs in a vacuum, and each new step in the long chain known as “progress” is built upon those that came before.

And with so many innovations and breakthroughs behind us, it will be exciting to see what lies ahead of us for the year of 2014. The following is a list containing many such predictions, listed in alphabetical order:

Beginning of Human Trials for Cancer Drug:
A big story that went largely unreported in 2013 came out of the Stanford School of Medicine, where researchers announced a promising strategy in developing a vaccine to combat cancer. Such a goal has been dreamed about for years, using the immune system’s killer T-cells to attack cancerous cells. The only roadblock to this strategy has been that cancer cells use a molecule known as CD47 to send a signal that fools T-cells, making them think that the cancer cells are benign.

pink-ribbonHowever, researchers at Stanford have demonstrated that the introduction of an “Anti-CD47 antibody” can intercept this signal, allowing T-cells and macrophages to identify and kill cancer cells. Stanford researchers plan to start human trials of this potential new cancer therapy in 2014, with the hope that it would be commercially available in a few years time. A great hope with this new macrophage therapy is that it will, in a sense, create a personalized vaccination against a patient’s particular form of cancer.

Combined with HIV vaccinations that have been shown not only to block the acquisition of the virus, but even kill it, 2014 may prove to be the year that the ongoing war against two of the deadliest diseases in the world finally began to be won.

Close Call for Mars:
A comet discovery back in 2013 created a brief stir when researchers noted that the comet in question – C/2013 A1 Siding Springs – would make a very close passage of the planet Mars on October 19th, 2014. Some even suspected it might impact the surface, creating all kinds of havoc for the world’s small fleet or orbiting satellites and ground-based rovers.

Mars_A1_Latest_2014Though refinements from subsequent observations have effectively ruled that out, the comet will still pass by Mars at a close 41,300 kilometers, just outside the orbit of its outer moon of Deimos. Ground-based observers will get to watch the magnitude comet close in on Mars through October, as will the orbiters and rovers on and above the Martian surface.

Deployment of the First Solid-State Laser:
The US Navy has been working diligently to create the next-generation of weapons and deploy them to the front lines. In addition to sub-hunting robots and autonomous aerial drones, they have also been working towards the creation of some serious ship-based firepower. This has included electrically-powered artillery guns (aka. rail guns); and just as impressively, laser guns!

Navy_LAWS_laser_demonstrator_610x406Sometime in 2014, the US Navy expects to see the USS Ponce, with its single solid-state laser weapon, to be deployed to the Persian Gulf as part of an “at-sea demonstration”. Although they have been tight-lipped on the capabilities of this particular directed-energy weapon,they have indicated that its intended purpose is as a countermeasure against threats – including aerial drones and fast-moving small boats.

Discovery of Dark Matter:
For years, scientists have suspected that they are closing in on the discovery of Dark Matter. Since it was proposed in the 1930s, finding this strange mass – that makes up the bulk of the universe alongside “Dark Energy” – has been a top priority for astrophysicists. And 2014 may just be the year that the Large Underground Xenon experiment (LUX), located near the town of Lead in South Dakota, finally detects it.

LUXLocated deep underground to prevent interference from cosmic rays, the LUX experiment monitors Weakly Interacting Massive Particles (WIMPs) as they interact with 370 kilograms of super-cooled liquid Xenon. LUX is due to start another 300 day test run in 2014, and the experiment will add another piece to the puzzle posed by dark matter to modern cosmology. If all goes well, conclusive proof as to the existence of this invisible, mysterious mass may finally be found!

ESA’s Rosetta Makes First Comet Landing:
This year, after over a decade of planning, the European Space Agency’s Rosetta robotic spacecraft will rendezvous with Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko. This will begin on January 20th, when the ESA will hail the R0setta and “awaken” its systems from their slumber. By August, the two will meet, in what promises to be the cosmic encounter of the year. After examining the comet in detail, Rosetta will then dispatch its Philae lander, equipped complete with harpoons and ice screws to make the first ever landing on a comet.

Rosetta_and_Philae_at_comet_node_full_imageFirst Flight of Falcon Heavy:
2014 will be a busy year for SpaceX, and is expected to be conducting more satellite deployments for customers and resupply missions to the International Space Station in the coming year. They’ll also be moving ahead with tests of their crew-rated version of the Dragon capsule in 2014. But one of the most interesting missions to watch for is the demo flight of the Falcon 9 Heavy, which is slated to launch out of Vandenberg Air Force Base by the end of 2014.

This historic flight will mark the beginning in a new era of commercial space exploration and private space travel. It will also see Elon Musk’s (founder and CEO of Space X, Tesla Motors and PayPal) dream of affordable space missions coming one step closer to fruition. As for what this will make possible, well… the list is endless.

spaceX-falcon9Everything from Space Elevators and O’Neil space habitats to asteroid mining, missions to the Moon, Mars and beyond. And 2014 may prove to be the year that it all begins in earnest!

First Flight of the Orion:
In September of this coming year, NASA is planning on making the first launch of its new Orion Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle. This will be a momentous event since it constitutes the first step in replacing NASA’s capability to launch crews into space. Ever since the cancellation of their Space Shuttle Program in 2011, NASA has been dependent on other space agencies (most notably the Russian Federal Space Agency) to launch its personnel, satellites and supplies into space.

orion_arrays1The test flight, which will be known as Exploration Flight Test 1 (EFT-1), will be a  short uncrewed flight that tests the capsule during reentry after two orbits. In the long run, this test will determine if the first lunar orbital mission using an Orion MPCV can occur by the end of the decade. For as we all know, NASA has some BIG PLANS for the Moon, most of which revolve around creating a settlement there.

Gaia Begins Mapping the Milky Way:
Launched on from the Kourou Space Center in French Guiana on December 19thof last year, the European Space Agency’s Gaia space observatory will begin its historic astrometry mission this year. Relying on an advanced array of instruments to conduct spectrophotometric measurements, Gaia will provide detailed physical properties of each star observed, characterising their luminosity, effective temperature, gravity and elemental composition.

Gaia_galaxyThis will effectively create the most accurate map yet constructed of our Milky Way Galaxy, but it is also anticipated that many exciting new discoveries will occur due to spin-offs from this mission. This will include the discovery of new exoplanets, asteroids, comets and much more. Soon, the mysteries of deep space won’t seem so mysterious any more. But don’t expect it to get any less tantalizing!

International Climate Summit in New York:
While it still remains a hotly contested partisan issue, the scientific consensus is clear: Climate Change is real and is getting worse. In addition to environmental organizations and agencies, non-partisan entities, from insurance companies to the U.S. Navy, are busy preparing for rising sea levels and other changes. In September 2014, the United Nations will hold another a Climate Summit to discuss what can be one.

United-Nations_HQThis time around, the delegates from hundreds of nations will converge on the UN Headquarters in New York City. This comes one year before the UN is looking to conclude its Framework Convention on Climate Change, and the New York summit will likely herald more calls to action. Though it’ll be worth watching and generate plenty of news stories, expect many of the biggest climate offenders worldwide to ignore calls for action.

MAVEN and MOM reach Mars:
2014 will be a red-letter year for those studying the Red Planet, mainly because it will be during this year that two operations are slated to begin. These included the Indian Space Agency’s Mars Orbiter Mission (MOM, aka. Mangalyaan-1) and NASA’ Mars Atmosphere and Volatile EvolutioN (MAVEN) mission, which are due to arrive just two days apart – on September 24th and 22nd respectively.

mars_lifeBoth orbiters will be tasked with studying Mars’ atmosphere and determining what atmospheric conditions looked like billions of years ago, and what happened to turn the atmosphere into the thin, depleted layer it is today. Combined with the Curiosity and Opportunity rovers, ESA’s Mars Express,  NASA’s Odyssey spacecraft and the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, they will help to unlock the secrets of the Red Planet.

Unmanned Aircraft Testing:
A lot of the action for the year ahead is in the area of unmanned aircraft, building on the accomplishments in recent years on the drone front. For instance, the US Navy is expected to continue running trials with the X-47B, the unmanned technology demonstrator aircraft that is expected to become the template for autonomous aerial vehicles down the road.

X-47BThroughout 2013, the Navy conducted several tests with the X-47B, as part of its ongoing UCLASS (Unmanned Carrier Launched Airborne Surveillance and Strike) aircraft program. Specifically, they demonstrated that the X-47B was capable of making carrier-based take offs and landings. By mid 2014, it is expected that they will have made more key advances, even though the program is likely to take another decade before it is fully realizable.

Virgin Galactic Takes Off:
And last, but not least, 2014 is the year that space tourism is expected to take off (no pun intended!). After many years of research, development and testing, Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo may finally make its inaugural flights, flying out of the Mohave Spaceport and bringing tourists on an exciting (and expensive) ride into the upper atmosphere.

spaceshiptwo-2nd-flight-2In late 2013, SpaceShipTwo and passed a key milestone test flight when its powered rocket engine was test fired for an extended period of time and it achieved speeds and altitudes in excess of anything it had achieved before. Having conducted several successful glide and feathered-wing test flights already, Virgin Galactic is confident that the craft has what it takes to ferry passengers into low-orbit and bring them home safely.

On its inaugural flights, SpaceShipTwo will carry two pilots and six passengers, with seats going for $250,000 a pop. If all goes well, 2014 will be remembered as the year that low-orbit space tourism officially began!

Yes, 2014 promises to be an exciting year. And I look forward to chronicling and documenting it as much as possible from this humble little blog. I hope you will all join me on the journey!

Sources: Universetoday, (2), med.standford.edu, news.cnet, listosaur, sci.esa.int

The Amplituhedron: Quantum Physics Decoded

amplutihedron_spanScientists recently made a major breakthrough that may completely alter our perceptions of quantum physics, and the nature of the universe itself. After many decades of trying to reformulate quantum field theory, scientists at Harvard University discovered of a jewel-like geometric object that they believe will not only simplify quantum science, but even challenge the notion that space and time are fundamental components of reality.

This jewel has been named the “amplituhedron”, and it is radically simplifying how physicists calculate particle interactions. Previously, these Interactions were calculated using quantum field theory – mathematical formulas that were thousands of terms long. Now, these interactions can be described by computing the volume of the corresponding amplituhedron, which yields an equivalent one-term expression.

theory_of_everythingJacob Bourjaily, a theoretical physicist at Harvard University and one of the researchers who developed the new idea, has this to say about the discovery:

The degree of efficiency is mind-boggling. You can easily do, on paper, computations that were infeasible even with a computer before.

This is exciting news, in part because it could help facilitate the search for a Grand Unifying Theory (aka. Theory of Everything) that manages to unify all the fundamental forces of the universe. These forces are electromagnetism, weak nuclear forces, strong nuclear forces, and gravity. Thus far, attempts at resolving these forces have run into infinities and deep paradoxes.

gravityWhereas the field of quantum physics has been able to account for the first three, gravity has remained explainable only in terms of General Relativity (Einstein’s baby). As a result, scientists have been unable to see how the basic forces of the universe interact on a grand scale, and all attempts have resulted in endless infinities and deep paradoxes.

The amplituhedron, or a similar geometric object, could help by removing two deeply rooted principles of physics: locality and unitarity. Locality is the notion that particles can interact only from adjoining positions in space and time, while unitarity holds that the probabilities of all possible outcomes of a quantum mechanical interaction must add up to one.

quantum_field_theoryThe concepts are the central pillars of quantum field theory in its original form, but in certain situations involving gravity, both break down, suggesting neither is a fundamental aspect of nature. As Nima Arkani-Hamed – a professor of physics at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, N.J. and the lead author of the new work – put it: “Both are hard-wired in the usual way we think about things. Both are suspect.”

In keeping with this idea, the new geometric approach to particle interactions removes locality and unitarity from its starting assumptions. The amplituhedron is not built out of space-time and probabilities; these properties merely arise as consequences of the jewel’s geometry. The usual picture of space and time, and particles moving around in them, is a construct.

Photon_follow8And while the amplituhedron itself does not describe gravity, Arkani-Hamed and his collaborators think there might be a related geometric object that does. Its properties would make it clear why particles appear to exist, and why they appear to move in three dimensions of space and to change over time. This is because, as Bourjaily put it:

[W]e know that ultimately, we need to find a theory that doesn’t have [unitarity and locality]. It’s a starting point to ultimately describing a quantum theory of gravity.

Imagine that. After decades of mind-boggling research and attempts at resolving the theoretical issues, all existence comes down to a small jewel-shaped structure. I imagine the Intelligent Design people will have a field day with this, and I can foresee it making it into the new season of Big Bang Theory as well. Breakthroughs like this always do seem to have a ripple effect…

Source: simonsfoundation.org

News From Space: Big Bang Vs. Black Hole

big bang_blackholeFor decades, the Big Bang Theory has remained the accepted theory of how the universe came to be, beating out challengers like the Steady State Theory. However, many unresolved issues remain with this theory, the most notable of which is the question of what could have existed prior to the big bang. Because of this, scientists have been looking for way to refine the theory.

Luckily, a group of theoretical physicists from the Perimeter Institute (PI) for Theoretical Physics in Waterloo, Ontario have announced a new interpretation on how the universe came to be. Essentially, they postulate that the birth of the universe could have happened after a four-dimensional star collapsed into a black hole and began ejecting debris.

big_bangThis represents a big revision of the current theory, which is that universe grew from an infinitely dense point or singularity. But as to what was there before that remain unknown, and is one of a few limitations of the Big Bang. In addition, it’s hard to predict why it would have produced a universe that has an almost uniform temperature, because the age of our universe (about 13.8 billion years) does not give enough time to reach a temperature equilibrium.

Most cosmologists say the universe must have been expanding faster than the speed of light for this to happen. But according to Niayesh Afshordi, an astrophysicist with PI who co-authored the study, even that theory has problems:

For all physicists know, dragons could have come flying out of the singularity. The Big Bang was so chaotic, it’s not clear there would have been even a small homogenous patch for inflation to start working on.

black_holeThe model Afshordi and her colleagues are proposing is basically a three-dimensional universe floating as a membrane (or brane) in a “bulk universe” that has four dimensions. If this “bulk universe” has four-dimensional stars, these stars could go through the same life cycles as the three-dimensional ones we are familiar with. The most massive ones would explode as supernovae, shed their skin and have the innermost parts collapse as a black hole.

The 4-D black hole would then have an “event horizon”, the boundary between the inside and the outside of a black hole. In a 3-D universe, an event horizon appears as a two-dimensional surface; but in a 4-D universe, the event horizon would be a 3-D object called a hypersphere. And when this 4-D star blows apart, the leftover material would create a 3-D brane surrounding a 3-D event horizon, and then expand.

planck-attnotated-580x372To simplify it a little, they are postulating that the expansion of the universe was triggered by the motion of the universe through a higher-dimensional reality. While it may sound complicated, the theory does explain how the universe continues to expand and is indeed accelerating. Whereas previous theories have credited a mysterious invisible force known as “dark energy” with this, this new theory claims it is the result of the 3-D brane’s growth.

However, there is one limitation to this theory which has to do with the nearly uniform temperature of the universe. While the model does explain how this could be, the ESA’s Planck telesceop recently mapped out the universe and discovered small temperature variations in the cosmic microwave background (CBM). These patches were believed to be leftovers of the universe’s beginnings, which were a further indication that the Big Bang model holds true.

big_bang1The PI team’s own CBM readings differ from this highly accurate survey by about four percent, so now they too are going back to the table and looking to refine their theory. How ironic! However, the IP team still feel the model has worth. While the Planck observations show that inflation is happening, they do not show why the inflation is happening.

Needless to say, we are nowhere near to resolving how the universe came to be, at least not in a way that resolves all the theoretical issues. But that’s the things about the Big Bang – it’s the scientific equivalent of a Hydra. No matter how many times people attempt to discredit it, it always comes back to reassert its dominance!

Source: universetoday.com, perimeterinstitute.ca

Happy Birthday Copernicus!

heliocentricAs I learned not long ago, today is the 540th birthday of the late great man who definitely proved that the Earth revolved around the sun. And so I thought I’d take some time out of my busy (not so much today!) schedule to honor this great man and the massive contribution he made to astronomy, science and our understanding of the universe.

Given the importance of these contributions, I shall do my best to be pay homage to him while at the same time being as brief and succinct as I possibly can. Ready? Here goes…

copernicusBorn in Toruń (Thorn), Poland on 19 February 1473, Mikolaj Kopernik was the youngest of four children to be born into his wealthy merchant family. Given his background, Copernicus’ family was able to provide an extensive education for their son, which took him from Thorn to Włocławek to Krakow, where he attended university. In this time, he learned to speak many languages – including Polish, Greek, Italian, German and Latin (the language of academia in his day) – and also showed himself to be adept at mathematics and science.

During this time, he also received a great deal of exposure to astronomy, since it was during his years in Krakow (1491-1495) that the Krakow astronomical-mathematical school was experiencing its heyday. He was also exposed to the writings of Aristotle and Averroes, and became very self-guided in his learning, collecting numerous books on the subject of astronomy for his personal library.

Leaving Krakow without taking a degree, Copernicus moved to Warmia (northern Poland) where he turned to the study of canon law, perhaps in part because of his family’s strong Roman Catholic background. However, his love for the humanities and astronomy never left him, and he seemed to devote himself to these subjects even as he worked to obtain his doctorate in law. It was also during his time in Warmia that he met the famous astronomer Domenico Maria Novara da Ferrara and became his disciple and assistant.

geocentricUnder Ferrara, Copernicus traveled to Bologna, Italy and began critiquing the logical contradictions in the two most popular systems of astronomy – Aristotle’s theory of homocentric spheres, and Ptolemy’s mechanism of eccentrics and epicycles – that would eventually lead him to doubt both models. In the early 1500’s, while studying medicine at the University of Padua in Italy, he used the opportunity to pour over the libraries many ancient Greek and Latin texts to find historic information about ancient astronomical, cosmological and calendar systems.

In 1503, having finally earned his doctorate in canon law, Copernicus returned to Warmia where he would spend the remaining 40 years of his life. It was here that all of his observations about the movement of the planets, and the contradictions in the current astronomic models, would crystallize into his model for the heliocentric universe. However, due to fears that the publication of his theories would lead to official sanction from the church, he withheld his research until a year before he died.

It was only in 1542, after he had been seized with apoplexy and paralysis, that he sent his treaties, De revolutionibus orbium coelestium (On the Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres) to Nuremberg to be published. It is said that on the day of his death, May 24th 1543 at the age of 70, he was presented with an advance copy of his book.

Impact and Legacy:
The immediate reaction of the church to the publication of Copernicus’ theories was quite limited. In time, Dominican scholars would seek to refute based on logical arguments and Aquinism, ranging from the positions of planets in the sky to very idea that Earth could be in motion. However, in attempting to disprove Copernicus’ theory, his detractors merely fostered a debate which would provide the impetus for reevaluating the field of physics and proving the heliocentric model correct.

galileo_telescopeAnd in time, with the help of such astronomers and mathematicians as Galileo, the debate would come to a head. Using the telescope, a technology he helped pioneer, he was able to demonstrate that the size of the planets during various times in the year did indeed conform to the heliocentric model, and that it was only through distortions caused by observing with the naked eye that made them seem larger (hence, closer to Earth) than they really were.

And although Galileo would eventually be forced to recant and placed under house arrest for his last few years on this Earth, the Copernican system became the defacto model of astronomy henceforth, and would help to launch the Scientific Revolution whereby several long-established theories would come to be challenged. These included the age of the Earth, the existence of other moons in our Solar System, Universal Gravitation, and the belief in the universe as a giant, rationalized clockwork mechanism.

Final Thoughts:
Naturally, there are those purists who would point out that he was not the first to propose a heliocentric planet system. In fact, the concept of a universe with the sun at the epicenter dates back Ancient Greece. However, Copernicus would be the first astronomer to propose a comprehensive model, which would later be refined by Galileo Galilee.

HeliocentricOther purists would point out that his system, when he developed it, had numerous observation and/or mathematical flaws, and that it was only after Galileo’s observations of the heavens with his telescope that his theories were made to work. But it is precisely because he was able to realize the truth of our corner of the universe, sans a reliable telescope, that makes this accomplishment so meaningful.

In Copernicus’ time, the rigors of the Aristotelian and Ptolemaic models were still seem by the majority of astronomers to be the correct one, regardless of church doctrine or religious bias. In purely mathematical terms, there was little reason to make an intuitive leap and suppose that the great minds on which Scholastic science was based had got it all wrong.

So when it comes right down to it, Copernicus was an intuitive genius the likes of which is seen only once in a lifetime. What’s more, his discoveries and the publication thereof helped bring humanity out of the Dark Ages – a time where learning and the hearts and minds of men were still under the iron grip of the Church – and helped usher in the modern age of science.

Copernicus_conversation_with_GodAnd if I could get a bit polemic for a second, I would like to say that it is unfortunate then that much of what Copernicus helped to overcome is once prevalent in society today. In recent years, long-established scientific truths like Evolution, Global Warming, and Homosexuality have being challenged by individuals who claim they are lies or merely “theories” that have yet to be proven. In all cases, it is clear what the agenda is, and once again faith and God are being used as a justification.

In fact, despite the monumental growth in learning and the explosion in information sharing that has come with the digital age, it seems that misinformation is being spread like never before. Whereas previous generations could always blame ignorance or lack of education, we few who are privileged enough to live in a modern, secular, democratic and industrialized nation have no such excuses.

And yet, it seems that some decidedly medieval trends are determined to persist. Despite living in a time when the vast and infinite nature of the universe is plain to see, there are still those who would insist on making it smaller just so they can sleep soundly in their beds. As if that’s not enough, they feel the need to villify that which they don’t understand, or openly threaten to kill those who preach it.

Sorry, like I said, polemic! And on this day of days, we can’t help but remember the lessons of history and how so often they are ignored. So if I might offer a suggestion to all people on this day, it would be to choose a subject they feel uninformed about and learn what they can about it. And do not trust just any source, consider the built-in biases and political slants of whatever it is you are reading. And if possible, go out and hug a scientist! Tell them you accept them, do not fear what they have to say, and will not be sending them death threats for doing what they do.

Happy 540th birthday Mikolaj Kopernik!

Universe Today

Hey all. Just wanted to take a minute to publicize a very cool website that deals in all things science, especially astronomy, physics, and the planets. Not only is it a very cool place to pick up some additional knowledge, its also my part-time employer. If you’ve any interest in reading a brief but educational article on a wide range of subjects, just enter my name “Matt Williams” or click around. You’re sure to find something that tickles your fancy!

Universe Today