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Physics Week in Review (BICEP2 Edition): March 22, 2014

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


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Really, there was only one physics story this week — or at least one that dominated the headlines, and deservedly so. I’m talking about the exciting major announcement from the BICEP2 collaboration (Background Imaging of Cosmic Extragalactic Polarization 2), rumored last week, that pretty much lived up to the hype — they announced the possible discovery of primordial gravitational waves, ripples in space-time that carry a record of how the universe began — although the usual throat-clearing notes of caution were sounded from various quarters. So brace yourselves for a mega-links roundup on all things BICEP2!

Since rumors were swirling all weekend, Sean Carroll provided some historical context for Gravitational Waves in the Cosmic Microwave Background, as did Matt Strassler. For a primer on B-mode polarization with colorful diagrams, see this older Scientific American article by two leading cosmologists (PDF).

Credit: BICEP2

And then –the tsunami of news coverage began. Quanta was one of the first out of the gate: “If confirmed,” said Frank Wilczek, a Nobel Prize-winning physicist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, “it would be one of the absolute greatest discoveries in cosmology.” Scientific American lauded the discovery as being “as Nobel Prize-worthy as it gets.”And for those lost by all the talk of gravitational waves and inflation, New Scientist editor Valerie Jamieson explained it all with the help of a bath towel and an apple.

Even the PBS News Hour covered the story. Too bad the Daily Mail (dubbed “the Daily Fail” by many of Jen-Luc Piquant’s British pals) opted for the gutter instead of the stars, taking gratuitous swipes at its newsy rivals by claiming the scientists featured to discuss the breakthrough on Newsnight were chosen for race and gender, rather than their scientific credentials. The screed prompted this wonderful open letter to the Daily Mail, with a particularly scathing quote from University College, London’s Hiranya Peiris, one of the maligned commentators: “I pity the person who can watch news on the origins of the universe and see only the gender and skin colour of the panelists.”

Over at his Inverse Square blog, Tom Levenson elegantly explained why the BICEP2 result is so exciting. Meanwhile, on Facebook, the BICEP2 discussion page was hopping with activity. And Nautilus collected the Best Reactions to the Big Physics News on the Internet. Then there was this fantastic illustrated explainer from PhD Comics, Cosmic Inflation Explained: “We were ripples of light once. Then we were ripples of temperature that became stars.  Galaxies, matter…. and Life.”

Physicists weighed in too. Matt Strassler couldn’t stop talking about it, providing a primer on the day’s events, an analysis of the data, and some thoughts on what it All Might Mean if BICEP2′s analysis holds up. Sean Carroll posted the major plots from the announcement, while  Ethan Siegel proclaimed the result was “Not yet a slam-dunk discovery, but a very strong hint.”  Caltech’s John Preskill got all nostalgic, recalling his personal Ten Biggest Thrills (in science): “We physicists can never quite believe that the equations we scrawl on a notepad actually have something to do with the real universe. You would think we’d be used to that by now, but we’re not.” Over at the Scientific American Guest Blog, MIT’s “Mad” Max Tegmark pondered what might be coming next. “Cosmologists don’t give tips to newbie universe-builders, but we do ask how our universe evolved,” Richard Easther said on his blog, which included this wonderful explanatory animation:

Then there were the human interest angles. For example,  according to this interview, the BICEP2 experiment exploring the origin of the universe “all started with tennis.” Also: Stephen Hawking Finally Won One of His Famous Bets; apparently he had one with Neil Turok.  Perhaps it’s not surprising, then, that Turok urged caution on BICEP2 results in Physics World. “I will quote Carl Sagan and say ‘extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence’, and they don’t have extraordinary evidence just yet.”

Seriously, though, the results do need to be confirmed. Fortunately, there are numerous experiments which could do just that, including BICEP3, which is ready for deployment later this year, in hopes of confirming this exciting discovery.  As Turok told NatGeo blogger Nadia Drake (who gives a helpful overview of all the different experiments): “It is very important to check that the B-mode signal is not contaminated by — or entirely due to — radiation from dust or particles in our galaxy.”

Speaking of Hawking and inflationary models, this seems like a good time to revisit the classic appearance by Jim Carrey on Conan O’Brien, in which he talks about the prediction of gravitational waves in the cosmic microwave background in the inflationary model, with a cameo from Hawking himself via phone (starts around 2:35 mark):

You’d think that would be enough coverage for one week. But wait! There’s more! Building BICEP2: A Conversation with Caltech physicist Jamie Bock. “Most of all, it is amazing to me that our little band of intrepid scientists, students, postdocs—all of whom I consider colleagues and friends—could build a machine that could actually tell us about the birth of the universe.”  The more technically minded can watch Bock’s Thursday colloquium at Caltech on the results. And of course, folks are already talking Nobel Prize for the BICEP2 results, which — since the prize can only go to three people and at least half a dozen scientists contributed significantly to the work — is going to pose another challenge for the prize committee.

Wired enlightened us on How the Biggest Scientific Discovery of the Year Was Kept a Secret. After the announcement, of course, the paper was readily available on arXiV — and the BICEP2 collaboration even released all their data products (see second related paper). But I mostly love that the authors end their paper with this poignant acknowledgement: “We dedicate this paper to the memory of Andrew Lange, whom we sorely miss.” (Lange was a Caltech colleague of the Time Lord, one of the masterminds behind the BICEP2 project, and a genuinely lovely man. He tragically took his own life in 2010.)

And in another touching human moment that quickly went viral, “Chao-Lin Kuo, an assistant professor of physics at Stanford University and a co-leader of the BICEP2 team behind the finding, knocked on [Andrei] Linde’s door to deliver the news personally.” Here is Andrei Linde — who with Alan Guth is one of the founding fathers of inflationary theory — hearing the news for the first time, in a video clip that’s already racked up over 2.5 million views (several of those were me watching it over and over and getting all choked up):

Excuse me, I’ve got something in my eye again. <sniff> Okay, then, moving on. There was plenty of other cool science stuff this week, too — like, in honor of Saint Patrick’s Day, scientists created nanoscale shamrock. Every year Chicago dyes its river green for the holiday, in which “the slower, large-scale turbulent motion of river distributes the dye.” And Discover brought you the science of pinching. Or rather, “directional coordination of thumb and finger forces.” It sounds so much smarter when you say it that way.

You can read my recap of last week’s Cosmos episode at the Los Angeles Times: Wading into the tide pools of evolution, featuring one of my favorite creatures, the hardy tardigrade or water bear.  Speaking of which, Here’s a bit of background on tardigrades … in … space. Medium featured a lovely comic, Learning by Cosmosis. And Big Think dug up this classic moment from the original series: Carl Sagan on the 4th Dimension.

On the Shameless Self-Promotion front, it was the Ides of March this week, and I celebrated not by stabbing Caesar, but by chatting with the charming crew at Skeptics Guide to the Universe. I also hosted fellow physics writer and author Amanda Gefter this week on Virtually Speaking Science (archived here), where we chatted about communicating science and her new book, Trespassing on Einstein’s Lawn. Oh, and I was tickled to make Business Insider’s list of 40 Science Experts to Follow on Social Media, along with loads of other deserving people (with the caveat that as much as it’s an honor to be included, these lists can’t help but leave out some amazing folks.)

Sean Carroll explains inflation and the arrow of time. Credit: Christina Ochoa.

Thursday night, science fans in Hollywood brought the Faaabulous as the Time Lord talked about inflationary cosmology and the arrow of time at the first ever — but hopefully not the last — #ScienceSoiree, organized by Christina Ochoa (@Christina_Ochoa), one of the Screen Sirens for Science (@Scirens). Motto: Cultivate curiosity! We like to say Los Angeles is a City of Ideas, and the group at #ScienceSoiree personifies that.

Schrödinger’s Cat Speaks: “If I stay I will be balanced, held. Unknowable. All things at once.”

Joseph Fraunhofer: The Late 18th-Century Glassmaker Who Sparked Astrophysics.

Control a Live Physics Experiment Remotely From Your Computer. The Princeton Plasma Physics Lab’s Remote Glow Discharge Experiment.

The Real Bracketology: of Math and Taxes. ““Hooray, it’s tax season!” said nobody ever.”  Related: We Only Need to Fill Out 425 Brackets Each to Win Buffett’s Billion-Dollar Bracket Challenge.

Mark Van Raamsdonk is re-writing how we define the shape of our universe to help unite quantum theory and gravity.

Simulations explore the hypothesis that other ‘bubble universes’ in a vast multiverse once collided with our own (PDF).

Graphene Kirigami: World’s thinnest material stretches, bends, twists. “A technique inspired by Japanese paper arts allows scientists to manipulate single-atom-thick sheets of carbon as if they were pieces of paper.”

Great Moments in Nerdgassery: A meticulous analysis of celestial accuracy in Goodnight Moon.  Related: How Much Does Captain America’s Shield Weigh? A multi-part problem from Dot Physics’ Rhett Allain.  Also: How Much Does Thor’s Hammer Weigh?

Someone built a LEGO Griffith Observatory. This makes me ridiculously happy.

Weekend Physics Exercise: Calculate the forces acting upon the mustache of Paul Karl Ludwig Drude, editor of Annelin der Physik (1900 -1906).

Or maybe you’d rather Estimate Pi by Dropping Sticks, recreating Buffon’s Needle.

Flies That Do Calculus With Their Wings: fruit flies show what it takes to stay aloft when you’re a tiny insect.

There’s no philosophy in quantum mechanics. “Quantum mechanics is not weird.  Interpretations of quantum mechanics are weird.”

Scientists Hack Plants With Nanotubes to Supercharge Photosynthesis.

For better or worse, Billionaires with Big Ideas are Privatizing American Science. As government financing of basic science research has plunged, private donors have filled the void.

This Interactive Moon Map Is The Next Best Thing To Piloting Your Own Lander.

A game shop in Paris showcases the space-time continuum in carpet-format.

Credit: Alejandro Guijarro, http://www.alejandroguijarro.com

Momentum: Large Format Photos of Chalkboards from Quantum Mechanics Institutions by Alejandro Guijarro. Per the artist’s statement:

“Before he walks into a lecture hall Guijarro has no idea what he will find. He begins by recording the blackboard with the minimum of interference. No detail of the lecture hall is included, the blackboard frame is removed and we are left with a surface charged with abstract equations. At this stage they are documents. However, once removed from their institutional beginnings the meaning evolves. The viewer begins to appreciate the equations for their line and form. Colour comes into play and the waves created by the blackboard eraser suggest a vast landscape or galactic setting. The formulas appear to illustrate the worlds of Quantum Mechanics. What began as a precise lecture, a description of the physicist’s thought process, is transformed into a canvas open to any number of possibilities.”

Don’t stick your hand (or head) in the Large Hadron Collider. A lesson from physics history.

Nobody understands quantum mechanics? Nonsense! But here are three controversial points.

Cool math blog alert! Geometry and the Imagination, by University of Chicago mathematician Danny Calegari.

Machinery of an Energy Dream: The Challenge is How to Keep Fusion Going Long Enough.

Let Us Now Praise Marie Curie. Because she was awesome. Duh.

Urban Myths: Can a coin dropped from a skyscraper kill you?

Dance of the skyrmions: Turning magnetic whirls using an electron beam.

Phased Out With Vostok: The Female Cosmonaut Class.

Can The Doppler Effect Help You Beat The Speed Camera?

Star Trek Actually Got Tractor Beams Right. Somewhere the nerdgassers gnash their teeth in frustration.

Solar System’s Smallest Planet Is Shrinking. “It might sound strange, but a shriveling Mercury is not unexpected.”

LHC and Tevatron share first joint result: the world’s best value for the mass of the top quark.

Commercialising science: will we get it right with graphene?

The amazing anatomy of James Webb Space Telescope mirrors.

Water Droplets Flow Uphill through a Superheated Maze Thanks to the Leidenfrost Effect: “While studying the bizarre effect, physicists at the University of Bath realized that not only does the water float, but under the right conditions and temperatures it can actually climb upward. The playful experiments lead to the creation of an incredible superheated maze.”

(Don’t) Shiver Me TImbers: Preserving the Mary Rose: the chemistry stabilizing the Tudor battleship for display.

A mathematical equation that explains the behavior of nano foams: Researchers have discovered that nanometric-size foam structures follow the same universal laws as does soap lather: small bubbles disappear in favor of the larger ones.

What T.S. Eliot (the poet) Told Evelyn Lamb (the mathematician) about the Chain Rule:

“One of the main topics in calculus is learning how to approximate functions with simpler functions. The chain rule tells you how to do this for functions that depend on other functions. It helps you keep track of the way a small change in a variable will change the value of one function, which in turn changes the value of another function, and so on in a long chain of functions. It’s an important method, but it’s one of the more challenging topics in a calculus class. It’s even more challenging when instead of one variable, you’re trying to keep track of several variables that affect several outputs, as we do in my multivariable calculus class.”

FIRST: The Intense and Beautiful Future of Robotics, via a Bunch of High-Schoolers.  Related: Meet Daniel Goldman, The Physicist Who’s Building Snake Robots.  Also: In 1738, Monsieur Vaucanson invented a mechanical ‘crapping duck’, which flapped its wings, ate corn and defecated.

"Pills" from the Secret Life of Robots exhibit by Toby Fraley, http://www.tobyfraley.com

The Secret Life of Robots, A Sculptural Art Installation by artist Toby Fraley at SPACE Gallery in Pittsburgh, opens soon.

Via Steven Strogatz: Try this brainteaser: Using only a fair coin, design a game that you have a 1/3 chance of winning.

Randal Munroe, Tech’s Favorite Cartoonist, Enters Mainstream Publishing: Jen-Luc can’t wait for this book!

Everything is Awesome! Is The Lego Movie a parable about the multiverse? [SPOILERS ABOUND]

Did Dark Matter Doom the Dinosaurs? Probably Not. But it’s a fun idea, says the Bad Astronomer.

If you slow down hummingbird squeaks, you can hear incredible subtleties in rhythm and tone.

Simulation Gives Glimpse into Supernova’s Chaotic Guts.

The legend of the mathematician and the baker: a story about Henri Poincare one wishes were true.

The Essence of Sound: Lycopodium Powder on a Subwoofer.

Finally, check out “Anti-Gravity Wheel,” A Video Exploring Gyroscopic Precession With a 42-Pound Spinning Wheel:

Jennifer Ouellette About the Author: Jennifer Ouellette is a science writer who loves to indulge her inner geek by finding quirky connections between physics, popular culture, and the world at large. Follow on Twitter @JenLucPiquant.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.





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