“Many people today agree that we need to reduce violence in our society. If we are truly serious about this, we must deal with the roots of violence, particularly those that exist within each of us. We need to embrace ‘inner disarmament,’ reducing our own emotions of suspicion, hatred and hostility toward our brothers and sisters.” -Dalai Lama XIV
From subatomic scales to very human ones to the largest conceivable ones in the cosmos, we do our best to cover the entire Universe here at Starts With A Bang! There’s always so much to discuss that we’re never going to lack for potential topics, and this past week was not only no exception, it actually featured an extra article on top of our normal schedule. Come take a look back at what we’ve seen:
- Why do stars come in different sizes? (for Ask Ethan),
- Unique ‘sideways tornadoes’ shaped the landscape of Mars, new study shows (for Mostly Mute Monday),
- He’s on fire! How the hot hand helped Golden State become NBA champions,
- The future of astronomy: thousands of radio telescopes that can see beyond the stars,
- One critical mission is now the make-or-break future for NASA Earth science
- How does Earth move through space? Now we know, on every scale, and
- Was it all just noise? Independent analysis casts doubt on LIGO’s detections (a controversial piece by Sabine Hossenfelder).
Thanks for reading and showing interest, and hopefully you’ve learned something along the way. Now, let’s see what else there is to learn on this edition of our comments of the week!
From eric on the island of stability: “The transactinides discovered so far are well “to the left of” (i.e. neutron poor) the island of stability We have yet to figure out whether a high neutron value of the elements between about 110-130 would lend them more stability, because until someone comes up with some new idea, we don’t know a good projectile-target reaction that will reach that island. But I have good confidence that eventually, someone will get there and give us some empirical estimate of just how stable that island is.”
The whole concept of an island of stability, for those who don’t know, is highly related to the idea of filled electron shells in atomic physics. What are the most stable, non-reactive atoms? The ones with filled electron shells: helium, neon, argon, krypton, xenon, etc. Why? Because their electron shells are filled; if you take away an electron or add an electron, you get something much less stable. Well, atomic nuclei are thought to work in a similar fashion. You’ll notice that the supposed island looks “horizontal” in nature, and that is because we are pretty confident that it will take a specific number of protons and neutrons in the nucleus to produce a more stable (i.e., living for days-to-months instead of seconds-to-minutes) nucleus with a filled nuclear shell. The best candidates will have either 114, 120 or 126 protons paired with 184 neutrons; the 114th element (Fl) appears in the white circle, while the 126th is in the isolated island.
Neither of these isotopes have ever been successfully produced, but that’s where the true test will lie!
From Elle H.C. on how to probe the internal properties of particles: “Of course we ‘smash’ one thing into another but I was pointing at the differences in force and size between what’s hitting what.”
There are many ways to examine what’s going on inside a proton, meson, or at the quark/gluon level, and although you may not be aware, scientists are pursuing them all. These include holding a particle as still and stable as possible and looking for its decay rates and pathways, stimulating it in a variety of ways and seeing how it behaves, bombarding it with various particles (photons, neutrons, electrons, etc.) and seeing what interactions take place, colliding large numbers together at high energies, supercooling them and monitoring them, and performing deep inelastic scattering experiments. These teach us about different properties and different behaviors, all of which offer interesting things to study. But we are doing all of them; the LHC focuses on the last one and does it better than any machine that’s come before it.
You are free to advocate for greater investment in one approach over another, but don’t pretend that these experiments aren’t going on at all, and don’t pretend that one line of investigation is a replacement for another. They are all complementary.
From Sinisa Lazarek on the hunt for new particles: “…particle accelerators are not used only for probing new particles.”
This is very, very true, and there are many good reasons to invest in particle accelerators beyond studying particle properties and searching for potential new ones.
But make no mistake about it: there are almost certainly new ones that must exist. Something must be responsible for dark matter, for baryogenesis, for the lack of CP-violation in the strong interactions, for solving the hierarchy problem, for explaining neutrino masses, and for providing the gravitational force. The leading idea for what that “something” is, in all of these cases, is either a new particle or a suite of new particles. To declare “there are no new particles” is the height of silliness with no well-motivated alternatives; to declare “there are no new particles within reach of the LHC or its immediate successors” is what’s referred to as the “nightmare scenario” at the LHC, and that is more reasonable and quite likely true. But don’t mix these two up! New particles are out there, or if not, there’s something way weirder that’s out there instead.
From Denier on Mars’ sideways tornadoes: “I watched a Mars-centric sci-fi movie last night that was as bad as a sideways tornado. It was ‘Life’ with Ryan Reynolds and Jake Gyllenhaal.
Seriously, don’t see this film.”
There have been two good movies about humans on Mars, as far as I’m concerned, and many, many bad ones. I really enjoyed The Martian when it came out, and I very much enjoyed the original Total Recall by Paul Verhoeven. Everything else I’ve seen in film that’s been Mars-focused has been a disaster, and “Life” doesn’t appeal to me as a candidate worth seeing.
Although, I do understand it deals with nihilism, depression, despair, and death as major themes. I did recently see a movie that employs those themes in a way I haven’t seen before and truly enjoyed. It’s called Kubo and the Two Strings. No sci-fi, but definitely worth checking out. (Also, you’ll note I linked to Rotten Tomatoes. In the absence of a movie critic whose recommendations I really appreciate — and I haven’t had one since The Filthy Critic stopped posting on bigempire.com — I recommend going to Rotten Tomatoes. If a movie gets over 90%, chances are it’ll be quite good. If it gets less than 80%… watch it at your own peril. In my experience.)
From Omega Centauri on the hot hand: “I always thought no effect was highly implausible. Humans are not automatons. We know humans have streaks of underperformance, due to injuries, illness, or distraction. Why not streaks (periods) of overperformance too.”
What’s interesting about this theory is how non-universal it is! Sure, there are some basketball players who exhibit tremendous amounts of streakiness, with Klay Thompson perhaps being the most sterling example of hot-and-cold performances. But there are others who exhibit no streakiness at all, performing at approximately the same level under any circumstances.
The big, unsurprising takeaway at this? Some people are more consistent than others; some are more inconsistent; sometimes inconsistency gets you a win when you otherwise shouldn’t get one; sometimes consistency defeats inconsistent but superior talent. In other words, that’s why they play the games.
From Carl on the math of how to get to average: “It’s obvious that humans have “streaks” – simply turn the question around, and you’ll realize that when players feel a little ill or injured they don’t play as well.
That pulls their average down, so when they are 100% they must outperform their mean.”
And if you’re a basketball fan, it’s those memorable overperformances in some way that stick in your memory the best. Boom Shakalaka!
From Omega Centauri on the configuration of SKA: “I have a question about the array. In the picture, it looks like the dishes are randomly distributed. Or is there some special algorithm that finds an optimal placement?”
There are some resources out there (Sinisa provides a good link to one), but for radio telescopes like this, the explanation is fairly simple: you want as much coverage within a certain radius of your central point as possible, so there will be as much light-gathering power that’s centrally located. You also want to get long-baselines to get high resolution for the sources that are powerful enough to show up in single dishes. So you’ll get clusters that follow Gaussian distributions in where their dishes are located.
This is like a scaled-up version of the Very Large Array, augmented by other arrays that both extend out the Gaussian distribution of the main array and also provide their own, smaller arrays to perform similar services. If you want a more detailed explanation, SKA has plenty of technical documentation available.
From Denier on NASA vs. NOAA: “Don’t get me wrong, the JPSS pair will provide some great data. It is a definite upgrade over the current POES series, but what does NASA Earth Sciences really add?”
Oh, a ton. You look at a NASA/NOAA collaboration and ask why it needs to be a collaboration? Why not just give the whole deal to NOAA? (Which, by the way, is facing its own budget cuts of almost 20% for the next fiscal year, as is the NSF.) And the answer is simply due to expertise and experience. NASA Earth science adds the expertise of having successfully managed products and satellites like these for decades, along with the expertise of data retrieval and the experience of managing and maintaining the infrastructure, while NOAA has its own set of strong points. This is the type of collaboration that truly showcases how both organizations can shine brightest when they work together.
To directly answer your question, there are instruments that are going on board JPSS that have been direct outgrowths of previous successful NASA Earth science missions, such as Terra, Aqua and Aura, and it makes no sense to say, “oh, even though you have the experience and expertise, let’s cut you out and make NOAA do it all themselves.” You’re not a fan of reinventing the wheel; why would you cut the rear axle off your car like this?
Yet that’s what’s happening. Axe NASA Earth science while cutting NOAA? That’s a recipe for failure, and that’s what we’re witnessing unfold.
From Carl on a thought experiment: “First, imagine an instrument that detects virtual pairs created from the quantum foam.
If I’m moving at 0.9 C compared to the CMB, what do we expect to measure? Zero average momentum in that frame of reference? If so, how did particles know to match the speed of my instrument?”
I want to be clear that these “virtual pairs” are not real particles, and you cannot detect them. They are a calculational tool used to compute the zero-point energy of a field in empty space. So there is real energy there, but it is energy inherent to space itself, not energy that you will see or experience as a particle to smack into you.
Now, Michael Kelsey recommended looking up “Unruh Effect” and “Unruh Temperature” as well, and I agree, these are related! Different fields have different zero-point energies, and the frame of reference that allows one field to be in its lowest-energy state may not be the lowest-energy state of other fields. The key is not velocity, however, but rather acceleration. It is the effect of gravitational acceleration that produces Hawking radiation, and by the equivalence principle, any acceleration should produce that same type of radiation. So if you can accelerate at 2.5 x 10^20 m/s^2, you can achieve a whopping temperature of 1 K.
From John on the robustness of the LIGO signal: “I’m not overly concerned about this criticism. Within a few years KAGRA and VIRGO will come on-line, and with the integration of data from these additional detectors, the degree of confidence in future detections should be much higher.
GR predictions have been tested in other ways (the geodetic effect and frame-dragging by Gravity Probe B, gravitational lensing, etc.) and has not yet been falsified.”
The issue at play here is not whether GR is wrong (it’s right), whether LIGO and other experiments point to the same successes as one another (they test different regimes that for the most part do not overlap), or whether the significance of results will improve in the future (it will). The issue, rather, is whether the LIGO results are independently reproducible from the same data and the same methods in a way that makes sense.
After publishing this piece, I have received private correspondence from a number of people and groups — some of which are involved with LIGO directly — that have relayed the following pieces of information to me:
- Several people from LIGO-Virgo have interacted with the Danish group.
- The group was invited to (and did not) present their results to LIGO-Virgo.
- Their methodology does not follow what LIGO-Virgo does, completely, and they have tried to get them to reflect on that fact, to no avail.
- The LIGO-Virgo members have left frustrated about the lack of openness and responsiveness from the Danish group.
- They no longer feel that a response is worth their time or energy.
But that said, the LIGO group refuses to put out an official statement or paper addressing these claims. I believe that is a mistake, and allows doubt to be sown. I would much rather see them devote the effort (even if they feel it’s not worth it) and address what Jackson’s group has done, even if it isn’t getting scientific attention. If you can demonstrate that you’ve done it right, it’s an opportunity to educate the public in a tremendous way, especially when you’ve got them interested.
And this opportunity couldn’t come at a better time; the NSF budget has been slashed by ~$840 million, and LIGO’s path to achieving design sensitivity and being able to see lower-mass black holes and even potentially neutron-star mergers nearby is in jeopardy. Why wouldn’t you drum up public support, now, when it’s your best chance?
At least, that’s what I’d like to see.