Science & Technology


New theory might tell us how galactic magnetic fields form

© NASA | Flickr
Physicists at Princeton may have the answer to how magnetic fields form around stars and galaxies ... and it's totally counter-intuitive. Pictured here, charged particles spin along the sun's magnetic field lines, giving us this rare view of its magnetic loops.
Physicists have figured out why we're all so attracted to stars.

For the first time ever, physicists from Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory (which they call PPPL, even though that's essentially just making a spitting noise) believe they have begun to understand how stars and galaxies form their magnetic fields.

We already know how planets get their magnetic fields. It starts with swirling plasma-like liquids at the planet's core. Those churning liquids conduct electricity and create an electric charge. However, until now, the origin of magnetic fields around stars and galaxies (which are by definition areas that share a large magnetic field) has been a mystery.



'New Horizons' photo shows psychedelic colors of Pluto

A newly-released photo of Pluto shows the dwarf planet like you've never seen it before - shining in a rainbow of vivid colors. Released by NASA, the 'Psychedelic Pluto' image is the latest in a series of photographs taken by the New Horizons spacecraft.

According to NASA, scientists created the image using a technique called principal component analysis, which highlights the "many subtle color differences between Pluto's distinct regions." The exaggerated colors make it easy for scientists to determine the varied texture and composition of Pluto's surface.

The original photo was taken by the Ralph/MVIC color camera on the New Horizons spacecraft during its historic flyby of the dwarf planet in mid-July. It was snapped from a range of 22,000 miles.

This is just the latest in a string of photos released from the flyby. Last month, an image was released showing the dwarf planet's crescent. Other photos released in October showed Pluto's tiniest moon, which measures just five miles across, and its largest moon, Charon.


NASA announces discovery of new pulsar in faraway galaxy

© NASA Goddard / YouTube
Space-watchers have a lot of news to digest after the discoveries of a new pulsar in a faraway galaxy. A Venus-like exoplanet was also spotted, a mere 39 light-years away, and a rocky dwarf planet in our own solar system.

NASA announced on Thursday that its Fermi space telescope has found a gamma-ray pulsar in another galaxy. Dubbed PSR J0540-6919, the rapidly spinning neutron star lies outside the Tarantula Nebula in the Large Magellanic Cloud, a galaxy about 163,000 light-years away.

"It's now clear that a single pulsar... is responsible for roughly half of the gamma-ray brightness we originally thought came from the nebula," said Pierrick Martin, an astrophysicist at the National Center for Scientific Research (CNRS) in Toulouse, France, and lead researcher on the project. "That is a genuine surprise."

Pulsars are neutron stars, left over from supernova explosions. The rapidly spinning magnetic field of the extremely dense star core sends out beams of radio waves, visible light, X-rays and gamma rays. J0540 spins just under 20 times per second, according to data obtained by the Fermi probe.


10x sharper than Hubble: Giant Magellan telescope being built in Chile's Atacama Desert

The most powerful ground-based telescope in the world is being built in Chile, enabling astronomers to take pictures of the deep space ten times sharper than those delivered by the Hubble Space Telescope.

The groundbreaking ceremony for the Giant Magellan Telescope (GMT) was held on a remote mountaintop in northern Chile on Wednesday with prominent scientists, top officials, and supporters from an international consortium of universities and research institutions in attendance. Chilean President Verónica Michelle Bachelet Jeria also took part in the ceremony, hosted by the 11-member consortium of the GMT.

The new astronomical facility, expected to begin its early stargazing in 2021, will be constructed on-site at the Las Campanas Observatory in Chile's Atacama Desert, known for its clear, dark skies and outstanding astronomical image clarity.

The unique design of the $500-million optical marvel employs seven huge mirrors, each 8.4 meters (27.5 feet) wide, to make a single telescope with a resolving power of a telescope with a 24.5-meter primary mirror system and a collecting area equivalent to a 22-meter (72.2 ft) telescope -- about 368 square meters (3,961 square ft). "The Giant Magellan Telescope will revolutionize our view and understanding of the universe, and allow us to see and study objects whose light has been traveling for over 13 billion years to reach us.

Comment: Going "beyond" seeing.


Why science needs metaphysics: It doesn't make sense without it

Francis Bacon had no purpose.
Over the past couple of days I have been commenting on the modern debate about philosophy of the mind (see here and here). What follows are some thoughts on scientific versus philosophical discussions of the mind and other matters.

I was at a conference recently and was asked by friends who are quite sympathetic to the immaterial understanding of the mind if I could discuss some of the scientific evidence for it and not rely as heavily as I otherwise do on philosophical reasoning. It's an understandable request, and one that I hear often from allies and adversaries alike.

Indeed there is much scientific evidence that the mind cannot be explained adequately in material terms, especially if one understands matter according to modern mechanical philosophy. I have an aversion to the use of scientific arguments to bolster claims that are inherently logical and metaphysical. Such recourse to scientific, rather than logical and metaphysical, arguments are the mainstay of materialist arguments about the mind, about biology, and about many aspects of physics.

The difficulty with using raw scientific evidence, untethered from a valid metaphysical framework, is that it gives free reign to ideological bias. In that sense our metaphysical framework -- whether explicit or implicit -- is analogous to train tracks, where the trains are our scientific investigations, and the destination is the truth. Our scientific investigations are restricted to the tracks that the trains run on, and if we are to understand the truth of our science we must understand the tracks that constrain our work. If our metaphysical framework is materialistic, the destination of our inquiries will always be materialistic -- we can do no other.

Comment: Science cannot work without certain metaphysical principles, such as the existence and validity of reason and logic, and the existence of truth. These are what make one theory better or worse than another, e.g. more consistent with the facts and non-contradictory. Scientific theories need to measure up to some kind of non-physical standard. But if a scientific philosophy cannot allow for the existence of such a standard, it has no legs to stand on. Without good metaphysics, good science can't exist.


Main-belt asteroid shows evidence of March collision

© D. Tholen, S
Four-panel image: The top three panels are three different exposures with Subaru with asteroid (493) Griseldis moving from left to right as you move from the first panel to the third one. The bottom panel shows all three exposures added together, after suppressing the galaxy that interferes with the "tail" in the first exposure; the asteroid is on the right.
The main-belt asteroid (493) Griseldis was probably hit by another object last March. The results were reported on November 12 at the annual meeting of the Division for Planetary Sciences of the American Astronomical Society near Washington, DC.

Observations taken with the 8-meter Subaru Telescope on Maunakea on 17 March 2015 UT showed that the main-belt asteroid (493) Griseldis had "an extended feature," which is astronomer-speak for a tail.

However, unlike the tails of comets, which flow in the direction opposite from the sun due to the solar wind, the extension on Griseldis was not in the antisolar direction, and the extension proved to be a short-lived phenomenon.

Additional observations taken with the 6.5-m Magellan telescope four nights later still detected the extension, though it was weaker, but exposures taken with the 2.2-meter University of Hawaii telescope on 24 March UT or Magellan on 18 April UT and 21 May UT showed no such feature, nor did images from telescope archives taken in 2010 and 2012.


"Spooky action at a distance" is really real

© Burrus/NIST
NIST physicist Krister Shalm with the photon source used in the 'Bell test' that strongly supported a key prediction of quantum mechanics: There are in fact 'spooky actions at a distance.'
Einstein was wrong about at least one thing: There are, in fact, "spooky actions at a distance," as now proven by researchers at the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST).

Einstein used that term to refer to quantum mechanics, which describes the curious behavior of the smallest particles of matter and light. He was referring, specifically, to entanglement, the idea that two physically separated particles can have correlated properties, with values that are uncertain until they are measured. Einstein was dubious, and until now, researchers have been unable to support it with near-total confidence.

As described in a paper posted online and submitted to Physical Review Letters (PRL), researchers from NIST and several other institutions created pairs of identical light particles, or photons, and sent them to two different locations to be measured. Researchers showed the measured results not only were correlated, but also--by eliminating all other known options--that these correlations cannot be caused by the locally controlled, "realistic" universe Einstein thought we lived in. This implies a different explanation such as entanglement.


5400mph winds discovered hurtling around planet outside solar system

© Mark A. Garlick/University of Warwick
The planet HD 189733b is shown here in front of its parent star. A belt of wind around the equator of the planet travels at 5400mph from the heated day side to the night side. The day side of the planet appears blue due to scattering of light from silicate haze in the atmosphere. The night side of the planet glows a deep red due to its high temperature.
Winds of over 2km per second have been discovered flowing around planet outside of the Earth's solar system, new research has found.

The University of Warwick discovery is the first time that a weather system on a planet outside of Earth's solar system has been directly measured and mapped. The wind speed recorded is 20x greater than the fastest ever known on earth, where it would be seven times the speed of sound.

Commenting on the discovery lead researcher Tom Louden, of the University of Warwick's Astrophysics group, said: "This is the first ever weather map from outside of our solar system. Whilst we have previously known of wind on exoplanets, we have never before been able to directly measure and map a weather system."


Ancient mass extinction led to dominance of tiny fish, paleontologist shows

© Bob Nicholls
After the Hangenberg mass extinction, small fish dominated the oceans while larger fish mostly died out.
When times are good, it pays to be the big fish in the sea; in the aftermath of disaster, however, smaller is better.

According to new research led by the University of Pennsylvania's Lauren Sallan, a mass extinction 359 million years ago known as the Hangenberg event triggered a drastic and lasting transformation of Earth's vertebrate community. Beforehand, large creatures were the norm, but, for at least 40 million years following the die-off, the oceans were dominated by markedly smaller fish.

"Rather than having this thriving ecosystem of large things, you may have one gigantic relic, but otherwise everything is the size of a sardine," said Sallan, an assistant professor in Penn's Department of Earth and Environmental Science in the School of Arts & Sciences.

The finding, which suggests that small, fast-reproducing fish possessed an evolutionary advantage over larger animals in the disturbed, post-extinction environment, may have implications for trends we see in modern species today, such as in fish populations, many of which are crashing due to overfishing. The research is reported in Science.


New species of duckbilled dinosaur neatly fills an evolutionary gap

© Sepp Jannotta/Montana State University
Elizabeth Freedman Fowler, an adjunct professor at Montana State University, holds a drawing depicting the new species of duckbilled dinosaur.
A previously undiscovered dinosaur species, first uncovered and documented by an adjunct professor at Montana State University, showcases an evolutionary transition from an earlier duckbilled species to that group's descendants, according to a paper published in the journal PLOS ONE.

The paper was written by that professor, Elizabeth Freedman Fowler, and her mentor, MSU paleontologist Jack Horner, Montana University System Regents Professor and curator of paleontology at MSU's Museum of the Rockies. Their findings highlight how the new species of duckbilled dinosaur neatly fills a gap that had existed between an ancestral form with no crest and a descendant with a larger crest, providing key insight into the evolution of elaborate display structures in these gigantic extinct herbivores.

"It is really gratifying to see Dr. Freedman Fowler's work, which is essentially her dissertation, published in PLOS ONE," Horner said. "It is confirmation that she is an excellent paleontologist, helping further cement MSU's reputation for offering graduate students a chance to be part of something extraordinary."

In their paper, Freedman Fowler and Horner named the dinosaur Probrachylophosaurus bergei and suggest it is a previously missing link between a preceding species, Acristavus, which lived about 81 million years ago, and later form Brachylophosaurus, which lived about 77.5 million years ago.