All posts by Ron Cowen

Off to Harvard for a Stay as Visiting Journalist at the Center for Astrophysics

Ron is a visiting journalist at Harvard from April 23 to May 18, 2012. He’ll be a guest at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics’ Institute for Theory and Computation, attending seminars and lectures and chatting with scientists at both Harvard and MIT. Hope to come back with several cool stories so stay tuned!

Where’s the Dark Matter? New Study Finds None Near the Solar System [Nature]

Survey finds no hint of dark matter near Solar System

In the largest survey of its kind to date, astronomers scouring the space around the Solar System for signs of dark matter — the hypothetical material believed to account for more than 80% of the mass in the Universe — have come up empty-handed.

If confirmed, the surprising result would upend a long-established consensus, researchers not involved in the study say.  For decades, cosmic theories have relied on dark matter — which exerts gravitational pull but emits no light — to be the hidden scaffolding that explains how structure arose in the Universe, how galaxies formed and how the rapidly spinning Milky Way manages to keep from flying apart. Without dark matter, theorists say, the visible material in the Universe, such as stars and gas, would not have the heft to do the job alone.

The rest of the article explains how the research was conducted and what the scientific community thinks of the finding.

Credit: ESO/H.H.Heyer
Credit: ESO/H.H.Heyer

(SCOOP) Coverage of My Recent Early-Universe Scoop

Several sites highlighted my breaking news story on what may be the most distant galaxy known in the Universe:

  • Knight Science Journalism Tracker, one of the most respected trackers of science stories, highlights the article:

    [NatureNews’] ace scoop-hungry reporter Ron Cowen late last week filed on a report, at the preprint server for physics-related news arXiv, that a large international team has gotten an image of a galaxy as it was when the universe was a mere 490 million years old.

    and

    Cowen writes the story well, and includes the enticing angle that if NASA’s Webb Telescope survives its budgetary excesses and goes into operation, its large IR mirror should offer a much better look at this galaxy – dubbed MACS1149-JD1.

  • American Scientist republished part of the article as part of its Science in the News section, which is a roundup of the most important and exciting science news pieces.

The article was mentioned here, on my Tumblr site, shortly after publication.

Update: The National Science Foundation’s Science360 also highlights the scoop.

(SCOOP) about the Early Universe! [Nature]

Infant galaxy offers tantalizing peek at early Universe

Astronomers are claiming a new benchmark in the quest to see the Universe’s first galaxies. By taking advantage of a rare cosmic zoom lens — where the gravity of a large mass magnifies light from objects in the distant background — a team of US and European researcher has spotted a galaxy so remote its light was emitted just 490 million years after the Big Bang, when the Universe was a mere 3.6% of its current age.

Read my entire article, which includes how existing and upcoming telescope capabilities could be used to investigate this galaxy further and what the find means for our understanding of the Universe’s number of galaxies.

Image: NASA/STSCI
Image: NASA/STSCI

A Moon-Sized Mystery [Nature]

My latest article is about new research that adds to the uncertainty of how the Moon was formed by looking at the Moon’s isotopic composition:

Question over theory of lunar formation

A chemical analysis of lunar rocks may force scientists to revise the leading theory for the Moon’s formation: that the satellite was born when a Mars-sized body smacked into the infant Earth some 4.5 billion years ago.

If that were the case, the Moon ought to bear the chemical signature of both Earth and its proposed ‘second’ parent. But a study published today in Nature Geoscience1 suggests that the Moon’s isotopic composition reflects only Earth’s contribution.

Read about this research as well as some of the other moon-creation theories!

Image: APOD/NASA
Image: APOD/NASA

Successfully Modeling Snowflakes [Scientific American]

My latest Scientific American article reports a major breakthrough in modeling…snowflakes:

Snowflake Growth Successfully Modeled from Physical Laws

Mathematicians have re-created the intricate patterns of ice formation, a breakthrough that could lead to new models of red blood cells, soap bubbles and other surfaces that evolve over time

Scientists as far back as Johannes Kepler have pondered the mystery of snowflakes: Their formation requires subtle physics that to this day is not well understood. Even a small change in temperature or humidity can radically alter the shape and size of a snowflake, making it notoriously difficult to model these ice crystals on a computer. But after a flurry of attempts by several scientists, a team of mathematicians has for the first time succeeded in simulating a panoply of snowflake shapes using basic conservation laws, such as preserving the number of water molecules in the air.

Read the article and find out why this is so important!

Image: Barrett/Garcke/Nurnberg
Image: Barrett/Garcke/Nurnberg

Restored Edison Records Feature Bismarck and the 1800s [New York Times]

You haven’t heard it all until you’ve heard Bismarck and others from the 1800s. In my recent New York Times article, recently discovered Edison records and the work that went into identifying who is featured on those records is covered:

Restored Edison Records Revive Giants of 19th-Century Germany

Tucked away for decades in a cabinet in Thomas Edison’s laboratory, just behind the cot in which the great inventor napped, a trove of wax cylinder phonograph records has been brought back to life after more than a century of silence.

The cylinders, from 1889 and 1890, include the only known recording of the voice of the powerful chancellor Otto von Bismarck. Two preserve the voice of Helmuth von Moltke, a venerable German military strategist, reciting lines from Shakespeare and from Goethe’s “Faust” into a phonograph horn. (Moltke was 89 when he made the recordings — the only ones known to survive from someone born as early as 1800.) Other records found in the collection hold musical treasures — lieder and rhapsodies performed by German and Hungarian singers and pianists at the apex of the Romantic era, including what is thought to be the first recording of a work by Chopin.

Read the full story.

20120229-cowenron-phonoplayers

Exoplanets and the 2012 American Astronomical Society Winter Meeting [NPR Science Friday]

NPR’s Science Friday invited me to talk about exoplanets and the 2012 Winter meeting of the American Astronomical Society:

Kepler Telescope Spots Tiniest Exoplanets Yet

At a meeting of the American Astronomical Society, scientists talked about mapping dark matter, measuring the ‘graininess’ of spacetime, and discovering the smallest exoplanets ever, using the Kepler space telescope. Ron Cowen, who reported on the meeting for Nature, discusses those findings.

Go ahead and listen to me with Ira Flatow on the Science Friday Web site!

Crystalizing Perpetual Motion [Scientific American]

My article for Scientific American is out:

“Time Crystals” Could be a Legitimate Form of Perpetual Motion

The phrases “perpetual-motion machine”—a concept derided by scientists since the mid-19th century—and “physics Nobel laureate Frank Wilczek” wouldn’t seem to belong in the same sentence. But if Wilczek’s latest ideas on symmetry and the nature of time are correct, they would suggest the existence of a bona fide perpetual-motion machine— albeit one from which energy could never be extracted. He proposes that matter could form a “time crystal,” whose structure would repeat periodically, as with an ordinary crystal, but in time rather than in space. Such a crystal would represent a previously unknown state of matter and might have arisen as the very early universe cooled, losing its primordial symmetries.

Read the full article on Scientific American’s site!

Restored Recordings from 19th Century Offer the Sounds of Bismarck and Others [New York Times]

One of my hobbies is collecting and researching recording technology from the late 19th century and early 20th century, which represents some of the earliest recordings known. This hobby turned to a front-page New York Times article (Restored Edison Records Revive Giants of 19th Century) with the discovery and identification of late 19th-century cylinder recordings of Bismarck and other German notables:

The cylinders, from 1889 and 1890, include the only known recording of the voice of the powerful chancellor Otto von Bismarck. Two preserve the voice of Helmuth von Moltke, a venerable German military strategist, reciting lines from Shakespeare and from Goethe’s “Faust” into a phonograph horn. (Moltke was 89 when he made the recordings — the only ones known to survive from someone born as early as 1800.)

In June 1889, Edison sent Wangemann to Europe, initially to ensure that the phonograph at the Paris World’s Fair remained in working order. After Paris, Wangemann toured his native Germany, recording musical artists and often visiting the homes of prominent members of society who were fascinated with the talking machine.

Read the rest of the article to learn more about the technology behind the historical recordings, as well as other recent breakthroughs in our understanding of early audio technology.

Credit: National Park Service