All posts by Ron Cowen

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!


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.


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

Sound Historian’s Quest to Make Old Sounds New [Science]

Many people love an old recording, but few take their love as far as Patrick Feaster. In my Science article Archaeologist of Sound, Feaster’s work as a sound historian understanding and restoring the earliest known recordings is explored. From the article:

And now Feaster, a friendly but intense 40-year-old with a slender build and a photographic memory for anything phonographic, had first crack at helping bring back to life the lost sounds of 130 years ago. His 2-month stint in the “nation’s attic” had turned up undreamed-of finds, including long-lost cylinders recorded at the 1889 World’s Fair in Paris and what may be the first-ever sound recording on a disk. Archives and artifacts, however, are only part of Feaster’s chosen work. Just as important, he says, is his mission of using modern technology to resurrect long-vanished voices and sounds—some of them never intended to be revived.

By then, Feaster and colleagues David Giovannoni, Richard Martin, and Meagan Hennessey had formed, a group devoted to finding and disseminating the earliest sound recordings. The team had been nominated for a Grammy for its CD Actionable Offenses, a compilation of bawdy wax-cylinder recordings from the 1890s. Another CD, Debate ’08, reissued 22 recordings by presidential candidates William Howard Taft and William Jennings Bryan during the 1908 campaign—the first time sound bites were used in a presidential election, Feaster says.

“Today, we can listen—with a little work—to virtually any waveform we can see [Feaster] says. Two years ago, in some of his most far-ranging efforts to date, he applied his software to the musical notation found in a 10th-century manuscript of the Enchiriadis treatise, a medieval work on music theory. The result was a 7-minute sound file that Feaster calls “the closest thing you’re likely to hear to a 1000-year-old phonautogram.” Feaster has also applied software to “play” other historic musical notations—“as though a sound synthesizer were being programmed directly by medieval monks,” he says.

If you don’t have a Science account, you can read this pdf version of the full article about Feaster, the technology he uses, and some of his incredible finds.

Update: This article won the Acoustical Society of America’s Science Writing Award for 2011-2013.

Early phonograph patent diagram
Early phonograph patent diagram

Asteroseismology’s Love of Star Music [Nature]

When we think of good vibrations, we usually don’t consider the vibrations made by stars. But a recent wave of work in asteroseismology is doing just that to break ground in our understanding of stellar structures. Due to the movement and changing temperatures of surface gas, a star pulses and vibrates. Those pulses and vibrations in the structure of the star provides insight about the star’s internal structure. From my Nature article Kepler’s surprise: The sounds of the stars:

…the vibrations penetrate deep into the stellar interior and become resonating tones that reveal the star’s size, composition and mass. So by watching for the characteristic fluctuations in brightness, says [University of Birmingham, UK, astrophysicist William] Chaplin, “we can literally build up a picture of what the inside of a star looks like”.

Better still, he adds, asteroseismologists are now hauling in the data wholesale. After years of being hampered by Earth’s turbulent atmosphere, which obscures the view of the Universe and has limited asteroseismology to about 20 of the brightest nearby stars, researchers have been astonished by the trove of information coming from a new generation of space observatories. Thanks to the French-led Convection, Rotation and Planetary Transits (COROT) space telescope, launched in 2006, and NASA’s Kepler space telescope, launched in 2009, they can now listen in on hundreds of stars at a time.

“We are in a golden age for the study of stellar structure and evolution,” says Hans Kjeldsen, an astronomer at Aarhus University in Denmark.

Read the rest of the article on Nature to learn more about the discoveries and future research of asteroseismologists.

Update: This article won the Acoustical Society of America’s Science Writing Award for 2011-2013.