Tag: Astronomy

Science Sunday: Twin Spin

Two stories I want to highlight this week.

The first is some exciting news in cancer research. It’s been over four decades since President Nixon declared a “war on cancer” and while we have many treatments for it, of varying effectiveness, a “cure” is elusive. The biggest reason is that we’ve discovered that cancer is an incredibly complex panoply of conditions, some of which respond to certain therapies, some of which don’t. Last week, we heard about a therapy that’s having stunning results:

The 49-year-old woman had had three melanoma growths removed from her skin, but now the disease was spreading further. A several-centimeter-sized growth under her left breast went deep into her chest wall. Some of the tissue in the tumor was dying because of lack of blood flow.

Doctors at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center offered her an experimental combination of two drugs: Opdivo and Yervoy, both manufactured by Bristol-Myers Squibb, both among a vanguard of new medicines that boost the immune system to attack tumors. Three weeks later she came back for her second dose.

“She didn’t say anything and when I examined her, I said, ‘Wait a minute!’” says Paul Chapman, the doctor who was treating her. “She said, ‘Yeah, it kind of just dissolved.’”

Where the tumor was before was, literally, a hole – a wound doctors hope will heal with time. Chapman took some fluid from it, and found there were no melanoma cells there. “I’ve been in immunotherapy for a long time, and we’ve talked and fantasized about reactions like this, but I’ve never seen anything this quickly,” he says. He skipped her next dose, and gave her two more before she stopped treatment because of the diarrhea the drug combination was causing. She has no detectable melanoma – amazing for a disease that has long been considered close to untreatable.

The drug is proving very effective, wiping about about 20% of the cancers its encounters. The results from an investigation into lung cancer were so effective that Bristol-Myers Squibb ended the trial early because it was unethical to withhold the drug from placebo patients.

This isn’t a “cure” but it is very promising. There are concerns, because the drug is very expensive ($250,000 per year of treatment). As McArdle points out, the new emphasis on cost effectiveness may limit access to the drug. But even if it only goes to the super rich for now, it’s blazing a path that other less expensive drugs might follow.

And people wonder where the money for prescription drugs goes.

In other news, this week marked the 25th birthday of the Hubble Space Telescope, which they celebrate with this spectacular image of Westerlund 2 (Click to see the full image):


I’ve written about Hubble before (here, here, here and here). It has challenged everything we thought we knew about the universe and thrown down the gauntlet for future missions. Happy Birthday.

Science Sunday: Super Civilizations

So I’ll kick off what I hope will be a regular feature here: science sunday, where I’ll blog about a recent scientific result I think is interesting. This week, I’ll blog on something a bit close to me.

(It’s a bit late this week since I’ve been chopping down trees, spreading mulch and dealing with a sick kid. But it’s still Sunday somewhere.)

One of the biggest questions in science — indeed in human history — is whether we are alone in the universe. I am convinced that we will soon find evidence of very simple life within our solar system — archaea or some other simple organism in martian fossils or in the seas of Europa, Ganymede or Titan. We have now detected thousands of planets beyond our solar system, including a number in the “goldilocks zone” where liquid water can exist. But detecting intelligent life is way beyond our current capabilities.


It might actually be possible to detect a sufficiently advanced civilization. SETI has looked in the radio for a long time with no results. But radio communication may be a short-lived phase for alien civilizations. What may be more plausible is looking for heat signatures:

One of the largest-ever searches for distant alien empires has scoured 100,000 galaxies for signs of suspicious infrared activity and found… nothing.

The study by Penn State used data from Nasa’s Wise (“Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer”) orbiting observatory to scour far-off galaxies for radiation which, astronomers theorise, would likely be produced if a civilisation were powerful enough to colonise thousands of stars.

The theory that aliens might be visible on a galactic scale is based on the ideas of physicist Freeman Dyson, who suggested in the 1960s that galactic civilisations would almost by definition use most of the starlight in their galaxy for their own ends. This should be detectable using mid-infrared telescopes. That wasn’t possible when Dyson’s theory emerged, but Nasa’s Wise telescope does have the ability to make close measurements for thousands of galaxies, and so allow scientists to study the data for telltale signs of life.

No, they didn’t find it. But scientists have found 50 galaxies with unusual radiation signatures, indicating something strange is happening inside many distant collections of stars — even if it’s nothing to do with aliens at all.

There have been a few other studies looking for the radiation signatures of nearby Dyson Spheres but there haven’t been any hints of anything yet.

An alien species would have had to have been around for millions of years for us to see the effects of their capturing vast amounts of starlight. So this is the extreme end of the hunt for extraterrestrial intelligence. But with millions of galaxies out there, there’s at least a chance we could find one. It’s a million to one shot but if it ever paid off it would be an incredible discovery. And even it doesn’t, we’ll still learn a lot about galaxies.

From 9 to 8 to… 10?

WTF? After they demoted Pluto to a planetoid, are they about to tell us that there are two other planets in our solar system? Remember when they told us we had 9 planets in our solar system and that was settled? Let me tell you something: science is never settled. What will they call these 2 big planets out so far from the sun that they probably make Pluto look like the tropics? Maybe they can use the name of one of these cold ass crazy bitches I have been dating lately….

Hal, you know anything about these Spaniards and their research? Inquiring minds want to know.

Echoes of the Big Bang

The Universe got a little more amazing today. Thirty years ago, the theory of cosmic inflation was proposed. The idea is that, for about one billion billion billion billionth of a second, the universe expanded faster than the speed of light.

The inflationary theory explained a lot of things, such as the remarkable smoothness of the universe. And it had some interesting implications, such as the potential existence of other universes, perhaps with different laws of physics. But a scientific hypothesis isn’t really a theory until it has made a successful prediction.

That happened today:

Inflationary models predict that other marks were left on the Universe, and one of these is that as the Universe underwent rapid expansion, it would create ripples in the fabric of space-time called gravitational waves. These are literally small expansions and contractions of space itself, like a wave traveling down a Slinky. We know these exist—we see their effects in astronomy, and two astronomers won a Nobel Prize in 1993 for finding an example of gravitational waves—but seeing them coming from the inflationary period of the Universe is incredibly difficult.

We don’t see the waves themselves, but we can detect the effect they had on light coming from the early Universe. The waves would polarize the light, in a sense aligning the waves of light in certain ways. There are many different ways light can be polarized, but gravitational waves left over from inflation would do so in a very specific way (called B mode polarization, which twists and curls the direction of the polarization; see the image at the top of this post). Finding this kind of polarization in the light leftover from the fires of the Big Bang would be clear evidence of gravitational waves… and it was precisely this type of polarization that was finally detected by a telescope called BICEP2 (Background Imaging of Cosmic Extragalactic Polarization), located in Antarctica.

You should read Phil’s entire post. You should also watch this video of Andrei Linde, the father of inflation theory, getting the news that he was right.

Here’s the thing. BICEP2 closed shop two years ago. According to one source, they’ve have this result for three years but have spent those years making absolutely sure they were right. The patience involved in that relentless checking is amazing.

We live in a great time. First Higgs and now Linde vindicated by observations.

When Meteors Attack

We don’t say this enough in science: holy shit!

A meteor that exploded over Russia this morning was the largest recorded object to strike the Earth in more than a century, scientists say. Infrasound data collected by a network designed to watch for nuclear weapons testing suggests that today’s blast released hundreds of kilotonnes of energy. That would make it far more powerful than the nuclear weapon tested by North Korea just days ago and the largest rock crashing onto the planet since a meteor broke up over Siberia’s Tunguska river in 1908.

“It was a very, very powerful event,” says Margaret Campbell-Brown, an astronomer at the University of Western Ontario in London, Canada, who has studied data from two infrasound stations near the impact site. Her calculations show that the meteoroid was approximately 15 metres across when it entered the atmosphere, and put its mass at around 7,000 metric tonnes. “That would make it the biggest object recorded to hit the Earth since Tunguska,” she says.

Click through, my friends. There’s video of the meteor lighting up the sky and more video of the shockwave that shattered windows and injured over a thousand people. This likely happens fairly often (every few years or so) but is usually over areas that are uninhabited or covered in water. This ia also unusually well-documented because of the ubiquitous use of dash cams in Russia (a response to horrific traffic accident rates).

Much more from Phil Plait. There are the usual calls for more funding for research but part of that may already be underway with the private space mining consortium springing up.

We live in a dangerous universe. Occasionally, it reminds us.

Cosmic Thought of the Day

A little mental health break from the Super Tuesday madness. Listen to this and you’ll know why Neil DeGrasse Tyson usually has a flock of trailing admirers at conferences (and yes, cheesy music does actually follow him around):

The answer and the video remind me a lot of Tree of Life, which I recently saw and loved but others hated. My long-winded and long-haired defense of the film is here.

A Whole New World

Our universe just got a little more interesting:

NASA’s Kepler mission has confirmed its first planet in the “habitable zone,” the region where liquid water could exist on a planet’s surface. Kepler also has discovered more than 1,000 new planet candidates, nearly doubling its previously known count. Ten of these candidates are near-Earth-size and orbit in the habitable zone of their host star. Candidates require follow-up observations to verify they are actual planets.

The newly confirmed planet, Kepler-22b, is the smallest yet found to orbit in the middle of the habitable zone of a star similar to our sun. The planet is about 2.4 times the radius of Earth. Scientists don’t yet know if Kepler-22b has a predominantly rocky, gaseous or liquid composition, but its discovery is a step closer to finding Earth-like planets.

The rumors that Dennis Kucinich has already been “called home” to Kepler-22b are completely unfounded.

Here’s NASA’s cool rendering of the system.

There’s no way, right now, of knowing what this planet is like. It could be like Venus or Mars, incapable of supporting our kind of life. But give how (comparatively) easily Kepler is finding these things, they must be very common.

The day is coming when we will know just how common life is in our universe.

Diamonds Are Forever

Or at least a few billion years:

Astronomers have spotted an exotic planet that seems to be made of diamond racing around a tiny star in our galactic backyard.

The new planet is far denser than any other known so far and consists largely of carbon. Because it is so dense, scientists calculate the carbon must be crystalline, so a large part of this strange world will effectively be diamond.

The evolutionary history and amazing density of the planet all suggest it is comprised of carbon — i.e. a massive diamond orbiting a neutron star every two hours in an orbit so tight it would fit inside our own Sun,” said Matthew Bailes of Swinburne University of Technology in Melbourne.

In 2010, Arthur C. Clarke speculated that the core of Jupiter might be gigantic diamond. In this case, it’s the core of a star that was mostly destroyed as the pulsar formed. Its karat weight is a 1 followed by 31 zeros, roughly enough to get engaged to every woman from now until a hundred billion trillion years from now (unless they are from LA, in which case you should knock a couple of zeros off). Every two hours, this rock whips around a stellar remnant that is the size of a small city, weighs 1.4 times as much as the Sun and spins on its axis every 5.7 milliseconds, with beams of radio light blasting out of its poles.

Is this a cool universe or what?

Blast from the Future


I’ve been scratching my head for a long time, trying to figure out why NASA hasn’t been taking the idea of preventing asteroid impacts more seriously.

So I’m pretty chuffed that the European Space Agency is looking into saving our collective skins. They’ve being studying the feasibility of a mission to test methods of asteroid impact mitigation, including a very very cool space mission they’ve dubbed Don Quijote (first proposed in 2002, and may launch sometime after 2020). It’s actually two separate spacecraft: one to impact a small near-Earth asteroid, and another to monitor the event carefully to see what happens, including how much the orbit of the asteroid was changed.

ESA and European science are surging at the moment while we’re cutting about 10% of NASA and 25% of astrophysics. But something like Don Quijote is actually one of the things even space skeptics like Gregg Easterbrook admit NASA should be doing. The likelihood that we will get hit by an asteroid large enough to destroy our civilization is very low. But the cost of such an event would be incalculable. Let’s call it a quadrillion dollars (1000 trillion). Preventing a one-in-a-million asteroid hit would then be worth about a billion. That’s not counting for the loss of life, history, culture and Elvis recordings.

And this is the best way to do deflect asteroids. Well, no, not really. The really best way would be to chuck Rosie O’Donnell at it. But some people would regard that as inhumane (to the asteroid), so Don Quijote is the next best thing. And the idea is so simple and so fucking cool that you almost have to do it, whether there’s an asteroid coming at us or not. Even a small impact on an asteroid, if done early enough, could deflect it well out of harm’s way. Or, if you like, maybe into some other planet’s way. I don’t like the way Mercury’s been looking at us lately.

Of course, it’s just a study right now. And, unfortunately, it’s likely to remain that way. Despite Plait’s enthusiasm, ESA has never taken on something this big and they have a tendency to make big plans, drink lots of coffee, spend a lot of money and ultimately do nothing (see Hermes, Columbus, everything else). But maybe this will spur some activity in Washington. An asteroid stopper would be a much more useful and practical mission than a voyage to Mars. And are we really going to let the Euro-weenies save the Earth? Bruce Willis wouldn’t stand for it.