All posts by wkoch

Nobel Prize in Physics 2011

It was announced today that the 2011 Nobel Prize in Physics is being awarded to three astronomers for their work on the nature of the expansion of the universe.  The following is an excerpt from

“The Nobel Prize in Physics 2011 was awarded “for the discovery of the accelerating expansion of the Universe through observations of distant supernovae” with one half to Saul Perlmutter and the other half jointly to Brian P. Schmidt and Adam G. Riess.”

Dr. Patterson and I have been teaching our students about this discovery for years and we have been following the work and results for sometime.  It was a stunning and very surprising discovery that countered everything we expected about the expansion of the universe.

They measured distances to galaxies using the measured brightnesses of type 1a supernovae (exploding white dwarfs) and measured the redshift of these galaxies.   Using the apparent peak brightnesses of these supernovae, they could calculate the distances to the galaxies where these supernovae occurred.  The redshift is used in the Hubble Law to calculate the speed at which galaxies are moving away from us.  The finding wasn’t that the expansion of the universe was slowing down in its expansion, as one would expect, but is in fact speeding up!

The cause may be some kind of vacuum energy, often called “dark energy” or “the cosmological constant”.  The nature of this energy is a complete mystery and is often referred to as the most important problem in physics and astronomy today.

There is little dispute about the correctness of the measurements.  However, the finding all hinges on the idea that all type 1a supernovae explode with identical brightnesses and that nothing like the rotation rate of the white dwarf causes variations in these supernovae.

Faster than Light Particles?

A meeting at Cern, the world’s largest physics lab, has addressed results that suggest subatomic particles have gone faster than the speed of light.

This could be big! News from CERN, the European Organization for Nuclear Research have created what seem to be neutrinos traveling faster than light. Its too early to get too excited, but if it turns out to be right, it will shake up one of the pillars of modern physics, Einstein’s relativity! It is likely to be some kind of unaccounted for process or systematic error in the experiment, but it may not be.  A good scientist will remain skeptical until all other possible explanations are ruled out.

If these measurements turn out to be right, and if it turns out that some physics has to be rebuilt from the foundation, it will be an exciting time for young physicists.  Any time there has to be a reconstruction at the foundations of physics is a fun time to be working physicist.  Sting Theory has consumed many theoretical physics careers in the last couple decades, but this would give new minds something of major importance to work on…and likely win some Nobel Prizes in the effort. Who wants to be the next Einstein, Bohr or Heisenberg? Any takers? Go out and earn those PhD.s in physics and go get it!

Do You Want to Help Out with Astronomy Research?

Today, there are astronomy projects out there that are designed to get the general public involved to assist in realresearch.  Two such projects are Galaxy Zoo, and Galaxy Zoo Supernovae.

At Galaxy Zoo, hundreds of thousands galaxies in Hubble Space Telescope images need classifying.  Astronomers need these classifications to help solve the puzzle of how galaxies form and evolve.  People wanting to participate are run through a simple tutorial.  After completing the tutorial they are given new images of galaxies to classify.

The Galaxy Zoo Supernovae project involves looking at images of galaxies where bright spots have recent appeared.  Supernovae are exploding stars and there are different types of supernovae.  Participants then compare the bright spots with older reference images to see if these spots are indeed supernovae.  Like Galaxy Zoo, a simple and brief tutorial is completed before they are set loose on new images.

If you love astronomy or just want to be a part of professional astronomy research, check these sites out.