Lesson #392: Cosmic String

Every now and again I learn about something that makes me say something along the lines of, “holy f**k, that’s cool!” out loud. Today, I learned about cosmic string.

A cosmic string is a one-dimensional — they have length, but a height and width smaller than a proton — fault line in the universe that’s made up entirely of energy. Which means it has no mass. Which means that a string even a mile long would be much, much heavier than the earth. Astrophysicists theorize that cosmic strings, of which they believe there are billions, are flaws created during the Big Bang’s cooling period (which was literally nanoseconds after the Big Bang). So basically, cosmic strings are the cracks that form in asphalt after too many freeze-thaw cycles,* but way more awesome.

Serio, you guys, do you have any idea how effing cool that is?!? My head nearly exploded from the excitement of learning that.**

As of yet, there has been no direct evidence of cosmic strings, though researchers at the University of Buffalo found indirect evidence while studying quasars a few years back.

Okay, here’s the super ultra cool part — in case the rest of that was too real science for you: because of the structure of cosmic strings, anything that found itself within one would travel backwards through time because the gravitational pull is such that anything within a cosmic string would benefit from (fall victim to?) time dilation.

Cosmic string is science fiction come to life. On a very, very, very, very small scale. If it exists at all.***

If you’re interested (and you should be), you can read more here, here, here, and here.

*A thing that will make no sense to those of you who didn’t grow up in cold climates.

**True story: when you’re interested in something you’re hearing/reading, your pupils dilate. When I’m really interested in something, my head actually tingles.

***Which it probably does.


Lesson #365: A Couple of Space Notes

A couple of space-related things for you today.

1. NASA and the ESA have released an image of Saturn’s rings captured by Cassini’s Ultraviolet Imaging Spectrograph. It shows a 10,000km span of the C and B rings (the two closest to Saturn itself) in colour that indicates the purity of the ice that makes up the rings, and it is very cool. The closer to blue, the purer the water.

2. The ISS has a live stream of what the astronauts are doing (when they’re awake) and of Earth (when they’re not). It’s really neat.

Space is awesome, you guys!

Lesson #355: Why Halley’s Comet Returns

I have a very distinct memory of being five or six and my mother waking me and my brother up in the middle of the night* and driving us out into the middle of nowhere, where it was cold, to meet up with some friend of hers who had a telescope. She wanted us to see Halley’s comet. I found out, years later, that my father thought this plan somewhat foolish because my brother, who is two years younger, and I were so young he doubted we’d remember it. But I think it’s cool that she took us because she wanted to give us the chance to see it once. If we’re lucky, we’ll see it again (I’ll be 81 the next time it swings by), but we’ve seen it once, and that’s once more than most people I know.

I got here via this io9 article about what the Star of Bethlehem might actually have been — since it wasn’t likely a random star that appeared to be all “hey dudes, over here!” to the Wise Men. It’s interesting reading if you have a few minutes to spare.

But really, whatever it said was secondary to my thought of “where does Halley’s comet go in the interim?”

Well, it turns out the comet has its own orbit around the sun. It shoots out pretty much perpendicular to the orbits of the planets, out beyond Neptune’s orbit and then makes its way back.

Space.com has a really, really good primer on Halley’s comet that you can read here.

*In reality, it was probably like 10.

Lesson #352: Pluto’s Long, Long Journey Around the Sun

I can across a random tidbit today that seemed…impossible. Since the discovery of Pluto in February of 1930, — which admittedly isn’t that long ago, science-wise — it hasn’t completed a single orbit around the sun. And it won’t until September of 2178. Ten generations will have passed from the earth (well, maybe a bit less considering everyone’s having children later and living quite a bit longer these days) in the time it takes for Pluto to march itself around the sun.*

Which leads me to another awesome fact that shows how our understanding of time is completely messed up: The Aztec Empire is younger than Cambridge University. This is my favourite random fact to bring out at parties because it just doesn’t seem like it could possibly be true.

*See here.

Lesson #347: The Morning Star

Sorry for the delay. I was back in my homeland for a bit to deal with some family stuff this past week. It took precedence over lessons, but I’ve got something good lined up if I can ever get to the research. I’m aiming to have it up Wednesday evening.

Moving on…

When I drive back from the major Canadian city where my family live to the city in the Midatlantic where I live, I leave early — like 4 or 5 — in the morning. I do this for a number of reasons: 1. the sooner I go, the sooner I get home, 2. to beat the morning rush through the city, 3. to avoid all rush hours across the drive, 4. I love night driving, and 5. I really like that early morning light right after the sun has risen where everything is sort of pale. I don’t see it often and usually when I do, I don’t appreciate it (usually because it means I’m out of bed far earlier than I’d like to be), but when I’m driving and I get to see it…it’s one of my favourite things.

Also on my list of favourite things? Space.*

Turns out that because Sunday was the start of Daylight Savings Time (hooray lighter evenings, boo dark mornings), Venus was visible in the sky later than usual, so I got a really good view of Venus as the morning star. It was pretty cool because I’m not normally so aware of cosmic events; I don’t often know what I should be looking for. I really only noticed because it was so obvious. Still, I think that’s pretty cool.

Really, today’s lesson is that the morning star isn’t a star at all, it’s Venus being totally unsubtle!

*Also, watch Cosmos with Neil deGrasse Tyson. He makes my brain tingle.

Lesson #342: The Speed of Earth

Usain Bolt, the fastest human on the planet, can run 23 miles per hour/38 kilometres per hour  (over some very short distances).*

The fastest a human has ever traveled without going into outer space is 2193 mph/3530 kph.

The fastest a human has ever traveled ever is 24,791 mph/39,897 kph.

The Earth is hurtling around the galaxy at 490,000 mph/788,579 kph

Tell me again how important you are?

*This is just basic algebra…if the world record is 9.58 seconds over 100m, that makes his run a 37.5782881 kph endeavour.

Lesson #326: Gliese 436b is Covered in Burning Ice

It’s not a huge secret that I think space is the coolest (no pun intended). In another life, with an infinitely better high school physics experience and far superior math skills, I would have been an astrophysicist. In a parallel dimension, where I’m a math whiz who had a great physics teacher, I probably am. Because space is effing awesome! One of my favourite things in the world is being alone in a vast open space where I can see more stars than I can even register. I’ve only experienced that twice in my life (once while doing off trail camping in the desert in Big Bend National Park in Texas* and once while camping in the Jordanian desert), but it’s such an exhilarating experience to look up and realize how vast space is and how small my existence is.

There is an exoplanet the size of Neptune that is covered in ice so hot it would make you bear a striking to resemblance to the Nazis at the end Raiders of the Lost Ark. Which is awesome! Discovered in 2004, Gliese 436 b is about 33 light years from earth and takes a surprisingly shot 2 days and 15.5 hours to complete its orbit around the red dwarf star Gliese 436. It also doesn’t have the atmospheric chemical composition (7000x too little methane, too much carbon dioxide) that science says it should, leading astronomers to conclude that Gliese 436b hosts hot water ice, which…what?

It turns out the exoplanet’s high gravity compresses water vapour into what we’d consider ice, but for the part where the temperature of this ice is roughly 400 degrees Celsius, which is, you know, not very cold. So it’s not really ice as we know it; it’s considered “exotic ice”, which is a fancy term for water in a solid state that is really freaking hot.

I have to admit that when I first read the words “burning ice” when I was reading up this morning, I imagined ice that was on fire, which would have been brilliant (and also made zero sense). But the reality isn’t so bad either…

More information herehere, here, and here

*Autobiographical note: Camping in Big Bend was the only time I’ve been off-trail camping. Because we were quite literally out in the middle of nowhere, before the rangers would issue our permit, we were required to give impressions of our hiking boots and descriptions of our gear. We were also each required to let someone know when what day we were heading home and that if they didn’t hear from us by day X to call the park rangers to send a search team out. This led to the strangest message I’ve ever left anyone. My dad got a message that went something along the lines of, “if you don’t hear from me by X day, I’ve probably been eaten by a mountain lion. If that’s the case, call the park rangers to send out a search party.” Needless to say, neither of us were eaten by a mountain lion.