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Remembering Vera Rubin [1928-2016]: Giant of Astronomy

Vera Rubin will be remembered as not only a great woman scientist, but as a great scientist. She was born in Philadelphia, PA; her interest in astronomy developed after the family moved to Washington, DC, when she was 10. Rubin's contribution to astronomy, including her many contributions to understanding "dark matter" should prove valuable and keep astronomers, cosmologists and physicists busy for years to come. Rubin died on December 25, 2016; she was 88.

In "Vera Rubin: 1928–2016," (December 26, 2016) Lawrence M. Krauss, a physicist and cosmologist, writes in Scientific American:

Christmas day seems to have special significance in the world of astronomy, not because of any stars above Bethlehem, but because great astronomers seem to begin life, or end it on that day. Isaac Newton was born in the Julian calendar on Dec 25, 1642, and another giant of astronomy, Vera Rubin, died yesterday, Christmas day 2016, at age 88, after a career in which, against a plethora of odds, she changed the way we think about the Universe.

Rubin studied astronomy as an undergraduate at Vassar and wanted to enroll into graduate school in Princeton, but women weren’t allowed into the graduate astronomy program until 1975, something that is truly remarkable, and despicable, given the important role women have played in astronomy in the past century. After completing a master’s degree in physics at Cornell, where she studied with giants like Richard Feynman and Hans Bethe, and also with the brilliant and poetic Philip Morrison, she moved to Georgetown University, where she completed her Ph.D. in 1954 under another physics wunderkind, George Gamow. During that time she took her classes at night, while her husband waited in the car because she didn’t know how to drive.

Her early research involved the motion of galaxies, demonstrating that addition to their uniform recession due to the Hubble expansion of the Universe, most galaxies have small peculiar motions that are due to their gravitational clumping into clusters. During this time she helped support her family, raising 4 children while teaching part time at Montgomery County community college and at Georgetown, eventually joining the faculty at Georgetown in 1962. She achieved enough recognition during this period to be the first woman allowed to use the instruments at Palomar Observatory, in 1965, and in that year she moved to the Department of Terrestrial Magnetism at the Carnegie Institution in Washington, where she remained for the rest of her career.

Rubin’s biggest breakthrough occurred a few years later, when she joined collaborator Kent Ford—with whom she had earlier collaborated on the studying the relative motion of the Milky Way galaxy compared to a large sample of distant galaxies, suggesting that the Milky had a significant velocity relative to the background Hubble flow—in the study of the motion of stars and gas in the nearby Andromeda Galaxy. Five years after joining the DTM Rubin and Ford reported that the rotation of Andromeda was anomalous. Its outskirts were rotating so fast that it should have flown apart, if the only mass holding it together was the matter that was visible to telescopes.

Almost 40 years earlier the astronomer Fritz Zwicky had observed anomalous local motions within the distant Coma cluster that also suggested more mass in that system than could be accounted for by visible matter, but the results were discounted at the time.

Contemporaneously with Rubin and Ford’s observations of Andromeda, the Australian astronomer Ken Freeman observed a similar anomalous rotation of other spiral galaxies, again suggesting the presence of what is now known as dark matter. At the time these observations were quite controversial. I remember as an undergraduate student in the 1970’s hearing about Rubin’s work, but accompanying those discussions were caveats about the difficulties associated with systematic effects in astronomy that could cloud conclusions.

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#VeraRubin   #astronomy   #darkmatter  

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Making Something Out of Nothing

In a book review article of “The Strange Physics of Nothing,” Peter Pesic writes for The Wall Street Journal that the book’s author does a fine job of explaining the incomprehensible, namely, that James Owen Weatherall, a professor of logic and philosophy of science at the University of California, Irvine, has an inkling of what nothingness (the “empty” space between matter) is composed of, or at least what it might represent. Well, actually, he has more than an inking; Prof. Weatherall has devoted 224 pages to the subject. This is more than most of us can say.

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The Glow: This image is pretty, but one wonders what it has to do with the concept of nothingness, nevertheless I share it here, chiefly because I like the effect of the yellow and blue—warm and cold colors co-existing, and consider it as some form of modern art.
Photo Credit: Ted Kinsman
Source: WSJ

#nothingness   #physics  

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The Local Effects of Climate Change

An article, by Brandie Weikle, for CBC News says that scientists are already seeing and documenting the local effects of climate change, one of which is species reduction in local geographic areas. In "It's already happening: Hundreds of animals, plants locally extinct due to climate change" (December 8th 2016), Weikle writes:

The study, authored by John Wiens, professor of ecology and evolutionary biology, was published Thursday in the journal PLOS Biology. Wiens compared survey results of 976 species of plants and animals documented around the world 50 or 60 years ago to data on those same species gathered 10 years ago, he told CBC News.

He found that 47 per cent of those species — a representative sampling from around the world — were already locally extinct in the warmer parts of the regions where they were initially documented.

"The striking thing is that this has occurred with only less than a one degree [Celcius] increase in global medial temperature and it's going to get much worse," said Wiens. "There's going to be an additional one to five degrees on top of that."

Local extinction could lead to global extinction of some (or many species we now see) in worst-case scenarios or at the very least a large reduction in their populations. (Other scientific articles cite the possible reduction in polar bears and giraffes.) Some are skeptical of such scientific stories, and see in them a conspiracy to hoodwink the public for some nefarious reason; and yet such persons might remain skeptical despite any evidence given, chiefly related to a lack of trust or trustworthiness of the source of information.

Undoubtedly, one can rightly argue that there are trust and credibility issues with some scientific news stories that resort to increased use of hyperbole, which can make one numb or insensitive to the information. Yet, it seems that the evidence collected in regards to climate change does not directly suffer this problem. Quite the opposite. So, in this case, the denial of facts does not deny their validity, it only postpones the acquisition of good knowledge. Such knowledge allows humans, particularly leaders of nations, to make good decisions that will influence us all.

For more, go to

Red-breasted Nuthatch at Calgary's Fish Creek Provincial Park, is among the species a new study has deemed locally extinct in some parts of Canada due to climate change.
Photo Credit: Marcy Stader
Source: CBC News

#climatechange   #speciesextinction   #extinction

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Magic Mushrooms & Cancer Anxiety

An article, by Olga Khazan, in The Atlantic writes about the efficacy of psilocybin (magic mushrooms)—the results of a small, albeit conclusive scientific study—in providing relief from the anxiety associated with a cancer diagnosis. (As Wikipedia writes: “Psilocybin is a naturally occurring psychedelic compound produced by more than 200 species of mushrooms, collectively known as psilocybin mushrooms.”)
Magic Mushrooms & Cancer Anxiety

An article, by Olga Khazan, in The Atlantic writes about the efficacy of psilocybin (magic mushrooms)—the results of a small, albeit conclusive scientific study—in providing relief from the anxiety associated with a cancer diagnosis. (As Wikipedia writes: “Psilocybin is a naturally occurring psychedelic compound produced by more than 200 species of mushrooms, collectively known as psilocybin mushrooms.”)

This news has received wide-spread coverage, chiefly because it addresses a very large and real problem among the general population. Khazan writes in "The Life-Changing Magic of Mushrooms" (December 1, 2016):

The results of Vincent’s mushroom trip—and those of 79 other study subjects like her—are now being made public, and they’re very encouraging. A pair of randomized, blinded studies published Thursday in The Journal of Psychopharmacology provide the most robust evidence to date that a single dose of psilocybin can provide relief from the anxiety and gloom associated with cancer for at least six months.

Roughly 40 percent of people with cancer suffer from a mood disorder, which increases their risk of suicide and impairs treatment. Evidence they can be helped by antidepressants is weak. “People are facing their own mortality, their own demise,” said Roland Griffiths, a professor at the the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine and the lead author of one of the studies. “That’s a very special and quite poignant vulnerability that many people have in facing life-threatening illnesses.”

This is a highly controlled test study; and as encouraging as such results are, don't expect psilocybin to be readily available as a medicament in the near future. It's considered a controlled substance by the U.S. government and other nations (i.e., as Schedule I drugs under the United Nations 1971 Convention on Psychotropic Substances; Schedule 1 drugs are deemed as having no medical use). What this study does is show that it can be used effectively to relieve anxiety and fear. This is a small step and further large-scale scientific studies would be required to show consistent results.

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#cancer #anxiety   #psilocybin #magicmushrooms  

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Speculations on Nothingness

A review article in The Economist on the book, Void: The Strange Physics of Nothing (by James Owen Weatherall), discusses how physicists throughout the ages view nothingness, that is, their speculations on the large swaths of empty space between known particles and other material objects.

The article says about what the eye can's see and what experiments can only speculate about:

Einstein’s work would sweep away this view less than 50 years later. First, in his special theory of relativity, he claimed that the speed of light was the same for all observers, dispensing with the need for the aether. Next, his general theory of relativity would show that space could be curved and textured, like a taut rubber sheet stretched and formed by the masses of planets and stars. Quantum mechanics and quantum electrodynamics (a theory that merges quantum theory with Maxwell’s electromagnetism) would later reveal that even an apparently empty vacuum resembles, at small enough scales, a boiling sea of particles that constantly pop in and out of existence.

It is almost certain that what the eye can't see and what instruments can't detect allows for the existence of the unseen not confirmed (yet) by any known scientific means. Non-detection is not equivalent to non-existence. (Some humans are better than machines in detecting the unseen, whether it's called intuition, sixth sense, etc.) We have a ways to go before we understand the nothingness surrounding us.

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#nothingness #cosmology #quantumphysics

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The Puzzling Physics of Falling Cats

An article, by Karin Brulliard, in The Washington Post examines a scientific question that on first glance seems of no scientific importance, and yet it does, as this post shall soon elucidate. The question is simply this: how is it that falling cats tend to always land on their feet when dropped from a particular range of heights—typically between two and six feet? Many of us have seen cats do this; and it happens so quickly that we view this feline feat with awe.

Yet, it is not only cat lovers who wonder about this, but also those with more particular scientific bents of mind. How cats turn themselves right has long interested and baffled the best scientific minds, including those of George Gabriel Stokes, the University of Cambridge’s Lucasian Professor of Mathematics; and James Clerk Maxwell, whose equations on electromagnetism are widely used today.

Serious scientists have taken up the mantle, including Greg Gbur, a physics professor at the University of North Carolina Charlotte, writes Bruillard, “who has blogged about what is now known as the cat-righting reflex.” In “Scientists just can’t stop studying falling cats” (November 4th, 2016), Brulliard sheds light on the continuing scientific fascination with falling cats:

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Falling Cat: Karin Brulliard writes for The Washington Post that the question of falling cats made it into a journal article in 1969: “A year later, Kane and a colleague published what remains the definitive examination of the topic: A paper titled “A Dynamical Explanation of the Falling Cat Phenomenon” — which probably brought the first and only cat photos to the pages of the International Journal of Solids and Structures.”
Photo Credit: Ralph Crane; International Journal of Solids and Structures, 1969, Vol. 5
Source: Washington Post

#cats #felines   #phyics  

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Man at the Centre

Self Awareness: We humans have long thought that we are the centre of things. Such is the way our brains have developed; it is part of our survival mechanism; and it is how we were created and designed. It is no surprise, then, that humans in general have developed thoughts and narratives that places us in the centre of such stories. The more we develop in a technological fashion, the more we search the cosmos, the more we delve into the mysteries of new sub-atomic particles, the greater our yearning to return to our central narratives, which is essentially about us. Even when we search the Heavens, in our desire for transcendence, it is to understand us and our place in the Universe. In “The Rise of Neo-Geocentrism” (November 2nd, 2016), John Horgan, in a blog for Scientific American, elucidates some of the current research in this area and on the ideas that influence it: “As far as we know, consciousness is a property of only one weird type of matter that evolved relatively recently here on Earth: brains. Neo-geocentrists nonetheless suggest that consciousness pervades the entire cosmos, and it might even have been the spark that ignited the big bang. These ideas are repackaged versions of ancient, Earth-centered cosmologies, such as the one depicted in this 16th-century map.”
Image Credit: Bartolomeu Velho ca.1568 Bibilotèque Nationale de France,
Source: Scientific American

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#humanconsciousness   #NeoGeocentrism   #Anthropocentric  

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Global Wildlife Populations Facing Steep Decline by 2020

Endangered Species: One of the signs of the Anthropocene Era is that humans dominate, which can be stressfully argued is the case today, and which has been so since at least the time when humans became mechanized and industrialized. What’s good for humans is not so for other living species. The Amur leopards are one of many species that are facing extinction; they are found, reports the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), “in the border areas between the Russian Far East and north-east China.” In an accompanying article, The Guardian writes (“World’s wildlife being pushed to the edge—in pictures;” October 27, 2016): “As few as 70 critically endangered Amur leopards are left in the wild, due to habitat destruction and human-wildlife conflict.” It further adds: ”Global wildlife populations will decline by 67% by 2020 unless urgent action is taken to reduce human impact on species and ecosystems, warns the biennial Living Planet Index report from WWF and ZSL.” This is less than five years away. One can argue that a loss of species—and of biodiversity—might not truly be so good for humans, after all. We also lose a sense of ourselves, of our common and universal humanity.
Photo Credit: Vladimir Medvedev/Getty Images/Nature Picture Library
Source: The Guardian

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#endangeredspecies #Amurleopards    #worldwildlife   #biodiversity  

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A Better Understanding of ‘The Addictive Personality’

An excerpt published in Scientific American taken from the book, Unbroken Brain: A Revolutionary New Way of Understanding Addiction, by Maia Szalavitz, says that there is no scientific evidence, no general collection of personality traits, to label someone with an addictive personality. Such a diagnosis is a myth, and in no way based on current scientific research. Moreover, Szalavitz adds that many of the behaviors associated with addictions are often a result of problems associated with learning and interpreting one’s experience, whether positive or negative.

Such individuals are not born with what is deemed an anti-social personality disorder, which suggest a genetic component, but might have learning disorders, primarily in how they process information—often in a way that can distort their thought processes and lead to the formation of bad or destructive personal habits.


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Unbroken Brain: Maia Szalavitz, writes: “Addictions and other neurodevelopmental disorders rely not just on our actual experience but on how we interpret it and how our parents and friends respond to and label the way we behave. They develop in brains designed to change with experience—and that leaves us vulnerable to learning things that create damaging patterns, not just useful habits.”
Image Credit & Source: ScientAmer

#addictions   #learning   #neuroscience   #disorders

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The Nobel Prizes (2016)

Each year at this time (i.e., early October), Nobel Prizes are awarded, still considered the most prestigious international award in recognition of individual achievement; these awards were stipulated in the will of Alfred Nobel [1833–1896], the Swedish industrialist and inventor. The first ceremony was held in 1901. There are six prizes, the one for Economic Sciences was added in 1968. The winners this year, their ages in parenthesis, in each category and in order of announcement, are as follows:

Medicine or Physiology (Monday October 3rd): Yoshinori Ohsumi (71), the Nobel Assembly at Karolinska Institutet says, “for his discoveries of mechanisms for autophagy.” Yoshinori. Ohsumi is born in Japan and conducted his research at the Tokyo Institute of Technology in Japan.
For more, see [NYT].

Physics (Tuesday October 4th): David J. Thouless (82), F. Duncan M. Haldane (65) and J. Michael Kosterlitz (74), the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences says, “for theoretical discoveries of topological phase transitions and topological phases of matter.” The trio were all born in Britain, but conducted their research in the United States. David J. Thouless is Emeritus Professor at the University of Washington, Seattle, WA, USA; F. Duncan M. Haldane, is the Eugene Higgins Professor of Physics at Princeton University, NJ, USA; and J. Michael Kosterlitz,is the Harrison E. Farnsworth Professor of Physics at Brown University, Providence, RI, USA.
For more, see [Nature].

Chemistry (Wednesday October 5th): Jean-Pierre Sauvage (71), Sir J Fraser Stoddart (74) and Bernard L Feringa (65), the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences says,“for the design and synthesis of molecular machines.” Jean-Pierre Sauvage is Professor Emeritus at the University of Strasbourg, France; Sir J. Fraser Stoddart is Professor of Chemistry at Northwestern University, Evanston, IL, USA; and Bernard L. Feringa is Professor in Organic Chemistry at the University of Groningen, the Netherlands. Suuvage is born in France; Stoddart in Scotland; and Feringa in the Netherlands.
For more, see [ScientAmer].

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Past Winners: The Nobel Prizes were created by Alfred Nobel for promoting outstanding achievements in physics, chemistry, physiology or medicine, literature, and for work in peace. In his will, he dictated that most of his fortune should be used, the Nobel Prize organization says, for prizes to those who, during the preceding year, shall have conferred the greatest benefit to mankind.”
Image Credit & Source:

#NobelPrizes  #2016
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