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A couple of days ago I was interviewed by the "AstronomiAmo" association in Rome. I talked about our recent results concerning the asteroid belts of epsilon Eridani, which we studied with the NASA's SOFIA telescope.

The full program is available in YouTube (in italian).

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KIC 8462852, aka Boyajian's star, is dipping!

Do you remember the "alien megastructure" star that was caught by the Kepler space telescope in a disappearing act, dimming their brightness repeatedly by up to 22%? The phenomenon was so unusual and refractory to common astrophysical explanations that it was hypothesized that the dimming could have been the effect of a gigantic structure built by an advanced civilization, passing in front of the star (in addition to several more natural, but not less exciting, explanations).

Remember also that we launched a successful Kickstarter campaign to fund the monitoring of the star with a network of ground based telescopes?

Well the efforts are finally starting to pay off: Boyajian's star is at it again. In the last two days its brightness has decreased by 2%, and it does not seem to be slowing. The alert comes from the monitoring of the star resulting from the Kickstarter, as well as from other telescopes confirming that we may indeed be at the star of one of the great dips.

Of course now we are throwing everything we have at the star, with all sort of planned and emergency observations with small and large telescopes on Earth and in space, in the visible, ultraviolet and infrared light, as well as with SETI.

This is going to be exciting: stay tuned!
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Counting the rings of epsilon Eridani with SOFIA

Ten years ago we used the Spitzer Space telescope to observe the nearby star epsilon Eridani, and we found multiple asteroid belts around the star. Last year we went back to the system with SOFIA, NASA airborne telescope mounted on a 747, and confirmed that the star indeed resembles a young version of our own Solar System.

Read below the press release from my University describing the discovery that was published this week on the Astronomical Journal.

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After a 20 years mission, 13 or which spent exploring Saturn and its moons, the Cassini probe is poised to start its Grand Finale. The orbiter has been ordered on a daring orbit that will repeatedly plunge the probe into the narrow gap between the planet's atmosphere and the inner edge of its rings. The goal is to learn more about the origin and age of Saturn's rings, and get precise measurements of the internal structure of the planet. After each orbit Cassini will plunge deeper and deeper towards the atmosphere of the planet, until it will be swallowed by it, in a spectacular end of mission in which the instruments of the probe will literally taste and sample the composition of the gases in Saturn's upper clouds.

Cassini Grand Finale, with its fiery end expected for September this year, will produce unique scientific data. This is not the primary reason, however, that decided mission control to dump the multi-million probe into the atmosphere of Saturn, rather than leave it parked circling the planet. While Cassini has been sterilized before launch (and after its 20 years of exposure to space radiation), it may still carry traces of organic materials. Those molecules, in the off chance that the probe would drift in the system, could crash on one of Saturn moons, contaminating their surfaces. Since we don't yet know if these moons (Titan and Enceladus in particular) are hosting life, NASA scientist want to be extra cautious to avoid jeopardizing any chance that we may find extraterrestrial life in the system. The 72.3 pounds of plutonium onboard Cassini, also, are better dispersed in the huge atmosphere if Saturn, than crashed on one of its moon, which gives another reason why it would have been unadvisable to leave the probe as a potential hazard to future human exploration of the system.

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Meet José M. Hernández, son of migrant farmers from Mexico, that became an Astronaut at NASA. Born in a family with indigenous roots in La Piedad, Michoacán (Mexico) he worked as a young kid in the fields of California during the harvesting season, moving back to Mexico in the off season. He attended many schools as part of his itinerant life, and didn't learn to speak english until he was 12. One day as a kid he saw a moon landing part of the Apollo program, and he was hooked: he decided that against all odds he would become an astronaut himself.

With the support of his parents and the help of the "Upward Bound" program (a federal program providing scholarship and support to high school students in rural poor areas) he was admitted to college. After getting a B.S. in Electrical Engineering at the University of the Pacific, he got an M.S. in electrical and computer engineering at the University of Santa Barbara. He then went to work at the Lawrence Livermore National Lab, where he developed the first full field digital mammography imaging system, a technique that is still used today for cancer screening.

During all this he never lost sight of his goal to become a NASA astronaut, applying unsuccessfully 11 times to join the astronaut corps. Undeterred he got a job at NASA as an engineer, where he was part of the group that studied the causes for the shuttle Columbia disaster. In the meantime he also got a pilot flight license and scuba diving certification, which he thought could improve his chances to be an astronaut. The 12th time, he was finally accepted in the astronaut program, and flew as mission specialist in the shuttle STS-128 mission. He now directs the "Reaching for the Stars" foundation, with the goals to educate students and the community about the Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) fields.

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Budgets are passed by Congress, not the White House: the budget plan released today by the Office of Management and Budget has to be viewed more as a "priority list", than the actual budget that will come out from the Congressional negotiations. In this optics, one thing is very obvious: Science clearly is not a priority in Trump's administration.

The hardest hit are the National Institute for Health (NIH) and the Department of Energy (DOE) Office of Science, each of them poised to be cut by almost 20%. In case you wonder, the NIH is the entity that finances most of medical research in the US: your hopes to have a cure for Alzheimers before the disease will rob you of your loved ones, as well as the cure for cancer and many other deadly diseases has just be reduced by 1/5th. Your Congress representative may not believe in evolution, but bugs do, and the new antibiotics that may have stopped that disease that has developed resistance to our current medications may be discovered too late to cure your intractable infection. What about the DOE Office of Science? That's the organization that manages most US National labs, including Fermilab, Argonne, Los Alamos... remember this when the next high energy experiment will be canceled, or developed in China.

The research branches of anything related to climate or environmental science are also been decimated with brutal efficiency: a 50% cut for the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Office for Research and Development, and stiff cuts to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), aimed to stop all climate research, and the development of next generation Earth monitoring satellites. And speaking of satellites, while NASA overall budget would "only" have a 1% cut, its Earth Science program would be deeply ravaged. The NASA cuts in fact reveal in the most transparent way the animus that this administration has for climate science. It explicitly asks to turn off the one instrument onboard the DSCOVR mission that is tasked to monitor Earth climate 24/7, leaving alone the other instruments that instead target solar and space science. A future CO2 monitoring satellite is also on the chopping block (ignorance is bliss?), as it is the entire NASA Office of Education (why would you want to promote science education, anyway?)

The document doesn't mention the National Science Foundation (NSF), suggesting that the agency (which is supporting most of the remaining US science) is part of the generic "other" category, slated for a 10% proposed cut.

All these cuts would come after the funding for science in the US has been flat for several years, following the 10% mandatory cuts part of the 2013 US budget "sequestration" that cut indiscriminately the Federal budget in a ill-poised attempt to avoid another government shutdown.

What will be getting in place of scientific progress? Lots of military spending, tax cuts for the rich, and of course a nice wall on the border with Mexico.

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Unconscious bias in academia.

Last week Mayli went to give a colloquium at a nearby University, which is a high profile invitation, given the prestige of the department she was going to talk to. She arrived there the night before the talk, so they kindly set her up at the guesthouse of the University. This is the welcome sign she found at the door of their room.

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Mayly Sanchez is a neutrino physicist. She studies the elusive particles that, by changing their nature while zipping through Earth (as it if was butter), may hold the key to the next revolution in physics. Mayly is part of the NOvA experiment, that follows the secret lives of the neutrinos produced at Fermilab (Illinois), and then revealed 300 km away at a giant detector in Minnesota. She is also working on the next generation neutrino experiment, DUNE, where an even more advanced detector will be located, deep underground, in gold mine at Homestake, South Dakota.

Mayly is one of the leaders of ANNIE, another experiment at Fermilab that will test a new type of photodetectors. The large area, sensitivity and speed of these detectors will open entire new fields of application for these instruments, including new kinds of medical imaging devices for nuclear medicine. For starting this project Mayly won the prestigious US Presidential Early Career Award for Science and Engineering, that she received from President Obama in a ceremony at the White House in 2011.

She also happens to be my wife :-)

The equations she is scribbling on the board refer to the Noether theorem. Proved by Emmy Noether in 1915, it is one of the most important theorems in physics. It shows that the laws of conservation of physics arise from a symmetry in the system. For example, if a system appears the same regardless of its orientation in space, it means that its angular momentum is conserved. Symmetry with respect of space and time are associated to the laws of conservation of momentum and energy... Apart for its practical utility, the theorem is important because it gives us insights of what the laws of conservations, upon which the whole edifice of physics rests, really mean, at a very fundamental, as well as esthetic, level.

Mayly and Emmy are two women that inspire me.

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This posts follows the +Google+ #SheInspiresMe initiative for March 8:

On March 8th, we celebrate International Women’s Day, remembering the important women in our lives as well as those who have come before us to pave the way. While we all may (and should!) show our appreciation for these people every day of the year, this holiday is an opportunity to recognize our commitment to working towards equality for all.

Thank you +Sophie Bonnet for starting this. +Meg L, +Grace Monte de Ramos, +S Jereos, +Karin Lisa Atkinson, +Susana M., +Chrissi Cumberland, +Marla Caldwell, who do you want to add?


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At the end of August in 2003 NASA launched the Spitzer space telescope. Onboard, the IRAC camera that I helped building and testing, as part of a team led by Giovanni Fazio at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics..

On Thursday a discovery made with this camera made it above the fold on the New York Times! An international team used IRAC to discover 7 Earth-sized planets orbiting the nearby star Trappist-1, several of them potentially capable to host life. When Giovanni first started to work on the camera, almost 40 years ago, the only planets known were the one inside our own Solar System. Yet, it is a testament of IRAC forward-looking design that the camera was able to discover and study many extra-solar planets (something it was not designed to do), including the ground-breaking system that has been reported so widely in the news during this week.

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This is the amusing story on how the State of Indiana in 1897 tried to establish by law that the value of pi is equal to exactly 3.2.

But pi is of course the ratio of the circumference over the diameter of a circle, and is a transcendental number (3.141592...). It cannot be written with a finite number of decimals, or as a ratio of two integer numbers, or the root of rational numbers. The fact that you cannot "square the circle" has been known since antiquity, and proven mathematically by Ferdinand von Lindemann in 1882.

The legislative act was the brainchild of Dr. E. J. Goodwin, a physician in the rural part of the state, that managed to convince Indiana House Representative Taylor I. Record to sponsor a bill declaring this new values of pi as a gift by the esteemed Dr. Goodwin to the people of the State, and to the world, in perpetuity. The bill passed the House unanimously, and was defeated in the Senate only because the President of the Indiana Academy of Science, Prof. C. A. Waldo happened to be in the building while the bill was discussed. In less than 30 minutes the bill was rejected, not because the Senators recognized the absurdity of the mathematical "proof", but rather because they acknowledged their mathematical ignorance. As the linked article points out, this seems just as much a case of the forces of ignorance defeating the forces of craziness.

We live in times when alternative facts spread through society with internet speed, and scientific illiteracy is often valued as being genuine and in touch with the people. This has real consequences, especially when this attitude is enshrined in the political process, and results in anti-science policy that can have catastrophic consequences on our society and the environment.

Examples abounds through ancient and contemporary history. Several US states, including Florida, Louisiana and Tennessee, have passed legislation casting doubts on established climate science in boardrooms and schools. North Carolina for some time banned state agencies from basing coastal policies on the latest predictions of sea level rise. And let's not even think of the various attempts to promote creationism (or its updated version of "intelligent design") as a legitimate alternative to evolution. The story of when Indiana tried to legiferate the value of pi is funny; modern attempts to ignore science to promote partisan "truth" are not amusing at all.

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