5 of the Coolest Scientific Findings (Are Shockingly Recent)
The point of consciousness isn't being aware of yourself. It's being aware of your surroundings and how they could improve you and vice-versa. Opening your eyes to look outside leads to wonder and invention and building a better world for everyone. Pondering yourself in the dark leads to crazies in old clothes yelling about how nobody is allowed to touch their own genitals.
Behold: a tiny taster of humanity's most recent mind-expanding observations.
An Earthquake Shakes A Satellite
The Gravity Field And Steady-State Ocean Circulation Explorer (GOCE) is proof that form is function and both are beautiful. Especially when they're made of pure genius. A low orbit meant the satellite had to care a bit about aerodynamics, solar power made it shiny, and the incredible sensitivity of its instrumentation required a design without any moving parts. It was sleek, shiny, and solid. The realities of rocket science and the laws of physics teamed up to build an icon of fantastic '50s futurism for real.
A picture is worth every word I will ever write in my life and more.
The satellite mapped variations in the Earth's gravitational field, allowing it to measure ocean currents, investigate the mantle, even probe inside hazardous volcanic regions. There was a real risk it would find a secret Bond villain. Which is the most reasonable explanation for how it got hit by an earthquake in space. The 2011 Tohoku earthquake turned tectonic plates into the world's biggest sub(terranean)woofer. This vibrated the entire atmosphere so hard it even affected GPS signals by shaking the ionosphere. But the GOCE was flying low enough to feel the acoustic wave. This wasn't a detection of the ground shaking: Its accelerometers and orbital correction thrusters felt the shaking from 260 kilometers straight up.
The thing about an earthquake is, you're meant to be on Earth for them to work.
The GOCE was without question the most gorgeous powered satellite ever built.
"It's perfectly ready; we just want to look at it for a bit longer."
A xenon ion engine for thrust, magnetotorquers pushing against the Earth's magnetic field for attitude control, fins for flying through the thermosphere; it was a shiny sliver of The Future Is Now. And don't be worried by my use of the past tense. GOCE operated for almost triple its intended lifespan before diving into the atmosphere to rejoin the planet it had studied for so long, which it understood more deeply than anyone ever had before.
Others are distracted by the blue pools on the surface, but GOCE saw what it was like deep down.
Staring At The Sun's Heart
Detecting the sun is so easy we're told not to do it, in case we never see anything ever again. But that just means you're using the wrong equipment.
So brilliant you can't look directly at it.
We know it takes eight minutes for light to travel from the sun's surface to the Earth, which is a pretty casual way of saying something that reshaped our universe when we worked it out. But it takes 100,000 years for that light to reach the sun's surface from the core. The light is continually absorbed and re-emitted through the gigantic ball of nuclear fire, in the solar system's biggest game of pass-the-parcel, where the parcel is almost all the energy you've ever used. One-hundred-thousand years. Neutrinos make the same trip in about two seconds.
These neutrinos are released by the same nuclear reactions that power all life on Earth. Your thoughts as they read these words, right now, are burning chemical bonds created from energy released by fusion in the sun's heart. The screen you're reading from is powered by the same source (unless you've got a nuclear power plant nearby, which is using bits of other old stars). About 99 percent of this solar power is generated by proton-proton fusion, the first and simplest reaction at the heart of everything we know. Simply slamming the most elementary particles in existence together releases enough energy to run an entire solar system and everything in it. Petrol, batteries, tidal power -- they're all desperate attempts to scrape up a little bit of leftover fusion.
"Oil is my gooey thirds."
The solar energy shining down on you today was first generated around the same time as the first Homo sapiens. The neutrinos blasting through you right now were created after you opened your browser. Neutrinos are tiny, electrically neutral, don't experience the strong nuclear force, and only experience the weak nuclear force if they hit something. They sleet through solid matter because they see it for the mostly empty space it is. And they let us stare directly into the heart of a nuclear fireball over a billion meters wide.
These prime p-p nuclear reaction neutrinos were detected by the Borexino Phase 2 Detector. Because 300 tons of ultrapure liquid scintillator will detect almost anything. That's why the detector was built over 1,400 meters below an Italian mountainside. Forget designer names, Borexino is so cool it wears the physical structure of Italy as shades. It's also part of the Supernova Early Warning System. And unless you're reading this from inside a cryosuit filled with liquid nitrogen, Dr. Freeze, that is the coolest super-science you've learned today.
Complex Organic Molecules In Space
Some people wonder if we're the only life in the universe, betraying a lack of understanding of both of those terms. Life is just mass and energy, and so is the universe, but much, much more so. Existence is thermodynamics' cocktail shaker. And cocktails lead to organic fun stuff. The only way to avoid accidentally creating life somewhere else is invoking an external creator with unbelievably gigantic elbows who had to give herself 45 billion light years and counting on either side of one pale blue dot.
But it's our blue dot.
We've already found amino acids on meteorites. And now we've found complex organic chemicals with branched carbon backbones in the interstellar medium. We've detected iso-propyl cyanide in the star-forming cloud Sagittarius B2. Take that, Hamlet; the universe decided to be SO HARD. Which you would have noticed if you'd stepped outside your whining nutshell.
Don't get too excited, because organic just means "contains carbon." Then do get excited again, because that's what all our cool stuff is made of. Iso-propyl cyanide has a branched carbon-chain backbone, complex chemistry well on its way to forming amino acids. And amino acids are the building blocks of proteins. This isn't in hot wet puddles on some perfect, proto-Earth; this is in the interstellar medium. This is the stuff planets are starting from. Then add heat and shake for as many millions of years as you need. Especially since Sagittarius B2 is where we previously found 10 octillion liters of raspberry-scented rum.
One daiquiri coming up. Eventually.
We didn't just detect organic chemicals. We detected organic chemicals a few billionths of a meter across when they were 27,000 light years away. We are so good at seeing things it is staggering. And the only reason we haven't seen more sophisticated molecular structures out there is because we haven't finished building the devices to do it. Yet. We spotted these amazing molecules almost as soon as we switched on the Atacama Large Millimeter Array. Other ALMA observations have included colliding galaxies, comet composition, and protoplanetary formation. Because the universe is made of amazing things just waiting for us to be able to see them.
Many know the universe is made of neutrons, protons, and electrons, which is like "knowing" that the ABCs are the entire alphabet: You've got some of the basics, but if you want to talk about the really interesting stuff you need the rest of the set.
Neutrons, protons, and electrons not even remotely pictured.
Particle physics' all-dominating array of types and interactions make Pokemon look like Pac-Man. But physics has way more little specks, and the prize for gathering them all is understanding everything itself. One of the latest to be detected is the Majorana fermion, which sounds like the fundamental particle of magic itself but is even more impossibly amazing. Majorana fermions are their own anti-particles. We've already seen atoms that are half matter, half antimatter, but they're still made of two separate particles. The Majorana is one super symmetric particle that is its own opposite.
And neither of them have a goatee.
The Majorana is named after its hypothesizer, Ettore Majorana, who predicted the particle in 1937. Dr Science-Wizard predicted this over 70 years before we'd have the technology to check for it. And the technology makes angels dancing on the head of a pin look like counting a barn door. The experiment is the incarnation of ingenuity in problem-solving. Majorana fermions were predicted to appear in regions of strong magnetic fields and superconductivity, but strong magnetic fields disrupt superconductors. Which is why the team who discovered it built something that was both anyway.
A pure iron wire three atoms wide and only one atom thick is perched on a ridge on an ultrapure superconducting lead crystal. The Majorana appeared as predicted perched on the end of the wire. And this is why we can use science. Someone wrote a prediction beyond all the bounds of possibility, or even imagination of the minds of most, and in less than a century we'd not only studied it, we'd built it and photographed it and can point at it saying, "THERE."
The ineffable thing we wrote about is right THERE.
(Though, as with all cutting-edge results, the only thing more exciting than later finding out that we're right would be finding out why we're wrong.)
When you announce that you've demonstrated an entire new class of fundamental physical particle, some people will ask, "But what use is it?" Because some people evolved directly from the one ape that grunted about fire being a waste of valuable ass-scratching time. But since they ask: quantum computers. Majorana fermions might be usable as qubits, the basis of systems that will make everything we know about computation look like abaci.
Supernova Spacetime Splitscreen
Supernovae are the most violent detonations in existence since the one that started it, and now spacetime itself has edited together multiple views of the most awesome explosion possible. But unlike Michael Bay movies, the final cut is clear, understandable, and makes you much smarter when you watch it. Because instead of jamming the camera up the explosion's asshole, we're watching it from 9 billion light-years away. And we're watching it four times at once simultaneously.
All four dots are the same explosion.
This multiple exposure of existence is caused by gravitational lensing. Large masses can bend spacetime so that even light travels in curves. We're using an entire galaxy as an optic. One of the MACS J1149.6+2223 cluster of galaxies* is bending the light from the Refsdal supernova so that four separate images are seen in the sky, four points of thermonuclear fire shining as an "Einstein Cross." (With more diffuse sources it's possible to bend light all around the lens to form a Chwolson Ring).
*Yes, the way we have to use names like that for entire clusters of galaxies is staggering when you think about it. But even more staggering and amazing is the fact that we can think about it.
The Refsdal supernova was 9.3 billion light years away. No, don't just move on to the next sentence so quick. That sentence should at least blow every mind on the planet. It's also 20 times brighter than a normal supernova, and supernovae are normally the brightest anything anywhere. It's named for Professor Sjur Refsdal, pioneer of gravitational lensing work, in the most impressive eponymy ever. The lensing galaxy is 5 billion light years away.
The slight delay in the first arrival of each spot in the image -- as if the entire universe was just a set of Sciencemas lights flickering to life to help us celebrate existence -- is incredible data. It'll help increase our understanding of the expansion and geometry of the universe, the mass distribution of everything in it, and even the nature of dark matter. And we've got even more data on the way. Calculations predict a repeat showing within the next decade with more bent light rays racing toward us. Light is speeding across existence and we've already set our watches and primed our cameras. Because our light of consciousness is the finish line for everything that we can see. None of this stuff matters until we say it does.
The supernova is impressive, but it's just nonillions of tons of thermonuclear explosion, an inevitable consequence of the existence of matter. It's like knocking a vase off a table -- a spectacular but utterly inevitable effect of the laws of physics. The lensing galaxy is just another cosmic Katamari of hydrogen atoms which couldn't stop colliding. There are so many of them we need to use 10-digit codes to talk about groups of them. They were witnessed by the Hubble Space Telescope. Only 11 tons, but there's only one of them. Anywhere. It's one of the only things in space that can see as well as shine.
The most beautiful thing in the sky was right beside us all along.
Galaxies and stars just happen. The Hubble was built by human hands, and it does more to truly illuminate existence than all those faraway stars in the sky put together.