More Science Talk
Steve: Welcome to Science Talk, the weekly podcast of Scientific American for the seven days starting January 14th, 2009. I'm Steve Mirsky. This week on the podcast we'll talk with our Space maven George Musser, who was at the meeting of the American Astronomical Society last week in Long Beach, California. We will test your knowledge about some recent science in the news, but we will start with SciAm.com's Larry Greenemeier, who was at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas last week. We spoke in his office.
Steve: First let's talk about did you see any gadgets that really blew you away?
Larry: I saw some interesting stuff, but not necessarily stuff that I would say blew me away; you know, I mean, there were some things like cigarettes that are smokeless cigarettes where you can actually smoke, it is the reversal of regular cigarette. You put the filter in with the nicotine, you light it up with a plastic stick and you suck the nicotine out and it comes out as water vapor. So in other words it doesn't pollute the air.
Steve: Just your lungs.
Larry: Exactly, so you keep you poor health habits to yourself. There was another exhibit where they had a computer keyboard underwater to show that they had developed some sort of way of sealing up keyboards. I don't think they expected to do any underwater computing. I think it's more for people who spill things on the computer.
Larry: So stuff like that. It's interesting stuff, nothing that was like sort of mind blowing though.
Steve: But for our underwater cities of the future, which are coming any day now ...
Steve: ... those keyboards should come in handy.
Steve: There was nothing you saw that you thought, jeez, I am going to go out and buy one of those as soon as they become available or the price has come down enough?
Larry: Well, yeah, the second part—in this economy, I am not thinking about running out and buying anything.
Larry: And I think the vendors know that because there was a huge message. At the keynotes everyone, Steve Ballmer from Microsoft, Howard Stringer from Sony, everyone threw in a reference to the economy. I think they knew that they weren't going be fooling anyone if they didn't say that, you know, we understand that people are seeing some hard financial times.
Steve: So the attendance at a show, I mean, usually this is a big, big show. Thousands of people come to it and the attendance was noticeably down this year.
Larry: Well, it's still a big show, there were still lot of people there, but anecdotally, people were saying that instead of 150,000—actually I got good numbers from the cabdrivers because I think the dispatchers were sending out cabs to this year's show based upon need and when I was arriving there, the cabdriver was talking about 130,000 people were expected and when I was leaving three days later, another cabdriver was talking about 100,000 people they were expecting. So that's down, I mean, 100,000 people are still a lot, but ...
Steve: It is significantly down.
Larry: Down, yeah.
Steve: I trust the cabbies more than I trust the meeting organizers and their figures.
Larry: I figure there['s] was a pretty reliable number.
Steve: So the keynotes, all mentioned the economy; what about, we heard in the mainstream press that just sort of the atmosphere was different because, for example, Bill Gates for the first time in a long time wasn't there because he is stepping away from control of Microsoft.
Larry: Right, well yeah; and Steve Ballmer didn't have to slash the guitar and at some stage he has to play the guitar. I mean the keynote figures who were there, you know, they tried to do a good job, tried to be entertaining. Ballmer, basically you know, the Microsoft position is that this is Ballmer's coming out party and, you know, he had an interesting keynote, but he also didn't have the products to announce to really help them out. I mean, he talked about Windows 7 and the interesting thing there is that it's coming out so soon after Vista. I mean, Microsoft is not waiting a few years which is very telling about how Vista is doing that they are rushing to get Windows 7 out. I mean as far as I can tell it doesn't do a whole lot more than Vista, but it is supposedly going to be better and work better, I guess.
Steve: Well, that would be a big deal.
Larry: Well, yeah. I mean, if they had done Vista correctly it wouldn't be a big deal, but so here Windows 7 may have some more integrative technology so that you can do everything from your e-mail. It was just more of what we have but available for Windows and Microsoft products.
Steve: Do you think that's a function of the economy or is it a function of just saturation of technology to a certain extent? We all pretty much have everything we think we need right now, and so that, you know, all the ecological niches have been filled.
Larry: Well in Microsoft's case, I think it's kind of a damage control. I think they spent the last year or so fixing Windows rather than looking at new things. I guess the most exciting things they announced [were] two new Halo titles for the Xbox. You know, I mean, their priority seemed to be righting, you know, what had gone wrong with something they have made a huge investment in. So I think that's one of the reasons why you didn't see anything really exciting out of the Windows and Explorer and the other computer technologies, because Microsoft had a different focus over the past year.
Steve: And the other big thing was everything is green.
Larry: Yes, packaging, cars, computers—so just about everything that can be marketed now is being marketed as a green product.
Steve: Are they really green or is the big effort being made in the marketing of them as green?
Larry: Well it's probably both. I mean, when they say that a computer uses less energy or when a TV uses less energy, it's probably true.
Steve: But how much?
Steve: Is it significant as, you know, 5 percent less energy or 50 percent less energy?
Larry: Closer and closer to the first. I mean we are not talking about anything that's, you know, going to cut energy usage down that much, and people will also need to learn how to use the new technologies more efficiently. So I don't think it's a big deal, but I mean that's how they are, it's just like car companies are promoting their cars on miles per gallon now whereas, you know, it used to be how big they are, what size engines they had.
Steve: Right, or how many women you could attract by driving one.
Steve: So is green in danger of just becoming so ubiquitous that it loses its meaning?
Larry: Yeah, it seems that way; I mean, I think halfway through this year, we are going to be tired of hearing about what's green. But I mean I shouldn't make fun of it so much because it's actually a good thing. At least they're trying. So to some extent it's becoming a bit of a joke but to another extent this is something that they need to do and now they are actually doing.
Steve: When you combine green with nano, boy then you will have the cutting edge of all future technology.
Larry: Blockbuster products with green and nano.
Larry: Yeah, it would be interesting to see CES next year or the year after, I mean, because that's when that the company, one of the big things that happens when things are down and the companies are investing in research tend to do better when things get better; at least that's what they tell you and that's what seemed to happen during the last downturn, you know, when the dot-coms all went down. You know Google emerged out of that stronger than ever. So you know that it will be interesting to see what happens when this is all over.
Steve: Check out Larry's coverage in the In Depth report at our Web site titled "CES 2009: The Consumer Electronics Show". When it comes to space stuff, George Musser is our resident expert, which is why we sent him to the American Astronomical Society Meeting last week. We sat down for a cosmic conversation in the library at Scientific American.
Steve: What [were]
was some of the big things that you heard about this year that you thought really interesting or exciting?
Musser: One I was quite taken by was the question of black holes and galaxies, specifically which came first. Pretty much every galaxy seems to have a super massive very, very large black hole right at it's very center and our Milky Way Galaxy has one about
our four million times the mass of the sun. Other galaxies have even larger ones and often these black holes are sucking in material and spewing out either, kind of a, spray of particles or a laser radiation, and a question has always been: Did the galaxy come first and the black hole kind of, take shape in it's very center or did the black hole come first and kind of gather a galaxy around it? Or maybe there is some common origin of them both. And one piece of evidence for this has been that the black hole always seems to have a certain proportion of its galaxy's mass about one in 1000th of its mass. So, this has actually been a big discovery in astrophysics over the past decade or so, that there is this kind of proportionality of masses that suggest a link between galaxies and their black holes. There's a study that looked at galaxies and black holes in the very, very early universe, and they did the same kind of measurements of the masses of a galaxy and of the [black holes] and they really found a different proportion; I think it is only about a 30th, the black hole is about a 30th of the mass of its galaxy.
Steve: So the black hole is much larger relative to the mass of the galaxy in these early galaxies.
Steve: And the way you look at an early galaxy is—or an older galaxy [black hole] is—you just take your telescopes and you look further away; the further away you get, the further back in time you're looking.
Musser: Yeah, basically, exactly. So it's a really interesting correlation and a really interesting discovery, because think about what it means: The black holes used to be proportionately bigger. Now black holes can't shrink. They keep sucking more material. So it must have been [be that] the galaxies
that were [are] bigger such that the black holes [are] then it was a smaller proportion of its [their] mass.
Musser: So it suggested that the black hole came first and then the galaxy somehow gathered around it.
Musser: Now the day after that announcement was made,
after I was talking to some other astronomers who actually think it may be a statistical bias in the way this survey was done. It might call into question the finding, but as a general rule this work of trying to understand the relationships of galaxies with their black holes is really a central feature of astronomy, so there are a lot of talks about it.
Steve: A central feature because you are trying to understand the evolution of the universe.
Musser: Right, I mean, galaxies are really the building block of the universe. So pretty much everything [that] happens in the universe happens in the galaxy or to a galaxy or involving lots of galaxies. So now to physicists it's kind of, it's the legal block of the universe. Now to us within a galaxy—a galaxy consist[s] of billions [and] billions of stars—it's just this massive thing all around it, but to what it also matters, because the way the galaxy, our own galaxy, formed will allowed our solar system to form, and they are biased to form, and our position in the galaxy seems to allow us to survive; if our solar system was deep in the center we might not survive. There might be too much radiation or stellar encounters and so forth. So the galactic environment does pertain to that of the solar system.
Steve: Just as the Earth seems to be in a really good spot relative to the sun, the whole solar system is in a really good spot relative to the massive black hole at the center of the galaxy.
Musser: Exactly. You know, it seems to reproduce itself from a microscopic to macroscopic scale.
Steve: So speaking of our galaxy, a proud day for the Milky Way.
Musser: We are the winners. We are the alpha galaxy of our local neighborhood. This is one of those disputes that have gone on a strong for decades even, I don't even know. The question is of the two main galaxies in our neck of the woods, us [the] Milky Way and [the] Andromeda Galaxy—M31 galaxy—which is bigger; and studies say we are bigger then it goes
the Andromeda, then the torch is passed back to us, and goes back and forth, so the latest study suggests that the Milky Way is actually either the same or somewhat bigger in size than the Andromeda, our partner galaxy.
Steve: Now this is a really interesting methodology to come to this conclusion, because you were trying to measure something that we are in, so how do these guys come to this conclusion?
Musser: Yeah, that was really the challenge of this work. It's actually ironically easier to weigh the Andromeda Galaxy then it is to weigh our own galaxy. As you say we are embedded in it and we've to look out through it and kind of interpret its structure from the little tidbits that we can glean. In this case they looked at star-forming regions that were scattered through the galaxy and they actually tracked them as they moved across the sky. They had such precision in their radial telescope measurements that they actually saw them go inch, inch, inch across the sky and then they could also measure the Doppler effect [and] tell whether they are coming toward us or [going] away from us. So by combining the two-dimensional velocity across the sky [with] the one-dimensional velocity away from us or toward us, they put together [a] three-dimensional velocity and thereby the total velocity of these clouds. Now, from the velocity of these gas clouds, these star-forming regions, they conferred the mass just by using basic gravitational physics, and they could also, they knew the locations of them so that they could, kind of, map out to some extent the shape and, of course, the mass of our galaxy.
Steve: And their conclusion was, it used to be thought that we were rotating about the center of the galaxy at about half a million miles an hour and the updated figure based on their data collection and analysis is it is actually more like 600,000 miles an hour than 500,000 and in order for us to maintain our position and not fly out of our position, the galaxy's mass has to be about 50 percent bigger than they thought it was.
Musser: That's exactly right. Now, of course, the same thing applies in our solar system. If you measure the speed of, say, the Earth orbiting around the sun, and you can do it with the mass of the sun, [it] must be such that the Earth doesn't fly off into the galaxy.
Steve: Right, right.
Musser: One thing I think that's cool about that, that galaxy just weighing of the Milky Way and of the Andromeda galaxy, kind of he implication of it—beside[s] the fact that we're the top dog here— the more scientific implication is that there might be more dark matter in our galaxy then in the Andromeda galaxy and understanding that dark matter is really
what [where] it's at; you have to understand that because kind of everything depends on it; the fact the stars are where they are depends on the unseen dark matter that they are embedded in, so knowing how much dark matter is there in our galaxy versus other galaxies, it's something that will help understand dark matter in the universe.
Steve: Which astronomers would dearly love to do because then maybe they could start explaining it to the rest of us right over here, wrap our little minds around [it].
Musser: Yeah, it's actually kind of cool. The emphasis in astronomy for decades, really up until maybe 10 years ago or 15 years ago, was proving that dark matter exists—the sheer, the mere fact of its existence. And now we're kind of to the next, we are to the second gear—for those of us who still use manual transmissions, because they can think in terms of a gearshift—we are to the next level here. And what is the dark matter and how does it behave? What are some of things that it does? Is there a, sort of, an inner life as opposed to its gravitational effects? Does it do things
amongst within the world of the dark matter and amongst the particles themselves. So I think we'll even see probably the discovery of a dark matter particle either in a Hadron Collider in Switzerland or in a detector on the Earth.
Steve: There is a big thing coming up in February, unless the government decides to push it back, where we are going to have no more broadcast analog signals. All the signals are going to be digital; and as you point out in an item that's going to be up in the Web or will be by the time people hear this, one of the unfortunate outcomes of that is we'll no longer be able to see snow on our TV screens. And you know snow is annoying when you're trying to watch a program, but snow is a kind of fascinating for just checking out for a moment. I want to tell you really what's with that snow, is[if you've] that they've never really heard about, you know, why you get that kind of whacky static on your television screen.
Musser: Yeah, this is one of those, kind of, "Where we are losing?" moments with the progress of technology: We gain stuff, we lose stuff. Now one of the purposes of digital TV is to eliminate the snow, so we don't have to put up with that static that gets in the way, but a portion of the static is actually from the big bang, it is actually the microwave background radiation. So I can remember the detailed fraction of it, but it comes from various sources such as transmissions on Earth that are mangled or transmissions from elsewhere in the galaxy, but some of it actually comes to us from 13.7 billion years ago that's traveled uninterrupted through space into our atmosphere, [and] into your TV antenna—some people still have those...
Steve: I do.
Musser: ...and into their TV sets. And if you turn between channels on the old type of TVs, you can actually still see it, and on the new TV set you can even get between channels when you go from one channel to the next.
Steve: The other interesting thing [is] that is, there was some talk about a secondary source of this kind of electromagnetic radiation other than the remnant of the big bang and some galactic source of it. Why don't you explain?
Musser: So they are calling it the cosmic radial background. So this is at even longer wavelengths, lower frequencies, they call it microwave background. So in astronomy there [are]is a lot of these background radiations. The microwave background I've talked about, that comes, I believe, from the big bang from the early universe that was filled with hot plasma, we are kind of seeing the glow of that heated area. There are the cosmic infrared background, the cosmic x-ray background, the cosmic visible light background that seemed to come from stars and galaxies and black holes that are kind of too close to see, but we just kind of see their overall glow that they give off. And now there is this fifth background that they seemed to have kind of pinned down, they call it cosmic radial background. Actually it was first seen really back in the late '60s and, then it was, kind of, no one really trusted it, and then it was kind of seen in one more studies into the '80s and '90s, but again these measurements are hard to make. They have all on analysis, it's very error prone, and at the meeting last week, they kind of gave some observations that may be more definitive in the favor and showing that that this radiation, this radial background really exists. It was a balloon-borne instrument that was flown above Texas back in, I guess, 2006 or 2007, that actually used a really innovative design that was designed to minimize noise. It was able to shield that terrestrial noise, all the classic rock stations, and saw the cosmic signal and it again picked up this mysterious cosmic radial background; and now the question is, is it real? They still have to confirm it—the data that they took was only a few hours long, so they have to go back and take more data—but it is looking more and more like it really does exist. Where does it come from? Does it come from stars? Does it come from black holes? Does it come from dark matter? There's a whole lot of speculation now about where it comes from. But what's cool about this is now we['ve] got our hands wrapped around a new phenomena that we have to kind of grapple and bring to the ground and figure out what exactly it is; and it's just it's seldom in astronomy that you get just a genuinely new thing to look [at]. So people are really excited about this new background, this cosmic radial background that they are seeing now what it could mean.
Steve: How do we know that it's not another big bang running just out of different frequency?
Musser: There is a suggestion that it is a primordial signal and that it is associated with kind of a leftover photons—leftover radiation from the release of the microwave background; it may give off a weaker cousin in the radial background, but most people think it has the characteristics of something that's powered by stars or by black holes. In particular, the kind of radiation that would produce it is produced by electrons that are spiraling around magnetic field lines. So it seems to be very particular to that kind of environment that would exist in a galaxy or around a star that would contain magnetic fields and electrons. So it would be harder to really get that from the very primordial universe. Although they don't know what it is, or maybe there is a possibility it could be primordial.
Steve: So by trying to get a grasp on what it is, that gives you additional information about general universal evolution? How the cosmos got to be where they are today, got to be what they are today?
Musser: Yeah, the way I think about these backgrounds myself, the microwave background is in a category of it's own; but the other three backgrounds that were known in the infrared, the x-rays and visible light and perhaps this new, one radial background, as well, is it there's a kind of a reality check, kind of a check on the sensors that astronomers make of the universe. It's sort of like the census, if you're trying to do the statistical check on the head count; they wanted to have a sample of people in one area and see how accurate the census was in that area and they correct the figures. And these background radiations function in the same way, because they represent kind of the accumulated light of all the stars, all the black holes, all the galaxies. You can then compare that accumulated light with your catalogue of stars, galaxies, and black holes. Add up what's in your catalogue, does it give you the same as the background light implies? And in fact it doesn't. Background light implies that there are more stars, galaxies, black holes etc., and the resolution of that in the case at least of the x-ray, infrared and visible light was that the stars would be hidden and the black holes would be hidden by dust. And the universe was choked with dust, a lot more dust than they ever thought and that working with in those clouds of dust were hidden populations of black holes especially. So if you try to go and take the same approach with the new background, the radial background that they think they have now, you might look for another hidden population of something or the other that could produce it, something that's not already accounted for in the catalogues, in the [census]
sensors; and one thing that came to people's minds is the very, very, very, very, very first stars. These are the stars that just were the very first to be formed in the universe. There is a period of utter darkness and stars started to take shape and that very early generation, the kind of, that race of Titans of stars, were larger with different compositions; they died in a different way than the stars that were born in subsequent generations.
Steve: Because the subsequent generation of stars are made up of the stuff that the first stars blew out when they exploded.
Musser: Right. Stars are made up of mostly hydrogen, which is primordial [and] come[s] from the big bang or comes from the early universe. But mixed into stars like the sun and it's neighbors are traces of other materials like iron, oxygen, carbon, etcetera; we're made of those materials ourselves; those materials are produced in stars. So the very early stars didn't have any of those other elements mixed in, they were just purely hydrogen and helium, so they behave in a different way and, in particular, they were not cloaked in dust and the new radial background signal seemed also to be dust free. It [There] doesn't seemed to be
in [any] dust involved in it, so people speculated—and it is only a speculation, they really haven't worked at it yet—that the radial background could be that very first generation of stars. The difficulty is that they really haven't worked through the calculations to prove that. It is just kind of one of those things people kind of forced into science and say, "Yup, maybe it's the first generation of stars," but something will have to kind of pin down in the years to come really.
Steve: Because what we know for sure is that we can measure this radial wavelength radiation and what we don't know is what it's doing out there.
Steve: And our attempts to figure out what it is doing will help us clarify what was going on billions of years ago.
Musser: Right, exactly. So the thinking is that it, like most of the other background radiations, is somehow an accumulation,
of [a] pooled kind of curtain of light that comes from individual stars or maybe black holes, for example, and we just don't happen to see them, because our telescopes don't have the resolving power. In principle, if we have a powerful enough telescope and could look far enough back, we would actually, the curtain of light would dissolve, and you will get little pin pricks of light that would be the individual stars [that] make it up. Like our Milky Way Galaxy, if we go out in a dark night, you see this curtain of light across the sky called the Milky Way—that's where the names comes from—but if you look through the telescope as Galileo started to do, you begin to resolve that into individual stars, billions upon billions [of] stars.
Musser: And the same trick might be repeated for the radial background as it was for the other backgrounds.
Steve: Very interesting. Speaking of Galileo, this is the 400th anniversary of...
Musser: ...his use of the telescope in astronomy. The telescope—there is some dispute about when it was invented—was it invented in Spain or in Holland, [but] by whom? Maybe it was invented multiple times in 1608 but it really was in 1609 that Galileo took that thing and pointed it up at the sky and looked at the moon, looked at Jupiter, discovered the Galilean satellites of Jupiter, the...
Steve: ...the four main...
Musser: ...Io, Europa, Ganymede and Callisto—interesting bodies to this very day. You can see them if you look through even binoculars, you can see them.
Steve: I have a pair of 8x56 binoculars for astronomical use; the 56 gives you that much more light gathering and you can clearly see those four. I remember the first time I just looked up in New York City where we have a lot of light pollution, I looked up at Jupiter and saw those Galilean moons and no fancy instrumentation, just standing there with binocs. It's great.
Musser: Yep, and Galileo thought [of] that as a, kind of a, prototype for our solar system. So it's one of the kinds of more visible pieces of evidence for the Copernican heliocentric [idea] that the sun-centered view of the universe and that was only then becoming accepted.
Steve: And he also looked at Venus and saw something interesting.
Musser: [He] saw the phases of
the Venus like the phases of the moon. So this is now the International Year of Astronomy; kind of [a] big PR effort and education effort keyed to the anniversary of the astronomical use of the telescope that by Galileo; but there is actually a podcast that's being put out by consortium of astronomers. Everyday there's a new [one]. It is actually on iTunes now and you can pick it up and there is a new podcast every single day for every day in the year and they are scrambling to try to find ways to fill all those days, but there is obviously a lot to talk about. There are museum exhibits and there is a big, at this meeting I just went to, there was a kind of big opening gala for the International Year of Astronomy. There are documentaries coming up on TV, so there's a whole lot of stuff.
Steve: So everybody don't forget to celebrate the International year of Astronomy and the 400th anniversary—you're going to hear a lot about Darwin this year, the 200th anniversary of his birth and the 150th anniversary of Origin of Species—but it's also the 400th anniversary of Galileo finding the moons of Jupiter and phases of Venus and all kind of interesting stuff. So go out and look at the stars and remember the words of I think, it was Einstein who said, "The universe is not only stranger than we imagine, it's stranger than we can imagine."
Steve: Check out all of George's coverage from the AAAS meeting at www.SciAm.com, just hit "space" in your list of subjects at top.
Now it's time to play TOTALL....... Y BOGUS. Here are four science stories; only three are true. See if you know which story is TOTALL....... Y BOGUS.
Story number 1: Women who eat lots of cereal while pregnant increase their chances of having sons.
Story number 2: Financial traders who make the most money were more likely to have a high ring-finger-length-to-index-finger-length ratio.
Story number 3: Brits are making a point of eating more squirrels.
And story number 4: A blind man recently completed an obstacle course because visual information was getting through the part of his brain without his even being aware of it.
Time is up.
Story number 4 is true. The blind man's feat was written up in the journal Current Biology. It's an example of what's called blind sight where the visual cortex doesn't work but the information still gets through. For more check out the January 5th episode of the 60-Second Psych podcast.
Story number 3 is true. The gray squirrel is becoming a more popular dish in England. One reason is that the gray is brought over from the States; [they] are an invading species there and they are out-competing the popular native red squirrel. So, one way to save the reds is to eat the grays. Excellent squirrel recipes can be found on episodes of The Beverly Hillbillies.
And story number 2 is true. In a study of 44 traders, the one's who made the most money over a 20-month period also had the highest ratio of the length of ring finger to index finger. The study was published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. It's known that the finger length ratio is dependent on fetal exposure to testosterone which also leads to testosterone sensitivity in adulthood. The researchers hypothesized that the finger length ratio is thus a marker for behavior such as decisiveness and risk taking which can help a trader make money in the short term.
All of which means that story number 1, about women who eat lots of cereal being more likely to have sons is TOTALL....... Y BOGUS. A study published last spring said it was true, but the Proceedings of the Royal Society B has just published a paper saying that the first paper was flawed. The proceedings also published the original cereal paper. For more check out Jordan Lite's January 14th blog item called "Special delivery cereal not linked to baby sex after all, study says".
Well that's it for this edition of Scientific American's Science Talk. Check out SciAm.com for the latest science news and full articles from Scientific American magazine and our other print edition Scientific American Mind and Scientific American Earth 3.0. For Science Talk, I'm Steve Mirsky. Thanks for clicking on us.
Scientific American astronomy expert George Musser discusses the recent meeting of the American Astronomical Society and SciAm.com's Larry Greenemeier reports on the Consumer Electronics Show. Plus, we'll test your knowledge about some recent science in the news.