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Gravitational wave detection rumors may end on Feb 11

Cosmic Diary Marchis - February 08, 2016

It is official. NSF, together with scientists from Caltech, MIT and the LIGO collaboration will give an update on their effort to detect gravitational waves.

What is LIGO? Check out this article published in Arstechnica by Eric Berger.

I am not going to speculate on the announcement and will simply wait for it. Joe Giaime a California Institute of Technology physicist who manages the lab and also a professor at Louisiana State University was pretty clear in the Arstechnica interview about the way this group works: “We’re really kind of old school,” he said. “We analyze our data. If there’s anything interesting we write it up in papers. We send the papers to the journals. If and only if there’s an interesting discovery that passes muster, and it has been accepted for publication by a journal, then we blab about it. Anything before that, you’re not going to get anything out of me.”

So if they indeed have detected those gravitational waves, we will also get a paper.

Computer simulation of a black hole collision. When two black holes merge into one, enormous amounts of energy are released in the form of gravitational waves.

Below the official announcement.


8 February 2016

** Contact details appear below. **


** Synopsis: 100 years after Einstein predicted the existence of gravitational waves, the National Science Foundation gathers scientists from Caltech, MIT, and the LIGO Scientific Collaboration to update the scientific community on efforts to detect them. **

Journalists are invited to join the National Science Foundation as it brings together scientists from Caltech, MIT, and the LIGO Scientific Collaboration (LSC) this Thursday at 10:30 a.m. EST (15:30 UTC/GMT) at the National Press Club for a status report on the effort to detect gravitational waves — or ripples in the fabric of spacetime — using the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-wave Observatory (LIGO).

This year marks the 100th anniversary of the first publication of Albert Einstein’s prediction of the existence of gravitational waves. With interest in this topic piqued by the centennial, the group will discuss their ongoing efforts to observe gravitational waves.

LIGO, a system of two identical detectors carefully constructed to detect incredibly tiny vibrations from passing gravitational waves, was conceived and built by MIT and Caltech researchers, funded by the National Science Foundation, with significant contributions from other U.S. and international partners. The twin detectors are located in Livingston, Louisiana, and Hanford, Washington. Research and analysis of data from the detectors is carried out by a global group of scientists, including the LSC, which includes the GEO600 Collaboration, and the VIRGO Collaboration.


Thursday, Feb. 11, 2016

10:30 am US EST (7:30 am US PST, 15:30 UTC/GMT)


The National Press Club

Holeman Lounge

529 14th Street NW, 13th Floor

Washington, DC 20045

Media RSVP:

Seating is extremely limited, but an overflow room will be available where reporters can still ask questions and have access to additional subject matters to interview after the press conference. Only the first 50 journalists to arrive will be seated in the main room. All interested journalists should RSVP to any of the media contacts listed below to ensure press credentials are prepared ahead of time. A mult box will be available for broadcast media, and the Press Club is equipped with wireless access.

Live Webcast:

For press not based in the Washington, D.C. area, this event will be simulcast live online, and we will try to answer some questions submitted remotely. For details about how to participate remotely, please contact anyone listed below.


Tom Waldman


+1 (626) 395-5832, cell: +1 (818) 274-2729


Kimberly Allen


+1 (617) 253-2702, cell: +1 (617) 852-6094


Ivy Kupec


+1 (703) 292-8796, cell: +1 (703) 225-8216


The smallest dunes

Cosmic Diary by Lori Fenton - February 08, 2016

A Piece of Mars: There are two small dome-shaped dunes in this frame (0.96×0.54 or 0.6×0.33 mi). If they got any larger, they’d form slip faces. Any smaller and they’d just be random drifts of windblown sand. Dunes form at a particular size (~125 m in this case) related to the distance it takes for sand grains to accelerate to the background wind speed. This distance is bigger on Mars than on Earth, where the smallest dunes are ~20 m across. (HiRISE ESP_044198_1480 NASA/JPL/Univ. of Arizona)

Remnants of erosion

Cosmic Diary by Lori Fenton - January 25, 2016

A Piece of Mars: The gray area in the center of the 480×270 m (0.3×0.17 mi) area is an erosional remnant: once, more of this area was covered by the gray stuff, but some of it has eroded away (most likely by the wind) to reveal the underlying terrain below. The wind probably blew from upper left to lower right, lifting away the finer grains and leaving behind the larger, heavier ones. Some of the larger grains have formed into ripples, that in some places may be the only sign that the overlying layer was ever there. (HiRISE ESP_043136_2020, NASA/JPL/Univ. of Arizona)

Springtime for sand dunes and polar ice

Cosmic Diary by Lori Fenton - January 12, 2016

A Piece of Mars: This 480×270 m (0.3×0.17 mi) scene shows a dark dune peeking out from under its cover of winter frost. In this picture it’s late spring, but still cold up at this latitude – it’s as far north here as the Greenland town of Qaanaaq (pop. 656 as of 2013). The CO2 frost here lingers on shady slopes until summer, preventing the dunes from migrating until it’s gone. (HiRISE ESP_043799_2570 NASA/JPL/Univ. of Arizona)

How to explain the inconceivable

Cosmic Diary Marchis - January 10, 2016

I am often asked to comment on what happened in Paris last December since I have both French and American citizenships and I live in the US. Like a lot of my compatriotes, it has been difficult to watch those events unfold on Friday afternoon December 13 (I was working at George Mason University in DC ). Since then, he has been also impossible to rationalize what really happened and to give a sense on those horrific events. Today I listened to “Geopolitique”, a short program aired on France Inter which described events and their consequences in the geopolitical scale. Bernard Guetta summarized very well what are my thoughts on the Paris events and its consequences, so I decided to share with you  an English translation which has been freely adapted. The French version   “Comment expliquer l’inconcevable” is available on the France Inter web site.

PeaceForParis by the artist Jean Jullien

The perpetrators of the most recent murders have no excuse whatsoever, especially not one that seeks to blame the societies they live in. Nor, for that matter, did Mohamed Merah before them, or the killers of November 13, or the killers of January 7 in Paris. They were certainly not mentally ill and they certainly were responsible for their actions — and cannot claim that the challenges of integrating into a new society make them the bloodthirsty monsters they became.

In order to identify racism, racial profiling or immigrant ghettos as the cause of such crimes, we must first erase from our minds the fact that these realities do not make a killer out of everyone — or even most — of people who suffer from them on a daily basis. So how is it that men who grew up in France and were not that different from their classmates joined fifteen hundred others who were poisoned by jihadist recruiters and joined the Daesh?

There is certainly no single explanation for why that happened, but with the death of fascism, communism and the Guevarists maquis in Latin America, jihadism is the last and only ideology left standing with a global appeal. Nowhere else in the Middle East one can find another cause with its power and grip on people, nor one as messianic, nor one that asks as much blind obedience to a common cause and is also so universally condemned – in short, one infinitely alluring to men without judgment who want, above all, to give meaning to their lives by defying, without exception, all established orders.

For these men, becoming a jihadist means entering a new existence in which they can identify with the struggles of a region they do not understand and peoples and cultures they do not know, and immerse themselves in the belief that that they are changing the world by iron and fire.

As was so rightly pointed out Olivier Roy, they do not embody a radicalization of Islam but the Islamization of radicalization, a radicalism that every generation or so eventually succumbs to. But this one is uniquely terrifying because once one is proclaimed a soldier of God, once one is on a divine mission, everything is permitted, absolutely everything, without taboo or restrictions or limits.

Above all, the fate of these miserable cretins should lead us to ask ourselves about the dangers we run by no longer believing in anything. It is great to have finally rejected failed ideologies and their illusions and nostrums. But in their place, we have taken to laughing at everything, ridiculing everything, and renouncing collective ambition in order to cultivate individualism and enjoy absolute freedoms. We have chosen an acquired eternal over fighting injustice and the status quo — and by doing this, we facilitate the work of the propagandists of jihad.

From the idiocies of M. Trump to those of M. Putin, from one form of the new European extreme right to another, forces significantly closer to the typical voter than jihadists are working to make nationalism, isolationism and rejection of others our collective belief and unifying ideals. Surely there is a better route than our own jihad. The fight for progress and the Enlightenment never ended, and we must now pick up that banner anew and resume the fight — because on the outcome of this struggle depends everything rational, compassionate people value and hold dear.

That which curves and that which is straight

Cosmic Diary by Lori Fenton - December 30, 2015

A Piece of Mars: The long meandering lines snaking across the image (3.2×1.8 km or 2×1.1 mi across) are inverted channels. They are river deposits that once were the lowest part of the landscape (rivers always are), but then the water dried up and wind erosion took over. The river channels were more resistant to erosion and so now they stand above the rest of the terrain. The wind left behind straight, streamlined hills called yardangs. Given enough time, the wind will scrape at the surface until both the yardangs and the river channels are gone, but for now there’s a beautiful landscape. (HiRISE PSP_002424_1765 NASA/JPL/Univ. of Arizona)

Curiosity about sand dunes (part 2/2)

Cosmic Diary by Lori Fenton - December 21, 2015

Today is December 21, 2015 (northern winter and southern summer solstice on Earth). On Mars it is Ls = 84º, Mars Year 33 (about 12 sols from northern summer and southern winter solstice on Mars). It is sol 1200 of Curiosity’s mission on Mars, and the rover is working its way around the southern side of Namib Dune. Part 1 of my previous post shows part of the windward (northeastern) side of High Dune. This time I’ll show pictures of the slip face of Namib Dune.

The dunes in this part of the Bagnold Dune Field are slowly marching towards the southwest. Wind blows from the north-northeast and the sand piles up, only to oversteepen on the lee side and form avalanches in what we call a slip face. This happens over and over as the dune moves: saltating sand flies over the dune crest and settles on the upper slip face (what we call grainfall). When enough sand piles up, it oversteepends, and eventually there’s a slope failure: stuff higher up moves down, like a little landslide (what we call grainflow). We see grainflows most commonly when the wind is blowing nearly directly across the crest of the dune.

But when is nature ever so uniform? Sometimes people ask me how strong the wind blows on Mars, as if I could just give them a single value that would apply to all of Mars (its mountains, polar caps, steep crater rims, and flat plains) at all times (its CO2-covered winters, convectively-turbulent summer days, regions prone to seasonal dust storms, and nighttime low-lying flows). Go outside on Earth for a moment and tell me if you can feel the wind moving from different directions, at different speeds, and do it again in 12 hours and again in 6 months. In most places you won’t get the same result, and it is the same on Mars.

You don’t get the same winds blowing here in the Bagnold Dune Field either, even though the dunes are telling us that the strong winds mostly blow from the north-northeast. What can the slip face tell us about that? Let’s have a look:

What an awesome view! Here’s another view of the whole slip face:

It’s totally different from the other side of the dune, which is covered in ~2 m sized ripples that are themselves covered in smaller ripples. Instead, this looks like a giant wall of sand, textured with features that all look like they’ve moved downhill. The smoother surfaces are probably the newest: these are fresh grainflows. But some of the slip face is covered in small ripples. Here’s what I mean:

What you’re seeing is the interplay of at least two different winds. There’s the main wind that blows over the crest, which forms grainflows, and then a secondary wind that blows in a different direction, forming ripples out of sand from the grainflows. Based on the orientations of other ripples, that secondary wind probably blows from the northwest, which is roughly along the slope of the slip face. That northwesterly wind is responsible for making the large ripples at the base of the slip face – when that wind blows, those large ripples would march towards the camera.

It’s pretty typical for two to three wind directions to dominate all other winds in a region, at least in terms of sand transport. On Earth this usually comes down to seasonal changes in weather patterns: winter storms vs. steady summer winds. Perhaps where you live, most of the weather arrives from one direction, but occasional storms may blow in from another direction. Those winds that blow strongest are most likely to move the most sand. This appears to be the case on Mars as well.

It looks to me like the most recent wind activity has formed grainflows, suggesting that the NNE wind has been more recently active than the ripple-forming wind. However, most of the slip face is covered in small ripples, suggesting that this NW wind was, until recently, the prevailing wind. The ripples weren’t able to fully rewrite the topography of the slip face, as you can see they cover slightly larger undulations that were probably older grain flows – this supports the idea that they are formed by a secondary wind that cannot move enough sand to rewrite the entire dune (if it did then the slipface would point towards the southeast, instead of towards the southwest as it does now). We’re probably seeing a seasonal tradeoff between the NNE and NW winds. I might even cautiously suggest that the grainflow-forming NNE wind is active in the current season (local autumn) and that the ripple-forming NW wind blew in a previous season (perhaps local spring or summer). I’d love to get a shout-out from the REMSfolks, if they can pull out any new wind data from their partially-broken anemometer.

Happy solstice everybody, and I hope you have a good holiday.

AGU 2015 session: Direct Imaging of Habitable Exoplanets: Progress and Future

Cosmic Diary Marchis - December 15, 2015

Artist concept of the planetary system Kepler 62. Image credit: Danielle Futselaar – SETI Institute

Join us tomorrow at the AGU Fall Meeting for a session on direct imaging of habitable exoplanets that I organized with my colleagues Ramses Ramirez from Cornell University and David Black.

This session consists in a discussion on the potential of new and future facilities and modeling efforts designed to detect, image and characterize habitable exoplanets, studying their formation, evolution and also the existence of possible biospheres. Topics to be covered in this session include signs of exoplanet habitability and global biosignatures that can be sought with upcoming instrumentation; instrument requirements and technologies to detect these markers; strategies for target selection and prioritization; and impacts of planetary system properties, ground-based and space telescope architectures, and impacts of instrument capabilities on the yield of potentially inhabited exoplanets.

We have an oral session with 5 talks including  two invited talks and a poster session 7 abstracts. Below a list.

We look forward to seeing you at the session this morning and this afternoon.

P32B: Direct Imaging of Habitable Exoplanets: Progress and Future I
Wednesday, 16 December 2015 11:20am – 12:20pm Moscone West – 2012

11:20 Characterizing Pale Blue Dots Around FGKM Stars
Sarah Rugheimer, University of St. Andrews, St. Andrews, United Kingdom; Simons Foundation, Collaboration on the Origins of Life, New York, NY, United States, Lisa Kaltenegger, Cornell University, Ithaca, NY, United States, Dimitar D. Sasselov, Harvard University, Astronomy, Cambridge, MA, United States and Antigona Segura, Universidad Nacional Autonoma de Mexico, Instituto de Ciencias Nucleares, Mexico City, Mexico

11:32 Why Alpha Centauri is a Particularly Good Target for Direct Imaging of Exoplanets.
Ruslan Belikov1, Eduardo Bendek1, Sandrine Thomas2, Jared Males3 and ACESat proposal team, (1)NASA Ames Research Center, Moffett Field, CA, United States, (2)LSST, Tucson, United States, (3)University of Arizona, Tucson, AZ, United States

11:44 Mapping the Region in the Nearest Star System to Search for Habitable Planets
Jack J Lissauer and Billy Quarles, NASA Ames Research Center, Moffett Field, CA, United States

11:56 Characterizing Exoplanets with 2-meter Class Space-based Coronagraphs
Tyler D Robinson, University of California Santa Cruz, Astronomy and Astrophysics, Santa Cruz, CA, United States, Mark S Marley, NASA Ames Research Center, Moffett Field, CA, United States and Karl R Stapelfeldt, NASA Goddard Space Flight Center, Greenbelt, MD, United States

12:08 Global Surface Photosynthetic Biosignatures Prior to the Rise of Oxygen
Mary Nichole Parenteau, SETI Institute Mountain View, Mountain View, CA, United States, Nancy Y Kiang, NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies, New York, NY, United States, Robert E. Blankenship, Washington University in St Louis, Departments of Biology and Chemistry, St. Louis, MO, United States, Esther Sanromá, Instituto de Astrofísica de Canarias, Tenerife, Spain, Enric Palle Bago, Universidad de La Laguna, Departamento de Astrofísica, La Laguna, Spain, Tori M Hoehler, NASA Ames Research Center, Moffett Field, CA, United States, Beverly K. Pierson, University of Puget Sound, Biology Department, Tacoma, WA, United States and Victoria Suzanne Meadows, University of Washington, Seattle, WA, United States


P33B: Direct Imaging of Habitable Exoplanets: Progress and Future II Posters
Wednesday, 16 December 2015 13:40 – 18:00
Moscone South – Poster Hall

Correlated PSF Subtraction Using an Archive
Benjamin Gerard1 and Marois Christian1,2, (1)University of Victoria, Victoria, BC, Canada, (2)National Research Council, Herzberg, Victoria, BC, Canada

Light curves, Spherical and Bond albedos of Jupiter, Saturn, and exoplanets.
Ulyana Dyudina, Caltech, Pasadena, CA, United States

Surface Temperatures of Exoplanets
Marie Weisfeiler1, Donald L Turcotte1 and Louise H Kellogg2, (1)University of California Davis, Davis, CA, United States, (2)University of California – Davis, Davis, CA, United States

A Statistical Model for Determining the Probability of Observing Exoplanetary Radio Emissions
Rodolfo Garcia1, Mary Knapp1, Daniel Winterhalter2 and Walid Majid3, (1)Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge, MA, United States, (2)NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, CA, United States, (3)Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, CA, United States

Constraining Methane Abundance and Cloud Properties from the Reflected Light Spectra of Directly Imaged Exoplanets
Roxana Lupu, Bay Area Environmental Research Institute Moffett Field, Moffett Field, CA, United States, Mark S Marley, NASA Ames Research Center, Moffett Field, CA, United States and Nikole K Lewis, Massachusetts Inst of Tech, Cambridge, MA, United States

Systematic Search of the Nearest Stars for Exoplanetary Radio Emission: Preliminary Results from LOFAR
Daniel Winterhalter, NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, CA, United States and Mary Knapp, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge, MA, United States

A Space Mission Concept to Directly Image the Habitable Zone of Alpha Centauri
Eduardo Bendek1, Ruslan Belikov1, Jared Males2, Sandrine Thomas1 and Julien Lozi3, (1)NASA Ames Research Center, Moffett Field, CA, United States, (2)University of Arizona, Tucson, AZ, United States, (3)NAOJ National Astronomical Observatory of Japan, Subaru Telescope, hilo, HI, United States

Curiosity about sand dunes (part 1/2)

Cosmic Diary by Lori Fenton - December 14, 2015

Sorry for the pun in the title there, but NASA asked for it by naming their rover like that. And you’ve seen it done a hundred times, so let’s grit our teeth, smile, and carry on.


So I’m more excited now about a space mission than I have been in a long time. A Mars rover is finally visiting sand dunes, after so many years of peering at them from orbit and seeing them in rover images in the far distance. They took their time getting there, but now it’s there. Taking images of the dunes, and presumably other data as well. Here’s what it looks like from above:

Map credit: NASA/JPL/CalTech/MRO/UofA/HiRISE/Processed by Phil Stooke

Today, December 14, 2015, is Sol 1193 for Curiosity. On Sol 1176, Curiosity took a bunch of color images looking up at “High Dune”. Here’s what they look like all mosaicked together:

Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS

Looking from the bottom up, you are panning up the windward side of the dune, looking at the lovely ripples that cover the entire dune. You can see the biggest ripples in the first image from space. Using those images, my colleague Simone Silvestro and others (including me, yay) measured that they move downwind (towards the left in the above image) at a rate of 0.66 meters (26 inches) every Earth year. Here’s a 3-frame movie from that paper, showing how the dunes and ripples move over the course of 5 years (which is ~2.5 Mars years) in 2006, 2008, and again in 2011. Note that this isn’t the same dune that Curiosity imaged above.

Image credit: Silvestro, S., D. A. Vaz, R. C. Ewing, A. P. Rossi, L. K. Fenton, T. I. Michaels, J. Flahaut, and P. E. Geissler (2013), Pervasive aeolian activity along rover Curiosity’s traverse in Gale Crater, Mars, Geology, 41(4), 483–486, doi:10.1130/G34162.1.

So yes, these dunes are moving! We might even see changes as Curiosity takes more images. We might see sand grains that have bounced onto the deck of the rover. We might even be able to learn something about how the wind moves sand on Mars, how that process differs from that on Earth, and how strong the wind blows. Cool, eh? Check back next week for more pictures of these dunes. I’ll be showing some closeups of the sand and speculating on what it’s made of and why it’s different from windblown sand on Earth.

Too steep for ripples

Cosmic Diary by Lori Fenton - November 24, 2015

A piece of Mars: This 480×270 m (0.3×0.17 mi) area is a steep slope that plunges down to the upper left. A pile of dark sand, covered by brighter tan dust, clings to the hillside. Usually the martian wind blows sand into ripples, and you can see where it’s tried to do that here. But the steep slope triggers thin dark avalanches of dark sand that compete with the wind in shaping the sandy surface. (HiRISE ESP_043085_1670 NASA/JPL/Univ. of Arizona)

Windy windows

Cosmic Diary by Lori Fenton - November 17, 2015

A Piece of Mars: This 0.96×0.54 km (0.6×0.33 mi) area shows ripples forming on a layer of dark gray material. In a few spots, the gray layer has been eroded away (probably by wind scour), revealing the lighter, tan-colored terrain below. Geologists call these exposures windows, because you can see through one layer to another that’s underneath. (HiRISE ESP_043086_1715 JPL/NASA/Univ. of Arizona)

Crochet ripples

Cosmic Diary by Lori Fenton - November 12, 2015

A Piece of Mars: This 480×270 m (1575×886 ft) area shows a seemingly endless field of ripples. They’re big, about 50 m (164 ft) from crest to crest, and probably about 5 m (16 ft) high. Is there a knit or crochet pattern out there that looks like this? You could market it to some Mars aeolian scientists… (HiRISE ESP_042360_1755, NASA/JPL/Univ. of Arizona)

Very long ripples

Cosmic Diary by Lori Fenton - November 04, 2015

A Piece of Mars: Most of the scene (0.96×0.54 km or 0.6×0.34 mi) is one long slope of a dune. The crest is the line in the top right; the ground below is in the bottom left. If you ever walk along a dune or beach, you’ll see small ripples that can reach up to about a meter in length. But the ripples on this dune extend from the crest to the ground – they’re more than half a kilometer (more than a third of a mile) long! (HiRISE ESP_043098_1650 NASA/JPL/Univ. of Arizona)

Thoughts on GPI

Cosmic Diary Marchis - October 29, 2015

In a major breakthrough for exoplanet discovery and exploration, the Gemini Planet Imager (GPI) is proving to be one of most powerful and effective instruments ever invented for directly imaging planets in orbit around other stars.

An artistic conception of the Jupiter-like exoplanet, 51 Eri b, seen in the near-infrared light that shows the hot layers deep in its atmosphere glowing through clouds. Because of its young age, this young cousin of our own Jupiter is still hot and carries information on the way it was formed 20 million years ago.
credits: Danielle Futselaar & Franck Marchis, SETI Institute

The behind-the-scenes story of this project sheds light on the complexities and challenges of designing and building a truly game-changing instrument. We started work more than thirteen years ago under the leadership of Bruce Macintosh and the auspices of the Center for Adaptive Optics. At that time, a number of scientists, most from California and Canada, met to discuss building a groundbreaking adaptive optics (AO) system powerful enough to confront — and overcome — the challenging of directly collecting photons from young Jupiter-like exoplanets. The discovery of 51 Eri b, which was announced last August, is the culmination of that effort. 

Exoplanet β Pic b orbiting β Pictoris from Dunlap Institute on Vimeo.

Today, GPI is fully operational and in the process of observing ~600 bright and nearby stars as part of an 900h-survey to search for exoplanets and their circumstellar disks. There’s no way to predict how many we will find, but the survey has already generated interesting and groundbreaking data — allowing scientists, for example, to study exoplanet Beta Pictoris b. The little white dot moving in the video above is the faint glow of this young and warm exoplanet, which is 60 light years away and was observed nine times by GPI between November 2013 and April 2015. Collecting an image of this planet and its star allows us to infer the orbit and composition of the planet, and measure its temperature. In time, GPI and its successor instruments will allow us to do far more.

Images like these make us confident that another revolution in human understanding of the cosmos has begun. Twentieth-century astronomers fundamentally changed our understanding of the universe and our place in it when they mapped asteroids, comets and satellites in our solar system and beyond. Their twenty-first century counterparts have begun work on what may well be an even greater revolution by expanding our knowledge of the Milky Way and mapping far more distant objects such as stars and exoplanets. 

We’ve just begun work on this difficult but revolutionary task. GPI and the next generation of ground- and space-based telescopes equipped with advanced AO technology are the key to finding earth-like exoworlds, including ones that other forms of life may call home.

Clear skies,

Franck M

A light touch

Cosmic Diary by Lori Fenton - October 26, 2015

A Piece of Mars: This 3.2×1.8 km (2×1.1 mi) area shows terrain covered by bright dust. Dark stripes are areas where wind has lightly scoured the surface, revealing the dark material beneath. Faint bright lines criss-cross the surface – these are tracks left by dust devils. The dust devils disturb the surface but don’t lift up enough dust to reveal the darker surface underneath. (HiRISE ESP_042691_2060, NASA/JPL/Univ. of Arizona)

What the Hack

ENCORE  A computer virus that bombards you with pop-up ads is one thing. A computer virus that shuts down a city’s electric grid is another. Welcome to the new generation of cybercrime. Discover what it will take to protect our power, communication and transportation systems as scientists try to stay ahead of hackers in an ever-escalating game of cat and mouse.

The expert who helped decipher the centrifuge-destroying Stuxnet virus tells us what he thinks is next. Also convenience vs. vulnerability as we connect to the Internet of Everything. And, the journalist who wrote that Google was “making us stupid,” says automation is extracting an even higher toll: we’re losing basic skills. Such as how to fly airplanes.


•   Ray Sims – Computer Technician, Computer Courage, Berkeley, California

•   Eric Chien – Technical Director of Security Technology and Response, Symantec

•   Paul Jacobs – Chairman and CEO of Qualcomm

•   Shankar Sastry – Dean of the College of Engineering, University of California, Berkeley, director of TRUST

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•   Nicholas Carr – Author of The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains and the forthcoming “The Glass Cage”. His article, “The Great Forgetting,” is in the November 2013 issue of The Atlantic.


First released November 11, 2013.

Skeptic Check: Evolutionary Arms Race

ENCORE It’s hard to imagine the twists and turns of evolution that gave rise to Homo Sapiens. After all, it required geologic time, and the existence of many long-gone species that were once close relatives. That may be one reason why – according to a recent poll – one-third of all Americans reject the theory of evolution. They prefer to believe that humans and other living organisms have existed in their current form since the beginning of time.

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But if you’ve ever been sick, you’ve been the victim of evolution on a very observable time scale. Nasty viruses and bacteria take full advantage of evolutionary forces to adapt to new hosts. And they can do it quickly.

Discover how comparing the deadly 1918 flu virus with variants today may help us prevent the next pandemic. Also, while antibiotic resistance is threatening to become a major health crisis, better understanding of how bacteria evolve their defenses against our drugs may help us out.

And the geneticist who sequenced the Neanderthal genome says yes, our hirsute neighbors co-mingled with humans.

It’s Skeptic Check … but don’t take our word for it!


•   Svante Pääbo – Evolutionary geneticist, Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology, author of Neanderthal Man: In Search of Lost Genomes

•   Ann Reid – – Molecular biologist, executive director of the National Center for Science Education, Oakland, California

•   Martin Blaser – Microbiologist, New York University School of Medicine, member of the National Academy of Sciences, author of Missing Microbes: How the Overuse of Antibiotics Is Fueling Our Modern Plagues

•   Gautam Dantas – Pathologist, immunologist, Center for Genome Sciences and Systems Biology, Washington University, Saint Louis

First released March 31, 2014.

It's All Relative

A century ago, Albert Einstein rewrote our understanding of physics with his Theory of General Relativity. Our intuitive ideas about space, time, mass, and gravity turned out to be wrong.

Find out how this masterwork changed our understanding of how the universe works and why you can thank Einstein whenever you turn on your GPS.

Also, high-profile experiments looking for gravitational waves and for black holes will put the theories of the German genius to the test – will they pass?

And why the story of a box, a Geiger counter, and a zombie cat made Einstein and his friend Erwin Schrödinger uneasy about the quantum physics revolution.


•   Jeffrey Bennett – Astronomer, author of What Is Relativity?: An Intuitive Introduction to Einstein’s Ideas, and Why They Matter

•   Beverly Berger – Theoretical physicist and the Secretary for the International Society on General Relativity and Gravitation

•   Hiawatha Bray – Technology reporter, Boston Globe, author of You Are Here: From the Compass to GPS, the History and Future of How We Find Ourselves

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•  Paul Halpern – Physicist at the University of the Sciences in Philadelphia, author of Einstein’s Dice and Schrödinger’s Cat: How Two Great Minds Battled Quantum Randomness to Create a Unified Theory of Physics

And To Space We Return

Earth may be the cradle of life, but our bodies are filled with materials cooked up billions of years ago in the scorching centers of stars. As Carl Sagan said, “We are all stardust.” We came from space, and some say it is to space we will return.

Discover an astronomer’s quest to track down remains of these ancient chemical kitchens. Plus, a scientist who says that it’s in our DNA to explore – and not just the nearby worlds of the solar system, but perhaps far beyond.

But would be still be human when we arrive? Hear what biological and cultural changes we might undergo in a multi-generational interstellar voyage.


 •   Timothy Beers – Astronomer, University of Notre Dame

•   Chris Impey – Astronomer, University of Arizona, author of Beyond: Our Future in Space

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•   Cameron Smith – Archaeologist, Portland State University

Math's Days Are Numbered

ENCORE  Imagine a world without algebra. We can hear the sound of school children applauding. What practical use are parametric equations and polynomials, anyway? Even some scholars argue that algebra is the Latin of today, and should be dropped from the mandatory curriculum.

But why stop there? Maybe we should do away with math classes altogether.

An astronomer says he’d be out of work: we can all forget about understanding the origins of the universe, the cycles of the moon and how to communicate with alien life. Also, no math = no cybersecurity + hackers (who have taken math) will have the upper hand.

Also, without mathematics, you’ll laugh < you do now. The Simpsons creator Matt Groening has peppered his animated show with hidden math jokes.

And why mathematics = love.


•   Andrew Hacker – Professor of political science and mathematics at Queens College, City University of New York. His article, “Is Algebra Necessary?”, appeared in The New York Times in 2012.

•   Bob Berman – Astronomy editor of The Old Farmer’s Almanac, the author of The Sun’s Heartbeat: And Other Stories from the Life of the Star That Powers Our Planet , and columnist for Astronomy Magazine. His article, “How Math Drives the Universe” is the cover story in the December 2013 issue.

•   Simon Singh – Science writer, author of The Simpsons and Their Mathematical Secrets

•   Rob ManningFlight system chief engineer at the Jet Propulsion Lab, responsible for NASA’s Curiosity rover

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•   Edward Frenkel – Professor of mathematics at the University of California, Berkeley, author of Love and Math: The Heart of Hidden Reality . His article, “The Perils of Hacking Math,” is found on the online magazine, Slate.


First released December 2, 2015.


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