Pioneer Anomaly: New Physics or Bad Maths?

1972 and 1973, NASA sent two unmanned spacecraft on a one-way trip to the edge of the solar system and beyond, Pioneer I and Pioneer II. These two spacecraft were sent to take pictures of the gas giants and give us insight into their structure, they did their job, scientists oohed and aahed at the results, updated all the relevant textbooks, and moved onto the next big project in science. But because scientists are inquisitive, and care about the well-being of the Pioneer craft, they kept tabs on them, to make sure they stay fit and healthy. This was meant to be just a routine check-up every now and then, just to see how far they go, but physicists discovered something strange. The distance between where Einsteins physics predicted the spacecrafts should be and where they actually were was different. Somehow, the crafts where slowing down. Now, they amount of deceleration was very small, less than one nanometer per second per second, but this was enough for scientists to really consider revising physics books, because nobody could think of anything that would cause this extra deceleration.

For scientists, this was a prime time to witness a paradigm shift, something key to the process of science. Some may think that science is just a steady progress of learning about nature, but its not. It actually involves rapid changes of ideas most of the time, in so-called paradigm shifts. This is a stage in science which occurs when evidence comes up which is contradictory to current science. After new evidence shows up, there will be further investigation from scientists to try to figure out what is the correct model, if the first evidence is overturned, and science stays with the current theory, this is not a paradigm shift. When the evidence is confirmed and new evidence supports it, scientists will formulate a new model which accounts for this evidence, and this is known as a paradigm shift.

Paradigm shifts are very important to science, as they mean deeper knowledge of the universe. But a possible paradigm shift which turns out not to be one is good too, because it means that our current model is pretty good. Pioneer was worthy of study to find out if the physics textbooks needed a re-write.

For almost 30 years, there hasn’t been enough evidence to formulate a hypothesis either way, and it has been an unsolved mystery to science, often called the Pioneer Anomaly. But now, a team at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California have an answer. The team published a paper in Physical Review Letters in which they demonstrated that some electronic components on the craft where producing small amounts of heat, and the force imparted on the craft from this heat was enough to cause the deceleration. “I think it is solved for good” said lead author of the report Slava Turyshev.

Great! The mystery is solved. Just put this down as another proof of Einstein’s Gravity. As a good scientist, you should know that any result is a good result. Confirming evidence just means one more piece in the puzzle which proves our theories, contradicting evidence means new physics, which is also good.


Higgs Boson Discovery

hallo skeptics,

Yesterday was witness to one of the biggest events in scientific history. A triumph for the scientific method. At the university of Melbourne, a large congregation of physicists and science journalists were assembled to listen to what was hyped as an important presentation. There was leaked information which suggested that this was going to be a big story in the scientific world. After a large amount of formalities, introducing of speakers, explanation of the processes and equipment involved, and then they got down to the results. (never mind the comic sans typeface) Here is a graph of the data:

that red line jumping above the green line means… Higgs Boson!

When the results were shown, every thing went crazy, though I wasn’t in the room, I was following the live blog and as soon as that was read on the screen, my twitter feed exploded with tweets about the Higgs Boson and for a few minutes, only Higgs related material was trending world-wide. The Higgs Boson had been discovered at 125.3 GeV with 5 sigma certainty.

Sigma is important in physics, so I’ll explain it briefly here. Sigma is the term used to describe Standard deviation, used to work out probabilities. Standard deviation is the maths relating to how far a result deviates from the mean, or in more layman’s terms, how likely it is that something is just a fluke of data noise. In any experiment, there is noise, random fluctuations which occur in the data, it isn’t large, but it has an effect. so when a result is measured, you have to ensure that it is unlikely the result is noise. The gold standard for this is 5.0 sigma. I won’t go into the maths of calculating sigma, but 5.0 sigma is equal to 0.0002% chance the result is just a fluke of noise.
Previous tests have been done which have shown results around the 3 sigma range, but physics errs on the side of caution and needs 5 sigma certainty for something to be claimed a discovery. And last night, they hit the target and confirmed the existence of the Higgs boson.

The Higgs boson was first predicted in 1964 by physicist Peter Higgs, Who was present yesterday. It is the particle predicted by the standard model which gives mass to all the other particles in the universe. Since its prediction in 1964, physicists the world over have been trying to find this particle. It was one of the holy grails of physics, to be able to prove the existence of this particle.

I’m not going to talk about the meaty parts of the Higgs and its field, and what it does for the universe, but I am going to talk about how much of a triumph for science it is.

Science predicted this particle to exist, and the whole story of the Higgs is a case example of how the scientific method should be conducted. A scientist, from looking at data and doing maths, predicts that this certain particle should exist. Then, science goes out and tries to find it. We test the hypothesis that the Higgs exists in a certain place, we don’t find it, so we hypothesize another place and look for it there. After hundreds of trials-and-error, we finally pinpoint where it is, but we don’t have enough evidence yet, we are only at 3 sigma, so we look with finer tools and better measuring devices to see if we can more definitively say it exists. And alack, we find it.
It is a testimony to science, and now, I wish to put up another prediction.

As it has been with all other scientific discoveries for the last 400 years, science has found out that something exists, and then for the next few weeks, while the scientists are off partying about their discovery, the religious scholars comb through their respective texts to see if there is some vague scripture reference that could be twisted, manipulated and exaggerated to sort-of fit with the scientific discovery of the time. I talk about it here –> in-depth, but I’ll summarize here. When science (back then it wasn’t science but the religious) said the earth was flat, “The circle of the earth” meant a flat disc which is a circle. Then, when real science looked at the issue and decided, “No, it’s really actually a sphere”, then “The circle of the earth” was interpreted as how a sphere is viewed in 2-D. This sort of manipulation of text occurs every time science finds out something ground breaking. Even when its a flat-out contradiction, it suddenly becomes “Just a metaphor.” from then-on-in.

The Higgs boson discovery is a triumph for science and a great testimony to the effectiveness of the scientific method, and is going to be the arbiter of a lot of new physics for years to come. Tomorrow, I will be blogging on about the Boston Celtics, as well as about a person who is using the discovery of the Higgs as evidence for his claims, Deepak Chopra, and I will be tackling the claims of his cosmic consciousness.

SpaceX, Dragon9 and Commercial flight

Hi there, skeptics, science fans and science foes,

Today I am going to be reporting to you that Falcon9, the newest spaceship for SpaceX, has successfully launched, has deployed Dragon and is on its way to the ISS where it will dock. The twitterverse was exploding with talk of #Dragonlaunch for the last hour as the countdown sequence was broadcast live on the NASA TV website. This marks a momentous occasion for spaceflight, and I’m going to be talking about commercial spaceflight today.

This is the first successful launch of a commercial flight, after the NASA budget cuts last budget season, SpaceX, BlueOrigin, Virgin Galactic, and other private companies have been vying for the top spot, as the company who takes over the Space Shuttle’s job of running astronauts to the International Space Station. For a while, it was up in the air as to who would show the most interest and bring out the good, but it has been shown now the SpaceX has fought its way to the top. With this first launch of a commercial vehicle into space, I think it a good time to talk about ‘why’ its much better than government-run programs.

When NASA’s budget was cut, and the Shuttles where decommissioned, NASA needed to find a cheaper way of getting stuff into space. A new, government built ship was thought about, amongst other things, but the concept of private industry doing it for them was thought to be best. Commercial space flight is much cheaper than a government-run flight. This is because government-run programs need to get all of their money from the government. The government pays for 100% of the cost, with no profit. Private space flight companies need to make a profit, so they do what they do, find private investors, do advertisements… things like that, to lower the price of the flight, so the government pays for quite a lot less than full price. So the concept of commercial space flight is a win for the company and a win for the government. It’s also cheaper in that commercial space flight goes where the money goes, unlike government-run programs, which often have to plan a decade into the future.

That’s all for today’s big news, I will leave you with a quote from Tom Mueller, “There are a thousand things that can happen when you go light a rocket engine, and only one of them is good.”, Thomas Mueller, SpaceX propulsion chief.

Butterflies, Credit Cards and Light Bowls

Hello there, skeptical friends, and skeptical foes,

I got my Scientific American today, Which is very surprising, because I thought it took about 2 weeks to send post from America to Australia, but there you go. I always thoroughly enjoy getting my Scientific American each month, and I always find half a dozen articles which I consider blogging for. I found an article today which was about some of the clever light tricks which animals play on us, but not about the colour changing squids which go black and then white and then black and then white when a pretty lady comes past or when a compeditor squid comes along. This article was about the microscopic patterns on bird feathers, butterfly wings and worms, which make colours which don’t look like what they really are. I will be blogging about a few of the tricky light patterns mentioned in this article in future posts, but today’s article is about A strange pattern found on Butterflies.

The emerald swallowtail butterfly lives in South-East Asia, and has a wing-span of about 8 – 10 cm, and is one of the most prominent butterflies in this area. They have a distinctive green and black pattern on their wings, and it has been discovered that the colour of the wing is not actually green, but it is a combination of blue and yellow colours.

The green parts of the wing are covered in tiny, bowl shaped dimples just a few microns across. The dimples are lined in layers of chitin which act as mirrors, which only reflect light of certain wavelengths. In the bottom of the bowls are chitin which reflect only yellow light, while around the top of the bowls are chitin which only reflect blue light.

Researchers at Georgia Institute of Technology tried to replicate this effect, with success. They created this pattern by first making a polymer, and vaporizing water, letting it condense onto the polymer, and letting the water droplets sink into the polymer, creating even, uniform, aligned bowls. They then microscopically dusted the polymer with layers of titanium oxide and aluminium oxide, and the result they turned out with was comparable to what was found on the butterfly. The researchers also found that under a polarizing filters, the yellow light from the wing and polymer pattern did not show, leaving only the blue light.

This polymer pattern could provide an extra layer of protection to credit cards and bank notes. A small half-inch square on every bank note and credit card, similar to the watermarks on bank notes in Australia , would add an extra layer of protection to the notes. All that would need to be done is put the bank note under a polarizing filter, and you would have an easy authentication check, adding to the layers of defense already present in notes and credit cards.

as can bee seen, nature has found simple ways of producing amazing colours and patterns, and as has been shown on so many scientific disciplines, physics, engineering, chemistry, technology, the best solutions to some problems were solved thousands of years ago, by a small bug that eats wood, or something of the like, and we just have to find out how to replicate them. That’s all I have to say. I will leave you with a quote from Carl Sagan, “Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.”

New Health Problems Found for Astronauts

Hello there, skeptical Bros.,

I was logged onto the computer at school yesterday (we had a computer lesson), and because there was nothing else to be done in class, I was reading through the news section, and I came across a new study in Astronauts. Because my immediate reaction to anything with space or astronauts is “READ READ READ!”, I read it, and it turns out that there could be new health risks for astronauts who spend long amounts of time in micro-gravity. The title here –>, Reads ‘Study finds eye problems common for astronauts’ and my heart sunk.

It turns out that this latest study have found yet another thing which astronauts have to worry about. It has been known for a long time that there would be long-term health effects for people who live in micro-gravity, but these were thought to be things like hearts and muscles loosing their strength. This study has shown that the brain and eyes have been effected, because of an unexplained pressure in the head, which causes excess cerebral-spinal fluid around the optic-nerve, and a flattening of the eyeball and bulging of the optic nerve, in roughly one-fifth of astronauts who spent more than a month on space-shuttle or ISS flights. But I’m not going to talk about the physiology, that’s not my niche, read that in the link above, I’m going to talk about what it means for longer term flights to Mars.

The solution for things like weak hearts and muscles was simple, exercise the heart and muscles by jogging for a while every day. But the solution to this problem is not so apparent, we can’t exercise our optical nerve.
We can’t fight the effect of micro-gravity, so we have to fight the cause. NASA scientists need to find a way to stop this unknown pressure, and the first thing we need to do is find out what this pressure is. A bit of study on the ISS should definitely be done.

I’m really disappointed because of what this means for Mars trips in the future. This is just one more item on NASA’s list of “Things we have to figure out before we fly to Mars”, along with radiation, water, food, power, shelter etc., all major problems to humans. Space Shuttle flights went for about a month or so, ISS shifts go for about 6 months, but a trip to Mars would take in excess of two years, so the effects we see here, could be greatly magnified. But you know what, I’m confident that science will find a solution to this problem, and then we will go to Mars, but this problem should be one of the first things worried about, because humans health are of the top priority.

That’s all for today, I’ll leave you with a quote from Stephen Hawking, “Our only chance of long-term survival is not to remain lurking on planet Earth, but to spread out into space.”, Stephen Hawking, Theoretical Physicist, Cosmologist, author, lecturer and Science Popularizer of some note.

Another battery we will never see again?

Buenas noches,

Today’s post will be about an article I first saw at It is titled ‘Graphene in new ‘battery’ breakthrough?’, and when I first saw it, i had the normal reaction of “Here we go, another new battery technology which will be hyped up but we will never see on shelves.” but I decided to have a look into it, because sometimes there is some pretty interesting physics at hand. To be honest, there may be something to this, because once you see past the badly worded title, it is not your average battery article.

The difference between this battery and normal battery technology is a few things. It does have what all new battery technologies must have, larger battery lives, but it also has something which could be very useful in almost every situation, it is powered by the ambient heat in its surroundings.

Now, normally, when we hear about the latest battery technology, you can usually list a few good applications for it, but with something like this, the list would be shorter if you listed what it wouldn’t be useful for… like trekking in the tundra or living on Mars.

You may be asking, “How does this new battery work?”, well, I am going to explain it to you now.
It appears to be yet another victory for graphene. We are all familiar with ions, positively charged atoms. Well, when in an aqueous solution, ions move around with a whole heap of speed at room temperature. A lot of  energy can be produced just with the heat around us.

The experiments where conducted by Zihan Xu and his colleagues, and they made this battery by adding gold and silver electrodes to a strip of graphene (a sheet of carbon one atom thick). When putting six of these devices in series in a copper-chloride ion solution, they found that they could produce a voltage of more than 2V, this is plenty enough to power an LED light. It is an interesting concept, and is not yet at the stage of being able to run a car on it, but it is a limitless energy supply and it seems scaleable.

That’s enough of me for today, I leave you with a quote from Edward Teller, “A fact is a simple statement that everyone believes. It is innocent unless found guilty. A hypothesis is a novel suggestion that no-one wants to believe. It is guilty, until found effective.” Edward Teller, father of the Hydrogen Bomb and theoretical physicist of some note.