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  • richardmitnick 4:32 pm on September 8, 2015 Permalink | Reply
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    From NBC: “Study Finds Greater Tsunami Risk From Southern California Quake” 

    NBC News

    NBC News

    Sep 8 2015
    Charles Q. Choi, LiveScience

    Californians may be used to hearing about the threat of potentially deadly earthquakes, but a new study finds that quake-triggered tsunamis pose a greater risk to Southern California than previously thought.

    Tsunamis are monster waves that can reach more than 100 feet (30 meters) high. They are often caused by earthquakes; the 2004 Banda Aceh earthquake and tsunami killed about 250,000 people, while the 2011 Tohoku earthquake and tsunami that struck offshore of Japan killed about 20,000 people and triggered a nuclear disaster.

    Tsunamis increase in size as the depth of water in which they occur decreases. Since water depth is usually shallow near coastlines, tsunamis can grow as they approach land, becoming particularly dangerous along heavily populated coastlines, such as those in Southern California, the researchers said.

    1
    Map of regional peak tsunami amplitude in meters resulting from an earthquake on the Pitas Point and Lower Red Mountain fault system. The thin solid black line indicates the coastline and the thick black line indicates the Pitas Point fault trace. Kenny Ryan, UC Riverside

    Scientists focused on the Ventura Basin in Southern California, which has offshore faults that can probably generate earthquakes of magnitude 7 or greater. The researchers created 3D models of ruptures on the 31-mile-long (45 kilometers) Pitas Point and 22-mile-long (35 km) Lower Red Mountain undersea faults.

    Although homes and buildings on the coastlines directly opposite these faults would naturally be vulnerable to any tsunamis, until now, additional low-lying areas farther to the east were not necessarily expected to be in harm’s way. The new study suggests the cities of Ventura and Oxnard might be under greater threat of tsunami flooding than was previously thought.

    In the computer simulation, a tsunami generated by a magnitude-7.7 earthquake on the Pitas Point and Lower Red Mountain faults divided in two. One wave moved north toward Santa Barbara, reaching the city about 5 minutes after the quake. The other wave moved south toward Santa Cruz Island, but the shape of the coastline and seafloor then unexpectedly caused the southward wave to change direction toward the cities of Ventura and Oxnard.

    The simulation showed the tsunami could reach up to 23 feet (7 m) high at Ventura and Oxnard and flood up to 1.2 miles (2 km) inland less than 30 minutes after the quake, penetrating twice as far inland at some locations as California’s official tsunami-inundation line.

    “This is a severe, but plausible, scenario,” study lead author Kenny Ryan, a geophysicist at the University of California, Riverside, told Live Science.

    The scientists detailed their findings in the Aug. 18 issue of the journal Geophysical Research Letters.

    See the full article here .

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  • richardmitnick 8:05 am on May 22, 2015 Permalink | Reply
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    From NBC via U Washington: “T. Rex’s Cousin? Scientists Find Washington State’s First Dinosaur Fossil” 

    NBC News

    NBC News

    U Washington

    May 20 2015
    Laura Geggel, Live Science

    1
    The University of Washington’s Brandon Peecook holds up a cast of a Daspletosaurus femur at right, while Christian Sidor holds the newly described fossil fragment at right for a size comparison.Burke Museum / UW

    A fragmented femur bone hidden underwater for millions of years has provided the first evidence that a dinosaur once roamed Washington state.

    And not just any dinosaur: Researchers say this beast was a theropod — a two-legged, mostly meat-eating group of beasts that are linked to modern-day birds. Other theropods include Tyrannosaurus rex and Velociraptor.

    Scientists found the 80 million-year-old fossil of the dinosaur when they were searching for ammonites — extinct marine invertebrates with spiral shells — and other fossilized animals. They had focused their fieldwork in the San Juan Islands, an archipelago located a short ferry ride away from Seattle.

    In April 2012, when the tide was out, they noticed a fossilized bone embedded in the marine rock. The researchers immediately contacted paleontologists at the University of Washington, who sent out a team in May of that year to excavate the fossil with a rock saw.

    “The rock there is tremendously hard, so it took them a full day to excavate it,” said Christian Sidor, a co-author of the study and a curator of vertebrate paleontology at the Burke Museum at the University of Washington.

    Sidor and his colleagues spent about a year and a half preparing the fossil, and “for the longest time, I was unconvinced that we were going to be able to say anything else besides ‘It’s a large bone,'” he told LiveScience. “What was exposed on the surface really had no anatomy. I couldn’t tell if it was a dinosaur, couldn’t tell if it was a marine reptile, couldn’t tell anything about it.”

    Once they removed the fossil from the rock and flipped it over, the researchers saw several signs that the fossil was half of the left femur (thighbone) of a theropod dinosaur. It measures 16.7 inches long by 8.7 inches wide (42 by 22 centimeters) but would have been almost 4 feet (1.2 meters) long — or slightly smaller than a T. rex thighbone — before it broke, the researchers said.

    Several clues suggest the fossil belonged to a theropod, Sidor said. For instance, the fossil once had a hollow middle cavity, which was unique to theropods during the late Cretaceous period. The bone also had a feature positioned closely to the hip, called a fourth trochanter. That feature is commonly associated with theropods. The researchers said it “seems likely” that the creature was a tyrannosauroid, a older cousin of T. rex.

    The specimen was uncovered near fossils of the clam species Crassatellites conradiana, which lived in shallow water. This suggests that the dinosaur died near the sea, was tossed around by the waves and found its resting place among the clams, the researchers said.

    The find makes Washington the 37th U.S. state known to have dinosaur fossils.

    Active plate tectonics and a vast amount of urban development have made it difficult for scientists to find dinosaur fossils in Washington, the researchers said. However, isolated dinosaur skeletons and bones have been found in nearby regions such as Oregon, California and south central Alaska.

    The study was published online Wednesday in the journal PLOS ONE. The fossil is due to go on display at the Burke Museum on May 21.

    See the full article here.

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  • richardmitnick 8:18 am on April 8, 2015 Permalink | Reply
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    From NBC: “Great Scott! Reverse-Causality Research Ends in a Quantum Muddle” 

    NBC News

    NBC News

    April 6th 2015
    Alan Boyle

    One of the longest-running and weirdest examples of a crowdfunded scientific experiment is finally reaching the end of the road, and the results will come as a disappointment to anyone who wishes the “Back to the Future” movies could really happen: Quantum interference foils what once looked like a plausible strategy for influencing events in the past.

    “The trick doesn’t work in its present form,” John Cramer, a physics professor emeritus at the University of Washington in Seattle, told NBC News.

    Cramer suspected that would be the case, but back in 2006, he was interested in figuring out exactly why it wouldn’t work. The trick involved trying to flip a switch that would have an effect not only on photons going through a complicated set-up of lasers and mirrors, but also on entangled photons that had gone through the set-up about 50 microseconds earlier.

    “We were looking at whether there might be a loophole that would allow you to do this,” Cramer said.

    CERN LHC Map
    CERN LHC Grand Tunnel
    CERN LHC particles
    World’s Most Complex Machine Gets Ready for More Atom-Smashing

    He would describe the experiment as a study of quantum nonlocal communication. But conceptually, the effect would be a little like sending Marty McFly back in time to make sure his mom married his dad in “Back to the Future.”

    In 2007, two years before Kickstarter was founded, Cramer put out an appeal for private contributions that would help him buy the required equipment. The appeal raised $40,000, and the retrocausality experiment went forward. Over the years that followed, Cramer repeatedly tweaked the apparatus to get around roadblocks posed by quantum mechanics.

    Signals vs. anti-signals

    Past experiments showed that there was a complementary relationship between two characteristics of quantum systems: entanglement and coherence. When photons are entangled, “there’s a certain amount of noise that’s generated at the same time,” Cramer said. That makes reading the signal amid the noise more difficult. But anything you do to make the signal more coherent decreases the level of entanglement.

    Cramer thought he could use a wedge-shaped mirror to split a photon beam into two signals that were partly entangled and partly coherent. Theoretically, he should have been able to analyze the interference patterns to see how fiddling with one signal affected the other one microseconds earlier.

    It turned out not to be that easy.

    “We analyzed it up, down and sideways, and concluded that what happens is, yes, you have a switchable interference pattern,” Cramer said. “But because you have no coincidence measurement, you can’t look at just one interference pattern. You have to add up two patterns. And they always add up to no signal.”

    Translation: When you analyze the quantum signal from earlier in time, you have to include an “anti-signal” in your calculations. Thus, the future leaves no fingerprints on the past. “Nature appears to be well-protected from the possibility of nonlocal signaling,” according to Cramer and his co-author, Nick Herbert.

    Fact vs. fiction

    Cramer is a novelist as well as a physicist, and he plans to work the concept of backward causality into his fiction even if it’s not observable in reality. “I have the outline of a novel that I was thinking about writing along these lines,” he said.

    The plot calls for a pair of researchers to rig up Puget Sound with a huge fiber-optic network, in order to prove it’s possible to communicate backwards in time. The experiment makes a splash, but not the kind that the researchers intended.

    “The boat that contains the fiber-optics equipment gets destroyed,” Cramer said.

    Cramer and Herbert are the authors of An Inquiry Into the Possibility of Nonlocal Quantum Communication, which has been submitted to Foundations of Physics for publication. The research was supported in part by the U. S. Department of Energy Office of Scientific Research.

    See the full article here.

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  • richardmitnick 5:25 pm on February 25, 2015 Permalink | Reply
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    From NBC: “Astronomers Find Supermassive Black Hole 12 Billion Times Size of the Sun” 

    NBC News

    NBC News

    February 25th 2015
    No Writer Credit

    Astronomers say they have have discovered a black hole so big that it challenges the theory about how they grow. Scientists said this black hole was formed about 900 million years after the Big Bang. But with measurements indicating it is 12 billion times the size of the sun, the black hole challenges a widely accepted hypothesis of growth rates. “Based on previous research, this is the largest black hole found for that period of time,” Fuyan Bian, Research School of Astronomy and Astrophysics, Australian National University (ANU), told Reuters on Wednesday. “Current theory is for a limit to how fast a black hole can grow, but this black hole is too large for that theory.” The discovery was described in a study published Wednesday in Nature.

    1
    This artist’s impression shows the surroundings of the supermassive black hole at the heart of the active galaxy NGC 3783 in the southern constellation of Centaurus (The Centaur). New observations using the Very Large Telescope Interferometer at ESO’s Paranal Observatory in Chile have revealed not only the torus of hot dust around the black hole but also a wind of cool material in the polar regions.

    ESO VLT Interferometer
    ESO/VLTI

    The creation of supermassive black holes remains an open topic of research. However, many scientists have long believed the growth rate of black holes was limited. Black holes grow, scientific theory suggests, as they absorb mass. However, as mass is absorbed, it will be heated creating radiation pressure, which pushes the mass away from the black hole. “Basically, you have two forces balanced together which sets up a limit for growth, which is much smaller than what we found,” said Bian.

    The black hole was discovered a team of global scientists led by Xue-Bing Wu at Peking University, China, as part of the Sloan Digital Sky Survey [SDSS], which provided imagery data of 35 percent of the northern hemisphere sky.

    SDSS Telescope
    SDSS Telescope

    The ANU is leading a comparable project, known as SkyMapper, to carry out observations of the Southern Hemisphere sky. Bian expects more black holes to be observed as the project advances.

    See the full article here.

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  • richardmitnick 5:49 pm on February 16, 2015 Permalink | Reply
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    From NBC News: “Why sign up for a one-way Mars trip? Three applicants explain the appeal” 

    NBC News

    NBC News

    May 19, 2013
    Alan Boyle

    1
    NASA / STScI

    Mars looms large in a Hubble Space Telescope photo – and in the imaginations of those who have signed up for a one-way trip to the Red Planet. “It’s not that I’m trying to get away,” says 18-year-old Kayli McArthur, one of tens of thousands of applicants. “It’s like I’m trying to strive for something more.”

    NASA Hubble Telescope
    Hubble

    A one-way trip to Mars sounds like something you’d wish on your worst enemy — so why would more than 78,000 people from around the world pay up to $75 for a chance to die on another planet?

    “I can say I have an ulterior motive,” said David Brin, who has written more than a dozen science-fiction novels — including “The Postman,” which was turned into a Kevin Costner movie in 1997. “I’d get a lot of writing done, and it might be memorable.”

    temp0
    David Brin

    As a master of hard science fiction, the 62-year-old Brin knows better than most applicants what the first Red Planet settlers would face if they’re sent off in 2022, as the Dutch-based Mars One venture has proposed.

    The settlers would have to be sealed up in habitats, protected from harsh radiation, supplied with machine-made air and water, and nourished by whatever food can be grown on a cold, barren planet. They’d have to keep their sanity, millions of miles away from their families and Mission Control. Worst of all, they’d have to face the fact that there’s no guarantee of ever going back.

    Will this scheme actually work? “I give it a low probability of happening,” Brin said, “and I don’t consider it to be the most responsible thing I’ve ever seen.”

    Nevertheless, the venture has an attraction for Brin and tens of thousands of others, The ages of those listed in Mars One’s database range from 18 to 71. All those applicants are facing a long road even before the first four-person crew gets off the planet. Mars One is accepting applicants through Aug. 31. The field of applicants would first be whittled down by panels of experts. Then they’d undergo trial by reality TV, followed by years of training.

    “This may sound crazy, but it kind of reminds me of The Hunger Games,” said Kayli McArthur, an 18-year-old student who’s one of the youngest Mars One applicants. “It’s cool that it would be televised, but that’s not my whole thing.”

    temp1
    Kayli McArthur

    On the other end of the age spectrum, 71-year-old psychiatrist Sanford Pomerantz is a little surprised that it’s taking this long to get something like Mars One off the ground. “I thought by now we would have colonized Mars,” said Pomerantz, who’s currently the oldest applicant on Mars One’s list.

    temp2
    Sanford Pomerantz

    So what’s the appeal of Mars One? It’s too early for Brin, McArthur and Pomerantz to give a lot of thought to their adventure on Mars, let alone their death on Mars. Instead, they’re focusing on the adventure here on Earth. Here’s what’s behind their thinking:

    David Brin: ‘My main purpose is the conversation’
    Brin sees Mars One as just one of a number of ventures aimed at expanding humanity’s frontier, ranging from Virgin Galactic’s suborbital space tours to Golden Spike’s moon missions. “It’s emblematic of the new era that we’re about to enter at long last — what I call the barnstorming era,” he said.

    Like the daring airplane fliers of the 1920s, these 21st-century space barnstormers are willing to take bigger risks in hopes of providing bigger thrills — and eventually, earning bigger payoffs. The Mars One project is “a great way to get the discussion going,” Brin said.

    “You have to assume that it may not work, and that there will be a statue of you on Mars someday,” he said. “I’m aware of the tradeoffs, and I’m willing to explore it further, but largely my main purpose is the conversation. We’ve got to be talking about how we can be a more exploratory people — a more interesting people, if you like.”

    Brin doesn’t doubt that Mars One will find plenty of qualified (and interesting) people willing to take the risk.

    “People who cannot imagine any sane person making that choice simply aren’t envisioning the wide range of human diversity,” said Brin, who has three children in school. “Consider what I told my family. By the very earliest date that Mars One might launch, I expect to be a spry 75-year-old whose kids are already successfully launched, and who might spend a few years doing something truly remarkable.”

    Even if it means dying on alien soil? Brin isn’t completely sure he’d go that far, but he’s willing to bet that others would.

    “I think you’ll find tens of thousands of people who, under those circumstances, will at least ponder it seriously,” Brin said.

    Kayli McArthur: ‘I’m trying to strive for something more’
    McArthur, a freshman at the University of Arizona, is one of more than three dozen 18-year-olds on Mars One’s list of applicants. Ever since she applied, she’s been hearing that she has her whole life ahead of her, so why would she want to leave it all behind for Mars?

    “Being young doesn’t make me want to do it any less because I have my whole life ahead of me,” she said. “It makes it more exciting. … I love all my friends, my guy friends, my family. It’s not that I’m trying to get away. It’s like I’m trying to strive for something more.”

    She has long dreamed of going into outer space, and she figures that her future degree in materials science would come in handy for creating the first interplanetary settlement. “Going to Mars, there are so many opportunities for that,” she said.

    So far, her family hasn’t stood in her way. “My family jokes, like, ‘Oh, Kayli, have your fun with it,'” she said. If the selection process gets more serious, she suspects she might face more resistance from her parents. But not from her grandfather.

    “My grandpa is a retired three-star [general] in the Air Force,” she said. “We were talking about it. I get really worked up and excited, and he was talking about it, too, and being realistic about it. He said, ‘That would be so cool if you were able to do it.’ … I know my grandpa would totally support me.”

    Sanford Pomerantz: ‘Grandpa is going to Mars!’
    Pomerantz is old enough to remember when the idea of sending people into outer space seemed as far out as the idea of sending people on a one-way trip to Mars seems now. One of the books that made an impression on him in grade school was Robert Heinlein’s “Red Planet: A Colonial Boy on Mars,” which was published in 1949.

    “I started as a physics major in the university, but then I got accepted into med school and changed directions,” he said. At the age of 71, he’s still a practicing psychiatrist in Topeka, Kan. But he’s also still holding onto that boyhood dream of spaceflight.

    “The Mars thing is exciting, because I hope it’ll stimulate people to get interested in space. … And I hope it has the secondary effect of stimulating science education, especially in the U.S.,” he said.

    Just as McArthur believes that Mars will need a materials scientist, Pomerantz believes the crew will need a psychiatrist. “Psychologically, it’s going to be an interesting challenge, but human beings are very adaptable,” he said. “It’ll be exciting to go to a whole new world. It’ll be a major step in human evolution.”

    If Pomerantz ends up being selected for the first Mars crew, he’s likely to become not only the oldest human to head for the Red Planet, but the oldest human to go on any space mission. (The current record-holder is John Glenn, who flew on the shuttle Discovery when he was 77 years old.) For now at least, that prospect doesn’t faze Pomerantz’s three children and two grandchildren. “The grandchildren are excited,” he said. “It’s like, ‘Grandpa is going to Mars!'”

    Pomerantz became a certified scuba diver just two years ago, and he still expects to be in good physical and mental shape for liftoff in 2022. “Remember, age is a state of mind,” he said. “Chronologlcally, I may be 71. … But psychologically and physically, I’m definitely in my 20s. I look in the mirror and say, ‘Who’s that old guy?'”

    See the full article here.

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  • richardmitnick 9:10 am on February 16, 2015 Permalink | Reply
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    From NBC News: “Mars One Picks 100 to Compete for One-Way Red Planet Trips” 

    NBC News

    NBC News

    February 16th 2015
    Alan Boyle

    The Dutch-based Mars One venture says it’s winnowed down its list of applicants to 50 men and 50 women who will compete for the chance to take a one-way trip to Mars. Yes, that’s the reward — not the punishment. The Mars One project plans to put on a reality-TV competition to select 24 prospective crew members for missions to Mars, starting as early as 2024. Winners would be expected to start up a permanent colony on the Red Planet.

    1

    Thousands signed up for Mars One consideration in 2013, and the 100 competitors (full list here) were chosen after going through interviews with chief medical officer Norbert Kraft. “Being one of the best individual candidates does not automatically make you the greatest team player, so I look forward to seeing how the candidates progress and work together in the upcoming challenges.” Kraft said in a news release issued Monday.

    Mars One estimates that it will need billions of dollars to conduct its Mars missions, including a robotic rover mission planned for launch in 2018. The money question is the biggest unknown right now, but last year an MIT study concluded that the venture’s plan to send humans to Mars and keep them alive was “overly optimistic” on technical grounds.

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  • richardmitnick 5:56 am on February 15, 2015 Permalink | Reply
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    From NBC: “After the Higgs, LHC Rounds Up the Unusual Suspects in Particle Physics” 

    NBC News

    NBC News

    February 14th 2015
    Alan Boyle

    Supersymmetry and dark matter, neutralinos, gravitinos and gluinos … you can expect exotic topics like these to be spinning around as the Large Hadron Collider ramps up to smash subatomic particles again over the next couple of months.

    CERN LHC Map
    CERN LHC Grand Tunnel
    CERN LHC particles
    LHC at CERN

    Physicists say the first hints of unconventional physics, such as evidence for the existence of those weird-sounding gluinos, could emerge within the next few months. Or not.

    It’s been almost three years since scientists at Europe’s CERN particle physics lab announced that the world’s most powerful collider had found the Higgs boson, a mysterious particle whose existence was predicted almost a half-century earlier. It’s been two years since the LHC was shut down for repairs and upgrades. Now thousands of physicists are getting ready to send beams of protons through the machine for the first time since 2013.

    “The beam is knocking at the door,” Frederick Bordry, CERN’s director for accelerators and technology, said Saturday during a preview of the LHC’s second experimental run at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, here in San Jose.

    Bordry said the LHC’s supercooled magnets are being prepared for the first proton beams to start circulating around the end of March. Scientific observations would begin after a two-month conditioning period, or by the end of May, he said.

    “Don’t kill me if we are taking three or four days more,” he joked.

    LHC gets an energy boost

    It has taken decades to plan and build the $10 billion Large Hadron Collider and its four main detectors, housed in tunnels that run 300 feet (100 meters) beneath the countryside at the French-Swiss border. Now Bordry and others at CERN have mapped out a schedule of experimental runs and maintenance periods to keep the LHC on the frontier of physics until at least 2035.

    The upcoming run is scheduled to last until 2017. During that time, the LHC will ramp up to smash protons together at 60 percent higher energies than it did at the end of its initial run: 13 trillion electron volts, or 13 TeV, as opposed to 8 TeV. Moreover, the beam luminosity will be three times higher.

    That means the collider’s detectors should be detecting Higgs bosons — particles that are associated with the process that imparts mass to other subatomic particles — at five times the frequency, said Beate Heinemann, a physicist at the University of California at Berkeley and the Berkeley Lab who’s part of the LHC’s ATLAS experimental group.

    CERN ATLAS New
    ATLAS

    Heinemann said the boost in the LHC’s capabilities should also improve scientists’ chances of detecting gluinos, a theoretical particle predicted by supersymmetry theory, by a factor of 60.

    Hints of weirdness

    Heinemann and her colleagues said the collider’s initial three-year run has already pointed to some apparent discrepancies with the Standard Model, the theory that currently holds sway in particle physics. However, those discrepancies have not yet shown up at a confidence level that would persuade scientists that something weird was really going on.

    3
    The Standard Model of elementary particles, with the three generations of matter, gauge bosons in the fourth column, and the Higgs boson in the fifth.

    If the weirdness is real, the LHC could provide evidence for it during the upcoming run, perhaps as soon as August or September, Heinemann told reporters.

    The new phenomena could take the form of supersymmetric particles, as-yet-undetected bits of matter that would add an elegant twist to the Standard Model. One such particle could be a gluino, the supersymmetric partner of a known particle called the gluon.

    Other hypothesized supersymmetric particles include neutralinos, which could account for the universe’s mysterious dark matter; and gravitinos, which could help explain dark matter as well as some of the mysteries surrounding gravity. The discrepancies also could be caused by a new breed of fourth-generation quark, Heinemann said.

    2
    Supersymmetry theory, or SUSY, suggests that each fundamental subatomic particle we’ve detected to date has a yet-to-be-discovered partner with complementary characteristics. The red box highlights the gluino, a particle that physicists believe could be detected at the Large Hadron Collider. If it exists, that is.

    However, there’s also a chance that the apparent discrepancies are nothing more than statistical glitches. That’s what happened a couple of years ago, when physicists saw hints pointing to the existence of a second kind of Higgs boson — only to watch those hints fade away as more readings were taken.

    “When you put a thousand physicists in a room to do data analysis, and each one of them makes 100 or 1,000 data plots, you’re likely to get statistical anomalies now and then — just like monkeys in the room typing out Shakespeare plays. Things happen,” said UCLA physicist Jay Hauser, a member of the LHC’s CMS collaboration.

    CERN CMS New
    CMS

    He said the data anomalies will provide a focus for future observations.

    “If it’s statistics, they’ll probably go away or diminish,” Hauser said. “If it’s real and interesting, then the effect will grow, and we get really excited.”

    Fermilab physicist Don Lincoln discussed the upcoming restart of the Large Hadron Collider — and the discoveries that may lie ahead — with NBC News’ Alan Boyle earlier this month on “Virtually Speaking Science.”

    5

    Read the pre-show interview, and listen to the hourlong podcast via BlogTalkRadio or iTunes.

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  • richardmitnick 6:39 am on February 14, 2015 Permalink | Reply
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    From NBC News: “Weird Sub-Neptunes and Super-Earths Pop Up in Kepler’s Planet Search” 

    NBC News

    NBC News

    February 13th 2015
    Alan Boyle

    One of the most common kinds of planets detected by NASA’s Kepler telescope appears to be a type that doesn’t exist in our own solar system, a leading astronomer on the Kepler team said Friday.

    Habitable planets Current Potential

    NASA Kepler Telescope
    Kepler

    This type of planet has a size in the range between two and four times Earth’s diameter, but it shouldn’t be called a “super-Earth” or a “mini-Neptune,” said Berkeley astronomer Geoff Marcy, one of the world’s most experienced planet-hunters. For now, he’s calling them “sub-Neptunes.”

    Based on an analysis of the Kepler planets’ sizes and densities, sub-Neptunes should have a rocky core that’s swathed in a thick layer of hydrogen and helium gas. That combination distinguishes them from rocky planets like Earth, as well as gas giants like Jupiter and ice giants like Neptune.

    “They dominate the planet census, and yet none of them are found in the solar system,” Marcy said here during a symposium at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

    Such planets also have been called “warm Neptunians” or “gas dwarfs.”

    Marcy said the analysis suggests that rocky planets can’t get much larger than 1.5 to two times Earth’s width. But that doesn’t mean we should give up on finding alien analogs to Earth, he said. The Kepler mission’s scientists already have identified scores of planets that are less than twice Earth’s width, and they say our Milky Way galaxy must have lots more such worlds.

    “There are billions of Earth-size planets, and many of them exist in the habitable zone,” said NASA researcher Bill Borucki, the Kepler mission’s principal investigator. “The question is, why hasn’t SETI picked up the signal?”

    Another member of the Kepler science team, Natalia Batalha of San Jose State University and NASA’s Ames Research Center, showed off a list of 29 potential super-Earths that lie within their parent stars’ habitable zones, where liquid water and possibly life could conceivably exist.

    One of the aims of the Kepler mission is to identify potentially habitable Earth-class planets, a category known as eta-earth.

    “We now have a very highly reliable sample of small-planet candidates in the habitable zone of both M- and K-type stars [red and orange dwarfs] that will enable an eta-Earth determination for this class of stars,” Batalha said.

    She added that similar determinations may be made for some of the small planets that Kepler has detected around sunlike stars, known as G-type stars. However, it’s still debatable whether the candidates on Kepler’s current list should be classified as rocky planets in the traditional sense, or as sub-Neptunes.

    Batalha’s list doesn’t yet include any Earth-size planets in Earthlike orbits around sunlike stars, but after Friday’s symposium, she hinted that it may not be long before such long-sought worlds start popping up in the Kepler database.

    “There are going to be more,” she told NBC News.

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