Talking about the miracle molecule which keeps us alive, I recommend listening to the episode titled “Breath” from Radiolab. This is a great episode where ” try to climb into the very center of this thing we all do, are all doing right now, and now, and now.“
This physics today editorial talks about a study which found that as the number of paper in a field increases, it becomes increasingly difficult for researchers to recognize innovative work and progress, as a result, stalls. This got me into thinking about different ways to mitigate this issue:
Parsing journal articles faster?
Some journals include a ‘Plain Language Summary of article’ or ‘Significance of work’ in the abstract section of the paper. These are usually provided by the authors and might help readers parse information faster (although with some clear loss in details). Here are a few journals which have implemented some form of this:
A while ago, I stumbled upon this python module called Sumy and an online web summarizer (ExplainToMe) which were able to summarize contents of HTML pages and documents into a few sentences. And quite frankly. their performance was surprisingly good. Another way to address this issue might be invoke the machines and use NLP to solve this issue.
A more “unbiased” alternative to summarizing articles might be through online discussion (via YouTube, Reddit, twitter, forums, etc). I find Fermat’s library implementation for such a routine quite ideal. They discuss one interesting research article per week but also allow others to annotate and highlight.
The Nobel Prize in Physics 2019 was awarded “for contributions to our understanding of the evolution of the universe and Earth’s place in the cosmos” with one half to James Peebles “for theoretical discoveries in physical cosmology”, the other half jointly to Michel Mayor and Didier Queloz “for the discovery of an exoplanet orbiting a solar-type star.”
In this sub-section we will try to understand how Michel Mayor and Didier Queloz discovered the first ever exoplanet – 51 Pegasi b . Let’s first take the example of a Leslie speaker.
This speaker has two horns from which the sound emerges out.
The two horns are placed on a rotating platform which can spun at high speeds.
Therefore, if you play a tone at frequency ‘f’ and begin to spin the horns, you can make the listener hear a higher frequency(f1) and a lower frequency tone(f2) instead of ‘f’.
If the horns stop spinning, the listener will only hear frequency ‘f’ .
is due to the Doppler Effect and leads to some really cool sound
effects. This video offers a great demo around the 7:30 mark:
Planet or no planet?
In our solar system the Sun, Earth, and all of the planets in the solar system orbit around a point called the barycenter. This is where the center of the mass of the solar system lies at :
This means that the motion of the sun and jupiter looks like so:
Top and side view (exaggerated for more clarity)
This same ‘wobbling’ idea applies to planets revolving other stars as well (called ‘Exoplanets’).
The star moves around in a circle like the horns of a Leslie speaker.
The spectrum of the star when it is moving towards us would be doppler shifted to a higher frequency and when the star is moving away would be doppler shifted to a lower frequency!
Measuring this wobble is one way to find whether a planet is orbiting the star or not.
Michel Mayor and Didier Queloz were awarded the Nobel prize for their discovery of 51-Pegasi b, an ‘exoplanet’ orbiting a sun-like star 51-Pegasi using this technique.
When they published their results in 1995 it was the first exoplanet to be discovered.
Today more than 4,000 exoplanets are confirmed to be in orbit around other stars but their research definitely stands as the cornerstone in what has now become a field of its own.
Van Gogh’s The Starry Night is a stunning painting that artistically brings out the effect of turbulence in our atmosphere.
And this turbulence of air in addition to the effect of varying refractive index of the layers in our atmosphere causes the twinkling of stars:
If you are an astronomer trying to study the cosmos from the earth, this turbulence of air and twinkling of stars is a total nightmare.
The last thing that you want the light that painstakingly took millions of years to get to the earth is to be wiggled away from your telescope through refraction and turbulence!
But Astronomers found a way to deal with this, a technique called ‘Adaptive Optics’ which uses deformable mirrors to account for the disturbances in the atmosphere.
With and Without Adaptive Optics
Using this technique, the following is the difference between capturing an image with and without adaptive optics.
What can you find with this technique?
Here’s an interesting question: What exactly is at the center of our galaxy? Is there a black hole ? How do we go about studying it?
Prof.Andrea Ghez and her research group at the UCLA’s Galactic center group were inspired by the same question and decided to look at a region in the sky which they believed was the center of our milky way galaxy.
And this is what they found of the trajectories of stars surrounding the proposed center of the galaxy:
The first thing that you notice about these stars is that they are orbiting a point in space. This is very similar of how planets in our solar system are orbiting the sun.
One of the special stars in that animation is S0-2 which completes its elliptical orbit in only 15 years!
( it takes the sun approximately 225-250 million years to complete one journey around the galaxy’s center )
But having this knowledge of how small the orbit is, we can use Kepler’s law to find out the Mass at the center of the galaxy. And we get the mass of the center of our galaxy as a staggering 4 million times the mass of the Sun
How massive is that?
Let’s take a look at the orbits once again:
The radius of this object at the center, in order to avoid collision with the rest of the objects has to be about the diameter of Uranus’s orbit.
So, an object that has 4 million times the mass of the Sun. and diameter of Uranus’s orbit .. Hmm.. The only astronomical object that would fit this characteristic is a Super Massive Black Hole (SMBH)
And that’s why we believe that at the center of our galaxy is a SMBH: Something we would not have been able to realize without adaptive optics.
So, the next time you go out to gaze at the cosmos, just remember that whatever you are seeing in the night sky right now is through the looking glass of our beloved atmosphere.
And astronomers put in immense effort to nullify the dynamic atmospheric effects that it loves to entertain us with.
All images/animations featured in this post were created by Prof. Andrea Ghez and her research team at UCLA and are from data sets obtained with the W. M. Keck Telescopes