Wednesday, 27 October 2010

Radio astronomers find the largest-ever pulsar

Major news from the National Radio Astronomy Observatory today as reports emerge that radio astronomers have discovered the most massive pulsar yet found. The giant neutron-star is almost twice the mass of the sun, and it's discovery will have strong and wide-ranging impacts across several fields of physics and astrophysics.

Pulsars are spinning neutron-stars. They are the radiophonic clocks of the universe, emitting a steady pulse of radio waves with each rotation, which can be detected here on Earth using radio telescopes like the Green Bank Telescope (GBT). This most recent addition to the pulsar family is known as J1614-2230, and is located about 3,000 light-years away in the direction of the constellation Scorpio. It is nearly 20% more massive than any previously measured star of its class, and is rotating at an incredible speed, completing 317 rotations every second.

Described, rather poetically, by the National Radio Astronomy Observatory as "the superdense corpses of massive stars that have exploded", neutron-stars have long been known to be ideal natural laboratories for studying the most dense and exotic states of matter known to physics. With all their mass packed into a sphere the size of a small city, their protons and electrons are crushed together into neutrons. A thimbleful of neutron-star material would weigh more than 500 million tons.

Discovering a neutron-star as large as J1614-2230 has come as a major surprise to astrophysicists. It's not just it's sheer size that's causing a flurry, it's the implications for our understanding of what pulsars are made of. Most existing computer models can not account for neutron-stars bigger than 1.5 times the mass of the sun without resorting to modelling the star using exotic particles. But initial measurements of J1614-2230 seem to indicate that this giant amongst neutron-stars is made up of just that - neutrons - rather than the exotic matter, such as hyperons, that many theories have predicted. Paul Demorest of the National Radio Astronomy Observatory believes their discovery "weakens the possibility that neutron stars are made from anything other than neutrons".


Saturday, 23 October 2010

Artists Use Augmented Reality to Hack Public Space

Augmented reality technology is starting to mature, creating increasing complex and imaginative sedimentary layers onto our lived environment.

We can see this in the emergence of urban augmented reality projects, which explore what Bruce Sterling refers to as "atemporality" - where the past, present and the future collide in a collaged moment.
Among the leading applications in this field are the likes of The Museum of London's "Streetmuseum" app and Sarah & Arthur Cox's "A Time Traveller's Guide".

Alongside these attempts to overlay the present with the past, is a trend amongst artists to augment - or improve - our cities' often overly commercial facades. One such example is the art project, "The Artvertiser", created by Berlin-based New Zealander, Julian Oliver. It imagines a near-future where advertising in public space can be replaced by art. It consists of custom-made handheld binocular devices and specially designed software. The Artvertiser considers Potsdamer Platz in Berlin, Puerta del Sol in Madrid, Times Square in New York, and other sites dense with advertisements, as potential exhibition space. The Artvertiser software recognises individual advertisements, each of which become a virtual 'canvas' displaying artworks when viewed through the Artvertiser binoculars. The Artvertiser allows artists to create a new visual layer onto the topology of the city, which can only be seen when viewed through a device which cogently blends the aesthetics of the past, with a futuristic functionality.

A number of other artists are also using augmented reality to allow the public to subvert or remove the logos and adverts that are all around us. The New Scientist recently reported on the work of US artists Mark Skwarek and Jeff Crouse, alongside Julian Oliver's work. The article notes:

"New York artist Jeff Crouse has designed a program called Unlogo, which detects corporate logos in a video stream, then replaces them [...] Mark Skwarek, is using AR to make a political point about the Gulf of Mexico oil spill. The Leak in your Home Town is a smartphone app that overlays an animation of a leaking oil pipe over BP logos in gas stations or on billboards. [He] describes it as a kind of benign graffiti."

"Technology-inspired artists have designed ways for you to mask or perhaps even delete company logos in your field of view as you wander around a city or shopping centre."


Monday, 11 October 2010

Listen to the Deep Ocean - live!

Last year, we reported on research published in Nature that showed how marine biologists were working hand-in-hand with physicists to use bio-acoustics technology for the dual purpose of monitoring marine live, and searching for neutrinos.

The recently launched Listening to the Deep Ocean Environment (LIDO) website takes this collaborative approach one step further. Michel André, a bioacoustician at the Technical University of Catalonia in Barcelona, Spain, and his colleagues, have spent the past 10 years placing hydrophones on the seabed, on existing research platforms that monitor earthquakes, tsunamis and detect neutrino particles from space.

They are studying sub-sea noise so that researchers can better understand the effects of human activity on whales and dolphins. But what's really extraordinary about their work is that they're allowing us to tune in. The LIDO website has links to live audio feeds from eleven hydrophones located in European waters, and North American waters.

André, quoted in the New Scientist, notes: "the system is powered from the shore, and streams audio data to a server where the signals are analysed and published directly on the internet."

With more hydrophones in the network the new system could reveal the effects of noise pollution on whales. Hydrophones can pick up sounds from baleen whales hundreds of kilometres away, so installations in different places could be used to triangulate an animal's position and track its course. It should therefore be possible to determine if animals change course in response to bursts of noise, or alter their preferred routes because of new sources of noise like shipping routes or harbours.

"It's the first time we have been able to monitor acoustic events on a large temporal and spatial scale," André says

An algorithm developed by André's laboratory filters the different frequencies in the signal to identify specific sounds, including the songs of 26 species of whales and dolphins, and noise from human activities such as shipping, wind farms, oil and gas drilling, and seismic testing.

Roger Gentry, an adviser for the E&P Sound and Marine Life Joint Industry Programme, comments that, "[Michel] André deserves a lot of credit for thinking in broad terms and using modern technology to make the oceans and marine mammals more familiar and accessible to us all."

André is a previous Rolex award-winner, acknowledged for his work designing a system to protect whales from collisions with ships:


Wednesday, 6 October 2010

A drop in the ocean - the Census of Marine Life reveals we've only just begun

This week in London, the Census of Marine Life reported on their ten-year quest to count and document life in the world's oceans.

The discoveries made over the past decade have inspired, surprised and delighted all of us who have been following the work of this epic project, which has dramatically expanded our understanding of the underwater realm. But the Census team ended their work on a humble note, stressing that despite ten years of work, and the coordinated global effort of over 2,700 scientists from more than 600 institutions, who examined every oceanic body on the planet, during 9,000 days at sea on more than 540 expeditions, they have barely scratched the surface of the diversity and strangeness of life in the sea.

"There's a lot of ocean left to explore", says environmental scientist and Census cofounder, Jesse Ausubel.

Dr. Ian Poiner, chair of the Census Steering Committee, underscored the importance of this vast body of research by noting:

"All surface life depends on life inside and beneath the oceans. Sea life provides half of our oxygen and a lot of our food and regulates climate. We are all citizens of the sea. And while much remains unknown, including at least 750,000 undiscovered species and their roles, we are better acquainted now with our fellow travelers and their vast habitat on this globe."

Science News gets to grips with the scale of the work still to do, by observing that according to the Census summary, the tally of 16,764 marine fish species formally named as of early 2010 probably falls short by an estimated 5,000 species. And fish aren't the half of it. They're perhaps 12 percent of the total of marine species, according to the census estimates. Fishes trail after crustaceans and mollusks in number of species, and researchers report evidence of major undercounts in the numbers of recorded species for these other groups too. Overall at least 750,000 marine species, not including microbes, still await discovery, the census teams predict. In the seas, the mysteries easily outnumber known species, now estimated at 250,000.

Deep waters below 200 meters are so under-explored that their life forms constitute "biodiversity's big wet secret," says the census's chief scientist, Ron O'Dor of Dalhousie University in Halifax, Canada. Fewer than 10 percent of records of marine life come from the zone of abyssal plains between 4,000 and 5,000 meters deep, yet that zone accounts for half the oceans' area.


Monday, 4 October 2010

Information Physics - The New Frontier?

As classical reductionist physics collides with the quantum brick wall, an information systems model of our universe seems to be emerging. A recent abstract published on arXiv by Professor Kevin Knuth, from the Information Physics Laboratory at the University at Albany in Albany in New York, articulates ways that "Information Physics" may be a new technique to derive new physical laws.

In this seemingly controversial abstract, Knuth writes:

"At this point in time, two major areas of physics, statistical mechanics and quantum mechanics, rest on the foundations of probability and entropy. The last century saw several significant fundamental advances in our understanding of the process of inference, which make it clear that these are inferential theories. That is, rather than being a description of the behavior of the universe, these theories describe how observers can make optimal predictions about the universe. In such a picture, information plays a critical role. What is more is that little clues, such as the fact that black holes have entropy, continue to suggest that information is fundamental to physics in general.

In the last decade, our fundamental understanding of probability theory has led to a Bayesian revolution. ...I will introduce [a] new way of thinking by demonstrating how one can quantify partially-ordered sets and, in the process, derive physical laws. The implication is that physical law does not reflect the order in the universe, instead it is derived from the order imposed by our description of the universe. Information physics, which is based on understanding the ways in which we both quantify and process information about the world around us, is a fundamentally new approach to science."


Saturday, 2 October 2010

Science & science fiction: two worlds meet

"This is the future really ... The 21st century is going to be full of developments like this."
Bruce Sterling, interviewed by Euronews in September 2010.

Euronews have just released a short documentary exploring the intersection between science and science fiction. It is online in various languages, here:

The documentary takes Europe's Museum of Science Fiction (Maison d'Ailleurs: as a case study, focusing on their collaborations with science institutions such as the European Space Agency, and their recent exhibition of robotic art by Ken Rinaldo.
It analyses how engineers and scientists have taken inspiration for important research and inventions from imaginative stories and artistic work created throughout the 19th and 20th century. The documentary reveals that much of what used to be considered science fiction - from the imagined worlds of Jules Vernes and Arthur C Clarke, to futuristic machines and journeys into space - is now reality.

The documentary features interviews with writers, Alastair Reynolds and Bruce Sterling, artist, Ken Rinaldo and the director of the museum, Patrick Gyger.