2011’s top Physics and Astronomy Stories

Einstein Wronged?

One of the physics stories this year that made it’s way significantly into the
media was that from the OPERA collaboration which observed Neutrinos travelling
faster than the speed of light. When this report broke back in September it was
met with a certain amount of trepidation from both the scientists involved and
the scientific community with the possibility that if confirmed it is a result
that would put ends to the underpinning concept of general relativity that
nothing can travel faster than the speed of light! In the months up to now the
scientists involved have been running the experiment again with the same results
and offering the challenge to other scientist to try and see what is wrong with
their experiment/result.

Currently although it hasn’t been able to be disproved the likelihood of this
being correct is low, one only has to apply the apparent difference in neutrino
and light speeds to the supernova of 1987. Under the OPERA speeds we should have
detected neutrinos from supernova 1987a 4 years before the light arrived, this
however wasn’t the case and they more or less arrived at the same time. The jury
is still out on this one and it’ll be interesting to see what experiments are
devised in 2012 to test these results.

Hints of Higgs.

In December CERN held a press conference regarding the Higgs Boson with much
excitement surrounding it. The rumours and speculations as to what results were
to be announced seemed to mirror most people’s hopes of the conference, that the
Higgs had finally been found at the LHC, this however was not necessarily the
case. Scientists at CERN couldn’t specifically say they had found the Higgs
Boson with significant certainty, however two experiments (ATLAS and CMS) had
seen hints of what was believed to be a Higgs signal around 125
gigaelectronvolts.

Although from experiments it cannot be stated if the Higgs exists or if the
signal observed is true 2012 holds hopes for the scientists involved. When the
LHC gets back up and running after the Christmas break scientists will be
hunting and acquiring as much data as possible to identify with significant
certainty where the Higgs signature lies. Expect by the end of 2012 to have an
answer as to whether the Higgs Boson exists!

The end of the Shuttle Program.

July brought the end of NASA’s 30 year shuttle program with the successful
launch and return of shuttle Atlantis. Funding strains and austerity measures
introduced by NASA grounded the fleet after 135 missions which brought massive
rewards into space research and technology developments. Sadly however measures
put into action in the period after the Columbia shuttle tragedy has seen NASA
aiming to shift it’s regular space travel to that of private investors to save
the limited amount of money already received from the US government. 2012 is
expected to see the first private companies staking claims in space exploration
with private space craft making the launch into space in the coming months.

Fukushima Fallout

It was hard to miss coverage of the events that took place on the East coast of
Japan back in March where a country best prepared for a tsunami was overwhelmed
by the result or 9.0 magnitude Earthquake.Luckily most of the nuclear fallout
was carried out to sea by winds although this didn’t stop mandatory evacuation
zones around the reactors. It took 9 months from the initial reactor meltdowns
to ensure that the reactors were safely in cold fusion and accordingly shut down
although the clean up of the site will take decades still at high cost.

The fukushima meltdown had significant effects on research and energy policy in
some nations. Compared to the Chernobyl disaster (occurring 25 years previously)
researchers could assess how a release of radioactive material effected the
environment and occupants in a wealthier nation such as Japan. The research also
aided the Japanese people with the lessons learnt previously from Chernobyl
being applied to prevent conditions caused by radiation. The disaster also had
an impact on policy with (understandably) Japan, Germany, Switzerland and Italy
taking an abrupt turn away from nuclear, Germany proposing to shut down all
reactors by 2020s. The coming years will be interesting to see if other
technologies come through for energy production or if these nations resume their
faith in nuclear energy.

The growing Universe

This years Nobel prize in Physics was awarded in October to Saul Perlmutter,
Brian Schmidt and Adam Reiss for their work on using supernovae to chart the
expansion of the universe. By using distant supernovae with standard intensity
the team were able to chart from their light how far away and how fast the
points were moving away from us on Earth. From this deductions and calculations
of the universe’s expansion could be ascertained as well as inferences made for
the effects of dark energy on matter in the universe. This year’s Nobel prize in
Physics was an odd one as the lauretes were relatively young compared to many
that have come before indicating potential shifts in those taking up scientific
research.

New Earths

2011 was an extraordinary year for NASA’s Keplar mission encompassing ground and
space based telescopes in a search for extrasolar planets. Although there was no
sign of Earth’s twin exactly, over 700 planets have been identified with some
strong candidates that may contain life. The mission identifies planets by
looking at stars. Measurements map out the light intensity observed from these
stars, periodic reductions in this intensity are sometime observed and it is
this which indicates that there is a body orbiting with a defined orbit. This
can data can also be applied in such ways to calculate the size of planets and
other properties.

Notable mentions of planets discovered by the Keplar mission are ‘Keplar 22-b’
which was the first planet observed which was inside of the habitable zone, a
region around a star where life may exist. Another one was a planet orbiting two
suns which was aptly named Tatooine.

To boldly go…

In November 6 men returned to Earth from a mission to Mars, however they never
actually left the Earth. The simulated mission that took place in a Russian
warehouse came to an and proved to a point that the human body could at least
cope with the mental strain of isolation and close quarter living that would be
encountered on a manned mission to Mars. Whilst locked away in a mock space
craft the astronauts practised space walks, experiments on mars and simulated
repairs necessary to keep the craft going. This paved the way for future space
exploration and although a Mars mission won’t occur just yet it’s a tantalising
glimpse into what may be possible in regards to the human body.

Goodnight Tevatron.

As the LHC was colliding particles and obtaining data to probe into the origins
of the universe and evidence for the Higgs Boson, an older particle accelerator
came to the end of it’s functioning life. With over 25 years colliding particles
Fermilab’s Tevatron particle accelerator closed in September with most of the
scientists using it packing up to move to the bigger and more powerful LHC.
Although not as powerful, Tevatron was actively hunting for the Higg’s Boson and
helping to eliminate some of the mass energy ranges that it could reside in.
Flurries of particles were identified and greater understanding into the
standard model governing particle physics came with the experimental
observations for the predictions that it made. With the LHC going strong
hopefully the work conducted at Tevatron shalln’t be forgotten and who knows
what the last scraps of data will hold.

Biolaser.

A report in June in the journal Nature photonics reported and experiment where
biological components were turned into lasers. Fluorescent proteins from
jellyfish were inserted into the genome of mammalian cells which were suspended
between two mirrors. The effect of the living cells suspended between saw an
amplification of an inserted photon inducing a lasing process. The significance
of this was that the cell and the proteins survived which is often not observed
when fluorescent proteins undergo continuous light excitation. With the
development of this technique the biological lasers may be seen in future in
nanotechnology and other more familiar regions as CD/DVD players. In regards to
these biological systems it is very much watch this space.

James Webb Space telescope vs politics.

More delays and issues arose in regards to the Hubble telescopes successor this
year, the James Webb Telescope. The telescope which when complete will reside in
a region 1.5 million kilometres away from Earth far away from any communication
disturbances, it will also comprise of a set of mirrors exceeding the size of
Hubble allowing for far higher resolution. The telescope however has come under
fire due to spiralling costs of $8.7 billion and rising. With the rising costs
the House appropriations committee in the US have declared that given the chance
they would prefer to cancel the project rather than provide more funding to
sustain it until launch in 2018. Some members of the senate have come out in
support of the telescope and NASA have also hit back saying it could be made
cheaper with more money spent now to have it readied prior to the current
estimated completion date. 2012 will tell whether the project survives and if
the completion date changes at all.

And to commemorate the Shuttle here’s an awesome video by Nature with Sheffield’s finest 65daysofstatic providing the music.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=II7QBLt36xo