Artist's conception of earth-like planet Kepler-22b. Kepler22b Diagram showing relative size and orbit of new planet and our solar system. Image credit: NASA/Ames/JPL-Caltech
Scientists at NASA announced today that they have discovered the first (probably rocky) “superEarth” planet orbiting in the “habitable zone” of a Sun-like star. The “habitable zone” is an orbit where liquid water is possible on the surface of the planet.

Kepler22b Diagram showing relative size and orbit of new planet and our solar system. Image credit: NASA/Ames/JPL-Caltech

This newly discovered planet is a “superEarth” because it is only ~2.4 times the size of the earth, and thus not a gas-giant. Gas-giant planets have previously been discovered in such habitable zone orbits of stars, but this is the first earth-type (i.e. rocky) planet. Gas giants in general are not considered capable of supporting life (as we know it).

On the other hand, Earth-like rocky planets in habitable zones are capable of supporting life. Kepler-22b is estimated to have an average surface temp of about 72 degrees Fahrenheit. Nice!

Discoveries like these really do hint that life may very well be possible in lots of other systems in the universe. In order to detect such planets, their orbits must be “on-edge” in relation to us. Specialized telescopes like the Kepler can detect the (slight) dimming of the light from the star as the planet travels in front of the star (between us and the star). If the orbit of the planet was off-edge (in relation to us), it wouldn’t block the light from the star anytime during it’s orbit, so wouldn’t be detected. So, it is quite likely that there are many more such planets we can’t detect via this method. Wow!

Jaguar - from adobe mural at Huaca Partida, Nepeña Valley, Peru.
Last Saturday I attended a very interesting all-day seminar in Washington, DC. The Pre-Columbian Society of Washington DC has an annual symposium at the U.S. Navy Memorial’s Naval Heritage Center. At right is the design on the symposium T-shirt. It is a feline character (I’m going to assume a jaguar) from an adobe mural at Huaca Partida, Nepeña Valley, Peru (something like > 1500 years ago). Neat.

This location is very convenient; right at the Archives Metro stop on the Green line. This year’s topic was “The Dawn of the Andean Civilization. The link above goes to the symposium website; here is a synopsis:

Chavín de Huántar, the massive ceremonial center constructed more than 3,000 years ago high in the Peruvian Andes, attests to the great antiquity of Andean civilization, but the roots of this florescence occurred at least two and possibly three millennia earlier. During this one-day symposium some of the world’s most renowned Andean scholars will present new research that challenges current notions about the genesis of Andean society. Did a singular, linear progression emanating from one early center lead to the magnificence of Chavín de Huántar and, later, the splendor of the Moche kings and the majesty of Tiwanaku? Or did the many pinnacles of achievement that make up the rich tapestry of ancient Andean culture emanate from multiple centers? Did different traditions emerge along the coast and in the highlands? In the north and in the south? Did these developments occur everywhere at the same time? This symposium will examine these and other questions, revealing a dynamic period that witnessed the first large-scale monumental architecture, large permanent settlements, intensive food production, social stratification, and widespread distribution of shared art forms and religious practices. So please join us for a day of new insights into the dawn of Andean civilization.

I really enjoyed the seminar; I have visited Peru (on my honeymoon) but that was basically to see Machu Picchu (Incan, ca. 1500 AD). This seminar focused on the northern coast of Peru (north of Machu Picchu), from about 1200 BC to 600 AD – much earlier. Prior to this series of talks, I had almost no knowledge of the Pre- Moche civilizations of the Andes so this was a very enlightening day.

Plenty of breaks, and for lunch I visited Teaism (right across the street) for a delicious “chicken curry” dish and an IPA. Then back for more talks. I’ll post a synopsis of the talks from my notes at a later time…

8:15 a.m. — REGISTRATION, Morning Refreshments
9:15 a.m. — Playing in the Dark: Archaeological Analysis and Evidence at the Dawn of Andean Civilization *Tom Dillehay
10:15 a.m. — BREAK
10:45 a.m. — Household Archaeology and the Emergence of Social Complexity at Peru’s North Central Coast: New Perspectives from the Late Preceramic Site of Bandurria, Huacho Alejandro Chu
11:35 a.m. — The Role of the Casma Valley in the Development of Early Andean Civilization Tom and Shelia Pozorski
12:25 p.m. — LUNCH
1:45 p.m. — The Settling of the Landscape: What This Meant to Formative People in the Titicaca Basin, Bolivia Christine Hastorf
2:35 p.m. — Changing Views on the Andean Formative Period: The Perspective from Chavín de Huántar John Rick
3:25 p.m. — BREAK
3:50 p.m. — The Dawn of Andean Civilization as Viewed from the Shores of Peru’s Central Coast Richard Burger and Lucy Salazar
4:50 p.m. — Panel Discussion All Speakers (Moderated by Dr. Dillehay)

Last week I read an interesting article in my company’s newsletter about a coworker who recently got back into model rocketry. He’s into the very large rockets (the ones that go like 50,000 feet up, and require coordination with air traffic, etc.). Anyway that renewed my own long-dormant (like 30 years) interest in model rockets, so this past weekend Preston, Dylan and I went out and launched (a smallish) one! This particular one is a simple, pre-built model. That way I could at least try it out with the boys to see if they liked it, but not have to spend a whole day building one. :) Anyway, yes, they loved it!

See below this text for a Photo gallery of the event…

This model has a payload section, but Preston had second thoughts at the last minute about sending “Sherman” up (his earwig he found earlier in the day, and was to be the test pilot). So we sent up a dandelion he found on the field where we launched the rocket (behind Dylan’s school).

Yep, had all the excitement I remembered – but none of the frustration. Seems the new igniters (vs. 30 years ago) are much more reliable, and they also come with plastic plugs that you use to ensure good contact with the engine. Result: a successful engine start each time!

Dylan was the “retriever”; he actually ran after the rockets without coercion, and convinced Preston to let him “press the button” at least once. Thus, I *know* he enjoyed himself. No mystery regarding Preston: when asked last night whether he wanted me to go to the store to get more engines to fire up more rockets, he said “Yes! Get a hundred so we can do it a hundred more times!” :):)

I had a picture of Preston standing next to the rocket as well, but unfortunately it was out of focus, so just imagine a little dude next to the rocket…

I already have another rocket (some assembly required ), so this might become a more regular outing. I’ll have Preston help with the assembly. We’ll see how she flies! :)

Pope Benedict XVI
From the Vatican Information service:


VATICAN CITY, 21 MAY 2011 (VIS) – This Saturday, Benedict XVI held a
conversation with the group of cosmonauts and astronauts aboard the
International Space Station, on the occasion of the space shuttle
Endeavour’s last mission.

From a room in the Vatican’s Apostolic Palace the Pope could see the
astronauts on a television screen while they could only hear his voice on an
audio channel.

During the conversation, the Holy Father asked the astronauts five
questions. The first: “When you are contemplating the Earth from up there,
do you ever wonder about the way nations and people live together down here,
or about how science can contribute to the cause of peace?”.

Mark Kelly
United States astronaut Mark Kelly answered that, from space, you cannot
see the borders between the nations, but “we realize that people fight with
each other and there is a lot of violence in this world … The science and
the technology that we put into the Space Station to develop a solar power
capability, gives us pretty much an unlimited amount of energy. And if those
technologies could be adapted more on Earth, we could possibly reduce some
of that violence”.

While emphasizing “the responsibility we all have towards the future of
our planet”, the Pope asked how the astronauts see Earth’s situation from
their “extraordinary observation point?”.

International Space Station
United States astronaut Ron Garan answered that, “we can see how
indescribably beautiful the planet that we have been given is; but on the
other hand, we can really clearly see how fragile it is”.

Benedict XVI asked if, “in the midst of your intense work and research”,
the astronauts ever stop and reflect on the mystery of creation – perhaps
even to say a prayer to the Creator? The Italian astronaut Roberto Vittori,
who before leaving for space had received a medal from Benedict XVI
representing the Creation of Man as painted by Michelangelo on the Sistine
Chapel ceiling, responded. On seeing the beauty of the planet, he said, “I
do pray: I do pray for me, for our families, for our future”.

The Pope addressed his fifth and final question to the Italian astronaut
Paolo Nespoli, assuring him of his prayers for the astronaut’s recently
deceased mother and asking him how he was living through this time of
sorrow; if on the station he felt “far away and isolated, if you suffer a
sense of separation or if you feel united to and included in a community
that accompanies you with care and affection?”.

Thanking the pontiff for his prayers on the death of his mother, Nespoli
agreed that, being outside the world, “we have a vantage point to see the
Earth and to feel everything around us”.

The Holy Father concluded the conversation by thanking them for “this
wonderful opportunity to meet and dialogue with you. You have helped me and
many other people to reflect together on important issues that regard the
future of humanity. I wish you the very best for your work and for the
success of your great mission at the service of science, international
collaboration, authentic progress, and for peace in the world”.

shape of inner space

Professor Shing-Tung Yau gave a lecture last night at the Smithsonian (Carmichael Auditorium of Museum of American History), based on his book, The Shape Of Inner Space. He basically described the trajectory of his career over the past 40 years or so, along the way describing “Calabi-Yau” space and how it relates to String theory and maybe even the real world.

The basic tenet of String Theory is that all particles, at their most basic level, are made of vibrating bits of tiny strings. Yes, strings. The way they vibrate basically dictates which particles they manifest as. I won’t even pretend to know the math involved. One non-intuitive (to me as a non-mathematician, anyway) upshot of the string theory math is that it requires (reveals?) a total of 10 dimensions – 6 more than the 4 with which we are most familiar (3 dimensions of space plus time). Turns out according to theory that the extra 6 dimensions are hidden away in Calabi-Yau Space. This invisible space exists at every point in “real” space.

At this point, Prof. Yau asked, “Who cares?”. Well, it turns out the exact shape/geometry of this “Calabi-Yau Space” dictates the properties of our universe and the kind of physics we see.

The lecture was sold out…

Keep reading to see how Yau’s discussion of Mirror Symmetry (spaces) can be related to eating at a British-themed pub…

After the lecture I managed to take some pictures of Washington, D.C. in the evening light. I had a half-mile hike back to the Metro anyway, as I used the Archives stop on the Green line. This involved no train changes, and the weather was just perfect for a walk downtown. It’s actually very relaxed in the evening, as most people have gone home for the day. The downside is that it can be a bit hard to find someplace to eat around the Smithsonian in the late evening. I asked a security guard who happened to be taking a break, and he pointed me to the Elephant and Castle Pub on Pennsylvania Ave. Ok, his exact words were more like, “not much open right now except super-fancy places- just that sports bar over there…”. That was not really what I was looking for, but I was going that way anyway and I had missed dinner, so I stopped in. Glad I did! Got a nice table outside (did I mention perfect weather) and had some Fish and Chips and a London Porter. Yum! Not too pricey, and the fish was delicious – just lightly breaded/ fried crispy and golden. The porter was delicious too- chocolately and coffee undertones.

Mirror Universe? I was quite intrigued by something the waitress said when she brought me my fish and chips (she was a different person than the waiter who took my order): “Hey, that’s funny, I thought I must be seeing things – there’s a guy inside who is also having a Porter, fish and chips, and using an iPad”. Neat!

I wonder if he is in a Mirror Geometry (Mirror Symmetry)? Turns out you can have two Calabi-Yau spaces with different topologies (shapes) but the same resulting set of physical properties (simplistic: i.e. same universe). I wonder what shape the other guy was? :)

Mirror-symmetry is powerful: if you have a hard time solving a problem (typically in string-theory) with one of the spaces, just use its mirror space! This has been successful in many cases, sometimes allowing problems to be solved that have eluded mathematicians for over a century…

From the lecture description at Smithsonian Resident Associates page:

Do we live in a 10-dimensional universe? String theorists believe we do, even though we can sense only four dimensions.

Geometer Shing-Tung Yau has mathematically proven the existence of the elaborate, twisted six-dimensional shapes at the center of string theory. If that theory is correct, these “Calabi-Yau manifolds” (pictured here) may dictate the forces and particles of nature.

Yau tells the story of how physics met geometry and the new picture of the universe that has emerged as a result. He concludes by describing the ongoing exploration of Calabi-Yau spaces and the quest to uncover the shape of this small, hidden domain that may govern almost everything in our universe.

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