Not-So-Fast: Neutrinos Travel At Speed of Light, Says Icarus Experiment at Gran Sasso

Neutrinos seem to be travelling at speed of light once more! A different experimental group – the Icarus group, tried out the same experiment as the OPERA group in the same lab, but using different equipment and found that the speed of the neutrinos was very much compatible with the speed of light within experimental error bounds! The Icarus group have found that neutrinos travel at the speed of light, not faster. The OPERA result, already fraught by reports of device malfunctions, has received another jolt.

The Icarus Experiment

The experimental findings of the Icarus group, also based in Gran Sasso just like OPERA, and also receiving neutrinos from the same CERN source, were published in a paper which is available online here.

The T600 detector

A second opinion

The Icarus group intends on studying the different properties of neutrinos and also aspects of any proton decay. They use a Liquid Argon Detector – the T600 – which uses 600 tonnes of liquid nitrogen to detect the presence of neutrinos and also measure their direction and momentum. They have been tweaking their experiment so as to be able to re-check OPERA’s claim.

Of course, OPERA itself has been in a soup with its own problems. We reported the initially reported error of an optical fibre delay here and then followed up with yet another error that might have influenced the speed. With so much at stake, the littlest things might compromise the findings of the biggest experimental groups.

Icarus says that there are more tests to come – as many as four more experiments intend to verify OPERA. The entire physics community is expecting negative results, akin to Icarus’, but to be sure of such a thing would be prejudice.

The Woolly Mammoth To Return From The Dead, Guarantee Korean and Russian Scientists

The magnificent beasts shall once more roam this planet. This may be an overstatement, but South Korean and Russian scientists intend to research a proper cloning technique to recreate the wooly mammoth by trying and gestating the fertilized egg in the womb of an Indian elephant mother. The fertilization, after the required genetic modification, will be done in the lab.

Coming back from the dead?

Several very neatly preserved remains of mammoths, from more than 10,000 years ago, were found under the Siberian permafrost. The first step is to extract the DNA. With the DNA, the scientists are trying to recreate blood protein. If all goes well, the next step will be to create the nuclei of mammoth cells, which will contain the required genetic material. This will then be implanted in the cell of an Indian elephant. Since the two species are genetically very similar, this is the best bet! The gestation period will be 22 months. Research for this entire process should be complete by the next 5 years.


Cloning has been a long-time obsession for many geneticists. It’s a great way to showcase the giant leaps in genetics that have happened in the last 50 or so years. After the sheep Dolly, the world’s first cloned mammal and Snuppy, the first cloned dog, followed by numerous other clones like a cat and a coyote, this is the natural big leap! Even Chinese scientists are interested in this project.

There have always been raised eyebrows and pessimistic  opinions about being able to ‘tinker with the very essence of life itself’. Brushing all those silly opinions aside, let us just marvel at the very prospect of a giant mammoth being resurrected.

Happy Pi Day, Everyone!

At the very outset, let’s get one thing straight – ‘Pi’ is not the same as ‘Pie’. Pi is an irrational number; ‘Pie’ is a food item, horribly less important than Pi and much less faithful to a circle as well. Pi –the constant ratio between the circumference and the diameter of a circle – is always 3.14… and a few more digits. Actually, a lot more digits!

Geeky, geekier…

Now, glance at today’s date – 14th March. Write it as the Americans do – month first and then day – and you get 3.14! Ah ha, Pi!

Some people choose to take this one step further. Let’s look at a few more digits of Pi – 3.14159… Some people celebrate 1:59 AM and 1:59 PM on 14th March as “Pi Minutes”. How about continuing the trend? Sure, 3.1415926, occurring at 1:59:26 AM and 1:59:26 PM, are celebrated as “Pi Seconds”.

These are delicacies on this one day. Pi pies.

If you think all of this is extremely loony, you’d be right. However, it’s more than just fun and games. Pi day is also meant to promote math and show that it is a lot of fun. Pi day founder, Larry Shaw, a physicist at the Exploratorium, participates actively in the Pi Day celebrations by hosting a number of activities in the Exploratorium. Here’s this year’s list:

Plus, check out the homepage for pi:

… And a very happy birthday

In addition to all this fun, let us not forget that the great Albert Einstein was born on 14th March. So, it’s a double whammy and all Pi day celebrations spend some time wishing the Grand Old Man of Physics a Happy Birthday.

Wishing you a very happy Pi day!

Guest Starring On The Big Bang Theory: Prof. Stephen Hawking

BAZINGA!! The ultimate nerd show just got nerdier! The most famous physicist of our generation, Stephen Hawking, is to make an appearance on the Big Bang Theory, come Thursday, April 5th. The great mind of Sheldon Cooper will meet the great mind of Stephen Hawking, when the latter comes to visit the University.

However, a mystery remains. How did the production team get Stephen Hawking? That’s a mystery best left unsolved, say Bill Prady, Executive Producer of the show. It’s really a dream come true for many on the show, both on and off screen.  Says Bill Prady on the behind-the-sets page of the Big Bang theory webpage (link):

When people would ask us who a ‘dream guest star’ for the show would be, we would always joke and say Stephen Hawking – knowing that it was a long shot of astronomical proportions.

He goes on to say:

In fact, we’re not exactly sure how we got him. It’s the kind of mystery that could only be understood by, say, a Stephen Hawking.

So, the genius is coming to the sets of one of my favorite shows. Just hope Howard doesn’t do his Hawking impression, with the real person on the sets.

Giant Radio Telescope: South Africa Wins Bid To Host The Square Kilometer Array

South Africa have won the bid for hosting the Square Kilometer Array, beating rival bidders Australia by a narrow margin. The bid was settled today by a scientific panel. However, the exact location of the telescope, especially the central square, has not been decided.

An artist's impression of the Square Kilometer Array

The Giant

The SKA is a mammoth project, having 3,000 dishes, each having a diameter of 15 meters. It will cover a very large frequency range. Owing to its huge area – the name square kilometer refers merely to the total added area of the dishes, not of the area coverage on the ground – the collecting area will be very large. This will enable it to be extremely sensitive to any radio sources in the Universe. The downside of this extreme ability is that it will also pick up a lot of Radio Frequency Interference (RFI) from ground based radio sources. This means that the location of the telescope will have to be in a very arid place, nearly devoid of any human settlement, and definitely devoid of any strong usage of radio technology.

We reported about SKA and the location problem here:

The construction of the SKA is due to start in 2016 and it is expected to be completed in 2019. The telescope should see first light some time in 2020.

Not yet over

Even though the scientific committee has voted for South Africa, the win is so narrow and the contention so strong, that other countries like China, Italy, the Netherlands and the United Kingdom might vote either way and swing it.

A final decision is awaited on 4th April, during a board meeting in Amsterdam.

Observed: Atomic Movements Inside Molecule For The First Time Ever!!

Ultra-fast movements of atoms within a molecule have been observed for the first time ever, courtesy scientists led by Prof. Louis Di Mauro, a professor of physics at Ohio State University. The principle is simple: Shining light onto a molecule will excite the electrons of the atoms in the molecule. These electrons can then be the probe for the atomic movements within the molecule. The team used oxygen and nitrogen molecules, the simplest diatomic molecules you can get.


The team shone light on the molecules, which knocked out a single electron from one of the two atoms. This electron can then be reabsorbed into the molecule, but when that happens, it will interact with both the atoms. This interaction can be used to track back the potential between the atoms. Thus, we can probe the potential landscape within the molecule, using the interaction information of the electrons.

To probe the movement of the electrons, the team used an ultrafast laser, with a pulse width of 50 femtoseconds. That a millionths of a billions of a second!! Light travels just 300 nanometers in that time! 

The technology required to image complicated molecules like protein is still far away.

Atomic interactions inside molecules may augur in great fortunes in the soon-to-come future. 

First Spectrum Of Anti-Hydrogen Atom Observed By CERN

The first spectrum of anti-hydrogen has just been obtained by CERN’s ALPHA team and studies are on-going to find differences between its spectrum and that of ordinary hydrogen. Hanging in the balance are answers to crucial questions on the nature of anti-matter and why matter supersedes anti-matter in the visible Universe.

Trapping anti-hydrogen (Courtesy: ALPHA, CERN)

Mysteries of the Universe

The fundamental mystery is this: why is there more matter than anti-matter in the Universe, even though all equations of physics predict that the two are exactly the same. If we lived in a Universe made up of anti-matter particles, we wouldn’t know the difference. Or would we? A hypothesis, involving two discrete symmetries of nature – Charge (you reverse the charge on a particle), denoted by C and Parity (you take the mirror image of a particle), denoted by P – taken together and called CP symmetry, could be broken giving rise to more matter particles than anti-matter particles. However, this still doesn’t violate another symmetry called CPT symmetry, in which Charge and Parity are joined by Time reversal symmetry.

The object of study is this: There is an anti-proton about which a positron (anti-electron) orbits. As is well known, such a system will have energy levels like those of the hydrogen atom, composed of a proton orbited by an electron. The question is how similar are the two systems. How much is CP symmetry violated? What about CPT symmetry?

How is the study done?

The study, published in Nature, describes the very first attempts at studying resonances in this bound system. They attempted to flip the magnetic moment of the atoms using a microwave laser radiation. This is basically flipping the poles of a tiny atomic magnet. Now, the trapping of the anti-atoms, perfected by the same team at ALPHA, CERN, depends on the magnetic moment. If that is flipped, the anti-atoms leave the trap, escape and get annihilated. This happens at a particular energy. If the laser is tuned to this energy, most of the laser energy will be absorbed. This signifies a resonance.

This is just the first among, surely, several tests that will be performed on anti-hydrogen, now that it can be produced and trapped easily. 

Analysis of Tevatron Data Favors Low-Mass Higgs Boson; Confirms LHC Observations

A full analysis of the Tevatron data collected over ten years – a mind boggling 500 trillion proton-antiproton collision events – yields a narrower range for the Higgs mass. A new statistical fluctuation, seen with a confidence level of 2.2 sigma, narrows the range of the particle causing the fluctuation to between 115 GeV to 135 GeV. A GeV is a Giga electron Volts or a billion electron volts. These are pretty strong bounds on the mass. Furthermore, the entire regions between 147 to 179 GeV can be safely eliminated. This analysis confirms what the LHC data says – the Higgs is a low mass Higgs with a mass of about 125-126 GeV and the mass range above 141 GeV is eliminated with 95% confidence.

The local significances of the Higgs signature, both from the LHC and the Tevatron. Notice the continuous black line rising way above the dotted black line within the 115 to 127 GeV range. The horizontal light across the graph is the Standard Model prediction probability. The actual observed probability has to be greater than this line.

Excluded ranges and the range to look out for

The data, collected from CDF and DZero detectors of the now-deceased Tevatron, combines well with the LHC data, specifically with that supplied by the ATLAS detector, to restrict the Higgs mass between 115 GeV and 129 GeV. This also provides more confidence to the 3.6 sigma peak announced during the 13th December 2011 CERN broadcast. Kindly check the link here for very specific details of the seminar:

However, this result shows that the LHC and the Tevatron results match and that’s great, but it doesn’t get us any closer to actually finding the Higgs. Of course, if the Tevatron had disagreed, then we would’ve been in serious trouble.

Bottom line

Two things come out of this confirmation: The Higgs is most probably a low mass Higgs, having a mass of about 125-126 GeV. This is pretty interesting in itself, since this is not just the boring Standard Model Higgs, but gives an inkling of the success of supersymmetric theories. Secondly, the “look elsewhere” effect may not be as significant as was previously thought, now that the bounds are tighter. The “look elsewhere effect” takes into account the probability of finding the Higgs at every point within a certain range and not just at a very small interval. This considerably reduces the significance of the observed bump in general. Since the “look elsewhere effect” may decrease its contribution, concentrating on local significances may be quite the right thing to do!

Of course, the game will only be decided by the LHC. We expect to have enough data to pinpoint the Higgs by the end of this year, before the LHC goes into hibernation for 15 months. The game is heating up and getting interesting. Stay tuned…

What Sank The Titanic? The Moon, Say Two Scientists

The Titanic was sunk by the moon, say two scientists, but others are not so convinced. Their claim is that a truly cosmic conspiracy was afoot on the night of January 4, 1912, which sent many icebergs hurtling towards an area, lying bang in the path of the Titanic. Although the giant ship’s crew were ultimately to blame for not responding to warnings about icebergs in the area, the duo say that this might explain why there were so many icebergs in the area to begin with.

An Astonishing night

The night of Jan 4, 1912 was an astonishing night indeed. The moon was very bright as it was a full moon night. On this night, it was extremely close to the Earth, closer than it had been in 1400 years. This is what is called a ‘supermoon’ event, when the perigee (coming closest to the Earth) and full moon coincide. On top of that, by some coincidence, the Sun, the Moon and the Earth were aligned in nearly a straight line, causing the gravitational forces of the moon and the Sun to be added and generate very high tides. If that were not enough, the Earth was also close to the Sun, with the perihelion of the Earth (position where the Earth is closest to the Sun) happening the day before. The researchers, David Olsen and Russell Doescher, both of Texas State University, argue that this astonishing series of coincidences conspired against the doomed vessel.

The supposed path of the iceberg

The pair argues that icebergs drifting southwards from the Arctic region were refloated by the increased tides. Generally, icebergs float south and then get stuck in the shallow waters near the Labrador Peninsula or Newfoundland (refer map above). This prevents them from drifting south any further. If the iceberg was set afloat once more by the high tides, then they could have indeed caught the Labrador current  and, after drifting south-east a bit, intercepted the Titanic.

Voices of skepticism

Many are not quite convinced, however! The critical question of how high the tides were has been left unanswered. Furthermore, as John Vidale, a seismologist at the University of Washington points out, to compress the normal drift time of three-and-a-half months to just a few hours or even a day or two, is to overestimate the power of the tides. In other words, the icebergs would’ve taken three-and-half months to drift that far to the south. How high must the tides be to reduce that time to just a few hours?

Also many people question the alignment of the Sun, Moon and Earth. Even slight misalignment will not work, as the force needs to be as strong as we can have.

Why the Titanic sank may not be as clear cut at these scientists are trying to make it sound. Their work appears in the April edition of the Sky and Telescope magazine and it might be an interesting read.

Mysterious Eruptions on Venus A Result Of Massive Solar Activity

Strange things are afoot on Venus and we’ve got just a hint as to what they are. Gigantic explosions have been seen on the surface of Venus, possibly triggered by the intense Solar winds, which peaked yesterday. The spectacular explosions occur just above the surface of the planet, since Venus lacks a proper magnetosphere.

How the magnetosphere of a planet shields it from a solar wind. Venus doesn't have a strong enough magnetic field.

Scientists call these Hot Flow Anomalies (HFA’s) and these are common on Saturn. They have also been seen on Mars, but this is the first time such gigantic explosions are afoot on Venus.

An Explanation

Here’s a quick explanation as to why these HFA’s actually happen. The Sun sends out millions of charged particles travelling at very high speeds towards the planet. There are often discontinuities in the solar wind, and this is recorded as a sharp change in the magnetic field of the solar winds.

HFA's on Venus. The charged particles get swept up by this moving front of weak magnetic field. (Image Courtesy: GSFC/Collinson paper)

If these areas lie parallel to the direction of wind flow, the wind can remain in contact with the contour along which the solar wind slows down and changes direction, called the bow shock (marked). If the propagation of the discontinuity is slow enough, it sweeps up enough charged particles. These charged particles form plasma, which sends shockwaves resulting in these gigantic eruptions.

Huge Energy reservoirs

This process happens on Earth too, but the strong magnetic field of the Earth prevents the process from occurring too close to the surface. These processes release a lot of energy. About the HFAs on Venus, David Sibeck, a planetary climate scientist at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center says:

Hot flow anomalies release so much energy that the solar wind is deflected, and can even move back toward the sun. That’s a lot of energy when you consider that the solar wind is supersonic — traveling faster than the speed of sound — and the HFA is strong enough to make it turn around.

The study regarding this phenomenon made by Glyn Collinson and David Sibeck, both from GSFC, appeared in Journal of Geophysica; Research.