Cosmic Spectacle: Leonid Meteor Shower To Light Up Sky Tonight

The Leonids are upon us and that means that you should cancel all your plans and just stare towards the heavens tonight. On the night of 17th November (i.e between 17th and 18th), the Leonids are going to peak in intensity and we intend to give you every piece of information you need to know about them.

Leonids are seen when the Earth moves into the trail of the comet Temple-Tuttle. They are called Leonids, since their radiant (i.e. the point in the sky from where they appear to radiate’ out) lies in the constellation of Leo. This is generally the procedure followed for naming meteor showers.

The radiant for the Leonids (Image Courtesy: ESA)

The peak this year is right on schedule and will be on 17th November. However, don’t despair if you miss it tonight. The meteor peak doesn’t fall off too sharply and you will be able to catch some streaks the day after as well, but obviously the rate will reduce.

The Leonids are one of the most prolific meteor showers known. They are also very capricious in their counts per hour. Leonids have been known to exceed 1000 streaks an hour and that becomes a scene you cannot possibly afford to miss. One such shower happened in the year 1966 and again as recently as 1999.

Details you need to know

Peak of the shower

Now for some bad news. The peak of the shower will happen at about 10 PM EST, when the radiant will be either near the horizon or below it for most places around the globe experiencing nighttime. In the US, the radiant will poke above the horizon at about 1 AM, but light pollution from the horizon can severely restrict the number of meteors you see, as many are very faint.

Avoid light pollution

We suggest that you try and go to a place which has as little light pollution as possible. Go out of the city, if possible. We recommend that you like comfortably on your back and don’t hurry things. The meteors are fickle-minded objects and there may be no sign of them for several minutes, may be even an hour. However, they will come in bunches, as the Leonids are reputed to do. Then they will relent again and not appear for quite some time. This effect will be more pronounced, if your view is blurred by smog as most of the streaks will be quite faint.

The Leonids (Courtesy: Mr. Kwown O Chul and
Photographing the shower

For enthusiastic photographers, here’s a quick tip. Try exposures of 5 to 10 minutes and, thus, you’ll need a tripod. Try to get as far away from the moon as possible and you should have no problems doing that here. If you’re lucky, you’ll get brilliant streaks, roughly perpendicular to the trails made by stars in the sky (photo above).

Remember that the time to watch out for is at about 12:30 AM to 1:00 AM. Happy skywatching.

Discovered: Giant Lake Underneath Surface Of Jupiter’s Moon; Could Harbor Life

If there be life outside Earth, but within the Solar System, the greatest possibility lies on either Mars or Europa, Jupiter’s frozen moon. Europa has a thick crust of solid ice, underneath which lies a huge body of water, possibly uninterrupted. What has got astronomers really interested is the fact that just 1.8 miles below the icy surface, there may be a body of water as big as all the Great Lakes combined. This is above the liquid ocean, which sits even deeper from the surface. The possibility of life in this pocketof water is tantalizing.

An artist's impression of what the lake might look like. (Illustration courtesy: Britney Schmidt and team from Texas University)

Europa – a strange world

Europa was extensively studied by the spacecraft Galileo and found that it is a strange world. The heat from the Sun could never sustain the liquid ocean underneath, but the tidal forces due to Jupiter’s giant gravitational field provides enough energy for the ice to melt underneath and form the giant ocean. This ocean is thought to lie 100 km (or 62 miles) below the surface.

The frozen surface of Europa, as seen by Galileo (Photo courtesy: Wikimedia)

Peering down

The study was done by Britney Schmidt and her team from the University of Texas, and their paper appeared in Nature today, i.e. on the 17th of November. The discovery provides an impetus for the search for life as it might be located much closer to the surface than previously thought.

This will also fuel the search for other subterranean lakes, like the one already found. Future missions to Europa could well include melting through the ice crust and taking samples from the great lake. Studies indicate that the water may be salty, and we already know how much life salt water can sustain.

The next giant leap for mankind might well be digging just 3 kilometers on an icy world far far away and inspecting the samples obtained. Maybe, just maybe, we’ll find something living.

Eureka: World’s First Vaccine and Cure For Cancer Developed by Israeli Medicine Company

The BIG NEWS of a Cancer Curing Drug is coming in from Israel.

An Israeli company has come up with a vaccine against cancer that is both safe in terms of no side-effects and can be administered as a drug. Vaxil BioTherapeutics has developed a vaccine that is now undergoing clinical trials and not yet available in the market. It is being tested at Hadassah University Medical Center in Jerusalem and the trials could take as long as six years to conclude.

For Vaxil’s Homepage:

A vaccine that is also a drug

The vaccine also acts like a drug, i.e. it can be administered to a sick person as a cure. The vaccine is being tested against a form of blood cancer called multiple myeloma and it is generating enough success. Vaxil says that it could be used against other types of cancer as well, including the common prostrate and breast cancer. The primary immune technology, called VaxHit, can then be developed for other forms of cancer.

How the drug works

The problem with cancer is that the immune system of the body doesn’t know what exactly it should do. The Vaxil product, called ImMucin, trainsthe immune system to act in a specific way. Cancer cells have a marker called MUC1 that is unique to cancer cells only. ImMucin trains T-cellsof our immune system to attack only those cells that are marked by the MUC1 marker. The success rate of the vaccine has not been revealed, but it is supposedly phenomenal. The diversification of the vaccine stems from the fact that MUC1 marks more than 90% of the different cancer cells. Furthermore, since only those cells marked with MUC1 are targeted, the drug has no side-effects and is completely safe to use.

This may be the ultimate magic bullet that scientists have been working towards for a long time. However, there are still a few clinical tests to go.

Vaxil’s Homepage:

Hint Of New Physics At LHC – Explaining the LHCb Results

The tantalizing possibility of new physics may just be around the corner. The LHCb preliminary results surely hint towards that possibility with the first ever detection of CP violation in the charm quark sector. We reported this big news here and in this editorial piece, we intend to elaborate on what the results mean or might imply in layman’s terms.

The actual news piece, which you should read before reading this:
The LHCb detector

Explaining it simply: topics to cover

We will follow the following sequential treatment of the entire subject:

  • What is CP symmetry and what does its violation mean?
  • What is baryon asymmetry and what does CP violation have anything to do with this?
  • What are the generations of quarks?
  • What decay process are we looking at?
  • What about the Standard Model? What does this predict?
  • What are the experimental results and how might we interpret them?

If you think you know any of the sections, you might skip it. Let’s begin our journey.

1. CP Violation

There are certain symmetries that exist in Nature. Many of the symmetries are continuous symmetries, like the rotational symmetry for a sphere. No matter how small an angle of rotation you give to the sphere, it will still look the same. This is not true for an equilateral triangle, whose rotation angle has to be 600 in order for it to look the same. The first one is a continuous symmetry and the latter a discrete one.

Having known what symmetry means, we can look for symmetries in a quantity called the Lagrangian. A Lagrangian reflects all the possible dynamics of a system, (which are manifested through its derivatives). Symmetries of the Lagrangian can be both continuous and discrete. In the Lagrangian for the electromagnetic field, apart from a lot of continuous symmetries, there is also the symmetry of charges. Namely, if you replace all charges with their opposite (i.e. positive charges with negative and vice-versa), the Lagrangian will still be the same. CP (Charge-Parity) symmetry means that whatever operation you perform, if you replace the particles with the anti-particles (charge’) and then switched their positions or reflect them (parity), then no experiment will be able to tell the difference.

CP violation refers to the breaking of this symmetry. Some experiments can differentiate between the above mentioned configurations and, thus, CP is violated. Most notable violation of CP symmetry is given by the weak interaction. This violation is explicitly put in the Lagrangian, which is otherwise CP invariant.

2. Baryon Asymmetry and CP violation

We see that the Universe, as we know it today, is made up of matter and not anti-matter. If there is nothing to differentiate between matter and anti-matter (the labels of particle and anti-particle are human constructs and nothing physically differentiates them), we couldn’t possibly have had more matter than anti-matter. One of the unsolved mysteries is then this: Why is there so much more matter than anti-matter in the Universe. This is known as Baryon Asymmetry puzzle’.

One of the theoretical ways to resolve this is to look for CP violation (see previous section) signatures. CP violating processes can produce more matter particles and hinder the production of anti-matter particles, treating them on unequal footing as explained above. Even though there are models without CP violation, which predict the Baryon Asymmetry, none of them is as beautiful as the Standard Model with the CP violation plugged in. For this to work for every particle, the Baryon number conservation has to be perturbatively broken. In the Standard Model framework, this is not possible. The mechanism for CP violation generating excess baryons is not understood as of now.

3. Generations of Quarks

There are three generations of quarks in the Standard Model. Later generations of quarks are heavier than earlier generations. The three generations are given below.

The generations of quarks, along with the generation of leptons. (Picture courtesy: CERN)

Most matter is made up of just up and down quarks (the lightest of the lot), given that the proton and neutron are made up of these quarks. The charm quark is a second generation quark and is quite heavy. The heaviest is the top quark, which is so heavy that it cannot exist long enough to form a bound state. We can only identify the top quark by its decay signature.

For our current purposes, only the first two generations of quarks are important. The charm quark, being heavy can decay into strange, anti-strange and up quarks or into down, anti-down and up quarks. The up and down, being the lightest of the lot, doesn’t decay into anything. We shall find out the effect of this decay in the next section.

Charming Results from LHCb Conference: Has The LHC Finally Found Some New Physics?

There may finally be some great news coming out of LHC. After a string of negative results, LHC presents the first ever signals of CP violation in the charm quark sector. This might explain the very origin of matter, in the sense that it explains why matter dominates the Universe. Curiously, the awesome result comes from LHCb, one of the side’ experiments and not from the premier ATLAS and CMS collaborations.

An explanation of the results:
The LHCb Detector

What is found wasn’t quite expected!

This is what LHCb is saying. The observed asymmetries in the decay processes have been noticed in the charm-quark section, giving rise to the D-mesons. The D-mesons are a bound state of the charm quarks, which is one of the heaviest quarks in the Standard Model. The two relevant quarks are the D0 (D-zero) made up of a charm and an anti-up quark and the D0bar (D-zero bar) made up of anti-charm and an up quark. The LHCb looked into the decay of these relatively stable bound states into CP invariant states, like the Kaons or the pions. The D0 should decay into Ï€+Ï€ or κ+κ, and so should the D0bar at equal rates, if CP were an exact symmetry. What the LHCb found was that this is not the case and the deviation in the rates is substantial and LHCb claims a 3.5 sigma confidence level on this!  

The amount of deviation

The Standard Model does predict that CP is not an exact symmetry in the quark sector, but only an approximate one. Still it gives a value of mixing, based on the famous Cabbibo angle, which is close to zero. What LHCb found was that this mixing value is close to 0.82% +/- 0.24%, which is a significant deviation from the Standard Model (at a 3.5 sigma confidence level).

These are still preliminary results. The LHCb is not as sophisticated as the ATLAS or CMS and cannot handle the high beam luminosities that the premier detectors can. Thus, it has collected less data than either of ATLAS and CMS. Less data also means more noise or spurious signals.

More data and analysis will establish this newfound signature of Beyond Standard Model (BSM) physics.

Here’s more:
An explanation of the results from us:

Western Black Rhino Extinct – One Fourth of Earth’s Mammals at Risk

The  International Union for Conservation of Nature  (IUCN)  declared the Western Black Rhino  officially extinct after a recent assessment of several rhinoceros species.  Two other subspecies of rhino were also on the brink of extinction.  It’s a sobering reminder of the fragility of life. Despite conservation efforts, the IUCN  reports that 25% of the world’s mammals are at risk of extinction.   The IUCN blames the extinction on a “lack of political support and will power for conservation efforts in many rhino habitats”. Whatever the reasons, the reality is that we lost a beautiful animal never to be seen again  with human eyes.

Western Black Rhino

‘We are responsible for protecting the species’

Simon Stuart, Chair of the IUCN Species Survival Commission, said, “Human beings are stewards of the earth and we are responsible for protecting the species that share our environment.” This appears to be a difficult message to get across, especially when you consider how much illegal poaching of animals still occurs. It is especially frustrating to think that these extinctions were preventable. Stuart went on to say. “In the case of both the Western Black Rhino and the Northern White Rhino the situation could have had very different results if the suggested conservation measures had been implemented.”

‘A Glint of Hope’

There is a glint of hope in the midst of these tragedies. When conservation programs are put into place, wonderful things can happen. For example, the  Southern White Rhino was thought to have a population of less than 100 at the end of the 19th century. Due to conservation efforts, that population has increased to over 20,000.  Przewalski’s horse (pictured below) is another success story. Back in 1996, the horse was considered extinct in the wild. Now there are as many as 300 known to exist.

Przewalski's Horse
Courtesy Wikipedia

Such a widespread and overwhelming issue can make one feel powerless to help. However, if we, as individuals, do what we can, things can get better. A great place to start, that is often overlooked, is your local zoo. I am proud to say that my local zoo, The Lousiville Zoo, played a part in the comeback of the Southern White Rhino due to its participation in the Species Survival Plan. Supporting reputable organizations such as these is simple. You don’t have to be a millionaire to make a difference, either. Just get involved. Even if it is simply volunteering to teach children, you never know when that child might become the politician who influences conservation policy, or the billionaire developer that develops with the environment in mind.

It is my hope that, in some small way, my words today will inspire someone to do more to be a better steward of the world in which we live. To me, it isn’t about politics or activism. It’s about everyday people taking a moment to step back and think about how their actions affect the world at large. Our world has lost a wonderful creature. Take a moment today and do something worthy in its honor. Remember, humans are mammals too.

Listed below are a couple of links to organizations where you can learn more about conservation efforts and how you can help.

Association of Zoos & Aquariums

 IUCN – Get Involved

Did The Early Solar System Have A Fifth Giant Planet That Got Ejected?

The early evolution of the Solar System clearly presents a gap in our understanding. There have been a huge number of simulations done about how the evolution might have gone, and a recent study, investigating into the dynamic instabilities of the early orbits, has reached a stunning conclusion. The startling finale is this: There was a fifth giant planet, about as big as Jupiter, that was simply ejected from the Solar System, so as to lend stability to the entire planetary system.

A missing fifth member of the group?

A Cosmic Billiard Ball Game

The study, led by Dr. David Nesvorny, looks into the instabilities when the Solar System was as young as 600 million years (about a tenth of its current age). As expected the scattering process would be dominated by the giant planets, primarily Jupiter, simply because of its high mass. It would have either gobbled up small objects coming in from the outer Kuiper belt or severely deflected them from their orbits. The problem is that this situation would be reflected in the inner Solar System too. If the orbit of Jupiter stabilized slowly, it would transfer enough momentum to deflect the orbits of Mars, Earth and Venus. They could’ve even collided into one another.

The protagonist
Jumpin’ Jupiter

The solution to this colliding billiard ball problem is to make Jupiter jump’ from one orbit to another, in what is called a Jumping Jupiter’ theory. This sudden change of Jupiter’s orbit would prevent it from transferring the large amount of momentum to the inner planets, leaving them as they are found now. However, Dr. Nesvorny found a new anomaly. Every simulation that he did with a jumping Jupiter showed Uranus or Neptune being pushed out of the Solar System. Since we see Uranus and Neptune today, this couldn’t have been the scenario.

A Fifth Giant

But, you can just add a fifth giant planet, which would play role of a leaving planet. Simulations show that this solves every problem. So the inner planets were left untouched, Jupiter jumped, Uranus and Neptune stayed within the Solar System, but a fifth giant planet had to leave the scene. This is what Dr. Nesvorny has to say:

The possibility that the solar system had more than four  giant planets  initially, and ejected some, appears to be conceivable in view of the recent discovery of a large number of free-floating planets in interstellar space, indicating the planet ejection process could be a common occurrence

Time and time again, that line from Shakespeare comes to memory There are more things in heaven and earth that are dreamt of in your philosophy.

Double Chooz Preliminary Results: Neutrino Experiment Detects Disappearance of Neutrinos

The most common particle in the Universe is also the most mysterious, but it seems that scientists might have got something correctly predicted about it. Neutrinos have been noticed to disappear’ in the Double Chooz experiment and this is being interpreted as the manifestation of the elusive neutrino oscillation signature. Electron anti-neutrinos have been noticed to simply disappear meaning that they are actually turning into tau anti-neutrinos, which we have no way of detecting. Technically, scientists are measuring the third mixing angle’ or θ13.

The Double Chooz experiment

Oscillations of  neutrinos

Neutrinos are strange because they do not behave in conventional’ ways. One form of neutrinos can change into another, provided neutrinos have mass, however small it might be. There are three types of neutrinos electron neutrinos, muon neutrinos and tau neutrinos. The names are given according to the particle they accompany in a doublet.

Experimental evidence suggests that one form of neutrinos changes into another and this is through a process called see-saw’ mechanism. In other words, the neutrino exists in a mixed’ state and we detect only one of the constituent states. (If you think this is weird, just know that this is the staple bread-butter of quantum mechanics.) The amount of mixing is given by angles. The electron (type 1) and muon (type 2) type neutrinos mix via the mixing angle θ12. The muon (type 2) and tau (type 3) neutrinos mix via the θ23 angle. The electron and the tau neutrinos mix via the angle θ13, which happens to be out angle of interest.   We know that θ13 is very small, but we want to know how small it really is. The fact that it is non-zero is, in itself, remarkable.

Neutrino oscillations. The subscripted letters refer to the type of neutrinos.

The value of the mixing angle and the consequence of that

One of the experiments measuring the θ13 is the Double Chooz experiment. It just released the first set of results and it gives a definitive value for this third mixing angle. The value, given in terms of sine squared of double the angle, is

sin22θ13  = 0.085  +  0.029(stat)  +  0.042(syst),

where the last two numbers represent errors and need not concern us too much at the moment.

The T2K experiment. The walls are lined with photo-detectors. The entire chamber will be filled with water when in operation.

What is interesting is the fact that the other giant experiment in the field of neutrinos the T2K experiment also gives similar results.

The value of θ13 is not zero and the two results corroborate one another to give a 3-sigma level confidence on that fact. There are neutrino oscillations between the electron type and the tau type.

This is a theoretically significant result for scientists, who are knee-deep with questions about neutrinos and their properties (and, before you ask, the faster-than-light results are the least of the worries). This will put further constraints on the neutrino masses.

Further details about the Double Chooz preliminary results can be found here:

NASA Snaps Up A Photo Of The Large Asteroid As It Passes Earth

NASA has just released a new image of the Asteroid YU55 as it continues its passage close to the Earth. The image was captured by the Deep Space Network situated in Goldstone, California. The image was taken yesterday.

The asteroid will be just a bit closer to the Earth than the moon is. Its closest approach will be about 0.85 times the distance from Earth to Moon. It will have no effect on the Earth gravitationally, including the tides. There is no truth to the various rumours and fears going around.

We covered the flyby here:
Asteroid 2005 YU55. The image from NASA's Deep Space Network (Courtesy: NASA/JPL-Caltech)

This is the photo that was snapped up by NASA’s Deep Space Network yesterday at 11:45 PM PST. At that time the asteroid was 3.6 lunar distances away or about 1.38 million kilometers, says NASA. This is the closest any rock has got to the Earth in a very long time, the last time being in 1976. It is expected to return in 2028.

There will be more photos of the rock as it approaches closer to the Earth.

Heavy New Elements Get New Names

The periodic table’s unnamed members just got names. Three new elements Atomic numbers 110, 111 and 112 got named as the General Assembly of the International Union of Pure and Applied Physics (IUPAP), along with the International Union of Pure and Applied Chemistry (IUPAC) agreed to their new names. They are now called darmstadtium (Ds), roentgenium (Rg) and copernicium (Cn), after the German city of Darmstadt, physicist Wilhelm Roentgen and Nicolaus Copernicus respectively.

All of these elements are Transuranic elements meaning that they are extremely heavy (heavier than Uranium) and unstable. They do not occur in Nature (nothing heavier than Uranium does) and can only be synthesized in a laboratory. Even then, these elements survive for a very short time.

Naming Conventions

Earlier the names were given according to the IUPAC prescription for naming elements. The atomic number gave the names. Take an example 111. Each 1 contributes a un’ in the name. The metallic nature of the element adds a ium’ at the end. This atomic no. 111 would be called unununium. Similarly, atomic no. 112 would be called ununbium, with 2′ contributing bi’. 110 would be called ununnilium, 0′ contributing a nil’.

The New Names and the Elements Behind The Names

Atomic Number 110

Ununnilium has been christened darmstadtium, given that it was first synthesized at the GSI facility for Heavy Ion Research near the German city of Darmstadt by Sigurd Hoffmann and his team.

Atomic Number 111

Unununium was replaced by roentegenium, in honour of Wilhelm Roentgen, who was the discoverer of X-rays. He was also the first recipient of the Nobel Prize in Physics, in 1901.

Atomic Number 112

Ununbium received the name copernicium’, in the honour of the great astronomer Nicolaus Copernicus, who was the first one to propose (and stick to!) the heliocentric model of the Solar System (the known Universe at that time). The credit of synthesis again goes to Sigurd Hoffmann, who smashed together zinc and lead atoms to create a single atom of ununbium in 1996. This wasn’t enough to warrant a discovery. Since then, 75 atoms of ununbium have been synthesized worldwide. These numbers should give you a sense of the rarity of these elements!

New Periodic Tables should soon come out with these new elements named. The human contribution to the Periodic Table continues unabated, as we continue our attempts of scientific alchemy.