Critical Opalescence
A blog about cutting-edge physics

In Praise of Scientific Error

Reflections on a very strange article by Jonah Lehrer.

My wife has first dibs on our New Yorker each week, so I only just got around to reading Jonah Lehrer’s piece on the scientific method in last week’s issue, which has been getting so much attention from my fellow science writers. John Horgan calls it a “bombshell” and Charlie Petit a “must-read.” Lehrer describes […]

Are Mars and Titan Geologically Dead?

New evidence suggests yes, but planetary scientists go back and forth.

PASADENA—They say that null results never get published, either in science or in journalism. Well, I’m about to break that rule. Some of the most interesting results to come out of the Division for Planetary Sciences meeting this week concern non-discoveries. In recent years, planetary scientists have gotten excited by the prospect that Mars and […]

Something Slammed Into the Rings of Saturn and Jupiter

And we’re seeing the aftermath years later.

PASADENA—This week I’m here at the annual Division for Planetary Sciences meeting. Much as I enjoy Pasadena, it’s rather a comedown from last year’s meeting place in Puerto Rico. Leave aside the natural attractions: even the freeways in Puerto Rico are in better repair than California’s. Then again, we don’t come here for the earthly […]

Faster-Than-Light Electric Currents Could Explain Pulsars

Contrary to popular belief, electric pulses can outrace light—as long as they're not a causal process.

Claiming that something can move faster than light is a good conversation-stopper in physics. People edge away from you in cocktail parties; friends never return phone calls. You just don’t mess with Albert Einstein. So when I saw a press conference at the American Astronomical Society meeting this past January on faster-than-light phenomena in the […]

Deep in Thought: What Is a “Law of Physics,” Anyway?

Physicists and philosophers struggle with the most basic of questions.

WATERLOO, Ontario—One thing that’s both disconcerting and exhilarating about physics is how many seemingly simple questions remain unanswered. When you hear the questions that physicists struggle with, you sometimes say to yourself, Wait, you mean they don’t even know that? Physics might be defined as the subject that tries to figure out why the world […]

Toying With the Laws of Physics: Elizabeth Streb's Latest Dance Performance

You never fully appreciate the laws of physics until you have to figure out how to mimic them.

The last time I slammed into a wall, it hurt. I’m not too fond of falling off three-story buildings, either. The laws of physics can be so unforgiving. But two weeks ago I went to choreographer Elizabeth Streb‘s latest work, “Run Up Walls,” in which dancers slammed into panes of glass without uttering a single […]

In Praise of Small Things

Runty galaxies are as baffling as their bigger brethren. A second dispatch from the American Astronomical Society meeting.

WASHINGTON, D.C.—Most people think of astronomy as the science of big things—”vastly, hugely, mind-bogglingly big,” as Douglas Adams put it. But judging from last week’s American Astronomical Society meeting in Washington, D.C., the most interesting things in astronomy these days are the small(ish) ones. Planet-hunters, having racked up hundreds of Jupiter-size worlds, now seek Earth-size […]

A Galaxy of New Worlds

The diversity of planets outside our solar system is really kind of crazy. A dispatch from the American Astronomical Society meeting.

WASHINGTON, D.C.—The American Astronomical Society meeting, held here this week, was officially the largest congregation of astronomers (3,400 of them) in history—the most extraordinary collection of cosmic knowledge that has ever gathered together with the possible exception of when Isaac Newton dined alone. The breadth of topics was astounding, but the one that stood out […]

In the Future, Will We All Be Cannibals?

That’d be the logical conclusion of culinary innovation.

Brett Israel, blogging for Discover magazine, calls it the worst science article of the week: a report in the Sunday Times of London and elsewhere that Mark Post of Eindhoven University and his colleagues had grown “a soggy form of pork” in the laboratory, with the eventual aim of cultivating meat in vitro for human […]

What Do We Really Know About the Kuiper Belt?

Kindly explain to me what Quaoar is. A fifth dispatch from the annual planets meeting.

FAJARDO, Puerto Rico—It smacked of a cunning plan. The organizers of last week’s planets conference put one of the best talks in the very last session of the very last day. Most scientists had either left for the airport or the beach. I almost didn’t make it myself—the room and time got switched at the […]

LCROSS Strikes Earth’s Moon As Other Moons Continue to Puzzle

If planet formation is a mystery, satellite formation is a mystery upon a mystery. A fourth dispatch from the annual planets meeting.

FAJARDO, Puerto Rico—”We could have just stayed in bed” was one comment I overheard this morning from planetary scientists who had woken up early to see NASA’s Lunar Crater Observation and Sensing Satellite (LCROSS) crash into the lunar surface. At 7:31 A.M. (Eastern Daylight Time) the spacecraft’s Centaur-class rocket booster slammed (deliberately) into the moon, […]

Planetary Bombardments, Past and Future

Is Mercury the long-lost moon of Venus? What’s our risk for a massive asteroid impact? A third dispatch from the annual planets meeting.

FAJARDO, Puerto Rico—A fascinating idea came up in an informal chat I had yesterday with asteroid expert Erik Asphaug of the University of California, Santa Cruz. The early solar system was a veritable shooting gallery. Our moon is thought to have formed when a Mars-size body hit Earth and threw out a cloud of debris […]

What Caused Saturn to Lurch?

Saturn’s rings are misaligned with the planet’s equator. Sometime in the 1980s, either the ring moved, or the planet did. A second dispatch from the annual planets meeting.

FAJARDO, Puerto Rico—I first heard about Matt Hedman’s talk while going out to dinner on Tuesday night. Best talk of the meeting, I was told. Everywhere I went yesterday, I kept hearing about this guy Matt Hedman. A former professor of mine chided me for missing his presentation. The problem with the Division for Planetary […]

From Carbon Planets to the Lakes of Titan

In Titan’s southern lake district, one lake has receded and two have dried up altogether. A dispatch from the annual planets meeting

FAJARDO, Puerto Rico—Part of the fun of coming to astronomy conferences is seeing the nonplussed reaction of local people in restaurants and bars–it’s not often you get a crowd of people sweeping through your town to talk about Titanian lakes, lunar soil, and the prospects for life beyond the solar system. People get over it […]

Surrogates: A Little Too True to Life

For some, the online world is more real than the physical world.

When l was an astronomy teaching assistant in grad school, some of my students would look through the telescope eyepiece at Saturn, pull back as if they didn’t know what to make of it, look again, and ask: “That’s really Saturn? It’s not a picture? A projection?” Some insisted on looking down the telescope tube […]

Does the World Really Need Another Science Prize?

Dear Rich People: If you want to support science, there are better ways than setting up yet another prize.

Today the Kavli Foundation handed out a trio of Nobel-like prizes in the disciplines of astrophysics, nanotechnology, and neuroscience, as my colleague Nikhil Swaminathan described earlier today. I have just one little question: Why? What purpose is possibly served by these awards? No disrespect to the winners (who are eminently worthy) or the Kavli Foundation […]

Are You a Global Warming Skeptic? Part IV

In 2006 I undertook an experiment to listen to people who are skeptical about climate science and try to address their concerns.

After a two-month hiatus, I’ve finally found the time to pick up the thread on doubts about global warming and humans’ role in it. In previous installments, people wrote in with the reasons why they were skeptical and I tried to synthesize the responses. In a rough-and-ready poll to gauge which line of reasoning resonated […]

Don't Forget About the Little Ethical Lapses

The day-in, day-out compromises of science, cumulatively, are as troubling as the headline cases of fraud and harassment.

Since the whole South Korea stem-cell fiasco broke, there has been a lot of discussion about ethics in science. The discussion is certainly necessary, but it has a certain deja vu quality to it. Every few years, a high-profile case of cheating comes to light and science goes through another round of soul-searching. People complain […]

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