Recent Postings from Special Topics

An ultraluminous X-ray source powered by an accreting neutron star

The majority of ultraluminous X-ray sources are point sources that are spatially offset from the nuclei of nearby galaxies and whose X-ray luminosities exceed the theoretical maximum for spherical infall (the Eddington limit) onto stellar-mass black holes12. Their X-ray luminosities in the 0.5–10 kiloelectronvolt energy band range from 1039 to 1041 ergs per second3. Because higher masses imply less extreme ratios of the luminosity to the isotropic Eddington limit, theoretical models have focused on black hole rather than neutron star systems12. The most challenging sources to explain are those at the luminous end of the range (more than 1040 ergs per second), which require black hole masses of 50–100 times the solar value or significant departures from the standard thin disk accretion that powers bright Galactic X-ray binaries, or both. Here we report broadband X-ray observations of the nuclear region of the galaxy M82 that reveal pulsations with an average period of 1.37 seconds and a 2.5-day sinusoidal modulation. The pulsations result from the rotation of a magnetized neutron star, and the modulation arises from its binary orbit. The pulsed flux alone corresponds to an X-ray luminosity in the 3–30 kiloelectronvolt range of 4.9 × 1039 ergs per second. The pulsating source is spatially coincident with a variable source4 that can reach an X-ray luminosity in the 0.3–10 kiloelectronvolt range of 1.8 × 1040 ergs per second1. This association implies a luminosity of about 100 times the Eddington limit for a 1.4-solar-mass object, or more than ten times brighter than any known accreting pulsar. This implies that neutron stars may not be rare in the ultraluminous X-ray population, and it challenges physical models for the accretion of matter onto magnetized compact objects.

Data Smashing

Data Smashing

Ishanu Chattopadhyay, Hod Lipson
ArXiv: 1401.0742

Investigation of the underlying physics or biology from empirical data requires a quantifiable notion of similarity – when do two observed data sets indicate nearly identical generating processes, and when they do not. The discriminating characteristics to look for in data is often determined by heuristics designed by experts, e.g., distinct shapes of “folded” lightcurves may be used as “features” to classify variable stars, while determination of pathological brain states might require a Fourier analysis of brainwave activity. Finding good features is non-trivial. Here, we propose a universal solution to this problem: [...] In our examples, the data smashing principle, without access to any domain knowledge, meets or exceeds the performance of specialized algorithms tuned by domain experts.

Water vapor absorption in the clear atmosphere of a Neptune-sized exoplanet

J. Fraine, D. Deming, B. Benneke, H. Knutson, A. Jordan, N. Espinoza, N. Madhusudhan, A. Wilkins & K. Todorov

Transmission spectroscopy has so far detected atomic and molecular absorption in Jupiter-sized exoplanets, but intense efforts to measure molecular absorption in the atmospheres of smaller (Neptune-sized) planets during transits have revealed only featureless spectra1, 2, 3, 4. From this it was concluded that the majority of small, warm planets evolve to sustain atmospheres with high mean molecular weights (little hydrogen), opaque clouds or scattering hazes, reducing our ability to observe the composition of these atmospheres1, 2, 3, 4, 5. Here we report observations of the transmission spectrum of the exoplanet HAT-P-11b (which has a radius about four times that of Earth) from the optical wavelength range to the infrared. We detected water vapour absorption at a wavelength of 1.4 micrometres. The amplitude of the water absorption (approximately 250 parts per million) indicates that the planetary atmosphere is predominantly clear down to an altitude corresponding to about 1 millibar, and sufficiently rich in hydrogen to have a large scale height (over which the atmospheric pressure varies by a factor of e). The spectrum is indicative of a planetary atmosphere in which the abundance of heavy elements is no greater than about 700 times the solar value. This is in good agreement with the core-accretion theory of planet formation, in which a gas giant planet acquires its atmosphere by accreting hydrogen-rich gas directly from the protoplanetary nebula onto a large rocky or icy core6.

Use “Dead Weight” on Mars Spacecraft to Advance Science and Technology

NASA is looking for creative yet practical ideas to find a dual purpose for Balance mass (“dead weight”) that is jettisoned from Mars landers like the Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) to balance the spacecraft during entry and landing. Payloads replacing Balance mass should perform some type of scientific or technological function adding to our knowledge base while closely matching the volume and weight characteristics of the original Balance mass. Ideas are welcomed from all disciplines. This Challenge requires only a written proposal.

Cash awards up to $1 million.

AMS-02 Press Release on CR Electrons and Positrons

CERN press release including updated positron fraction results

High Statistics Measurement of the Positron Fraction in Primary Cosmic Rays of 0.5–500 GeV with the Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer on the International Space Station

Phys. Rev. Lett. 113, 121101 – Published 18 September 2014
L. Accardo et al. (AMS Collaboration)

Electron and Positron Fluxes in Primary Cosmic Rays Measured with the Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer on the International Space Station

Phys. Rev. Lett. 113, 121102 – Published 18 September 2014
M. Aguilar et al. (AMS Collaboration)

Neutrinos from the primary proton–proton fusion process in the Sun

Borexino Collaboration

In the core of the Sun, energy is released through sequences of nuclear reactions that convert hydrogen into helium. The primary reaction is thought to be the fusion of two protons with the emission of a low-energy neutrino. These so-called pp neutrinos constitute nearly the entirety of the solar neutrino flux, vastly outnumbering those emitted in the reactions that follow. Although solar neutrinos from secondary processes have been observed, proving the nuclear origin of the Sun’s energy and contributing to the discovery of neutrino oscillations, those from proton–proton fusion have hitherto eluded direct detection. Here we report spectral observations of pp neutrinos, demonstrating that about 99 per cent of the power of the Sun, 3.84 × 1033 ergs per second, is generated by the proton–proton fusion process.

Online networks and subjective well-being

A chemical signature of first-generation very massive stars

by W. Aoki, N. Tominaga, T. C. Beers, S. Honda, Y. S. Lee

Numerical simulations of structure formation in the early universe predict the formation of some fraction of stars with several hundred solar masses. No clear evidence of supernovae from such very massive stars has, however, yet been found in the chemical compositions of Milky Way stars. We report on an analysis of a very metal-poor star SDSS J001820.5–093939.2, which possesses elemental-abundance ratios that differ significantly from any previously known star. This star exhibits low [α-element Fe] ratios and large contrasts between the abundances of odd and even element pairs, such as scandium/titanium and cobalt/nickel. Such features have been predicted by nucleosynthesis models for supernovae of stars more than 140 times as massive as the Sun, suggesting that the mass distribution of first-generation stars might extend to 100 solar masses or larger.

A 400-solar-mass black hole in the galaxy M82

by Dheeraj R. Pasham, Tod E. Strohmayer & Richard F. Mushotzky

M82 X-1, the brightest X-ray source in the galaxy M82, has been thought to be an intermediate-mass black hole (100 to 10,000 solar masses) because of its extremely high luminosity and variability characteristics1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, although some models suggest that its mass may be only about 20 solar masses3, 7. The previous mass estimates were based on scaling relations that use low-frequency characteristic timescales which have large intrinsic uncertainties8, 9. For stellar-mass black holes, we know that the high-frequency quasi-periodic oscillations (100–450 hertz) in the X-ray emission that occur in a 3:2 frequency ratio are stable and scale in frequency inversely with black hole mass with a reasonably small dispersion10, 11, 12, 13, 14, 15. The discovery of such stable oscillations thus potentially offers an alternative and less ambiguous means of mass determination for intermediate-mass black holes, but has hitherto not been realized. Here we report stable, twin-peak (3:2 frequency ratio) X-ray quasi-periodic oscillations from M82 X-1 at frequencies of 3.32 ± 0.06 hertz and 5.07 ± 0.06 hertz. Assuming that we can extrapolate the inverse-mass scaling that holds for stellar-mass black holes, we estimate the black hole mass of M82 X-1 to be 428 ± 105 solar masses. In addition, we can estimate the mass using the relativistic precession model, from which we get a value of 415 ± 63 solar masses.

Spectral Calibration in the Mid-Infrared: Challenges and Solutions

Spectral Calibration in the Mid-Infrared: Challenges and Solutions

G.C. Sloan (Cornell), T.L. Herter (Cornell), V. Charmandaris (Univ. of Crete), K. Sheth (NRAO), M. Burgdorf (HE Space Operations, Bremen), and J.R. Houck (Cornell)

2014, AJ, in press.

Full manuscript available locally (PDF).

The 53 IRS spectra described in this paper are available on this website.

We present spectra obtained with the Infrared Spectrograph (IRS) on the Spitzer Space Telescope of 33 K giants and 20 A dwarfs to assess their suitability as spectrophotometric standard stars. The K giants confirm previous findings that the strength of the SiO absorption band at 8 um increases for both later optical spectral classes and redder (B-V)0 colors, but with considerable scatter. For K giants, the synthetic spectra underpredict the strengths of the molecular bands from SiO and OH. For these reasons, the assumed true spectra for K giants should be based on neither the assumption that molecular band strengths in the infrared can be predicted accurately from optical spectral class or color nor synthetric spectra. The OH bands in K giants grow stronger with cooler stellar temperatures, and they are stronger than predicted by synthetic spectra. As a group, A dwarfs are better behaved and more predictable than the K giants, but they are more likely to show red excesses from debris disks. No suitable A dwarfs were located in parts of the sky continuously observable from Spitzer, and with previous means of estimating the true spectra of K giants ruled out, it was necessary to use models of A dwarfs to calibrate spectra of K giants from observed spectral ratios of the two groups and then use the calibrated K giants as standards for the full database of infrared spectra from Spitzer. We also describe a lingering artifact that affects the spectra of faint blue sources at 24 µm.


Velocity anti-correlation of diametrically opposed galaxy satellites in the low-redshift Universe

Neil G. Ibata, Rodrigo A. Ibata, Benoit Famaey & Geraint F. Lewis

Recent work has shown that the Milky Way and the Andromeda galaxies both possess the unexpected property that their dwarf satellite galaxies are aligned in thin and kinematically coherent planar structures. It is interesting to evaluate the incidence of such planar structures in the larger galactic population, because the Local Group may not be a representative environment. Here we report measurements of the velocities of pairs of diametrically opposed satellite galaxies. In the local Universe (redshift z < 0.05), we find that satellite pairs out to a distance of 150 kiloparsecs from the galactic centre are preferentially anti-correlated in their velocities (99.994 per cent confidence level), and that the distribution of galaxies in the larger-scale environment (out to distances of about 2 megaparsecs) is strongly clumped along the axis joining the inner satellite pair (>7σ confidence). This may indicate that planes of co-rotating satellites, similar to those seen around the Andromeda galaxy, are ubiquitous, and their coherent motion suggests that they represent a substantial repository of angular momentum on scales of about 100 kiloparsecs.

Published BICEP2 Results

Slightly revised from

Just one proposal per year, please, NSF tells astronomers

Later this summer, NSF’s astronomy division intends to announce a new policy that will “strongly encourage” scientists to submit just a single proposal for each annual funding cycle. The voluntary cap is designed to boost success rates, which would please applicants. It’s also meant to ease the workload and frustration levels of peer reviewers poring over proposals that they know have little chance of getting funded.

“It’s a first step,” says James Ulvestad, director of NSF’s astronomy division. If it doesn’t achieve the desired effect, he adds, “we may have to make it mandatory in 2016 for the sake of reviewers’ sanity.”

Science 20 June 2014:
Vol. 344 no. 6190 p. 1328
DOI: 10.1126/science.344.6190.1328

A Wolf-Rayet-like progenitor of SN 2013cu from spectral observations of a stellar wind

Gal-Yam et al. 2014

The explosive fate of massive Wolf-Rayet stars (WRSs) is a key open question in stellar physics. An appealing option is that hydrogen-deficient WRSs are the progenitors of some hydrogen-poor supernova explosions of types IIb, Ib and Ic (ref. 2). A blue object, having luminosity and colours consistent with those of some WRSs, has recently been identified in pre-explosion images at the location of a supernova of type Ib (ref. 3), but has not yet been conclusively determined to have been the progenitor. Similar work has so far only resulted in non-detections. Comparison of early photometric observations of type Ic supernovae with theoretical models suggests that the progenitor stars had radii of less than 1012 centimetres, as expected for some WRSs. The signature of WRSs, their emission line spectra, cannot be probed by such studies. Here we report the detection of strong emission lines in a spectrum of type IIb supernova 2013cu (iPTF13ast) obtained approximately 15.5 hours after explosion (by `flash spectroscopy’, which captures the effects of the supernova explosion shock breakout flash on material surrounding the progenitor star). We identify Wolf-Rayet-like wind signatures, suggesting a progenitor of the WN(h) subclass (those WRSs with winds dominated by helium and nitrogen, with traces of hydrogen). The extent of this dense wind may indicate increased mass loss from the progenitor shortly before its explosion, consistent with recent theoretical predictions.

The Open Journal of Astrophysics

Discussion of

The different neighbours around Type-1 and Type-2 active galactic nuclei

Beatriz Villaroel and Andreas J. Korn, 2014, Nature Physics, “The different neighbours around Type-1 and Type-2 active galactic nuclei”

News and Views
Martin Gaskell, “Astronomy: Unifying active galactic nuclei”


Abstract: One of the most intriguing open issues in galaxy evolution is the structure and evolution of active galactic nuclei (AGN) that emit intense light believed to come from an accretion disk near a super massive black hole12. To understand the zoo of different AGN classes, it has been suggested that all AGN are the same type of object viewed from different angles3. This model—called AGN unification—has been successful in predicting, for example, the existence of hidden broad optical lines in the spectrum of many narrow-line AGN. But this model is not unchallenged4 and it is debatable whether more than viewing angle separates the so-called Type-1 and Type-2 AGN. Here we report the first large-scale study that finds strong differences in the galaxy neighbours to Type-1 and Type-2 AGN with data from the Sloan Digital Sky Survey (SDSS; ref. 5) Data Release 7 (DR7; ref. 6) and Galaxy Zoo78. We find strong differences in the colour and AGN activity of the neighbours to Type-1 and Type-2 AGN and in how the fraction of AGN residing in spiral hosts changes depending on the presence or not of a neighbour. These findings suggest that an evolutionary link between the two major AGN types might exist.


Properties of galaxies reproduced by a hydrodynamic simulation

by M. Vogelsberger, S. Genel, V. Springel, P. Torrey, D. Sijacki, D. Xu, G. Snyder, S. Bird, D. Nelson & L. Hernquist

Previous simulations of the growth of cosmic structures have broadly reproduced the ‘cosmic web’ of galaxies that we see in the Universe, but failed to create a mixed population of elliptical and spiral galaxies, because of numerical in- accuracies and incomplete physical models. Moreover, they were unable to track the small-scale evolution of gas and stars to the present epoch within a representative portion of the Universe. Here we report a simulation that starts 12 million years after the Big Bang, and traces 13 billion years of cosmic evolution with 12 billion resolution elements in a cube of 106.5 megaparsecs a side. It yields a reasonable population of ellipticals and spirals, reproduces the observed distribution of galaxies in clusters and characteristics of hydrogen on large scales, and at the same time matches the ‘metal’ and hydrogen content of galaxies on small scales.


Tegmark Inflation Chapter

Guest post by Max Tegmark on Sean Carroll’s blog Preposterous Universe about inflation.

Discovery of a ~250 K Brown Dwarf at 2 pc from the Sun

Abstract: Through a previous analysis of multi-epoch astrometry from the Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer (WISE), I identified WISE J085510.83–071442.5 as a new high proper motion object. By combining astrometry from WISE and the Spitzer Space Telescope, I have measured a proper motion of 8.1 ± 0.1” yr–1 and a parallax of 0.454 ± 0.045” ($2.20^{+0.24}_{-0.20}$ pc) for WISE J085510.83–071442.5, giving it the third highest proper motion and the fourth largest parallax of any known star or brown dwarf. It is also the coldest known brown dwarf based on its absolute magnitude at 4.5 μm and its color in [3.6]-[4.5]. By comparing M 4.5 with the values predicted by theoretical evolutionary models, I estimate an effective temperature of 225-260 K and a mass of 3-10 M Jup for the age range of 1-10 Gyr that encompasses most nearby stars.


An Earth-Sized Planet in the Habitable Zone of a Cool Star

Quintana et al., Science, 18 April 2014

The quest for Earth-like planets is a major focus of current exoplanet research. Although planets that are Earth-sized and smaller have been detected, these planets reside in orbits that are too close to their host star to allow liquid water on their surfaces. We present the detection of Kepler-186f, a 1.11 ± 0.14 Earth-radius planet that is the outermost of five planets, all roughly Earth-sized, that transit a 0.47 ± 0.05 solar-radius star. The intensity and spectrum of the star’s radiation place Kepler-186f in the stellar habitable zone, implying that if Kepler-186f has an Earth-like atmosphere and water at its surface, then some of this water is likely to be in liquid form.

The bathymetry of a Titan sea

A Necro-Biological Explanation for the Fermi Paradox

Liquid water on Enceladus

The Gravity Field and Interior Structure of Enceladus

L. Iess, D. J. Stevenson, M. Parisi, D. Hemingway, R. A. Jacobson, J. I. Lunine, F. Nimmo, J. W. Armstrong, S. W. Asmar, M. Ducci, P. Tortora

Science, 4 April 2014
Vol. 344 no. 6179 pp. 78-80
DOI: 10.1126/science.1250551

Editor’s Summary: Saturn’s moon Enceladus has often been the focus of flybys of the Cassini spacecraft. Although small—Enceladus is roughly 10 times smaller than Saturn’s largest moon, Titan—Enceladus has shown hints of having a complex internal structure rich in liquid water. Iess et al. used long-range data collected by the Cassini spacecraft to construct a gravity model of Enceladus. The resulting gravity field indicates the presence of a large mass anomaly at its south pole. Calculations of the moment of inertia and hydrostatic equilibrium from the gravity data suggest the presence of a large, regional subsurface ocean 30 to 40 km deep.

Testing the Limits of Accretion

Felix proposes to discuss these papers at our next meeting (click the links to download the PDF [access to Science Mag. required]):

Soria et al.:


A Sedna-like body with a perihelion of 80 astronomical units

The observable Solar System can be divided into three distinct regions: the rocky terrestrial planets including the asteroids at 0.39 to 4.2 astronomical units (AU) from the Sun (where 1 AU is the mean distance between Earth and the Sun), the gas giant planets at 5 to 30 AU from the Sun, and the icy Kuiper belt objects at 30 to 50 AU from the Sun. The 1,000-kilometre-diameter dwarf planet Sedna was discovered ten years ago and was unique in that its closest approach to the Sun (perihelion) is 76 AU, far greater than that of any other Solar System body1. Formation models indicate that Sedna could be a link between the Kuiper belt objects and the hypothesized outer Oort cloud at around 10,000 au from the Sun2, 3, 4, 5, 6. Here we report the presence of a second Sedna-like object, 2012 VP113, whose perihelion is 80 au. The detection of 2012 VP113 confirms that Sedna is not an isolated object; instead, both bodies may be members of the inner Oort cloud, whose objects could outnumber all other dynamically stable populations in the Solar System.

A ring system detected around the Centaur (10199) Chariklo

Hitherto, rings have been found exclusively around the four giant planets in the Solar System. Rings are natural laboratories in which to study dynamical processes analogous to those that take place during the formation of planetary systems and galaxies. Their presence also tells us about the origin and evolution of the body they encircle. Here we report observations of a multichord stellar occultation that revealed the presence of a ring system around (10199) Chariklo, which is a Centaur—that is, one of a class of small objects orbiting primarily between Jupiter and Neptune—with an equivalent radius of 124 $\pm$ 9 kilometres. There are two dense rings, with respective widths of about 7 and 3 kilometres, optical depths of 0.4 and 0.06, and orbital radii of 391 and 405 kilometres. The present orientation of the ring is consistent with an edge-on geometry in 2008, which provides a simple explanation for the dimming of the Chariklo system between 1997 and 2008, and for the gradual disappearance of ice and other absorption features in its spectrum over the same period. This implies that the rings are partly composed of water ice. They may be the remnants of a debris disk, possibly confined by embedded, kilometre-sized satellites.

Putative Indigenous Carbon-Bearing Alteration Features in Martian Meteorite Yamato 000593

We report the first observation of indigenous carbonaceous matter in the martian meteorite Yamato 000593. The carbonaceous phases are heterogeneously distributed within secondary iddingsite alteration veins and present in a range of morphologies including areas composed of carbon-rich spheroidal assemblages encased in multiple layers of iddingsite. We also observed microtubular features emanating from iddingsite veins penetrating into the host olivine comparable in shape to those interpreted to have formed by bioerosion in terrestrial basalts.

Key Words: Meteorite—Yamato 000593—Mars—Carbon.

Astrobiology 14, 170–181.

Hydrous mantle transition zone indicated by ringwoodite included within diamond

The ultimate origin of water in the Earth’s hydrosphere is in the deep Earth—the mantle. Theory and experiments have shown that although the water storage capacity of olivine-dominated shallow mantle is limited, the Earth’s transition zone, at depths between 410 and 660 kilometres, could be a major repository for water, owing to the ability of the higher-pressure polymorphs of olivine—wadsleyite and ringwoodite—to host enough water to comprise up to around 2.5 per cent of their weight. A hydrous transition zone may have a key role in terrestrial magmatism and plate tectonics, yet despite experimental demonstration of the water-bearing capacity of these phases, geophysical probes such as electrical conductivity have provided conflicting results, and the issue of whether the transition zone contains abundant water remains highly controversial. Here we report X-ray diffraction, Raman and infrared spectroscopic data that provide, to our knowledge, the first evidence for the terrestrial occurrence of any higher-pressure polymorph of olivine: we find ringwoodite included in a diamond from Juína, Brazil. The water-rich nature of this inclusion, indicated by infrared absorption, along with the preservation of the ringwoodite, is direct evidence that, at least locally, the transition zone is hydrous, to about 1 weight per cent. The finding also indicates that some kimberlites must have their primary sources in this deep mantle region.

Apologies for the nature paywall.

Super-Eddington Mechanical Power of an Accreting Black Hole in M83


Mass accretion onto black holes releases energy in the form of radiation and outflows. While the radiative flux cannot substantially exceed the Eddington limit, at which the outgoing radiation pressure impedes the inflow of matter, it remains unclear whether the kinetic energy flux is bounded by this same limit. Here we present the detection of a radio/optical structure, powered by outflows from a non-nuclear black hole. Its accretion disk properties indicate that this black hole is less than 100 solar masses. The optical/IR line emission implies an average kinetic power of 3 × 1040 erg s−1, higher than the Eddington luminosity of the black hole. These results demonstrate kinetic power exceeding the Eddington limit over a sustained period, which implies greater ability to influence the evolution of the black hole’s environment.

The observable signature of late heating of the Universe during cosmic reionization

Felix will lead a discussion on the recent Nature paper (click here to get the article), which is about role of HMXBs in the reionisation of the universe.

Astrotrends: interactively explore keyword trends in the literature

This interactive visualization shows the number of refereed Astronomy articles published each year, containing the selected keywords in their abstracts.

Firewall controversy claims black hole event horizons as latest victim

Information Preservation and Weather Forecasting for Black Holes

(Submitted on 22 Jan 2014)

It has been suggested [1] that the resolution of the information paradox for evaporating black holes is that the holes are surrounded by firewalls, bolts of outgoing radiation that would destroy any infalling observer. Such firewalls would break the CPT invariance of quantum gravity and seem to be ruled out on other grounds. A different resolution of the paradox is proposed, namely that gravitational collapse produces apparent horizons but no event horizons behind which information is lost. This proposal is supported by ADS-CFT and is the only resolution of the paradox compatible with CPT. The collapse to form a black hole will in general be chaotic and the dual CFT on the boundary of ADS will be turbulent. Thus, like weather forecasting on Earth, information will effectively be lost, although there would be no loss of unitarity.

Supernova in M82

Steve Fossey’s page re discovery of SN in M82

Observation of the Optical and Spectral Characteristics of Ball Lightning

Ball lightning (BL) has been observed with two slitless spectrographs at a distance of 0.9 km. The BL is generated by a cloud-to-ground lightning strike. It moves horizontally during the luminous duration. The evolution of size, color, and light intensity is reported in detail. The spectral analysis indicates that the radiation from soil elements is present for the entire lifetime of the BL

See also:


Citizen scientists discover gravitational lenses at record speed


This week, encouraged by a program on the BBC, more than 55,000 citizen scientists powered up their computers, navigated to and, over the course of just 72 hours, made a difference to the future of astrophysics. [T]he first of the three daily episodes of the BBC television series Stargazing Live, which highlights astronomy research in the United Kingdom, included a challenge encouraging viewers to find [gravitational lenses] at the edge of space through The response was immense. Tens of thousands of people visited the website and, in just three days, made more than 6 million image classifications. The images that viewers classified were from infrared data taken with the CFHT telescope in Hawaii and the VISTA telescope in Chile by the VICS82 survey team, led by Jim Geach of the University of Hertfordshire. The patch of sky in question, though previously imaged with optical telescopes, had never before been searched for gravitational lenses in the infrared.

A preliminary analysis of citizen scientists’ work over the past week revealed a handful of new gravitational lenses, including one confirmed system that was found quickly enough that, during the second night’s TV program, researchers were able to point the UK’s eMerlin radio array at the system to study it further. In addition to kick-starting research into these dusty and distant galaxies, Marshall says that the overwhelming amount of interest shown by citizen scientists in the past week may also have implications for future data-intensive experiments like the Large Synoptic Survey Telescope.


Summary extracted and condensed from the original article.

ITA/ITP Heidelberg Journal Club

The first 2014 meeting will be held on Tuesday, January 14th at 13:00 in the room 105 of Philosophenweg 12.

We will have two speakers and a discussion session.

Hope to see you there!

Effect of increased gravitational acceleration in potato deep-fat frying

This work extends our previous studies on crust thickness evolution and evaporation front propagation during deep fat frying of potato sticks (French fries) by incorporating the effect of increased gravitational acceleration. Scaling of gravitational acceleration allows scaling of buoyancy forces which control the heat transfer from hot oil to potato surface. For this, a special device is constructed which permits (a) temperature recording at specified positions below the potato surface (i.e. 0.5, 1.0 and 1.5 mm), (b) exposure of only one surface of a potato stick to hot oil, (c) rotation of the exposed surface at orientations 0° (horizontal, top), 90° (vertical, side) and 180° (horizontal, bottom), and (d) execution of deep fat frying experiments at increased gravity levels (i.e. 1.8, 3.0, 6.0 and 9.0 · gearth). The latter is achieved by means of a large diameter centrifuge (European Space Agency). Temperature recordings and crust thickness evolution indicate that heat transfer during frying depends on gravity level but differently at different potato orientations. Most significant variations with gravity are found up to 3.0 · gearth and for 0° orientation. Moreover, crust thickness evolution diverges from the evaporation front propagation in all times supporting the notion of a wide evaporation zone rather than a sharp evaporation front.

Searching the Internet for evidence of time travelers

Authors: Robert J. Nemiroff, Teresa Wilson
(Submitted on 26 Dec 2013)

Time travel has captured the public imagination for much of the past century, but little has been done to actually search for time travelers. Here, three implementations of Internet searches for time travelers are described, all seeking a prescient mention of information not previously available. The first search covered prescient content placed on the Internet, highlighted by a comprehensive search for specific terms in tweets on Twitter. The second search examined prescient inquiries submitted to a search engine, highlighted by a comprehensive search for specific search terms submitted to a popular astronomy web site. The third search involved a request for a direct Internet communication, either by email or tweet, pre-dating to the time of the inquiry. Given practical verifiability concerns, only time travelers from the future were investigated. No time travelers were discovered. Although these negative results do not disprove time travel, given the great reach of the Internet, this search is perhaps the most comprehensive to date.

Viewpoint: What’s Inside a Black Hole’s Horizon?

The martian soil as a planetary gas pump

Mars has an active surface, with omnipresent small dust particles and larger debris. With an ambient pressure below 10 mbar, which is less than 1% of the surface pressure on Earth, its CO2 atmosphere is rather tenuous. Aeolian processes on the surface such as drifting dunes, dust storms and dust devils are nevertheless still active1, 2, 3. The transport of volatiles below the surface, that is, through the porous soil, is unseen but needs to be known for balancing mass flows4, 5. Here, we describe a mechanism of forced convection within porous soils. At an average ambient gas pressure of 6 mbar, gas flow through the porous ground of Mars by thermal creep is possible and the soil acts as a (Knudsen) pump. Temperature gradients provided by local and temporal variations in solar insolation lead to systematic gas flows. Our measurements show that the flow rates can outnumber diffusion rates. Mars is the only body in the Solar System on which this can occur naturally. Our laboratory experiments reveal that the surface of Mars is efficient in cycling gas through layers at least centimetres above and below the soil with a turnover time of only seconds to minutes.

Puzzling accretion onto a black hole in the ultraluminous X-ray source M 101 ULX-1

There are two proposed explanations for ultraluminous X-ray sources1, 2 (ULXs) with luminosities in excess of 1039 erg s−1. They could be intermediate-mass black holes (more than 100–1,000 solar masses, ) radiating at sub-maximal (sub-Eddington) rates, as in Galactic black-hole X-ray binaries but with larger, cooler accretion disks3, 4, 5. Alternatively, they could be stellar-mass black holes radiating at Eddington or super-Eddington rates2, 6. On its discovery, M 101 ULX-14, 7 had a luminosity of 3 × 1039 erg s−1 and a supersoft thermal disk spectrum with an exceptionally low temperature—uncomplicated by photons energized by a corona of hot electrons—more consistent with the expected appearance of an accreting intermediate-mass black hole3, 4. Here we report optical spectroscopic monitoring of M 101 ULX-1. We confirm the previous suggestion8 that the system contains a Wolf-Rayet star, and reveal that the orbital period is 8.2 days. The black hole has a minimum mass of 5 , and more probably a mass of 20 −30 , but we argue that it is very unlikely to be an intermediate-mass black hole. Therefore, its exceptionally soft spectra at high Eddington ratios violate the expectations for accretion onto stellar-mass black holes9, 10, 11. Accretion must occur from captured stellar wind, which has hitherto been thought to be so inefficient that it could not power an ultraluminous source12, 13.

What's So Special About Science (And How Much Should We Spend on It?)

What’s So Special About Science (And How Much Should We Spend on It?)

William H. Press
Science, 15 November 2013: Vol. 342 no. 6160 pp. 817-822 DOI: 10.1126/science.342.6160.817

Scientific research probes the deepest mysteries of the universe and of living things, and it creates applications and technologies that benefit humanity and create wealth. This “Beauty and Benefits of Science” is the theme of this 2013 AAAS Annual Meeting.

The subject of my address is a different kind of mystery, although it is also related to this theme. It is the mystery of why society is willing to support an endeavor as abstract and altruistic as basic scientific research and an enterprise as large and practical as the research and development (R&D) enterprise as a whole. Put differently, it is the mystery that a unified scientific enterprise can be simultaneously the seed corn for economic advance and the confectionary corn syrup of pure, curiosity-driven scientific discovery.

A Mixture of Ancient and Modern Understanding Concerning the Distance and Motion of the Moon

Ptolemy’s model of the Moon’s motion implied that its distance varies by nearly a factor of two, implying that its angular size should also vary by nearly a factor of two. We present an analysis of 100 naked eye observations of the Moon’s angular size obtained over 1145 days, showing regular variations of at least 3 arc minutes. Thus, ancient astronomers could have shown that a key implication of Ptolemy’s model was wrong. In modern times we attribute the variation of distance of the Moon to the combined effect of the ellipticity of the Moon’s orbit and the perturbing effect of the Sun on the Earth-Moon system. We show graphically how this affects the ecliptic longitudes and radial distance of the Moon. The longitude and distance “anomalies” are correlated with the Moon’s phase. This is illustrated without any complex equations or geometry.

Majority is not Enough: Bitcoin Mining is Vulnerable


The Bitcoin cryptocurrency records its transactions in a public log called the blockchain. Its security rests critically on the distributed protocol that maintains the blockchain, run by participants called miners. Conventional wisdom asserts that the protocol is incentive compatible and secure against colluding minority groups, i.e., it incentivizes miners to follow the protocol as prescribed. We show that the Bitcoin protocol is not incentive- compatible. We present an attack with which colluding miners obtain a revenue larger than their fair share. This attack can have significant consequences for Bitcoin: Rational miners will prefer to join the selfish miners, and the colluding group will increase in size until it becomes a majority. At this point, the Bitcoin system ceases to be a decentralized currency.
Selfish mining is feasible for any group size of colluding miners. We propose a practical modification to the Bitcoin protocol that protects against selfish mining pools that command less than 1/4 of the resources. This threshold is lower than the wrongly assumed 1/2 bound, but better than the current reality where a group of any size can compromise the system.


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