NASA announces Mars 2020 rover payload

On July 31, NASA announced the roster of instruments that would hitch a ride on board its planned rover to the red planet in 2020. John Grunsfeld, astronaut and associate administrator for the NASA Science Mission Directorate, Headquarters, Washington, said the instruments would extend the search for life in Mars’s past, conduct geological and environmental … Read more

New category: Exoplanets

Of late, telescopes like Kepler, Spitzer and ALMA are revealing new things about exoplanets as much as they’re exposing how clueless we are about their origins. Unlike in the search for life, where our only precedents are terrestrial, the search for and study of exoplanet systems is aided by Kepler’s revelation of hundreds of them, … Read more

Why do tilted/eccentric orbits form?

For all its mysteries, the Solar System is uniquely ideal in many ways. For one, while it has rocky inner planets and giant, gassy outer ones, astronomers have found that elsewhere, massive exoplanets often orbit close to their stars, as if they formed at a greater distance and then moved in. For another, the orbits of the … Read more

Curious Bends – commoner panthers, space diplomacy, big data sells big cars and more

Curious Bends is a weekly newsletter about science, tech., data and India. Akshat Rathi and I curate it. You can subscribe to it here. If have feedback, suggestions, or would just generally like to get in touch, just email us. 1. Why the GM debate in India won’t abate It is a sign of its inadequacy … Read more

Accurate measurement of exoplanet radius

Image: Imaginative illustration of Kepler 93b’s diameter being measured. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech Using both the Kepler and the Spitzer space telescopes, scientists from NASA have made the most precise measurement of an exoplanet’s radius yet. Kepler 93b, which orbits a dim star 300 ly away, has a diameter of 18,800 km, give or take 240 km. … Read more

Hearing test, radiation-resistant cells, sign language and more

Curious Bends is a weekly newsletter about science, tech., data and India. Akshat Rathi and I curate it. You can subscribe to it here. If have feedback, suggestions, or would just generally like to get in touch, just email us. 1. Poor children deserve better hearing tests; an Indian entrepreneur may have the solution An … Read more

Science Quiz – July 28, 2014

Every week, I create a science quiz for The Hindu newspaper’s In School product. It consists of 10 questions and only developments from the week preceding its day of publication (Monday). The answers are at the end. What’s a haboob? American biologists tracked ____ ______ over 15 years. On July 25, they announced that their … Read more

No country for new journalism

Through an oped in Nieman Lab, Ken Doctor makes a timely case for explanatory – or explainer – journalism being far from a passing fad. Across the many factors that he argues contribute to its rise and persistence in western markets, there is evidence that he believes explainer journalism’s historical basis is more relevant than its technological one, most simply by virtue of having been necessitated by traditional journalism no longer connecting the dots well enough.

Dying in a finite universe

In his book Infinite In All Directions (2002), Freeman Dyson, one of the tallest intellectual giants of our times, attempts to rescue eschatology from the specious grip of religion and teleology with a mix of scientific reasoning and informed speculation. During this, when describing the big crunch, which is one way our universe could end, he moves smoothly from the rational track he has been sprinting on to a less exact but more pertinent and romantic description. In his words,

There is a great melancholy in the picture of a finite universe, its force spent, its days of passion over, counting the hours remaining before it slides into oblivion. What will our last poets sing, whoever they may be, human or alien, as they watch the stars crowding together and streaming faster and faster across the imploding sky? Perhaps in their final moments they will remember the words of our contemporary, Ivor Gurney, echoing down the eons from the springtime of our species:

The songs I had are withered
or vanished clean,
Yet there are bright tracks
Where I have been,
And there grow flowers
For others’ delight.
Think well, O singer,
Soon comes night.

I wonder if the universe will make this transition just as seamlessly, and the twilight of starstuff will prove to be just as pleasing, should it happen. Then again, to share Dyson’s conviction is to embrace naturalism for that’s all the beauty that we will see, and there is hope that it will be inexhaustible. Again, in his words and from the same book,

No matter how far we go into the future, there will always be new things happening, new information coming in, new worlds to explore, a constantly expanding domain of life, consciousness and memory.

Kepler data reveals a frost giant

I’ve been most fascinated lately by studies of planet formation. Every small detail is like that one letter in the crossword you need to fill all the other boxes in, every discovery a cornerstone that holds together a unique piece of the universe. For example, using just the find that the exoplanet Beta Pictoris b has a very short day of eight hours, astronomers could speculate on how it was formed, what its density could be, and how heavy it could get over time. And it isn’t surprising if a similar tale awaits telling by Kepler 421b.