Tuesday, October 03, 2006

News of the New

Apparently a couple of Americans have won the Nobel Prize in physics. They worked on the COBE satellite, measuring the cosmic microwave background. Microwaves are, of course, just a kind of radio waves. The microwave background is nothing but static, noise. The point is that it doesn't have a source. It seems to come from all directions at once, from all over the sky. It was first discovered by accident by scientists at Bell Labs trying to build a radio reciever, who weren't happy that no matter where they pointed the thing, they couldn't get rid of the noise... But it's not quite the same in every direction, and that's what the COBE satellite measures. The little tiny differences. Since the only possible source for radio waves that come from everywhere is thought to be the Big Bang, studying it can tell us something about the beginning of the universe.

But the Nobel Prize people do more than just give out awards. They also create cheesy flash animation games. Certain members of our lab who shall remain unnamed have no problem playing this at work, since after all, it's educational! It's on the Nobel Prize website, and it's about lasers. We're supposed to be learning about lasers, right? Thanks to Chad Orzel for the link.

In other space news, did you see that Neil Armstrong got his line right after all? The story says

Some historians and critics have dogged Armstrong for not saying the more dramatic and grammatically correct, "One small step for a man ..." in the version he transmitted to NASA's Mission Control. Without the missing "a," Armstrong essentially said, "One small step for mankind, one giant leap for mankind."

The famous astronaut has maintained he intended to say it properly and believes he did. Thanks to some high-tech sound-editing software, computer programmer Peter Shann Ford might have proved Armstrong right.
...
In a graphical representation of the famous phrase, Ford said he found evidence that the missing "a" was spoken and transmitted to NASA.

"I have reviewed the data and Peter Ford's analysis of it, and I find the technology interesting and useful," Armstrong said in a statement. "I also find his conclusion persuasive. Persuasive is the appropriate word."


I, personally, am very glad to hear this. I know some people who would say that there is something to be learned from the original story about an embarrassing human error at the moment of a great human achievement, that it's the difference between real life and myth, and it's important to remember... I say we need mythic achievements these days more than we need reminders of human fallibility. I hope that history books from now on record the line as it was meant to be.

Not all of us get to walk on the moon, of course. But a few teachers got to experience weightlessness recently, in a special airplane like the one astronauts use for training. Sometimes called "the vomit comet," I believe... The idea was to get the teachers excited about science, so they could go back and get their students excited (and incidentally get some publicity for Northrup Gruman, who sponsored it.) But supposedly half of all people get space-sick their first time in zero g. And you only get thirty seconds or so of weightlessness at a time, not enough to acclimate. So you gotta think about half those teachers weren't all that enthusiastic about the experience... But hey, I'd risk it.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

The good news is that NASA are looking for students to bring on the vomit comet. The bad news is that they're looking for undergrads.

http://www.theregister.co.uk/2006/10/06/student_experiments/