Sparks in Cosmic Dust

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  3. 7. The Vastness of the Universe (Alheimsvíðáttan)
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Some Mars maniacs just won't grow up: A picture of the track patterns left behind by the Mars rovers' standard turning maneuver has drawn giggles and gasps — merely because it looks like a penis scrawled on the Red Planet. The latest pictures beamed back from one of the rovers show signs that the project's controllers have started to get a bit bored," The Sun, a British tabloid, reported on Wednesday. Even Sarcastic Rover, one of Twitter's top parody personas, got into the act : "Since everyone's asking, let me just say that some other robot did this But this picture isn't the product of a bored or filthy-minded rover driver, and it wasn't beamed down recently.

It's part of a classic nine-year-old panorama from NASA's Spirit rover, looking back toward its landing platform. You can actually see the platform in the high-resolution version of the panorama. This type of rover wheel-track pattern, which could euphemistically be called "a bat and two balls," has been left on Mars many times, not only by Spirit which gave up the ghost in or so , but also by Opportunity which is still going strong more than nine years after landing on Mars and Curiosity which landed last year.

All those rovers have six wheels, three on each side, and they leave behind two parallel tracks when they're traveling in a straight line. We knew it was an unorthodox approach. We took unpublished data, a single qualitative image, and digitized it, turning it into quantitative information. By doing so, we obtained a new model, one unavailable when we began taking data with BICEP, with exactly the information we craved. Planck had not published this map and they likely had their own systematic errors to worry about.

Cosmic dust may get in way of new evidence of 'Big Bang'

But the slide was public and freely available, giving us the green light to use it if we explained our methodology. But, if we went public, how much weight should this contraband slide carry? At first it was a curiosity, a digital trick to make us feel more confident. Then, a few months later, it snowballed, becoming a major link in the chain of reasoning assuring us that galactic dust was safely ignorable … and confirming something beyond our wildest hopes when we started: We had discovered B-modes from inflation.

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Using the slide made me uncomfortable. I wanted clarification: Were we sure we had accurate measurements of dust? With the benefit of these other frequency channels we could exclude, to some extent, the impact of dust above a certain level.

Cosmic Dust Is Everywhere, and There Might Be Some on You!

In other words, dust had only 1 chance in Of course you would! John Kovac made one last plea to the Planck team for their actual data, but again was denied. I figured Planck was about to scoop us. I got off of my high horse. It was time: Publish, or else our Nobel dreams might perish.

7. The Vastness of the Universe (Alheimsvíðáttan)

W ithin three weeks of the press conference, scientific papers had been written about our results. Then, in early April, I got an email from the physicist Matias Zaldarriaga. How many times can he be congratulating me, I wondered? He wanted to talk details. What did I know and when did I know it? It was the beginning of a trial I had long feared. Rumors were swirling at Princeton about the way we had used the infamous Planck slide. Have you looked into the foregrounds yourself?

The whole team had been worried about our galaxy producing spurious B-mode polarization that would masquerade as primordial gravitational wave B-modes. David said he had spotted a blunder in our results, that our data were contaminated by dust within the Milky Way galaxy. Soon, I found out there were others at Princeton laser-focused on the way we modeled dust. The BICEP2 leadership had anticipated an onslaught, perhaps even a backlash, from the Princeton folks, who were working on several competing B-mode experiments.

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Maybe they were just frustrated after being scooped on another major CMB discovery. I asked Matias if it was David Spergel alone causing his concerns. Imagine finding out the entire IRS is obsessed with your tax return. Not just one rogue auditor, but everyone, from the Secretary of the Treasury on down, fixated on your Form ! It was petrifying.

Colin Hill. We were vulnerable to the same sort of tactics we had employed in utilizing the unpublished Planck slide; they could digitize our results before we released them. Live by the slide, die by the slide.

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  • How My Nobel Dream Bit the Dust;
  • Obviously, there is nothing more I would want than the result to be correct. But the discussions here have shaken my confidence and thus I hope you guys respond to the skeptics with a detailed explanation of exactly what you did with those Planck slides. According to Flauger, we had used an incorrect estimate of the level of dust polarization in the Planck slide, a value four times lower than we should have used.

    If true, BICEP2 would go down as the most celebrated dust detector in history—tricked, like so many before us, by a dirty mirage. Only new data, data unavailable to either BICEP2 or the groups doing the reanalysis, could tell us if the ax would eventually fall. The jury was still out. A tense atmosphere settled over the CMB community; this was a cosmic cliffhanger, slowplaying us all. The beginning of the summer found the BICEP2 team in full panic mode, analyzing and reanalyzing data, responding to referee reports and putting out fires in the media and at scientific conferences.

    Paralleling our scientific battles was a battle in the media about the media. In particular, the propriety of the Harvard press conference became one of the hottest topics in all of science. The criticism we received about the way BICEP2 sought publicity was almost as intense as the heat we took for using the scrubbed Planck PowerPoint slide. Scientists, pundits, and journalists alike questioned the decision to announce our findings at a press conference before peer review had been completed.

    Such decisions are always stressful.

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    For a physicist, a press conference is likely a once-in-a-lifetime event. If your results are correct, a press conference-worthy discovery might result in a Nobel Prize. If your result is erroneous, it might be the end of your research For BICEP2, the standard practice—a months-long peer review process, which would then be followed by a press release—had many disadvantages, any of which, individually, were worrisome. In total, they were completely unpalatable. First off, during the peer review, rework, and resubmission cycle we could have been scooped by the competition. Second, we feared that sending the paper to a journal would be unfair, giving a particular group—referees and their friends—a head start on proposal submission. Our first priority was to make a scientific presentation to communicate our results to all our peers in the cosmology community. Three months after the press conference, in June , the peer-reviewed version of the paper was published in Physical Review Letters.

    Its deletion, we said, was due to the unquantifiable uncertainties involved in its analysis. It was only the interpretation which was up for debate. Planck promised to resolve the situation soon, because its newest data was set to be released in the next few months. But the dust emission had a temperature of 20 Kelvin, instead of 3 Kelvin.

    It was going to be a long, hot summer. It was mesmerizing; large swaths of sky festooned with azure streamers, whorls of ocher, and swaths of amber garland. Dust was showing off in all its Van Gogh vainglory. It was over. Eden had sunk to grief. BICEP2 turned out to be a very precise dust detector. It also showed the public how science works: You put out a result, and other scientists work to test the result. You put your cards on the table, and leave it all out there for your critics.

    If and when they attack, you defend until you can defend no longer and the attacks subside. Only then, when both critic and supporter collapse, exhausted, can science be said to be settled. And while Planck, the fearful enemy fighter on our tail, came clean about the amount of dusty B-modes that our galaxy produced, they never did say anything about cosmic B-modes produced by inflation. Follow him on Twitter DrBrianKeating. Used with permission of the publisher, W.

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