Category Archives: Physics

Cassini’s Grand Finale

After nearly 20 years in space and a final series of dives through Saturn’s ring, the spacecraft Cassini is on its last descent. It will crash into the planet later today, ending an incredible scientific mission to an amazing place.

Cassini and its instruments helped investigate Saturn’s atmosphere, its rocky rings, its strange polar hexagon. It also expanded our knowledge of Saturn’s moons, from the geysers and hidden oceans of Enceladus to the rocks and lakes on the surface of Titan. Cassini’s Huygens probe, which landed on Titan, was the furthest space landing of anything humanity has built.

Originally launched in 1997, Cassini’s mission was supposed to end in 2008. But it received two major mission extensions, nearly doubling its lifetime. It has sent 635 gigabytes of data back, which mightn’t sound like a lot except that all of it was on 1997 era technology, through a billion kilometers of space.

The spacecraft is being crashed into Saturn because it’s running out of fuel for orbital maneuvers, and scientists don’t want to risk accidentally crashing it into one of Saturn’s moons which might contain life, and contaminating them. I feel personally invested in Cassini’s mission and final resting place, because my signature is on board! When I was growing up, one of my Girl Scout troop leaders was an astrophysicist working on the Cassini Plasma Spectrometer before the spacecraft was launched. She arranged for us to all come in and get to see some of the instruments, and in the end our signatures were all added to the 600,000 signatures on the disc of human culture that was included with the spacecraft. This disc, modeled on the Golden Record aboard Voyager, is a time capsule of human culture for other spacefaring civilizations to find. But while the Voyager discs are traveling beyond our solar system, Cassini will be meeting its end here, to become part of the planet it studied.

Cassini’s voyage has been such an inspiration, a feat of technical and scientific exploration which I, along with millions of others, have loved watching from here on Earth.

You can read much more about Cassini’s scientific discoveries here, and watch Cassini’s final descent today starting at 7AM EDT here, on the NASA livestream. Godspeed, Cassini.


Sound and Waves

When I hear my mother’s voice, it sounds different from my father’s voice, and different from a bird or a drum. Why are the sounds we hear so varied, and how do they travel to our ears?


Sound is created when something moves rapidly, and creates a wave in the air around it. Our vocal cords do this, as does the skin on a drum, pushing the wave out into the world. This wave is made up of bands of air: more pressure, less pressure, high and low, back and forth as long as the sound lasts. Sound can only travel through something whose pressure can be changed, like air and water. So if you’re floating in space: perfect quiet.

But have you ever noticed how sound changes as it echoes around a gym? That’s because sound waves change when they bounce off things. A musical note will sound differently in a glass room than in one lined with velvet cushions. This affects musical instruments too! And the size of an instrument influences the sound it makes, from the deep growl of the tuba to the light chirp of a flute. Generally, bigger instruments make deeper sounds, with fewer waves per second.

And sound is not just high or low. Of course, it’s also soft or loud. But more interesting are differences that lead to a new tone or feel. For example, a violin and a flute might play the same note at the same volume, but they still won’t sound the same. Waves have amazing abilities to send subtle differences within a sound. And luckily for us, our ears use delicate hairs to detect these waves as they move through the air. Nerves connect the hairs to our brain, connecting us to the full orchestra of sound.

Gravitational Waves Discovered by LIGO

The world is abuzz with news that gravitational waves have been detected for the first time. This is a huge leap forward for scientists’ understanding of gravity! For all that we experience gravity every day as we (mostly) stay grounded on the Earth, figuring out exactly how it works has been a challenge.

Gravity draws things together, but how ? One of the most brilliant discoveries of Albert Einstein was realizing that objects with mass actually warp spacetime itself. If we imagine space as an enormous sheet, throwing a light object like a tennis ball onto it would only pull the sheet down a little, whereas a bowling ball would pull the sheet down significantly more. Everything with mass distorts the sheet though, affecting other objects on the sheet and even massless things like light as they pass through.


Seeing that gravity affected light was actually the first major proof of Einstein’s theory of general relativity. During an eclipse in 1919, light from a cluster of stars was seen to distort from its normal pattern as it passed close to the temporarily obscured Sun. But another consequence of Einstein’s work was the idea that the speed of light is a maximum speed for any particle or force, including gravitation, however it’s propagated. This implies that gravitational interactions can only happen so fast, and that if a huge gravitational event were to take place emitting a lot of gravitational energy, that energy would have a maximum speed to move through the universe.

What kind of huge gravitational event? Well, the strongest gravitational interactions we have been able to observe take place around black holes, whose mass causes gravitational forces that overcome even basic quantum mechanical ones that prevent matter from piling up on itself. So black holes are supermassive point objects, singularities with exceptionally strong gravity. And if two of them were to come together, their movement might create gravitational waves in spacetime itself that could be strong enough for us to detect.

The Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO) has been looking for gravitational waves using light as a ruler to measure whether spacetime is being warped. LIGO compares the length of two 2.5 mile long tunnels, set at right angles to each other, which would warp in alternation if a gravitational wave were to pass through them. The precision needed to see even very strong gravitational waves is tremendous, as we know from the fact that we don’t just observe our living rooms getting bigger and smaller in response to cosmic events. LIGO has been searching for gravitational waves since 1992, and improving its precision since then. Finally this week, they announced a signal!


The gravitational waves detected come from two black holes merging, a billion light years from our planet. These black holes were enormous, 36 and 29 times the mass of our Sun. They merged into a black hole 62 times the mass of our Sun, converting three solar masses into energy as gravitational waves. It is these waves that the LIGO researchers managed to detect, corroborating their results at two separate facilities in Louisiana and Washington. The difference in lengths of the LIGO tunnels due to the gravitational waves was less than a millionth of the size of an atom, an astounding physical feat, and yet the LIGO collaboration is confident in its measurements to 99.9999%.

Validating a prediction made over a hundred years ago about the way mass warps spacetime is impressive enough, especially considering that gravity is still the least well understood of the four fundamental forces. But it’s also a beautiful new way to look at the stars, and at the massive universe beyond our planetary doorstep.

Color and the Size of Light

What is color, and what does it mean for an object to have a specific color? Well, color comes from the fact that light can have different sizes, the way objects reflect that light, and the way our eyes can see it.

Light is made up of these tiny packets of energy, photons, which travel as waves that can move through air or space. And there’s a distance between the peaks of the waves, the same way there would be for waves in water, which is the size of the light. Light can have a whole range of different sizes, so the microwaves that you use to cook food or the radio waves that carry sound through the air are both different sizes of light. But there’s a special range of light, the visible range, which contains the sizes of light that our eyes can detect.


So in the visible range, we have shorter lengths of light, which our eyes see as more blue, and longer lengths of light, which our eyes see as more red. In between, you have the full rainbow, which has all the colors we can see. The sun shines light on us with the whole range of sizes, but different objects will reflect different sizes or colors back at us. So an orange is absorbing most visible light but reflecting orange light, and then our eye detects that light and our brain tells us it’s orange.

But we need special cells in our eyes to detect color. Most people have three kinds of color-detecting cells, called cones, that pick up blue, green, or yellow light. From these three colors, our brain puts together the rest of the rainbow, like an artist does when mixing paint. People who have fewer or more kinds of cones will perceive color differently, maybe being color-blind or seeing even more colors than average, even though the light itself is the same!

If you want to know more, we have some nice posts in the archives about visible light and why the sky is blue.

Innovative Technologies

I work in nanoscience, and a lot of new materials and devices are developed where people ask, what is going to be the application of this? Can this displace an established technology (like silicon computer chips) or create a new market? And I was recently reminded of a great quote in response:

The principal applications of any sufficiently new and innovative technology always have been—and will continue to be—applications created by that technology.

That was said by Herbert Kroemer in his Nobel lecture, and it bears thinking about in many contexts both within science and in the broader world. When you’re doing something new, it may not fit neatly into the established hierarchies of technology, science, or industry. That can be good, and in fact it can be groundbreaking, like a present you didn’t know you wanted! Of course, it’s still important to think about how your work fits into the broader picture as it already is, but I think it’s always good to get a reminder to check your premises, that innovation can create its own new niches.

Sweat The Small Stuff

Let’s talk about science! Literally, here I am talking about science, the quantum world, scientists, and answering audience questions from a kindly bunch at Pint of Science this May in Dublin. There is also a bit of a surprise in the middle.

Flatland and Extra Dimensions

What would life be like if you lived in two dimensions instead of three?

Back when I posted about popular science books for non-scientists, one of the suggestions I got after the fact was Flatland: A Romance of Many Dimensions, the 19th century classic by Edwin A. Abbott. Which is absolutely worth reading, and a great example of what I love in science writing (or science fiction): an idea that makes you change your whole perspective on the world and reimagine it from a different point of view.

The idea behind Flatland is this: what would it be like if the world we inhabited were flat instead of 3D? You can imagine it as living within a piece of paper, or on the surface of a table. The notion of up and down would be meaningless; we’d only have left and right, and front and back. So we’d be moving in two dimensions rather than three, and we’d also perceive everything around us to have only two dimensions. There wouldn’t be any going over a fence, or peeking under a door. If a thing blocked your way, it would block it completely, and everything behind it would be completely invisible. Of course, you wouldn’t be able to pass through things in Flatland, the same way you can’t in the real world. So if a person stopped directly in front of you, you’d have to pass to either side, or not at all.

There’s a lot of social commentary in Flatland as well, satire aimed at Victorian England that comments on gender divisions, class hierarchies, and dogmatism against new ideas. It’s worth a full read for that, though its examination of spatial dimensions is what’s kept it famous.

Life in Flatland may seem like an academic abstraction. But actually, while our world is three-dimensional, there are some things in it which effectively have only two dimensions, especially in the world of nanoscience. The touted wonder material graphene is effectively two-dimensional, because in the third dimension it’s only one atom thick. That means that electrons moving through graphene are effectively in a two-dimensional environment, a Flatland, and can’t use the third dimension to go around each other. More two-dimensional materials are being discovered every day, and taking one dimension of a material to the nanoscale while leaving the others large changes the physical laws in that material significantly!

And what if there were more dimensions to the world? What if instead of three dimensions to space, there were a fourth, or a fifth? In that case, life here in three dimensions would seem like Flatland, without the fourth dimension to move through. Some physicists studying string theory think there may in fact be additional spatial dimensions, but that they must be curled up within the three we know in order to be undetectable.

So the idea of Flatland, a world where there are only two dimensions instead of the usual three, isn’t just a science fiction classic, it’s also a valuable thought experiment that ties into both nanoscience and string theory!