Saturday, August 31, 2013

Deceased--Bruce C. Murray

Bruce C. Murray
November 30th, 1931 to August 29th, 2013

"Bruce C. Murray dies at 81; former director of JPL"

Bruce C. Murray's push to study the images of planetary surfaces played a major role in keeping NASA's exploration program alive.


Thomas H. Maugh II

August 29th, 2013

Los Angeles Times

Although most of his fellow space scientists scoffed at the idea, Jet Propulsion Laboratory scientist Bruce C. Murray insisted that a picture of a planet's surface was worth a thousand words — or at least as much as the measurements of magnetic fields and particle concentrations that his colleagues favored in the early days of planetary exploration in the 1960s.

"Pictures," said Louis Friedman, a founder and former executive director of the Planetary Society, "were considered a stunt."

But Murray, a former petroleum geologist who joined JPL in 1960 and became its director in 1976, played a key role in changing that view. Spectacular pictures of the surfaces of Mars and other planets are almost routine now, a development due in large part to Murray's forceful advocacy that studying images of the surfaces of other planets could help us learn about our own.

He played a key role in the 1964 launch of Mariner 4 to Mars, the first mission to send back pictures from any planet. That "was the beginning of comparative planetology," Friedman said. The procurement of pictures not only began to play a key role in all planetary exploration but helped keep the space exploration program alive when successive presidential administrations attempted to shut it down, he said.

Murray, 81, fought vigorously to maintain the program during his six years as director of JPL from 1976 to 1982, and with Friedman and Carl Sagan founded the Planetary Society, a leading organization promoting the exploration of the solar system.

He died early Thursday at his home in Oceanside from complications of Alzheimer's disease, his longtime friend Charlene Anderson said.

"He worked tirelessly to save our nation's planetary exploration capability at a tumultuous time when there was serious consideration for curtailing future missions,"
JPL Director Charles Elachi said in a statement Thursday, adding that "we today enjoy the privilege of exploring the heavens in no small measure because of Bruce's leadership."

Murray joined Caltech as a planetary astronomer, but he was soon invited to join the imaging team of JPL's first two missions to Mars, Mariners 3 and 4. His role was less about developing the imaging equipment than in deciding the best way to use it. He had a similar function on Mariners 6, 7 and 9 and led the imaging team for Mariner 10. Using images from these missions, he began to construct a geological history of the planet.

"He was centrally involved in the earliest explorations of Mars and Mercury, and he made seminal contributions to our understanding of the role of water on Mars and other bodies," Caltech planetary science professor David Stevenson said.

In the early 1970s, NASA was planning two Viking missions to Mars to search for life on the Red Planet. Murray, however, argued that the missions were premature and should be postponed until scientists had a better understanding of the chemistry on the planet's surface.

NASA discounted his objections and proceeded with the missions. His views were upheld, however, when one of the Viking experiments showed the apparent presence of metabolic products of life. Further study suggested instead that the finding was an artifact produced by nonbiological processes in the highly oxidizing Martian soil.

Combined with his successes on the Mariner missions, his insightful criticism of the Viking program led to his being named JPL director in April 1976 when the fourth director, William H. Pickering, retired from the La CaƱada Flintridge center. It proved an extremely difficult time to lead a planetary exploration program. The Apollo era was winding down, and NASA was focusing on the shuttle program and Earth observations. Successive presidential administrations and Congresses severely curtailed deep space exploration.

Nobody in Washington, D.C., thought that planetary exploration should not be carried out, Friedman said. "They simply thought that it wasn't very important, that it was something that could always wait."

Murray's outspokenness did not win him many friends in Washington as he fought to maintain planetary programs. He was successful in keeping the Galileo mission to Jupiter alive, but he could not win approval for the American half of the two-satellite International Solar Polar Mission. JPL's instrument for that mission was, however, later launched on the European Space Agency's Ulysses mission in 1990.

To assist in promoting planetary exploration, Murray, Sagan and Friedman founded the Planetary Society, a nonprofit organization whose mission was to support and lobby for deep space exploration. Sagan was the first president, but Murray assumed the presidency when Sagan died in 1996.

At a time when few women worked at JPL or elsewhere at NASA, Murray also played a vital role in recruiting women employees and integrating them into the space program. He created an advisory council of 12 women who helped recruit female engineers and make JPL a more attractive workplace for them.

Without more women, "Bruce recognized … we would only be exploiting 50% of the capability of the country," said former JPL chief engineer John Casani. Today, he added, "there are more women at JPL than at any place within NASA and in many industries."

The retrenchment in NASA funding for planetary exploration led to severe budget cuts for JPL. Murray was able to offset some of these cuts and keep the laboratory operating first by acquiring a large solar energy research project from the Department of Energy and, later, by convincing the trustees of Caltech, which administers JPL, to allow the lab to resume classified research for the Department of Defense.

He stepped down as JPL director in late 1982, noting that he had never intended to retain the position for more than five to 10 years. He returned to Caltech's geological and planetary sciences department, where he was a professor emeritus at the time of his death.

Murray had cultivated a variety of international connections during his tenure as director. As a result of those, he spent several months in Japan working with the Japanese space agency and several months in China.

Bruce Churchill Murray was born Nov. 30, 1931, in New York City. He was educated at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where he received his doctorate in geology in 1955. Upon graduation, he worked as an exploration and exploitation geologist in Louisiana for Standard Oil Co.

In 1958, he began a two-year stint with the Air Force Cambridge Research Laboratories before joining Caltech, where he was the first professor in planetary science.

He was author or co-author of six books and more than 130 scientific papers. He received NASA's exceptional scientific achievement medal in 1971 and its distinguished public service medal in 1974.

Asteroid 4957 Brucemurray is named after him.

His first marriage, to Joan O'Brien, ended in divorce in 1970. He is survived by his wife of 41 years, the former Suzanne Moss, five children and 10 grandchildren.

"Bruce C. Murray, Who Helped Earth Learn of Mars, Dies at 81"


John Noble Wilford

August 29th, 2013

The New York Times

Bruce C. Murray, a planetary geologist who won his spurs interpreting findings of early missions to Mars and who led NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory through a time of flagging support for new flights in the late 1970s, died Thursday at his home in Oceanside, Calif. He was 81.

The cause was Alzheimer’s disease, said the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, which is operated for NASA by the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena. Dr. Murray was a professor emeritus at Caltech.

As director of the laboratory from 1976 to 1982, Dr. Murray faced shrinking budgets as the space agency shifted most of its resources to the emerging shuttle program. There were two Viking landings on Mars in his first year, and two Voyagers were launched to the outer planets. But prospects for any future missions were bleak.

On the brink of despair in 1981, Dr. Murray struck a defiant note in an interview with Discover magazine.

“We’re sitting here watching the coffin being nailed shut, and what’s inside is imagination and vision,” he said. “I wasn’t appointed director to preside over the dissolution of the U.S. space exploration program. I’m not going to be squeezed down to nothing.”

Those were tough years, both for him and for the laboratory. In a New York Times Magazine article, the science writer Timothy Ferris described Dr. Murray as a “square-jawed man more comfortable giving orders than listening to advice,” adding that he “brought to the lab an aggressive — some would say abrasive — style of leadership under which its fortunes have sharply improved.”

John Casani, a retired project manager at the laboratory, told The Associated Press: “People at J.P.L. either loved or hated him. He was always shaking cages.”

Through persistence, he kept the doors open. He managed to salvage a Jupiter orbital mission, later named Galileo, an imaging radar system for Earth mapping to be flown on space shuttles, an early Earth-observing satellite called Seasat and a joint project with Britain and the Netherlands called the Infrared Astronomy Satellite.

Out of concern for the future of planetary exploration, Dr. Murray joined with the astronomer Carl Sagan and the aerospace engineer Louis Friedman to found the Planetary Society, a public advocacy organization dedicated to exploring the solar system and searching for extraterrestrial intelligence. The society, based in Pasadena, has reported some 100,000 members. Dr. Murray was its retired chairman.

“We seem to have the idea that the space age started and ended with one generation,” he said in an interview at the time. “We go to the planets and have a look and then walk away and do nothing.”

Bruce Churchill Murray was born Nov. 30, 1931, in New York City. His family later moved to California, and he graduated from Santa Monica High School. He was educated at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where he earned a Ph.D. in geology in 1955.

After working as a geologist for Standard Oil, he spent two years in the Air Force as a geophysicist and then became a researcher at Caltech in 1960, at a time of growing excitement over space exploration.

He joined the faculty as an associate professor of planetary science in 1963, and became a member of the science team for Mariner 4, the first successful flyby of Mars, in 1965.

Those first pictures of a moonlike Mars of cratered plains were a disappointment to those who grew up imagining Martians. But further flyby exploration by Mariners 6 and 7, and especially Mariner 9’s orbital survey in 1971-72 — all with Dr. Murray on the science team — began to reveal a more diverse Mars of mountains and canyons, with some evidence of water erosion in the distant past. He constructed a geologic history of Mars from these images.

From his Mars experience and as chief scientist for the Mariner 10 mission to Venus and Mercury, as well as his budget battles as the J.P.L. director, Dr. Murray wrote a popular book, “Journey Into Space: The First Thirty Years of Space Exploration,” in 1989. He also collaborated with Arthur C. Clarke, Ray Bradbury and Walter Sullivan on another book, “Mars and the Mind of Man,” based on a symposium conducted at the time that Mariner 9 swept into an orbit of Mars.

He published more than 130 research papers and four other books as well, and was the associate director of an award-winning educational film, “Mars Minus Myth,” first released in 1973 and revised in 1977.

His survivors include three children, Christine, Stephen and Peter, from his first marriage, to the former Joan O’Brien. They were divorced in 1970. The next year he married Suzanne Moss, who survives, as well as her daughter, Allison, whom Dr. Murray adopted; their son, Jonathan; and 11 grandchildren.

In a television interview in 1989, Dr. Murray spoke of the lingering disappointment of his experience as the Jet Propulsion Laboratory’s director.

“I went into J.P.L. full of hope that I could reverse the trend of backing away from space exploration — which started in ’72 and by the time I got there in ’76 was in full steam — and found I couldn’t,” he said. “I could alleviate the effects somewhat and kind of dampen it, but I couldn’t change the trend. That was pretty upsetting.”

Afterward, Dr. Murray said: “I had to decide what I wanted to do, and I tried some things and came to the conclusion what I enjoy more than anything else in the world is teaching and working with graduate students doing research. That is really satisfying.”

So he returned to the Caltech faculty and served on the science teams for other Mars missions in the 1990s. On his retirement in 2001, he was made professor emeritus of planetary science and geology.

"Bruce C. Murray, NASA space scientist, dies at 81"


Matt Schudel

August 30th, 2013

The Washington Post

Bruce C. Murray, a former director of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, who was an ambitious proponent of space exploration and among the first to emphasize the use of photography of other planets, died Aug. 29 at his home in Oceanside, Calif. He was 81.

He had Alzheimer’s disease, the Planetary Society, an organization he helped found, announced in a statement.

Dr. Murray was director of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, a space exploration arm of NASA, from 1976 to 1982. He began working for the space laboratory in 1960 while serving as a geology professor at the California Institute of Technology, which manages the JPL, based in Pasadena, Calif.

As a part of the scientific team that launched the Mariner series of missions to Mars and other planets in the 1960s and 1970s, Dr. Murray was one of the first scientists to highlight the use of photography in space science.

Mariner 4 transmitted pictures of the terrain of Mars back to Earth in 1965, the first time images of the surface of another planet had been seen. Dr. Murray used the images obtained from the Mariner missions to develop a geological history of Mars. In the early 1970s, he was the top scientist of the Mariner 10 mission, which photographed Venus and Mercury.

Expectations were high when Dr. Murray took over the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in 1976. That year, two Viking missions reached Mars, dispatching automated roving vehicles to the surface, where they collected samples of soil and rocks in an effort to determine if life existed on the Red Planet.

Dr. Murray had misgivings about the Viking projects, suggesting that they were launched before scientists had a reliable understanding of the Martian atmosphere and surface.

Later in the 1970s, two Voyager spacecraft probed the deeper recesses of the solar system, but, to Dr. Murray’s disappointment, the era of interplanetary space exploration was already at its zenith.

He said there were two kinds of missions — purple pigeons and gray mice — that the JPL could pursue. He favored “purple pigeons,” or projects that captured the public imagination and made a big splash in the scientific world, such as a rendezvous with a comet. “Gray mice” missions, by comparison, were less dramatic.

But Dr. Murray’s bright-hued hopes for space exploration were thwarted by continued budgetary battles with Congress and changing priorities. The space shuttle program claimed a higher profile at NASA, as public support for the unmanned exploration of outer space began to wane.

In the early 1980s, the funding emphasis at the space laboratory began to shift from pure science to something that began to resemble an adjunct of military preparedness. Dr. Murray said he was not necessarily opposed to the change — “Quite the opposite; I was the architect of the shift,” he said in 1982 — but he noted that other scientists were not as comfortable working on programs with military applications.

“A number of people came to JPL over the years specifically because they did not want to work on defense projects,” Dr. Murray said. “There is a small number of people, especially young people, who feel that defense work is immoral.”

When Dr. Murray resigned from the JPL in 1982, he was replaced by Lew Allen Jr., a retired Air Force general who had been the director of the National Security Agency.

Bruce Churchill Murray was born Nov. 30, 1931, in New York and graduated from high school in Santa Monica, Calif. He received three degrees from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, including a PhD in geology in 1955. He was a petroleum geologist in Louisiana before serving as a scientist with the Air Force in the late 1950s.

In 1979, when he was still at the JPL, Dr. Murray and renowned scientist Carl Sagan founded the Planetary Society, which seeks to raise awareness of space science. Dr. Murray was president of the organization for five years after Sagan’s death in 1996.

Dr. Murray was the author of several books, including “Journey Into Space: The First Thirty Years of Space Exploration” (1989). He received an exceptional scientific achievement medal from NASA in 1971 and a distinguished public service medal in 1974. An asteroid is named in his honor.

After leaving the JPL, he returned to Caltech, where he taught until 2002. He also worked on joint U.S. space ventures with the Soviet Union, Japan and China.

His marriage to Joan O’Brien ended in divorce. Survivors include his wife of 41 years, the former Suzanne Moss; three children from his first marriage; two children from his second marriage; and 11 grandchildren.

In 2001, Dr. Murray discussed the importance of exploring Mars and other planets in an interview with United Press International.

“We want to find out, is there water? Could you build a greenhouse? Is it a potential habitat?” he said. “It’s another step in extending human mobility and our sense of what, as a species, we are capable of.”

Bruce C. Murray [Wikipedia]

Journey Into Space: The First Thirty Years of Space Exploration

ISBN-10: 0393307034
ISBN-13: 978-0393307030

Thursday, August 29, 2013

Nassau Astronomical Observing Station saved

36" Warner & Swasey telescope

"Cleveland Foundation donates $200,000 to Observatory Park"

August 28th, 2013

The News-Hearld

The Geauga Park District has surpassed the halfway mark to its $1.175 million fundraising goal of restoring and renovating the Nassau Astronomical Observing Station at Observatory Park in Montville Township.

The park system announced the latest contribution Wednesday: $100,000 from the Cleveland Foundation and another $100,000 from the foundation's Lake-Geauga Fund. Robert Eckardt, executive vice president of the Cleveland Foundation, said the grant was awarded as part of the foundation's 2014 centennial anniversary.

"The Cleveland Foundation has a long history of supporting green spaces throughout Northeast Ohio, and we are proud to be able to play a leadership role in protecting a park that is such a treasure to the Geauga community and to our region," Eckardt said.

The Nassau station, named after Case Western Reserve University's observatory director and chairman of astronomy, John Nassau, opened in the 1957. Back then, researchers traveled east to Montville to avoid light pollution, but as Geauga County developed, the university mothballed the station and relocated its astronomical research efforts to Arizona.

Geauga Park District bought the observatory and its 218 surrounding acres in October 2008 from the university for $915,000.

Observatory Park opened in June 2012 after a $2.1 million fundraising campaign and renovations. The Geauga Park District Foundation is focusing its fundraising on the Nassau station and since February, has raised $590,000.

The project includes installing green restrooms and solar panels, an elevator, a museum of Northeast Ohio's history on astronomy, educational space in the station's former living quarters, more parking and a trail linking the Nassau station with the Observatory Park's main campus.

The work also would refurbish the Cleveland-made Warner & Swasey 36-inch Cassegrain telescope.

"Over the years, the Nassau station has helped thousands of scientists, teachers and students see the heavens from a different perspective, and it's wonderful to know that that opportunity is going to be available to teachers and students for generations to come," said Paula Aveni, capital campaign chairwoman.

Observatory Park and Restoration of Nassau Station

Warner and Swasey Observatory

Deceased--Robert Kraemer

Robert Kraemer
October 21st, 1928 to August 30th, 2013

"Robert Kraemer dies at 84; former NASA head of planetary exploration"


Frederick N. Rasmussen

August 28th, 2013

The Los Angeles Times

Robert S. Kraemer, NASA's former director of planetary exploration who was also an expert in rocket engines, died Aug. 20 at an assisted living home in Catonsville, Md., of complications from a fall, his family said. He was 84.

Kraemer joined NASA in 1967 and, in one of his early assignments, managed the development of a Mars surface laboratory mission at NASA's headquarters in Washington.

After the project was canceled because of congressional concerns, he was appointed manager of advanced planetary programs and technology and in 1970 was named director of planetary programs.

"In this position he oversaw the successful completion of 12 missions to launch spacecraft into the solar system to study its planets, moons and more," Brian Compere, assistant managing editor of the Diamondback newspaper at the University of Maryland, wrote in a profile of his grandfather. "He faced political, financial and technical challenges in managing an unprecedented burst of planetary exploration" that produced groundbreaking results.

Kraemer was associated with the missions Mariner 9 and 10, Pioneer 10 and 11, Helios 1 and 2, Viking 1 and 2, Voyager 1 and 2 and Pioneer Venus 1 and 2.

The son of a citrus rancher and a homemaker, Robert Samuel Kraemer was born Oct. 21, 1928, in Fullerton and raised in Placentia. He received a bachelor's degree in aeronautical engineering from the University of Notre Dame in 1950.

After receiving a master's degree in aeronautics and rocket propulsion from Caltech in 1951, he worked for North American Aviation's Rocketdyne Division in Canoga Park on rocket propulsion for a secret intercontinental cruise missile called Navaho.

"By 1961, he was head of all advanced projects for the NAA rocket team, also called Rocketdyne. His work with high-performance launch engines during this time led him to determine they had all the rocket technology the U.S. would use for the next two decades," Compere wrote.

Kraemer then became chief engineer for space systems at Ford Aeronutronic in Newport Beach, where he worked until he joined NASA. A Maryland resident since 1967, he retired in 1990.

Kraemer wrote several books, including "Rocketdyne: Powering Humans Into Space" and "Beyond the Moon: A Golden Age of Planetary Exploration 1971-1981." He received the Distinguished Service Medal, NASA's highest honor.

Beyond the Moon: A Golden Age of Planetary Exploration, 1971-1978

ISBN-10: 1560989548
ISBN-13: 978-1560989547

Rocketdyne: Powering Humans into Space

ISBN-10: 1563477548
ISBN-13: 978-1563477546

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Delta IV Heavy rocket slips a spy satellite into orbit

"America's biggest rocket blasts off, likely carrying spy satellite"


W.J. Hennigan

August 28th, 2013

Los Angeles Times

A 235-foot-tall rocket carrying a top-secret spy satellite roared to life and blasted off from Vandenberg Air Force Base, leaving a thick white plume as it cut across the morning sky.

The launch took place Wednesday at 11:03 a.m. PDT at the picturesque base, which is located along the Pacific Ocean.

After countdown, the Delta IV Heavy rocket's three main engines ignited and climbed into skies. The hydrogen-fueled engines — each roughly the size of a pickup truck — were guzzling nearly a ton of propellants per second to provide 17 million horsepower.

Although little is publicly known about what exactly the rocket will be carrying into space, analysts said it is probably a $1-billion high-powered spy satellite capable of snapping pictures detailed enough to distinguish the make and model of an automobile hundreds of miles below.

Wednesday’s mission, designated NROL-65, has been on schedule for months.

Although Cape Canaveral, Fla., is the launch site for NASA's civilian space program, Vandenberg has been the site of military space projects for more than half a century.

Vandenberg, a 98,000-acre base along the Pacific, has been the primary site for launching spy satellites since the beginning of the Cold War because of its ideal location for putting satellites into a north-to-south orbit.

Space Launch Complex 6 is known on base as “Slick Six.” The launch pad was built in the 1960s and later was intended to accommodate space shuttle launches, but they remained in Florida. Since then, the pad has gone through many renovations. Most recently, Vandenberg spent $100 million on upgrades over three years.

This is the second time that a Delta IV Heavy rocket was launched from the pad at Vandenberg. The first time was in January 2011.

The rocket was built by United Launch Alliance, a joint venture of Lockheed Martin Corp. and Boeing Co. It made its maiden flight in 2004 and is capable of lifting payloads of up to 24 tons into low Earth orbit.

The elusive element 115?

"Have scientists discovered a new element?"

The periodic table might get a new addition. Scientists in Germany say they have replicated a decade-old Russian experiment that created dozens of short-lived atoms with 115 protons.


Megan Gannon

August 27th, 2013

The Christian Science Monitor

Scientists say they've created a handful of atoms of the elusive element 115, which occupies a mysterious corner of the periodic table.

The super-heavy element has yet to be officially named, but it is temporarily called ununpentium, roughly based on the Latin and Greek words for the digits in its atomic number, 115. 

The atomic number is the number of protons an element contains. The heaviest element commonly found in nature is uranium, which has 92 protons, but scientists can load even more protons into an atomic nucleus and make heavier elements through nuclear fusion reactions.

Scientists hope that by creating heavier and heavier elements, they will find a theoretical "island of stability," an undiscovered region in the periodic table where stable super-heavy elements with as yet unimagined practical uses might exist.

In experiments in Dubna, Russia about 10 years ago, researchers reported that they created atoms with 115 protons. Their measurements have now been confirmed in experiments at the GSI Helmholtz Centre for Heavy Ion Research in Germany.

To make ununpentium in the new study, a group of researchers shot a super-fast beam of calcium (which has 20 protons) at a thin film of americium, the element with 95 protons. When these atomic nuclei collided, some fused together to create short-lived atoms with 115 protons.

"We observed 30 in our three-week-long experiment," study researcher Dirk Rudolph, a professor of atomic physics at Lund University in Sweden, said in an email. Rudolph added that the Russian team had detected 37 atoms of element 115 in their earlier experiments.

"The results are by and large compatible,"
Rudolph said.

Super-heavy elements are generally unstable and most last only a fraction of a second before they start to decay. The scientists had to use special detectors to look for the energy signatures for the X-ray radiation predicted to be given off by element 115 as it quickly degrades.

A committee from the International Union of Pure and Applied Chemistry (IUPAC), which governs chemical nomenclature, will review the new findings to decide whether more experiments are necessary before element 115 gets an official name.

Some of element 115's neighbors have already been christened. Last year, the man-made elements 114 and 116 were named flerovium (Fl) and livermorium (Lv).

The new experiments will be detailed in The Physical Review Letters.

"Made in Lab, Fleeting Element May Join Periodic Table"


Kenneth Chang

August 27th, 2013

The New York Times

Scientists may be adding a new element to the periodic table, but don’t expect to see it anytime soon: created in a laboratory, it exists for less than a second.

The new superheavy chemical element has 115 protons and would fill a gap in the periodic table, taking its place between the two elements, 114 and 116, which were added just last year. The newcomer, as yet unnamed, was first discovered a decade ago by Russian and American scientists, but the official organizations of chemists and physicists that act as gatekeepers for the periodic table wanted another laboratory to repeat the experiment before they would officially add it.

A Swedish university announced Tuesday that that had finally happened. The new work, led by physicists at Lund University in Sweden and performed at an accelerator in Darmstadt, Germany, duplicated the earlier experiment and observed the similar patterns of debris. The new findings will be published Thursday in the journal Physical Review Letters.

“Everything is perfect,” said Krzysztof Rykaczewski, a scientist at Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee who was a member of the confirmation team.

The experiment also provided additional confirmation of earlier claims for element 113, which also has not yet been added to the periodic table, Dr. Rykaczewski said. In the first decay, element 115 turned into element 113 while emitting a chunk known as an alpha particle.

The Russian-American team had already replicated its own results, but, “it’s always better when someone else does it,” Dr. Rykaczewski said.

To create the element, calcium nuclei were fired into a target containing americium atoms. Occasionally, a calcium and an americium merged together, creating a new atom with 115 protons in its nucleus. Then, in less than a second, it fell apart. The researchers deduced its existence from the pieces of debris.

In addition, for the first time, the researchers observed an X-ray “fingerprint” emitted during the decay, which provided more direct evidence that the initial atom contained 115 protons.

Dirk Rudolph, a professor of nuclear physics at Lund University, said he was “most satisfied” that the team had created the element. “Mother Nature has not been as kind as she could have been,” he said.

The number of observed X-rays — just two — was too few to be definitive, but “we obviously show the feasibility of such experiments,” he said.

If the new data proves convincing, the Russian and American scientists who made the original discovery would be given the opportunity to name the element, a process that would take months.

Just last year, the overseers of the periodic table acceded to the addition of elements 114 and 116 as flerovium and livermorium, more than a decade after they were first made. The elements 117 and 118 have also been claimed, but not yet confirmed.

The study of superheavy atoms — which are unstable chemical elements with atomic numbers greater than 92 — help scientists better understand the basic forces that hold matter together.

Proposed names for the two new elements

Monday, August 26, 2013

Dominion Astrophysical Observatory

The 1.83-metre Plaskett Telescope of the Dominion Astrophysical Observatory.

"Federal budget cuts to close renowned astronomy centre"

Stephen Hume

August 23rd, 2013

Vancouver Sun Columnist

There are people, as Oscar Wilde famously said, who know the price of everything but the value of nothing.

So, with that in mind, I made my way to the top of Little Saanich Mountain last weekend to bid a bittersweet farewell to The Centre of the Universe, due to close its doors at the end of August, one of the least deserving victims of Ottawa’s spending cuts.

The Centre of the Universe is the low-budget but high-yield — at least in public goodwill for the sciences — interpretive centre that was launched just over a decade ago for the National Research Council at the Dominion Astrophysical Observatory and the Hertzberg Institute of Astrophysics, Canada’s leading centre for astronomical research.

The centre runs summer astronomy camps, provides engaging instructional support for all grade levels up to Grade 12 physics, hosts public lectures, provides internships for students, and is deeply engaged with the 145-year-old Royal Astronomical Society of Canada, the association of science amateurs that is recognized for many important contributions to observational research and education.

I wrote about the centre when it opened in 2001. I even took my 11-year-old daughter up for one of the centre’s “Star Parties,” a sleepover for kids that introduced them to the Perseids meteor shower with tours, sky-watching, a late-night movie, snacks and breakfast, all for $35.

She had a great evening and so did I, watching the immense Plaskett Telescope, once the world’s biggest, rotate to give us brief looks at deep space objects too dim to see, all enhanced into spectacular pictures by the high-tech digital imaging.

Inside, interactive displays let kids pick up a meteorite, experiment with the refraction of light, play with the spectrum and the Doppler Effect, and correct the curve of a telescope lens to eliminate star twinkle, learning hands-on how these tools are used to study quasars, pulsars, black holes and the universe itself.

Other displays highlight the important contributions by Canadian astronomers, from John Plaskett’s discovery — right here in B.C. more than 70 years ago — of the structure of our galaxy to the contemporary work of John Kavelaars. He has an asteroid named after him, is responsible for the discovery of more than a dozen of Saturn’s moons, and is tracking objects in the outer solar system.

The place was packed last weekend for a lecture by Kavelaars on recent discoveries that give new insights into the formation of the solar system and what’s going on out there in the Kuiper Belt and the Oort Cloud. Those are clouds of orbiting debris from the solar system’s birth that still send us occasional comets, fireballs and the daily shower of 200 tonnes of ice and dust upon our planet.

Since 1980, the Plaskett Telescope has been a key tool for Spaceguard, an international team of scientists identifying and calculating orbits for more than a thousand asteroids larger than two football fields in diameter.

If one of these were to hit our corner of the earth — and one does strike the planet every 10,000 years or so — it would blast millions of tonnes of molten rock out of a crater deeper than a 500-storey building, drop white-hot ash back over a 150-km radius, ignite all the forests on the coast, and send a 100-metre-high tsunami across the Pacific and more than 20 kilometres inland in low-lying areas.

Already, scientists are at work studying what might be done to deflect such an object from striking Earth, so this kind of research is both practical and of public interest.

Killing such valuable public outreach at such a high-profile science facility seems a classic example of what my mother would call penny-wise, pound-foolish thinking.

Or we could put it another way:

The cost savings to the federal government by closing the Centre of the Universe public outreach and educational facility will be about $250,000 a year. Three high-profile Harper government senators are currently being investigated for about $260,000 in allegedly improper expense claims. And the cost for keeping the centre open for 18 months is about the same as for one full-day’s use of Ottawa’s VIP aircraft.

The federal minister responsible for the National Research Council is our own James Moore, B.C.’s lead minister in the Harper cabinet.

’Nuff said.

From Canada Under the Stars...

"The Dominion Astrophysical Observatory"

The first Canadian observatory of international calibre, it once housed the largest telescope in the world.

The Dominion Astrophysical Observatory was inaugurated in 1918 at Saanich near Victoria, British Columbia. Its creation was motivated by the growing need of Canadian astronomers to have access to a large world-class telescope. The observatory immediately achieved international status by housing a 1.83-metre telescope that was the largest operating telescope in the world, although it only held this title for a few months.

The installation of the telescope was largely the work of celebrated Canadian astronomer John Stanley Plaskett, and the instrument was baptized the “Plaskett Telescope” in his honour. It measured 15 metres long and its mobile parts weighed 42 tonnes.

Plaskett became the first Director of the Dominion Astrophysical Observatory and helped it establish an international research reputation very early on. In 1922, for example, he discovered a binary star and the larger of the two still holds the record as the most massive known binary star. This celestial body bears the name of “Plaskett’s Star” in his honour.

During subsequent years, Plaskett established the radial velocities of several stars (that is, the speed at which the stars are moving away or toward the observer) and demonstrated that our galaxy, the Milky Way, is rotating. He was also the first to measure the size, mass and rotational The 1.83-metre Plaskett Telescope of the Dominion Astrophysical Observatory.speed of the Milky Way. He also established that the Sun is located at 2/3 the distance from the centre of our galaxy to its edge, and that our solar system takes approximately 22 million years to complete one galaxial rotation.

In 1940, the Dominion Astrophysical Observatory was the site of two other major discoveries. Andrew McKellar, one of the observatory’s astronomers, became the first researcher to detect the presence of matter in interstellar space when he identified the spectral bands for the organic compounds cyanogen (“CN”) and methyne (“CH”). One year later, in 1941, he determined the temperature of the cyanogen molecules and deduced that the interstellar environment in which they are found is very cold, approximately -270 °C. It was the first direct measurement of the temperature of the Universe.

In 1962, the observatory acquired a second telescope measuring 1.22 metres in diameter. Equipped with only a spectroscope, it was mainly used to study binary stars.

In 1970, the responsibility of the observatory was conferred to the National Research Council of Canada.

In 1981, the observatory received a third telescope measuring 40 centimetres across. It was primarily used for scientific research, notably the study of gas clouds in our galaxy (the Milky Way), and to test instruments destined for large telescopes. Today it is used to show the sky to the general public.

In 1995, the observatory became the headquarters for the Herzberg Institute of Astrophysics, which operates several telescopes (optical and radio) in Canada and shares many others with various countries elsewhere in the world, including the Canada-France-Hawaii Telescope and the Gemini telescopes.

In 2001, the observatory inaugurated an interpretation centre open to the general public all year long and affectionately named “The Centre of the Universe”. It includes a small planetarium and offers interactive displays, multimedia presentations and special events designed to introduce people from all walks of life to the world of astronomy.

Over the years, new instruments were added and many technical improvements were made to the Plaskett Telescope, the observatory’s main telescope. Today, the Dominion Astrophysical Observatory is the responsibility of the National Research Council of Canada’s Herzberg Institute of Astrophysics.

Deceased--Lance Osadchey

Lance Osadchey
October 3rd, 1938 to August 5th, 2013

This is one of those situations when getting older is really painful...the demise of a friend and colleague. I met Lance when I was the senior moderator of a physics website in a collective chat room some ten years ago. Immediately we were sparing about science and philosophical concepts. Our main arena of debate was neurons and freewill. This was a proverbial can of worms where neither side was swayed by evidence or philosophical thought. Later on I provided the graphics for Lance's Velador amateur science project that contradicted known physics.. I never really understood his ideas, but assisted him nevertheless.


Lance Osadchey, 74, of Bradford died August 5, 2013 at his home surrounded by his family. Lance grew up on a farm in Upstate New York. When he was 15 years old he went to college at Syracuse University where he was a bowman and his team won the IRA National Championship for the Freshman Crew Team. Later he went on to medical school at Syracuse. After becoming a Doctor, he served as a Captain Battalion Surgeon for the 82nd Airborne Division of the US Army Paratroopers. Dr. Osadchey served his patients in the Emergency Room and in his private practices in Connecticut and Vermont with his intelligence, thoroughness and humor. Lance enjoyed the company of his best companion, Shadow. He enjoyed music, especially Rock in Roll and his friends in the band 8084. In his fifteen years of retirement he skied, created and patented the Velador, worked on his experiments, played chess with his friends and wrote several books. He enjoyed the company of his children, Mark, Tanya and Kerstin; their spouses Karen, Sean and Jeff; his grandchildren, Miranda, Jack, Reilly, Phoebe, Trevor, Savanna and Landon; his dog Zephyr and his brother Bruce Osadchey and his family.

Who Turns The Light?

ISBN-10: 1418413836
ISBN-13: 978-1418413835

This book highlights an experiment thought to be novel and unique. Included is the logic behind the experiment. Confirmation of the experiment remains to be done by high school physic classes as well as larger institutional analysis. The author believes there is much more to derive from the principles developed by this work. His hope is all science will benefit.

A review...

The author reports on an experiment evincing anomalous behavior of coherent (laser) light. The setup is simple enough to reproduce, however the author's hypotheses run counter to current theories of physics. It is posited that photons are massless, which would require an alternate explanation for the photoelectric effect (it is the momentum of a photon that knocks electrons lose), and that photons upon leaving their source do not share the velocity of the issuing frame, in contravention of the Special Theory of Relativity.

Algebra II--dead?

"Nicholson Baker Argues that Algebra II Shouldn’t Be a Required Course"

August 19th, 2013

Harper’s Magazine

Young people, rejoice, you have a friend in Nicholson Baker (though we do recommend you wait a couple more years before reading his novels). Baker feels your pain — the pain of Algebra II, which, he argues in the September issue of Harper’s Magazine, should be kept out of the Common Core. Students, he writes, “are forced, repeatedly, to stare at hairy, square-rooted, polynomialed horseradish clumps of mute symbology that irritates them, that stop them in their tracks, that they can’t understand.”

Baker calls the course textbook, Algebra 2 Common Core, “a highly efficient engine for the creation of math rage: a dead scrap heap of repellent terminology, a collection of spiky, decontextualized, multistep mathematical black-box techniques that you must practice over and over and get by heart in order to be ready to do something interesting later on, when the time comes.”

He speaks with many who agree with him, even people who are proficient with algorithms. “I’m a math guy, it’s not like I’m some fuzzy-headed humanist,” education reformer Grant Wiggins tells Baker. “You don’t need algebra for the majority of jobs. You need it for the burgeoning field of high-tech, but that’s not all the jobs. I just don’t get it.”

“Good heavens, no,” number theorist Underwood Dudley replies when asked by Baker if Algebra II should be required of all high schoolers. “Forcing people to take mathematics is just terrible. We shouldn’t do it.” Dudley believes that a silent majority of math teachers share this opinion. Steven Strogatz, a mathematician at Cornell, calls for the amount of math to be diminished, and for what is taught to be made more meaningful for the average child. “As someone who is working on the front lines,” he tells Baker, “it’s alarming to me, and discouraging that year after year I see such a large proportion of people really not learning anything — and just suffering while they’re doing it. We spend a lot of time avalanching students with answers to things that they wouldn’t think of asking.”

Baker agrees that less is more. He proposes “a new, one-year teaser course for ninth graders, which would briefly cover a few techniques of algebraic manipulation, some mind stretching geometric proofs, some nifty things about parabolas and conic sections, and even perhaps a soft-core hint of the infinitesimal, change-explaining powers of calculus. Throw in some scatter plots and data analysis, a touch of mathematical logic, and several representative topics in math history and math appreciation.”

Apparently nixing Algebra II is a touchy subject. Dudley warns Baker that he will get in trouble for writing about it. “The entire math department at the University of Tennessee stopped speaking to me,” said Michael Smith of the response to a book he wrote questioning the practical necessity of higher math in schools. “You’ve got a very tough subject to tackle,” says Michael Wiener, who wrote a book about the national obsession with college-prep math courses. “I feel sorry for you. It’s like quicksand. The more you get into this, the more you’ll sink.”

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

An eye on European universities...a viable alternative

"College: It's not just 'Made in the U.S.A.'"

With rising tuition and dropping acceptance rates at many U.S. colleges and universities, it's time to consider Europe.


Aaron Rosen

August 20th, 2013

Los Angeles Times

For many college students, the semester abroad has become a rite of passage. But while many Americans study abroad for a semester or two, it is a rarity for high schoolers to apply outside the United States for their bachelor's degree. As many California universities hope to attract foreign students, who pay higher tuition, it's worth asking whether the state's students might find some advantages in looking abroad for a university. With rising tuition and dropping acceptance rates at many colleges and universities in the state, it's high time to think outside the quad.

There used to be practical impediments. Many European universities did not know how to assess the achievements of U.S. students, who usually study more subjects and take fewer standardized tests than their European counterparts. However, over the last decade, many European universities have recognized that Americans represent an untapped demographic of academic talent and relatively deep pockets.

Let's just take the example of British universities, which have made it particularly straightforward for Americans to apply. Although Oxford and Cambridge remain special cases with their own hurdles, many universities now accept either advanced placement tests or a combination of SATs and SAT subject exams alongside a standardized national application form.

There are distinct advantages to applying to colleges abroad. The admissions process in America has become a mutant version of the "Hunger Games," in which students grapple against their peers for a single spot in a liberal arts college, convinced by parents and guidance counselors that their survival rests on playing one more musical instrument or varsity sport.

Students applying outside the U.S. not only bypass this rat race, they also radically increase their chances of getting into a better university. Instead of jostling for places at mid-range American universities, which now have the luxury of admitting fewer and fewer students, applicants can apply to top-flight European institutions as a coveted international student.

Perhaps most important, universities abroad can be dramatically more affordable than private colleges in America. A typical top-tier U.S. liberal arts college costs about $55,000 to $60,000 a year, including room and board. Even taking into account the increased cost of living and higher tuition rate for non-European Union students, American students would pay roughly $25,000 less a year to attend a university of equivalent stature in Britain. And students can still avail themselves of U.S. federal loans, even while studying outside the U.S.

The real kicker is that most British bachelor's degrees typically require only three years instead of four for graduation, saving both time and money. Without financial assistance, the cumulative savings for a British versus American bachelor's degree then leaps to about $130,000. Moreover, because many British master's degree programs are only one year, Americans who choose to remain in Britain can earn their bachelor's and master's degrees in the same time it takes their peers at home to claim their bachelor's, or less time, given the increasing tendency of U.S. students to graduate in five years.

Students with clearly defined passions will enjoy the focus of British degrees, which usually center on one or two subjects from the start rather than the assortment of offerings in a typical liberal arts degree. But for those who seek a liberal arts education, Britain also offers possibilities. As noted in a report released in June by the American Academy of Arts and Sciences: "At the very moment when China and some European nations are seeking to replicate our model of broad education in the humanities, social sciences, and natural sciences ... we are instead narrowing our focus and abandoning our sense of what education has been and should continue to be."
This international surge is even more emphatic than the report imagines. Just in Britain alone, there are now liberal arts degrees in the Universities of Exeter, Winchester, Birmingham, Kent, University College London and King's College London, with more in the works.

Increasingly, it looks as though the best, cheapest and quickest place to get an American-style education may be in Europe. Of course, a British university is not the right choice for everyone. Where American liberal arts colleges frequently sport massive campuses and shimmering facilities, British universities can be more timeworn and eclectic. And where American collegiate life can often feel like summer camp, undergraduate life in Britain is invariably less spoon-fed. But for the adventurous, mature student, it can be a perfect fit.

[Aaron Rosen is a lecturer in theology and the arts at King's College London, where he helped design the liberal arts degree. He has taught previously at Columbia, Oxford and Yale universities.]

Dangerous but tethered...Rose Powell and Flame Brewer


Rose Powell and Flame Brewer

BBC NEWS [August 21st, 2013]...

Rose Powell and Flame Brewer, both 9, took to the skies over Gloucestershire on Wednesday.

Encouraged by their grandfather, who is a professional pilot, they undertook the record attempt to help raise awareness of Duchenne Muscular Dystrophy.

Monday, August 19, 2013

Einstein, blackholes, and "firewalls"

"New York Times Wants to Fight Einstein, Einstein Declines"


Matthew R. Francis

August 14th, 2013


The Albert Einstein of the popular imagination can seem a bit like Scott Pilgrim, forced into battle with new theories and young physicists. Whether he's pitted against experiments finding faster-than-light neutrinos (a result that turned out to be spurious) or fighting possible alternatives to his theory of gravity, you'd be forgiven for thinking that physics is Albert Einstein vs. the World.

The wild-haired German's latest foe comes to us courtesy of a story in the New York Times by Dennis Overbye [below]. The very first sentence reads: “This time, they say, Einstein might really be wrong.” Specifically, a debate over the nature of black holes could challenge “the basis of his general theory of relativity … on which our understanding of the universe is based.”

Sounds dire, no? Poor Einstein could be refuted at last, more than 50 years after his death, his legacy shredded by the very black holes his theory predicted. But this framing presents a distorted view of the process of science.

Overbye discusses an ongoing debate between researchers in an esoteric corner of theoretical physics, dealing with the quantum character of black holes. The so-called “firewall debate” is real and potentially important for our understanding of the intersection of quantum physics and gravity. It involves questions about the destruction (or not) of information inside black holes, the creation of new particles at the surface of a black hole, and possibly the nature of space-time in the limit of very strong gravity.

In brief, the general theory of relativity predicts the existence of black holes. If a mass is dense enough, it will be surrounded by an event horizon: a barrier beyond which nothing can escape, including light. Event horizons for practical purposes define what a black hole is, since no experiment can probe inside them. From general relativity alone, an observer falling into a black hole wouldn't notice passing the event horizon. However, if you include heuristic calculations from quantum theory, the energy at the event horizon is high enough to generate pairs of particles and their antimatter partners. The effect could create a “firewall,” a violent region that would destroy anything passing through it on its way into the black hole.

Firewalls create a paradox, though. If they exist, they potentially violate the central tenet of general relativity—the equivalence principle—or they cause problems for the conservation of information, an important principle in quantum physics. It's deep stuff, even for someone like me trained in general relativity and quantum field theory; I recommend reading these explanations by Jennifer Ouellette for Scientific American and by Zeeya Merali for Nature.

However, it's important that we not overstate the potential implications. Even if general relativity is violated by firewalls, the theory still holds in a vast majority of other situations. Newtonian gravity is used for most applications in astronomy, from planet orbits to the structure of galaxies; general relativity explains why Newtonian gravity works in those contexts, so we're OK with using the simpler theory. Nobody sensible believes general relativity is the last word on gravity, if for no other reason than we lack a complete quantum theory of gravity. If firewalls point to a new theory, we'll likely still use Einstein's theory in the domains where it works, just as we use Newton's.

Newer theories supplant older ones conceptually, but every theory is provisional, constantly tested by experiments and observations. Einstein, important as he was in 20th-century physics, is not the ultimate authority even on his own theories, and refinements to his work should not be framed as proving him right or wrong. Rather than saying things like “Einstein survives to fight another day” or “[throwing] Einstein under the bus,” as Overbye does, we should frame scientific discovery as a process, not a clash between people. Black hole firewalls are part of the process, which ultimately won't be settled by debate. Let's let Einstein sit this one out.

"A Black Hole Mystery Wrapped in a Firewall Paradox"


Denis Overbye

August 12th, 2013

The New York Times

This time, they say, Einstein might really be wrong.

A high-octane debate has broken out among the world’s physicists about what would happen if you jumped into a black hole, a fearsome gravitational monster that can swallow matter, energy and even light. You would die, of course, but how? Crushed smaller than a dust mote by monstrous gravity, as astronomers and science fiction writers have been telling us for decades? Or flash-fried by a firewall of energy, as an alarming new calculation seems to indicate?

This dire-sounding debate has spawned a profusion of papers, blog posts and workshops over the last year. At stake is not Einstein’s reputation, which is after all secure, or even the efficacy of our iPhones, but perhaps the basis of his general theory of relativity, the theory of gravity, on which our understanding of the universe is based. Or some other fundamental long-established principle of nature might have to be abandoned, but physicists don’t agree on which one, and they have been flip-flopping and changing positions almost weekly, with no resolution in sight.

“I was a yo-yo on this,” said one of the more prolific authors in the field, Leonard Susskind of Stanford. He paused and added, “I haven’t changed my mind in a few months now.”
Raphael Bousso, a theorist at the University of California, Berkeley, said, “I’ve never been so surprised. I don’t know what to expect.”

You might wonder who cares, especially if encountering a black hole is not on your calendar. But some of the basic tenets of modern science and of Einstein’s theory are at stake in the “firewall paradox,” as it is known.

“It points to something missing in our understanding of gravity,” said Joseph Polchinski, of the Kavli Institute for Theoretical Physics in Santa Barbara, Calif., one of the theorists who set off this confusion.

Down this rabbit hole are many of the jazzy magical mysteries of modern physics: Black holes. The shortcuts through space and time called wormholes. Quantum entanglement, also known as spooky action at a distance, in which particles separated by light-years can still instantaneously appear to remain connected. The reward for going down this hole could be a new understanding of why we think we live in a universe with space and time at all, with suitably unpredictable consequences. After all, if Einstein hadn’t been troubled a century ago by logical inconsistencies in the Newtonian universe, we might not have GPS systems, which rely on his theory of general relativity to keep time, in our pockets today.

Falling Bodies

Black holes are the most extreme predictions of Einstein’s theory, which describes how matter and energy warp the geometry of space and time the way a heavy sleeper causes a mattress to sag. Too much matter and energy in one place could cause space to sag so far that the matter inside it would disappear as if behind a magician’s cloak, collapsing endlessly to a point of infinite density known as a singularity. Einstein thought that idea was ridiculous when it was pointed out to him at the time, in 1916, but today astronomers agree that the universe is speckled with such dark monsters, including beasts lurking in the hearts of most galaxies that are millions and billions of time more massive than the Sun. Many of them resulted from the collapse of dead stars.

General relativity is based on what Einstein later called his “happiest thought,” that a freely falling person would not feel his weight. It is known simply as the equivalence principle; it says that empty space looks the same everywhere and to everyone.

One consequence of this principle is that an astronaut would not feel anything special happening when he fell through the point of no return, known as the event horizon, into a black hole. Like a bungee jumper, he would feel weightless then and all the way until he hit the bottom, which could take seconds or years depending on how big the hole was, and he would be stretched like a noodle by tidal forces and then crushed into a speck. At the event horizon there would be “no drama,” in the lexicon — at least in the physical sense, as opposed to the intellectual trauma of knowing you were not ever going home. Things or people went in, they got crushed to infinite density and disappeared. That was the traditional view of black holes.

Things got more interesting, however, in 1974 when Stephen Hawking, the British cosmologist, stunned the world by showing that when the paradoxical quantum laws that describe subatomic behavior were taken into account, black holes would leak particles and radiation, and in fact eventually explode, although for a hole the mass of a star it would take longer than the age of the universe.

This was a breakthrough in combining general relativity, the gravity that curves the cosmos, with quantum theory, which describes the microscopic quirkiness inside it, but there was a big hitch. Dr. Hawking concluded that the radiation coming from a black hole would be completely random, conveying no information about what had fallen into it. When the black hole finally exploded, all that information would be erased from the universe forever. “God not only plays dice with the universe,” Dr. Hawking said in 1976 in a riposte to Einstein’s famous doubts about the randomness of quantum theory, “he sometimes throws them where they can’t be seen.”

Particle physicists cried foul, saying that this violated a basic tenet of modern science and of quantum theory, that information is always preserved. From the material in the smoke and flames of a burning book, for example, one could figure out whether it was the Bible or the Kama Sutra; the same should be true of the fizz and pop of black holes, these physicists argued. A 30-year controversy ensued.

It was front-page news in 2004 when Dr. Hawking finally said that he had been wrong, and paid off a bet.

The Firewall Paradox

Now, however, some physicists say that Dr. Hawking might have conceded too soon. “He had good reason,” said Dr. Polchinski, “but he gave up for the wrong reason.” Nobody, he explained, had yet figured out exactly how information does get out of a black hole.

That was the task that four researchers based in Santa Barbara — Ahmed Almheiri, Donald Marolf, and James Sully, all from the University of California, Santa Barbara, and Dr. Polchinski of the Kavli Institute set themselves a year ago. The team (called AMPS, after their initials) found, to their surprise, that following the known laws of physics would lead to a contradiction, the firewall paradox.

Their calculations showed that having information flowing out of a black hole was incompatible with having an otherwise smooth Einsteinian space-time at its boundary, the event horizon. In its place would be a discontinuity in the vacuum that would manifest itself as energetic particles — a “firewall” — lurking just inside the black hole.

Being incinerated as you entered a black hole would certainly contradict Einstein’s dictum of no drama. If this were true, you would in fact die long before the bungee-jumping ride ever got anywhere close to the bottom. The existence of a firewall would mean that the horizon, which according to general relativity is just empty space, is a special place, pulling the rug out from under Einstein’s principle, his theory of gravity, and modern cosmology, which is based on general relativity. This presented the scientists with what Dr. Bousso calls the "menu from hell."  If the firewall argument was right, one of three ideas that lie at the heart and soul of modern physics, had to be wrong. Either information can be lost after all; Einstein’s principle of equivalence is wrong; or quantum field theory, which describes how elementary particles and forces interact, is wrong and needs fixing. Abandoning any one of these would be revolutionary or appalling or both.

Dr. Polchinski was very surprised by the result. “It seemed like such a simple argument that it must have been considered and resolved earlier,” he said. After trying to kill it by talking to colleagues in Santa Barbara, he e-mailed Dr. Susskind of Stanford, an old hand at black holes and information, expecting that Dr. Susskind would point out the error.

“But after a week or two of disbelief,” Dr. Polchinski said, “he was as confused as we” were.

Dr. Susskind said: “The arguments are very clear. Nobody knew what to make of them.”

Quantum Vows

The firewall argument hinges on one of the weirder aspects of quantum physics, the action called entanglement. As Einstein, Boris Podolsky and Nathan Rosen pointed out in 1935, quantum theory predicts that a pair of particles can be connected in such a way that measuring a property of one — its direction of spin, say — will immediately affect the results of measuring the other one, even if it is light-years away.

Einstein used this “spooky action at a distance” to suggest the absurdity of quantum mechanics, but such experiments are now done in labs every day. You can’t use it to send a message faster than light, because the correlation shows up only when the two experimenters get together and compare their respective results. But it plays a crucial role in quantum computing and cryptography — and, it turns out, in explaining how information encoded in the Hawking radiation gets out of a black hole.

Consider two particles (let’s call them Bob and Alice) that have been radiated by a black hole. Bob left it eons ago, as it began leaking radiation; quantum entanglement theory dictates that in order for the black hole to keep track of what information it has been transmitting, Bob out there has to be entangled with Alice, who just left.

But that scenario competes with another kind of entanglement, between particles on either side of the event horizon, the black hole’s boundary. If space is indeed smooth, as Einstein postulated, and if quantum field theory is correct, Alice must be entangled with another particle, Ted, who is just inside the black hole.

But quantum theory forbids promiscuous entanglements. In the language of quantum information, Alice can marry either Bob or Ted, but not both, even if the second marriage happens inside the black hole where most of us can’t see it.

Alice should have a consistent explanation of the universe, Dr. Polchinski explained, “just as we ourselves must, even though we are inside the cosmic horizon.”

And so smoke pours from the AMPS group’s computers and has continued to pour from the particle accelerators of the mind, fueled by coffee and blackboard chalk this last year. Firewall or not? Does information live or die? Is Einstein at last wrong? Experiments would not help, even if we had a black hole in a laboratory, because the putative firewall, if it exists, would be just inside where it can’t be seen safely.

At a firewall workshop this winter, John Preskill, a Caltech theorist who won a bet with Dr. Hawking on the randomness of information from a black hole, declared that physicists were back where they had been 40 years ago.

The Menu From Hell

Dr. Bousso said his first response to the AMPS paper was, “Come on, you gotta be kidding me.” He added, “Everybody goes through their stages of grief.”

About 40 papers have been devoted to firewalls in the last year, and more are on the way. Daniel Harlow of Princeton and Patrick Hayden of McGill University suggested that the issue might be moot; the computation necessary to verify that Alice and Bob are entangled could take longer than the age of the universe and the black hole would evaporate in the meantime, making it impossible ever to go inside and experience the contradiction.

Failing that, which of the items on Dr. Bousso’s “menu from hell” might have to go depends on who is speaking.

In some ways, it would be easiest to give up quantum field theory, which describes what empty space should look like, in the case of someone who is being accelerated, perhaps by gravity pulling him down a black hole. After all, quantum theory, with “virtual” particles flitting in and out of existence and spooky entanglements is already strange. On the other hand, as Ed Witten of the Institute for Advanced Study, who has so far watched the firewall debate from a distance, said, “Quantum field theory is how the world works.” It had a major triumph just a year ago, when the Higgs boson, a subatomic particle responsible for the mass of other subatomic particles, was discovered after a 40-year search, at the Large Hadron Collider at CERN.

Meanwhile, physicists have more reason than ever to think that information cannot be lost. A celebrated 1997 paper by Juan M. Maldacena of the Institute for Advanced Study describes nature as a kind of hologram, in which the information about what happens inside a volume of three-dimensional space, for example, is encoded in quantum equations on its two-dimensional boundary, the way a 3-D image is encoded on the face of your bank card.

Mark Van Raamsdonk, a young theorist at the University of British Columbia, likes to use a spookier analogy to describe this, namely the chip that controls a Matrix-like video game. (Feel free to insert your own woo-woo music here.)

The discovery that the information needed to describe what happens in some volume is proportional to the area enclosing that volume is the strangest and most far-reaching consequence of Dr. Hawking’s discovery that black holes explode, and is still wreathed in mystery.

Dr. Maldacena’s universe is often portrayed like a can of soup, in which galaxies, black holes, gravity, stars and so forth, including us, are the soup inside, while the information to describe them resides, like a label, on the outside. Think of it as gravity in a can. The equations that represent the label are deterministic and there is no room in them for information to be lost, implying that information in the universe inside is also preserved.

Which leaves the firewall as the only way to stop the illegal marriage of Alice and Ted, Dr. Polchinski said — an odious solution because it contravenes the basic principle of general relativity.

He pointed out, however, that in a sense physicists had already thrown Einstein under the bus. In Dr. Maldacena’s holographic universe, considered to be the last word on quantum gravity, the dimensions of space-time do not seem to matter. “We’ve known for years that space-time is not fundamental,” Dr. Polchinski said. “General relativity is not fundamental.”

He went on, “space-time is emergent. Gravity is emergent. Maybe sometimes it doesn’t always emerge.”

Einstein’s Revenge

But if space and time and gravity are not fundamental, what is?

Recently a new way of solving the firewall conundrum and of answering that haunting question has attracted a lot of attention, although no consensus. Dr. Maldacena and Dr. Susskind have proposed that Einstein could come to his own rescue via one more far-out notion in modern physics: wormholes.

In 1935 Einstein and Rosen found that, mathematically anyway, black holes could come in pairs connected by shortcuts through space — then known as Einstein-Rosen bridges, now known as wormholes. A wormhole would not be traversable by any means we now know about, ruling out time travel and other violations of relativity, despite the dreams of science fiction writers and interstellar pioneers.

In 2010, Dr. Van Raamsdonk of British Columbia suggested that such wormholes were the geometric manifestations of quantum entanglement. After all, neither of these phenomena, which seemed to transcend local space, could be used for sending direct messages. Brian Swingle at M.I.T. had made a similar suggestion a year earlier.

In effect, what these theorists were saying was that without the phenomenon of entanglement, space-time would have no structure at all. Or as Dr. Maldacena put it, “Spooky action at a distance creates space-time.” If true, this insight would be a step toward a longtime dream of theorists of explaining how space and time emerge from some more basic property of reality, in this case, bits of quantum information. The theorist John Wheeler, of Princeton, who had coined the term “black hole,” called this concept “it from bit.”

Taking this idea seriously, Dr. Maldacena and Dr. Susskind proposed that a similar kind of wormhole arrangement existed between the black hole in the AMPS case and its Hawking radiation. Instead of a tunnel snaking through hyperspace and opening at the maw of another black hole, the wormhole would split into a zillion spaghetti-like strands ending on each of the pieces of Hawking radiation. That would mean that Bob, the Hawking particle in the cartoon version of the theory mentioned above, might be light years away from the event horizon, but he would still be connected to the interior of the black hole, as if there were a doorway in New Jersey that opened up into a basement in Manhattan.

Because of this wormhole connection, Dr. Maldacena explained, “Ted and Bob are the same.” So the result is sort of like the happy ending of one of those screwball romantic comedies that involve mistaken identity and the handsome vagabond turns out to be the prince in disguise; Alice can marry Ted who is really Bob and the bonds of matrimony extend smoothly across the edge of the black hole.

In that case, then, there is no firewall, no contradiction in the laws of physics. And Einstein survives to fight another day.

“If right, this is clearly a major insight into gravity and quantum mechanics,” an enthusiastic Dr. Susskind said. “I think of it as a very dramatic thing,” he said, noting that long after Einstein’s career was presumed to be over, at 56, “he produced these ideas” of entanglement and wormholes having no idea they were connected.

“The man keeps giving.”

But Einstein is not safe yet.

“At first whiff,” Dr. Preskill wrote in a recent blog post, the Maldacena-Susskind conjecture “may smell fresh and sweet, but it will have to ripen on the shelf for a while.” He added, “For now, wormhole lovers can relish the possibilities.”

Entangled Theories

Dr. Maldacena and Dr. Susskind admit that the wormhole hypothesis is still a work in progress. Few of their colleagues are convinced yet that it has been formulated in sufficient detail, let alone that it can solve the firewall paradox. “All I can say,” Dr. Susskind said in an e-mail on the eve of a firewall workshop next week at the Kavli Institute where wormholes and everything else will surely be scrutinized, “is that no one has a completely solid case and that certainly includes me. Time will tell.”
Dr. Polchinski said, “My current thinking is that all the arguments that we are having are the kind of arguments that you make when you don’t have a theory.” We need a more complete theory of gravity, he concluded.

“Maybe ‘space-time from entanglement’ is the right place to start,”
he wrote. “I am not sure.”

Dr. Bousso, who has been e-mailing with Dr. Maldacena, is skeptical that the wormholes will eliminate firewalls. “My own view is that it’s time to move on, accept, and actually understand firewalls,” he said. After all, he added, there’s no principle of nonviolence in the universe, except for Einstein’s equivalence principle, which says the black hole’s horizon is not a special place. But maybe it is, after all.

Meanwhile, Dr. Bousso said, the present debate had raised his estimation, “by another few notches,” of the “stupendous magnitude” of Dr. Hawking’s original discovery of the information paradox.

"The firewall paradox,” he said, “tells us that the conceptual cost of getting information back out of a black hole is even more revolutionary than most of us had believed.”