There’s something strange out in space. Scientists know it’s there, but not what it is. We know about visible stars and planets, gas and dust, swirling around our beautiful spiral galaxy. The stars are all rotating about the center. It takes a long time. The last time the Solar System was in this part of its orbit was at the time of the Triassic-Jurassic extinction, 200 million years ago, at the beginning of the 50 million-year reign of the dinosaurs. But the rotation is puzzling. Something more is pulling us in and stopping the galaxy flying apart.
Carbon is necessary for all life. If the element carbon did not exist, scientists believe the universe would be sterile, no life anywhere. Among more than a hundred different chemical elements, only carbon has the atomic structure, with six electrons surrounding a nucleus with six protons, necessary to serve as the basis for such complex organisms. We take carbon for granted, but it is miraculous that it exists.
“Thousands upon thousands of years ago, at the dawn of human history, Stone Age men gazed at the moon and wondered just what it was.” Now we know. I can spell step, but it was STEM, namely science, technology, engineering and mathematics, that took Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin to the moon’s surface and back 50 years ago this month.
On April 10, the Event Horizon Telescope published an exciting image of that black hole. If no light can escape, how can it be seen? It cannot, not really. But that amazing image was made by cleverly combining signals from eight microwave telescopes spread over Earth, all recording signals from M87 at the same time for a few hours.
How would your life be different if the internet and the World Wide Web were switched off forever? You might nostalgically think life would be better, but it would surely be very different. Try throwing away your cell phones and computers! Last month, March, was the 30th anniversary of a note written at CERN by Tim Berners-Lee (now Sir Tim) titled “Information Management: A Proposal.” That was the origin of the World Wide Web.
Now that anybody can post anything on the internet, made up or not, it can get difficult to know the truth, posing great danger to society. As schoolkids we were conditioned to believe authority. If teacher said it, it is true; that’s how we learned in kindergarten. “There it is, in black and white, in a book.” Too many adults still believe that, with TV and computers replacing books.
In 10 million years, will any signs of humanity remain on Earth’s surface? Nobody knows; possibly all the evidence will have been erased or buried. But there are some artifacts of our technology that should still be intact, in good condition, even in 100 million years! These are the spacecraft that we humans have launched to explore the outer reaches of the solar system.
Chicago in January may feel like the coldest place in the universe, but it’s colder at the South Pole. Scientists there are looking out into space and observing microwaves that have been traveling at the speed of light for 13.6 billion years. Once they were ultraviolet rays, but as the universe expanded, their wavelengths stretched, and they became blue, then red, then infrared (heat) and now they are microwaves, which you may have in an oven in your kitchen. Radio waves have even longer wavelengths.
“Wait,” you may be thinking, “I thought this was a science column. What has science to do with peace?” Those who visit Fermilab or CERN, the European Laboratory for Particle Physics in Switzerland, understand. There are today many international scientific organizations, at least partly inspired by CERN’s success.