Saturday, June 23, 2012

Weekly Science Roundup #1

It's been an exciting week in science, so let's take a look at some of the biggest stories! 

1. Higgs Boson Discovered?!

Rumors are flying that there's going to be some sort of "major announcement" from CERN at the International Conference of High Energy Physics between July 4th and 11th. CERN (the European Organization for Nuclear Research) is in charge of the Large Hadron Collider, where scientists have been slamming proton beams together in an attempt to "coax out" and discover the last piece of the Standard Model of physics, aka the Higgs boson particle.

In the Standard Model, the Higgs boson interacts with all other particles and is essentially the reason other particles have mass. And while scientists have found the other particles of the Standard Model, the Higgs boson has been elusive. It should exist, but it has not yet been observed.

Or has it? I guess we'll all find out soon! I'm personally skeptical, because I've seen firsthand how sneaky the Higgs boson can be.

2. Tarbosaurus Skeleton Seized; Faith in Humanity Restored


The United States government has seized what is strongly suspected to be an illegally excavated Tarbosaurus bataar skeleton that sold at auction last month for over a million dollars. Paleontologists had examined this skeleton and realized that the story the "owner" stood by just didn't match what the bones themselves said. It was clear that this skeleton came out of Mongolia, where it is illegal to excavate and remove fossils from the country. Whether or not the guy who put it up for auction knew that these bones were illegally excavated and smuggled out is still unclear. Regardless, the auction was a horrible blow for paleontology, as it carried on despite overwhelming evidence that this skeleton was smuggled and should be immediately returned to Mongolia. Protests by those in the paleontological community kicked up around the auction both online and in person in front of the auction house in Manhattan. Those protests were ignored.

However, while the auction itself was not halted, a month later the U.S. government has put a stop to the sale and has taken the bones away to begin the process of investigating the situation and getting the bones back to Mongolia. PHEW. I can't begin to explain how relieved I am, and I'm sure others in the field of paleontology must be feeling. Fossil looting is our biggest enemy, and to see it rewarded with a million dollar auction sale was as painful as a bite from Tarbosaurus itself.

I think Mongolia President Elbegdorj Tsakhia said it best: "Today we send a message to looters all over the world: We will not turn a blind eye to the marketplace of looted fossils."

3. Asteroid Zoomed by Earth, Twice as Big as Expected

Credit: URSA

Asteroid 2012 LZ1 flew past our planet on June 14th, safely missing us by over 3 million miles. Safe as that distance was, however, this asteroid has raised some eyebrows.

First of all, it was only discovered four days before it flew past us. This was because it was visible from the Southern Hemisphere, where not only are there far fewer major observatories scanning the skies, there are just far fewer people looking for this sort of stuff. The science community was just reminded of an important lesson: asteroids have a 50% chance of coming in from the Northern Hemisphere, where everyone hangs out to look for asteroids, but THERE IS ALSO A 50% CHANCE THEY'D COME IN FROM THE SKIES OF THE SOUTHERN HEMISPHERE.

Second fun surprise: it turns out the asteroid is twice as large as originally thought. Asteroid 2012 LZ1 is actually over half a mile across. That's one big rock.

Now, it isn't a huge deal that the asteroid's size was so underestimated. It didn't hit Earth, and we knew it couldn't hit us. But this has taught us that our current methods for estimating asteroid sizes just don't cut it for asteroids like 2012 LZ1, which happen to have a very dark surface and reflect much less light than an average asteroid.

Yay for learning lessons?

I'm reminded of Professor Moody in all this. We really need to take that whole CONSTANT VIGILANCE! thing to heart.

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