Saturday, March 16, 2013

Weekly Science Roundup #16

Whoa, a Weekly Science Roundup? When was the last time I did one of these?

Well, today I actually managed to have some time to get one of these together. Also, a lot of neat stuff's been happening this week, and I didn't want it all to go by unrecorded on here. I'm hoping to get back into these more regularly, but I can already say that next weekend, I won't be writing one. That's because next weekend I'll be here: the Boston Museum of Science's DINOSAUR DAY.

Anyway, on with the Roundup!

1. Higgs Boson Confirmed-ish

Last year, scientists discovered a particle which seemed to match the elusive Higgs boson, but it wasn't completely proven.

Now, after further experimentation, scientists are at least comfortable saying that this particle is a Higgs boson of some kind. Apparently, there are possibly many types of Higgs bosons. They're confident that they have some sort of Higgs boson, because the continuing tests show this particle has no spin and also has positive parity, both key traits of the Higgs boson. But whether it is the Higgs boson of the Standard Model remains to be seen. There are other ideas out there that go beyond the Standard Model. This is all news to me, and I'm still working out how to wrap my brain about it to explain it to anyone reading this blog.

To find out if it fits with the Standard Model, scientists will need to measure the rate that this particle decays and compare it to the predictions of the model. However, detecting a Higgs boson, as evident from how long it took just to discover the trace of one last year, takes a lot of time and effort. Moral of the story: it'll probably be a while before it's confirmed if this particle fits the Standard Model. But this is still a really cool step in the right direction.

2. Burgess Shale Fossil Pushes Acorn Worm Evolution Back 200 Million Years

Spartobranchus tenuis is a newly discovered fossil from the Burgess Shale and just reconfirms my love for that formation. Seriously.

This new worm-like critter is soft bodied, so finding it in fossil form is impressive enough, but to actually take a lineage and push it back in time 200 million Just think about that for a moment. Acorn worms are alive today, like primates. Primates originated around 60 million years ago. Imagine if we said, oh, primates were actually around 260 million years ago, not just 60 million years ago.

Anyhow, now that I'm done geeking out about how awesome the Burgess Shale is, let's go ahead an acknowledge that these things look yucky. Like it or not, they play a crucial role on the evolutionary tree. They aren't that far removed from the phylum Chordata, which is our own animal lineage. Being Hemichordates, acorn worms often come with a neural tube, which in Chordates, is the precursor to our central nervous system.

This fossil links two subsets of Hemichordates-- the Enteropneusta and the Pterobranchia. It answers long-held questions of their relationship, and sheds light on early animal evolution. Burgess Shale, you just continue to be awesome.

3. Chemical Fingerprints of Distant Solar System Detected for First Time

Using spectral imaging, astronomers have been able to learn the composition of the atmosphere of four exoplanets orbiting a dusty star, all at the same time.

Thanks to the Hale telescope and Project 1640, we've been able to learn about four planets all in one go, which is unprecedented. What was discovered is that all four planets are far too toxic to support life as we know it, and may actually be quite red in appearance. It also found that each of them was very different from one another, so there's a lot of work to be done to figure out why that might be.

In related news, one of the four planets was also recently imaged in insane-detail with spectroscopy on its own, by use of the Keck II telescope and the OSIRIS spectrograph. It revealed that this planet has a carbon to oxygen ratio that matches what we'd expect from a core-accretion-style solar system formation (the same model we hypothesize for our own solar system). Since it behaves somewhat similarly to our own solar system, save for having large planets, many scientists refer to it as a "scaled-up" version of our system.

With these improvements in detection methods, we should soon be able to start examining rocky planets orbiting other stars to determine if they are capable of sustaining life.

Things are getting interesting!

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