Random Thoughts on the Universe

Monday, June 21, 2010

Neutrinos are Weird

Perhaps we already knew that they were weird, but they are getting weirder as more data is published. Several years ago it was discovered that the three types of neutrino can change species. So if you produce an electron-type neutrino, a few km away it becomes a muon-type neutrino, and maybe later changes into a tau-type neutrino. The neutrino is perhaps the only fundamental particle that can do this trick.

Well it got worse this week. The MINOS experiments has been measuring the oscillations of muon neutrinos and anti-muon neutrinos. Theoretically they should give identical results, because every (confirmed) experimental data we have completed in the past shows matter and antimatter behave in the same way. (A few weeks ago Fermilab reported some differences in other reactions, but those seem to have been largely discredited now)
But MINOS has discovered a rather large discrepancy in the muon neutrino and anti-muon neutrino oscillation rates - a difference of about 40%.
The the MiniBOONE experiment, which was measuring the same thing, reported that they are seeing the exact same effect, but with slightly different neutrino reactions.

Obviously more data is going to be needed, but this is an interesting prelinary finding.

Friday, June 11, 2010

An Academic Boycott!

Today's article is more of a news item and social commentary, so those who are only interested in science or mathematics can skip this one...

I saw this article today and thought it was worth repeating and expanding on. It concerns the treatment of academics by the Nature Publishing Group, who are responsible for several scientific journals. (For the record, before any of this happened, I already disliked the Nature publication for its low standards and often vapid content)

The Nature Publishing Group has increased their prices by 400% this year, and so many universities cannot afford to subscribe to these magazines anymore. Normally this would just be a market support issue - if it doesn't sell then they must lower the prices. But this is academics, so it isn't that simple.

Many people don't understand how academic publishing works. As a scientist, I get paid to teach classes or sometimes through government grants for my work. The research I do is completely unpaid (unless I happen to have a sponsorship from the private sector, but that is rare).

When I have new results to present, I must write an article (for no pay) and send it to a journal. They then have another scientist review it (again for no pay) and suggest revisions. I make those revisions (you guessed it, for no pay) and then resubmit the article. When the reviewer and I finally agree on the final version it gets printed in the journal.

If I were a reporter, or a columnist, or any other type of author I would then get paid by the magazine. But as a scientist I get no pay. In fact a new trend has scientist required to pay the magazine to print their article!

The journal then sells the final article to the library at my university and thousands of other libraries around the world. Except the journal receives hundreds or thousands of dollars for the subscription.

So to recap, the authors are paid nothing. The reviewers who monitor the quality of the research receive nothing. The company that sells my work to my university receives thousands of dollars for my article...

Of course the publisher can't afford to keep raking in money for other people's hard work, so they have to raise their prices...

Boycott Nature!

Thursday, June 03, 2010

Titanic Lifeforms?

Have we perhaps seen the first signs of life on another planet - or at least a moon of a planet?

NASA/JPL has issued a press release suggesting exactly that. The Cassini spacecraft has been collecting data on the elemental composition of Titan, one of Saturn's moons. And what they have discovered could be interpreted in two ways....

The atmosphere of Titan seems to have less hydrogen than would be expected, and virtually no acetylene. The boring explanation is that some mineral or chemical on the surface has been catalyzing reactions that reduces the abundances of each. The more exciting possibility is that there is some form of methane-base life on the moon that is consuming the two substances.

A theoretical methane-based lifeform could use acetylene as a fuel source or food, comparable to plants on Earth taking minerals out of the ground. Such a lifeform could also breath hydrogen, leading to the reductions observed in the same way that animals on Earth consume oxygen.

Methane based life has never been observed on Earth, so if this is in fact a sign of life then it is a double discovery - both extraterrestrial and methane based. Of course a lot more research will be required to prove it is anything more than an interesting chemical reaction, but it does provide a fascinating possibility...

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