Astronomy Cast Ep. 395: The Standard Model – Baryons and Beyond

In the last few episodes, we’ve been talking about the standard model of physics, explaining what everything is made up of. But the reality is that we probably don’t know a fraction of how everything is put together. This week we’re going to talk about baryons, the particles made up of quarks. The most famous ones are the proton and the neutron, but that’s just the tip of the baryonic iceberg. And then we’re going to talk about where the standard model ends, and what’s next in particle physics.
Continue reading “Astronomy Cast Ep. 395: The Standard Model – Baryons and Beyond”

Astronomy Cast Ep. 393: The Standard Model – Leptons & Quarks

Physicists are getting a handle on the structure of the Universe, how everything is made of something else. Molecules are made of atoms, atoms are made of protons, neutrons and electrons, etc. Even smaller than that are the quarks and the leptons, which seem to be the basic building blocks of all matter.
Continue reading “Astronomy Cast Ep. 393: The Standard Model – Leptons & Quarks”

Will the Universe Run Out Of Energy?

Will the Universe Run Out Of Energy?

It seems like the good times will go on forever, so feel free to keep on wasting energy. But entropy is patient, and eventually, it’ll make sure there’s no usable energy left in the Universe.

Thanks to the donations of generations of dinosaurs and their plant buddies, we’ve got fossils to burn. If we ever get off our dependence on those kinds of fuels, we’ll take advantage of renewable resources, like solar, wind, tidal, smug and geothermal. And if the physicists really deliver the goods, we’ll harness the power of the Sun and generate a nigh unlimited amount of fusion energy using the abundant hydrogen in all the oceans of the world. Fire up that replicator, the raktajino is on the house. Also, everything is now made of diamonds.

We’ll never run out of H+. Heck that stuff is already cluttering up our daily experience. 75% of the baryonic mass of the Universe is our little one-protoned friend. Closely followed up by helium and lithium, which we’ll gladly burn in our futuristic fusion reactors. Make no mistake, it’s all goin’ in.

It looks like the good times will never end. If we’ve energy to burn, we’ll never be able to contain our urges. Escalating off into more bizarre uses. Kilimajaro-sized ocean cruise liners catering to our most indulgent fantasies, colossal megastructure orbital laser casinos where life is cheap in the arena of sport. We’ll build bigger boards and bigger nails.or something absolutely ridiculous and decadent like artificial ski-hills in Dubai. Sadly, it’s naive to think it’s forever. Someday, quietly, those good times will end. Not soon, but in the distant distant future, all energy in the Universe will have been spent, and there won’t a spare electron to power a single LED.

Astronomers have thought long and hard about the distant future of the Universe. Once the main sequence stars have used up their hydrogen and become cold white dwarfs and even the dimmest red dwarfs have burned off their hydrogen. When the galaxies themselves can no longer make stars. After all the matter in the Universe is absorbed by black holes, or has cooled to the background temperature of the Universe.

Combining observations done with ESO's Very Large Telescope and NASA's Chandra X-ray telescope, astronomers have uncovered the most powerful pair of jets ever seen from a stellar black hole. The black hole blows a huge bubble of hot gas, 1,000 light-years across or twice as large and tens of times more powerful than the other such microquasars. The stellar black hole belongs to a binary system as pictured in this artist's impression. Credit: ESO/L. Calçada
Artist’s impression of a Star feeding a black hole. Credit: ESO/L. Calçada

Black holes themselves will evaporate, disappearing slowly over the eons until they all become pure energy. Even the last proton of matter will decay into energy and dissipate. Well, maybe. Actually, physicists aren’t really sure about that yet. Free Nobel prize if you can prove it. Just saying.

And all this time, the Universe has been expanding, spreading matter and energy apart. The mysterious dark energy has been causing the expansion of the Universe to accelerate, pushing material apart until single photons will stretch across light years of distance. This is entropy, the tendency for energy to be evenly distributed. Once everything, and I do mean all things, are the same temperature you’ve hit maximum entropy, where no further work can be done.

This is known as the heat death of the Universe. The temperature of the entire Universe will be an infinitesimal fraction of a degree above Absolute Zero. Right above the place where no further energy can be extracted from an atom and no work can be done. Terrifyingly, our Universe will be out of usable energy.

The white dwarf G29-38 (NASA)
The white dwarf G29-38 (NASA)

Interestingly, there’ll still be the same amount it started with, but it’ll be evenly distributed across all places, everywhere. This won’t happen any time soon. It’ll take trillions of years before the last stars die, and an incomprehensible amount of time before black holes evaporate. We also don’t even know if protons will actually decay at all. But heat death is our inevitable future.

There’s a glimmer of good news. The entire Universe might drop down to a new energy state. If we wait long enough, the Universe might spontaneously generate a new version of itself through quantum fluctuations. So with an infinite amount of time, who knows what might happen?

Burn up those dirty dinosaurs while you can! Enjoy the light from the Sun, and the sweet whirring power from your counter-top Mr. Fusion reactor. Your distant descendants will be jealous of your wasteful use of energy, non-smothering climate and access to coffee and chocolate, as they huddle around the fading heat from the last black holes, hoping for a new universe to appear.

What’s the most extreme use of energy you can imagine? Tell us in the comments below.

Can Solar Flares Hurt Astronauts?

Expedition 29 astronaut Ron Garan looks down on the coast of Australia from the safety of the ISS. (NASA)


Solar flares, coronal mass ejections, high-energy photons, cosmic rays… space is full of various forms of radiation that a human wouldn’t want to be exposed to for very long. Energized particles traveling into and through the body can cause a host of nasty health problems, from low blood count to radiation sickness to cataracts and cancer… and potentially even death. Luckily Earth’s magnetic field and atmosphere protects us on the surface from much of this radiation, but what about the astronauts aboard the Space Station? How could events such as today’s powerful near-X-class solar flare and last week’s CME affect them, orbiting 240 miles above Earth’s surface?

Surprisingly, they are safer than you might think.

M8.7-class solar flare erupting on the Sun's northeastern hemisphere at 03:49 UT on Jan. 23, 2012. (Courtesy NASA/SDO and the AIA team. Edited by J. Major.)

The M8.7-class flare that erupted from the Sun early on Jan. 23 sent a huge wave of high-energy protons Earthward, creating the largest solar storm seen since 2005.  The cloud of energetic particles raced outwards through the Sun’s atmosphere at speeds well over a million miles per hour, blowing past our planet later the same day. (More slower-moving charged particles will impact the magnetosphere in the coming days.) We are safe on Earth but astronauts exposed to such radiation could have faced serious health risks. Fortunately, most solar protons cannot pass through the hull of the Space Station and so as long as the astronauts stay inside, they are safe.

Of course, this is not the case with more dangerous cosmic rays.

According to the NASA Science site:

Cosmic rays are super-charged subatomic particles coming mainly from outside our solar system. Sources include exploding stars, black holes and other characters that dwarf the sun in violence. Unlike solar protons, which are relatively easy to stop with materials such as aluminum or plastic, cosmic rays cannot be completely stopped by any known shielding technology.

Even inside their ships, astronauts are exposed to a slow drizzle of cosmic rays coming right through the hull. The particles penetrate flesh, damaging tissue at the microscopic level. One possible side-effect is broken DNA, which can, over the course of time, cause cancer, cataracts and other maladies.

In a nutshell, cosmic rays are bad. Especially in large, long-term doses.

Now the astronauts aboard the ISS are still well within Earth’s protective magnetic field and so are shielded from much of the cosmic radiation that passes through our solar system daily. And, strangely enough, when solar flares occur – such as today’s – the amount of cosmic radiation the ISS encounters actually decreases.


The solar particles push them away.

Decrease in cosmic radiation during a CME recorded in 2005.

In an effect known as the “Forbush decrease”,  magnetically-charged particles ejected from the Sun during flares and CMEs reduce the amount of cosmic radiation the ISS experiences, basically because they “sweep away” other charged particles of more cosmic origin.

Because cosmic rays can easily penetrate the Station’s hull, and solar protons are much less able to, the irony is that astronauts are actually a degree safer during solar storms than they would be otherwise.

And it’s not just in low-Earth orbit, either: Wherever CMEs go, cosmic rays are deflected. Forbush decreases have been observed on Earth and in Earth orbit onboard Mir and the ISS. The Pioneer 10 and 11 and Voyager 1 and 2 spacecraft have experienced them, too, beyond the orbit of Neptune. (via NASA Science.)

Due to this unexpected side effect of solar activity it’s quite possible that future manned missions to the Moon, Mars, an asteroid, etc. would be scheduled during a period of solar maximum, like the one we are in the middle of right now. The added protection from cosmic rays would be a big benefit for long-duration missions since we really don’t know all the effects that cosmic radiation may have on the human body. We simply haven’t been traveling in space long enough. But the less exposure to radiation, the better it is for astronauts.

Maybe solar storms aren’t so bad after all.

Read more about solar radiation and the Forbush decrease on NASA Science here.

Large Hadron Collider Finishes 2011 Proton Run

A new loop will be added to CERN's Antiproton Decelerator in 2016 to increase antiproton production at low energies. Credit: CERN


The world’s largest and highest-energy particle accelerator has been busy. At 5:15 p.m. on October 30, 2011, the Large Hadron Collider in Geneva, Switzerland reached the end of its current proton run. It came after 180 consecutive days of operation and four hundred trillion proton collisions. For the second year, the LHC team has gone beyond its operational objectives – sending more experimental data at a higher rate. But just what has it done?

When this year’s project started, its goal was to produce a surplus of data known to physicists as one inverse femtobarn. While that might seem like a science fiction term, it’s a science fact. An inverse femtobarn is a measurement of particle collision events per femtobarn – which is equal to about 70 million million collisions. The first inverse femtobarn came on June 17th, and just in time to prepare the stage for major physics conferences requiring the data be moved up to five inverse femtobarns. The incredible number of collisions was reached on October 18, 2011 and then surpassed as almost six inverse femtobarns were delivered to each of the two general-purpose experiments – ATLAS and CMS.

“At the end of this year’s proton running, the LHC is reaching cruising speed,” said CERN’s Director for Accelerators and Technology, Steve Myers. “To put things in context, the present data production rate is a factor of 4 million higher than in the first run in 2010 and a factor of 30 higher than at the beginning of 2011.”

But that’s not all the LHC delivered this year. This year’s proton run also shut out the accessible hiding space for the highly prized Higgs boson and supersymmetric particles. This certainly put the Standard Model of particle physics and our understanding of the primordial Universe to the test!

“It has been a remarkable and exciting year for the whole LHC scientific community, in particular for our students and post-docs from all over the world. We have made a huge number of measurements of the Standard Model and accessed unexplored territory in searches for new physics. In particular, we have constrained the Higgs particle to the light end of its possible mass range, if it exists at all,” said ATLAS Spokesperson Fabiola Gianotti. “This is where both theory and experimental data expected it would be, but it’s the hardest mass range to study.”

“Looking back at this fantastic year I have the impression of living in a sort of a dream,” said CMS Spokesperson Guido Tonelli. “We have produced tens of new measurements and constrained significantly the space available for models of new physics and the best is still to come. As we speak hundreds of young scientists are still analysing the huge amount of data accumulated so far; we’ll soon have new results and, maybe, something important to say on the Standard Model Higgs Boson.”

“We’ve got from the LHC the amount of data we dreamt of at the beginning of the year and our results are putting the Standard Model of particle physics through a very tough test ” said LHCb Spokesperson Pierluigi Campana. “So far, it has come through with flying colours, but thanks to the great performance of the LHC, we are reaching levels of sensitivity where we can see beyond the Standard Model. The researchers, especially the young ones, are experiencing great excitement, looking forward to new physics.”

Over the next few weeks, the LHC will be further refining the 2011 data set with an eye to improving our understanding of physics. And, while it’s possible we’ll learn more from current findings, look for a leap to a full 10 inverse femtobarns which may yet be possible in 2011 and projected for 2012. Right now the LHC is being prepared for four weeks of lead-ion running… an “attempt to demonstrate that large can also be agile by colliding protons with lead ions in two dedicated periods of machine development.” If this new strand of LHC operation happens, science will soon be using protons to check out the internal machinations of much heftier structures – like lead ions. This directly relates to quark-gluon plasma, the surmised primordial conglomeration of ordinary matter particles from which the Universe evolved.

“Smashing lead ions together allows us to produce and study tiny pieces of primordial soup,” said ALICE Spokesperson Paolo Giubellino, “but as any good cook will tell you, to understand a recipe fully, it’s vital to understand the ingredients, and in the case of quark-gluon plasma, this is what proton-lead ion collisions could bring.”

Original Story Source: CERN Press Release.