Does the Universe have a Preferred Direction

One of the basic assumptions that Astronomers and Cosmologists start with as the try to understand this Universe we live in is that on the very largest scales it’s the same in every direction. That is, when we look deep into space at all the galaxies and clusters of galaxies, and voids between galaxies, the Universe looks pretty much the same in whatever direction we look. This property is know as isotropic.

This assumption is very basic to our understanding of reality. When I taught physics I always tried to impress on my students how, when you’re trying to solve a problem, you can put your origin anywhere you want and point your x, y and z axis in whatever direction want in order to make the problem easier to solve. So this idea is not only fundamental, it is also very useful.

Assumptions have to be tested however, and a group of Cosmologists at University College in London have used the data obtained by the Planck satellite’s observations of the Cosmic Microwave Background (CMB) to see if they could find any evidence that our Universe had a preferred direction or even if it had a spin. Now the CMB is radiation left over from the very earliest time after the big bang, photons of light that have whizzed through space for over thirteen billion years without interacting with any other particles giving us a baby picture of our Universe. (See the Image at the top)

The Cosmologists looked at the CMB data for any signs for elongations or spiral patterns that would indicate a preferred direction or an axis of rotation and they calculate that there is only a 1 in 121,000 chance that there is any anisotropic (non-isotropic) behavior in the CMB.

So it appears that all of our theories that are based on an isotropic Universe are still good, for now. In another decade or so another group of scientists will think of another way of testing this assumption with even greater precision and that’s as it should be. As human being we have to make assumptions, but we have to test them again and again.

For those who are interested, you can read more about the work of the University College of London cosmologists here:


Star Talk with Neil deGrasse Tyson

Last night we saw the third season premier of Star Talk on the National Geographic channel with host Neil deGrasse Tyson the director of Hayden Planetarium. Basically a talk show in format and billed as “Where Science and Pop Culture Collide” the show is actually broadcast from the Hayden Planetarium and featured Pop guests Whoopi Goldberg and comedian Chuck Nice along with Science guests astrophysicist Charles Liu and neuroscientist Staci Gruber.

Now I’ll be honest, I think the show has a little too much Pop and too little Science but of course the show is intended to make science more accessible to the general audience and nobody is better at that Dr. Tyson. Still, you didn’t get to hear anything about Dr. Liu’s work on the evolution of galaxies and Chuck Nice, who was funny, interrupted the other guests a bit too often.

The first half of the program revolved around Whoopi’s starring on Star Trek the next generation and covered Star Trek and superheroes in general. The funniest moment came when Chuck Nice was doing some “nerd in the street” interviews and asked one gentleman “How does a nerd get revenge?” the answer was “You get your Ph.D. and you hire the people that bullied you!”

The second half talked about the uses of medical marijuana and consisted in Whoopi talking about how she used it and Dr. Gruber evaluating it versus the oxycontin and other opioids. Now, I’m not going to get involved in the argument about Marijuana so I’ll just say that Dr. Gruber did a good job of stating the case for reasonable use of ‘grass’ instead of many of the drugs now being overprescribed.

Personally I was a bit disappointed in the season premier of Star Talk but hopefully Dr. Tyson will soon move on to subjects more to my taste. Again, the biggest problem was simply that Dr. Liu had little to say aside from what a nerd he was and how much he liked Science Fiction. Maybe he’ll be back to talk to talk about the Cosmic Evolution Survey (COSMOS).

P.S. During the show there was also an ad for the new series (or miniseries) Mars that will premier on National Geographic channel on November 14. It looks good and I will certainly be watching and writing about it.


I’ve been blogging now for a couple of weeks so I’m still trying to learn everything you can do. Therefore today I’m just going to try to embed some media, specifically an animation video of the ISS construction.

Another technique I’d like to try is to inset a link to another site, so here’s the URL for a Physics demo from MIT with a van De Graff generator.


Happy 50th Birthday Star Trek

Today we celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of the broadcast premier of Star Trek, and I do mean celebrate. On the evening of September eighth 1966 NBC television showed the episode “The Man Trap” and the world was introduced to Captain James T. Kirk, the half Vulcan Mr. Spock, “Bones” McCoy, Scottie, Uhura and the entire crew of the starship Enterprise.

I still vividly remember watching that first episode and immediately became a lifelong Trekker. The Man Trap itself was a good episode, not great but it did have an alien planet with a lost civilization and a deadly monster with cool powers that you ended up feeling almost sorry for. “It’s the last of its kind, like the buffalo.”  

Yes, I know the costumes were high school, same for the sets. The special effects are now so outdated, and Shatner’s acting could sometimes make you cringe. Still, some of the episodes that followed were classics of science fiction in any media and even after all these years are some of the best television that has ever been produced.

That the world of Star Trek has lasted for fifty years, and continues to grow, is I think because it provides a framework into which many of us, the nerds of the world if you like, are able to fit our hopes and dreams. It provides an example of a world, a humanity where many people would like to live. 

I grew up with friends who wanted to be the Captain of the Enterprise. I have other friends who would prefer to travel to remote, alien worlds on the Enterprise. Personally, I was something like Scottie, I wanted to know how the Enterprise worked; how the Jeffery’s Tube connected the Engineering Section to the Warp Pods or how many decks did the Saucer Section have?

Gene Roddenbury’s of vision of a humanity that has solved the problems of today by the simple act of behaving like grown-ups, and because of which is now prepared to face the challenges of an entire universe still attracts new followers. We can take pleasure in knowing that there are more movies being developed, and a new series starting early next yea. So we will still have Star Trek with us for a long time to come, and I for one am glad for that.


The Robots are Coming, for your Job.

A panel of scientists and researchers at Stanford University have completed the first in a series of studies on the effect of Artificial Intelligence (AI) on human society. This series of studies is expected to continue over the next century so this is a LONG TERM project.

It will have to be, automation and robotics already have an enormous effect on our lives and careers from automated assembly lines to robot vacuum cleaners in our homes. However, recent advances in AI seem to have brought us to a tipping point. Remember when the computer Watson won Jeopardy, well that same level technology will soon be driving on our highways, doing much of the work around the house and even helping physicians by doing routine medical procedures and exams.

The study published by the group at Stanford is entitled “Artificial Intelligence and Life in 2030 and can be found at

The report covers eight general areas:


Home / Service Robots

Health Care



Low Resource Communities

Public Safety and Community

Employment and Workplace

No one doubts that the effect of AI in these areas will be a tremendous advance for humanity in the long run. It’s just that things which are tremendously beneficial in the long run are very often hated and despised in the short term. In fact it has been estimated that as much as one third of the jobs people currently hold will no longer exist and the people who lose those jobs will hardly be overjoyed by all the wonderful new jobs they’re not qualified for.

This sort of change in society has happened before and at least this time it appears that some people are examining the consequences before the problem becomes too great. But we as a society need to think about the kind of future we want and how to get it. AI could go a long way in making this world a place where everybody has a career that truly makes their life worth living, or it could make this world an actual hell on Earth.