The Deep Underground Neutrino Experiment (DUNE) and why are Neutrinos so Important Anyway.

Over the past month or so I’ve published a series of posts describing what I see as the decline of science in America (28June to 12July2017). Well today I have some good news. Just this week construction has begun on the Deep Underground Neutrino Experiment or DUNE.

DUNE is a collaboration between two already existing physics labouratories. The Sanford Underground Research Facility (SURF) which is buried 2km deep in the old Homestake gold mine outside of Lead, South Dakota along with Fermilab outside of Chicago, the site of America’s most powerful particle accelerator, second only to the LHC at CERN in Europe.

By the way the Homestake mine first became a physics labouratory back in the 1960s when the first Neutrino telescope was build there to measure the flux of neutrinos coming from the Sun. An experiment that provided the first direct evidence that the Sun gets its energy from hydrogen fusion reactions.

The idea behind the DUNE experiment is that Fermilab will use its accelerator to generate an intense beam of the sub-atomic particles called Neutrinos, a particle that has been called the ghost particle because they only interact very rarely with other particles. To give you an idea of how rarely an interaction occurs, every second thousands of Neutrinos are going right through your body but over your entire lifespan only a handful will interact with a particle inside you.

That beam of Neutrinos from Fermilab will be aimed very precisely at SURF where the world’s largest Neutrino Detectors are now being installed. The 2000km trip underground will mean almost nothing to the Neutrinos; a few may be absorbed but only very a few. There will also be an identical detector array right at the output of Fermilab’s accelerator so that scientists can study what happens to the Neutrinos during their 2000km journey. The picture below shows a diagram of the planned setup of the DUNE experiment.

DUNE Experimental Layout (Credit: Fermilab)

You may ask, if only a few Neutrinos are absorbed in 2000km of rock won’t even fewer be captured by the detectors in South Dakota. Yes, absolutely, but the scientists will be able to measure precisely every characteristic of every single Neutrino that is detected.

So, what do the scientists hope to learn from DUNE, why are Neutrinos so important anyway? Well, first of all there is increasingly strong evidence that Neutrinos are actually far more numerous than the electrons and quarks that make up what we think of as matter. In a sense scientists simply don’t enjoy knowing so little about such an important particle.

There are some more well defined problems that we hope DUNE can help to solve. For one, the there’s the question why the Universe, or at least our part of it, is so dominated by matter with so little anti-matter. From all of our experiments at places like Fermilab the Universe should be composed of equal parts matter and anti-matter and Neutrinos may hold the key to understanding the imbalance.

Physicists also hope that a greater understanding of Neutrinos will give us greater insight into fundamental forces, gravity, electromagnetism and the nuclear forces. Understanding Neutrinos is also important because they play a large role in some of the most energetic events in the Universe, everything from supernova to black hole formation.

Despite the recent lack of support for science from our government it’s still true that America’s scientists are second to none and the DUNE project demonstrates how they will always find a way to do new and important work. If you’d like to read more about the DUNE experiment the links below will take you to the SURF and Fermilab WebPages for DUNE.

New Studies give a more accurate picture of T-Rex, and the fossil in your backyard

Two new studies by two separate teams of paleontologists have been published recently giving new details into the appearance and behavior of everybody’s favourite extinct predator, Tyrannosaurus-rex, better know simply as T-rex.

The first study dealt with the question of whether or not T-rex may have sported a colourful coating of feathers on at least portions of its body. After all T-rex is a member of the line of dinosaurs that paleontologists are convinced are closest to, maybe even ancestors of the birds. There is also growing evidence that T-rex’s smaller relatives were in fact covered in insulating feathers, not flight feathers, insulating feathers to help keep the animal warm. (See my post of 16Dec2016 about a feathered dino tail encased in amber!)

With these facts in mind Professor Phil R. Bell of the University of New England in Australia led a team of researchers to examine all of the available fossil evidence to find an answer. Now because skin impressions of dinosaurs are very rare, especially T-rex, Professor Bell and his colleagues also examined the fossils of T-rex’s close and large relatives such as Albertosaurus, Gorgosaurus and Tarbousaurus.

Based on the evidence they found Professor Bell and his fellow paleontologists have concluded that T-rex and the other large Theropod predators did not possess feathers, not even over portions of their bodies. Like any reptile today, T-rex was covered in scales. Professor Bell theorizes that since large, active animals have more problems with overheating than keeping warm T-rex shed whatever insulation its smaller ancestors may have had. The picture below shows a fossilized impression of the skin of a T-rex.

Impression of neck skin from a T-rex (Credit: Black Hills Institute of Geologic Research)

The second study was conducted at the University of Manchester in England and led by Professor William Sellers. Professor Sellers and his team used biometric and biomechanical software programs to study how T-rex would have walked and whether or not T-rex could have run at all as depicted in all those recent Jurassic Park movies. (By the way I hope everyone is aware that T-rex actually lived in the Cretaceous not the Jurassic period!)

Now it a plain fact of nature that as an animal grows larger its weight increases much faster than the strength of its legs. This is why, relatively speaking, the legs of an elephant are considerably thicker than the legs of your dog or cat. Now a T-rex is even heavier than an elephant, and remember T-rex only has two legs on spread its weight on! The possibility that T-rex might have difficulty walking let alone running has to be considered.

Professor Sellers and his colleagues used the latest software biomechanical modeling programs to do just that. Earlier studies had suggested that T-rex might have been capable of speeds as high as 50kph but the new research provided strong evidence that even half that speed would cause ‘unacceptably high skeletal loads’ on the bones in T-rex’s legs.

It appears then that these two recent studies reinforce the picture we had when I was a child of T-rex being a big lumbering reptile. I’m going to try to imbed a short video provided by Professor Sellers and his team showing some of the modeling that they used in their analysis. The link below that will take you to the University of Manchester’s official announcement of the research.

Now, it was just a week ago (15 July 2017) that I posted about my first fossil collecting trip of the year and I’d like to close with a nice little story about keeping your eyes open and maybe you too can make an important fossil discovery.

Jude Sparks, a 10-year old boy who lives in Las Curces, New Mexico was recently playing in his own backyard when he spotted something eroding out of the ground that he thought was the skull of a cow. Doing a little digging Jude quickly realized his skull was too large to be a cow’s. While it was still in the ground, Jude showed what he found to his parents who contacted paleontologists at New Mexico State University.

What Jude had actually discovered was the 1.2 million year old skull of a Stegomastadon, a relative of the more famous Mastodon. The scientists have excavated the skull and hope that more of the animal’s remains may be buried nearby. The picture below shows Jude with his find.

Jude Sparks with his Stegomastadon (Credit: Peter Houde)

A big part of science is really nothing more than keeping your eyes open and knowing enough to be able to say, ‘Hey, that looks different. I wonder what it is?”

Eclipse of 2017

There’s only another month to go before the United States is treated to a total solar eclipse that will stretch across the entire continent beginning in Oregon and ending in South Carolina. Occurring on Monday the 21st of August this eclipse will be the grandest astronomical event to take place in our skies for over a hundred years and I hope that many of you will be able to enjoy at least some of the show.

Solar Eclipse (Credit: Justin Ng)

If you are planning on taking part in the fun please heed this warning:


Every time a good solar eclipse occurs hundreds of people injure their eyes by not taking the necessary precautions. And it is so easy to get glasses that will give you all the protection you need. Seriously, Wal-Mart has them, Amazon has them, dozens of retailers are selling eclipse glasses for prices starting at $10 so please get a pair!!!

Now everybody knows that a solar eclipse is caused by the Moon passing in front of the Sun from our point of view here on Earth. (A lunar eclipse on the other hand is caused when the Earth passes between the Sun and the Moon) However many people are unsure of some of the details, such as the difference between the Umbra, where you get a total eclipse, and the Penumbra where you only get a partial eclipse.

Looking at the figure below from NASA you can see that while the Sun is much larger than the Moon (its diameter is about 4000 times larger) it is also much farther away from Earth (about 4000 times further). That’s why they look almost exactly the same size in our sky. Following the lines of the Sun’s outer edges you can see how the Moon blocks some of the light from the Sun over a large swath of the Earth’s surface (this is the Penumbra) but only completely blocks the Sun over a small region (this is the Umbra) and only for a very short period of time.

Geometry of Solar Eclipse (Credit: NASA)

To see a total eclipse, to see the stars and planets come out in the daytime and to see the Sun’s corona you must be within the narrow band of the Umbra. The map below shows the path of the Umbra across the US with the local times that totality will occur. If you’d like to get a more detailed map of your area click on the link below the map to be taken to NASA’s special website for this eclipse.

Eclipse Times (Credit: NASA)

Now my hometown of Philadelphia is nowhere close to the path of totality so I’m heading to Nashville, Tennessee, which is one of several major cities within the path of totality, and only a few miles from the point of maximum duration. Now I’m just keeping my fingers crossed that the weather is clear on eclipse day. There’s actually a long history of astronomers and other scientists making long journeys to witness and study total eclipses only to wind up see nothing but clouds.

There’s another big total eclipse coming seven years from now in 2024. That one will be closer to me, crossing Ohio, western Pennsylvania and much of New York so hopefully I’ll get another chance if this year’s eclipse doesn’t work out. So wish me luck, and I’ll do the same for you. If things go well I’ll be able to share some great pictures with you in just a few weeks.

Space News for July 2017

The biggest news in space exploration this month has to come from the Juno spacecraft now in orbit around the planet Jupiter. Last Wednesday night Juno made a close approach to Jupiter flying only 3500 kilometers above the planet’s ‘Great Red Spot’ and giving scientists their best look ever at this mysterious object. See the amazing picture below.

Great Red Spot (Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/SwRI/MSSS/Jason Major)

The Great Red Spot was first discovered by the British Scientist Robert Hooke around 1650 and has been studied now for over 350 years. Despite all those years of observation the spot’s exact nature is still being debated.

The most popular explanation for the Great Red Spot is that it is a powerful storm, a hurricane larger than the Earth. In fact hurricanes here on Earth can last a very long time so long as they stay over water, only losing their strength when they pass over land.

Still 350 years is a very long time for a storm to last and hurricanes move with the wind patterns while the Great Red Spot appears to be in the same place it was when Hooke first saw it. To me the storm model cannot be a complete description.

Another theory is that the Great Red Spot is something like Jupiter’s version of a volcano, a massive upwelling of gas from deep within the planet. Like the Mona Kea volcano on Hawaii’s big island something inside Jupiter could be continuously erupting and forming the Red Spot around it.

To me it seems that a combination of the two models may be the best solution but in any case hopefully all the data we get back from Juno will give us a greater insight into the nature of The Great Red Spot. If you’d like to read more about Juno, and see some breathtaking images the link below will take you to NASA’s Juno site.

Another interesting space news item concerned an experiment by Chinese scientists to teleport a photon, a particle of light, from Earth’s surface to a satellite in orbit. Team leader Ji-Gang Ren of the Department of modern physics at the University of Science and Technology of China along with his colleagues sent the teleported particles from a ground station in Nagari Tibet to the Micius satellite in an orbit 500km above the Earth’s surface. Although not the first successful teleportation experiment this is by far the greatest distance a particle has been teleported.

Recent experiments in teleportation use the phenomenon of ‘Quantum Entanglement’ in order to teleport not so much the actual particle as all the information about it, it’s quantum state in technical terms. For the photons used in the Chinese experiment this information was the polarization of the photons. (I’ll discuss quantum entanglement in another post quite soon)

Now it’s going to be a long time before we are able to transmit the quantum states of Kirk, Spock and Bones so that they can be reassembled on the planet’s surface. However the polarization of a photon can be used as either a 1 or a 0 for the purposes of digitizing information. This is the physics behind the idea of quantum computing that’s getting a lot of talk nowadays.

If you’d like to read more about the Chinese teleportation experiment click on the link below to go to an MIT Technology Review article on it.

One last item of space news before I go. This past week NASA has kinda, sorta finally admitted that with their current level of funding there is no real chance of a manned mission to Mars by the official target date of 2033. This is hardly a surprise, a manned mission will be hugely expensive and NASA really hasn’t even begun to develop the systems needed.

If you’ve been reading my posts on the subject (Feb 22, 2017) you know that I advocate a return to the Moon with the systems we are currently developing. The Space Launch System and Orion space capsule that will soon be available are perfect for Lunar missions, all that’s needed is a lander module which could be ready in 5-6 years. NASA is not likely to get a large increase in funding anytime soon and really needs to commit itself to a realistic program for manned space exploration!

Fossil Hunting

It’s been a pretty busy year so far and only just last week did I finally get the chance to do a little fossil hunting. I’ve been especially anxious to pay a quick visit to my favourite fossil site because the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation (PennDOT) has spent the last two years doing major renovations to the highway that goes right past the site and I was afraid that all the fossils may have been paved over.

I needn’t have worried. The site, which is an old abandoned quarry, was mostly intact and PennDOT had even paved a small, 4-5 meter long entrance where you can park your car. There were still tons of rocks containing fossils, and it doesn’t take long to find some that are literally covered in them, see picture below.

Fossil Rock (Credit: Self)

Now I live in Philadelphia, and the city itself is totally barren of fossils. This is because bedrock upon which Philly sits is completely composed of igneous rock, cooled and solidified lava and magma and you don’t find fossils in what was once molten rock!

However, if you drive an hour and a half or more in any direction from Philly you can find many fossil sites, some that are very well know to both professional and amateur paleontologists. To the east and south, in New Jersey and Delaware you have a number of locations where fossils from the Cretaceous period can be found. The cretaceous period was the last period when dinosaurs walked the Earth. I have over a hundred fossils from sites in New Jersey and Delaware but unfortunately no dinosaurs.

My favourite site however is in the opposite direction, north and a bit to the west in Schuylkill County. Now the fossils you find north and west of Philadelphia are much older than the cretaceous period, older than any dinosaur. In my collection I have fossils from the Ordovician period (about 450 million years ago) through to the Pennsylvania period (around 300 million years ago). In Schuylkill County alone I know of a dozen places to find fossils and the nearby counties of Carbon, Monroe, Lebanon and so on are filled with fossil sites.

So how does someone go about finding fossils? Where should you look? What equipment do you need?

Let’s start with equipment because to start you really don’t need very much. In fact your clothing is probably more important than any equipment. Fossil sites are obviously outdoors, usually in wild, overgrown areas. Here in Pennsylvania the greatest danger in fossil hunting is actually ticks! Lyme disease is a real threat so I always wear long pants, a long sleeved shirt and practically pour insect repellant over my exposed areas. Sunscreen is also very useful even on partially sunny days. Also, even if you think the temperature is fairly cool when you start, let’s say 20ºC, once you get working you’ll find yourself getting quite hot so make certain you have a nice cool drink with you.

As far as equipment is concerned a good 10x magnifier is probably more useful than a geologist’s hammer and some stone chisels. Another very important piece of equipment is just some wood glue; at least 10% of my fossils are being held together by glue.

Now, the most important thing, let me say that again, the most important thing is to keep the fossils you collect from one site completely separate from fossils collected at other sites. At the same time you must record the location of each site from which you collect fossils.

Each site from which you collect fossils has its own age; and it had its own environment when those animals lived there. If your collection is to have any scientific value you must keep fossils from different places segregated and identified as to exactly where they were found. I have fossils from over seventy-five locations across the U.S. and keep a record of every single fossil, where it was found and what I think it is.

As far as identifying your fossils is concerned that can require a considerable amount of study and effort. However there are plenty of books available to aid you. Just go to Amazon and look up books on fossils, you’ll find dozens. Identifying fossils is a skill that can take quite a while to acquire but once you start recognizing your fossils the moment you pick them up you’ll be happy you put the effort into it.

Now this blog is about science in general, not specifically fossils. If you’d like to learn more about fossil collecting however, especially fossils near where you live, I recommend contacting you state’s department of natural resources or state geologist. Every state, and most countries have information on fossil collecting within their borders. Of course there are also plenty of Internet sites dedicated to fossil collecting so I’m going to provide a link to some of what I consider the better sites.

Fossil Guy is a private site like mine but totally devoted to fossils. Lots of good information and a great place to start. Follow the link below.

For people who want to visit fossil sites that have been turned into museums, that is no collecting here but great fossils to see.

Here’s some information on a site not far from my favourite site.

I have quite a few fossils from Texas, a great state for fossils. Here’s a site with some info for Texas.

Finally let’s go overseas and see what fossils can be found in the UK.

Good Luck and have Fun!

America’s Science Decline: Part 4, Where did we lose our Way and how do we get back on Track.

This is the forth and final in a series of posts discussing what I see as the decline of Science in the United States. In part three of this series I discussed how the United States not only invented the particle accelerator as an instrument of science but how by building ever larger and more powerful machines American scientists made discovery after discovery in sub-atomic physics from the 1930s right to the end of the century. Today the standard model of how the universe works at its most fundamental level is primarily ‘Made in the U.S.A’.

But no longer, with the Large Hadron Collider at CERN Europe has discovered the Higgs Boson and is pressing on with experiments to make other discoveries. Also, unlike the United States Europe is already making plans for an even more powerful accelerator leaving America falling behind for decades to come.

How did it come to this? The United States became the richest and most powerful nation on Earth precisely by making certain that our nation had the best scientists and the best scientists must have the best equipment. Our founding fathers knew this and each generation of Americans that followed was willing to support the advance of science knowing that is the way nations advance. Today however, America’s attitude toward science, toward basic research is more antagonistic than supportive.

Of course such a major change in a country’s behavior takes a long time. I think America’s view of science began to change a little over a century ago when a large number of States began to pass laws prohibiting the teaching of evolution in their public schools. The idea that in a democracy the people decide what is right and what is wrong seems natural and reasonable. But no matter how people vote, no matter how many pieces of legislation are passed 2+2=4, fact are facts and democracy really only works when the people are wise enough, and educated enough to recognize the truth of that statement.

Then in the 1950s there was the controversy over the use of pesticides such as DDT. Scientists such as Rachel Carson (See my post of 25January17) had found a enormous amount of evidence that the long term effects of DDT were very harmful to both animals and humans. The chemical companies, who were making a lot of money off of DDT, argued with their evidence that DDT was both safe and effective. Both sides had their facts and finding the truth between short term and long term effects is not an easy thing to do. Now I am very much on the side of the environmentalists but it is worth remembering that DDT is both safe and effective; if you only use it once!

Then, in the battle over smoking the fighting became much more bitter, much dirtier. The difference this time was that there was never any evidence that smoking was safe, no one could argue that smoking had any benefit of any kind. It was simply a drug that people got hooked on, a poison that eventually killed them.

Therefore the tobacco companies had to argue that the evidence against smoking wasn’t sufficient, that statistics aren’t really facts. They asserted that the scientists studying the long term effects of smoking didn’t understand their own data. The lawyers working for the tobacco companies had no facts to support their case so they argued against factual evidence itself. In a sense they argued that facts aren’t the truth!

Now we come to global warming and there is now so much money involved that assertions and arguments disguised as facts have so overwhelmed the actual evidence that even very intelligent people don’t know which end is up.

And this portrayal of assertion and opinions as truth has completely infected our media and political systems. Thanks to the internet (yes I’m biting the hand that feeds me) there are so many lies being told and retold and elaborated upon that reality itself has become virtual and many people believe we pick and choose our truths as we please.

No wonder that our congress, more concerned with fighting amongst themselves than doing their job of running our government, has little enthusiasm for supporting scientific research. One specific problem is that the federal government has so much trouble passing a budget each year that they keep the government working by passing ‘continuing resolutions’. But you can’t fund new projects by a continuing resolution.

So what can we do about this? How can we get America back on track? Well it won’t be easy and I think progress will be slow but we must start by simply respecting science again. We must learn to distinguish between opinions and fact, between assertions and actual evidence. We must become critical thinkers so that we are not fooled by the false facts being continuously hurled at us.

We can also promote the idea of science as something valuable, first of all by valuing it ourselves. There are plenty of science museums to go to, I’ve writing several posts about ones here in Philly. Of course the internet has a mountain of information about science but do be cautious, a sand dune on Mars that from a certain angle looks like a face isn’t solid science.

We can promote education, not just science but good education of all subjects. Again, education is an issue that our governments seems to endlessly argue over without accomplishing anything.

As I said at the start of this series of posts I’ve become very concerned about the health of scientific research in this country. I hope these posts may help a little in finding a cure. I will continue to speak about the need to find a solution from time to time and I thank you for being kind enough to listen.


America’s Science Decline: Part 3, Our Forgotten Atom Smashers

This is the third in a series of posts discussing what I see as the decline of Science in the United States. In part two of this series I talked about how for more than a century the United States built ever larger and larger telescopes, the largest in the World. I spoke of how those instruments made some of the most important discoveries in the history of science. I ended that post by pointing out that America no longer possessed the World’s largest telescope. I described how our largest scopes now had been built back in the 1990s and that while Europe and the rest of the World were planning to build the next generation of telescopes the United States was not.

This week I’m going to tell a very similar story about the scientific instruments that allow scientists to see the smallest objects in the Universe. I’m talking about the particle accelerators, the Atom Smashers with which we study the fundamental building blocks of creation.

The first scientist to smash one kind of particle into another was the Englishman Ernest Rutherford, who aimed the alpha particles from radioactive Uranium at a thin film of gold atoms. The scattering pattern from those alpha particles revealed the basic structure of the atom as a dense nucleus surrounded by a cloud of electrons.

Now Rutherford only aimed his alpha particles, collimated is the technical term. He couldn’t increase their energy in any way but other scientists soon began looking for techniques to do just that. Attempting to build instruments that would accelerate sub-atomic particles and use those particles to probe deeper and deeper into the atom.

The first really practical such atom smasher was the cyclotron, developed by Ernest Lawrence at the University of California at Berkeley in 1932. To understand the operation of the cyclotron, and particle accelerators in general, refer to the picture below.

Workings of a Cyclotron (Public Domain)

In a cyclotron charged particles, usually protons, are confined to move in circular orbits by a large external magnetic field. The size of the orbit is determined by the velocity / energy of the charged particle. The particles orbit inside two metal “D”s that are connected to a high voltage oscillator that gives one of the “D”s a positive voltage and the other a negative voltage with the voltages flipping back and forth at very high frequency.

The positively charged protons are repelled by the positive “D” and attracted to the negative “D”, but by the time they get to the correct side the voltage has flipped causing the protons to fly back and forth, gaining energy with each orbit. The increasing energy increases the size of the orbit until the protons reach the outer edge of the “D”s where they are extracted and fired at a target being studied.

The “D”s in Lawrence’s first instrument measured only 11 inches (28cm) across and could only accelerate the protons to an energy of 1.2MeV. (An eV is an electron volt, it stands for the amount of energy that an electron will gain as it crosses a potential of 1 Volt. an MeV is a million eVs, GeV is a billion eVs and TeV is a trillion)

In the years that followed Lawrence built progressively more powerful instruments including a 184 inch (467cm) device that was used during the development of the atomic bomb to study the separation of uranium isotopes.

In the 1950s a new design of accelerators was developed where the strength of the confining magnetic field was synchronized to the energy of the accelerated particles. These accelerators were christened synchrotrons and they continued to grow in size and energy. The Bevatron, still at UC Berkeley succeeded in producing the first the anti-protons and anti-neutrons while the Cosmotron at Brookhaven National Laboratory on Long Island discovered the Delta particle and produced the first artificial mesons. The picture below shows the Bevatron at Berkeley.

The Bevatron Particle Accelerator (Public Domain)

The rest of the world just couldn’t keep up. The US just kept building the most powerful instruments and making all the discoveries. In 1960 Brookhaven got a new 33Gev machine called the Alternating Gradient Synchrotron, which is still making important discoveries today. In 1983 a brand new facility was opened outside Chicago called Fermilab with an accelerator ring over one and a third mile (2.2km) in diameter. The instrument named the Tevatron because it not only accelerated protons to over a TeV but it also accelerated anti-protons in the opposite direction and studied the collisions between them. The discoveries made by American Atom Smashers formed the basis of what physicists call ‘The Standard Model’. In 1995 the Top quark was discovered at Fermilab, the last elementary particle to be discovered at an American facility.

At almost the same time the US congress cancelled the next great American accelerator, the Superconducting Super Collider or SSC, whose ring would have been over 17 miles (27.7km) in diameter and whose total energy would have reached 40TeV.

Instead the Europeans have taken the lead with their Large Hadron Collider (LHC) at CERN. This is the instrument that finally discovered the Higgs boson in 2013 with its 8.6 km ring (5.4miles) and energy of 13Tev. It is worth keeping in mind that America’s SSC would have been completed earlier than Europe’s LHC and still been more powerful if the politicians had not fought over a deficit that they’ve pretty much ignored since then anyway. And now even the Tevatron at Fermilab has been shut down over budget concerns.

Europe meanwhile is pressing on. There are plans under development at CERN for an even bigger, more powerful machine. Called the Future Circular Collider it will have a ring 32 km (20 miles) in diameter and a top energy of 100Tev. So therefore it will be Europe that in the next decades will lead the search for physics beyond the standard model.

In my next post I’ll conclude my discussion of how the United States is losing its once predominant position in Science.

Post Script: Even as I was writing this post the Physicists at CERN have announced the discovery of a new particle! Now this is not a new fundamental particle but rather the first composite particle with two heavy quarks. Worse yet, Fermilab had published data over ten years ago indicating the possible existence of this particle but the Tevatron was not quite powerful enough to meet the tight requirements needed to officially announce a discovery.

Latest Finds from Archeological Site Gobekli Tepe: Evidence of a Shull Cult at the World’s Oldest Temple.

I’m going to take a little time out from my series about America’s science decline to discuss some of the recent finds made at the archeological site Gobekli Tepe, considered the world’s oldest known temple complex. The discovery of human skulls that had been deliberately modified indicate that the ancient people who erected the monumental T-shaped carved stones may have decorated the structures with the skulls.

First a bit of background. Gobekli Tepe (which means Potbelly Hill in Turkish) is an archeological site in southeastern Turkey (see map below). Dated to about 8,000 BCE the “Temple” consists of four oval shaped stone walls each of which contains a number of T-shaped, stone slabs with exquisitely carved animal representations on them. To date there is no evidence of human habitation at the site, it appears to have been used solely for ritual ceremonies. See pictures below the map to get an idea of the site.

Location of Gobekli Tepe in Turkey
Gobekli Tepe Site (Credit Nico Becker, Gobekli Tepe Archive)
Decorated Stone Slab at Gobekli Tepe: Credit Dieter Johannes and Klaus Schmidt, Gobekli Tepe Archive)

In a recent article in the journal ‘Science Advances’ by Julia Gresky, Juliane Haelm and Lee Clare of the German Archeological Institute, the discovery at Gobekli Tepe of three human skulls was reported. Now these were not burials, only skulls were found and the skulls had been deliberately modified by flint tools to produce linear grooves in them. Doctor Gresky et al suggest that these skulls may have been used as decorations on Gobekli Tepe’s stone slabs. One of the skulls discovered also had a hole that had been drilled very precisely into it’s top that could have enabled it to have been hung with a short piece of rope.

This discovery fits in with similar finds from other sites in the region, finds that indicate that Anatolia (an old name for Turkey-Syria) was the home for a skull-cult culture where people would bury their dead and then later dig them up, removing the skulls for display. The question of whether these skulls were venerated ancestors or mutilated enemies is unknown at present but Doctor Gresky hopes further finds will give us an answer.

Indeed the studies going on at Gobekli Tepe in the twenty years since its discovery have raised many more questions than answers. Other evidence from the time period indicate that the surrounding region was inhabited solely by small groups of hunter gatherers, not the sort of society normally associated with the construction of monumental stone structures. Did groups of nomads use Gobekli Tepe as a meeting place, perhaps as a fixed boundary marker as well. Both uses intended to keep peace between the different clans.

If that is true, how did these different groups organize themselves for the construction, feed themselves etc. Hopefully more excavations, more finds will help us learn some of the answers. If you’d like to read more about the recent Skull finds at Gobekli Tepe click on the link below to read the National Geographic’s article.

Next time I’ll return to my discussion concerning the decline of American Science.


America’s Science Decline: Part 2, Optical Telescopes

In my last post I began a series discussing what I see as the decline of Science in the United States. Part one of this series consisted of a little history lesson on the importance of Science in both the founding and the growth of the USA and ended in the middle 20th century when American Science was dominant.

Today I’m going to discuss the impact of America on astronomy and our knowledge of the Universe by the construction of a series of ever larger and more powerful optical telescopes. Then I will show how, after more than a century in the lead in astronomy, the United States has lost that lead and presently has no plans to even remain in the pack.

As I mentioned last time colonial America already had a famous astronomer in David Rittenhouse whose observations of the transit of Venus in 1769 helped to make the first accurate measurement of the distance to that planet. However the man who took American astronomy to levels of achievement that most scientists had considered to be impossible was George E. Hale.

Hale was a solar astronomer whose own discoveries included the first detection of the presence of carbon in the Sun. Today however Hale is best remembered for organizing and directing the construction of a series of progressively larger telescopes. The 40-inch (1meter) Yerkes, the 60-inch (1.5meter) Carnegie, 100-inch (2.54meter) Hooker and 200-inch (5.1 meter) Hale telescopes were each in turn the world’s largest scientific instrument, until Hale built the next one. (For those who aren’t familiar with telescopes the size given, 100 inch for example, refers to the diameter of the lens or mirror that gathers the light. The larger the optics the more powerful the telescope.)

The 100-inch telescope is probably the most famous. That is because it is the instrument that Carl Hubble employed to show that Andromeda and other ‘nebula’ were in fact Galaxies like the Milky Way and that the entire Universe was expanding. It was these observations that led to the big bang theory. The picture below shows the 100-inch telescope in its dome at Mount Wilson observatory.

100inch Telescope on Mount Wilson (Credit: Public Domain)

From 1948 into the late 1970s the 200-inch telescope remained the World’s largest. Since then there has been flurry of new telescope construction with even larger sizes made possible by a ‘segmented mirror’ design approach. The picture below shows the segmented mirror design as used in Gran Telescopio on the Canary Islands.

Segmented Mirror of Gran Telescopio (Credit: Miguel Briganti)

At the present time the US is in second place with our 10meter (396-inch) Keck telescope in Hawaii being only slightly behind Europe’s 10.4meter (412-inch) Gran Telescopio. The problem as I see it however, is not so much that the rest of the World has caught up with us but that the US is no longer even trying to keep up.

While Europe has several new telescope projects under construction, including the 39.3meter (That’s 1556-inches!!!) European Extremely Large Telescope, the US has yet to begun construction on its 30meter (1188-inches) Telescope due to delays in permits and funding. It seems as if funding and just a general enthusiasm for developing the new equipment necessary to continue exploring the Universe has declined in the US. A decline that started in the middle to late 1990s, the time when the Keck telescopes were completed.

Telescopes allow us to study the largest and furthest objects in the Universe, including the Universe itself. Next time we’ll discuss the scientific instruments that allow us to study the smallest objects that exist, these are the particle accelerators, the atom-smashers that enable us to investigate the very nature of space itself.