The Mysterious Wobble Of Muons

You might think that particle physicists would be sad when an experiment comes up with different results than their theory would predict, but nothing brightens up a field like unexplained phenomena.  Indeed, particle physicists have been feverishly looking for deviations from the Standard Model. This year, there have been tantalizing signs that a long unresolved discrepancy between theory and experiment will be confirmed by new experimental results.

In particular, the quest to measure the magnetic moment of muons started more than 60 years ago, and this has been measured ever more precisely since. From an experiment in 1959 at CERN in Switzerland, to the turn of the century at Brookhaven, to this year’s result at Fermilab, the magnetic moment of the muon seems to be at odds with theoretical predictions.

Although a statistical fluke is basically excluded, this value also relies on complex theoretical calculations that are not all in agreement. Instead of heralding a new era of physics, it might just be another headline too good to be true. But some physicists are mumbling “new particle” in hushed tones. Let’s see what all the fuss is about.

Continue reading “The Mysterious Wobble Of Muons”

How Fast Is The Universe Expanding? The Riddle Of Two Values For The Hubble Constant

In the last decades, our understanding of the Universe has made tremendous progress. Not long ago, “precision astronomy” was thought to be an oxymoron. Nowadays, satellite experiments and powerful telescopes on earth were able to measure the properties of our Universe with astonishing precision. For example, we know the age of the Universe with an uncertainty of merely 0.3%, and even though we still do not know the origin of Dark Matter or Dark Energy we have determined their abundance with a precision of better than 1%.

There is, however, one value that astronomers have difficulty in pinning down: how fast our universe is expanding. Or, more precisely, astronomers have used multiple methods of estimating the Hubble constant, and the different methods are converging quite tightly on two different values! This clearly can’t be true, but nobody has yet figured out how to reconcile the results, and further observations have only improved the precision, deepening the conflict. It’s likely that we’ll need either new astronomy or new physics to solve this puzzle.

The Discovery of the Expanding Universe

In the 1920s Edwin Hubble used the newly built telescope at Mount Wilson Observatory to study fuzzy objects known as nebulae. Back then, astronomers were arguing whether these nebulae are clouds of stars within our Milky Way or if they are whole different galaxies. Hubble discovered stars within these nebulae whose brightness slowly fades in and out. These were known as Cepheids and previously studied by Henrietta Levitt who showed that there was a tight relationship between the star’s intrinsic brightness and the period of its variation. This means Cepheids could be used as so-called standard candles which refers to objects whose absolute brightness is known. Since there is a simple relationship between how the brightness of an object decreases with distance, Hubble was able to calculate the distance of the Cepheids by comparing their apparent and intrinsic brightness. He showed that the Cepheid stars were not located within our galaxy and that nebulae are actually distant galaxies.

Hubble also measured the velocity at which these distant galaxies are moving away from us by observing the redshifts of spectral lines caused by the Doppler effect. He found that the further away the galaxy is located, the faster it is moving away from us described by a simple linear relationship.

\bf v = H_0 d

The parameter H0 is what is known as the Hubble constant. Later the Belgian priest and physicist Georges Lemaître realized that the velocity-distance relationship measured by Hubble was evidence for the expansion of the Universe. Since the expansion of space itself causes other galaxies to move away from us we are not in any privileged location but the same effect would be measured from any other place in the Universe. An effect that is sometimes illustrated by drawing points on a balloon, when it is inflated the points move away from each other at a speed that depends on their distance. It is also better not to think of the cosmological redshift as being caused by a real velocity as the parameter v in the above equation can easily exceed the speed of light. Continue reading “How Fast Is The Universe Expanding? The Riddle Of Two Values For The Hubble Constant”

A Brief History Of Optical Communication

We live in the information age where access to the internet is considered a fundamental human right. Exercising this right does largely rely on the technological advances made in optical communication. Using light to send information has a long history: from ancient Greece, through Claude Chappe’s semaphore towers and Alexander Graham Bell’s photophone, to fiber optic networks and future satellite internet constellations currently developed by tech giants.

Let’s dive a little bit deeper into the technologies that were used to spread information with the help of light throughout history. Continue reading “A Brief History Of Optical Communication”

4-bit Retrocomputer Emulator Gets Custom PCB

It might be fair to suspect that most people who are considered digital natives have very little to no clue about what is actually going on inside their smartphones, tablets, and computers. To be fair, it is not easy to understand how modern CPUs work but this was different at the beginning of the 80s when personal computers just started to become popular. People who grew up back then might have a much better understanding of computer basics thanks to computer education systems. The Busch 2090 Microtronic Computer System released in 1981 in Germany was one of these devices teaching people the basics of programming and machine language. It was also [Michael Wessel]’s first computer and even though he is still in proud possession of the original he just recently recreated it using an Arduino.

The original Microtronic was sold under the catchy slogan “Hobby of the future which has already begun!” Of course, the specs of the 4-bit, 500 kHz TMS 1600 inside the Microtronic seem laughable compared to modern microcontrollers, but it did run a virtual environment that taught more than the native assembly. He points out though that the instruction manual was exceptionally well written and is still highly effective in teaching students the basics of computer programming.

Already, a couple of years back he wrote an Arduino-based Microtronic emulator. In his new project, he got around to extending the functionality and creating a custom PCB for the device. The whole thing is based on ATMega 2560 Pro Mini including an SD card module for file storage, an LCD display, and a whole bunch of pushbuttons. He also added an RTC module and a speaker to recreate some of the original functions like programming a digital clock or composing melodies. The device can also serve as an emulator of the cassette interface of the original Microtronic that allowed to save programs with a whopping data rate of 14 baud.

He has certainly done a great job of preserving this beautiful piece of retro-tech for the future. Instead of an Arduino, retro computers can also be emulated on an FPGA or just take the original hardware and extend it with a Raspberry Pi.

Space Is Radioactive: Dealing With Cosmic Rays

Outer space is not exactly a friendly environment, which is why we go through great lengths before we boost people up there. Once you get a few hundred kilometers away from our beloved rocky planet things get uncomfortable due to the lack of oxygen, extreme cold, and high doses of radiation.

Especially the latter poses a great challenge for long-term space travel, and so people are working on various concepts to protect astronauts’ DNA from being smashed by cosmic rays. This has become ever more salient as NASA contemplates future manned missions to the Moon and Mars. So let’s learn more about the dangers posed by galactic cosmic rays and solar flares. Continue reading “Space Is Radioactive: Dealing With Cosmic Rays”

Prism Lighting – The Art Of Steering Daylight

The incandescent light bulb was one of the first early applications of electricity, and it’s hard to underestimate its importance. But before the electric light, people didn’t live in darkness — they thought of ways to redirect sunlight to brighten up interior spaces. This was made possible through the understanding of the basic principles of optics and the work of skilled glassmakers who constructed prism tiles, deck prisms, and vault lights. These century-old techniques are still being applied today for the diffusion of LEDs or for increasing the brightness of LCD displays.

Semantics First!

People in optics are a bit sloppy when it comes to the definition of a prism. While many of them are certainly not geometric prisms, Wikipedia defines it as a transparent optical element with flat, polished surfaces of which at least one is angled. As can be seen in the pictures below some of the prisms here do not even stick to this definition. Browsing the catalog of your favorite optics supplier you will find a large variety of prisms used to reflect, invert, rotate, disperse, steer, and collimate light. It is important to point out that we are not so much interested in dispersive prisms that split a beam of white light into its spectrum of colors, although they make great album covers. The important property of prisms in this article is their ability to redirect light through refraction and reflection.

A Safe Way to Bring Light Under Deck

A collection of deck lights used to direct sunlight below deck in ships. Credit:

One of the most important uses of prism lighting was on board ships. Open flames could have disastrous consequences aboard a wooden ship, so deck prisms were installed as a means to direct sunlight into the areas below decks. One of the first patents for deck lights “THE GREAT AND DURABLE INCREASE OF LIGHT BY EXTRAORDINARY GLASSES AND LAMPS” was filed by Edward Wyndus as early as 1684. Deck prisms had typical sizes of 10 to 15 centimeters. The flat top was installed flush with the deck and the sunlight was refracted and directed downward from the prism point. Because of the reversibility of light paths (“If I can see you, you can see me”) deck prisms also helped to spot fires under deck. Continue reading “Prism Lighting – The Art Of Steering Daylight”

Getting Rid Of All The Space Junk In Earth’s Backyard

Space, as the name suggests, is mostly empty. However, since the first satellite launch in 1957, mankind began to populate the Earth orbit with all kinds of spacecraft. On the downside, space also became more and more cluttered with trash from defunct or broken up rocket stages and satellites. Moving at speeds of nearly 30,000 km/h, even the tiniest object can pierce a hole through your spacecraft. Therefore, space junk poses a real threat for both manned and unmanned spacecraft and that is why space agencies are increasing their efforts into tracking, avoiding, and getting rid of it.
Continue reading “Getting Rid Of All The Space Junk In Earth’s Backyard”