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Number crunchers are on the trail of dark energy

Saul Perlmutter
Berkeley astrophysicist Saul Perlmutter discusses the implications of the universe’s accelerating expansion at the University of Washington. (GeekWire Photo / Alan Boyle)

Big data just might give astronomers a better grip on the answer to one of the biggest questions in physics: Exactly what’s behind the mysterious acceleration in the expansion rate of the universe, also known as dark energy?

And that means the number crunchers at the University of Washington’s DIRAC Institute have their work cut out for them.

The role of data analysis in resolving the mystery came to the fore on May 14 during a talk given at the DIRAC Institute’s first-ever open house on the UW campus. The speaker was none other than Berkeley astrophysicist Saul Perlmutter, who won a share of the Nobel Prize in physics in 2011 for finding the first evidence of dark energy.

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Freeman Dyson’s brain is still going strong at 94

Freeman Dyson
Physicist Freeman Dyson’s latest book is “Maker of Patterns: An Autobiography Through Letters.” (Dan Komoda / Institute for Advanced Study, Princeton, NJ USA)

Alien megaspheres … rockets powered by nuclear bombs … freeze-dried life in outer space: These are just some of the ideas that have flowered in the brain of physicist Freeman Dyson, and he’s not done yet.

Dyson, who turned 94 last December, has spent most of his career at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, N.J., and he still hangs his hat there as a professor emeritus. But he also has a connection to the Pacific Northwest: His son, tech historian George Dyson, lives in Bellingham, Wash.

The elder Dyson renews his Northwest connections on Wednesday at a Town Hall Seattle presentation that’s framed as a conversation with Seattle science-fiction author Neal Stephenson and Robbert Dijkgraaf, director of the Institute for Advanced Study.

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Stephen Hawking’s ‘Final Theory’ gets published

Hertog and Hawking
Belgian physicist Thomas Hertog meets with Stephen Hawking in 2015. (KU Leuven / Facebook)

Weeks after the death of British physicist Stephen Hawking, his final research paper on the nature of our universe and its place in the wider multiverse was published today in the Journal of High-Energy Physics.

Now it’s up to his co-author, Belgian physicist Thomas Hertog, to keep an eye out for observational evidence for or against Hawking’s “Final Theory.”

The pre-print version of the paper — titled “A Smooth Exit From Eternal Inflation?” — has been circulating for months. It addresses the rather mind-blowing idea that our universe is merely one of the many possible manifestations in a multiverse.

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Study could point to piece in antimatter puzzle

Experiment cryostat
Researchers work on the delicate wiring of a cryostat, which chills the germanium detectors at the heart of the Majorana Demonstrator experiment. (Sanford Underground Research Facility Photo / Matthew Kapust)

An experiment conducted deep underground in an old South Dakota gold mine has given scientists hope that a future detector could help solve one of physics’ biggest puzzles: why the universe exists at all.

Put another way, the puzzle has to do with the fact that the universe is dominated by matter.

That may seem self-evident, but it’s not what’s predicted by Standard Model of particle physics as currently understood. Instead, current theory suggests that the big bang should have given rise to equal parts of matter and antimatter, which would annihilate each other within an instant.

Scientists suspect that there must have been something about the big bang that gave matter an edge more than 13 billion years ago. So far, the mechanism hasn’t been identified — but one leading theory proposes that the properties of neutrinos have something to do with it.

The problem is, neutrinos interact so weakly with other particles that it’s hard to detect what they’re doing. The experiment conducted in the nearly mile-deep Sanford Underground Research Facility in South Dakota was aimed at figuring out whether a detector could be shielded well enough from background radiation to spot the effect that scientists are looking for.

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Even after death, Stephen Hawking stirs up a fuss

Stephen Hawking
Physicist Stephen Hawking visited the Large Hadron Collider’s underground tunnel in 2013. (CERN Photo / Laurent Egli)

The ashes of the late British physicist Stephen Hawking will get a fitting resting place in Westminster Abbey, near the graves of Isaac Newton and Charles Darwin.

But you could argue that the true monuments to Hawking’s memory are his books and theoretical papers, delving into the nature of black holes, the big bang and other cosmic mysteries. And as was often the case during his life, the last paper he completed is stirring up a fuss just days after his death.

Hawking’s so-called “Final Theory” is a paper written with Belgian collaborator Thomas Hertog, and titled “A Smooth Exit from Eternal Inflation?” It hasn’t yet been published in a journal, but it’s said to be under review and is available for inspection on the ArXiv pre-print server.

The paper focuses on hypotheses having to do with cosmic inflation and the idea that our own cosmos is just one of many universes in a multiverse.

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Celebrities and tech titans salute Stephen Hawking

Stephen Hawking and "The Big Bang Theory" cast
The cast of “The Big Bang Theory” gathers around physicist Stephen Hawking, a guest star. (BigBangTheory via Twitter)

Few luminaries bridged the frontiers of science and pop culture as completely as physicist Stephen Hawking, and that fact was as obvious as 2+2=4 in the tributes that were tweeted as word of his death spread.

Hawking played himself as a wheelchair-riding brainiac on “Star Trek: The Next Generation” and “The Big Bang Theory,” and popped up as an animated character on “The Simpsons” and “Futurama.” He was also a frequent host or guest star for a plethora of science documentaries.

Check out a sampling of the tributes, starting with Microsoft’s past and present CEOs, Bill Gates and Satya Nadella.

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RIP Stephen Hawking, world’s most famous scientist

Stephen Hawking
British physicist Stephen Hawking, shown here delivering a speech at George Washington University in 2008, has passed away at the age of 76. (NASA Photo / Paul E. Alers)

Stephen Hawking, the British physicist who became famous for his way-out theories and for overcoming debilitating disease, has died at the age of 76, his children said in a statement tonight.

“We are deeply saddened that our beloved father passed away today,” according to the statement, which was distributed by British news media and attributed to Lucy, Robert and Timothy Hawking. “He was a great scientist and an extraordinary man whose work and legacy will live on for many years.”

The statement said Hawking died peacefully in his home near Cambridge University.

“His courage and persistence with his brilliance and humor inspired people across the world,” the children said. “He once said: ‘It would not be much of a universe if it wasn’t home to the people you love.’ We will miss him forever.”

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Gravitational waves play role in black hole show

Black hole
A disk of superheated debris blazes around a black hole. The bright circular pattern is caused by the gravitational lensing of light from the part of the disk that’s behind the black hole. (NOVA via YouTube)

Black holes are the collapsed stars of the show on “Black Hole Apocalypse,” a two-hour “NOVA” presentation that’s premiering Jan. 10 on PBS. But the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory, also known as LIGO, gets its share of the spotlight as well.

“LIGO both opens and closes the show,” said Barnard College astrophysicist Janna Levin, who wrote a book about the gravitational-wave quest and hosts the “NOVA” program. “It’s the most important thing going on right now for black hole astrophysics.”

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Year in Science: Neutron star smashup leads the list

Neutron star merger
An artist’s conception shows the “cocoon” that is thought to have formed around the smashup of two neutron stars. (NRAO / AUI / NSF Image / D. Berry)

For the second year in a row, the journal Science is hailing a discovery sparked by the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory as the Breakthrough of the Year.

Last year, the breakthrough was LIGO’s first-ever detection of a gravitational-wave burst thrown off by the merger of two black holes. This time, the prize goes to the studies spawned by the first observed collision of two neutron stars.

More than 70 observatories analyzed the data from the Aug. 17 event, which came in the form of gravitational waves as well as electromagnetic emissions going all the way from radio waves to gamma rays.

“The amount of information we have been able to extract with one event blows my mind,” Georgia Tech physicist Laura Cadonati, deputy spokesperson for the LIGO team, told Science.

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Scientists spot a smallish black hole smashup

Black hole merger
An artist’s conception shows two black holes in the process of merging. (LIGO / Caltech / MIT Illustration)

It took months to figure it out, but the scientists in charge of the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-wave Observatory, or LIGO, have confirmed their observations of the most lightweight black hole merger yet.

The latest detection provides further confirmation of Einstein’s general theory of relativity — and will help physicists hone their routine for combining observations from different types of scientific instruments, an approach known as “multi-messenger astronomy.”

Scientists say the spike in gravitational waves known as GW170608, detected on June 8, was set off by the smashup of two black holes weighing seven and 12 times as much as our sun.

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