by Kim Malville

Sky Almanac

Mars is low on the southwestern horizon at sunset. Jupiter rises soon after sunset. At the beginning of the month at 10pm look for Jupiter as it cruises through the constellation of Taurus. Venus is spectacular well before dawn and moves past Spica in mid-month.

November 1: The moon and Jupiter are close to Aldebaran, the bloodshot eye of Taurus the Bull.

November 4: Daylight saving time ends.

November 13-14: Total eclipse visible in northern Australia.

November 15-16: Look to the southwest 30 minutes after sunset to see the slender crescent moon move from below to above Mars.

November 17: Leonid meteor shower. The best time for viewing should be in the early morning hours before the sky starts to brighten. This year there may be 20 meteors per hour. Leonids in particular are well known for having bright meteors or fireballs which may be 9mm across and have 85g of mass and punch into the atmosphere with the kinetic energy of a car moving at 60 mph. An annual Leonid shower may deposit 12 or 13 tons of particles across the entire planet. The last major Leonid shower in 2002 had up to 3000 per hour. Hard hats were not needed. However, last month’s Orionid meteor shower was a different story. A nurse in Novato, California was almost hit by one.  Lisa Webber read about a bright fireball on October 17 in the San Francisco Chronicle. She recalled hearing a sound on her roof on that night and went searching behind her house, where she found a 63-gram meteorite.  Ouch!

November 26-27: Venus has a close conjunction with Saturn 45 minutes before sunrise: worth watching if you are up that early.

November 28: The moon has returned to Jupiter and Aldebaran. Two weeks after a solar eclipse there is often a lunar eclipse. This year it will be a very modest affair as the moon skims through the pale outer fringe of the earth’s shadow just barely detectable before sunrise on the west coast.

November 30: One hour before sunrise, Saturn, Venus, and Mercury are in a line.

The Nobel Prize in Physics, and Schrödinger’s cat

Schrodinger's Cat

Schrodinger’s Cat

There were celebrations in Boulder in October when we learned that Dave Wineland at the National Institute for Science and Technology (NIST) and the University of Colorado was the co-winner of this year’s Nobel Prize in Physics. He shared it with Serge Haroche of Paris for their research in quantum physics.  Almost everyone predicted that the prize would go to those folks who detected the Higgs Boson. But that discovery seems to have been too recent, announced only last July, and the jury is still out on what exactly they found. The work of Wineland and Heroche is actually harder to explain than a Higgs Boson, but their experiments have the advantage that they are smaller and much cheaper than the Large Hadron Collider in Switzerland.

Wineland and Haroch have been observing some of the wierd and bizaare behavior of the tiny world of the quantum, which sometimes acts like Schrodinger’s cat, an animal that is both alive and dead at the same time. This famous thought experiment developed by Erwin Schrödinger (who received the Nobel prize in 1933) is not particularly endearing to cat lovers. But here it is:  a cat is penned up in a steel chamber, along with a Geiger counter and a small amount of radioactive substance, which after an hour has a 50% chance of decay. There is an exactly equal probability that nothing will happen. However, if there is a decay and the counter discharges, a relay releases a hammer that shatters a small flask of hydrocyanic acid, which kills the cat. After an hour, it is impossible to say whether the cat is alive or dead, unless one opens the box and looks inside. At that time the 50% dead cat and the 50% alive cat become one dead cat or one alive cat. In quantum mechanics this phenomenon is described as a superposition of two equally probable states, both of which truly exist. In an atom an electron may be many places (or everywhere) at the same time, and the only way of determining where the electron is lurking is by looking in and probing it with light. When that happens the many possible electrons collapse into one electron, and the strangeness of quantum mechanics disappears. Wineland and Haroche have devised methods for probing atoms in such a manner that they can see multiple electrons.

Schrodinger’s Cat in a Box. courtesy Patrick Roberts

In one set of experiments Wineland tickled an atom ever so slightly with lasers to keep the electron in its multiple “cat state.”  The electron was stuck between two permitted orbits and was observed to be two electrons. Wineland compared the electron to a marble rolling back and forth in a bowl. “At some instant of time, the marble is both on the left-hand side and the right side of bowl at the same time.” The single electron became two different electrons, just as the hypothetical cat is both alive and dead at the same time, existing in parallel universes. For those who don’t understand why our government should finance such esoteric research, worry not. Their work has potentially immense practical applications such as in future quantum computers and extremely accurate clocks. Fast computers need good clocks. Wineland has devised the world’s most accurate clock, which would have lost or gained only 5 seconds since the universe began 13 billion years ago.

An old stream on Mars: A geologist’s dream

Fresh evidence of an ancient stream bed has been found on Mars. When water flowed in the stream it may have been waist deep. The rover Curiosity has photographed an area that looks just like stream banks on earth. In the bottom of the picture there are many small pebbles that look like they have been smoothed by tumbling in flowing water. Above on the side of the bank is a ledge that looks like a sedimentary conglomerate, which may have been the source of the pebbles. Circled at the upper right is a larger rock possibly also made smooth by stream erosion. Here is erosion progressing at an agonizingly slow pace. It has been a long time since rain fell and streams flowed on Mars. The circled rock may have been suspended in time, ready to fall for a billion years.