Some people stick with the traditional, feeling struck by the epic beauty or blown away by the insane scale of the universe. Personally, I go for the old “existential meltdown followed by acting weird for the next half hour.” But everyone feels something. Physicist Enrico Fermi felt something too—”Where is everybody?” It turns out that when it comes to the fate of humankind, this question is very important. Depending on where The Great Filter occurs, we’re left with three possible realities: We’re rare, we’re first, or we’re fucked.
A gamma-ray burst, the most energetic explosions in the universe, converted to music. What does the universe look like at high energies? Thanks to the Fermi Large Area Telescope (LAT), we can extend our sense of sight to "see" the universe in gamma rays. But humans not only have a sense of sight, we also have a sense of sound. If we could listen to the high-energy universe, what would we hear? What does the universe sound like?
Astronomers using NASA's Fermi Gamma-ray Space Telescope have detected gamma-rays from a nova for the first time, a finding that stunned observers and theorists alike. (via)
A Diary of Numbers: Physicist Aaron Santos, author of How Many Licks (Or, How to Estimate Damn Near Anything), uses science and math to estimate answers to life's greatest questions, including: How likely is it that we inhale a molecule breathed by Carl Sagan?; and What costs more: the Silverdome or the number of peanuts needed to build a life-size replica of the Silverdome? [more inside]
NYT Guesstimation Quiz. Enrico Fermi estimated the yield of the Trinity A-bomb test by dropping some shredded paper. He also asked his students to estimate unusual quantities like the number of piano tuners in Chicago - to show that just about anything can be estimated without detailed knowledge.
In March 2007, the FermiLab Office of Public Affairs in Batavia, IL "received a curious message in code" via USPS. In May 2008, scientists posted a facsimile image of the letter to their blog in the hopes of soliciting cryptologists to decipher the letter. [more inside]
The "Great Filter" is a hypothetical barrier to explain why civilisations are so unlikely to progress to the point of inter-stellar colonisation that we have not encountered any in 40 years of looking. Maybe humanity has already negotiated the filter - as some massive evolutionary improbability - or perhaps it lies in our future as an almost-certain threat to our existence? We should hold our breath as we look for evidence of life on Mars.
A View from the Back of the Envelope - approximations and the fun behind them.
The site of the world's first nuclear reactor? Gabon. About 1.7 billion years ago several deposits of uranium in Oklo, Gabon spontaneously began to undergo nuclear chain reactions fed by small drips of water. These natural breeder reactors ran for almost a million years, producing both intense heat and plutonium byproducts. Aside from the strangeness of naturally occurring reactors, Oklo provides the only existing case of how highly radioactive waste behaves over a period of tens of millions of years -- exactly the problem faced by the DOE's Yucca Mountain nuclear waste site.
Another thwack at answering Fermi's question. Which is, after scribbling a fairly convincing equation on the blackboard, "If there's intelligent life out in the universe, where are they?" An interesting sidelight is the principal donors: Paul Allen and Nathan Myhrvold of Microsoft... Both of whom are known for unverifibly abstract big-picture thinking, but maybe it'll pay off this time...