Sunday, March 24, 2013

Snow, rationalists and an older, meaner universe

by Salman Hameed

There have been no posts for the past few days as I was at a conference at Coventry University, and between talks and conversations, did not get a chance to have any posts up. But couple of things as I wait for the plane at Heathrow to get back to Amherst: I had a chance to have dinner with some members of Rationalist Society of Pakistan (RSoP), and it was an absolute delight. I have written about them before and I think it important to know that while we complain about the growing intolerance on religious, we also have counter-movements that believe in an open dialogue and place an emphasis on toleration, reason and rationality. This doesn't mean that there is a single position within RSoP, but there appears to be a spirit of healthy discussion over those discussions. We need more forums like this one.

On the downside, the weather here was miserable! No - I mean absolutely miserable. If I wanted snow, I could have stayed in Amherst. Here is a picture from my hotel room in Coventry yesterday (oh and much of the snow was in slush form):

But if it is any consolation, while I was away, we found out that our universe is a bit older and chubbier than we thought before. The new estimates come from Planck Observatory that has been making detail maps of the Cosmic Microwave Radiation (CMB) - the relic light emitted about 370,000 years after the Big Bang (the farthest back we can see yet). So much older? Well, about 100 million years older (Yes - this is not very much in cosmic time). So our universe is now estimated to be 13.8 billion years old, compared to the previous estimated of 13.7 billion. Plus, normal matter is now estimated to be 4.9% (up from 4.6%) - though we shouldn't call such tiny fraction as "normal" - even if we are made up of it :) . Dark Matter estimates are also up a bit - 26.8% (up from 24%), and all of this comes at the expense of Dark energy (down from 71.4% to 68.3%).

Okay - forget about the details. The key is that Planck Observatory has confirmed our prior models and has tweaked some of our estimates.

You can read more about it here, and here is the Planck map of the background radiation:

Here is figure caption:

"This map shows the oldest light in our universe, as detected with the greatest precision yet by the Planck mission. The ancient light, called the cosmic microwave background, was imprinted on the sky when the universe was 370,000 years old. It shows tiny temperature fluctuations that correspond to regions of slightly different densities, representing the seeds of all future structure: the stars and galaxies of today.

By analyzing the light patterns in this map, scientists are fine tuning what we know about the universe, including its origins, fate and basic components.

Planck is a European Space Agency mission, with significant participation from NASA. NASA's Planck Project Office is based at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif. JPL contributed mission-enabling technology for both of Planck's science instruments. European, Canadian and U.S. Planck scientists work together to analyze the Planck data.

Image credit: ESA and the Planck Collaboration"

Okay - onto the plane to Boston.


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