Stephen Hawking’s Final Book and Scientific Paper Just Got Published: Brief Answers to the Big Questions and “Information Paradox”

How did it all begin?  Is there a god? Can we predict the future? Is there other intelligent life in the universe? For decades, many of us turned to Stephen Hawking for answers to those questions, or at least supremely intelligent suggestions as to where the answers might lie. But the celebrated astrophysicist's death earlier this year — after an astonishingly long life and career, given the challenges he faced — took that option away. It turns out, though, that we haven't actually heard the last of him: his last book, Brief Answers to the Big Questions (whose trailer you can watch just above), came out just this week.

"The book is quintessential Hawking," writes physics professor Marcelo Gleiser at NPR. "He starts by addressing the questions in physics and cosmology that he dedicated his intellectual life to answer, using easy-to-follow arguments and drawing from everyday images and thought experiments." Hawking's answers to the big questions figure into his view of not just the world but all existence: he believes, writes Gleiser, "that humanity's evolutionary mission is to spread through the galaxy as a sort of cosmic gardener, sowing life along the way. He believes, even if not without worry, that we will develop a positive relationship with intelligent machines and that, together, we will redesign the current fate of the world and of our species."




In parallel with his career as a public figure and writer of popular explanatory books, which began with 1988's A Brief History of Time, Hawking performed scientific research on black holes. The Guardian's science editor Ian Sample describes it as a "career-long effort to understand what happens to information when objects fall into black holes," capped off by a posthumously published paper titled "Black Hole Entropy and Soft Hair." "Toss an object into a black hole and the black hole’s temperature ought to change," writes Sample. "So too will a property called entropy, a measure of an object’s internal disorder, which rises the hotter it gets." In the paper Hawking and his collaborators show that "a black hole’s entropy may be recorded by photons that surround the black hole’s event horizon, the point at which light cannot escape the intense gravitational pull. They call this sheen of photons 'soft hair'."

If that sounds tricky to understand, all of us who have appreciated Hawking's writing know that we can at least go back to his books to get a grip on black holes and the questions about them that get scientists most curious. Much remains for future astrophysicists to work on about that "information paradox," to do with where, exactly, everything that seemingly gets sucked into a black hole actually goes. “We don’t know that Hawking entropy accounts for everything you could possibly throw at a black hole, so this is really a step along the way,” Hawking's collaborator Malcolm J. Perry tells Sample. “We think it’s a pretty good step, but there is a lot more work to be done.” As Hawking surely knew, the big questions — in physics or any other realm of existence — never quite get fully answered.

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

A Massive, Knitted Tapestry of the Galaxy: Software Engineer Hacks a Knitting Machine & Creates a Star Map Featuring 88 Constellations

The next time some non-crafty type disparages your hobby as a frumpy pursuit, show them software engineer Sarah Spencer’s “Stargazing.”

The 9’x 15’ knitted tapestry is an accurate equatorial star map featuring all 88 constellations as viewed by the naked eye, including the Milky Way and the Southern Cross, the best known star group in Spencer’s native Australia.

The project ate up 33 pounds of Australian wool in three shades, including the same ultramarine blue sported by a number of accomplished Australian women whose portraits are on display as part of the 2018 Archibald Prize.




While “Stargazing" is machine knit, its creation took longer than most hand-knitted projects.

What started as a lark, hacking and programming a 40-year-old, secondhand Empisal knitting machine, grew into something much larger when Spencer developed a computer algorithm that allowed one tri-colored knit stitch per pixel.

Years later, she was ready to start knitting her star map, a reflection of her interest in STEM—science, technology, engineering, and mathematics.

“Stargazing" is actually comprised of seven panels, each the result of dusk-to-dawn labor on the part of the hacked machine. Stitching them together required many more human hours.

The piece was unveiled at the UK’s tech-and-arts festival, Electromagnetic Field, on August 31. Spencer had calibrated the placement of the tapestry’s planets to correspond with their celestial counterparts’ locations that night.

For now, the tapestry is one-of-a-kind, but given its industrial origins, it’s not hard to foresee a future in which couples can cuddle under astronomically correct afghans, while gazing up at the stars.

via Atlas Obscura

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Ayun Halliday is an author, illustrator, theater maker and Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine.  Join her in NYC on Monday, September 24 for another monthly installment of her book-based variety show, Necromancers of the Public Domain. Follow her @AyunHalliday.

Jocelyn Bell Burnell Discovered Radio Pulsars in 1974, But the Credit Went to Her Advisor; In 2018, She Gets Her Due, Winning a $3 Million Physics Prize

Say you made a Nobel-worthy scientific discovery and the prize went to your thesis supervisor instead. How would you take it? Probably not as well as Jocelyn Bell Burnell, discoverer of the first radio pulsars, to whom that very thing happened in 1974. "Demarcation disputes between supervisor and student are always difficult, probably impossible to resolve," she said a few years later. "It is the supervisor who has the final responsibility for the success or failure of the project. We hear of cases where a supervisor blames his student for a failure, but we know that it is largely the fault of the supervisor. It seems only fair to me that he should benefit from the successes, too."

But now, 44 years later, Bell Burnell's achievement has brought a different prize her way: the Special Breakthrough Prize in Fundamental Physics, to be precise, and the $3 million that comes with it, all of which she will donate "to fund women, under-represented ethnic minority and refugee students to become physics researchers." "Like the stars of Hidden Figures and DNA researcher Rosalind Franklin, Bell Burnell’s personal story embodies the challenges faced by women in scientific fields," write the Washington Post's Sarah Kaplan and Antonia Noori Farzan. "Bell Burnell, who was born in Northern Ireland in 1943, had to fight to take science classes after age 12."




Rejecting an expected life of cookery and needlework, Bell Burnell "read her father's astronomy books cover to cover, teaching herself the jargon and grappling with complex concepts until she felt she could comprehend the universe. She complained to her parents, who complained to the school, which ultimately allowed her to attend lab along with two other girls. At the end of the semester, Bell Burnell ranked first in the class." Still, by the time she arrived at Cambridge University for graduate school, she "was certain someone had made a mistake admitting her." Her subsequent work there on one of "the most important astronomical finds of the 20th century," which you can see her talk about in the clip above, should have dispelled that notion.

But as Josh Jones wrote here on Open Culture last month, Bell Burnell was a victim of the "Matilda effect," named for suffragist and abolitionist Matilda Joslyn Gage, which identifies the "denial of recognition to women scientists" seen throughout the history of science. The new generation of prizes like the Breakthrough Prize in Fundamental Physics, founded in 2012 by physicist-entrepreneur Yuri Milner, have the potential to counteract the Matilda effect, but many other Matildas have yet to be recognized. "I am not myself upset about it," as Bell Burnell put it in 1977 when asked about her non-reception of the Nobel. "After all, I am in good company, am I not!"

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities and culture. His projects include the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

Discover “Journey of the Universe,” a Multimedia Project That Explores Humanity’s Place in the Epic History of the Cosmos

Today we know what no previous generation knew: the history of the universe and of the unfolding of life on Earth. Through the astonishing achievements of natural scientists worldwide, we now have a detailed account of how galaxies and stars, planets and living organisms, human beings and human consciousness came to be.

With this knowledge, the question of what role we play in the 14-billion-year history of the universe imposes itself with greater poignancy than ever before. In asking ourselves how we will tell the story of Earth to our children, we must inevitably consider the role of humanity in its history, and how we connect with the intricate web of life on Earth.

In Journey of the Universe--a multimedia educational project that features a book, film and free online courses--evolutionary philosopher Brian Thomas Swimme and historian of religions Mary Evelyn Tucker provide an elegant, science-based narrative to tell this epic story, leading up to the challenges of our present moment. The authors describe the origins of humans on Earth, how we developed a symbolic consciousness, and how our ability to communicate using symbols make humans a “planetary presence.”

We are now faced with a new dynamic—one where the survival of the species and entire ecosystems depend primarily on human activity, and the choices humans make.

Weaving together the findings of modern science together with enduring wisdom found in the humanistic traditions of the West, Asia, and indigenous peoples, the authors explore cosmic evolution as a profoundly wondrous process based on creativity, connection, and interdependence, and they envision an unprecedented opportunity for the world’s people to address the daunting ecological and social challenges of our times.

Developed over several decades, and inspired by the authors’ long collaboration with Thomas Berry, Journey of the Universe boasts an impressive roster of science advisors including Ursula Goodenough, Craig Kochel, and Terry Deacon.

Journey of the Universe is a multimedia educational project that includes:

1.) The Journey of the Universe: A Story for Our Time Specialization available on Coursera, created by Yale.  This is a collection of three Massive Online Open Courses that take students through the scientific and cultural cosmology found throughout Journey of the Universe, as well as deep into its lineage with cultural historian and cosmologist Thomas Berry:

Course 1: Journey of the Universe: The Unfolding of Life

Course 2: Journey of the Universe: Weaving Knowledge and Action

Course 3: The Worldview of Thomas Berry: The Flourishing of the Earth Community

2) The Journey of the Universe Film, winner of the 2012 San Francisco/Northern California Emmy® Award for best documentary. You can watch the trailer for the film above

3) The Journey of the Universe Book, published by Yale University Press. Translated into French, Italian, Spanish, German, Turkish, Chinese, Korean, Indonesian.

4) The Journey of the Universe Conversation Series, a twenty-part educational series integrates the perspectives of the sciences and the humanities into a retelling of our 13.7 billion year story. In a series of one-on-one interviews, scientists, historians, and environmentalists explore the unfolding story of the universe and Earth and the role of the human in responding to our present challenges.

Devin O'Dea lives in San Francisco where he serves as the manager of the Journey of the Universe project: a collaborative, multimedia conversation that draws together scientific discoveries with humanistic insights concerning the nature of the universe.  Devin welcomes all interests and feedback to Journey materials at devin@journeyoftheuniverse.org.

NASA Creates a Visualization That Sets Breathtaking Footage of the Moon to Claude Debussy’s “Clair de Lune” (Moonlight)

From NASA's Ernie Wright comes "Moonlight (Clair de Lune)," a visualization that takes beautiful images of the lunar terrain and sets them to Claude Debussy's 1905 composition, Clair de Lune (1905). Here's how Wright describes the project:

This visualization attempts to capture the mood of Claude Debussy's best-known composition, Clair de Lune (moonlight in French). The piece was published in 1905 as the third of four movements in the composer's Suite Bergamasque, and unlike the other parts of this work, Clair is quiet, contemplative, and slightly melancholy, evoking the feeling of a solitary walk through a moonlit garden. The visuals were composed like a nature documentary, with clean cuts and a mostly stationary virtual camera. The viewer follows the Sun throughout a lunar day, seeing sunrises and then sunsets over prominent features on the Moon. The sprawling ray system surrounding Copernicus crater, for example, is revealed beneath receding shadows at sunrise and later slips back into darkness as night encroaches. The visualization was created to accompany a performance of Clair de Lune by the National Symphony Orchestra Pops, led by conductor Emil de Cou, at the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, DC, on June 1 and 2, 2018, as part of a celebration of NASA's 60th anniversary. The visualization uses a digital 3D model of the Moon built from Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter global elevation maps and image mosaics. The lighting is derived from actual Sun angles during lunar days in 2018.

Enjoy...

via Aeon

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Carl Sagan Returns to His Old Sixth-Grade Classroom to Turn a New Generation of Kids On To Science

All throughout his career, Carl Sagan cited the events in his formative years that set him on the road to becoming, well, Carl Sagan: the introduction to "skepticism and wonder" provided by his parents; his visit to the 1939 New York World's Fair; his first trips to the public library, the American Museum of Natural History, and the Hayden Planetarium; his discovery of Astounding Science Fiction Magazine and its fantastic visions undergirded by genuine knowledge. That last happened around the same time he entered the sixth grade at David A. Boody Junior High School, where he would eventually return, decades later, to teach the lesson seen in the video above.

"As a child, it was my immense good fortune to have parents and a few teachers who encouraged my curiosity," Sagan says in voiceover. "This was my sixth-grade classroom. I came back here one afternoon to remember what it was like." Anyone watching him handing out the "breathtaking pictures of other worlds that had been radioed back by the Voyager spacecraft" and addressing the excited students' questions will understand that, in addition to his formidable hunger for knowledge and deep understanding of his subjects, Sagan also possessed a quality rare in the scientific community: the ability and willingness to talk about science clearly and engagingly, and transmit his excitement about science, to absolutely anyone.

The clip also provides a sense of what it was like to learn directly from Sagan. In the interview clip above, no less a science guy than Bill Nye talks about his own experience taking Sagan's classes at Cornell in the 1970s. "If you saw his series Cosmos — the original Cosmos — his lectures were like those television shows," says Nye. He goes on to tell the story of meeting Sagan again, at his ten-year class reunion. "I said I want to do this show about science for kids. He said, 'Focus on pure science. Kids resonate to pure science.' That was his verb, resonate." And so, when Bill Nye the Science Guy debuted a few years later, it spent most of its time not on the fruits of science — "bridges, dams, and civil engineering works and gears" and so on — but on science itself.

Carl Sagan co-founded the Planetary Society in 1980. Nye, drawn by its mission of "empowering the world's citizens to advance planetary science and exploration," joined that same year. After speaking at Sagan's memorial a decade and a half later, Nye found himself on its board of directors. Then he became Vice President, and then "there was a dinner party, there was wine or something, and now I'm the CEO." In that way and others, Nye continues Sagan's legacy, and Nye hardly counts as Sagan's only successor. "This is how we know nature," as Nye puts Sagan's view of science. "It's the best idea humans have ever come up with." That view, whether expressed in Sagan's own work or that of the countless many he has directly or indirectly influenced, will surely continue to inspire generations of learners, inside or outside the classroom.

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities and culture. His projects include the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

The Ancient Astronomy of Stonehenge Decoded

The summer solstice draws nigh, and many of us will spend it bemoaning the fact that we have yet again failed to make it to Stonehenge to view the sun rising over its massive Heel Stone.

Don’t beat yourself up too badly.

According to Vox’s Senior Editorial Producer Joss Fong, above, it’s likely that the winter solstice was actually a far bigger deal to the Neolithic builders who engineered the site.

While much of it is now in ruins, archeologists, historians, astronomers, and other experts have been able to reconstruct what the ancient monument would have looked like in its heyday. The placement of the massive stones in carefully arranged concentric circles suggest that its feats of astronomy were no accident.




As Fong points out, the builders would not have known that the earth travels around the sun, nor that it tilts on its vertical axis, thus effecting where the sun’s rays will strike throughout the year.

They would, however, have had good cause to monitor any natural phenomena as it related to their agricultural practices.

The summer solstice would have come at the height of their growing season, but if this year’s sunrise celebrants spin 180 degrees, they will be facing in the same direction as those ancient builders would have when they arrived to celebrate the winter solstice with a sunset feast.

These days, the winter solstice attracts a sizable number of tourists, along with neo-druids, neo-pagans, and Wiccans.

Bundle up and join them, take a virtual tour, or at the very least, try your hand at assembling the nifty Aedes-Ars Stonehenge Model Kit Fong glues together like a pro.

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Ayun Halliday is an author, illustrator, theater maker and Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine.  Her solo show Nurse!, in which one of Shakespeare’s best loved female characters hits the lecture circuit to set the record straight opens June 12 at The Tank in New York City. Follow her @AyunHalliday.

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