Why We All Use the Same Units

Here is a map of the nations of the world that use the two systems of measurement.  Metric shown in blue and imperial shown in red. While it’s not always good to go with the crowd, there is a reason why more nations use the metric system. An often-cited passage from the book Wild Thing by Josh Bazell: “In metric, one milliliter of water occupies one cubic centimeter, weighs one gram, and requires one calorie of energy to heat up by one degree centigrade—which is 1 percent of the difference between its freezing point and its boiling point. An amount...

The Real Discovery of Neptune

Have you ever read the story of the discovery of Neptune? It truly is a triumph of science and mathematics, and part of the reason it is my favourite planet (a hard choice to make).  The story goes like this: It all starts with the discovery of Uranus in 1781 by William Herschel.  This was the first ever discovery of a planet, as the Earth and the five visible planets have been known of since the dawn of history. Thanks to Isaac Newton working out the laws of gravitation and the mechanics of the solar system, mathematicians could easily calculate the properties...

A Direct Black Hole

How did supermassive black holes form in the early epochs of the universe? More importantly, how did they have enough time to grow as large as they did? The answer requires a very different universe.  And back then, conditions were much different than they are now.  There was a lot of gas, little dust, no stars, and a plethora of dark matter. Astronomers have spent decades observing early quasars, massive active galaxies powered by huge black holes feeding on surrounding gas.  But these galaxies are seen so early in the universe’s history, one starts to wonder how a black hole finds sufficient...

The Largest Neutron Star in Existence

Neutron stars are the most extreme objects in the universe that have been proven to exist.  Black holes are very likely, but we’re still not 100% sure about them.  A black hole is like a giant squid in the ocean.  We’re pretty sure they exist, but nobody has caught one.  The neutron star on the other hand is like a blue whale, everybody knows they exist, and they are massive, rare, and beautiful.  Of course, once we know something exists, the next logical step is to figure out how it behaves, to characterize and generalize it, and to identify where it’s...

Building the Supermassive

Black holes form when a massive star runs out of fuel.  Gravity causes the core to collapse down to an object so dense that light itself can not escape.  In the Milky Way galaxy, there are expected to be over 100 Million black holes, though of course we can’t see them.  The one we can see is the supermassive black hole Sag A*, lying deep within the core of the galaxy.  But how did Sag A* form? Was it from the merger of many smaller black holes?  Or is there some other process forming the most enigmatic objects in the...

The Essence of Science and the Fringes of Reality

Data is fascinating.  And what’s even more fascinating is that the laws of nature produce predictable patterns in data.  For example, if you toss a coin 100 times and measure how many times heads comes up, you’ll get a number between zero and 100.  If you repeat that experiment again and again and again, you’ll get different values each time, but usually the number will be around 50, and 50 will come up more than any other value if you repeat the experiment enough times.  If you plot this data, with the # of heads in 100 coin tosses on...

Pi Written on a Pi Pie on Pi Day

Whether you’re looking for an excuse to eat dessert or just love mathematics, March 14th is a good day for geeks, nerds, and the rest of the world too.  The third month and the fourteenth day, 3.14, is known as Pi day, after the simplest and most ubiquitous constant in nature (no disrespect to c, e, g, or h).  Defined as the ratio of a circle’s circumference and it’s diameter, Pi is an irrational number, meaning there is no end to its digits.  Most people know 3.14159, but some people have memorized hundreds more digits.  Mathematicians armed with supercomputers have calculated Pi to...