Michael Strauss: America’s Eclipse

Welcome to the UniverseOn Monday, August 21, people all across the United States will witness one of the rarest and most spectacular of all astronomical phenomena: a total solar eclipse. This occurs when the position of the Moon and the Sun in the sky align perfectly, such that the Moon’s shadow falls onto a specific point on the Earth’s surface. If you are lucky enough to be standing in the shadow, you will see the Sun’s light completely blocked by the Moon: the sky will become dark, and the stars and planets will become visible. But because the apparent sizes of the Moon and the Sun are almost the same, and because everything is in motion—the Moon orbits Earth, and Earth rotates around its axis and orbits the Sun—the Moon’s shadow moves quickly.  During the eclipse, the Moon’s shadow will cross the United States at a speed of 1800 miles per hour, taking about 90 minutes to travel from the Pacific Coast in Oregon to touch the Atlantic in South Carolina.  This means that totality, the time when the Sun’s disk is completely covered as seen from any given spot along the eclipse path, is very brief: 2 minutes and 40 seconds at best.

If you are standing along the eclipse path, it takes about 2.5 hours for the Moon to pass across the Sun.  That is, you will see the disk of the Sun eaten away, becoming an ever-narrowing crescent. During this time, you can only look at the Sun with eclipse glasses (make sure they are from a reputable company!), which block the vast majority of the light from the Sun.  It is also fun to look at the dappled shadows underneath a leafy tree; if you look closely, you’ll see that the individual spots of light are all crescent-shaped. A bit more than an hour after the Moon begins to cover the Sun, you reach the point of totality, and the sky becomes dark. It is now safe to remove your eclipse glasses.

Experiencing a few minutes of darkness in the middle of the day is pretty cool. But what makes the eclipse really special is that with the light of the Sun’s disk blocked out, the faint outer atmosphere of the Sun, its corona, becomes visible to the naked eye. The corona consists of tenuous gas extending over millions of miles, with a temperature of a few million degrees. It is shaped by the complex magnetic field of the Sun, and may exhibit a complex arrangement of loops and filaments: indeed, observations of the solar corona during eclipses have been one of the principal ways in which astronomers have learned about its magnetic field. The sight is awe-inspiring; those who have experienced it say that it is as a life-changing experience.

As the Moon starts to move off the disk, the full brightness of the Sun becomes visible again, and you must put your eclipse glasses back on to protect your eyes. The Sun now appears as a narrow and ever-widening crescent. A bit more than an hour later, the Sun’s disk is completely uncovered.

The shadow of the Moon will be about 70 miles in diameter at any given time. That means that if you are not standing in that 70-mile-wide path as the shadow crosses the country, you will only see a partial solar eclipse, in which you will see the Sun appearing as a crescent.  Again, be sure to wear eclipse glasses to look at the Sun!

Solar eclipses happen roughly once or twice a year somewhere on Earth’s surface, but because  of the narrowness of the eclipse path, the number of people standing in the path is usually relatively small. This one, crossing the entire continental US, is special in this regard: tens of millions of people live within a few hours of the eclipse path. This promises to be the most widely seen and recorded eclipse in history! I have never seen a total eclipse of the Sun before, and am very excited to be traveling with my family to Oregon, where we have our fingers crossed for good weather. So, to all those who have the opportunity to stand in the Moon’s shadow, get yourself a pair of eclipse glasses, and prepare yourself to be awed.

Michael A. Strauss is professor of astrophysics at Princeton University. He is the coauthor (with Neil deGrasse Tyson and J. Richard Gott) of Welcome to the Universe: An Astrophysical Tour.

Welcome to the Universe microsite receives a Webby

We’re pleased to announce that the accompanying microsite to Welcome to the Universe by Neil DeGrasse Tyson, Michael A. Strauss, and J. Richard Gott has won a People’s Choice Webby in the Best Use of Animation or Motion Graphics category. Congratulations to Eastern Standard, the web designer, on a beautifully designed site.

Winning a Webby is especially gratifying because it honors how much fun we had making the site. We knew we wanted an unconventional approach that would mirror both the complexity and accessibility of the book it was meant to promote. Our wonderful in-house team and creative partners, Eastern Standard took on this challenge, and we are so happy with the results.
—Maria Lindenfeldar, Creative Director, Princeton University Press 

Creating this microsite was a wonderful experiment for us at Princeton University Press.  We wanted to explore how we, as a publisher, could present one of our major books to the public in a compelling way in the digital environment.  Ideally, we had a vision of creating a simple site with intuitive navigation that would give readers an inviting mini-tour through the topics of the book, Welcome to the Universe, by Neil deGrasse Tyson, Michael Strauss, and Richard Gott.  The animation was meant to be subtle, but meaningful, and to gently encourage user interaction, so that the focus would always remain immersing the reader in the content of the book – what we feel is the most interesting part!  We were very happy with how it turned out and now all the more thrilled and honored that the site was chosen for a Webby!
—Ingrid Gnerlich, Science Publisher, Princeton University Press

Welcome to the Universe microsite nominated for a Webby

We’re thrilled to announce that the microsite for Welcome to the Universe by Neil DeGrasse Tyson, Michael A. Strauss, and J. Richard Gott, designed by Eastern Standard, has been nominated for a Webby in the Best Use of Animation or Motion Graphics category. Be sure to check it out and vote for the best of the internet!

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Neil DeGrasse Tyson & Stephen Colbert: Make America Smart Again

On November 9, Neil DeGrasse Tyson joined Stephen Colbert on The Late Show to talk about Welcome to the Universe and to blow his own mind. Watch the clip here:

 

Gravitational waves making waves at Princeton

Today marks a new era in cosmology, astronomy, and astrophysics. The main page of the Einstein Papers Project website reports, “Gravitational waves do exist, as has been announced today with great joy by the scientists of the LIGO collaboration, after more than two decades of intensive experimental work.”

The cosmic breakthrough, which proves Einstein’s 100 year old prediction, has resulted in a tremendous response across the scientific community and social media. Scientific websites everywhere are already debating the meaning of the discovery, the #EinsteinWasRight hashtag has been bantered about on Twitter; You Tube featured a live announcement with over 80,000 people tuning in to watch (check it out at 27 minutes).

 

 

Princeton University Press authors Jeremiah Ostriker and Kip Thorne had a bet about gravitational wave detection in the 80s. Today when we contacted him, Ostriker, author of Heart of Darkness, was ebullient:

“The LIGO announcement today and the accompanying papers are totally persuasive. We all believed that Einstein had to be right in predicting gravitational waves, but to see them, so clean and so clear is marvelous. Two independent instruments saw the same signal from the same event, and it was just what had been predicted for the in-spiral and merger of two massive black holes.

A quarter of a century ago I had a bet with Kip Thorne that we would not see gravitational waves before the year 2000 – and I won that bet and a case of wine. But I did not doubt that, when the sensitivity of the instruments improved enough, gravitational waves would be found.  Now the skill and perseverance of the experimentalists and the support of NSF has paid off.

Hats off to all!!!”

But was Einstein always a believer in gravitational waves? Daniel Kennefick, co-author of The Einstein Encyclopedia says no:

“One hundred years ago in February 1916, Einstein mentioned gravitational waves for the first time in writing. Ironically it was to say that they did not exist. He said this in a letter to his colleague Karl Schwarzschild, who had just discovered the solution to Einstein’s equations which we now know describe black holes. Today brings a major confirmation of the existence both of gravitational waves and black holes. Yet Einstein was repeatedly skeptical about whether either of these ideas were really predictions of his theory. In the case of gravitational waves he soon changed his mind in 1916 and by 1918 had presented the first theory of these waves which still underpins our understanding of how the LIGO detectors work. But in 1936 he changed his mind again, submitting a paper to the Physical Review called “Do Gravitational Waves Exist?” in which he answered his own question in the negative. The editor of the journal responded by sending Einstein a critical referee’s report and Einstein angrily withdrew the paper and resubmitted it elsewhere. But by early the next year he had changed his mind again, completely revising the paper to present one of the first exact solutions for gravitational waves in his theory. So his relationship with gravitational waves was very far from the image of the cocksure, self-confident theorist which dominates so many stories about Einstein. Because of this, he would have been thrilled today, if he were still alive, to have this major confirmation of some of the most esoteric predictions of his theory.”

Here at Princeton University Press where we recently celebrated the 100th anniversary of Einstein’s theory of general relativity, the mood has been celebratory to say the least. If you’d like to read the Einstein Papers volumes that refer to his theory of gravitational waves, check out Document 32 in Volume 6, and Volume 7, which focuses on the theory. Or, kick off your own #EinsteinWasRight celebration by checking out some of our other relevant titles.

Traveling at the Speed of Thought: Einstein and the Quest for Gravitational Waves
by Daniel Kennefick

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Relativity: The Special and the General Theory, 100th Anniversary Edition
by Albert Einstein

relativity 100 years

The Meaning of Relativity: Including the Relativistic Theory of the Non-Symmetric Field
by Albert Einstein

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Einstein Gravity in a Nutshell
by A. Zee

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The Road to Relativity: The History and Meaning of Einstein’s “The Foundation of General Relativity” Featuring the Original Manuscript of Einstein’s Masterpiece
by Hanoch Gutfreund & Jürgen Renn.

The Road to Relativity

The Curious History of Relativity: How Einstein’s Theory of Gravity Was Lost and Found Again
by Jean Eisenstaedt

the curious history of relativity jacket

 An Einstein Encyclopedia
by Alice Calaprice, Daniel Kennfick, & Robert Sculmann

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Gravitation and Inertia
by Ignazio Ciufolini & John Archibald Wheeler

gravity and inertia jacket

Einstein’s Jury: The Race to Test Relativity
by Jeffrey Crelinsten

einstein's jury jacket

What Does a Black Hole Look Like?
by Charles D. Bailyn

black hole

Dynamics and Evolution of Galactic Nuclei
by David Merritt

dynamics and evolution of galactic nuclei

The Global Nonlinear Stability of the Minkowski Space (PMS-41)
by Demetrios Christodoulou & Sergiu Klainerman

the global nonlinear stability of the minkowski space

Modern Classical Physics: Optics, Fluids, Plasmas, Elasticity, Relativity, and Statistical Physics
by Kip S. Thorne & Roger D. Blandford

modern classical physics

The Collected Papers of Albert Einstein, Volume 7: The Berling Years: Writings, 1918-1921
by Albert Einstein

albert einstein

Quick Questions for Katherine Freese, author of The Cosmic Cocktail: Three Parts Dark Matter

Katherine FreeseKatherine Freese is the George E. Uhlenbeck Professor of Physics at the University of Michigan, and the Associate Director of the Michigan Center for Theoretical Physics. Her work has a strong focus on topics within theoretical cosmology and astroparticle physics, particularly in identifying the dark matter and dark energy that permeate the universe.

Her latest book, The Cosmic Cocktail: Three Parts Dark Matter, details the quest to solve one of the greatest scientific enigmas of all time – what is the universe made of? Dr. Freese, one of the leading experts on dark matter, recounts the earliest speculation about this murky subject stretching from the 1930s to present day in clear, accessible prose. Dr. Freese received her B.A. in Physics from Princeton University; her M.A. in Physics from Columbia University; and her Ph.D. in Physics from the University of Chicago, where she was a recipient of the William Rainey Harper Dissertation Fellowship – the highest honor that the university offers to any graduate student.

Now, on to the questions!

PUP: What inspired you to get into your field?

Katherine Freese: I was lucky to have role models and mentors who encouraged me to go into science. My parents, who were biologists, were among the founders of the field of molecular biology. Since my mother was a scientist, the notion of becoming a woman scientist wasn’t foreign to me. I dedicated my book The Cosmic Cocktail to them, as well at to my Ph.D. advisor, who was also very important.

I started graduate school as an experimentalist, working as a particle accelerator outside of Chicago to study elementary particles. Twice a week I drove into the city to take a class from David Schramm on cosmology. He was a giant of a man, both physically and intellectually. He was an Olympic hopeful wrestling champ, with the nickname “Schrammbo.” His course was so inspiring that I switched fields to work with him as my Ph.D. advisor. The field of particle astrophysics, applying the ideas of the smallest particles to the largest astronomical objects like galaxies, was in its infancy, and I learned from the master.

What would you have been if not a scientist?

I found it very hard to choose only career; in high school and college I loved everything. I always wanted to be a writer and an actress. But in the end I felt compelled to do something using mathematics, because it is ultimately so beautiful and satisfying.


“…We are creating our own questions, always driven by new technology.”


What is the biggest misunderstanding about what you do?

Now this is very funny. When I tell people I’m a cosmologist, they think I must be very good at make-up and they say, “Well that’s a good career for a woman!” No, I’m not a cosmetologist. If I say I’m an astronomer, they want me to read their palms. No, I’m not an astrologer.

If I say I’m a physicist, they think I must live in the world of the nerds because only really geeky people to physics. Well that is just plain wrong! We are not calculating balls rolling down hills (a problem that was solved centuries ago). Instead we are creating our own questions, always driven by new technology. We get to be very creative, and very collaborative, and we have a lot of fun. It is this myth that physicists are boring people that I would like to dispel in this book.

In the end I have learned to say I’m an astrophysicist because people seem to understand that best.

Why did you write this book?

I wrote the book for two reasons. I wanted to communicate the science I work on and I wanted to communicate the experience of being a scientist. It is both a popular-level book about science and a memoir.

The science side is the hunt for dark matter. Most of the matter in galaxies consists of as yet unidentified dark matter, probably some new kind of fundamental particle. This mystery was first identified in the 1930s, and I wrote the book now because scientists feel they are on the verge of discovery. I wanted to communicate the excitement that we are all feeling about resolving the bulk of the mass in the Universe. It is a great story and I thought people should know about it. Everyone should be aware of this momentous breakthrough that changes the way we look at our world.


“Science is collaborative; it’s fun. I wanted to share that experience.”


AND also, very importantly – I wanted to communicate the experience of being a scientist. How much fun it is, how exciting and creative, because I think people don’t realize that. The book tells my personal journey as a scientist, and recounts tales of the personalities of the remarkable people I met along the way. Doing science is in some ways a form of art. In the visual arts, the eyes see the colors and forms; it stimulates the brain and it gives you a high. In physics, it’s a different language, not of color or sound, but of mathematics. I get a high from doing science, and it can be better than drinking a cocktail! We are at the forefront of technology and we get to be very creative, every day. Science is collaborative; it’s fun. I wanted to share that experience.

A third secret reason for writing the book is to reach out to young women, to let them know that they too can pursue their dreams. If math or science is their passion, they should pursue it. Many of the top people in dark matter studies are women and I highlight their successes so that young women can have role models in the sciences.

My book, The Cosmic Cocktail, is the story of this search for dark matter. Like all discoveries and searches and adventures, the hunt for an answer to one of the mysteries of physics has been full of drama and excitement and surprise. And some pretty amazing characters!

Describe your writing process. How long did it take you to finish your book? Where do you write?

It took me about a year and a half to write the book. I’m not a morning person, so I would wake up at around 10 AM, and get to work an hour later. I worked best on my laptop at the kitchen table in my house. Since I am a professor at the University of Michigan, of course I also had to balance my writing with research, teaching, and administrative work at the University. Sometimes for several months I would get nothing done on my book, and other times, I focused on it exclusively. I was working 7 days a week, every waking hour (other than when I was at the gym) to get all this done for about a year, and that was not easy!

In March 2013 I had a concussion in the swimming pool, when another swimmer jumped in without telling me. I came off of the wall after my flip-turn and my head crashed directly into his. It’s a little unfair that he was completely uninjured whereas I was in agony for about a month. Concussion headaches are severe: I remember thinking that the Greek god Hephaestus (the blacksmith to the gods) was hammering a pick into my brain. I thought, just get it over with and split my head open! Since I couldn’t leave the house for a month I was incredibly productive on my book, working on it for up to ten hours a day. I couldn’t handle sound or light of any kind so sat there with my sunglasses on and did nothing but write. Not a modus operandi that I would recommend to anyone else! But I did get a lot done.

What was the biggest challenge involved with bringing this book to life?

I first tried to write a book about cosmology ten years ago, but I didn’t know how to do it. I wrote down a bunch of facts about the Universe, and it all sounded very dry. But over the past ten years, I’ve been teaching students, and I gradually realized that they were much more interested if I told stories. I would describe the personalities of the scientists, or talk about some of the adventures we have in the process of doing the science. Then the students became much more excited about the course I was teaching and they ended up learning a lot more as a consequence. So gradually I came to merge my writing about the subject matter of cosmology with a memoir of my own history as a scientist. I guess you could say I found my “voice” as a writer.

What do you think is the book’s most important contribution?

I hope that I have succeeded in conveying the fun and passion of doing science. I badly would like to dispel the myth that scientists are nerdy people working on boring subjects, calculating formulas to solve problems laid out for us by other people. We are pretty interesting! We create our own problems, driven by new advances in technology that allow us to be creative and fun. I hope I can convince young women that they can participate in this amazingly enjoyable and collaborative world of science. And of course I do believe that people who read this book will learn about the nature of the Universe, one of the deepest mysteries of modern science.

Who do you see as the audience for this book?

I have written The Cosmic Cocktail for the interested public as my audience. The book is both science and memoir. I am often asked, “Will I understand this book?” And my answer is yes. I think people are smart and interested in understanding their world. It is human nature to explore, and to ask questions about our Universe. I have not dumbed it down but I did definitely work to make it clear to the general public for whom this is not the field of study, not their area of expertise.

The book is lighthearted and fun and tells about the science of Dark Matter and also the personalities and personal stories of people involved. My goal is to share with people the excitement of doing science!

How did you come up with the title or jacket?

The Cosmic Cocktail is the perfect name for the book, as it is a recipe for the Universe —for what the Universe is made of. People find the answer very surprising. If we add up all the material of our daily experience — our bodies, the air, the walls, the vodka and gin, the stars and planets — all of that adds up to only 5% of the content of the Universe. The rest is the mysterious dark matter and dark energy that constitute the bulk of the Universe. The nature of the dark matter has been a major focus of my research and is the subject of this book.

What are you reading right now?

The Windup Girl by Paolo Bacigalupi. This book is a wonderful award-winning science fiction novel published in 2009. Set in the 23rd century, the book explores a dystopian future: most food has been genetically engineered to be sterile (with production controlled by a few powerful companies); carbon based energy has been used up and manually wound up springs are used instead; and a new humanoid life-form has been created, a “windup-girl.” The book is a great story and is very thought provoking.

What is your next project?

Dark stars. In 2007, my collaborators and I proposed the existence of a new kind of star, powered by dark matter annihilation rather than by fusion. We were inspired to call these objects “dark stars” after a song of the same name by Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young. The first stars that form in the history of the Universe, 200 million years after the Big Bang, reside in very dark matter-rich environments. Though the stars are made almost entirely of hydrogen and helium, a smattering of dark matter is enough to heat them and allow them to become very big and bright. They can grow to become a million times as massive as the Sun and a billion times as bright. The upcoming sequel to Hubble Space Telescope, the James Webb Space Telescope, will launch in 2018 and should be able to see them. We are now working on making predictions for what dark stars should look like in data taken by this space mission.

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Katherine Freese is the author of:

The Cosmic Cocktail The Cosmic Cocktail: Three Parts Dark Matter by Katherine Freese
Hardcover | 2014 | $29.95 / £19.95 | ISBN: 9780691153353
264 pp. | 6 x 9 | 15 color illus. 42 halftones. 31 line illus. | eBook | ISBN: 9781400850075 | Reviews Table of Contents Chapter 1[PDF]