Einstein’s paper on general relativity was published in 1915. The paper didn’t appear until December of that year, but there’s already been some celebratory centennial doings. Science published a special issue last week, and it looks as if the contents are open-access, free to read.
At Last Word on Nothing, Richard Panek wonders whether the fact that one of the more important side effects of general relativity, the idea that gravity distorts space and time, has appeared in two mass-market movies (Interstellar and A Brief History of Time) means that this formerly mind-blowing idea is today widely accepted. Is it a ho-hum factlet now part of mainstream human thought? Or do many of us still need an introduction to space curvature and time dilation?
Speaking strictly for myself (an English lit major who, bizarrely, managed to sneak into grad school to study genetics because it seemed, well, kinda interesting), a physics brush-up never hurts.
Fortunately, one is available from Mike Wall at Space.com, who points out that General Relativity was a radical idea that has held up remarkably well under a century of intense scrutiny. Wall notes that scientists are using it today to study black holes, neutron stars and other celestial phenomena. Also “researchers will keep trying to unify general relativity with quantum mechanics, to marry the world of the very large with that of the very small.”
If successful, Wall says, this would produce the “grand and longed-for ‘theory of everything.'” In her centennial take at LiveScience, which describes attempts to get general relativity to break down, Tanya Lewis looks forward to a ToE too.
Life on Enceladus, a giant of a tiny moon?
Now this is cool. Or, rather, warm. Enceladus, one of Saturn’s many moons, is a ball of ice maybe 30 miles thick, but underneath the ice is liquid water. And, a new paper asserts, at the bottom of this ice-encased ocean are hydrothermal vents. And you know what hydrothermal vents could mean. Which is why, of a sudden, Enceladus has become a place to look for life.
The evidence is indirect and even a little weird, inferred from nanoparticles of silica adrift in the space around the moon and detected in Cassini spacecraft images. The particles form one of Saturn’s rings (the E ring), but it appears their source is Enceladus.
One of the few ways minuscule silica particles just like this can exist is if minerals dissolved in hot water come suddenly into contact with cold water. This causes them to precipitate. Icy geysers shoot up 200 km from Enceladus, and they can blast the particles out into space to eventually encircle the giant gas planet.
The geysers are cold, but the silica nanoparticles couldn’t exist if they weren’t created first in hot water. So, the scientists reason, there must be hot water (at least 90 degrees C.) on icy Enceladus.
Such hydrothermal vents would be colder than most vents on Earth. But there is an Earthly precedent, the cooler Lost City vents in the mid-Atlantic. Lots of life there anyway. Scott Johnson explains the chemistry and geology at Ars Technica.
How can tiny Enceladus, only ~ 250km around, have hot springs? One standard explanation is tidal friction from mighty Saturn, which heaves and squeezes all its dozens of moons, and keeps Enceladus’s ocean liquid. But the researchers told Susanne Dambeck at the SciLogs Lindau blog that they think Saturn’s kneading action isn’t enough to explain the degree of heat that must be present on Enceladus. At Vox, Joseph Stromberg suggests maybe the additional heat comes from radioactive decay of isotopes.
If you want to know more about those plumes of ice and water vapor shooting up from Enceladus, Deepak Dhingra reports on several recent geyser papers at the Planetary Society guest blog.
In 1998, the attorneys general of 46 states settled their lawsuit for recovery of tobacco-related health care costs against the four largest US tobacco companies. The companies agreed to pay more than $200 billion in just the first 25 years, and more in perpetuity.
States handled this windfall stupidly in many cases, mortgaging their shares of future payments to investors for pennies on the dollar and in some cases sticking themselves with billions in future debt, according to ProPublica.
Maybe they’ll have a chance to be smarter next time, with the sugar industry. That’s if dentist Christin Kearns has her way. Kearns is the first author of a paper PLOS Medicine published this week. Drawing on a recently unearthed trove of official documents and memos, the paper shows that, beginning late in the 1960s, the sugar industry influenced the National Institutes of Health’s National Institute of Dental Research to largely ignore the role of sugar in tooth decay.
“The documents reveal a virtual capture of the NIDR by an affected industry,” said Michael F. Jacobson, executive director of the Center for Science in the Public Interest, in a guest post at PLOS’s Speaking of Medicine blog. “The sugar industry convinced the U.S. National Institutes of Health (NIH) that studies that might persuade people to cut back on sugary foods should not be part of a national plan to fight childhood tooth decay,” Jocelyn Kaiser said at ScienceInsider.
This paper, Kearns told Lisa Aliferis at Shots, is only the beginning. There are lots more documents to be discovered, lots more sugar industry tactics to be disclosed. Litigation is “certainly a possibility.” A good possibility, it looks like, since one of her co-authors is Stanton Glantz, the American Legacy Foundation Distinguished Professor of Tobacco Control and head of the Center for Tobacco Control Research and Education at UCSF.
Meantime, the World Health Organization has just officially released its recommendation to eat less sugar, less than 10% of daily calories. Said Marion Nestle at Food Politics, “The last time WHO tried to issue the 10% of calories advice in 2003, it got clobbered by lobbyists. This time, lobbyists didn’t succeed. This is progress.”