Monday, February 25, 2013

Giant Planet Darker Than Black Paint

A planet blacker than coal? That’s what astronomers say they've discovered in our home galaxy with NASA’s Kepler telescope. Orbiting only about three million miles out from its star, the Jupiter-size gas giant planet ~ named TrES-2b ~ reflects almost none of the starlight that shines on it, according to a new study.
"Being less reflective than coal or even the blackest acrylic paint ~ this makes it by far the darkest planet ever discovered," lead study author David Kipping said. "If we could see it up close it would look like a near-black ball of gas, with a slight glowing red tinge to it—a true exotic amongst exoplanets."
The Kepler spacecraft was specifically designed to find planets outside our solar system. But at such distances ~TrES-2b, for instance, is 750 light-years from us ~ it's not as simple as snapping pictures of alien worlds. Instead, Kepler uses light sensors called photometers that continuously monitor tens of thousands of stars as it looks for the regular dimming of stars.

Such dips in stellar brightness may indicate that a planet is transiting, or passing in front of a star, relative to Earth, blocking some of the star's light. In the case of the coal-black planet, blocking surprisingly little of that light.

Image shows TrES-2b, mostly black with a reddish glow.

Friday, February 22, 2013

Heartbeat Is Clue to Personality Type

A new study in Germany identifies heartbeat "signatures" ~ wave patterns in the heart's electrical activity ~ that are linked to personality types.
People with certain heartbeat signatures scored higher on tests of neuroticism ~ meaning these individuals tend to experience more negative emotions, such as anxiety and a depressed mood. They also tended to experience fewer positive emotions, including happiness and cheerfulness. Measures of the heart's electrical activity could also be used to predict people's agreeableness, a personality trait that describes how compassionate or empathetic an individual is. 
The study suggests such heartbeat signatures may provide a way to measure personality that is more objective than current methods. Personality is commonly assessed using questionnaires, but these are subject to bias ~ people may choose responses that they think are more acceptable for their gender, for instance, or they may misperceive their own traits, the researchers said.
"We hope that with this method, we have found something that is perhaps more accurate, and more relatable, than many other measures of personality," said study researcher Stefan Koelsch, a professor of biological psychology at the Freie Universit├Ąt Berlin.
Researchers may also be able to identify heartbeat signatures that are characteristic of certain emotional disorders, such as depression, Koelsch said. Such signatures could one day help diagnose these disorders, or identify people at risk for them, he said. 

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Higgs Boson Spells Doom and Gloom

The long-sought Higgs boson might doom our universe to an unfortunate end, researchers say. The mass of the particle is a key ingredient in a calculation that predicts the future of space and time.

"This calculation tells you that many tens of billions of years from now there'll be a catastrophe," says Joseph Lykken, a theoretical physicist at the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory. "It may be the universe we live in is inherently unstable, and at some point billions of years from now it's all going to get wiped out."

The Higgs boson particle is a manifestation of an energy field pervading the universe called the Higgs field, which is thought to explain why particles have mass. After searching for decades for proof that this field and particle existed, physicists at the LHC announced in July 2012 that they'd discovered a particle whose properties strongly suggest it is the Higgs boson.