Thursday, April 14, 2011

A starchild and the stuff of stars

This week has been notable for two reasons, one for what it reminds us of that's past, the other for what it might bring in the future. It's fifty years since Yuri Gagarin blasted off into space in Vostok 1, on April 12, 1961, opening up a new era in exploration and human endeavour. He spent an hour and forty-eight minutes in flight and completed one orbit round the world before re-entry, ejected from his capsule and landed by parachute. The world goggled at this smiling, handsome superman (only five foot two, by the way, an inspiration to shorties) who stole the thunder from Alan Shepard who blasted off into space just about three weeks later. This is also a good place to remember the brave dog Laika, who was sent up in space four years earlier, with no expectation of her ever coming back. There are those who will argue that the thing to remember is the Sputnik programme, which launched the space era, the Cold war, and on the plus side, a whole generation of Sputnik kids into science.

This ushers in the second half of today's post. A recent analysis of the data collected at the Tevatron, the accelerator at Fermilab, shows what might be signature of a new particle, not predicted by the Standard Model (the established and accepted model for all elementary particles observed so far). The physicists are cautious, as the data is still not of the confidence level that declares a new particle and new physics. However, the buzz is around, and phenomenologists (the model builders) are licking their lips. More on this, if the bump in the distribution survives further data.

Tailpiece: A new song on Yuri Gagarin, tentatively called starchild, is being recorded by someone who is more than qualified to record a song like this. This is Brian May, who left incomplete a Ph.D. in astrophysics to become a guitarist for the rock group Queen. Incidentally, he finished his Ph.D., with a bona-fide thesis, on, as it happens, stardust, thirty years later.

This blog post is by Neelima Gupte and Sumathi Rao.


Rahul Siddharthan said...

Thank you, Neelima and Sumathi, for continuing the blog. I missed the previous update: I guess I hadn't been checking my blog feed for a while and it scrolled off the page.
I look forward to some nice science and other matters appearing regularly!

It would also be nice to get occasional guest posts, by, eg, HEP physicists to analyse the tevatron news.

Neelima said...

Dear Rahul,

We do plan to have guest posts (although, with reference to HEP, Sumathi is a phenomenologist too). I hope you will write too sometime, even though you have your own blog.
Many thanks for writing in, it's really nice to have some feedback.

With regards,


Ludwig said...

Very apropos post! A friend pointed me to this YouTube video which is apparently the same duration as Gagarin's flight, and interleaves shots from his spaceflight with pictures from the International Space Station, trying to re-create the magic of that first orbit, and it does really work. Very goosebumpy!

It also turns out that April 12 is the 30th anniversary of STS-1, when the space shuttle Columbia took to the skies for the first time. I can't find out whether the choice of date was a tribute to Gagarin's flight, or a pointed reminder about who called the shots now!

Rahul Siddharthan said...

Ah, apologies -- I knew Sumathi's condensed-matter work (which somewhat overlapped with mine, before I switched), but didn't know about the phenomenology. Will be happy to contribute, especially when I come across something thought-provoking that makes me feel I must share it with Rahul...

AmOK said...

It is wonderful to read this blog again! While the banter and jest will have to wait until I meet The Learned One in the afterword and should he recognize me there, I do thank the writers for their contributions to these topics in this continued blog.

Meena said...

It's great seeing this post. Earlier I was a lurker - walking across to Rahul's office to tell him my comments (if any) rather than posting them here, but now I will try to post comments as and when. Such as now:

I told my daughter about this post, and she wanted to know: "Did Laika come back? Why did they send her? Dogs' lives are not less precious." I told her that research works that way; for instance lots of experiments are done on monkeys. And she said "When I was young, was I not a monkey?"

Neelima said...

Thanks, Ludwig, for reminding us of the space shuttle. I remember watching the Columbia take off, and kanding 30 years ago, huddled, if I remember correctly, in Sumathi's dorm room in Stony Brook, where all TV watching was done. I had watched it on the news, when it was already known that Columbia was home safely, unlike Rahul, who had watched it live with that tiny moment of breathless anxiety before the shuttle actually appeared on the TV screens. This uncertainty hadn't changed from '61 to '81, or even now!

Meena, if you have any friends with a collection of books from Mir publishers, (we don't, unfortunately), look for a book called Rags, Borya and the rocket.
Borya loses his beloved dog Rags, who lands up at the space research station and eventually appears on Borya's TV screen inside a space capsule. Don't worry, Rags comes back, the book was written after the re-entry problem was solved. Lavanya might like it.

Amok, welcome back to As I Please. More sometime.

Sumathi Rao said...

Well, I started my professional life as a phenomenologist, but that was ages ago!
So although I would still be
interested in tevatron news, hopefully, there would be enough HEP physicists whom we could get to write about it.