Sunday, November 29, 2009

Proton Beams Are on Track at Collider

Physicists returned to their future on Friday. About 10 p.m. outside Geneva, scientists at CERN, the European Center for Nuclear Research, succeeded in sending beams of protons clockwise around the 17-mile underground magnetic racetrack known as the Large Hadron Collider, the world’s biggest and most expensive physics experiment.

For physicists, the event was a milestone on the way back from disaster and the resumption of a 15-year, $9 billion quest to investigate laws and forces that prevailed when the universe was less than a trillionth of a second old.

The collider was designed to accelerate protons to energies of seven trillion electron volts apiece and smash them together in tiny fireballs in an effort to replicate and study the conditions of the Big Bang.

The first time protons circled the collider, on Sept. 10, 2008, the event was celebrated with Champagne and midnight pajama parties around the world. But the festivities were cut short a few days later when an electrical connection between a pair of the collider’s giant superconducting electromagnets vaporized.

Subsequent work revealed that the machine was riddled with thousands of connections unable to handle the high currents required to run the collider at its intended energy.

Physicists and engineers have spent the past year testing and making repairs. While they have not replaced all the faulty connections, they have patched things up enough to allow the collider to run at less than full speed.

Calling the past year’s work a “Herculean effort,” CERN’s director for accelerators, Steve Myers, said the engineers had learned from painful experience and understood the collider far better than they had before.

CERN’s director, Rolf Heuer, said in a statement, “It’s great to see beam circulating in the LHC again,” but he and others cautioned that there was a long way to go before the collider started producing the physics it was designed for.

When the collider begins to do real physics next year, it will run at half its original design energy, with protons of 3.5 trillion electron volts. The energy will be increased gradually during the year, but it could be years, physicists say, before the machine reaches its full potential.

Thousands of the troublesome junctions will have to be rebuilt during a yearlong shutdown in 2011, and engineers have to figure out why several dozen of the superconducting magnets seem to have lost their ability to operate at high intensities.

The delay has given new life to the collider’s main rival, the Tevatron at the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory in Illinois.

If all goes well, CERN says, the protons will start colliding at low energies in about a week.

Those first collisions will occur at the so-called injection energy of 450 billion electron volts. The machine will then quickly step up to 1.1 trillion electron volts, which is just above the energy of the Tevatron.

CERN is hoping to achieve that landmark as a symbolic Christmas present before a short holiday shutdown.


Thursday, November 26, 2009

Reality Is A Dream

Near Geneva, Particles Finally Come Together With a Bang

A screen at the European Organization for Nuclear Research showed the collision detectors inside the Large Hadron Collider.

Call it First Bang.

The Large Hadron Collider, the world’s biggest and most expensive science experiment, produced its first collisions on Monday, said scientists at CERN, the European Organization for Nuclear Research, outside Geneva.

Seemingly making up for lost time after years of disasters and delays, the collisions came only three days after engineers had begun shooting the subatomic particles known as protons around their 17-mile underground racetrack. The physicists announced that they had succeeded in making the beams collide, producing what they called “candidate collision events” in the giant particle detectors in the collider.

The collider has been built over 15 years at a cost of $9 billion to accelerate protons to energies of seven trillion electron volts apiece and then slam them together in an attempt to recreate forces and particles that reigned during the first moments of the Big Bang. But for much of that time, the only things that have gone bang in the collider were magnets and other components, most notably in September 2008 after the first time protons circled the collider.

When the beams began circulating again on Friday, CERN officials said they expected the first collisions to happen in early December.

“It’s a great achievement to have come this far in so short a time,” CERN’s director general, Rolf Heuer, said in a news release. “But we need to keep a sense of perspective — there’s still much to do before we can start the L.H.C. physics program.”

In the control rooms of the collider and of the four giant particle detectors, built and staffed by thousands of physicists who have the job of interpreting the data from the beginning of time, there were cheers and Champagne.

Michael Tuts of Columbia University said he and his colleagues were “ecstatic at the news.” But the most important scientific results from the collider are still far in the future, scientists said.

Monday’s collisions were basically a test of the collider systems’ ability to synchronize the beams, in which bunches of protons travel along at nearly the speed of light, and make them collide at the right points. The protons were at their so-called injection energies of 450 billion electron volts, a far cry from the energies the machine will eventually achieve.

In the next weeks before a holiday break, CERN hopes to increase the proton energies to 1.2 trillion electron volts apiece, which would make the hadron collider officially the most powerful in the world, eclipsing the Tevatron (900 billion electron volts) at Fermilab in Illinois.

Early next year the first runs devoted to physics research will start at 3.5 trillion electron volts — half the original design energy. To get near 7 trillion electron volts, the engineers say, the machine will have to be shut down a year from now for a lengthy period of repairs and other work.


Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Tristan Perich

Tristan Perich performing Dual Synthesis, 2009, with harpsichord and four-channel one-bit electronics at bitforms, New York. All images courtesy of the artist and bitforms, New York.

Tristan Perich’s first digital release was not available on iTunes. Titled 1-Bit Music, the album manifested exclusively in the form of a single 8K microchip and the requisite hardware to transmit its program of songs to the human ear, mounted handsomely onto a traditional CD jewel case. The tour found Tristan drumming along at breakneck pace to its rough-and-tumble lo-fi big-beat electro pop. His newest, purely electronic offering 1-Bit Symphony is a bold take on the antiquated form, and for his upcoming tour, he’ll accompany his microchip on the harpsichord. The work exists in the tradition of late Romantic composer Charles-Marie Widor’s grand organ symphonies for a single player, still very much in vogue 100 years ago. What the orchestra lacks in numbers is compensated for with deft execution of complexity or stark simplicity, demonstrating the range and possibility of the instrument. Perich’s work is a relentless cascade of counterpointing textures and cutting sheets of tone, with enough baroque pomp to escape the trappings of post-minimalism. The listener stops recognizing the sound of bleeps and bloops and engages with it as music for any instrument, or perhaps as music for pure sound itself. Over the past five years, Perich has investigated several contexts for one-bit instruments in various electro-acoustic arrangements, bringing weight and dimension to an aesthetic associated with Nintendo Game Boys and digital watches. I’ve always wanted to know what brought him into this unique world that seems to come from our collected childhoods. His process unites a geeky crush on algorithms and systems with all the bravura and romance of Peanuts’ tousled Schroeder at his toy piano (though Perich’s hair is more of a wiry shot). It’s an intricate and rewarding style, with a touch of wit and art-world paronomasia.

—Nick Hallett


Nick Hallett I want to talk about sound and I want to talk about music, but let’s start with how you found one-bit technology as a means to create both.

Tristan Perich When I was in college at Columbia I took a class that was an introduction to the world of new media art. Douglas Repetto taught it.

NH Douglas Repetto has been rated one of the world’s sexiest geeks by Wired magazine.

TP (laughter) Awesome. Then the next year I did an independent project with him, exploring kinetic art through microchips and motors, creating musical interfaces and programming microchips—working with chips and generating sounds—and really liking it. The conceptual part was fleshed out later; over time I realized why I was interested in the sound.

NH So what was it? One-bit sounds have a loaded history, certainly for people over the age of 30 who experienced the dawn of consumer digital culture and have those associations with early digital Casio watches or greeting cards that played Christmas tunes. Does the sound carry any of that nostalgic baggage for you?

TP It carries a lot of that baggage, and it’s funny because my watch alarm just went off like two minutes ago—another one-bit sound. It’s such a part of video game culture and my youth, and now it’s part of the sound palate of the world around us.

NH What exactly is the appeal of the one-bit sound? The actual acoustics? The cultural theory behind it? What’s the joy of programming the chips?

TP On one level, it’s just straight up the sound. The pieces from the first album are all very driving.

NH How did you figure out what kind of music you wanted to make?

TP Around 2004, Fischerspooner held a great salon at the Deitch Projects space in Williamsburg. These were weekly events with piles of free beer, and they tried to do interesting performances and art installations. It felt exciting.

NH New York was exciting around that time.

TP Well, I think it’s exciting now.

NH True, but there was a particular energy that lasted for a few years after September 11 that has been unmatched since.

TP That energy was pretty top-down, though; it was sponsored by the art world and the music industry, but still super-raw and fresh and cool.

NH Well, Fischerspooner had just signed a million-dollar record deal. It was definitely the twilight of the record industry. Anyway, the salon …

TP I was so into electronic music at that time, and I was asked to perform. I think I played piano for a video piece I did, and it was there that I got the inspiration and the idea of actually putting a microchip in a CD case and writing music for it. I had an early prototype that I would bring around and play for people.

NH So it came about as an art idea as much as it did a musical idea?

TP I think so.

NH Maybe what was leading you towards this path was the idea of creating a physical object.

TP That’s a good way of looking at it. There was a sense that it was sort of meant for mass production. Early on, I wanted it to be the same price as a CD—the same object, the same case, but with the innards swapped out. Almost disguised as something you would usually consume and you wouldn’t even know until you opened it up that it was a microchip. So yes, kind of an art statement.

NH Did you see it as a pop album?

TP Not at all, but I wanted to engage that pop aspect of culture at the same time. There was music inside of me that wanted to be pop music, but I also wanted to have some challenging noise pieces that wouldn’t fly by pop-music standards.

NH Did you see this in relationship to Pop art?

TP No, I was critiquing mainstream production values and the consumption of music. Cantaloupe Music was interested in it, so I moved back to New York, started going to the Interactive Telecommunications Program at NYU, and started doing some shows. I think this was the fall of 2005.

NH Which is when I met you.

TP The first show was opening for Dirty Projectors at Tonic; that was when I decided to add drums on top of it—a performance version. That was me throwing myself into the Big Beat electronica world.

Five Linear Constructions, 2007-2009, installation for five-channel one-bit video and cathode ray televisions. Dimensions variable.

NH I interpreted the first record to be a pun on Gameboy and eight-bit music in that it was something of a one-upmanship by being even more primitively executed. I’m curious, was that intentional or were you trying to establish an initial connection with the chiptune music movement?

TP I don’t even remember what the first chiptunes show I did was, but I immediately found myself fully in that scene. There was a sense of people saying, “Tristan doesn’t need the other seven bits—this is one-bit music!” So the one-upmanship was perceived, but I don’t think it was ever intentional. After all these eight-bit artists, to see a one-bit artist come along, regardless of the intent, is perceived as a response. But that was part of the fun, that there was a little commotion going on. What’s cool about that scene is that it is a scene, where everybody knows each other.

NH You’ve had composer chops since long before you got invested in one-bit sound. When did you start to transition into a more, um, elegant sensibility, one that engaged with your inner composer, your inner Schroeder?

TP When I first started performing, I wanted to add to music and drums with additional tracks. I never got around to it, partly because the pitch system of the first album is totally arbitrary and has no grounding in the tonality our ears are used to. Cantaloupe did a label showcase at Tonic, and I played a piece that was for electronics with a baritone sax on top of it that my friend Argeo Ascani played. That was my first glimpse at what I really wanted to get into: scoring music for acoustic instruments with electronics. At the time I hadn’t really fleshed the ideas out; he was playing into an amplified microphone and the electronic part was the noise: glitchy, bleepy stuff that I was doing on the first album. Over time, this settled down so that the electronics and human musicians would be playing parts that were similar in scale.

A year later, when I was down in Texas at the Aurora Picture Show, doing the festival you put together, I was also finishing the ten-violin piece, which was really the second piece I wrote, it was kind of like 0 to 100, in a way.

NH I remember coming back from Texas and maybe a week or two later going to the Tenri Institute and hearing that piece for the violins. It was a different world from what you had done two weeks before.

TP In Texas I worked through the concepts but hadn’t really written the music. But that ten-violin piece, “Active Field,” was such an obvious structure. First movement: violins. Second movement: electronics. Third movement: violins and electronics. It was a statement of purpose for a new direction, definitely a different world from the stuff with the drums … I learned to drum from listening to DJ Shadow and the Chemical Brothers.

NH So Big Beat is a real influence to you?

TP Absolutely, it was some of the first music that I got really excited about and it was essentially where my interest in non-repeating beat structures came from. When I was finally able apply it to lo-fi electronics, that felt like my statement, you know? Electronics are so primitive and physical that pairing them with the most visceral acoustic instrument—the drum set—was the most direct presentation of that idea I could do. In a way, all the other music I’ve written since is a less pronounced reiteration of that theme. When I moved from drums to more traditional classical instruments, it was like writing for other musicians, a return to the classical tradition of the scored composition and a move away from improvisation, which the drum stuff was rooted in.

NH What’s the relevance of improvisation to you, as a composer?

TP It’s a hugely important part of the writing process. I’m a pianist, really, and most of my ideas come from my improvisational approach to the instrument. Playing is a way to spew out musical ideas before refining and distilling them into lines of music that ultimately get employed into compositions. I think also improvisation is an interesting window into a non-improviser’s mind. Raw material can say a lot about someone’s sensibilities. You wind up doing things that other people might not be able to do. This issue of complexity theory actually comes up a lot in my work; if you want a line of music to have a certain amount of complexity, it might be more practical to convey the gist of it and have it be improvisational rather than write down every note. I’m dealing with this idea for this harpsichord piece I’m writing now. It’s going to be dense, long, and intense, and I’m trying to figure out what the best mechanism for me to perform it consistently will be.

NH I also think that in post-Zorn New York, improvisation plays such an important role in the experimental music scene; it’s almost frowned upon if you don’t improvise. You’ll see artists who will make a point of saying, “I’m a composer, a performer, and an improviser.”

TP I totally do not consider or call myself an improviser. (laughter)

NH Neither do I. But at the root of it, every composer is on some level an improviser. That’s how you generate an idea.

TP This is a great way of looking at it. My musical ideas always come from some sort of self-expressive improvisatory moment, which highlights an important distinction between the way I work compositionally and the way algorithmic artists work, where content comes not from artistic improvisation but from an algorithm. There’s a difference between process being part of the inspiration or the tool set that you have and process being a determinant.

NH What’s the relevance of algorithms to listeners of music and lovers of art?

TP Algorithms can unlock the amazing beauty of systems. I have a scientific interest in systems. I’m constantly amazed by chaotic processes and things that nature creates, how quantum mechanics percolate up from the sub-atomic level to the world around us. I’m going to make some enemies by saying this—

NH You gotta make enemies.

Machine Drawing (2009-10-22 9:50 PM to 2009-10-27 10:50 AM), 2009, pen on paper, 50 × 76.5 inches.

TP The machine drawings I do are an intersection between these two ideas, because the algorithm is important to the actual drawing, but the drawing is defined by its compositional structure. I create the structure at the outset, then the drawing itself is executed by a computer-programmed pen. It’s like the actual movement of the pen is algorithmically generated. But say I tell a performer, “Play this with vibrato.” Vibrato itself isn’t something I’ve scored to the microsecond; it’s kind of an algorithmic addition to the performance. So my interest in algorithms comes from executing simple processes that could easily be done by hand with machinelike precision, without making mistakes and with infinite endurance. As the algorithm becomes spontaneous or does something unpredictable, I become less interested in it. I like the algorithms as rote executers of very simple ideas, essentially.

NH You use the term “low-level” quite a bit in talking about one-bit music. By working in such low-level terrain, things take on very organic qualities. You’ve talked about that as an allure to the one-bit sound world. So it seems like you have an interest in baseline procedures and mechanisms that can be replicated through very simple programs and machines.

TP In high school I got really into theoretical and quantum physics, and was reading books as often as I could about the subatomic world. These theories weren’t always necessarily the truth, but they described wonderfully creative systems. The simpler they got, the more interesting. It would be nice if you had just one rule of the universe, but as a consequence of one rule, thousands more can be deduced, and that’s a really beautiful idea about reality. It’s also a beautiful idea in the world of pure math, which I was also really into. I was reading books about algebra and the foundations of mathematics, where you build up the entirety of mathematics from just a few axioms. I also got into the work of Kurt Gödel—his incompleteness theory and how anything true can ultimately be explained by mathematics.

NH Did you ever read Douglas Hofstadter’s Gödel, Escher, Bach?

TP Of course. Although, have any of us actually finished it?

NH I didn’t. And I took a course on it in college. (laughter)

TP A friend of mine took a course from Hofstadter and said that his requirement for geometric proofs was that they can’t just be true—they also had to be beautiful, which is very Hofstadter.

NH I love that.

TP Gödel said that any formal system either has internal inconsistencies which collapse on themselves or that there will always be things outside the system that you cannot explain. Recently, these ideas have been seriously important for me in thinking about the nature of machines and particularly how randomness illustrates the difference between a machine and a biological brain, for instance. A machine can be perfectly random up to a point, but if you ask someone to write 100 random numbers down, they’re not actually going to be statistically random because the human brain falls into patterns. Machines are perfectly random until they run out of memory; then they just loop. Any machine has a finite limitation, which is ultimately probably true of our brains as well, but it’s a different kind. So I’ll have machines carry out instructions to the point of reaching a mechanical abstraction of process; that’s when you enter a new world with its own limitations.

NH So how do you wrestle this geekier side, this interest in machines, with the part of you that’s just trying to get his feelings out through music? Or are they one and the same?

TP Well, I don’t need to wrestle much.

NH You don’t think they’re at odds?

TP It’s a good question, and it has a lot to do with this new album I just finished. I find meaning in beauty, a resonance in beauty, and I’m attracted to beauty in music. It doesn’t mean our sense of beauty doesn’t change; I think the role of artists is to push the idea of beauty forward.

NH But there’s a standard prototype out there for artistic and sonic beauty, I think.

TP Although it’s always evolving or at least widening, right?

NH Well, the world is always changing.

TP Good point. (laughter) I think my compositional work is constantly going in two directions: toward austere statements of an idea and toward direct representations of melodic or artistic feelings. The pendulum swings back and forth. I’ll write a piece where the entire thing is eighth notes or something, versus, for instance, the new album.

NH I just listened to it for the first time yesterday. We’re talking about simplicity and austerity, yet you’ve forged an intensely complex listening experience!

TP Yeah, well, it’s kind of a new direction. A lot of thinking went into this follow-up album because four years have passed since I did the first one. I’ve made a lot of scored music but haven’t done much that’s purely electronic since. I wanted to write a long-form composition for two-channel electronics. I ended up thinking about symphonies, about the idea of a symphony of electronics that’s played on headphones. I wanted to address my issues with the symphonic form—polyphony, density—so in that sense I was looking backward a little. Musically, the agenda was to do something that would shift between being accessible and sort of … fun, I guess, and would then suddenly become a very austere sound world.

NH I’m curious about the idea of it being a symphony when there are no instruments other than the electronics. So the thing that brought you to the term “symphony” was the form of the symphonic work, as opposed to any other kind of large-scale work?

TP Yeah, the multi-part movement—the “complete” work.

NH Are you misleading your listener by calling it a symphony?

TP I don’t think a symphony always implies a string orchestra anymore.

1-Bit Symphony, 2009, source code, custom circuit, CD jewel case. Edition of 50.

NH I guess what I’m trying to ask is this: in the same way I felt like the first record was almost a pun on chiptune music, is this one a pun on the idea of the symphony?

TP This is what a symphony means to me. It’s interesting, I hadn’t thought about this.

NH It feels like you’re calling into question what a symphony means in the 21st century. No one really writes them anymore; it’s an antiquated form.

TP A symphony is archaic, and I like that. I keep calling myself a traditionalist. I’m sort of resisting interactivity in my art and I’m resisting algorithm in my music. I’m ultimately insisting on predetermined notes being written on paper.

NH Do you feel like you have detractors in the multimedia or electronic music world as a result? I don’t think the composer or the artist is doing a good job unless he or she is pissing people off.

TP Nah, I’m not pissing anyone off. One of my main concerns is trying to operate in a system that’s essentially anti-emulative. Maybe this goes back to our conversation about chiptunes; I’m trying to work in a system defined by itself. Now, of course that’s impossible, but the one-bit waveform is so degraded, so low-fidelity, that it really can’t be used to sample sounds from reality. If the history of electronic music had a trajectory where a goal was being able to electronically reproduce the sound of a violin—

NH That idea is over. I’m hopeful that people are past that. Cory Arcangel has talked about how a lot of artists who use industry-standard software applications are playing second fiddle to the technology they’re using. The software becomes the art.

TP Yeah, it’s a criticism I hear all the time, for example with Max/MSP music. Tools are important; the more we understand the tool, the better. That’s why I work with my own hardware and write my own software. For the new album, I rewrote the software in Assembly Language, which is a programming language that fewer and fewer people use as time goes by, but it’s also the language of the machine itself. Any instruction I write in Assembly Language is directly interpreted by the machine instead of being compiled into the code by other software. So I’m working with the raw instructions that the machine executes, getting one step closer to the flow of electricity through the microchip.

Conceptually, it’s pretty much the same as a laptop on stage being used by a musician. There are two kinds of machines: machines that directly represent their task, like a lawnmower—it’s a lawnmower, it doesn’t make you coffee—then there’s a second order of machines that have a level of abstraction built into them. That’s what computers are. I like this; that abstraction puts me back to when I first learned about the foundations of math, building systems of logic from very simple statements. I’m using logic to build simple structures that, when they’re executed, create certain pitches. The other thing about the one-bit sound is that it’s not being fed through a digital analog converter.

NH It’s pure.

TP And as soon as you work with a digital analog converter, there’s a weird translation that takes place. I’m trying to remove all those levels of translation.

NH Get straight to the human ear.

TP Right, I think the way I use electronic speakers is fundamentally different than how speakers are used by a laptop musician, for instance, where sound waves are sent to the speaker and the speaker acts as a metaphor. I’m treating the speaker as an object, a machine.

NH It seems like an instrument to me.

TP Yeah, exactly. In most music played through a speaker, the speaker is not an instrument; the instrument is recorded or synthesized at the computer and the speaker’s job is to perfectly reproduce its waveform. I’m not interested in that. I want the speaker to be the soundmaking device itself. The fifth and final movement of the new album, its final movement, ends on a static chord; it’s something I’ve been exploring since “Active Field,” where there’s this moment of stasis—time isn’t slowed down but information is, events are. This last cluster just plays indefinitely until you turn off the machine.

NH Kind of like the locked groove at the end of the vinyl.

TP It’s so funny you mention this, because I totally missed that until Warren Fischer also made the comparison.

NH But I think the reference you’re seeking is on a much more basic level.

TP Something expressive, I feel.

NH The Joy of Coding? (laughter)

TP It’s like the infinite as a static quality instead of a looping pattern. A locked groove is a looping idea; what I’m interested in is having the indefinite moment be stasis. The algorithm is very present in that, but it really steps both to the background because it’s so uninteresting! Nothing musical is happening anymore, but it’s the perfect expression of indefinite process, exactly what an algorithm is. It’s just frequencies that the machine is indefinitely putting out. This led me to think about how an album is a recording; a CD is an audio waveform on a disc or an MP3, a record of an event. In order for a recording to exist, the thing it’s recording must have happened and concluded. But if you have something infinite, it never finishes, so you will never have a recording of its full expression. It can’t really play forever and we can’t listen to it forever—things fall apart—but it’s about this potential expression.

NH Sure, it’s also about the act of turning it off.

TP Yeah. So, maybe these are the enemies I’m going to make. In that final movement, the algorithm is not generating any more content. In some generative art there’s this idea that the program will always be generating new things. But I don’t like that idea. For me it was the opposite. The album has to end somehow, so in a way it was actually a way of solving that problem.

NH It was a functional solution. So how will your third chip end?

TP I don’t know. I don’t even know if I’ll make one.

NH Maybe a secret track?

TP There was a secret track on the first one! Didn’t I tell you about that?

NH No!

TP If you connect two pins together the right way when you turn it on, it plays a hidden track. I don’t think anybody knows about that.

NH Oh, well, now we’re getting somewhere.

TP Anybody who actually tries to read the source code would figure it out. It’s sort of my test, I guess.

Perich will be playing at Galapagos in Brooklyn on December 18 at 8 pm.

Nick Hallett is a composer and vocalist based in New York. He is the co-curator of the Darmstadt new music series, which celebrates its fifth birthday with a celebrated annual reading of Terry Riley’s “In C” on November 30 at Galapagos Art Space, and then mounts a festival of “Essential Repertoire” at ISSUE Project Room from December 3–5.


Monday, November 23, 2009

By Happy Accident, Chemists Produce a New Blue

Blue is sometimes not an easy color to make.

Blue pigments of the past have often been expensive (ultramarine blue was made from the gemstone lapis lazuli, ground up), poisonous (cobalt blue is a possible carcinogen and Prussian blue, another well-known pigment, can leach cyanide) or apt to fade (many of the organic ones fall apart when exposed to acid or heat).

So it was a pleasant surprise to chemists at Oregon State University when they created a new, durable and brilliantly blue pigment by accident.

The researchers were trying to make compounds with novel electronic properties, mixing manganese oxide, which is black, with other chemicals and heating them to high temperatures.

Then Mas Subramanian, a professor of material sciences, noticed that one of the samples that a graduate student had just taken out of the furnace was blue.

“I was shocked, actually,” Dr. Subramanian said.

In the intense heat, almost 2,000 degrees Fahrenheit, the ingredients formed a crystal structure in which the manganese ions absorbed red and green wavelengths of light and reflected only blue.

When cooled, the manganese-containing oxide remained in this alternate structure. The other ingredients — white yttrium oxide and pale yellow indium oxide — are also required to stabilize the blue crystal. When one was left out, no blue color appeared.

The pigments have proven safe and durable, Dr. Subramanian said, although not cheap because of the cost of the indium. The researchers are trying to replace the indium oxide with cheaper oxides like aluminum oxide, which possesses similar properties.

The findings appear in the Journal of the American Chemical Society.


Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Monday, November 16, 2009

Mystery 'dark flow' extends towards edge of universe

Galaxies going places (Image: NASA/M.Markevitch et al/STSCI; Maggellan/U.Arizona/D.Clowe et al)

SOMETHING big is out there beyond the visible edge of our universe. That's the conclusion of the largest analysis to date of over 1000 galaxy clusters streaming in one direction at blistering speeds. Some researchers say this so-called "dark flow" is a sign that other universes nestle next door.

Last year, Sasha Kashlinsky of the Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, and colleagues identified an unusual pattern in the motion of around 800 galaxy clusters. They studied the clusters' motion in the "afterglow" of the big bang, as measured by the Wilkinson Microwave Anisotropy Probe (WMAP). The photons of this afterglow collide with electrons in galaxy clusters as they travel across space to the Earth, and this subtly changes the afterglow's temperature.

The team combined the WMAP data with X-ray observations and found the clusters were streaming at up to 1000 kilometres per second towards one particular part of the cosmos (The Astrophysical Journal Letters, vol 686, p L49).

Many researchers argued the dark flow would not turn up in later observations, but now the team claim to have confirmed its existence. Their latest analysis reveals 1400 clusters are part of the flow, and that it continues to around 3 billion light years from Earth, a sizeable fraction of the distance to the edge of the observable universe ( This is twice as far as seen in the previous study.

The dark flow appears to have been caused shortly after the big bang by something no longer in the observable universe. It has no effect today because reaching across this horizon would involve travelling faster than light.

One explanation for the flow would be the gravity of a huge concentration of matter, but this is very unlikely. Within the standard big bang picture, massive cosmic structures were "seeded" by random quantum fluctuations, so overall, matter should be spread evenly.

There could be an exotic explanation. Laura Mersini-Houghton of the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, thinks the flow is a sign of a neighbouring universe. If the tiny patch of vacuum that inflated to become our universe was quantum entangled with other pieces of vacuum - other universes - they could have exerted a force from beyond the present-day visible horizon (see "Nosey neighbours").

Yet despite the new findings, the existence of the dark flow remains disputed. Charles Bennett, principal investigator of WMAP says the cluster analysis is not statistically significant. "There is no evidence for the large-scale dark flow, using all of the best data available."

Nosey neighbours
Was our universe once entangled with a neighbour? The observation of "dark flow" in galaxy clusters was predicted in 2006 by Laura Mersini-Houghton of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and colleagues. She proposes that the effect occurs because our universe was once influenced by neighbouring domains (

Mersini-Houghton reasoned that if a force exerted by other universes squeezed ours, it could generate a repulsive effect that would impede the shrinkage of matter into clusters but not leave an imprint on smaller scales. "This skews the distribution of lumps so they are not the same in all directions," she says. "There is a preferred direction - the dark flow."

She also predicted in 2006 that there should be two "holes" - regions with fewer galaxies than expected. Sure enough, there does appear to be a hole - the so-called "cold spot" identified by the WMAP probe. The hole is a very large region of space where the afterglow is cooler than average. However, its cause - and even existence - is disputed, and Mersini-Houghton's hypothesis remains controversial.


Thursday, November 12, 2009

Monday, November 2, 2009

Don Cherry, 1978