Fermi National Laboratory

Volume 22  |  Friday, June 18, 1999  |  Number 12
In This Issue  |  FermiNews Main Page

The Talk of The Lab

Star Light, Star Bright, Wonder What They’ll See Tonight

Cast a wide enough net across the heavens, and who knows what you’ll find. Astronomers for the Sloan Digital Sky Survey, the astrophysical collaboration that is Fermilab’s most ambitious foray into the sky, have been turning up cosmological curiosities at a rate that verges on dizzying to those more accustomed to the measured pace of hard-won particle physics discoveries.

First, back in December, Sloan astronomers from Princeton announced that they had found the second most distant quasar ever spotted in the universe: WAY out there. But hold on—a few days later they had the MOST distant, along with the third, fourth and fifth. Not only that, but all those quasars, they pointed out, had turned up in just the data from the telescope’s engineering run: they hadn’t really cranked up the actual Sky Survey yet.

In April, on the track of more quasars, the Princeton astronomers found yet another astronomical anomaly in the Sky Survey’s engineering data. It was an object too big to be a planet and too small to be a star, sitting all by itself in the constellation Ophiuchus right here in our own Milky Way galaxy, a mere 30 light years from home. No sooner had the Princeton discoverers given it the euphonious designation of "methane dwarf" than Sky Survey colleagues at The Johns Hopkins University found a second lonely brown methane dwarf in the constellation Virgo. Methane dwarfs, of which hitherto only one had ever been seen, were suddenly popping up all over.

The next week’s discovery came as Sky Survey astronomer Julianne Dalcanton of the University of Washington was cruising the data, trawling for faint, fuzzy galaxies, her astronomical specialty. Suddenly her faint, fuzzy algorithm turned up something that wasn’t a galaxy at all, but a true blue, honest-to-goodness comet, tail and all. (You can see what Julianne saw on the Web at http://sdsslnx.fnal.gov:8015/run-745/mosaic-491-500/745/4/h_0498.htm). The comet appeared in data from the night of March 20, and then disappeared from view. Dalcanton’s comet has since been seen by other astronomers, and its orbit has now been computed: it’s currently about the same distance from the sun as Jupiter, but is rapidly speeding away to the cold, outer reaches of the solar system. It’ll be back in about 186,000 years.

All these discoveries raise procedural questions. What do you do when you find something new and different in the sky? You inform the Central Bureau for Astronomical Telegrams, the clearinghouse for new astronomical information, giving the particulars of your discovery. CBAT was established in the days of Western Union, but nowadays there’s a form you fill out on the Web
( http://cfa-www.harvard.edu/iau/DiscoveryForm.html ). At this rate, the Sky Survey should probably bookmark the page.

—Judy Jackson

Professional slip

During the broadcast of a night game from hot and humid Miami, Chicago Cubs announcers Pat Hughes and Ron Santo (the Cubs’ former all-star third baseman) were discussing the issue of whether a batted ball would travel farther in dry air or humid air.

"Who would you ask to get the answer to that?" Santo mused. "Would you ask a scientist? Or would you ask a physicist?"

Robert K. Adair, who generally answers to both descriptions, offers a solution in The Physics of Baseball:

"Humidity per se has little effect on the flight of the ball. Indeed, since water vapor is a little lighter than air, if all other factors are the same, a ball will travel farther if the air is exceptionally humid—but only by a few inches. The general belief that the ball does not travel as far if the humidity is high probably stems from experience on windless humid nights when the temperature has dropped from the daytime highs. Then, with the cooler evening air a little denser—or deader—and no breeze to carry the ball, the home run in the hot afternoon carries only to the warning path at night."

Adair is the Sterling Professor Emeritus of Physics at Yale University.

—Mike Perricone

A Fair Shake for Physics Science Projects

Every year, across Illinois, science students (and their parents) get ready for the school science fair. Conceptions and contraptions of amazing variety crowd the gymnasiums of countless junior highs and high schools, and Fermilab’s phone rings off the hook with requests for physicists to serve as judges. The best of the best of these school science projects move through the competitive ranks to the top: to the Illinois Junior Academy of Science Fair, held each May in Champaign-Urbana.

When the children of Fermilab’s Dee Hahn, known unofficially as the housemother of CDF, reached science-fair age and went to State with their science projects, Hahn noticed that the awards ceremony featured all kinds of special prizes. There was a prize for the best biology project, the best ecology project, the best chemistry project, all carrying cash awards and sponsored by various Illinois organizations. But, she was dismayed to find, there was no special prize for the best physics project.

Hahn shared her concern that physics science projects were receiving short shrift with the Fermilab Users’ Executive Committee, and the UEC agreed that something must be done to give budding experimental physicists the same sort of encouragement as their peers in other fields. After exploring various means to finance a Science Fair Physics Prize, they decided simply to pass the hat at their monthly meeting. Thus was born "The Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory Users Executive Committee Award for excelling in the subject of Physics at the Illinois Junior Academy of Science Fair." Actually, the UEC created two prizes, one at the high school and one at the junior high level.

On May 8, in Champaign-Urbana, Fermilab user Steve Errede, a University of Illinois physicist, presented the awards to the winners. The high-school award went to Amul Tevar of Macomb Senior High for his project, "Investigations of Superconducting Levitation." In the junior-high category, Madeline Kissane of St. Scholastica in Woodridge won for "Does Corn Fiber Affect the Strength of Building Materials?"

Each winner received a certificate, an official invitation to visit Fermilab, and $50. Alas, we can only imagine the scope of the winning projects.

"I tried to take pictures of their displays," Errede said, "but the light coming in from the windows of the Assembly Hall was exactly in the wrong direction, so they are pretty bad, picture-wise."

—Judy Jackson

last modified 6/18/1999   email Fermilab