What Has Astrophysics Done For You Lately?

What happens up there directly affects life down here. From star-gazing to quantum mechanics, astronomy is one of humanity's great thruster engines of innovation.

Alex Filippenko: One can wonder why does astronomy, or any sort of abstract pure research for that matter, make any difference to us – to the typical person in the world?  Well first of all thinking about the universe and figuring out how things work is something that of all animals only humans can do, only we have the intellect, the curiosity, the opposable thumb with which to build machines to explore nature.  So some of us should do it.  Second of all these kinds of discoveries, discoveries about the cosmos excite kids.  I like to say that astronomy is the gateway science.  It gets kids interested in science and technology because they hear about all these amazing discoveries.  I myself as a kid was thrilled by the lunar landings of the Apollo mission. Now most kids won't go on into astrophysics, but what they'll do is they'll study science and technology and they'll go into fields that are more immediately useful to society, such as applied physics and engineering and computer science and medical physics. But the bug that bites them is often astronomy.  

And finally you never know what practical spinoffs there might be and let me give you a few examples.  A century ago when quantum physicists such as Einstein and Bohr and Heisenberg and Schrodinger were developing quantum physics they had not the slightest practical application in mind.  They didn't want to make a better toaster or a better bicycle or whatever. They wanted to understand the nature of light and why atoms exist, why atoms are stable, and other such questions of that sort that seem incredibly far removed from our everyday lives. Well fast forward a century, you could not imagine today's high-tech world without an understanding of the microphysics, the quantum world.  Look at the silicon revolution for example. Look at lasers. Look at nearly everything it all stems from quantum physics.  Who would've thought that a century ago? 

Another even perhaps more abstract idea is Einstein's general theory of relativity, the theory that the presence of mass or energy curves or warps the shape of space and of time around it.  So, for example, our sun forms a dimple in space and earth moves along its natural path through that dimple.  So too earth forms a dimple and the moon moves along its natural path through that warped space.  That's what gravity is.  Newton had a formula for gravitational attraction but he didn't know what it was and Einstein came up with a theory.  Well you might say who cares as long as gravity works what do we care what the exact mechanism is?  Well, it turns out that Einstein's theory makes predictions that are in subtle ways different from Newton's predictions.  And for things like the global positioning system, GPS, you have to take the effects of general relativity into account.  The clocks in the satellites up in space, these satellites communicate with your device in your car, they run at a slightly faster speed than the clocks here on earth.  And if that difference in the rate of passage of time had not been taken into account by the physicist and engineers who designed and built the GPS system, GPS wouldn't work.  So here's something of incredible military and commercial value that simply would not work if we didn't understand gravity in a fundamental way according to Einstein, this idea of curved space time.

So again, who would've thought that a century ago when Einstein was developing the general theory of relativity that it would have this incredible practical application?  Sure we might never get close to a black hole, which is an extreme prediction of general relativity, but it doesn't matter.  The theory was developed, it's beautiful, it excites kids and it even has practical applications.  So with much of astronomy we don't know what the spinoffs will be, but we do know that as humans we can accomplish these goals and we can also excite kids into pursuing areas of science and technology. And that in my opinion is really good.

 

Alex Filippenko is a

Hertz Foundation Fellow

and recipient of the prestigious Hertz Foundation Grant for graduate study in the applications of the physical, biological and engineering sciences. Where does UC Berkeley Professor Filippenko begin to explain the importance of astronomy? In this video he explores how it captures the attention of children, who then grow up to become scientists across all disciplines; and the more abstract, impractical research that eventually leads to spinoff technology that radically changes our lives. With the support of the Fannie and John Hertz Foundation, Filippenko pursued a PhD in astronomy at the California Institute of Technology.


The Hertz Foundation mission is to provide unique financial and fellowship support to the nation's most remarkable PhD students in the hard sciences. Hertz Fellowships are among the most prestigious in the world, and the foundation has invested over $200 million in Hertz Fellows since 1963 (present value) and supported over 1,100 brilliant and creative young scientists, who have gone on to become Nobel laureates, high-ranking military personnel, astronauts, inventors, Silicon Valley leaders, and tenured university professors. For more information, visit hertzfoundation.org.

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The Barry Glacier gives its name to Alaska's Barry Arm Fjord, and a new open letter forecasts trouble ahead.

Thanks to global warming, the glacier has been retreating, so far removing two-thirds of its support for a steep mile-long slope, or scarp, containing perhaps 500 million cubic meters of material. (Think the Hoover Dam times several hundred.) The slope has been moving slowly since 1957, but scientists say it's become an avalanche waiting to happen, maybe within the next year, and likely within 20. When it does come crashing down into the fjord, it could set in motion a frightening tsunami overwhelming the fjord's normally peaceful waters .

"It could happen anytime, but the risk just goes way up as this glacier recedes," says hydrologist Anna Liljedahl of Woods Hole, one of the signatories to the letter.

The Barry Arm Fjord

Camping on the fjord's Black Sand Beach

Image source: Matt Zimmerman

The Barry Arm Fjord is a stretch of water between the Harriman Fjord and the Port Wills Fjord, located at the northwest corner of the well-known Prince William Sound. It's a beautiful area, home to a few hundred people supporting the local fishing industry, and it's also a popular destination for tourists — its Black Sand Beach is one of Alaska's most scenic — and cruise ships.

Not Alaska’s first watery rodeo, but likely the biggest

Image source: whrc.org

There have been at least two similar events in the state's recent history, though not on such a massive scale. On July 9, 1958, an earthquake nearby caused 40 million cubic yards of rock to suddenly slide 2,000 feet down into Lituya Bay, producing a tsunami whose peak waves reportedly reached 1,720 feet in height. By the time the wall of water reached the mouth of the bay, it was still 75 feet high. At Taan Fjord in 2015, a landslide caused a tsunami that crested at 600 feet. Both of these events thankfully occurred in sparsely populated areas, so few fatalities occurred.

The Barry Arm event will be larger than either of these by far.

"This is an enormous slope — the mass that could fail weighs over a billion tonnes," said geologist Dave Petley, speaking to Earther. "The internal structure of that rock mass, which will determine whether it collapses, is very complex. At the moment we don't know enough about it to be able to forecast its future behavior."

Outside of Alaska, on the west coast of Greenland, a landslide-produced tsunami towered 300 feet high, obliterating a fishing village in its path.

What the letter predicts for Barry Arm Fjord

Moving slowly at first...

Image source: whrc.org

"The effects would be especially severe near where the landslide enters the water at the head of Barry Arm. Additionally, areas of shallow water, or low-lying land near the shore, would be in danger even further from the source. A minor failure may not produce significant impacts beyond the inner parts of the fiord, while a complete failure could be destructive throughout Barry Arm, Harriman Fiord, and parts of Port Wells. Our initial results show complex impacts further from the landslide than Barry Arm, with over 30 foot waves in some distant bays, including Whittier."

The discovery of the impeding landslide began with an observation by the sister of geologist Hig Higman of Ground Truth, an organization in Seldovia, Alaska. Artist Valisa Higman was vacationing in the area and sent her brother some photos of worrying fractures she noticed in the slope, taken while she was on a boat cruising the fjord.

Higman confirmed his sister's hunch via available satellite imagery and, digging deeper, found that between 2009 and 2015 the slope had moved 600 feet downhill, leaving a prominent scar.

Ohio State's Chunli Dai unearthed a connection between the movement and the receding of the Barry Glacier. Comparison of the Barry Arm slope with other similar areas, combined with computer modeling of the possible resulting tsunamis, led to the publication of the group's letter.

While the full group of signatories from 14 organizations and institutions has only been working on the situation for a month, the implications were immediately clear. The signers include experts from Ohio State University, the University of Southern California, and the Anchorage and Fairbanks campuses of the University of Alaska.

Once informed of the open letter's contents, the Alaska's Department of Natural Resources immediately released a warning that "an increasingly likely landslide could generate a wave with devastating effects on fishermen and recreationalists."

How do you prepare for something like this?

Image source: whrc.org

The obvious question is what can be done to prepare for the landslide and tsunami? For one thing, there's more to understand about the upcoming event, and the researchers lay out their plan in the letter:

"To inform and refine hazard mitigation efforts, we would like to pursue several lines of investigation: Detect changes in the slope that might forewarn of a landslide, better understand what could trigger a landslide, and refine tsunami model projections. By mapping the landslide and nearby terrain, both above and below sea level, we can more accurately determine the basic physical dimensions of the landslide. This can be paired with GPS and seismic measurements made over time to see how the slope responds to changes in the glacier and to events like rainstorms and earthquakes. Field and satellite data can support near-real time hazard monitoring, while computer models of landslide and tsunami scenarios can help identify specific places that are most at risk."

In the letter, the authors reached out to those living in and visiting the area, asking, "What specific questions are most important to you?" and "What could be done to reduce the danger to people who want to visit or work in Barry Arm?" They also invited locals to let them know about any changes, including even small rock-falls and landslides.

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