Tag: Harvard

Mysterious Interstellar Object Floating In Space Might Be Alien, Say Harvard Researchers

A graphic showing `Oumuamua’s path through the Solar System.

The head of Harvard’s department of astronomy thinks that there’s a possibility that a strange object that visited our Solar System from interstellar space may be an alien probe sent from a distant civilization.

He and a colleague outlined their idea in a paper published this week analyzing what the mysterious space object might be, setting off a media frenzy.

But let’s take a breath before we jubilantly cry “aliens.” A single idea about what this object could be doesn’t make it the only explanation, and many scientists still argue that a natural explanation is more plausible.

To add a bit of context, one of the scientists making this “exotic” claim is currently working on an initiative to look for extraterrestrial life in deep space, by sending probes from Earth to other star systems.

The paper that captured everyone’s attention is written by Harvard astrophysicists Avi Loeb and Shmuel Bialy, who tried to describe some weird behavior exhibited by a space rock called `Oumuamua.

Spotted last October, `Oumuamua is a mysterious object that is passing through our Solar System, coming from some unknown deep-space origin.

Objects like this one are thought to pass through our Solar System all the time, but this is the first exo-comet — or a comet from outside our cosmic neighborhood — that we’ve ever detected.

In addition to being a rare find, `Oumuamua is a bit bizarre. Astronomers expected a visitor of this kind to be an icy comet, surrounded by a trail of gas and dust as it passed close to the Sun.




But `Oumuamua seems to lack this kind of cloud, making it look more like an asteroid, which is mostly made of rock and metal. So no one was quite sure what this thing was — a comet, an asteroid, or something totally new.

Then after analyzing `Oumuamua’s orbit, scientists from the European Space Agency noticed that the object was accelerating, more so than it should be if it was just interacting with the gravity of the planets and Sun in our Solar System.

They concluded that `Oumuamua must be a comet; the Sun is likely heating up ice within the object, creating gas that provides an extra boost of speed.

However, Loeb and Bialy are skeptical about this “outgassing” claim, mostly because no one was able to observe gas and dust coming from `Oumuamua.

They also point to recent research from another lab, which is still under review by other scientists, that indicates that if gas were coming from this object, it would change how the rock is rotating — something that hasn’t been observed.

This rules out the possibility that it’s a comet,” Loeb said.

The comet ISON and its tail of gas and dust, as seen by the Hubble Space Telescope

Of course, the possibility exists. But aliens are a very bold claim to make when natural explanations are still on the table.

I can understand the excitement, and as a scientist, I can’t sit here and say I have 100 percent evidence this was a natural object,” Fitzsimmons says. “It’s just that all the observations can be matched with a natural object.”

And that could be a problem when we actually do find signs of alien life one day.

Astronomers are finding new planets outside our Solar System all the time, and we’re working on more sophisticated technology to peer into the atmospheres of these worlds.

One day, we may find solid evidence that life exists in deep space, but it may be hard for the public to swallow if they think aliens have already been discovered.

I don’t want people to think we already saw that when it actually happens,” says Mack. “I want people not to be super cynical about claims about aliens by the time we actually have something that is really solid evidence.”

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Pass it on: Popular Science

The Harvard Library That Protects The World’s Rarest Colors

Today, every color imaginable is at your fingertips.

You can peruse paint swatches at hardware stores, flip through Pantone books, and fuss with the color finder that comes with most computer programs, until achieving the hue of your heart’s desire.

But rewind to a few centuries ago and finding that one specific color might have meant trekking to a single mineral deposit in remote Afghanistan–as was the case with lapis lazuli, a rock prized for its brilliant blue hue, which made it more valuable than gold in medieval times.

The history of pigments goes back to prehistoric times, but much of what we know about how they relate to the art world comes from Edward Forbes, a historian and director of the Fogg Art Museum at Harvard University from 1909 to 1944.




Considered the father of art conservation in the United States, Forbes traveled around the world amassing pigments in order to authenticate classical Italian paintings.

Over the years, the Forbes Pigment Collection–as his collection came to be known–grew to more than 2,500 different specimens, each with its own layered backstory on its origin, production, and use.

Today, the collection is used mostly for scientific analysis, providing standard pigments to compare to unknowns.

Narayan Khandekar is the director of the Straus Center for Conservation and Technical Studies at the Harvard Art Museums and the collection’s custodian.

For the last 10 years, Khandekar has rebuilt the collection to include modern pigments to better analyze 20th century and contemporary art.

A lot has changed in the art world since painters worked with “colormen”–as tradesmen in dyes and pigments were known–to obtain their medium.

The commercialization of paints has transformed that process. “Artists today will use anything to get the idea that’s in their head into a physical form,” Khandekar says.

It could be pieces of plastic. It could be cans of food. It could be anything. We need to be able to identify lots of different materials that are industrially produced as well as things that are produced specifically for artists’ use.

The way he describes his work researching and cataloging pigments is akin to detective work. “We use our instruments in the same way that forensic scientists do,” Khandekar says.

We examine and find out what we can about the key compounds that will tell us the material’s origin.”

But instead of tools such as DNA analysis, he and his team of conservation scientists use techniques such as Raman spectroscopy, mass spectrometry, gas chromatography, and electron microscopy to map out the precise chemical composition of a pigment.

 

Synthetic Ultramarine
This was discovered in 1826 as the result of a contest. In a way it is like discovering how to make gold as artists no longer had to buy natural ultramarine at great cost.”

Mummy Brown
People would harvest mummies from Egypt and then extract the brown resin material that was on the wrappings around the bodies and turn that into a pigment.

“It’s a very bizarre kind of pigment, I’ve got to say, but it was very popular in the 18th and 19th centuries.

Brazilwood
Brazilwood is any of several tropical trees of the senna genus. Its hard, red-color wood has had limited use for violins, bows, veneer, and high-quality furniture.

“The wood contains the colorant brasilin, which gives a deep-red to brownish color. Brazilwood dye has been used for textile and leather dyes, inks, paints, varnish tints, and wood stains.”

Quercitron
A yellow vegetable dye, quercitron is extracted from the black or dark brown bark of the black oak, Quercus velutina, that is native to the Eastern and Midwestern parts of the United States.

Annatto
The lipstick plant–a small tree, Bixa orellana, native to Central and South America–produces annatto, a natural orange dye.

“Seeds from the plant are contained in a pod surrounded with a bright red pulp. Currently, annatto is used to color butter, cheese, and cosmetics.

Lapis Lazuli
“People would mine it in Afghanistan, ship it across Europe, and it was more expensive that gold so it would have its own budget line on a commission.”

Dragon’s Blood
“It has a great name, but it’s not from dragons. [The bright red pigment] is from the rattan palm.”

Cochineal
“This red dye comes from squashed beetles, and it’s used in cosmetics and food.”

Cadmium Yellow
Cadmium yellow was introduced in the mid 19th century. It’s a bright yellow that many impressionists used. Cadmium is a heavy metal, very toxic.

“In the early 20th century, cadmium red was introduced. You find these pigments used in industrial processes. Up until the 1970s, Lego bricks had cadmium pigment in them.”

Emerald Green
This is made from copper acetoarsenite. We had a Van Gogh with a bright green background that was identified as emerald green.

“Pigments used for artists’ purposes can find their way into use in other areas as well. Emerald green was used as an insecticide, and you often see it on older wood that would be put into the ground, like railroad ties.

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Pass it on: New Scientist