carnegie institute of science


I was recently commissioned to photograph five generations of descendants of Solomon Northup, author of “12 Years a Slave”. The feature can be seen in this week’s newsstand ‘Oscar’s Edition’ of The Hollywood Reporter as well as here.

However small, I feel honored to play a role in the sharing of Solomon Northup’s legacy. It was definitely an experience that I’ll always treasure. Enjoy!

A very happy birthday to theoretical physicist and philosopher of science Albert Einstein, who was born in Germany on this day in 1879.

image: detail of photograph of Albert Einstein on the stairs outside the 150-foot tower telescope at Mount Wilson Observatory, January 1931, photographer unknown. The Observatories of the Carnegie Institution for Science Collection.

Four Earth-sized planets detected orbiting the nearest sun-like star

A new study by an international team of astronomers reveals that four Earth-sized planets orbit the nearest sun-like star, tau Ceti, which is about 12 light years away and visible to the naked eye. These planets have masses as low as 1.7 Earth mass, making them among the smallest planets ever detected around nearby sun-like stars. Two of them are super-Earths located in the habitable zone of the star, meaning they could support liquid surface water.

The planets were detected by observing the wobbles in the movement of tau Ceti. This required techniques sensitive enough to detect variations in the movement of the star as small as 30 centimeters per second.

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Citizen scientists uncover a cold new world near sun

Backyard Worlds volunteers make first discovery: A cold, close brown dwarf

A new citizen-science tool released earlier this year to help astronomers pinpoint new worlds lurking in the outer reaches of our solar system has already led to a discovery: a brown dwarf a little more than 100 light years away from the Sun. Just six days after the launch of the Backyard Worlds: Planet 9 website in February, four different users alerted the science team to the curious object, whose presence has since been confirmed via an infrared telescope. Details were recently published in the Astrophysical Journal Letters.

“I was so proud of our volunteers as I saw the data on this new cold world coming in,” said Jackie Faherty, a senior scientist in the American Museum of Natural History’s Department of Astrophysics and one of Backyard World’s researchers. “It was a feel-good moment for science.”

The Backyard Worlds project lets anyone with a computer and an internet connection flip through images taken by NASA’s Wide Field Infrared Survey Explorer (WISE) spacecraft. If an object is close enough to Earth, it will appear to “jump” when multiple images taken of the same spot in the sky a few years apart are compared. The goal for Backyard Worlds volunteers–of which there are more than 37,000–is to flag the moving objects they see in these digital flipbooks for further investigation by the science team. So far, volunteers have classified more than 4 million flipbooks.

Days after the Backyard Worlds website debuted on February 15, Bob Fletcher, a science teacher in Tasmania, identified a very faint object moving across the WISE images. It was soon also flagged by three other citizen scientists from Russia, Serbia, and the United States.

After some initial investigation by the research team, which originally called the object “Bob’s dwarf,” Faherty was awarded time on NASA’s Infrared Telescope Facility in Hawaii, where she confirmed that it was a previously unknown brown dwarf just a few hundred degrees warmer than Jupiter. The authors say that sky surveys had missed this object because it’s too faint. All four volunteers are co-authors on the scientific paper announcing the discovery.

Brown dwarfs, sometimes called “failed stars,” are spread throughout the Milky Way. They lack enough mass to sustain nuclear fusion but they are hot enough to glow in the infrared range of the light spectrum.
“Brown dwarfs are strikingly similar to Jupiter so we study their atmospheres in order to look at what weather on other worlds might look like,” said Jonathan Gagné, a Backyard Worlds team member from the Carnegie Institution for Science.

Although the Backyard Worlds research team hopes to find the infamous Planet 9 hiding in our own solar system, these brown dwarfs are also exciting discoveries.

“It’s possible that there is a cold world closer than what we believe to be the closest star to the Sun,” Faherty said. “Given enough time, I think our volunteers are going help to complete the map of our solar neighborhood.”

Gigantic Jupiter-type planet reveals insights into how planets evolve

An enormous young planet approximately 300 light-years from Earth has given astrophysicists a rare glimpse into planetary evolution.

The planet, known as HD 106906b, was discovered in 2014 by a team of scientists from the U.S., the Netherlands and Italy. It is 11 times the mass of Jupiter and is extremely young by celestial standards – not more than 13 million years old, compared with our solar system’s 4.6 billion years.

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The World Under Our Feet is Filled With Smart Roots

A tiny tomato seed is planted just a quarter-inch below ground and watered. In about a week, the first stirrings of life become apparent–a tiny seedling punches up through the soil’s surface and unfurls baby cotyledon leaves. Over the ensuing weeks, the tiny plant grows to as much as eight feet high, with branches, dark green leaves and, later, bright yellow flower clusters and fruits cutting a robust silhouette. 

At the same time, that same expansion is happening just out of sight below ground. As the seedling emerges, the first white root starts plunging into the soil, providing support and searching for the water and nutrients the aboveground portion needs to fuel growth. Root growth is a critical aspect of plant health and agriculture, yet the process has remained obscured from view because it happens in the dirt. Careful inspection by scientists still generally requires they dig the plant up and remove the soil. 

Now researchers say they have a new way of watching the intricacies of root growth thanks to input from an unexpected source–fireflies. A science team has figured out how to get roots to glow by adding genes into them that produce the enzymes fireflies use to produce light. 

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University of Maryland Professor of Geology Richard Walker and fellow scientists in a multi-institution research team have found two ‘birthmarks’ within Earth’s mantle (the rocky middle layer between Earth’s metallic core and outer crust), consisting of silicate material formed when our planet was less than 50 million years old.

The team of researchers from the University of Quebec at Montreal, the University of Maryland, the Carnegie Institution for Science, the University of California-Davis, McGill University and the University of California-Santa Barbara found clear signatures of this distinctive material in two widely separated locations on the globe, Baffin Bay in the North Atlantic and Ontong Java Plateau in the western Pacific Ocean. Their work appears in the May 13 issue of the journal Science.

According to Walker, chair of UMD’s Department of Geology, this is the first clear indication that portions of the mantle formed during Earth’s primary accretion period still exist today. “What we’ve found are surviving parts of Earth’s primitive mantle that have been preserved for four and a half billion years, and I think that’s kind of exciting!”

Scientists believe Earth grew to its current size through the accretion of material from collisions with bodies of increasing size over several tens of millions of years early in the history of the solar system. The last and most massive of these impacts was a collision between the proto-Earth and a planetoid approximately the size of Mars that resulted in the formation of our moon.

Scientific consensus long had held it unlikely that any vestiges of rock from the earliest-period of Earth history survived. It was thought that the physical mixing and internal heat caused by the many collisions with other solar system bodies would have homogenized all material from Earth’s early mantle. However, that view began to change with findings in 2012 by Walker and colleagues that indicated some material from the primitive mantle continued to exist until at least 2.8 billion years ago.

In the current paper, the authors note that: “Four and a half billion years of geologic activity have overprinted much of the evidence for the processes involved in Earth’s formation and initial chemical differentiation,” However, they write that high-precision measurements of the ratios of different forms (or isotopes) of specific elements can “provide a view of events that occurred during the first few tens of million years of Earth history, using short-lived radionuclides [unstable forms of chemical elements that radioactively decay] that were present when Earth formed.”

According to Walker, the team’s identification of primitive mantle material was based on detection of an overabundance of an isotope of tungsten. The radioactive element hafnium, decays into the tungsten. 182-hafnium is a form or isotope of the element that was present when our solar system formed, but is no longer present on Earth today. The decay of 182-hafnium into 182-tungsten is so rapid that variations in the abundance of 182-tungsten relative to other isotopes of tungsten can only be due to processes that occurred very early in the history of our solar system.

The countries that will be so hot by 2100 humans won’t be able to go outside

Scientists warn that by the end of the century, heatwaves in some warmer climes could reach ‘feels like’ temperatures of up to 77C      

Scientists have estimated that by the end of the century some parts of the Persian Gulf will suffer heatwaves that are too hot for the human body to survive.

By 2100, parts of Qatar, the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and others will experience combinations of temperature and humidity which make the deadly 2003 heat wave in Europe “look like a refreshing day”.

A new study in the Nature Climate Change journal presented computer simulations of what will happen to global temperatures if carbon dioxide emissions continue at their current pace.

It predicts a new breed of super-heatwaves affecting the Persian Gulf, the likes of which have not been seen on Earth while humans have been around.

Just how hot?

According to the study, the “heat index” – a measure of what temperature it feels like outside – for Persian Gulf countries could hit between 74C and 77C for at least six hours during the middle of the day.

That’s so hot that the human body is incapable of producing sweat to get rid of heat, making it dangerous even for healthy, fit people to stay outside for any length of time.

The heat index measures the impact of both temperature and humidity on people. With 50 per cent humidity, it would take a base temperature of 45C to reach those sorts of heat index levels. But crank the humidity up to 100 per cent, and it starts to feel like 77C when the mercury hits 35C.

“You can go to a wet sauna and put the temperature up to 35 (Celsius or 95 degrees Fahrenheit) or so. You can bear it for a while, now think of that at an extended exposure” of six or more hours, said study co-author Elfatih Eltahir, an MIT environmental engineering professor.

A mass exodus?

Such temperatures wouldn’t be expected every single day. But according to the simulations, super-heatwaves will come around once a decade or so by the end of the century – and bring mass fatalities.

Not everywhere in the Gulf would be rendered uninhabitable by these events. Developed cities such as Abu Dhabi, Dubai and Doha could still function thanks to the widespread availability of air conditioning.

But Eltahir and study co-author Jeremy Pal, of Loyola Marymount University, said that for people living and working outside, or with no air conditioning in their homes, it would be intolerable.

And while such dramatic events could provoke a mass exit from the region, the study authors suggested they would also have major implications for times when people actively flock to the Middle East.

While Mecca won’t be quite as hot, the heat will likely still cause many deaths during the annual hajj pilgrimage, Eltahir said.

Is it inevitable?“Some of the scariest prospects from a changing clime involve conditions completely outside the range of human experience,” Carnegie Institute for Science climate researcher Chris Field, who wasn’t part of the study, said.“If we don’t limit climate change to avoid extreme heat or mugginess, the people in these regions will likely need to find other places to live.”

Dr. Howard Frumkin, dean of the University of Washington school of public health, who wasn’t part of the research, told the Associated Press that the implications of the paper for the Gulf region “are frightening”.“When the ambient temperatures are extremely high, as projected in this paper, then exposed people can and do die.”

Eltahir said their simulations suggested such intolerable heat levels can be avoided – but only if the world limits future emissions in keeping with pledges made ahead of the climate talks in Paris later this year.



Construction To Begin on Telescope 10 Times Sharper Than Hubble

Officials in charge of the planned Giant Magellan Telescope say they have secured enough funding to start construction. In an announcement, the organization said 11 international partners have committed to give $500 million to build the first of the next generation of amazingly powerful optical telescopes on a mountaintop in Northern Chile. 

Once it starts operating in 2021, the GMT’s set of seven mirrors–with a combined diameter of more than 82 feet–will make the instrument the largest optical telescope in the world. Its backers say it will be capable of focusing six times more light than the current record holder can accomplish. With that, the GMT will generate images that are 10 times sharper than those made by the Hubble Space Telescope. Astronomers and the public will be treated to a deeper dive into the distant universe, seeing things farther and fainter than ever before.

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When the price of gold skyrocketed, illegal miners flooded into the Peru’s Amazon basin, eager to find even the tiniest bits of the precious metal. Trees and villagers have paid a price.

Here’s a great piece by NPR’s Jason Beaubien focusing on the toxic levels of mercury the miners use. Worth a listen!

Image courtesy of Gregory Asner, Carnegie Institution for Science

Pour one out for MESSENGER, NASA’s spacecraft at Mercury. On April 30th, it will impact the planet at 8750 mph.

Since Venus Express died, it will make the second planet in 2015 alone that mankind has ceased to explore, for now at least…

(Image credit: NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Carnegie Institution of Washington)


Revolutionary Telescope Gets Green Light

An 82-foot telescope boasting ten times the resolution of the Hubble Space Telescope has successfully passed design reviews and is ready to be constructed.

The Giant Magellan Telescope will use a light-collecting mirror surface more than six times the area of current instruments to hunt for distant, potentially habitable planets and let astronomers time travel back to a billion years after the Big Bang.

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Ladies and gentlemen, meet Pluto.

NASA’s New Horizons probe flew past the the icy world at around 7:50 am EDT today. The dwarf planet and spacecraft are currently nearly 3 billion miles from Earth. At its closest, New Horizons buzzed Pluto at a mere 7,750 miles above the surface after a long trip that started in 2006. That’s the distance of a plane ride from New York City to Mumbai. Read the latest here

Up to today’s encounter, Pluto has been a mysterious neighbor in our solar system and the last to be visited by humanity. 

“The exploration of Pluto and its moons by New Horizons represents the capstone event to 50 years of planetary exploration by NASA and the United States,” said NASA Administrator Charles Bolden in a statement. “Once again we have achieved a historic first. The United States is the first nation to reach Pluto, and with this mission has completed the initial survey of our solar system, a remarkable accomplishment that no other nation can match.”

Pluto was officially discovered only 85 years ago by Clyde Tombaugh when he focused on a faint point of light in his telescope. Until this morning, it has remained not much more than a blurry smudge even when viewed by the most advanced telescopes.

A few weeks ago, researchers at the Carnegie Institution for Science realized they had astronomical plates in their archive from 1925 that included the still undiscovered Pluto. Here’s what it looked like (it’s not the bright spot in the lower center, but a barely visible smudge above it.) 

It really puts today’s announcement in perspective. 

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MESSENGER, the space probe that discovered water on Mercury and has been circling the planet for four years, will take a swan dive at the end of the month in hopes of discovering something about weathering on the surface.

According to, “the probe’s observations have helped scientists construct the best-ever maps of the planet, and MESSENGER confirmed that carbon-containing organic compounds and water ice exist inside the permanently shadowed craters near Mercury’s poles.”

But ground controllers will set MESSENGER up for a suicide mission with a final orbital correction on April 24.

The crash-landing will occur six days later on April 30, forming an impact crater on the Mercury (already the most-cratered planet in the Solar System).

Mercury Probe Set For Crash-Landing On April 30

Photo Credit: Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Carnegie Institute of Washington/NASA

A magical scene unfolds above the Las Campanas Observatory in Chile. The annual Geminid meteor shower is seen raining down over the Earth as the meteors enter the atmosphere at 22 km/s. The skies beyond the meteors are highlighted by Jupiter, seen as the bright spot near the image center, the central band of our Milky Way Galaxy, seen vertically on the image left, and the pinkish Orion Nebula on the far left.

(Image Credit: Yuri Beletsky, Las Campanas Observatory, Carnegie Institution)


The movements of a newly discovered dwarf planet beyond Pluto’s orbit, dubbed 2012 VP113, suggest that a mysterious frontier of the solar system may include a planet much larger than Earth.

Experts say the discovery could lead scientists to rewrite our understanding of the fringes of our solar system.

Top images: The motion of 2012 VP113 clearly stands out compared with the steady state background stars and galaxies in these images, which were taken about two hours apart. Credit: Scott S. Sheppard / Carnegie Institution for Science. Bottom image: The three images combined into one to show the positions of 2012 VP113. Credit: Scott S. Sheppard / Carnegie Institution for Science.
Magnetic mystery of Earth's early core explained
Competing ideas suggest how sloshing motions could maintain a primordial magnetic field.

Geophysicists call it the new core paradox: They can’t quite explain how the ancient Earth could have sustained a magnetic field billions of years ago, as it was cooling from its fiery birth.

Now, two scientists have proposed two different ways to solve the paradox. Each relies on minerals crystallizing out of the molten Earth, a process that would have generated a magnetic field by churning the young planet’s core. The difference between the two explanations comes in which particular mineral does the crystallizing.

Silicon dioxide is the choice of Kei Hirose, a geophysicist at the Tokyo Institute of Technology who runs high-pressure experiments to simulate conditions deep within the Earth. “I’m very confident in this,” he reported on 17 December at a meeting of the American Geophysical Union in San Francisco, California.

But David Stevenson, a geophysicist at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, says that magnesium oxide — not silicon dioxide — is the key to solving the problem. In unpublished work, Stevenson proposes that magnesium oxide, settling out of the molten early Earth, could have set up the buoyancy differences that would drive an ancient geodynamo.

The core paradox arose in 2012, when several research teams reported that Earth’s core loses heat at a faster rate than once thought1, 2. More heat conducting away from the core means less heat available to churn the core’s liquid. That’s important because some studies suggest Earth could have had a magnetic field more than 4 billion years ago —  just half a billion years after it coalesced from fiery debris swirling around the newborn Sun. “We need a dynamo more or less continuously,” Peter Driscoll, a geophysicist at the Carnegie Institution for Science in Washington DC, said at the meeting.

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Terror on Mercury

On Feb. 4, 2012, MESSENGER spacecraft obtained this image of Terror Rupes, the long, cliff-like landform visible at the center of the scene. Terror Rupes represents one of Mercury’s most prominent lobate scarps, a geological feature that forms when a portion of Mercury’s crust thrusts up over another as its interior cools. This scarp takes its name from HMS Terror, an eighteenth-century warship that later participated in scientific polar explorations.

Image Credit: NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Carnegie Institution of Washington