Category : Science

How ‘Deep Time History’ Just Got Personal

They say knowledge is power. If that’s the case, then I felt on top of the world after watching CuriosityStream’s new 3-part series Deep Time History. It stuck with me for several days because I couldn’t help feeling a little overwhelmed by our universe’s astonishing 14-billion year history. It got me thinking about how brief the human experience is in comparison. And yet, there are humans who have significantly impacted our existence throughout time. Julius Caesar. Christopher Columbus. Albert Einstein. Mother Teresa. Malala Yousafzai. The list goes on.

As a marketer, reflecting on the human experience made me curious about the history of CuriosityStream’s community of viewers and followers. That curiosity felt like a natural alignment to the very premise of Deep Time History. So, we put the question out there as a way for people to bring their personal history into the larger conversation about the series: “What’s YOUR story?” Centered around the hashtag #MYdeeptimehistory, we asked people to share photos from their past for the world to see. I’ve been inspired, I’ve laughed and I’ve reflected on my own history while scrolling through the responses.

I dug up my old family photos and stumbled upon a few gems that I couldn’t help but share, including the baby picture below of me (in a very coordinated outfit, if I do say so myself) standing between two vintage cars.

Little Michael

I soon expanded to my father’s photo library and the scenery he has captured on camera. You see, my father is a world traveler and a few years ago, he put some of his favorite photos on a disc so that my brothers and I could cherish them forever. I learned that one of the places he has been to is The Perito Moreno Glacier, located in the Los Glaciares National Park in southwest Santa Cruz Province, Argentina. I had no idea. But here is the photographic evidence to prove it.

Perito Morena Glacier

As the #MYdeeptimehistory hashtag started to spread, it wasn’t long before some people within my personal network got in on the game. While I hate to play favorites, it was my friend and colleague John’s post that took my breath away. John is an educator who has trekked across the globe and fortunately, he always brings his camera along with him.

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In summary, the three engaging hours I spent watching Deep Time History turned into something much bigger. I loved the series and by learning about the history of our universe, I was inspired to reflect on the history of my own family and friends, which has taught me new things about some of the people I am closest to. And I hope you will do the same. Check out the series for yourself and share your photos with our curious community by tagging them on Twitter and Instagram using #MYdeeptimehistory.

We all have some amazing stories to tell. What’s yours?

Michael Hammerstrom

Michael Hammerstrom is CuriosityStream’s Manager of Marketing and Engagement. Follow him on Twitter @mhammerstrom.

Deep Time History is available now in ultra HD 4K, HD and standard definition on CuriosityStream.  The exclusive, original 3-part documentary series offers captivating insight into the links between astronomy, deep time geologic events and human civilization.

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Journey Into Deep Time With The Experts

Deep Time History is available now in ultra HD 4K, HD and standard definition on CuriosityStream.  The exclusive, original 3-part documentary series offers captivating insight into the links between astronomy, deep time geologic events and human civilization. The host of the series is Dr. Jonathan Markley, a renown Big History expert, and a professor of history at California State University, Fullerton.  We sat down with Dr. Markley and he shared his thoughts on the series.

I’m really excited about the new Deep Time History project on CuriosityStream.  It’s a series that zooms out to take a bigger view of history as we know it. It’s an approach that people like myself have been promoting for years in the Big History movement. It’s a way of viewing history that really grabs you, and it has been growing steadily over the last decade. I’ve just left the International Big History Association conference in Amsterdam where I heard about some really exciting developments.  And, I was able to share the news of the release of CuriosityStream’s exclusive, new series.

I’ll give you just one example from episode 2 – Deep Time History: The Age of Discovery. Take pepper… It seems like something really ordinary, but what is it? Where did it come from? I know I was pretty amazed the first time I realized that pepper has a single source in southern India and just a few hundred years ago, that was still the only place you could get it. It was a big deal in helping build our globalized world, and it played a major role in the age of discovery, as ancient cultures struggled to find a way to get such far off exotic spices as, you guessed it, common ordinary black pepper! And the reason behind it all started as far back as the formation of the moon.


Later on in episode 2, watch for the scene with the modern meal and the salt and pepper packets, bringing this incredible story to life today.  By the way, that was the very last scene we filmed. When it was done I couldn’t believe it was all over.

One of the most fun location shoots we did was at the steam engine museum in Oceanside, California.  The directors were filming all sorts of historical recreations that day so I got to meet Thomas Newcomen, the man who first invented the steam pump, and a young Henry Ford (ok, I got to meet the actors portraying these giants in history!) They had an incredible working steam tractor that was straight out of the history books.

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I also got to climb into the middle of one of the steam engines. It was kind of scary, but how often are you allowed to get that close to working exhibits at a museum?

I’ve done a bit of on camera television work before but never as a host and narrator, so I learned something new every step of the way.  The director, Doug Cohen, would give me great suggestions to do a scene in a certain way, and after seeing the finished product I had to tell him, “Now I know what you meant!” I never realized just how many people are needed to put a massive effort like this together.  There were usually at least ten other people involved when we filmed on location. I can’t even begin to describe how much I learned from everyone involved in this important documentary production — cameras, sound, wardrobe advisor, producer, writer, lighting, make up, etc., etc., etc.

I hope you’ll watch each episode, be inspired by your own sense of curiosity, and come to a greater understanding of how the history of the cosmos, Earth, life and humanity all come together in Deep Time History.

Watch the trailer below and watch all three full episodes here:



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A Rendezvous With The King Of Planets

NASA’s Juno orbiter is speeding toward Jupiter with a flyby expected on July 4th.  Leading up to that rendezvous, CuriosityStream is giving viewers an exclusive, behind-the-scenes look into the story behind the mission to the gas giant.  Destination: Jupiter is a new, short-form documentary available now on CuriosityStream, in ultra HD 4K, as well as HD and standard definition.

The Juno Mission is one of the most highly anticipated planetary explorations to date.  Scientists hope it will help reveal the mysteries of Jupiter’s violent storms, its composition and formation, as well as uncover some secrets about our own planet Earth.

Destination: Jupiter chronicles the inside story behind the ground-breaking mission, featuring interviews with its chief scientists, as well as captivating CGI produced by NASA’s Scientific Visualization Studio.  Also, get a sneak peek at some of the state-of-the-art technology on board the spacecraft that will help it power through and survive Jupiter’s severe high-radiation environment—the harshest in the solar system.



 

And stay tuned in with CuriosityStream.  On July 4th, Juno is expected to officially catch up to Jupiter and enter its orbit.  Mission scientists will be anxiously awaiting the first signal of success… a communication that will take 48 minutes to travel back to Earth.  And in the coming days, CuriosityStream and Destination: Jupiter will bring you the nail-biting action from mission control at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

If we’ve peaked your curiosity about other destinations in our solar system and you’re ready to dive deep into the mysteries of the galaxy, you’ll enjoy CuriosityStream’s Destination: Pluto, an original, 13-part series following the New Horizons mission from its inception to its close encounter with the dwarf planet, as well as Destination: Mars, a 5-part series chronicling a bold plan to land humans on the red planet.

Enjoy the adventure, and stay curious!

 

 

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CuriosityStream Debuts David Attenborough’s Light On Earth

Memorial Day weekend ushers in the summer season and the time outdoors that comes with it. As you enjoy getting out in nature this summer, CuriosityStream’s nonfiction documentaries will be there to help guide you.  Whether you prefer chilling at the beach, hiking and camping in national parks or simply spending an afternoon in your own backyard, there are always opportunities to reconnect with your natural surroundings and appreciate the breadth and depth of Earth’s wonders.

Perhaps along your summer journeys, you too will have questions.  Why does a firefly light up at dusk?  How does a millipede benefit from its own nighttime luminescence?  What causes those radiant, nocturnal tides in tropical waters?

These questions and more are explored in CuriosityStream’s exclusive debut of David Attenborough’s Light On Earth (available to U.S. subscribers).  This special 4K production utilizes new camera techniques to capture never-before-seen footage of bioluminescent phenomena, guided by the world’s foremost naturalist, Sir David Attenborough.

“In the oceans, and on land, living creatures of many kinds have harnessed the power of light in extraordinary ways: to mate, to lie or even to hide under a cloak of light. Yet with the latest cameras and technology we are only beginning to understand the lives of luminous creatures. There remain many mysteries. But what a beautiful world they create… and what a beautiful world awaits the scientists of the future.”  — Sir David Attenborough

The film represents the first collaboration between CuriosityStream’s in-house production studio and Terra Mater Studios (David Attenborough’s production partners). However, it is not the first association between CuriosityStream’s founder, John Hendricks, and Sir David Attenborough.

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Elizabeth Hendricks North & Sir David Attenborough, Smithsonian, May 2015

I recently had the pleasure of meeting Attenborough and hearing him reminisce about co-productions years ago between BBC and Discovery Communications, which my father, John Hendricks, also founded and led as Board Chairman until 2014.  The legendary British naturalist is as lively and curious as anyone I have ever met, and his animated story-telling had us all rapt.  Attenborough’s energy and enthusiasm is boundless, as you will see for yourself in Light On Earth.

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This bioluminescent mushroom emits light 24 hours a day, but is captured like never before using brand new camera techniques in CuriosityStream’s Light On Earth.

 

It is my hope that this film (and future wildlife films) continue to inspire wonder about the planet and engage the next generation of naturalists.  As David Attenborough’s Light On Earth magnificently conveys to viewers, we live on a planet with many mysteries waiting to be uncovered and better understood.

 

 

 

Let your curiosity guide you this summer.

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Elizabeth Hendricks North is President and CEO of CuriosityStream. Follow her on Twitter @ehendricksnorth.

 

Watch a preview of Light On Earth :



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Behind The Scenes: Notes From The Filmmaker

Award-winning filmmaker David Conover is the founder of Compass Light Productions, and the executive producer and director of CuriosityStream’s Big Picture Earth.  He was born and raised in a New England family with strong ties to the sea and a tradition of active storytelling. Now in its 29th year, Compass Light has a commitment to content revealing the wonder of the outdoors and the ocean, and has produced over 600 award-winning productions that have aired around the world.

November, 2014.   Ecstatic that Elizabeth Hendricks North has included us in her worldwide search for filmmakers to produce original content for CuriosityStream.  Her EVP of Production & Acquisition Steve Burns was a big supporter of my series Sunrise Earth when he was at Discovery Communications with founder and visionary John Hendricks.  Now… what kind of original global series can we make for curious people like us, some of whom have those 4K big picture televisions?  Hmm.  World class curiosity.

January, 2015.  Got it!  “A mindful and patient exploration of the big picture of time and the human role on the planet, from the wild to the structured back to the wild.”  We’ll visit beautiful wild places, but also ancient structures like Stonehenge, the Acropolis, the Nabataean lost city of Petra in Jordan.  These old structures of civilization were built with purpose.  Today –suspended between endurance and ruin – they are deep stories in their own right.  Could we create a distinctive approach for viewers to engage each story?  Let’s call the series “The Big Picture.”

February, 2015.  Our creative game plan is not there yet.  Elizabeth and Steve love the word “Earth” and wonder how we can include that word – and all it represents.  I’m an easy sell on that word.  They probably don’t know how many “Earths” already populate my life.  So now we have a real and final series title, “Big Picture Earth!”

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[photo: earth flag outside the Compass Light Production Barn in Maine]

 

 

March, 2015.  For our pilot, we head to a sea island in Georgia, home of a wild 17-mile-long beach and an abandoned castle-like structure named Dungeness, built by America’s mighty steel baron Andrew Carnegie.

conover 2Our very innovative series’ director of photography (DP) David Wright uses one of his gadgets for executing my key directive for Big Picture Earth…”the camera will NEVER stop moving.”  I love imagining I’m a sea crow stepping aside the sea foam that comes in with each wave.  Walt Whitman wrote about this in a poem that inspires my work.  [photo: shooting opening scene of episode “Cumberland Island”]

 

Shooting opening scene of episode “Cumberland Island”Series producer and 2nd camera Darryl Czuchra works his magic with stereo audio awaiting his favorite beverage, MOXIE. (p.s. Darryl also a drummer in an 80’s rock band).

 

 

June, 2015.  Now well into series production, the sun is rising and we’re taking shelter from the heat in a secret canyon.  Surprise (not really) there’s a city here.  We’ve found Petra, the lost desert city of the Nabataeans.

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Aerial maestro Dave Halton fires up his custom unmanned aerial rig, and like an aged swallow who once flew over the camel caravans carrying frankincense to the Roman Empire, we begin to soar – slowly.  Note DP David Wright’s latest overhead gyro-stabilizer he borrowed from Ghostbusters. [photo: shooting a scene of episode “Nabataean Lost Kingdom of Petra”]

 

 

 

 

 

Shooting a scene of episode “Desert of Wadi Rum”Last stop in Jordan is Wadi Rum.  I think you will recognize this evocative landscape if you were the one who chose to quietly paint hunting scenes on the cliff walls a few thousand years ago… or if you read the Bedouin exploits of T.E. Lawrence… or if you’ve just watched Matt Damon in “The Martian.” [photo shooting a scene of episode “Desert of Wadi Rum”]

Late June, 2015.  Closer to home, we reach even further back in time – well before our human role – to roam high on a ridge where a megalosaurus-type dinosaur walked 160 million years ago.  Far below and up a nearby canyon, more cliff paintings.  These are horses, which are viewable only on foot and reachable only at the speed of a patient walk.  I believe that a slow walk can access more of the big picture of our Earth than the fastest jet… (but after this year circling our earth, my crew might say that walking has its limits too!)  Back in our Compass Light barn in Maine, four editors begin to create the distinctive “time zone” for each episode.  Make yourself a cup of tea and prepare to slow down your hectic life.  And one last idea from CuriosityStream’s Steve Burns – give viewers a choice – a rich natural soundtrack on its own, or the natural soundtrack with music.  This is one of the exclusive beauties of video on demand!

My team and I are proud to add our contribution to the growing and spectacular lineup of programming on CuriosityStream.  There’s much to explore in this world!

Crew photo from location of episode “Colorado Canyons of Time,” with CuriosityStream’s Elizabeth Hendricks North in her other role as local dinosaur track guide.

 

[crew photo from location of episode “Colorado Canyons of Time,” with CuriosityStream’s Elizabeth Hendricks North in her other role as local dinosaur track guide.]

 

 

Big Picture Earth can be seen exclusively on CuriosityStream.  All 20 episodes are available now, in 4K as well as HD and standard definition.  Big Picture Earth leads CuriosityStream’s debut of Ultra HD 4K streaming content.  50 titles are available now, with 50 more in production.  CuriosityStream is on demand, always ad-free, and available worldwide.

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Celebrating the Planet and the Parks

More than 1 billion people around the globe take part in Earth Day activities each year, making it the largest civic observance in the world.  And on this Earth Day, join CuriosityStream for a tour of some of the majesties of our planet.

Dive deep and start with the BBC’s 3-part series, Great Barrier Reef… a stunning and vivid look at the complex structure of the coral reef and the wildlife that lives on and around it.  Here’s a preview:

For more on this Earth Day: Curiosity Retreat Luminary and renown explorer Dr. Sylvia Earle shares her take on the The Health Of Our Oceans, in a Curiosity Studios original production.  Also, watch the BBC’s 3-part series How To Grow A Planet on the powerful force of plants in our past, present and future.  And learn more about the connection with severe weather in the Curious Minds: Climate Change collection.

This week also marks National Parks Week – a chance to highlight the vibrant culture, rich history and diverse wildlife of America’s treasured landscapes.

CuriosityStream board member David Shaw is also a director the National Park Foundation – the charitable nonprofit supporting the National Park Service. He shared his thoughts about the Find Your Park campaign and this year’s 100th anniversary of the National Park Service.

Created in 1916, our national park system now includes more than 400 parks attracting nearly 300 million visits annually across all 50 states.  At this historic moment, the centennial campaign will seek to strengthen public engagement in these national treasures  –  both for those who already know and love the parks, and for the next generation of park enthusiasts. As a director of the National Park Foundation, I feel fortunate to be working with the National Park Service and others in the design of a campaign to communicate the many ways that parks benefit those who experience these special places.  In parks that range from historic and cultural monuments, to majestic landscapes and marine ecosystems, experiences can be deeply moving and inspirational.  An important goal of the Find Your Park campaign is to share these experiences, via social media, with wide ranging audiences and diverse communities. My own experiences in national parks in America and across the world have been both very meaningful and long lasting. — CuriosityStream Advisory Board Member David Shaw

Shaw shared a few snapshots of some of his favorite national parks: Canyon De Chelly National Monument, Wupatki National Monument, and the Petrified Forest National Park.

And for one more stop on your national parks tour, travel to one of America’s most iconic landscapes – Yellowstone — in all its stunning glory in each of the seasons.  The 3-part series is available to watch only on CuriosityStream. Here’s a preview of summer:

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Fighting Zika

In the headlines this week, a major development in the fight against Zika — a first look at the virus itself.  Scientists have determined the 3D structure of the virus, revealing critical insights that will likely help the race to develop effective treatments and vaccines.

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Image courtesy of Purdue University/Kuhn and Rossmann Research Groups

Details of the new findings are published in the journal Science.

A team of researchers from Purdue University and the National Institutes of Health used cryo-electron microscopy to determine the virus’ structure at very close range – “near atomic resolution.”  They used a strain isolated from a patient infected during the French Polynesia epidemic 2 years ago, but with new technology, their work now took just one month.

They found several similarities to other flaviviruses – including Dengue and West Nile — and that wasn’t surprising.  But, they also discovered a variation on the virus’ surface, which could help explain how the virus works to attack cells and cause infection.

Also this week – news from the CDC that the type of mosquito that transmits the virus has spread further north in the United States.  Federal health officials thought the Aedes aegypti mosquito was concentrated mostly in the south.  But now, new maps show the insect’s range has broadened to the Midwest and as far north as New York City.

We learn more about this small but mighty vector in CuriosityStream’s new, original production — Viruses: Destruction and Creation.

Viruses: Destruction and Creation takes a closer look at these simple, but incredibly powerful organisms — that can sometimes be to our benefit, but oftentimes not.

Andrew Pekosz, PhD, is the director of the Center for Emerging Viruses and Infectious Diseases at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. In an interview with CuriosityStream Studios, he helped to explain the evolution of the virus and what makes it so powerful.

Dr. Pekosz:  Stealth is one word that often comes in because a virus is able to find a cell, find a host. It’s able to get in and it’s able to cross-wire, disconnect, some of the alarm systems that a body has so that it can get a head start in terms of replicating itself and moving itself forward in terms of making enough copies of itself so it can spread to the next host. It can do a lot of this before a host even knows it’s infected. By the time you start responding and getting symptoms to an infection, oftentimes the virus is already well along its pathway of spreading to the next host and moving forward and propagating itself.

CuriosityStream: And how fast can that virus replicate?

Dr. Pekosz: A virus infected cell can make dozens, if not hundreds, of virus particles. From one infected cell you can easily get 20 infected cells. Each of those infected cells can then make another 20 infected cells. Before the host really has a way to respond to the infection with its immune system, you can have hundreds of thousands of cells, each of which are making hundreds and thousands of virus particles and that creates a huge bolus of viruses, in the case of Zika, in the blood, which now a mosquito coming to feed on that individual will pick up a blood meal that not just has the blood but also has the virus in it. That’s how the mosquito then becomes infected and can spread the infection on to other mosquitoes and, presumably, to other humans.

CuriosityStream: The Mosquito is the key here?

Dr. Pekosz: Mosquitoes are really fantastic little syringes… particularly female mosquitoes because it’s the female mosquitoes that need to bite and it’s the blood that the female mosquito ingests that she needs in order to lay an effective clutch of eggs. What a mosquito does is it not only bites but it also has to inject some of its saliva into that bite site in order to make sure that it can obtain a blood meal. Mosquitoes oftentimes bite several times before they actually will take their blood meal. Each time they bite they try to expel a little bit of saliva into that site to see if the blood will flow.

Where arboviruses have become exquisitely good at is finding ways to get into that saliva at very, very high concentrations. The virus has found a way to concentrate itself in that saliva so when the mosquito goes through its normal processes of trying to get a blood meal it inadvertently is introducing the virus into the host along with everything that it needs to try to pull that blood meal out.  It is an incredibly effective way for the virus to replicate, get into a host, get multiple injections into a host, and start its process.

CuriosityStream: The National Institutes of Health has called the Zika outbreak an explosive pandemic that is truly remarkable.

Dr. Pekosz: Once Zika virus entered South America it seems to have just exploded in terms of the number of human cases. In an incredibly short period of time we’ve gone from Zika not being present in a continent to having close to a million cases, probably, of infection. That explosiveness and how quickly the virus has spread and caused so many infections is one of the main reasons why national public health agencies and the World Health Organization are so concerned about this spread.

You can hear more from Dr. Pekosz, in Viruses: Destruction and Creation, premiering this week on CuriosityStream.

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Marking A Milestone

Today marks CuriosityStream’s first anniversary!

My father [Discovery Channel founder, John Hendricks] debuted the world’s first ad-free, nonfiction streaming service on March 18, 2015 and ever since, our small, hardworking team has been quite busy.  We have licensed or personally produced over 1,300 programs (more than 500 hours of quality, nonfiction documentaries) and launched streaming apps across RokuChromecastAmazon Fire TVAndroid TV as well as Android and iOS.  In late September, the service went global, opening access to CuriosityStream in 196 countries worldwide.  For inquiring minds, we’ve learned that Scandinavia and Australia have been our best international markets to date.  A special shout-out to our Norwegian, Danish, Swedish and Australian members!

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In December, CuriosityStream’s partnership with Amazon distributed our documentaries via Amazon Prime’s SVOD service and our CuriosityStream Gift Cards proved to be popular holiday items and are available 365 days a year.

The early months of this year have seen us introduce a personalized recommendation engine (matching users to each other for smarter program suggestions), debut another 30 hours of outstanding documentaries and incorporate a discounted pricing structure.  Now members may save 16% a year by switching to an Annual Plan; visit Your Account page to make this change to an existing subscription.  Our Sign Up page also features this discounted payment option for 12 months of service.

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I couldn’t be more proud of our dedicated team of talented producers, brilliant engineers and a host of other consummate professionals that continue to refine the world’s leading online, nonfiction destination.

With our direct membership model, CuriosityStream may exhibit quality, ad-free documentaries exclusively for lifelong learners.  This leaves the service unencumbered by the interests of advertisers, a concern that sways programming away from the rich depth of scientific and intellectual inquiry.  By remaining ad-free, CuriosityStream preserves a simplicity of purpose: deliver affordable content that enriches, enlightens, enchants and thereby empowers curious humans to better understand our world.

Thank you so much for your support in this first year.  Stay tuned and stay curious!

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Elizabeth Hendricks North is the President & CEO of CuriosityStream. Follow her on Twitter @ehendricksnorth.

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A Rocket Man back on Earth

NASA has a lot to celebrate this week.   First, a birthday of sorts. On March 3rd, 1915, the United States Government created the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics… an agency to spearhead aeronautical research.  Over 40 years later, in 1958, that agency officially became NASA.

And today, one of NASA’s most well known ambassadors is back on Earth.  Astronaut Scott Kelly returned this week from his nearly year-long post on the International Space Station… making him the U.S. astronaut holding the record for both consecutive days in space (340) as well as total number of days (520.)

His journey was well documented on social media.  With the hashtag #YearInSpace, Kelly regularly posted pictures of his extraordinary view – from stunning sunrises to the ultimate aerial shot of an epic snowstorm.

Kelly’s mission was part of a groundbreaking study on the long term physical and psychological effects of living in outer space, in anticipation of NASA’s goal to send a manned mission to Mars by 2035.  That roundtrip journey would take more than 2 years.  While in space, Kelly self-administered a battery of tests. The results of those, and of the testing now being done back on Earth, are being compared to the same tests run on his twin brother, retired astronaut Mark Kelly.

Scott Kelly is a true Rocket Man, like many of the pioneers who came before him, who left this Earth to explore the unknown.  Their inspirational stories are told in Rocket Men, featured on CuriosityStream now.  Here’s a preview.

 

And, congratulations to modern day Rocket Man Scott Kelly, for a successful mission and his safe return home.

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“Einstein Would Be Beaming…”

It’s a stunning breakthrough in physics, proving once again that Albert Einstein was right. Scientists have announced they’ve detected gravitational waves, the ripples in the fabric of space and time that Einstein predicted 100 years ago.  And the proof was captured in audio form, so we can now actually listen in on the sounds of the universe, hearing two black holes collide more than a billion light years from Earth.

Dr. Sean Carroll is a physicist and a professor at Cal Tech, who describes himself as a theorist who thinks about the fundamental laws of nature, especially as they connect to cosmology.  And, Dr. Carroll is a 2016 Curiosity Retreat Luminary.  He wants to make sure we all truly understand the magnitude of this new discovery.

The following was originally published on Dr. Carroll’s blog, PreposterousUniverse.

ONCE upon a time, there lived a man who was fascinated by the phenomenon of gravity. In his mind he imagined experiments in rocket ships and elevators, eventually concluding that gravity isn’t a conventional “force” at all — it’s a manifestation of the curvature of spacetime. He threw himself into the study of differential geometry, the abstruse mathematics of arbitrarily curved manifolds. At the end of his investigations he had a new way of thinking about space and time, culminating in a marvelous equation that quantified how gravity responds to matter and energy in the universe.

Not being one to rest on his laurels, this man worked out a number of consequences of his new theory.  One was that changes in gravity didn’t spread instantly throughout the universe; they traveled at the speed of light, in the form of gravitational waves.  In later years he would change his mind about this prediction, only to later change it back. Eventually more and more scientists became convinced that this prediction was valid, and worth testing. They launched a spectacularly ambitious program to build a technological marvel of an observatory that would be sensitive to the faint traces left by a passing gravitational wave. Eventually, a century after the prediction was made — a press conference was called.

Chances are that everyone reading this blog post has heard that LIGO, the Laser Interferometric Gravitational-Wave Observatory, officially announced the first direct detection of gravitational waves. Two black holes, caught in a close orbit, gradually lost energy and spiraled toward each other as they emitted gravitational waves, which zipped through space at the speed of light before eventually being detected by our observatories here on Earth. Plenty of other places will give you details on this specific discovery, or tutorials on the nature of gravitational waves, including in user-friendly comic/video form.

 

What I want to do here is to make sure, in case there was any danger, that nobody loses sight of the extraordinary magnitude of what has been accomplished here. We’ve become a bit blasé about such things: physics makes a prediction, it comes true, yay. But we shouldn’t take it for granted; successes like this reveal something profound about the core nature of reality.

Some guy scribbles down some symbols in an esoteric mixture of Latin, Greek, and mathematical notation. Scribbles originating in his tiny, squishy human brain. (Here are what some of those scribbles look like, in my own incredibly sloppy handwriting.) Other people (notably Rainer Weiss, Ronald Drever, and Kip Thorne), on the basis of taking those scribbles extremely seriously, launch a plan to spend hundreds of millions of dollars over the course of decades. They concoct an audacious scheme to shoot laser beams at mirrors to look for modulated displacements of less than a millionth of a billionth of a centimeter — smaller than the diameter of an atomic nucleus. Meanwhile other people looked at the sky and tried to figure out what kind of signals they might be able to see, for example from the death spiral of black holes a billion light-years away. You know, black holes: universal regions of death where, again according to elaborate theoretical calculations, the curvature of spacetime has become so pronounced that anything entering can never possibly escape. And still other people built the lasers and the mirrors and the kilometers-long evacuated tubes and the interferometers and the electronics and the hydraulic actuators and so much more, all because they believed in those equations. And then they ran LIGO (and other related observatories) for several years, then took it apart and upgraded to Advanced LIGO, finally reaching a sensitivity where you would expect to see real gravitational waves if all that fancy theorizing was on the right track.

And there they were. On the frikkin’ money.

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Our universe is mind-bogglingly vast, complex, and subtle. It is also fantastically, indisputably knowable.

I got a hard time a few years ago for predicting that we would detect gravitational waves within five years. And indeed, the track record of such predictions has been somewhat spotty. Outside Kip Thorne’s office you can find this record of a lost bet — after he predicted that we would see them before 1988. (!)

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But this time around I was pretty confident. The existence of overly-optimistic predictions in the past doesn’t invalidate the much-better predictions we can make with vastly updated knowledge. Advanced LIGO represents the first time when we would have been more surprised not to see gravitational waves than to have seen them. And I believed in those equations.

I don’t want to be complacent about it, however. The fact that Einstein’s prediction has turned out to be right is an enormously strong testimony to the power of science in general, and physics in particular, to describe our natural world. Einstein didn’t know about black holes; he didn’t even know about lasers, although it was his work that laid the theoretical foundations for both ideas. He was working at a level of abstraction that reached as far as he could (at the time) to the fundamental basis of things, how our universe works at the deepest of levels. And his theoretical insights were sufficiently powerful and predictive that we could be confident in testing them a century later. This seemingly effortless insight that physics gives us into the behavior of the universe far away and under utterly unfamiliar conditions should never cease to be a source of wonder.

We’re nowhere near done yet, of course. We have never observed the universe in gravitational waves before, so we can’t tell for sure what we will see, but plausible estimates predict between one-half and several hundred events per year. Hopefully, the success of LIGO will invigorate interest in other ways of looking for gravitational waves, including at very different wavelengths. Here’s a plot focusing on three regimes: LIGO and its cousins on the right, the proposed space-based observatory LISA in the middle, and pulsar-timing arrays (using neutron stars throughout the galaxy as a giant gravitational-wave detector) on the left. Colorful boxes are predicted sources; solid lines are the sensitivities of different experiments. Gravitational-wave astrophysics has just begun; asking us what we will find is like walking up to Galileo and asking him what else you could discover with telescopes other than moons around Jupiter.

grav-wave-detectors-sources

For me, the decade of the 2010’s opened with five big targets in particle physics/gravitation/cosmology:

  1. Discover the Higgs boson.
  2. Directly detect gravitational waves.
  3. Directly observe dark matter.
  4. Find evidence of inflation (e.g. tensor modes) in the CMB.
  5. Discover a particle not in the Standard Model.

The decade is about half over, and we’ve done two of them! Keep up the good work, observers and experimentalists, and the 2010’s will go down as a truly historic decade in physics.

This blog was originally published at PreposterousUniverse.com.

You can explore more about the origins of the universe on CuriosityStream.  Our 2 part series, The Ultimate Formula, details the journey as physicists search for a blueprint of the universe in the form of a single mathematical formula.  And, go inside Monster Black Holesin an episode from our Cosmic Front series.

And, our original, short form series A Curious World explores the reality of black holes:

 

 

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