Comments of the Week #7: On Education, the Skies and the Stars

"All speech, written or spoken, is a dead language, until it finds a willing and prepared hearer." -Robert Louis Stevenson

It's been another wonderful week in the Universe, and there's been so much to share together. New this week on the main Starts With A Bang blog over at Medium, we've talked about:

And you've come through with lots of excellent comments, and continue to make me happy that we keep the old ScienceBlogs site here open as a forum for all of you to have a say and interact with one another (and me) as you see fit. Some of your comments stand alone as simply interesting and informative, and others lend themselves to an even more detailed response from me. Here are -- to me, at least -- the best comments from the past week!

From Art on the topic of teaching literacy skills: It has been a very long time. Perhaps I’m not as smart as I once was. But for the life of me I can’t tell you what the letters: g, h, i, and n, o, p are supposed to represent. I finally figured out that L is for lick and V might be for vehicle but Y still evades me. In the old days Y was usually for yo-yo, or , more rarely, Yogi bear. I suppose the picture for N might be for ‘not going to make it’ but that strikes me as a bit grim for young children.

You have to recognize that English is an incredibly tough language for a number of reasons. Not only are words pronounced in vastly different ways, but we have many ways of expressing similar or identical concepts; the English vocabulary is astonishingly huge. And in different parts of an English-speaking country -- not to mention different countries -- there are strong preferences for various words that are uncommon in other regions.

Image credit: Quality Primary Resources, via Image credit: Quality Primary Resources, via

In the USA, for example, how many children would recognize "b" as a bat? It's a cricket bat, but cricket is a less common game than mumblety-peg is here in the USA; this phonics chart comes from the UK. You might look at "p" and think, "why are they showing a candle with a 'p' next to it," but that's because they call it a pillar there. "O" is a switch in the "off" position, "z" and "m" are clearly just the sounds being made, and "l" could be lick, but I'm pretty sure it's either "lolly" or "lollipop" for the sucker the girl's holding.

But for g, h, i, and n? If I had to guess -- and I hope a trueborn Brit can verify or refute these -- I'd say they were "gulf" (a synonym for sink or basin), the "hhhhhhhh" sound (the heavy breathing of an exhausted runner), the squeaking "iiiiiiii" sound that a mouse makes, and because that plane is clearly going down, I would guess "nosedive," and simply assume the picture was chosen by someone who doesn't know what part of the plane the "nose" actually is. (Sorry for the dissatisfying image!)

Image credit: Ron Miller of Fine Art America, via Image credit: Ron Miller of Fine Art America, via….

From Pavel on the subject of the Sun shining: AFAIK, the [dominant] source of Sun energy is the CNO cycle, i.e. [sequence] of proton captures and beta decays: C12 -> N13 -> C13 -> N14 -> O15 -> N15 -> C12 + He.

It is true that the CNO cycle -- where hydrogen fuel is added progressively to carbon, nitrogen and oxygen, producing helium, energy and a carbon to start all over again -- does, in fact, occur in the Sun, in addition to the proton-proton chain described at length in my article. Here's what the CNO cycle looks like. (Start at carbon-12 and move clockwise.)

Image credit: Wikimedia Commons user Borb, via c.c.-by-3.0. Image credit: Wikimedia Commons user Borb, via c.c.-by-3.0.

Like all nuclear physics reactions, the rate of this cycle is exponentially dependent on temperature, with proton capture by nitrogen-14 being the slowest, most difficult step. In order for these reactions to fully run in a cycle (i.e., for the nitrogen-14 + proton reaction to proceed to completion), it requires stellar temperatures of 15 million Kelvin, something just barely achieved in the very innermost core of the Sun, which is estimated to reach 15.7 million Kelvin. However, since the proton-proton chain occurs at much lower temperatures, the CNO reaction rate doesn't proceed faster than proton-proton reactions until temperatures of about 17 million Kelvin, which corresponds to stars more than 130% the Sun's mass, or approximately F5-class stars (and brighter).

In other words, the Sun does have a little bit of the CNO cycle going on inside it, but it only contributes less than 2% of the Sun's total energy, as compared to more than 98% for the proton-proton chain. But if we had a significantly more massive star, the CNO cycle would dominate. That just isn't the case for our Sun.

Image credit: Fermilab, modified by me. Image credit: Fermilab, modified by me.

From Sinisa Lazarek, admonishing me for my apparently inconsistent position on the Top 5 Signs of New Physics: Ethan, you say “Now, we do not know how to make a working theory of quantum gravity. String theory is a possibility (and maybe the only viable game in town)” What about loop quantum gravity? I am no expert in either field, but you’ve been a vocal opponent of string theory for years now, why the change of heart? From calling it “Is String Theory an Unphysical Pile of Garbage?” to now saying that it might be the ONLY viable theory?? What’s up with that??

What's up, indeed. Because I am a vocal opponent of string theory. At least, when it's presented as a physical theory that's relevant for an experimental signature that could even, in principle, be present in this Universe. But if you're interested -- from a theoretical viewpoint -- in creating a framework in which all four of the fundamental forces (including gravity) are simply different manifestations of a single, overarching mathematical structure, that is the town in which string theory is (thus far) the only viable game.

Image credit: Jeff Bryant of Wolfram, via Image credit: Jeff Bryant of Wolfram, via

If all you care about is how to calculate quantum effects to first order as far as gravitation is concerned, then perhaps loop quantum gravity may potentially offer some insight. But it was never intended to be a full theory of quantum gravity, merely a functional, effective approach. (Which it may yet turn out to be.) But neither it nor string theory is there, yet, and neither one has done anything other than a woefully unsatisfactory job of describing our physical Universe. So far.

My opinion about the "goodness" of a scientific theory is informed by its predictive power for our Universe. That doesn't mean that I can't recognize that ideas that have not yet progressed to the point of a scientific theory -- and, let's be honest, neither string theory nor loop quantum gravity are in the ballpark -- don't have the potential to someday get there. So there's your nuance.

Image credit: Maximilien Brice, CERN. Image credit: Maximilien Brice, CERN.

From Lotharloo on the same topic: Very very nice post! One question though, you say “In other words, unless we get hit by a big physics surprise, the LHC will become renowned for having found the Higgs Boson and nothing else fundamental, meaning that there’s no window into what lies beyond the Standard Model via traditional experimental particle physics.” Is it because the energy required for detecting the particles required by these five problems is so high that there is no chance of building a detector that can detect them?

For some of these problems, that's certainly the case, but for others, it's simply that the LHC isn't really built for looking for these sorts of things. If there is new physics at the electroweak scale -- if there's extra CP violation in either the weak or the strong sectors -- the LHC might be able to find that. Similarly, if dark matter is a particle with a large enough interaction cross-section and coupling to the Standard Model, the LHC's got a shot.

But for all other cases, it's a combination of the fact that either the energies requires won't be reached by the LHC or the things that need to be detected can't be detected by the LHC, or both.

Image credit: Borexino Solar Neutrino Detector at Gran Sasso in Italy; BOREXINO collaboration. Image credit: Borexino Solar Neutrino Detector at Gran Sasso in Italy; BOREXINO collaboration.

Yes, heavy "see-saw" neutrinos are theoretically up at around 10^15 GeV in energy, some 100,000,000,000 times more energetic than what the LHC can probe. Quantum gravitational effects are some 10^90 times too weak to be seen by the LHC. But for something like detecting neutrinos, the LHC simply isn't built for it. (Give us a half-a-light-year of lead and we'll talk!)

It takes a combination of experimental apparatuses, specialized for different things, all working together to give us our picture of physics. The LHC might be touted as a "dream machine" because it pushes the energy frontier -- and has given us the Higgs -- but it's not a solve all the problems with this one machine! Physicists hate it!

If only.

Image credit: NASA / Ames, SETI Institute. Image credit: NASA / Ames, SETI Institute.

And a little bonus comment on a necro'd thread: Please share more information when you get from any where. any one have know about [Kepler] 186b.. please share your knowledge...

Lucky you. Kepler 186 is the name of an M-class star located 490 light-years away, and it has five known planets orbiting it. Kepler 186b is less than 6 million km from its parent star and slightly larger than Earth. Due to its size and proximity, it's almost certainly tidally locked to its star, with daytime temperature almost double those on the planet Mercury.

But you probably were more interested in Kepler 186f, the potentially habitable one. Lucky for you, I was on TV talking about this just a few days ago!

So I hope this helps! Thanks for weighing in, and I hope you enjoyed this week's Comments of the Week!

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If you want to make GUT, then yes, string theory is in that ballpark, not LQG. If you believe in SUSY and 11 dimensions, of course. But you didn't want to make GUT in your first post. It was about QG.

As for quantum gravity, string theory wasn't intended to be a quantum theory of gravity in the first place, so why would you write that about LQG?

It's not my intent to defend LQG or ST. But your point of view just seems inconsistent. "Because I am a vocal opponent of string theory. At least, when it’s presented as a physical theory that’s relevant for an experimental signature that could even, in principle, be present in this Universe."

At the end of the day, both theories are trying just that, to make some testable prediction concerning gravity within our Universe. Maybe you see it differently... but I don't know of any physicists working on LQG or ST that isn't looking for experimental signature that would provide testable prediction.

By Sinisa Lazarek (not verified) on 20 Apr 2014 #permalink

p.s. my last sentence should be vice versa.

Try to make some prediction from the theory that can be testable within our Universe.

By Sinisa Lazarek (not verified) on 20 Apr 2014 #permalink

H is for hot, maybe? Y would be yoghurt.

By Fraser Wilson (not verified) on 21 Apr 2014 #permalink

Starting With A BANG: I bet you didnt know that with the proper nutrition you can (on average) annual make imprints on your DNA.

We have been testing and measuring "Extra Sensory" for almost century in documentation. Technically this "Extra Sensory". is easy to blind you from

I'm not here to argue directly but to tell you argue with the Fact that THIS page is FILLED with the MISCONCEPTION (not common knowledge but was with held against Natural Will and logic) that we cannot test any senses other than the 5 we find to be "common". It's started getting measure almost a century ago. You have been intentionally or not intentionally mislead to be disconnected from the truth of something ( I promise you that it is easy to find many many sources TONS of sources ) . What I meant undeniable (for anyone's non skeptical view point) the magnitude of test and studies that have been covered, placebo factor eliminated, to a an extent that the 2 things even in theory are incredible. TO THINK that NATURAL SELECTION CANT or ISNT EFFECTED by our GRAVITAtIONAL LENS of any and all FREQUENCY is to be BLIND to that sense and every person who does'nt want you to know about it. The truth surrounds you. how does a string carry vibration or "Light" or "Sound". they are one in the same on the scale of frequency in a linear sense. oppositing and diverting perpendicular is how me become accurate to sensory. The same machine that have discovered almost 1,000,000 galaxies, and 150k quasars works the same way and you may not know of it since it is almost a decade old. Questioning all answers a great way to find them in your mind and create positive energy instead of wasted not all is wasted it can be bad, Natural Selection isnt perfect until..

By Nathan Holland (not verified) on 22 Apr 2014 #permalink

Excuse my bad grammar among many typo's. Its hard to slow things down sometimes...

By Nathan Holland (not verified) on 22 Apr 2014 #permalink


If it's any consolation Nathan, I'm sure Ethan accepts that we can test our sense of balance. Which just based on number order is a sixth sense.


For what it's worth, my favorite example of a sixth sense is hunger, which I'm pretty sure goes well beyond what we think of as a sense of "touch".

Ghost Matter delves in another Dimension below our current one of existence" Can only be found in high Gravity areas!

By philip coleman (not verified) on 02 May 2014 #permalink