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CURIOSITY HAS LANDED

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After a tense and slightly inebriated evening of watching NASA TV, I am pleased to report: NASA's Curiosity rover has landed.

In Portland, Oregon, my fiancée and I followed along on NASA TV, streaming the coverage on a phone beaming video to our TV, watching as it dropped out periodically and displayed lovely green macroblocking, and getting tense while waiting through Curiosity's seven minutes of terror. We ate peanuts at the appropriate time to wish Curiosity good luck. And it worked.

This post will be updated as our celebration continues.

Update, 10:37pm PDT:

Mission Control at JPL is a circus. On-air commentator is choking up a bit. The first 256px thumbnail has arrived, showing a wheel of the rover casting a shadow on Mars. "I can't believe this! This is unbelievable!"

Update, 10:42pm PDT: JPL control are now all standing, no longer attending their stations. One team member cries "Holy s**t!" and another, "We've done it again!" Also: "If anybody in the MSA is listening, you should check out our current position on our flythrough. ... You should watch this flight." I doubt anyone at JPL is paying attention to their headsets anymore.

Update, 10:46pm PDT: JPL control quotes as heard through the boisterous chatter: "Eight years of attention!" and "We're on Mars again!" Charlie Bolden, NASA Administrator: "To hear the calls come, saying everything was all right -- it was incredible. ... Everyone in the morning should be sticking their chests out, saying 'That's my rover!'"

Update, 10:50pm PDT: A historically significant tweet:

A few thumbnails from Curiosity:

Curiosity thumbnailCuriosity, via Twitter, posts a pics-or-it-didn't-happen instance: "No photo or it didn't happen? Well lookee here, I'm casting a shadow on the ground in Mars' Gale crater."

First Curiosity thumbnail10:14:29pm PDT is the official touchdown time. JPL specialist in California jokingly apologizes for not converting the time to UTC. Shown at left: the first, rather muddy Curiosity thumbnail, showing the rover's wheel on Mars.

Update, 10:57pm PDT: NASA TV host mentions that thumbnails are available from nasa.gov, despite crushing traffic. They are not. Twitter's image service is holding up better. Meanwhile: "We're looking for going again to Mars...and to Europa." -Dr. Charles Elachi. Apparently no respect for 2010's warning "ALL THESE WORLDS ARE YOURS--EXCEPT EUROPA. ATTEMPT NO LANDINGS THERE." Eh, Roy Scheider will (did?) sort that out.

Update, 11:16pm PDT: Still waiting for the JPL press conference, and the first awesome Twitter gag has arisen: The Yip Yips are real.)

Update, 11:25pm PDT: The JPL press conference has begun. Lots of hootin' and hollerin' in the room. First comment from a scientist: "About an hour ago I looked outside, and I looked to the west [at Mars], and I said 'You're going to have a visitor.'" Charlie Bolden then proceeds to thank our Australian friends in the Deep Space Network for receiving signals and relaying them to the States. He proceeds to note that we now have four successful US landings on Mars, but refuses to name the other "four countries" that are on Mars along with the US. "Our leadership is gonna make the world better," Bolden says. He says: "Today's landing marks a significant step towards achieving that goal [of landing humans] on Mars." If you're not watching this live, tune in now.

Update, 11:30pm PDT: The press conference continues with various references to American commitment to astronauts on Mars. Your humble blogger wonders whether he'll be able to provide live coverage of humans on Mars within the next few administrations. Outlook: sadly doubtful.

Update, 11:33pm PDT: The press conference has become a straight-up party. No one is speaking from the stage, everyone is high-fiving. Elachi periodically attempts to regain control.

Update, 11:37pm PDT: After about five minutes trying to get the room to shut up, Elachi says: "I just was talking to my daughter, and she was crying about how exciting this was -- how inspirational." Also: "What a bargain! This cost you -- this movie cost you less than seven bucks per American, and look at what excitement we've provided you." (Thunderous applause. Blogger note: I've seen other estimates stating that the cost is more like four bucks per person.)

Update, 11:57pm PDT: Can't resist updating for this last bit: Xeni Jardin of BoingBoing asks about the image format and compression coming back from the rover, and Steltzner has no idea on the details.

Thus ends your one-man team coverage for tonight. I'm sure by Monday morning when (most of you) read this, we'll have better images and more analysis of the landing. Good night, people of Earth and rovers of Mars!

Update, the next day, 8:10am PDT: The Atlantic puts Flight Director Ferdowsi's mohawk in context. It's a terrific read, and the man is on Twitter.

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Words
15 Subatomic Word Origins
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In July 2017, researchers at the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN) found evidence for a new fundamental particle of the universe: Ξcc++, a special kind of Xi baryon that may help scientists better understand how quarks are held together. Is that Greek to you? Well, it should be. The names for many of the particles that make up the universe—as well as a few that are still purely theoretical—come from ancient Greek. Here’s a look at 15 subatomic etymologies.

1. ION

An ion is any atom or molecule with an overall electric charge. English polymath William Whewell suggested the name in an 1834 letter to Michael Faraday, who made major discoveries in electromagnetism. Whewell based ion on the ancient Greek verb for “go” (ienai), as ions move towards opposite charges. Faraday and Whewell had previously considered zetode and stechion.

2. ELECTRON

George Stoney, an Anglo-Irish physicist, introduced the term electron in 1891 as a word for the fundamental unit of charge carried by an ion. It was later applied to the negative, nucleus-orbiting particle discovered by J. J. Thomson in 1897. Electron nabs the -on from ion, kicking off the convention of using -on as an ending for all particles, and fuses it with electric. Electric, in turn, comes from the Greek for “amber,” in which the property was first observed. Earlier in the 19th century, electron was the name for an alloy of gold and silver.

3. PROTON

The electron’s counterpart, the positively charged proton in the nuclei of all atoms, was named by its discoverer, Ernest Rutherford. He suggested either prouton or proton in honor of William Prout, a 19th-century chemist. Prout speculated that hydrogen was a part of all other elements and called its atom protyle, a Greek coinage joining protos ("first") and hule ("timber" or "material") [PDF]. Though the word had been previously used in biology and astronomy, the scientific community went with proton.

4. NEUTRON

Joining the proton in the nucleus is the neutron, which is neither positive nor negative: It’s neutral, from the Latin neuter, “neither.” Rutherford used neutron in 1921 when he hypothesized the particle, which James Chadwick didn’t confirm until 1932. American chemist William Harkins independently used neutron in 1921 for a hydrogen atom and a proton-electron pair. Harkins’s latter application calls up the oldest instance of neutron, William Sutherland’s 1899 name for a hypothetical combination of a hydrogen nucleus and an electron.

5. QUARK

Protons and neutrons are composed of yet tinier particles called quarks. For their distinctive name, American physicist Murray Gell-Mann was inspired in 1963 by a line from James Joyce’s Finnegan’s Wake: “Three quarks for Muster Mark.” Originally, Gell-Mann thought there were three types of quarks. We now know, though, there are six, which go by names that are just as colorful: up, down, charm, strange, top, and bottom.

6. MESON

Made up of a quark and an antiquark, which has identical mass but opposite charge, the meson is a short-lived particle whose mass is between that of a proton and an electron. Due to this intermediate size, the meson is named for the ancient Greek mesos, “middle.” Indian physicist Homi Bhabha suggested meson in 1939 instead of its original name, mesotron: “It is felt that the ‘tr’ in this word is redundant, since it does not belong to the Greek root ‘meso’ for middle; the ‘tr’ in neutron and electron belong, of course, to the roots ‘neutr’ and ‘electra’.”

7., 8., AND 9. BOSON, PHOTON, AND GLUON

Mesons are a kind of boson, named by English physicist Paul Dirac in 1947 for another Indian physicist, Satyendra Nath Bose, who first theorized them. Bosons demonstrate a particular type of spin, or intrinsic angular momentum, and carry fundamental forces. The photon (1926, from the ancient Greek for “light”) carries the electromagnetic force, for instance, while the gluon carries the so-called strong force. The strong force holds quarks together, acting like a glue, hence gluon.

10. HADRON

In 2012, CERN’s Large Hadron Collider (LHC) discovered a very important kind of boson: the Higgs boson, which generates mass. The hadrons the LHC smashes together at super-high speeds refer to a class of particles, including mesons, that are held together by the strong force. Russian physicist Lev Okun alluded to this strength by naming the particles after the ancient Greek hadros, “large” or “bulky,” in 1962.

11. LEPTON

Hadrons are opposite, in both makeup and etymology, to leptons. These have extremely tiny masses and don’t interact via the strong force, hence their root in the ancient Greek leptos, “small” or “slender.” The name was first suggested by the Danish chemist Christian Møller and Dutch-American physicist Abraham Pais in the late 1940s. Electrons are classified as leptons.

12. BARYON

Another subtype of hadron is the baryon, which also bears the stamp of Abraham Pais. Baryons, which include the more familiar protons and neutrons, are far more massive, relatively speaking, than the likes of leptons. On account of their mass, Pais put forth the name baryon in 1953, based on the ancient Greek barys, “heavy” [PDF].

13. AXION

Quirky Murray Gell-Mann isn't the only brain with a sense of humor. In his 2004 Nobel Prize lecture, American physicist Frank Wilczek said he named a “very light, very weakly interacting” hypothetical particle the axion back in 1978 “after a laundry detergent [brand], since they clean up a problem with an axial current” [PDF].

14. TACHYON

In ancient Greek, takhys meant “swift,” a fitting name for the tachyon, which American physicist Gerald Feinberg concocted in 1967 for a hypothetical particle that can travel faster than the speed of light. Not so fast, though, say most physicists, as the tachyon would break the fundamental laws of physics as we know them.

15. CHAMELEON

In 2003, the American physicist Justin Khoury and South African-American theoretical physicist Amanda Weltman hypothesized that the elusive dark energy may come in the form of a particle, which they cleverly called the chameleon. Just as chameleons can change color to suit their surroundings, so the physical characteristics of the chameleon particle change “depending on its environment,” explains Symmetry, the online magazine dedicated to particle physics. Chameleon itself derives from the ancient Greek khamaileon, literally “on-the-ground lion.”

For more particle names, see Symmetry’s “A Brief Etymology of Particle Physics,” which helped provide some of the information in this list.

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Space
Look Up! The Orionid Meteor Shower Peaks This Weekend
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October is always a great month for skywatching. If you missed the Draconids, the first meteor shower of the month, don't despair: the Orionids peak this weekend. It should be an especially stunning show this year, as the Moon will offer virtually no interference. If you've ever wanted to get into skywatching, this is your chance.

The Orionids is the second of two meteor showers caused by the debris field left by the comet Halley. (The other is the Eta Aquarids, which appear in May.) The showers are named for the constellation Orion, from which they seem to originate.

All the stars are lining up (so to speak) for this show. First, it's on the weekend, which means you can stay up late without feeling the burn at work the next day. Tonight, October 20, you'll be able to spot many meteors, and the shower peaks just after midnight tomorrow, October 21, leading into Sunday morning. Make a late-night picnic of the occasion, because it takes about an hour for your eyes to adjust to the darkness. Bring a blanket and a bottle of wine, lay out and take in the open skies, and let nature do the rest.

Second, the Moon, which was new only yesterday, is but a sliver in the evening sky, lacking the wattage to wash out the sky or conceal the faintest of meteors. If your skies are clear and light pollution low, this year you should be able to catch about 20 meteors an hour, which isn't a bad way to spend a date night.

If clouds interfere with your Orionids experience, don't fret. There will be two more meteor showers in November and the greatest of them all in December: the Geminids.

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