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Mario Livio
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Mario Livio is an internationally known astrophysicist, a bestselling author, and a popular lecturer. His newest book, Brilliant Blunders: From Darwin to Einstein -- Colossal Mistakes by Great Scientists that Changed Our Understanding of Life and the Universe, was released in May 2013. His popular book The Golden Ratio: The Story of Phi, the World’s Most Astonishing Number won the Peano Prize for 2003, and the International Pythagoras Prize for 2004 as the best popular book on mathematics, while his Is God a Mathematician? was selected by The Washington Post as one of the best books of 2009.

Livio is an astrophysicist at the Space Telescope Science Institute (STScI), which conducts the scientific program of the Hubble Space Telescope, and will conduct the program for the upcoming James Webb Space Telescope. He has a regular blog, A Curious Mind, about science, art, and the links between them.

During the past decade, Livio’s research focused on supernova explosions and their use in cosmology to determine the rate of expansion of the universe, and the nature of the “dark energy” that causes the cosmic expansion to accelerate. He also worked on extrasolar planets and the search for life in the universe.

Entries by Mario Livio

Dark Matter -- Still Dark

(13) Comments | Posted December 10, 2014 | 9:49 AM

Dark matter continues to live up to its name. The most recent results from the European Space Agency's Planck spacecraft appear to cast serious doubt on previous claims of potential detections of the elusive dark matter particles.

For decades, astronomers have found what appears to be compelling evidence for the...

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The Five-Pointed Star as a Symbol

(1) Comments | Posted November 20, 2014 | 12:34 PM

Humans have been fascinated by stars -- those luminous points of light embedded in the night's darkness -- for millennia. Long before any understanding of their scientific significance emerged, the stars' association with the heavens has turned them into symbols of the warfare between light, or spirit, and darkness, or...

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Space Missions Are Never 'Routine'

(0) Comments | Posted November 4, 2014 | 1:02 PM

This past week we had a sad and harsh reminder that when it comes to space exploration, no undertaking can be considered "ordinary," and success is never guaranteed.

On Friday, Virgin Galactic's SpaceShip Two exploded in California's Mojave Desert, killing one pilot and badly injuring a second one (Figure 1)....

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On William Blake's 'Newton'

(3) Comments | Posted October 23, 2014 | 2:24 PM

Between 1795 and 1805, the mystic poet, painter and printmaker William Blake produced a print that he titled "Newton" (Figure 1). Just like the mythological figure Urizen, that to Blake portrayed law and reason in his piece "The Ancient of Days" (Figure 2), Blake's Newton holds a compass. To Blake,...

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An Astronomer's Guide to the Galaxy

(1) Comments | Posted October 1, 2014 | 3:27 PM

Measuring distances in astronomy is notoriously difficult. Indeed, a quick glance at the night's sky reveals only a two-dimensional image, with no depth information. Yet, knowledge of precise distances is crucial, since that's the only way to determine the true, intrinsic luminosity of an object, from the apparent one, measured...

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Cosmic Inflation: How Progress in Science Is Achieved

(12) Comments | Posted September 24, 2014 | 1:04 PM

You may remember that about six months ago, scientists got all excited about the potential detection of ripples from the Big Bang -- direct evidence (if it were to be confirmed) for the event known as "cosmic inflation" (see e.g., "A Visit...

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The Top Science Mysteries

(30) Comments | Posted September 16, 2014 | 4:49 PM

There are numerous websites entitled "Top 10 Unsolved Science Mysteries," or some slight variations on this theme. However, even a cursory examination of these sites reveals that the choices for the "top 10" are far from being unanimous. Here I have identified three "mysteries" that appear on many -- but...

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We Are Star Dust

(1) Comments | Posted August 19, 2014 | 1:21 PM

Humans have always been fascinated with the heavens. Our distant ancestors understood that Mother Earth was receiving its daylight warmth from the majestic Sun, and its pale, nocturnal light from the Moon. In addition, there were those twinkling point sources of light that the ancients connected by imaginary lines to...

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The Music of the Galaxies

(0) Comments | Posted August 5, 2014 | 4:35 PM

2014-08-05-fig1_sm.jpg Figure 1. The spiral galaxy M74.

2014-08-05-fig2_sm.jpg
Figure 2. The elliptical galaxy NGC 4150.

There is a common phrase "no two snowflakes are alike." Astronomers in the early part of the...

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The Search for Life Is Picking Up Speed!

(1) Comments | Posted July 22, 2014 | 2:33 PM

Recently, the search for extraterrestrial life has started to gain significant momentum. NASA has just announced, for instance, that it is setting aside $25 million to develop the scientific instruments needed for a mission to Europa (Figure 1). This is the ice-covered moon of Jupiter that could harbor life in...

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The First Female Astronomer

(1) Comments | Posted July 9, 2014 | 5:44 PM

In 2009 the International Astronomical Union (IAU) held its general assembly in Rio de Janeiro. Of the 2,109 participants, 667 (or 31.6 percent) were women. Indeed, in recent years, the fraction of women among astronomers has been growing continuously. But who is considered to have been the first female astronomer?...

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Who's the Greatest Mathematician of Them All?

(9) Comments | Posted June 25, 2014 | 7:21 PM

The historian of mathematics E. T. Bell once wrote, "Archimedes, Newton, and Gauss; these three are in a class by themselves among the great mathematicians, and it is not for ordinary mortals to attempt to rank them in order of merit." Indeed, each one of these three luminaries inspired awe...

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On the Shoulders of a Giant

(2) Comments | Posted June 10, 2014 | 10:52 PM

In his memoirs of Sir Isaac Newton's (Fig. 1) life, William Stukely, a physician who was Newton's personal friend, tells the story that has become legendary in the history of science:

[O]n 15 April 1726 I paid a visit to Sr. Isaac, at his lodgings in Orbels buildings, Kensington:...
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Sculptures in the Heavens (PHOTOS)

(2) Comments | Posted May 14, 2014 | 6:40 PM

Take a look at the five Hubble images of planetary nebulae in Figs. 1-5. Even though all of them represent late stages in the lives of Sun-like stars, like snowflakes, each one is different. I think you'll agree that they are all also breathtakingly beautiful. What are these spectacular astronomical...

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Toward a Quantum Theory of Gravity? (Part 2)

(13) Comments | Posted May 2, 2014 | 9:25 PM

In classical general relativity, black holes represent those points at which the fabric of space-time becomes so steeply warped that nothing can escape from them. One of the key goals of a quantum theory of gravity is precisely to resolve such "pathological" situations and to describe black holes as complex...

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Toward a Quantum Theory of Gravity? (Part 1)

(7) Comments | Posted April 16, 2014 | 4:23 PM

The recent potential detection of ripples from the Big Bang by the BICEP2 telescope (Fig. 1) has justifiably generated huge excitement. If confirmed, the ripples represent an imprint on the cosmic microwave background by gravitational waves. Those gravitational waves are produced through a quantum process, providing, for the first time...

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A Visit From the Big Bang

(1) Comments | Posted March 26, 2014 | 10:50 PM

By now you may be one of the millions of people who have seen the viral YouTube video that shows physicist Chao-Lin Kuo of Stanford University telling his colleague Andrei Linde, "Five sigma, as clear as day, r of 0.2."

To most people, Linde's reaction -- one of delighted disbelief -- may have seemed incomprehensible. How can anybody get so excited about the words "r of 0.2"? Yet those words represented one of the most dramatic discoveries of modern times (if confirmed). In the simplest terms, what Kuo meant was that they have discovered direct evidence, as clear as one could hope for, that the event known as "cosmic inflation" really happened.

Cosmic inflation describes a phase lasting a tiny fraction of a second in the universe's existence, in which the universe expanded at a faster-than-light speed from a speck much, much smaller than an atom to about the size of a grapefruit. The theory for this extraordinary process, originally formulated by physicists Alan Guth (currently at MIT) and Andrei Linde (to whom Kuo was delivering the news), suggested that the stupendous expansion happened when the universe was about one trillionth of a trillionth of a trillionth of a second old! In other words, this was what truly "banged" in the Big Bang. (See "What Did Go 'Bang' in the Big Bang?")

Now are you surprised that Linde reacted the way he did?

The signature that Kuo was talking about came from the BICEP2 telescope at the South Pole:

2014-03-26-18cosmos2sm.jpg
The BICEP2 telescope is in the foreground; in the background is the South Pole Telescope (credit: Steffen Richter/Associated Press).

The inflationary model predicted that the explosive expansion would have generated certain ripples -- gravity waves -- predicted to exist by Einstein's theory of general relativity. These waves stretch space in one direction and squeeze it in another, leaving what is known as a "B-mode polarization" imprint in the cosmic microwave background (the whirling patterns seen below):

2014-03-26-gravitational_waves_sm.jpg
Map of the so-called "B-modes," the imprints left by gravitational waves on the cosmic microwave background (from arXiv:1403.3985 by the BICEP2 Collaboration).

BICEP2 detected these B-modes at a statistically significant level. (The "five sigma" that Kuo referred to means that there is only a 1-in-35-million probability of the result occurring by chance.) Inflation is also what created all the matter and radiation in our universe, and some versions of inflation theory predict the existence of a multiverse -- a huge ensemble of universes. (See "How Can We Tell If a Multiverse Exists?")

So with that simple knock on Linde's door, Chao-Lin Kuo was bringing the news that we may have witnessed the birth of the...

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Put It on Ice

(3) Comments | Posted March 12, 2014 | 12:49 PM

This winter, the continental U.S. has experienced such long periods of cold weather that some have started to wonder whether scientists have somehow gotten the signs wrong, and instead of global warming we are experiencing a mini ice age. This, of course, is not really the case; Europe and the...

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The Grains of Space

(4) Comments | Posted February 27, 2014 | 7:05 PM

We are used to thinking about space as a smooth continuum, which can, in principle, at least, be probed to infinitely small dimensions. For instance, in Euclidean geometry, a point is defined as "that which has no part." In other words, points have no volume, area, or length, and yet...

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Eternal Inflation?

(3) Comments | Posted February 11, 2014 | 6:01 PM

The original inflationary model of the universe proposed that when our universe was only a tiny fraction of a second old, it underwent a brief, but stupendously accelerated expansion. The expansion took quantum fluctuations (on subatomic scales) and enlarged them to astronomically relevant dimensions. This idea (put forward by physicist...

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