iOS app Android app

Mario Livio
GET UPDATES FROM Mario Livio
 
Mario Livio is an internationally known astrophysicist, a bestselling author, and a popular lecturer. His new book, Brilliant Blunders: From Darwin to Einstein -- Colossal Mistakes by Great Scientists that Changed Our Understanding of Life and the Universe, is scheduled for 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

The Search for Life Is Picking Up Speed!

(0) Comments | Posted July 22, 2014 | 1:33 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...

Read Post

The First Female Astronomer

(1) Comments | Posted July 9, 2014 | 4:44 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?...

Read Post

Who's the Greatest Mathematician of Them All?

(9) Comments | Posted June 25, 2014 | 6:21 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...

Read Post

On the Shoulders of a Giant

(2) Comments | Posted June 10, 2014 | 9:52 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:...
Read Post

Sculptures in the Heavens (PHOTOS)

(2) Comments | Posted May 14, 2014 | 5:40 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...

Read Post

Toward a Quantum Theory of Gravity? (Part 2)

(13) Comments | Posted May 2, 2014 | 8:25 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...

Read Post

Toward a Quantum Theory of Gravity? (Part 1)

(7) Comments | Posted April 16, 2014 | 3:23 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...

Read Post

A Visit From the Big Bang

(1) Comments | Posted March 26, 2014 | 9:50 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...

Read Post

Put It on Ice

(3) Comments | Posted March 12, 2014 | 11:49 AM

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...

Read Post

The Grains of Space

(4) Comments | Posted February 27, 2014 | 6:05 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...

Read Post

Eternal Inflation?

(3) Comments | Posted February 11, 2014 | 5:01 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...

Read Post

Five Intriguing Stories of 2013

(0) Comments | Posted January 29, 2014 | 12:14 PM

Here are five science stories that I found intriguing during 2013. I don't mean to imply that these necessarily represent the most important discoveries, rather, these are simply stories that, for one reason or another, caught my attention more than others.

1. Great Ball of Fire.

On the morning of...

Read Post

Brains of Genius

(2) Comments | Posted January 15, 2014 | 5:00 PM

Albert Einstein (Figure 1) died on April 18, 1955 at Princeton Hospital in New Jersey. Évariste Galois (Figure 2) died on May 31, 1832 at the Cochin Hospital in Paris. The two men had something in common: They were both geniuses who formulated game-changing mathematical theories. Einstein formulated General Relativity...

Read Post

On Extraterrestrial Life: Part III

(6) Comments | Posted January 2, 2014 | 11:17 AM

As I indicated in the previous blog pieces in this series, while extraterrestrial life almost certainly exists in our Milky Way galaxy, even the nearest life-harboring planet may be tens of light-years away. This means that our best shot at detecting such life is through remote observations by large telescopes....

Read Post

On Extraterrestrial Life: Part II

(18) Comments | Posted December 19, 2013 | 11:32 AM

Astrobiology is a rapidly evolving, interdisciplinary field of research that concerns the origin, frequency, and evolution of life in the universe. Given, however, that so far we only know of one example of life -- the one on Earth -- astrobiology generally proceeds with the assumption that, in terms of...

Read Post

On Extraterrestrial Life: Part I

(53) Comments | Posted December 5, 2013 | 12:45 PM

Arguably, the questions of whether extraterrestrial life in general, and intelligent life in particular exist, are two of the most intriguing questions in science today. The discovery (if and when it happens) of extraterrestrial complex life will undoubtedly usher in a revolution that will rival the Copernican and Darwinian revolutions...

Read Post

The Marvelous Helix: From DNA to Astrophysical Jets

(3) Comments | Posted November 20, 2013 | 10:29 AM

Ask anyone to name the most important molecule and the answer will undoubtedly be DNA -- the molecule of life. Most people are also familiar with the general structure of DNA (Figure 1). They know that it is a double helix. In other words, it looks a bit like a...

Read Post

Infinity

(32) Comments | Posted November 5, 2013 | 12:41 PM

The most common encounter with the concept of infinity is associated with the positive whole numbers 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6... , which go on without end. In ancient Greece, the celebrated mathematician Euclid famously proved (around 300 BCE) that there is even an infinite number of primes (numbers...

Read Post

Waiting for the James Webb Space Telescope

(14) Comments | Posted October 24, 2013 | 11:19 AM

The Hubble Space Telescope has arguably been one of the most successful scientific experiments in history. It has produced (among many other things) images of galaxies when the universe was only about half a billion years old (it is now 13.8 billion years old), and has given us a glimpse...

Read Post

The Da Vinci Astronomy

(1) Comments | Posted October 8, 2013 | 5:41 PM

Leonardo da Vinci (Figure 1) is not usually known for his astrophysics. Yet this remarkable individual -- the quintessential "Renaissance Man" -- made quite a few pronouncements related to astronomy and astrophysics.

2013-10-08-Francesco_Melzi__Portrait_of_Leonardo__WGA14795.jpg
Figure 1. Portrait of Leonardo da Vinci by the painter Francesco Melzi.


...

Read Post