Science & Environment Writer, Editor
science - archive
astronomy & astrophysics
On March 17, 2014, astronomers announced they had found an astonishingly faint light signature of the universe's birth. Subsequent analysis of the data suggested that the signal detected by the BICEP2 team may be mostly due to dust in our own galaxy. As a result, the hunt is still on for the earliest signature of the Big Bang. Cosmologists predict that this signature could lie in the cosmic microwave background, the oldest light in the universe, and reveal itself as a pattern in how that ancient light is polarized. A verified discovery would provide cosmologists with "smoking-gun" evidence of the inflationary framework of cosmology - the idea that the universe expanded exponentially immediately after our universe came into existence. In February of 2013, more than a year before the 2014 announcement, I traveled to the Atacama Desert in Chile to report on a project called POLARBEAR, which has been searching for the same inflation signal since 2012 and continues its quest today. My article on the trip was profiled in the October 2013 issue of Sky & Telescope magazine.
ALMA, the Atacama Large Millimeter /submillimeter Array in Northern Chile, is opening a new window on the universe, revealing young planetary systems being born, early dust-enshrouded galaxies, and other mysteries. During a second trip to Chile's Atacama Desert in March 2013, I reported on this new sprawling observatory at nearly 17,000 feet on the barren Chajnantor Plateau. In its August 2013 issue, Air & Space published my article on how astronomers are using ALMA to study some of the earliest galaxies ever seen. Read it here.
Earth-like planets just a few light years from Earth? They could be more common than you think. I interviewed astronomers for Air & Space magazine's June 2013 issue about exoplanets orbiting ubiquitous red dwarf stars, and how the right conditions could support life. Read it here.
In February 2013, the meteor that exploded over Russia captured the globe's attention and dominated the news for days. More than a month before that event, Air & Space magazine published my article on a private effort to build a space telescope to search for potentially dangerous asteroids. You can read that story here.
Scientific American, Oct. 25, 2010
A Wet Run for a Dry Planet: NASA Tests Drilling Technology in the Desert with Mars Sample Return in Mind
Despite a gummed up drill bit and three days of very un-Martian precipitation, engineers pronounced the test a success - and learned to expect the unexpected, whether it be in the California outback or on Mars.
Under a slate-gray sky, Mono Lake in eastern California seems to be dying as it gradually evaporates to reveal strange, towering rock formations hidden for hundreds, even thousands of years. ...
Scientific American, Oct. 4, 2009
Water Lust: Why All the Excitement When H2O Is Found in Space?
Mars, Europa, interstellar nebulae, and now even the moon all seem to be getting wetter with every observation. But what is it about this simple hydrogen-oxygen combo that makes it the sine qua non of finding extraterrestrial life?
When NASA announced last month the finding of water ice in several impact craters on Mars, and either water or hydroxyl widely dispersed on the moon's surface, the solar system became a little more familiar because it seemed a tad more hospitable to life as we know it on Earth. ...
Scientific American, Sept. 1, 2009
Salvaging NASA's Planetary Grand Tour: Sending Voyager 2 Where No Probe Had Gone Before--Or Since
The twin Voyagers set the pace for planetary exploration. And although the technology on new probes far surpasses theirs, no other spacecraft has yet explored more of the solar system and its interstellar environs
On March 5, 1979, Voyager 1 arrived at Jupiter, followed by Voyager 2 on July 9. Suddenly, NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, Calif., was flooded with crystal-clear pictures of Jupiter's turbulent atmosphere and never-before-seen volcanic eruptions on its moon Io. ...
Scientific American, Aug. 21, 2009
Almost Heaven: Landing the Thirty Meter Telescope Fortifies Mauna Kea's Position as Earth's Eye on the Sky
With 13 observatories and counting, the frosty summit of a dormant volcano on Hawaii's Big Island could have the bragging rights as the planet's clearest window on the universe
It's no surprise for scientists that the summit of Mauna Kea, a dormant volcano on Hawaii's Big Island, was the choice for the Thirty Meter Telescope (TMT), one of a handful of next-generation optical telescopes that aims to propel ground-based astronomy in the 21st century. For professional astronomers, rarified air and dizzy spells are a small price to pay for Mauna Kea's front-row seat on the cosmos. ...
Scientific American, Feb. 24, 2009
Dome Big Dome: Giant Observatories Augur New Era of Cosmology
When a new generation of giant ground-based telescopes comes online in the next decade, human eyes will see what no one has seen before
Four centuries ago Galileo pointed his spyglass toward the heavens and astronomy changed forever. As the world celebrates the 400th anniversary of the telescope, another cosmological revolution is coming: The Giant Magellan Telescope (GMT), Thirty Meter Telescope (TMT) and European Extremely Large Telescope (E-ELT)all expected to see first light by 2020will dwarf the biggest observatories in use today. ...
The San Diego Union-Tribune, July 13, 2006
Shooting the moon
Laser light aimed at reflectors left on lunar surface could pinpoint distance from Earth - and test Einstein's theory
On July 21, 1969, Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin propped an array of reflectors in the lunar soil one of several science experiments they deployed a day after becoming the first humans to set foot on the moon. ...
The San Diego Union-Tribune, Feb. 1, 2006
Can NASA learn enough about an approaching asteroid to rule out a collision in 2036?
Shortly after sunset Friday, April 13, 2029, if the sky is clear enough, people across Europe and North Africa will see an asteroid appear as a bright point of light flying 19,400 miles overhead before it disappears silently below the western horizon. ...
The San Diego Union-Tribune, June 29, 2005
Date with a comet
Spacecraft's collision Sunday may reveal galactic secrets
At 10:52 p.m. Sunday, a tiny NASA spacecraft called Deep Impact will plunge into a comet, exploding into its interior and potentially revealing a piece of the solar system that hasn't changed in 4 billion years. Looking inside comet Tempel 1 should offer a glimpse of rock and ice unchanged since the birth of the solar system. ...
The San Diego Union-Tribune, May 26, 2004
Water Medium of Life
The hunt for water on Mars arguably began in 1877. In that year, Italian astronomer Giovanni Schiaparelli spotted what he thought were canali, or channels, on the surface of the Red Planet. ...
The San Diego Union-Tribune, Jan. 3, 2004
Spirits high as rover nears Mars
NASA scientists hope to find signs that water, life existed
PASADENA - The American spacecraft Spirit was closing in on Mars yesterday at 6,000 mph and speeding up as it approached touchdown. ...
oceanography & marine biodiversity
The San Diego Union-Tribune, Sept. 17, 2003
Ear to the Sea
Aided by modern technology, marine researchers heed the call of the wild to learn more about elusive whales
In March 2000, Erin Oleson was off the coast of Martinique studying the songs of humpback whales, the waves of the Caribbean gently rocking her small inflatable boat. Without much room in the tiny craft, Oleson was forced to leave acoustic instruments designed to record the whales back on ship. So, Oleson, a graduate student at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography, did the next best thing. ...
biology & neuroscience
Nature, July 3, 2008
Details of being human
A difference in one molecule led physician Ajit Varki to question what sets humans apart from other apes. Bruce Lieberman meets a man who sees a big picture in the finer points.
The human body does not welcome an injection of horse serum. Ajit Varki discovered this when, as a young San Diego doctor in 1984, he administered some to a woman with bone-marrow failure. The serum was a standard treatment intended to stop the womans T cells from destroying her bone marrow. But it was also known to prompt a reaction called serum sickness and, sure enough, the patient broke out in hives a week after treatment the result, Varki assumed, of her immune systems assault on proteins from another species. ...
The San Diego Union-Tribune, April 5, 2006
Buddhism and the art of brain science
Dalai Lama and researchers collaborate in mix of meditation and neuroscience
In October 2004, neuroscientist Fred Gage took a leap of faith and flew to India to present a lecture to Tenzin Gyatso, the current Dalai Lama. The religious leader had asked him to participate in a workshop on brain science at his compound in Dharamsala, in the foothills of the Himalayas. The Dalai Lama wanted to learn more about Gage's explorations at the Salk Institute in La Jolla into the adult brain's ability to generate new cells. ...
The San Diego Union-Tribune, Nov. 9, 2006
The Cultural Evolution
Humans aren't the only species who learn by aping their elders
It is such a basic part of human nature that we don't think twice about it: Adults pass their habits, knowledge, traditions and skills on to the young. That relationship gives rise to a dizzying array of cultures -- defined by the way people dress, eat, marry, die, believe in a deity or not and on and on. ...
The San Diego Union-Tribune, Sept. 3, 2003
Birds and babes
Learning how avian brains master song could be enlightening for humans
On May 27, 1784, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart purchased a pet starling, and he may have found there a spark of inspiration. "Das war schon!" -- That was beautiful! -- the composer wrote in a diary, along with a score of the little bird's 17-note song. ...
For more examples of my science writing, please contact me.
Over the years I've written a wide range of science stories. Here are some highlights.