Planck Observatory Looks Back in Time

March 21, 2013

Back in 2009, I posted a couple of notes here about the European Space Agency’s [ESA] Planck Observatory, The observatory operates in the microwave part of the electromagnetic spectrum, and is intended to make the most precise measurements yet of the Cosmic Microwave Background, a faint remaining echo of the aftermath of the Big Bang.  At the time I wrote, the spacecraft had just gotten ready to work, having reached its normal operating temperature of 0.1° K (-273.05° Celsius), just above absolute zero (0°K).

According to an article at the BBC News site, the Planck has now completed a 15-month sky survey, and the ESA has released a map of the results.

A spectacular new map of the “oldest light” in the sky has just been released by the European Space Agency.

Scientists say its mottled pattern is an exquisite confirmation of our Big-Bang model for the origin and evolution of the Universe.

Although the data broadly confirm the “Big Bang” model for the formation of the Universe, they do suggest some refinements from previous knowledge.  The Universe appears to be slightly older, at 13.82 billion years, that previously thought, by about 50 million years.  This indicates a slightly slower rate of expansion than previously calculated.  The breakdown of the Universe’s composition also works out a bit differently,   Based on the Planck results, there is a bit more matter (both ordinary and dark matter) than previous.y thought, and a little less dark energy.   The comparative figures are:

Component Previous Post Planck
Normal Matter 4.5 % 4.9 %
Dark Matter 22.7 26.8
Dark Energy 72.8 68.3

The Planck data have also confirmed some small anomalies that were previously noted in the data from NASA’s Williamson Microwave Anisotropy Probe (WMAP).  According to the theory, the differences in the level of background radiation (represented by the color “mottling” of the map) correspond to differences in the density of matter in the early Universe.

Cosmic Microwave Background

Cosmic Microwave Background (from Planck)
Image: ESA/Planck Collaboration

In the CMB map, above, the lower half of the image seems to be slightly warmer (orange / red) than the upper half; there also seems to be a cool spot (blue) just below and to the right of the center.  The reason for these anomalies is not known; they may hint at some new refinements to the underlying physics, or perhaps result from another, unknown microwave source.  Taken as a whole, though, the data seem to support the current models of the development and expansion of the early Universe.

Ars Technica also has an article on these results.

Queen Elizabeth Prize for Engineering: Winners Announced

March 18, 2013

In 2011, the Queen Elizabeth Prize for Engineering was launched in the UK, to recognize outstanding advances in engineering.  The prize, and the endowment that supports it, are overseen by the Queen Elizabeth Prize for Engineering Foundation, a UK charitable trust.  The initial endowment was established by contributions from BAE Systems, BG Group, BP, GlaxoSmithKline, Jaguar Land Rover, National Grid, Shell, Siemens, Sony, Tata Consultancy Services, Tata Steel and Toshiba.  Although the competition is based in the UK, it is open to work from around the world.  The day-to-day administration of the prize, which is to be awarded every two years, is handled by the Royal Academy of Engineering.

Today, as the New Scientist reports, the first winners of the prize were announced.  Five individuals will share the prize award of £1 million ($1.51 million).  Bob Kahn, Louis Pouzin, and Vint Cerf were recognized for their contributions to development of the underlying data transmission protocols used by the Internet.  Sir Tim Berners-Lee was honored for his invention of the World Wide Web, which enormously expanded the potential usefulness of the Internet, and Marc Andreessen was recognized for his work in developing Mosaic, the first widely distributed Web browser.

… the prize is given for an “outstanding advance in engineering that creates significant benefit to humanity”. The winner was chosen because its technology, in the words of judge Brian Cox, “has demonstrably had an effect on the whole world”.

The Foundation’s site has a video presentation on the awards.

As the winners noted, engineering is not a solitary activity, and many other people were involved in making these developments a success.  It is nonetheless true that these individuals made exceptional contributions, and it is a pleasure to see those contributions recognized.

UK Government Prefers Open Source

March 16, 2013

Those of you who have read this blog from time to time already know that I am a proponent of the open source model of software development.  I’ve talked about its use in a number of different cases, including the development of the Linux operating system, and the development of systems for the US Department of Defense.  Even Microsoft, whose chief executive, Steve Ballmer, once likened open-source software to “a cancer”, seems to have gotten religion; for example, it now uses Hadoop open-source software for “big data” projects, and supports the use of Linux virtual machines in its Azure cloud service.

According to an article at Computer Weekly, the government of the United Kingdom is preparing the launch of a new set of mandatory standards for development of new digital public services.  The new Government Service Design Manual, now in a beta edition, includes a clear preference for open source:

In a section titled “When to use open source”, the manual says: “Use open source software in preference to proprietary or closed source alternatives, in particular for operating systems, networking software, web servers, databases and programming languages.

This strikes me as eminently sensible, especially the last phrase, “in particular for operating systems …”  Considering operating systems as an example, it seems to me extremely improbable that the UK would require unique OS capabilities not needed elsewhere.  Perhaps more bluntly, it seems to me very unlikely that the UK (or the US, or anyone else) has some special, valuable insight into how an OS should be built.  (The evidence seems to suggest that, at least for general purpose computers, the approach initially embodied in the UNIX OS works pretty well; UNIX’s descendents include Linux, of course, as well as Android, OS X, and Google’s Chrome OS.)

The new standards do allow for use of proprietary software in rare cases; but the manual cautions that, in these cases, it is important to specify open interface standards, to avoid vendor lock-in.  The article quotes government chief technology officer Liam Maxwell, on the advantages of the open-source approach:

Nobody makes packaged software for digital public services. With the software we are making, we have a preference for open source, because it means other countries can use it too and help make that software better. This approach will also ensure we are not locked in to some mad oligopoly outsource.

The new standards also state that new software developed for the government should be published under an open-source license.  The UK government has also entered into an agreement with Estonia for joint development of some public service systems.

As I’ve said before, the ideas underlying the open-source approach have been around since the early days of computing (and even longer in the natural sciences).  Governments everywhere seem to be struggling with the conundrum of how to do more with less.  Using open source software (and getting rid of the Not Invented Here syndrome) should free up some significant resources now devoted to wheel re-invention.

Security Update for Thunderbird

March 15, 2013

Mozilla has released a new version, 17.0.4., of its Thunderbird E-mail client, for Linux, Windows, and Mac OS X.   This is primarily a security-fix release; the new version corrects a critical vulnerability in the HTML editor component.  The Release Notes don’t say much more.

Because of the security fixes incorporated in this release, I recommend that you update your systems as soon as you conveniently can.  You can use the update mechanism built into the software (Help / About Thunderbird / Check for Updates), or you can get a complete installation package, in a variety of languages, from the Thunderbird download page.

Happy Pi Day, 2013

March 14, 2013

Today, March 14, is one of the days that is sometimes celebrated as “Pi Day”, in honor of the best-known irrational and transcendental number, the ratio of the circumference of a circle to its diameter, usually written as the Greek letter π (pi).  The date, 3/14, is chosen because the approximate value of π is 3.14159265…   Legend has it that the value was named π because pi is the first letter of the Greek word “περίμετρος”, meaning perimeter.

The New Scientist reports that this year, to observe Pi Day, Professor Marcus du Sautoy of the University of Oxford is sponsoring Pi Day Live, a project to “crowd source” the calculation of π (pi).  The value has, of course, alreay been calculated to trillions of decimal places; because it is an irrational number, it cannot be represented exactly by any finite decimal number.  (Pi is transcendental, also, of course.)  Pi Day Live is suggesting some relatively easy methods of getting an approximate value for π, including Buffon’s Needle.  I mentioned Buffon’s Needle in a Pi Day post back in 2010.  The New Scientist headline calls it an “ancient” method, which I think is a bit over the top for something described in the 18th century.

That earlier Pi Day post also tells a related story, of the Indiana state legislature’s attempt to set the value of pi by law, one of the all-time great accomplishments of legislative lunacy.

Finally, take a thought today for 134th anniversary of the birth of Albert Einstein.

Update Thursday, 14 March, 15:35 EDT

I’ve just noticed that there is a rendering error (at least in Firefox) on the “Find Pi” page I linked above.  The equation for the estimated value of pi is a bit garbled (where it reads 2L\over xp; the correct equation (using the “Find Pi” variable names) is:

\pi = \dfrac {2 L}{x p}

I’ve dropped the site a note with the correction.

Google Updates Chrome to 25.0.1364.172

March 12, 2013

Today Google released a new version, 25.0.1364.172, of its Chrome browser, for all platforms: Windows, Linux, Mac OS X, and Chrome Frame.  The principal change is the updated version of the bundled Adobe Flash Player; there are some other miscellaneous bug fixes, as well.   More information is available in the Release Announcement.

Because of the security content of this release, I recommend that you update your systems as soon as you conveniently can.   Windows and Mac users can get the new version via the built-in update mechanism; Linux users should check their distribution’s repositories for the new version.

Flash Player Security Update

March 12, 2013

Not wanting, apparently, to be left out of the Patch Tuesday fun, Adobe has released a new Security Bulletin [APSB13-09] for its Flash Player for all platforms.  The updates address four identified security flaws that, if exploited, might lead to a system crash or remote code execution.  (One of these relates to handling of an integer overflow exception; the other three are good old-fashioned memory management errors.)  According to Adobe, the following versions of the software are affected:

  • Adobe Flash Player 11.6.602.171 and earlier versions for Windows and Macintosh
  • Adobe Flash Player and earlier versions for Linux
  • Adobe Flash Player and earlier versions for Android 4.x
  • Adobe Flash Player and earlier versions for Android 3.x and 2.x
  • Adobe AIR and earlier versions for Windows, Macintosh and Android
  • Adobe AIR SDK and earlier versions
  • Adobe AIR SDK & Compiler and earlier versions

The new version number for Mac OS X and Windows is 11.6.602.180; for Linux it is  Please see the Security Bulletin for information and update information for Android and AIR.

Windows users who have the silent update option enabled should receive the new version automatically.  Windows or Mac OS X users can get the update using the update mechanism built into the software.  Alternatively, the new version for Windows, Linux, and Mac OS X is available from Adobe’s download page.  Windows users should remember that they may need two updates: one for Internet Explorer, and one for any other browser(s) you may use.

Flash Player has, historically, been an attractive attack target, because it is so widely installed across different platforms. I recommend updating your systems as soon as you conveniently can.

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