Thursday, March 22, 2018

Katsuko Saruhashi: Pioneering Geochemist Honored By Google Doodle

Katsuko Saruhashi
Image: Google
Katsuko Saruhashi, the first scientist to detect and reveal the spread of radioactive fallout, is being honored today by Google in the form of Google Doodle on her 98th birth anniversary.

About Katsuko Saruhashi:

Katsuko Saruhashi (March 22, 1920 – September 29, 2007) was a geochemist from Japan. She made the most profound measurements of carbon dioxide (CO2) levels in seawater and consequently presented the evidence of radioactive fallout in seawater and in the atmosphere.

At the time of her research, the nuclear arms race was going in full strength along the globe. By 1958, the US had exploded 67 nuclear devices around the Marshall Islands, which had a catastrophic impact on the environment and had left the area radioactively contaminated.

After the Bikini Atoll nuclear tests in 1954, the Geochemical Laboratory was given the task analyze and monitor radioactivity in the seawater and in the atmosphere by the Japanese government.
Saruhashi worked at the Central Meteorological Observatory in Tokyo. Her aim was to develop more sensitive and precise methods of measuring radioactive fallout.

In her research, she measured the activity of molecules of different elements in seawater. Those include commonly occurring elements, like oxygen and carbon dioxide, and cesium-137, which is a radioactive molecule.

Katsuko Saruhashi found out that the spread of radioactive fallout from region to region varies and was not uniform. Her data showed that the concentrations of the radioactive spread of cesium were more in Japan than in the Pacific coast of United States.

Saruhashi concluded that the downstream current in the Pacific ocean was the reason of high concentration in Japan since the country is downstream from the region where the nuclear tests were conducted.

According to Toshihiro Higuchi, a historian at Georgetown University:
“There was a controversy over her argument that the radioactive fallout in seawater was more than what they used to think.” 

The scientific community was suspecting that her measurements were incorrect and the readings might be off.

This dispute was settled with the help of the US Atomic Energy Commission, which provided funds for a lab swap. Saruhashi visited Scripps Institute of Oceanography and worked with oceanographer Ted Folsom. There, they compared their methods and found out that both their technique provided highly identical results and proved that Saruhashi’s method was spot on.

This was some of the first research showing how the effects of fallout can spread across the entire world, and not just affect the immediate area.
Later, in the 1970s and 80s, she turned her attention to studying acid rain and its effects.

Katsuko Saruhashi died September 29, 2007, in Tokyo at the age of 87. Her legacy in scientific research includes the Saruhashi Prize, which is awarded to the best natural scientists who are women.

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Tuesday, December 22, 2015

SpaceX Historic Rocket Landing Is a Success!


SpaceX successfully launched and landed its Falcon 9 rocket back on Earth tonight, marking the first time a rocket has launched a payload into space and returned.
Founder Elon Musk has said the ability to reuse a rocket -- which dramatically reduces launch cost -- is something that will help revolutionize commercial space travel.

"I think this is a critical step along the way towards being able to establish a city on Mars," he said on a call with reporters Monday night. "That’s what all this is about."
The company has previously attempted the feat three times, coming close to landing on a bullseye on a floating barge. Tonight was the first time the company attempted to land the Falcon 9 on land.
The landing is a huge victory for Musk and his team, who were sidelined after the explosion of the Falcon 9 rocket in June as it carried the Dragon capsule to the International Space Station.
The upgraded Falcon 9 stands slightly taller than predecessors at 229.6 feet and has more thrust.
Last month, Amazon billionaire Jeff Bezos and his company Blue Origin successfully launched a rocket to a test altitude of 329,839 feet and then landed it near the launch pad in Texas.

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Wednesday, December 2, 2015

The Fascinating Reason Multi-Planet Star Systems Might Harbor Life




Living on Earth, without a single other habitable world in eye shot, can sometimes feel pretty lonely. But our isolation may be the cosmic exception. In fact, it’s possible that throughout the galaxy, life-bearing worlds usually come in pairs.

It sounds pretty far-fetched—we haven’t found a single other habitable planet, and now we’re talking two?—but an intriguing new paper by astrophysicist Jason Steffen of the University of Nevada and Gongjie Li of Harvard’s Center for Astrophysics suggests that systems with two Goldilocks planets might, in fact, be the best places to hunt for life. The reason? Microorganisms could hitchhike between the two worlds, increasing their chances of surviving a planet-sterilizing event.

Over the last five years, NASA’s planet-hunting Kepler mission has discovered thousands of worlds, many of them rocky and Earth-sized. Extrapolating from Kepler’s small galactic census, astronomers now believe there may be a hundred billion planets Milky Way; roughly one for each star. Up to a billion of those planets could be Earth-sized worlds sitting in the not-too-hot, not-too-cold Goldilocks zone of a Sun-like star. As exoplanet researcher Lisa Kaltenegger put it when discussing the possibility of life beyond Earth, “the numbers are, fortunately, very much in our favor.”

Of course, finding a rocky, Earth-sized world isn’t the same as finding life. To do the latter, we’ll need to get a much better look at these distant planets—and that’s something the next generation of space-based telescopes will enable. But which planets to check out first?

Perhaps we should be pointing our scopes toward stars with planets very close together. Kepler has already found systems with pairs of planets on orbits that differ by less than ten percent—several times closer than the distance between Earth and Mars. As Steffen and Li demonstrate using numerical models, if such a celestial pairing occurred in the right place, the two worlds could help one another sustain life.



The reason has to do with lithopanspermia—a (theoretical) process whereby microbial life travels between planets via comets, asteroids, and ejected particles. Some scientists believe life could have arrived on Earth by this very process, or that escaped chunks of our planet might have infected the outer solar system with terrestrial germs long ago.

But while life would have to be incredibly resilient to survive the trip from Earth to Europa—a journey that would likely take millions of years—two planets very close together might exchange organisms easily and often. The energy of impact needed to get rocks from one planet to another would be relatively low, and the duration of the cold, radiation-filled journey through space fairly short. What’s more, because of the way impact debris travels, Steffen and Li show that material ejected from one planet could hit a neighboring world in several locations at once.

Meaning: if a life-ending asteroid struck a luckless planet in a multi-habitable system, chunks of rock may go whizzing off into space, only to shower a nearby world with alien bacteria. As Steffen put it in a press conference today, this sort of cross-fertilization means that “the burden of surviving catastrophic events is shared between multiple planets in the same system.”

“Multihabitable systems could have a microbial family tree with roots and branches simultaneously on two different planets,” Steffen said. “Systems like those that we investigated, and moon systems orbiting a habitable-zone giant planet, are among the few scenarios where life—intelligent life in particular—could exist in two places at the same time and in the same system.”

It’s a pretty intriguing idea, but it’s completely speculative at this point. “Kepler doesn’t have many habitable-zone planet candidates (the habitable zone was near the edge of its sensitivity) and only a small fraction of them would have the particular orbital configurations that we are discussing,” Steffan told Gizmodo in an email. But, he continued: “Even if only 0.1% of the systems have multiple planets in their habitable zones, then that is still a hundred million potential systems.”

Now, Steffan and his colleagues are gearing up to study data collected by NASA’s forthcoming Transit Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS) mission, which will scour nearby star systems for Earth-like planets. Soon, we may have a good idea of just how common these multi-planet systems are in our cosmic backyard. Who knows, maybe we’ll get lucky and find two interstellar vacation homes, not so far away. Somebody better start building a generation ship.

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Sunday, November 29, 2015

Scientists Observe Rare Black Hole Event!


Artist impression of a black hole consuming a star that has been torn apart by the black hole’s strong gravity (NASA/Goddard Space Flight Center/Swift)
For many here in the United States, today, Friday 11/27/15 is something called Black Friday. It’s unofficially considered to be the first shopping day of the Christmas season and many Americans mark it by heading out to shopping centers and stores in droves in hopes of finding bargains.


NASA is marking the day too; only they’re calling it Black Hole Friday.

It’s an annual event the space agency has set aside for the past three years to post photos and provide the public with information about black holes on their websites, Facebook and Twitter feeds. They even have a special hashtag for the event –#BlackHoleFriday.



Just in time for Black Hole Friday, in a new study published in the journal Science, an international team of physicists say they have made the first observations of a supermassive black hole devouring a star, while at the same time spitting a bit of it back out in the form of a high-speed flare that’s moving matter at nearly the speed of light.

According to Dr. James Miller-Jones, an astrophysicist at Australia’s International Center for Radio Astronomy Research and a member of the research team, the energy produced by the plasma jets in this event is about the entire energy output of the Sun over 10 million years.

“It’s the first time we see everything from the stellar destruction followed by the launch of a conical outflow, also called a jet, and we watched it unfold over several months,” said team-leader Sjoert van Velzen, a Hubble fellow at Johns Hopkins University in Maryland in a press release.

The study tracked the doomed star over several months as it traveled along its normal path and then be pulled in by the tremendous gravity of the black hole.

Artist’s conception of a star being drawn toward a black hole and destroyed
The team’s study backs up a theory made earlier by astrophysicists who predicted that when huge amounts of gas, or in this particular instance an entire star, are crammed into a black hole, a fast-moving jet of plasma (flare) can burst from near the black hole’s event horizon or rim.

This rare event is taking place in a galaxy named PGC 043234 that is only 300 million light years away. That’s considered to be a relatively close distance to Earth which the scientists said helped them make their observations.

“The consumption of the star is still going on, and we can still observe it using NASA’s Swift satellite, said van Velzen in an email to Science World. “It will likely take a very long time — hundreds of years — to consume all of the stellar debris that remained bound to the black hole. But the most spectacular part is over now,” he said.

The team said that while the black hole they observed is considered to be super massive, which ranks it among the largest of black holes, this one was fairly light with a mass of about a million times that of our sun. Supermassive black holes can have masses that are billions times more than the sun.

The star being pulled into the black hole was described as being close to the same size as our own sun.

The high-speed flare was named ASASSN-14li by the All-Sky Automated Survey for Supernovae or ASAS-SN scientific team who first observed it last December (2014).

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Sunday, November 22, 2015

Why Does Time Always Run Forwards And Never Backwards? (3/3)


Continued from Part 2

The importance of being clumpy


The answer is that gravity affects entropy, in a way that physicists still don't fully understand. With truly massive objects, being clumpy is higher entropy than being dense and uniform. So a universe with galaxies, stars and planets actually has a higher entropy than a universe filled with hot, dense gas.


This means we have a new problem. The sort of universe that emerged immediately after the Big Bang, one that is hot and dense, is low-entropy and therefore unlikely. "It's not what you would randomly expect out of a bag of universes," says Carroll.

So how did our universe start in such an unlikely state? It's not even clear what kind of answer to that question would be a satisfying one. "What would count as a scientific explanation of the initial state [of the universe]?" asks Tim Maudlin, a philosopher of physics at New York University.
Perhaps our universe is one of many (Credit: Detlev van Ravenswaay/Science Photo Library)

One idea is that there was something before the Big Bang. Could that account for the low entropy of the early universe?

Carroll and one of his former students proposed a model in which "baby" universes are constantly popping into existence, calving off from their parent universe and expanding to become universes like our own. These baby universes could start out with low entropy, but the entropy of the "multiverse" as a whole would always be high.

If that's true, the early universe only looks like it has low entropy because we can't see the bigger picture. The same would be true for the arrow of time. "That kind of idea implies that the far past of our big-picture universe looks the same as the far future," says Carroll.

But there's no wide agreement on Carroll's explanation of the past hypothesis, or any other explanation. "There are proposals, but nothing is even promising, much less settled," says Carroll.

Part of the trouble is that our best theories of physics can't actually handle the Big Bang. Without a way to describe what happened at the universe's birth, we can't explain why it had low entropy.
Physics still can't explain everything (Credit: Markus Schieder/Alamy)

Modern physics relies on two major theories. Quantum mechanics explains the behaviour of small things like atoms, while general relativity describes heavy things like stars. But the two can't be made to combine.

So if something is both very small and very heavy, like the universe during the Big Bang, physicists get a bit stuck. To describe the early universe, they need to combine the two theories into a "theory of everything".

This ultimate theory will be the key to understanding the arrow of time. "Finding that theory will ultimately let us know how nature builds space and builds time," says Marina Cortês, a physicist at the University of Edinburgh in the UK.

Unfortunately, despite decades of trying, nobody has managed to come up with a theory of everything. But there are some candidates.
Maybe all matter is made of tiny strings (Credit: Equinox Graphics/Science Photo Library)

The most promising theory of everything is string theory, which says that all subatomic particles are actually made of tiny strings. String theory also says that space has extra dimensions, beyond the familiar three, that are curled up to microscopic size, and that we live in a kind of multiverse where the laws of physics are different in different universes.

This all sounds quite outlandish. Nevertheless, most particle physicists see string theory as our best hope for a theory of everything.

But that doesn't help us explain why time moves forwards. Like almost every other fundamental physical theory, the equations of string theory don't draw a strong distinction between the past and the future.

String theory, if it turns out to be correct, might not help explain the arrow of time. So Cortês is trying to come up with something better.
Time only ever goes forwards, but no one knows why (Credit: dbimages/Alamy)

Working with Lee Smolin of the Perimeter Institute in Waterloo, Canada, Cortês has been working on alternatives to string theory that incorporate the arrow of time at a fundamental level.

Cortês and Smolin suggest that the universe is made up of a series of entirely unique events, never repeating itself. Each set of events can only influence events in the next set, so the arrow of time is built in. "We are hoping that if we can use these types of equations to do cosmology, we can then arrive at the problem of the initial conditions [of the universe] and find they're not as special," says Cortês.

This is completely unlike Boltzmann's explanation, in which the arrow of time emerges as a kind of accident from the laws of probability. "Time isn't really an illusion," says Cortês. "It exists and it's really moving forward."

But most physicists don't see a problem with Boltzmann's explanation. "Boltzmann pointed the correct direction to the solution here, a long time ago," says David Albert, a philosopher of physics at Columbia University in New York. "There's a real hope that if you dig carefully enough, the whole story is in what Boltzmann said."

Carroll agrees. "If you have that low-entropy Big Bang, then we're done," he says. "We can explain all the differences between the past and the future."
Inside the Large Hadron Collider (Credit: Julian Herzog, CC by 3.0)

One way or another, to explain the arrow of time we need to explain that low-entropy state at the beginning of the universe. That will take a theory of everything, be it string theory, Cortês and Smolin's causal sets, or something else. But people have been searching for a theory of everything for 90 years. How do we find one? And how do we know we have the right one once we've got it?

We could test it using something very small and very dense. But we can't go back in time to the Big Bang, and regardless of what a recent blockbuster movie suggested, we also can't dive into a black hole and send information back about it. So what can we do, if we really want to explain why eggs don't un-break?

For now, our best hope lies with the largest machine in human history. The Large Hadron Collider (LHC) is a particle accelerator that runs in a 27 km circle under the border of France and Switzerland. It smashes protons together at nearly the speed of light. The phenomenal energy of these collisions creates new particles.

The LHC has been closed for repairs for the last two years, but in the spring of 2015 it will turn back on — and for the first time, it will be operating at full power. At half-strength in 2012, it found the long-sought-after Higgs boson, the particle that gives all the others mass. That discovery led to a Nobel Prize, but the LHC could now top it. With any luck, the LHC will catch a glimpse of new and unexpected fundamental particles that will point the way to a theory of everything.

It will take several years for the LHC to collect the necessary data, and for that data to be processed and interpreted. But once it's in, we may finally understand why you can't get that stupid egg off your face.

Click here for Part 1

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Why Does Time Always Run Forwards And Never Backwards? (2/3)


Continued from Part 1

Once again, Boltzmann's colleagues argued that it wasn't possible to explain why entropy always went up. It just did. And again, Boltzmann was unsatisfied, and went searching for a deeper meaning. The result was a radical new understanding of entropy — a discovery so important that he had it engraved on his tombstone.

Ludwig Boltzmann's tombstone, complete with entropy equation (Credit: Daderot, CC by 3.0)
Boltzmann found that entropy measured the number of ways atoms, and the energy they carry, can be arranged. When entropy increases, it's because the atoms are getting more jumbled up.

According to Boltzmann, this is why ice melts in water. When water is liquid, there are far more ways for the water molecules to arrange themselves, and far more ways for the heat energy to be shared among those molecules, than when the water is solid. There are simply so many ways for the ice to melt, and relatively few ways for it to stay solid, that it's overwhelmingly likely the ice will eventually melt.
You cannot un-break an egg (Credit: Pierangelo Pirak)

Similarly, if you put a drop of cream into your coffee, the cream will spread throughout the entire cup, because that's a state of higher entropy. There are more ways to arrange the bits of cream throughout your coffee than there are for the cream to remain in one small region.

Entropy, according to Boltzmann, is about what's probable. Objects with low entropy are tidy, and therefore unlikely to exist. High-entropy objects are untidy, which makes them likely to exist. Entropy always increases, because it's much easier for things to be untidy.

That may sound a bit depressing, at least if you like your home to be well-organized. But Boltzmann's ideas about entropy do have an upside: they seem to explain the arrow of time.

Boltzmann's take on entropy explains why it always increases. That in turn suggests why we always experience time moving forwards. If the universe as a whole moves from low entropy to high entropy, then we should never see events go in reverse.

We won't see eggs un-break, because there are lots of ways to arrange the pieces of an egg, and nearly all of them lead to a broken egg rather than an intact one. Similarly, ice won't un-melt, matches won't un-burn, and ankles won't un-sprain.

Boltzmann's definition of entropy even explains why we can remember the past but not the future. Imagine the opposite: that you have a memory of an event, then the event happens, and then the memory disappears. The odds of that happening to your brain are very low.

According to Boltzmann, the future looks different from the past simply because entropy increases. But his pesky opponents pointed out a flaw in his reasoning.
Once done, this cannot be undone (Credit: Kevin Twomey/Alamy)

Boltzmann said that entropy increases as you go into the future, because of the probabilities that govern the behavior of small objects like atoms. But those small objects are themselves obeying the fundamental laws of physics, which don't draw a distinction between the past and the future.

So Boltzmann's argument can be turned on its head. If you can argue that entropy should increase as you go into the future, you can also argue that entropy should increase as you go into the past.

Boltzmann thought that, because broken eggs are more likely than intact ones, it was reasonable to expect intact eggs to turn into broken ones. But there's another interpretation. Intact eggs are unlikely and rare, so eggs must spend most of their time broken, very occasionally leaping together to become intact for a moment before breaking again.

In short, you can use Boltzmann's ideas about entropy to argue that the future and the past should look similar. That's not what we see, so we're back to square one. Why is there an arrow of time at all?
Messy universe (Credit: NASA/ESA/Hubble Heritage Team (STSclAURA)/A. Aloisi (STSclESA)

Boltzmann suggested several solutions to this problem. The one that worked best came to be known as the past hypothesis. It's very simple: at some point in the distant past, the universe was in a low-entropy state.

If that's true, then the flaw in Boltzmann's reasoning disappears. The future and the past look very different, because the past has much lower entropy than the future. So eggs break, but they don't un-break.

This is neat, but it raises a whole new question: why is the past hypothesis true? Low entropy is unlikely, so why was the entropy of the universe in such a remarkable state sometime in the distant past?

Boltzmann never managed to crack that one. A manic-depressive whose ideas had been rejected by much of the physics community, he felt sure that his life's work would be forgotten. On a family holiday near Trieste in 1906, Ludwig Boltzmann hanged himself.

His suicide was particularly tragic since, within a decade, physicists accepted his ideas about atoms. What's more, in the decades that followed, new discoveries suggested that there might be an explanation for the past hypothesis after all.
We now know the universe is about 14 billion years old (Credit: NASA/ESA)

In the twentieth century, our picture of the universe changed radically. We discovered that it had a beginning.

In Boltzmann's time, most physicists believed that the universe was eternal – it had always existed. But in the 1920s, astronomers discovered that galaxies are flying apart. The universe, they realized, is expanding. That means everything was once close together.

Over the next few decades, physicists came to agree that the universe began as an incredibly hot, dense speck. This quickly expanded and cooled, forming everything that now exists. This fast expansion from a tiny hot universe is called the Big Bang.

This seemed to support the past hypothesis. "People said 'okay, the trick is clearly that the early universe had low entropy,'" says Carroll. "But why [entropy] was ever low in the first place, 14 billion years ago near the Big Bang, is something we don't know the answer to."
Large clouds of gas condense into stars and planets (Credit: Mopic/Alamy)

It's fair to say that an enormous cosmic explosion doesn't sound like something with low entropy. After all, explosions are messy. There are plenty of ways of rearranging the matter and energy in the early universe so that it is still hot, tiny, and expanding. But as it turns out, entropy is a little different when there's so much matter around.


Imagine a vast empty region of space, in the middle of which is a cloud of gas with the mass of the Sun. Gravity pulls the gas together, so the gas will get clumpy and ultimately collapse into a star. There are more ways to arrange the gas when it's wispy and scattered. So how is this possible, if entropy always increases?

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Saturday, November 21, 2015

Why Does Time Always Run Forwards And Never Backwards? (1/3)


There's egg on your face, literally. You tried to juggle some eggs, it all went wrong, and now you've got to shower and change your clothes.

Wouldn't it be faster to just un-break the egg? Breaking it only took a few seconds, so why not do that again, but in reverse? Just reassemble the shell and throw the yolk and the white back inside. You'd have a clean face, clean clothes, and no yolk in your hair, like nothing ever happened.

Sounds ridiculous — but why? Why, exactly, is it impossible to un-break an egg?

It isn't. There's no fundamental law of nature that prevents us from un-breaking eggs. In fact, physics says that any event in our day-to-day lives could happen in reverse, at any time. So why can't we un-break eggs, or un-burn matches, or even un-sprain an ankle? Why don't things happen in reverse all the time? Why does the future look different from the past at all?

It sounds like a simple question. But to answer it, we've got to go back to the birth of the universe, down to the atomic realm, and out to the frontiers of physics.
Isaac Newton (Credit: Photo Researchers/Alamy)
Like many stories about physics, this one starts with Isaac Newton. In 1666, an outbreak of bubonic plague forced him to leave the University of Cambridge, and move back in with his mother in the Lincolnshire countryside. Bored and isolated, Newton threw himself into the study of physics.

He came up with three laws of motion, including the famous maxim that every action has an equal and opposite reaction. He also devised an explanation of how gravity works.

Newton's laws are astonishingly successful at describing the world. They explain why apples fall from trees and why the Earth orbits the Sun. But they have an odd feature: they work just as well backwards as forwards. If an egg can break, then Newton's laws say it can un-break.

This is obviously wrong, but nearly every theory that physicists have discovered since Newton has the same problem. The laws of physics simply don't care whether time runs forwards or backwards, any more than they care about whether you're left-handed or right-handed.

But we certainly do. In our experience, time has an arrow, always pointing into the future. "You might mix up east and west, but you would not mix up yesterday and tomorrow," says Sean Carroll, a physicist at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena. "But the fundamental laws of physics don't distinguish between past and future."

Ludwig Boltzmann (Credit: INTERFOTO/Alamy)
The first person to seriously tackle this problem was an Austrian physicist named Ludwig Boltzmann, who lived in the late 19th century. At this time, many ideas that are now known to be true were still up for debate. In particular, physicists were not convinced – as they are today - that everything is made up of tiny particles called atoms. The idea of atoms, according to many physicists, was simply impossible to test.

Boltzmann was convinced that atoms really did exist. So he set out to use this idea to explain all sorts of everyday stuff, such as the glow of a fire, how our lungs work, and why blowing on tea cools it down. He thought he could make sense of all these things using the concept of atoms.

A few physicists were impressed with Boltzmann's work, but most dismissed it. Before long he was ostracized by the physics community for his ideas.

He got into particularly hot water because of his ideas about the nature of heat. This may not sound like it has much to do with the nature of time, but Boltzmann would show that the two things were closely linked.
Fire only makes sense if it's made up of atoms (Credit: Jon Helgason/Alamy)
At the time, physicists had come up with a theory called thermodynamics, which describes how heat behaves. For instance, thermodynamics describes how a refrigerator can keep food cold on a hot day.

Boltzmann's opponents thought that heat couldn't be explained in terms of anything else. They said that heat was just heat.

Boltzmann set out to prove them wrong. He thought heat was caused by the random motion of atoms, and that all of thermodynamics could be explained in those terms. He was absolutely right, but he would spend the rest of his life struggling to convince others.
Put ice cubes into water, and they will surely melt (Credit: OJO Images Ltd/Alamy)
Boltzmann started by trying to explain something strange: "entropy". According to thermodynamics, every object in the world has a certain amount of entropy associated with it, and whenever anything happens to it, the amount of entropy increases. For instance, if you put ice cubes into a glass of water and let them melt, the entropy inside the glass goes up. 

Rising entropy is unlike anything else in physics: a process that has to go in one direction. But nobody knew why entropy always increased?


Check out Part 2 here!
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