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Thankful for Scientific Advances

My family frequently goes on camping trips over Thanksgiving week to enjoy the spectacular creation in which we live. We’ve seen California’s giant sequoia trees, the Pacific coast, and the majestic mountains of Zion National Park in Utah. Even with the chilly weather, the opportunity to witness these impressive sights always elicits a response of thanksgiving in me. I experience a similar feeling when I explore what science has taught us about creation.

Measuring Magnetic Fields

Although scientists have discovered thousands of exoplanets (planets orbiting stars other than the Sun), the list of features measured is still pretty small: mass, orbit, physical size, and occasional glimpses of the atmosphere. These measurements are impressive accomplishments, but they still fall short of helping answer the question on everyone’s mind: Is there life in the universe beyond Earth? The more information astronomers learn about different exoplanets, the closer they come to answering this ultimate question.

Recent advances now provide a way to measure the magnetic field of any exoplanet surrounded by an energetic hydrogen envelope. As such a planet transits across the disk of its star, the hydrogen atmosphere blocks the star’s light first. Detailed observations allow astronomers to determine the characteristics of the atmosphere. The magnetic field, along with stellar wind, constrains the shape of the atmosphere. Working backwards from transit measurements, astronomers calculated the magnetic field for one planet named HD 209458b.1 Magnetic fields play an important role in how a planet keeps water; so future observations will help us understand if Earth’s long-lasting water cycle is common or rare. 

Stabilizing the Universe

In theoretical particle physics, scientists seek to understand the earliest moments of the universe. The discovery of the Higgs boson in July of this year completed the zoo of particles known in the standard model. The existence of the Higgs provides an explanation of why everything has mass as opposed to the expected massless state. However, the Higgs mass scientists found pointed to a problem with inflation and the stability of the universe.

If inflation occurred (and it certainly looks that way) and the Higgs has a mass of 126 GeV/c2, fluctuations related to the Higgs field during inflation should have collapsed the universe within fractions of a second. Recent studies indicate that a relatively small coupling between gravity (more precisely, space-time curvature) and the Higgs particles would stabilize the universe and prevent collapse.2 Not only does this research provide insight into one outstanding quantity in the universe (the coupling between the Higgs and gravity), it also provides more evidence for the fine-tuning of the universe for life.

We live in a fascinating universe. Observing creation reveals incredible beauty and intricate design. This Thanksgiving, I will remember to thank God for providing this wondrous habitat for you and me.

  1. Kristina G. Kislyakova et al., “Magnetic Moment and Plasma Environment of HD 209458b as Determined from Lyα Observations,” Science 346 (November 21, 2014): 981–84.
  2. M. Herranen et al., “Spacetime Curvature and the Higgs Stability during Inflation,” Physical Review Letters 113 (November 21, 2014): 211102.