York scientists play important role in Einstein theory test

Canadian and US scientists – including a York University team – will spend the next year testing whether Albert Einstein was right or wrong in thinking that Earth and other heavenly bodies bend space and time with their gravity, reported CanWest News Service. The story by Tom Spears was published April 20 in the Ottawa Citizen, Vancouver Sun, Kingston Whig-Standard, Calgary Herald and Saskatoon’s Star Phoenix. Today (April 20), said the story, NASA will launch the experiment that astrophysicists have been planning since 1958 – a three-tonne Thermos bottle of liquid helium whose contents will spin as it orbits Earth, twice as high as most space shuttles. Watching the magnetic field of the spinning gyroscopes inside the probe will test whether space and time actually curve under Earth’s gravity. It’s the latest in nearly a century of experiments to test different aspects of Einstein’s revolutionary theory of relativity. So far, these tests have found he was bang on, said the story.

“Our understanding of gravity works well enough for us to predict movements in our solar system,” said Michael Bietenholz, a York University astronomer involved in the new Gravity Probe B project. But the solar system isn’t all that big. The universe is so much larger that even the tiniest flaw in our theory would cause huge errors when we try to see the big picture. “It would be nice to send spaceships a billion light years away to make measurements, but we can’t,” he said. “The alternative is to try and measure very, very precisely, close to Earth to see if the theory holds up. … If it doesn’t agree then that’s a sign that the theory is wrong and we need a different picture.” Most of the betting is that Einstein’s theory was right, he added, “because it has stood up very well so far.”

Today’s test of Einstein, said the story, has to focus on a distant star. This is Canada’s role. The reason for watching the star called IM Pegasi (in the constellation Pegasus) is that it will serve as a reference point for the satellite, just as stars serve for navigation on Earth. A team at York University will “fix” the star, plotting its exact location as it travels so that the satellite can compare space near Earth with the fixed star. If the picture wobbles, that will show where space and time are bending around Earth.

Bietenholz and Jerusha Lederman also discussed their involvement in NASA’s Gravity Probe B test, on CP24-TV’s “Money Day” in Toronto April 19.

Air-cleaning technology interests bio-terrorism experts

The president of L2B Environmental Systems, a company that manufactures air purifiers, says his air purification system could be tailored to annihilate diseases such as SARS, anthrax, smallpox or the avian flu should they become “aerosolized” and used against government buildings, or even private homes, during a terrorist attack, reported the Barrie Examiner April 20. It was over a couple of beers at Fitzy’s bar in Alliston one night in 1997 that Larry McLean and his business partner, scientist and York grad Bill Morrow, designed the air-cleaning system. The two were discussing possible business ideas, but neither could focus – they were too distracted and annoyed by the cigarette smoke that filled the cramped bar. “I joked that maybe we should do something about air quality,” said Morrow, who earned a B.Sc. in physics in 1975 and a PhD in experimental physics in 2003 from York University. McLean and Morrow met through a business contact. In the early ’90s, McLean was applying his knowledge of ultraviolet light to waste water treatment, and Morrow was building sensors – one of which operates on the Hubble space telescope.

Glendon part of growing bilingualism

In an Edmonton Journal opinion piece April 20 about the annual gathering French for the Future, conferences of French immersion and francophone students in cities across Canada, John Ralston Saul writes bilingualism is growing and “things are starting to move in the right direction.” Bilingual universities like Ottawa, Laurentian, York University’s Glendon and Royal Military College are expanding or want to expand.

On air

  • Sociologist Margaret Beare, director of the Nathanson Centre for the Study of Organized Crime & Corruption, at York’s Osgoode Hall Law School, commented on allegations of a protections racket and an internal affairs investigation underway at the Toronto police force involving the president of the police union, who has resigned, on “CTV National News” April 19.