Emily Conover

Science Writer

More About Me

I am a science writer with expertise in physics and astronomy

I was a 2014 AAAS Mass Media Fellow at the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, where I wrote about science for the local desk. I covered topics which ranged from astrophysics to stem cell research to the psychiatric treatment of a disturbed bonobo.

I have also written for the University of Chicago News Office, and my science blog, Weak Interactions, and I am available for freelance science or technical writing.

Examples of my writing can be found here.

I received my PhD from the University of Chicago in June 2014. My research is in the field of particle physics, specifically neutrinos. For my PhD research, I constructed a particle detector as part of an international collaboration of physicists. This was an intense, years-long project in which I led several components. I was the principal expert on the data from our detector, and independently developed and implemented procedures for testing the detector and analyzing data.

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Weak Interactions — a science blog

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Big things, small packages

Don’t be fooled by the small size of ultracompact dwarf galaxy M60-UCD1 — it harbors a supermassive black hole, according to a study published yesterday in Nature. 

The result makes M60-UCD1 (shown in inset above) the smallest known galaxy to contain a supermassive black hole. And the astronomers’ findings could indicate that other ultracompact dwarf galaxies likely contain such gargantuan black holes at their centers.

By measuring the motion of stars in the galaxy, astronomers estimated that M60-UCD1 contains a black hole with a mass of 21 million suns — making up a remarkable 15 percent of the galaxy’s total mass of 140 solar masses.

The Milky Way, by comparison, has a black hole of 4 million solar masses, which makes up only a tiny fraction of a percent of the total mass of the Milky Way.

Astronomers believe that M60-UCD1 was originally a more typical galaxy, before its mass was stripped away by interactions with its larger neighbor, M60 (main image, above). This could indicate that other such ultracompact dwarf galaxies could have formed in a similar way.

See my full story at Sky & Telescope.

Also check out this cool video of a simulation of the galaxy being stripped.

Photo credit: X-RAY: NASA/CXC/MSU/J.STRADER ET AL, OPTICAL: NASA/STSCI

Alien Atmospheres

As astronomers continue to detect planets orbiting far-away stars, they are beginning to wonder — if there are so many planets out there, how likely is it that our planet is unique? Could any of these planets sustain life? Is there, perhaps, already life there?

The best way of searching for life on these planets — since they are much too far away to send spacecraft — is by scanning the planets’ atmospheres for gases that might indicate the presence of life.

A new study from NASA scientists helps pinpoint which combinations of gases astronomers should look for. The scientists developed simulations of a variety of different types of atmospheres around different types of suns, to find the possible molecular signatures one might expect to see from non-biological sources. They published their results in The Astrophysical Journal last week.

The presence of certain gases is unexpected on lifeless planets, because they will react with other molecules present in the atmosphere. For them to persist, there needs to be a source — life. Therefore, to search for life, astronomers could look for those suggestive gases in the atmosphere.

Oxygen might seem like a good place to start. Oxygen on earth is produced predominantly by photosynthesis from living creatures. Oxygen is mostly found in the molecular form of O2, or two oxygen molecules bonded together.  Ozone (O3) is produced in the atmosphere from O2 interacting with sunlight. Both of these are possible indicators of life.

But there are also non-biological processes that produce oxygen, which could serve as a red-herring. Carbon dixoide (CO2) for instance, is produced by volcanic activity on earth, and when it interacts with ultraviolet light in the atmosphere, it produces oxygen, leaving behind carbon monoxide (CO).

To eliminate false positives, the scientists concluded, it would help to know  about the presence of other gases, too. Oxygen in combination with carbon monoxide (CO), for instance, indicates that the source of the oxygen might be CO2, and not alien life.

But oxygen in combination with methane (CH4) is a likely signal of life, because oxygen interacts with related molecules when both are present in the atmosphere, depleting the supply of both — unless there’s another source.

To look for such gases in distant atmospheres, scientists study the spectrum of a star with a planet in orbit around it. (The spectrum of light is basically a measurement of what colors of light the star emits. But stars emit light beyond the range of what humans can see, which must be measured as well.) They measure the spectrum of light as the planet eclipses the star, which tells them what light is absorbed by the planet’s atmosphere. 

It’s a tricky measurement. Analyzing the results, scientists have now shown, will be tricky as well.

Image Source: ”Triple-star sunset” by NASA/JPL-Caltech. Original uploader was SnoopY at en.wikipedia - Transferred from en.wikipedia. Licensed under Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

How to apply a fly eye
Flies may be difficult to swat due to their all-seeing eyes, but scientists have now turned the tables and are using fly eyes for their own purposes.
Flies’ eyes can capture light from a wide field of view — the better to spot looming flyswatters. But the reverse should also be true — shining light from behind a fly cornea will allow it to diffuse over a wide angle, a property that could be useful for light-emitting devices.
Rather than trying to replicate the complex nanoscale properties of the fly eyes, scientists from Penn State University decided to test the idea with a real fly eye. They harvested corneas from the common blowfly and coated them in a fluorescent coating, which shines when exposed to ultraviolet light. They measured the angle of light detected, and saw a wider distribution than from a flat surface coated with the same pigment, the scientists reported in Applied Physics Letters on Tuesday.
Earlier work by the researchers looked at using blowfly corneas to collect light, which could be useful for solar cells. And procedures for replicating the fly corneas could be used to scale the process up for industrial production.
Photo credit: “Calliphora vomitoria Portrait" by JJ Harrison (jjharrison89@facebook.com) - Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.
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How to apply a fly eye

Flies may be difficult to swat due to their all-seeing eyes, but scientists have now turned the tables and are using fly eyes for their own purposes.

Flies’ eyes can capture light from a wide field of view — the better to spot looming flyswatters. But the reverse should also be true — shining light from behind a fly cornea will allow it to diffuse over a wide angle, a property that could be useful for light-emitting devices.

Rather than trying to replicate the complex nanoscale properties of the fly eyes, scientists from Penn State University decided to test the idea with a real fly eye. They harvested corneas from the common blowfly and coated them in a fluorescent coating, which shines when exposed to ultraviolet light. They measured the angle of light detected, and saw a wider distribution than from a flat surface coated with the same pigment, the scientists reported in Applied Physics Letters on Tuesday.

Earlier work by the researchers looked at using blowfly corneas to collect light, which could be useful for solar cells. And procedures for replicating the fly corneas could be used to scale the process up for industrial production.

Photo credit: “Calliphora vomitoria Portrait" by JJ Harrison (jjharrison89@facebook.com) - Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

This is a hummingbird’s nest, with two jellybean-sized eggs, from the collections of the Milwaukee Public Museum. The nest is made with soft plant fibers, lichen, and spider silk.

Yes, spider silk.

How crazy is that?

I got to see this amazing specimen and lots of other neat behind-the-scenes items used for scientific research, while writing a story about efforts at the museum to preserve the egg collections for future generations of scientists.

With nimble fingers, Julia Colby gingerly lifts a hummingbird’s tiny nest made from soft plant fibers, lichen and spider silk. Nestled inside are two eggs the size of small jelly beans.

But these Lilliputian eggs will never hatch — they are more than 100 years old and are part of the Milwaukee Public Museum’s bird egg collection.

Read it here.

You can now download Particle Fever, a documentary about the discovery of the Higgs Boson, on iTunes!

If you’re interested in particle physics, you need to watch this. The story is told so well — it’s dramatic, thoughtful, and personal.

Not to mention the fact that it chronicles the making of the biggest discovery in physics in recent memory!

Edit: For those of you outside the US, if you can’t get it on iTunes, keep an eye on the Particle Fever website. It may be showing at a film festival near you.

A Diamond in the Sky

A Milwaukee astronomer and colleagues have discovered a precious find: a star so old, and so cold, that it is made up of crystallized carbon — better known as diamond.

David Kaplan, an astronomer at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, and colleaguesreported the discoveryof this remarkable star in the Astrophysical Journal. The star is a white dwarf — the dying remains of a once-active star. White dwarfs are no longer able to fuel reactions that generate light and heat, meaning that the star cools as it ages.

"What’s particularly interesting in this case is that the white dwarf is extremely, extremely cold," Kaplan said.

Cold, that is, for a star. Such stars can start out around 100,000 degrees Celsius, but this one is less than 3,000 degrees — the coldest white dwarf star ever discovered. Scientists know the star must be very cold because it is invisible to their telescopes, implying that it is radiating little light or heat. But how does one detect an invisible star? By its effects on the stars around it, it turns out.

From a new article by me at the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. Read the rest.

It turns out that it’s only “sort of” like a diamond, but either way, it’s definitely cool — in more ways than one!

Neutrino Oscillations — a Cinderella Story

Cinderella’s carriage morphed into a pumpkin when the clock stuck midnight. It turns out that elementary particles can do a similar switcheroo. Strange but true!

The phenomenon of neutrino oscillations describes a process by which one type of particle gradually morphs into another — just like Cinderella’s carriage morphed into a pumpkin. This animation explains the process using a neutrino oscillation analogy I wrote for a contest in symmetry magazine.

Carel Fransen, a graphic design student at AKV St. Joost in the Netherlands made the animation as part of his graduation project. He also made a “visual language” representing each of the elementary particles we know of. 

See the whole project here.

For the past few months, physicists have been arguing among themselves. The source of the disagreement?

Dust.

It may sound insignificant, but resolution of the debate is essential to our understanding of the birth of the universe.

A recent measurement, which provided evidence for a theory describing the first instants after the Big Bang, has come under fire from physicists. The universe, the theory goes, began with an extreme kind of growth spurt, known to scientists as “inflation,” in which the universe expanded exponentially before slowing to a more reasonable pace.

The new evidence for the theory was presented with great fanfare, but, in the grand tradition of science, the experimenters’ colleagues have been questioning the results. The importance of galactic dust — small particles in the space between stars — is the sticking point.

Now, after peer review and extensive scientific debate, the experimenters acknowledge that, although it is unlikely, the possibility that dust is providing false evidence of inflation cannot be completely ruled out.

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See that bird? It looks kind of like birds you’re used to seeing. But what’s up with those claws on its wings?

That’s a bird that lived in the Cretaceous period, about 125 million years ago, shortly after birds evolved from dinosaurs. The birds that were around back then looked and behaved differently than modern-day birds.

In particular, prehistoric bird species were not nearly as diverse as modern-day birds, according to research by scientists at the University of Chicago and the Field Museum. The birds were mostly similar to crows and sparrows — living in the forests and feeding on seeds and insects — possibly because they had so recently evolved that they hadn’t had time to fill all the ecological niches they do today.

The findings could tell scientists a bit more about how and when birds evolved from dinosaurs, a topic under some scientific debate.

For more information, check out the article I wrote on the subject.

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