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Tag archives: astronomers

Tiny gifts for world leaders, Hubble’s birthday and more

3D Great Wall of China section

Tiny trophy: The Great Wall of China, printed with a Nanoscribe system at the Hamlyn Centre, Imperial College London. (Courtesy: Nanoscribe)


By Hamish Johnston and Tushna Commissariat

Last month, China’s president Xi Jinping’s was on a state visit in the UK and while here, he toured a few academic institutions, including the UK’s new National Graphene Institute (NGI) in Manchester and Imperial College London. As we reported in an earlier blog, Nobel-prize-winning Manchester physicist Kostya Novoselov presented President Xi “with a gift of traditional Chinese-style artwork, which Kostya himself had painted using graphene paint”. This week we found out that the Imperial scientists also presented him with a “tiny gift” in the form of a 50 µm scale version of a section of the Great Wall of China, imaged above, created with a Nanoscribe 3D printer. Prince Andrew, who was also on the visit, was given an image of a panda leaping over a bamboo cane, which was printed on the tip of a needle.


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Quantum mechanics in a cup of coffee, hamming it up to the space station, the laws of political physics and more


By Hamish Johnston and Michael Banks

Physicists tend to drink lots of coffee so I wasn’t the least bit surprised to see the above video of Philip Moriarty explaining quantum mechanics using a vibrating cup of coffee. Moriarty, who is at the University of Nottingham, uses the coffee to explain the physics underlying his favourite image in physics. You will have to watch the video to find out which image that is, and there is more about the physics discussed in the video on Moriarty’s blog Symptoms of the Universe.


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How far away can you see light from a candle?



New research looks at the distance from which a candle flame can be seen. (Shutterstock/underverse)

By Andrew Silver

Can the unaided eye see the light from a single candle from 10 miles away? According to some claims on the Internet, the answer is yes – but now two scientists in the US have borrowed techniques from astronomy to show that a pair of binoculars would probably be needed.

The story behind this work began high in the Andes one moonless night when a candle was lit on the Cerro Tololo Inter-American Observatory telescope catwalk. Somebody walked 400–600 m away and said the flame was as bright as the brightest stars in the sky. Nobody wrote down any numbers.


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The Dark Matter Garden, gravitational atoms, boys and girls with toys, and more

Gravitational gardening: the Dark Matter Garden at Chelsea

Gravitational gardening: the Dark Matter Garden at this year’s RHS Chelsea Flower Show. (Courtesy: National Schools’ Observatory)

By Hamish Johnston

Gardening is something that the British take very seriously and this week’s RHS Chelsea Flower Show is the pinnacle of that obsession. Indeed, it is so popular that it is covered live on television by the BBC. One highlight of the show is the garden competition, in which designers transform an empty plot into a dazzling garden in just 10 days. This year’s entries include the Dark Matter Garden, which “brings the mysteries of the universe to Chelsea”. That’s the claim of the designers of the garden (including several astronomers), who built it for the UK’s National Schools’ Observatory. The team says that its gold-medal-winning design includes “innovative structures and planting, and represents the effect of dark matter on light”.


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Space-station toilet tour, the Louvre’s particle accelerator and more


By Tushna Commissariat

I’m sure that many of us, while watching videos of astronauts on board the International Space Station (ISS), floating around with their halo-like hair, have given much thought to how they shower, wash their hair, brush their teeth and, indeed, poop and pee! Well, you can stop stretching your imagination and take a look for yourself – we spotted this story on the Slate website, where you can see the latest videos from the European Space agency, where Italian astronaut Samantha Cristoforetti, who is currently on the ISS, gives us a tour of both the toilet (above) and the “shower” area (below). She even demonstrates exactly how to wash your hair in space – it looks rather fuss-free if you ask me!


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Entangled and stringy videos, a new chat show about the heavens, Hawking and Newton hit the Oregon Trail and more

By Hamish Johnston

This week’s Red Folder begins with a pair of videos that attempt to explain some of the most difficult concepts in physics. First up is a video featuring physicist and filmmaker Derek Muller, who does a lovely job of explaining quantum entanglement with the help of a few cardboard cut-outs and a couple of spinning avatars (see above).


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Extraterrestrial espressos, quantum card-games, misunderstood science and more

Cartoon photo of astronaut enjoying espresso in space

Mmm…ISSpresso in space. (Courtesy: Lavazza)

 By Tushna Commissariat

Most of us can’t get our day started without a fortifying cup of coffee and astronauts are just the same. To help those on the International Space Station meet their caffeine cravings, Italian coffee king Lavazza has designed and built an espresso machine that will work in space! Called “ISSpresso” the machine will be blasted off into space in the possession of astronaut Samantha Cristoforetti, who will also be the first Italian woman in space. You can read all about the ISSpresso and its supreme blends on the Wired website.


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Of mice and ‘little green men’

By Tushna Commissariat

Pop-culture image of a green alien

Just called to say hello?
(Wikimedia Commons/Crobard)

There’s nothing quite like mentioning extraterrestrials or aliens to get us “Earthlings” all excited or riled up! Late last week, a paper popped up on arXiv, by astronomer Alan Penny from the University of St Andrews. He outlines an incident where, for a short while, the possibility of alien contact was seriously considered. He was talking about what was ultimately the discovery of the first pulsar; but at the time the researchers couldn’t help but wonder if they had come across the first “artificial signal” from outer space.

The exciting happenings began in August 1967, when Jocelyn Bell Burnell (then a graduate student working with Antony Hewish – controversially, only Hewish won the Nobel prize for the pulsar discovery in 1974) at the University of Cambridge, noticed a particular source that had a “flickering pattern” that, over a few weeks, she realized showed up regularly each day at the same sidereal time. That December Bell pinpointed the specific position of the source in the sky using another telescope and the discovery was confirmed. In the coming months, three more similar patterns were found and the researchers agreed on “pulsating stars” or pulsars being the source. But during those winter months, the possibility that they had encountered the first alien signal loomed large. In fact, Brunell and colleagues dubbed the first pulsar LGM-1 or “Little Green Men”; although it was changed to CP 1919, and is now known as PSR B1919+21.


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Astronomers discover complex organic matter abound in the universe

Recurrent Nova RS Ophiuci

NASA image of the star field in the constellation Ophiucus; at the centre is the recurrent Nova RS Ophiuci (Credit: John Chumack)

By Tushna Commissariat

Complex organic compounds – one of the main markers of carbon-based life forms – have always been thought to arise from living organisms. But new research by physicists in Hong Kong, published yesterday in the journal Nature, suggests that these compounds can be synthesized in space even when no life forms are present.

Sun Kwok and Yong Zhang at the University of Hong Kong claim that a particular organic compound that is found throughout the universe contains complex compounds that resemble coal and petroleum – which have long been thought to come only from carbonaceous living matter.

The researchers say that the organic substance contains a mixture of aromatic (ring-like) and aliphatic (chain-like) complex components. They have come to this conclusion after looking at strange infrared emissions detected in stars, interstellar space and galaxies that are commonly known as unidentified infrared emissions (UIEs). These UIE signatures are thought to arise from simple organic molecules made of carbon and hydrogen atoms – polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbon (PAH) molecules – being “pumped” by far-ultraviolet photons. But Kwok and Zhang both felt that hypothesis did not fill the bill accurately enough, when they considered the observational data.

As a solution, they have suggested an alternative – that the substances generating these infrared emissions have chemical structures that are much more complex. After analysing the spectra of star dust forming when stars explode, they found that stars are capable of making these complex organic compounds on extremely short timescales of weeks and that they then eject it into the general interstellar space – the region between stars.

Kwok had suggested, at an earlier date, that old stars could be “molecular factories” capable of producing organic compounds. “Our work has shown that stars have no problem making complex organic compounds under near-vacuum conditions,” says Kwok. “Theoretically, this is impossible, but observationally we can see it happening.”

Another interesting fact is that the organic star dust that Kwok and Zhang studied has a remarkable structural similarity to complex organic compounds found in meteorites. As meteorites are remnants of the early solar system, the findings raise the possibility that stars enriched our protoplanetary disc with organic compounds (by angela). The early Earth was known to have been bombarded by many comets and asteroids carrying organic star dust. Whether these organic compounds played any role in the development of life on Earth remains a mystery.

It will also be interesting to see if this finding has an impact on research groups that look for life in the universe, such as SETI , considering that complex organic molecules have always thought to be markers of carbon-based life forms.

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