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Tag archives: astronomy

Radiation blasts render Earth’s twin inhospitable to life

Illustration showing Kepler 438b being irridiated by its host star

Radioactive? Kepler-438b is regularly irradiated by huge flares of radiation from its host star. (Courtesy: Mark A Garlick/University of Warwick)

By Tushna Commissariat

In the past decade or two, exoplanetary research has been booming as NASA’s Kepler telescope and its cohorts have found nearly 2000 exoplanets and 5000 promising candidates. Unsurprisingly, we have been searching long and hard for those planets that could be habitable or are as similar in shape, size and proximity to the host star as the Earth is to the Sun. Indeed, in January this year Kepler scientists announced that they had found the most Earth-like planet to date – Kepler-438b – orbiting within the habitable zone of its host star, the red dwarf Kepler-438, which lies about 470 light-years from Earth.

The planet, which is slightly bigger than our own, was found to be rocky, and, thanks to its location, rather temperate, meaning that it could have flowing water on it – two key factors that astronomers look for when accessing a planet’s habitability. Unfortunately, David Armstrong of the University of Warwick in the UK and colleagues have now found that Earth’s twin is regularly bathed in vast quantities of radiation from its star – a real dampener when it comes to the formation of life as we known it.


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X-ray visions of the past, undead physics, stargazing cruises and more


By Tushna Commissariat

Peering into a small 17th century metallic box, without damaging its contents, is no mean feat. But thanks to the use of synchrotron radiation, scientists at the European Synchrotron Radiation Facility (ESRF) in Grenoble were able to “see” inside one, using a technique known as synchrotron X-ray phase contrast micro-tomography. They were also able to create a 3D reconstruction of clay medals concealed within the very fragile and badly oxidized box, which was discovered on the archaeological site of the Saint-Laurent church, and is now at the archaeological museum of Grenoble (MAG). Take a look at the video above to see what the box held. You can also learn more about the researcher’s tomography technique in an article of ours.

Tomorrow is Halloween, so we hope you have your physics-themed pumpkins carved and out on your doorsteps. For some spooky reading this week, take a look at Davide Castelvecchi‘s “Zombie physics: 6 baffling results that just won’t die” story over on the Nature News website. In it, he lists six “undead” results – things that physicists just can’t seem to prove or disprove – including long-running disagreements over certain dark-matter results, hemispheric inconsistencies and spinning protons. Let us know what you think are some of the most undead physics results that should be laid to rest, in the comments below. And while you are at it, make sure to look at today’s creepy edition of Fermilab Today to read about the rise of the zombie accelerator and the “The cult of the Tev.”


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The November 2015 issue of Physics World is out now


By Matin Durrani

Whether it’s the shortest wavelength, the lightest particle, the highest pressure or the brightest beam, there’s something intrinsically appealing about pushing boundaries to break records and establish new limits of what’s physically possible. Reaching new extremes is healthy for science too, spurring researchers to outperform rivals in the quest for grants, kudos or new jobs.

The November 2015 issue of Physics World, which is now out, covers three frontier-busting research endeavours. We kick off by looking at a human-made extreme: the search for the blackest materials ever produced – a tale that’s had a dark side of its very own. Next, we examine how physics techniques are unravelling the secrets of tough lifeforms that exist in some of the most extreme environments on Earth. Finally, we go beyond Earth to a cosmic extreme: magnetars – a special kind of rotating neutron star that are the strongest magnets in the universe.


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Quantum cats, physicists and stamp collecting, extraterrestrial building work

Calculating cat: Schrö makes her way through a quantum computer (Courtesy: IQC)

Calculating cat: Schrö makes her way through a quantum computer. (Courtesy: IQC)

By Hamish Johnston

The Internet loves cats and our readers love quantum mechanics so a new mobile app called Quantum Cats just has to be the lead item in this week’s Red Folder. Created by physicists at the Institute for Quantum Computing and researchers at the University of Waterloo Games Institute, the app immerses the user in the adventures of four cats: Classy, who obeys classical physics; Digger, who is a master of quantum tunnelling; Schrö, (above) who is a superposition of quantum states; and Fuzzy, who embodies the uncertainty principle. It’s available on Google Play and the App Store, so have a go and tell us what you think.


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Disaster-proof astronomy?

Photograph of the ALMA array from the air

The Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA) on the Chajnantor Plateau in Chile. (Courtesy: Clem & Adri Bacri-Normier/ESO)

By Louise Mayor in San Pedro de Atacama, Chile

In many ways, the Chajnantor Plateau in the Chilean Andes seems like one of the worst places in the world to build a very large and expensive telescope array. I have already experienced or witnessed first-hand a host of hazards on my trip to the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA), which is my reward for winning the European Astronomy Journalism Prize 2014.

At 2.39 a.m. local time last Monday, I was rudely reminded that I was in a tectonically active region by a magnitude-6.3 earthquake. At the time, I was staying overnight in Santiago, with two flights down and one to go on my way to the ALMA site in the Atacama Desert further north.


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Blood Moon at night, stargazers’ delight

By Tushna Commissariat

I am rather tired as I type up this post, but I do have an excellent excuse for being so sleepy today as I was awake until the wee hours of the morning watching the  “super blood Moon” eclipse. As most of you know, today’s eclipse was particularly impressive as a super Moon (when the Moon is at its closest point to the Earth) coincided with a total lunar eclipse – when the Earth is perfectly in-between the Sun and Moon.

Rather unusually for the UK, we (in and around Bristol, at least) had a crystal-clear night, devoid of any clouds. I set up camp in my backyard, armed with a pair of binoculars, my camera with a zoom lens (but, unfortunately, no tripod) and a hot cup of tea…or two!

Despite the cold bite of an autumn night, the Moon really was a sight to behold. Before the eclipse, the super Moon was so bright that I could hardly look at it through my binoculars.

The full super Moon

The full “super Moon” at around 10 p.m. BST, a few hours before the eclipse began. (Courtesy: Graeme Watt)

Lunar eclipse, just beginning

The Moon partially eclipsed, not quite bloody just yet, with a lunar flare. (Courtesy: Tushna Commissariat)


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Our true place in the universe, an eclipse for insomniacs and how far the Chilean landmass moved last week


By Tushna Commissariat

An image of the solar system – showing our luminous Sun ringed by nine (or is it eight?) evenly spaced planets and the asteroid belt – is a familiar feature in many school textbooks. In fact, such images are so commonplace that we often forget just how wrong they are when it comes to showing the true scale of the solar system. In particular, the billions and billions of kilometres of empty space that lie between each planet are rarely depicted.

Now, filmmakers and friends Wylie Overstreet and Alex Gorosh have “drawn” a realistic model of the solar system on a dry Nevada lakebed, complete with planetary orbits. The duo describes it as “a true illustration of our place in the universe”. Watch the video above to see how the pair planned and executed their massive portrait.


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Time to claim the Chilean prize

Chilean flag in Santiago

By Louise Mayor in Santiago, Chile

When I got to immigration at Santiago airport in Chile this morning, the man behind the glass asked me whether I was here for business or pleasure. “Business,” I replied. But that word didn’t sit right with me. To me, the word “business” conjures the image of some dull suit-and-briefcase affair. But I’m here to go to the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA) as my reward for winning the European Astronomy Journalism Prize 2014, and I’ve been thinking of it as quite the once-in-a-lifetime treat. “Perhaps,” I thought to myself in those split-seconds following my reply, “my trip does fall under ‘pleasure’ after all?”

Not one to mislead immigration officers, I immediately wanted to clarify the situation. “Well,” I added, “er,” before quickly realizing that changing one’s answer at the immigration counter is perhaps not the best idea. The man then stopped his document-checking and looked at me square-on, fixing me with an intense gaze. “Why are you here?” he asked.


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Physics World special report on Mexico is out now


By James Dacey

Today is Mexico’s Independence Day, marking the Grito de Dolores – the day in 1810 when the Roman Catholic priest Miguel Hidalgo called on his congregation in the small Mexican town of Dolores to revolt against the Spanish colonial government. This “Cry of Dolores” is seen as the flash point that triggered the Mexican War of Independence.

Modern-day Mexico is still a place with its fair share of turmoil, as the government faces increasing pressure over its inability to deal with drugs, violence and corruption. One area that is starting to look more positive, however, is Mexico’s science base – the administration of president Enrique Peña Nieto has vowed to double Mexico’s investment in science and technology to 1% of GDP and has already sanctioned increases in 2013 and 2014.

To shine a light on what the Mexican physics community is up to, this month sees the publication of a new free-to-read Physics World special report on physics in Mexico. We believe that physicists in Mexico are doing engaging work that deserves to be more widely known. In choosing our coverage for the report, we have not only focused on the challenges for the Mexican community, but also hope to give you a flavour of the rich culture and geography of this most colourful of countries.


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How to treat your inner geek


By Matin Durrani

The word “geek” used to be a bit of insult, but to be labelled a geek these days isn’t such a bad thing after all. I think a lot of that’s due to the sheer power and pervasiveness of smartphones, software and IT — in fact, the top definition of “geek” over at Urban Dictionary is “The people you pick on in high school and wind up working for as an adult.” I also reckon the huge popularity of TV’s The Big Bang Theory has played its part in the reversal of fortune of the word, with many of us following the stories of Sheldon, Leonard and their geeky physics pals.


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