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Tag archives: astronomy

Yeah but no but yeah but no but…

The various regions at the edge of thes olar system.

The various regions at the edge of the solar system. (Courtesy: Southwest Research Institute)

By Matin Durrani

Has the Voyager spacecraft left the solar system and entered interstellar space? I don’t know about you, but I’m getting a teensy weensy bit bored by this question, which has been going on for years now.

Last September, we blogged about a paper in Science that, yep, it had definitely left the solar system a year before – on 25 August 2012 in fact.

Previous to that, though, there had been other reports that no it hadn’t (June 2013), it really, definitely is getting near the edge, but hang on actually not yet (March 2013), we’re not quite sure (June 2011), of course it’s definitely heading for interstellar space (November 2009), it’s already right near the edge (or possibly not) (November 2003).

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Molecular footballs, knotty headphones and a naming contest for exoplanets

Is this exoplanet more of a Joanne than a Derek? You could soon be casting your vote to name 305 explanets

Is this exoplanet more of a Joanne than a Derek? You could soon be casting your vote to name 305 explanets. (Courtesy: IAU/M Kornmesser/N Risinger)

By Hamish Johnston

With the final two matches of the FIFA World Cup to look forward to this weekend, I thought I would sneak one more football-related story into the Red Folder. Over on the arXiv blog, there is a nice commentary about the topological nature of World Cup balls through the ages. Why? Well, two chemists in Taiwan have worked out a way to create a carbon-based molecule with the same shape as the football currently being used in the tournament in Brazil. Called the Brazuca, the ball is made from six panels that each have a four-leafed clover shape. Together, they form a structure with octahedral symmetry.

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Physicist explains why Spaniards aren’t actually lazy

Graph showing when Spaniards go to work

Graph of latitude versus solar time for when people in Spain (red), Italy (blue) and the UK (black) start working. The blue line is sunrise at winter solstice while the green band is 30 minutes either side of this.

By Matin Durrani

We’re not the kind of people here at Physics World who resort to national stereotypes – if anything, physicists are pretty much the same the world over no matter where they’re from.

But in the case of Spain, there is a widely held (and probably unfair) view that the Spanish are a bit on the lazy side, saddled with a reputation for long lunches, snoozy siestas and late nights out.

In fact, the Spanish are aware of the problem and there has been much debate in the Spanish media over what can be done to improve productivity and working lives. A Spanish parliamentary commission last year even proposed that the country should turn its clocks back by an hour from Central European Time (CET) to Greenwich Mean Time (GMT). Doing so, the commision said, would improve “productivity, absenteeism, stress, accidents and school drop-out rates”.

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How the banjo got its twang, love in the time of science, award-winning astro images and more

Five string banjo showing the position of the bridge on the head. (Courtesy: Wikipedia/CC BY-SA 3.0)

Five string banjo showing the position of the bridge on the round head. (CC BY-SA 3.0 / DMacks)

By Tushna Commissariat and Hamish Johnston

Folk and country music often blends the sharp twang of a banjo with the mellow and sustained tone of a guitar.  While the two instruments appear to be very similar – at least at first glance – they have very different sounds. This has long puzzled some physicists, including Nobel laureate David Politzer, who may have just solved this acoustical mystery.

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Extra dimensions, other-worldly football, the ISS at night and more

 

By Tushna Commissariat

This week, we came across the above video on “extra dimensions”, in which physicist Don Lincoln talks about the possible physical reality of such dimensions and why we need them. The video begins with Lincoln pointing out just how weak a force gravity is, especially when compared with, say, magnetism. He then goes on to talk about how gravity may exist in more than the three dimensions we experience, making sure to point out that these “extra dimensions” are not of the Hollywood variety in which a different reality may exist. This video is part of Fermilab’s “Big Mysteries” video series – be sure to take a look at the rest.

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SPHERE opens its ‘all-seeing’ eye

SPHERE images the dust ring around HR 4796A (Courtesy: ESO/J-L Beuzit et al./SPHERE Consortium)

The dust ring around HR 4796A. (Courtesy: ESO/J-L Beuzit et al./SPHERE Consortium)

By Tushna Commissariat

While the fiery shades of the image above may seem familiar to fans of the Lord of the Rings movie franchise, pictured above in exquisite clarity is a ring of dust that surrounds the near-by star HR 4796A. The young, hot star – located a scant 240 light-years from Earth – has been of significant interest to astronomers since the circumstellar ring of debris was detected, thanks to an excess of infrared emissions from the star. While there have been many other images of the HR 4796A system, this particular image has been obtained by the new Spectro-Polarimetric High-contrast Exoplanet REsearch instrument (SPHERE), which was installed in May this year on the European Southern Observatory’s Very Large Telescope (VLT) at the Paranal Observatory in Chile. Thanks to the instrument, not only is the dust-ring clearly outlined, but the glare of the bright star at the centre of the picture has been supressed. This has provided a much clearer view of the whole system, which researchers think also harbours an exoplanet or two.

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Cosmic blunders that have held back science

Big enough already: Portrait of Edward Pickering by Sarah Gooll Putnam (Courtesy: Harvard University Portrait Collection)

Big enough already: portrait of Edward Pickering by Sarah Gooll Putnam. (Courtesy: Harvard University Portrait Collection)

By Hamish Johnston

Can you name 10 blunders that have held back the progress of modern astronomy? Avi Loeb of Harvard University can, and he lists them in an essay entitled “On the benefits of promoting diversity of ideas”, which is posted on the arXiv preprint server.

Loeb argues that a common flaw of astronomers is to believe that they know the truth even when data are scarce. This, he argues, “occasionally leads to major blunders by which the scientific community makes the wrong strategic decision in its research plans, causing unnecessary delays in finding the truth”.

The first example he gives is the 1909 pronouncement by Edward Pickering, director of the Harvard College Observatory, that telescopes had reached their optimal size and that there was no point trying to make them any bigger.

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A day in the life of an astronaut, Hawking’s football conclusions, politics and science and more

Image from Tim Dodd's Everydat Astronaut photo series

“Good morning world” (Courtesy: Tim Dodd)

By Tushna Commissariat

For most of us, the life of an astronaut is one of excitement and adventure. Indeed, the mere thought of being a “real live astronaut” brings out the gleeful inner child in many, and photographer Tim Dodd is much the same. After purchasing a Russian high-altitude space suit from an online auction website, Dodd put together a series of photographs titled “A day in the life of Everyday Astronaut”, my favourite of which you can see above. Do take a look at the rest of the excellent series on Dodd’s website and follow him on Instagram for even more of the same.

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BICEP2′s findings trigger new kind of ‘inflation’

The BICEP2 experiment at the South Pole

Sunrise over the BICEP2 experiment at the South Pole. (Courtesy: National Science Foundation)

By Tushna Commissariat

Scientists and laypeople the world over were intrigued by the announcement made by the BICEP2 collaboration earlier last month, when it claimed to have detected the primordial “B-mode polarization” of the cosmic microwave signal (CMB). Many researchers have hailed it as the first evidence for cosmic inflation – the extremely rapid expansion that cosmologists believe our universe underwent a mere 10–35 s after the Big Bang.

Indeed, after a quick search of the arXiv preprint server, I found nearly 172 papers based on the BICEP2 data that have been written since the team’s announcement on 17 March. Some 200 individual citations to the original BICEP2 paper can also be found on the server.

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Earth’s cousin, alien intelligence, Galileo’s game and more

Illustration of Kepler-186f

Artist’s illustration of Kepler-186f. (Courtesy: NASA/SETI Institute/JPL-Caltech)

By Tushna Commissariat

Early last week, astronomers announced that they had found the first Earth-sized exoplanet that is comfortably within the habitable zone of its parent star, using NASA’s Kepler telescope. The new planet, dubbed Kepler-186f, is a close cousin of the Earth as it has a radius that is only 10% larger than that of the Earth, meaning that it could have liquid water on its surface, allowing for the tantalizing possibility of some form of life to exist upon it. At last count, Kepler has now discovered and confirmed 1706 exoplanets.

So it was rather interesting to come across two stories that looked at the implications of life beyond our planetary neighbourhood. Paul Gilster, who writes the Centauri Dreams blog had a rather interesting post on how artists and illustrators need to work with scientists to depict each new exoplanet, to make the images look visually stunning, while still being scientifically accurate. Gilster also talks specifically about the image (see above) that illustrates the newly found Kepler-186f.

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