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Tag archives: astronomy

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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Moving meridians, Stradivarius violins, sunspots and more

The Prime Meridian and the modern reference meridian

Walk the line: Airy meridian is marked as the “Prime Meridian of the World” (dotted line), and the modern reference meridian indicating zero longitude using GPS (solid line).
(Courtesy: 2014 Google Maps, Infoterra & Bluesky)

 

By Tushna Commissariat

A visit to the Royal Observatory in Greenwich is incomplete without walking along the Prime Meridian of the world – the line that literally divides the east from the west – and taking some silly photos across it. But you may be disappointed to know that the actual 0° longitudinal line is nearly 100 m away, towards the east, from the plotted meridian. Indeed, your GPS would readily show you that the line actually cuts through the large park ahead of the observatory. I, for one, am impressed that the original line is off by only 100 m, considering that it was plotted in 1884. A recently published paper in the Journal of Geodesy points out that with the extreme accuracy of modern technology like GPS, which has replaced the traditional telescopic observations used to measure the Earth’s rotation, we can measure this difference. You can read more about it in this article in the Independent.

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How flowing galaxies revealed the immensity of the Laniakea Supercluster

A image showing a 2D slice of the supergalactic equatorial plane, the boundary of Laniakea is the closed orange curve. The white lines are velocity flow curves where red denotes areas of high density and blue shows low density. The Milky Way is the black dot in the right side of Laniakea

In this 2D slice of the supergalactic equatorial plane, the boundary of Laniakea is the closed orange curve. The white lines are velocity-flow curves where red denotes areas of high density and blue shows low density. The Milky Way is the black dot on the right-hand side of Laniakea. (Courtesy: Brent Tully et al./Nature)

By Brent Tully at the International Astronomical Union General Assembly in Honolulu, Hawaii

We know that we live on a planet in a solar system in a galaxy in a group of galaxies. But what do we know about our location in the universe beyond that? Some astronomers would answer that we live in the “Local” or “Virgo” supercluster of galaxies. However, the concept has been vague. In the interconnected “cosmic web” it has not been clear where one dense region of galaxies ends and another begins.

Rather than just looking at the distribution of galaxies, it is instructive to consider the motions of galaxies with respect to each other. On the grand scale, galaxies are flying apart from each other with the expansion of the universe. We have to cancel out that motion to see the residual “peculiar” velocities of galaxies that arise from local gravitational attractors.

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How far away can you see light from a candle?

 

(Shutterstock)

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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Browsing the Milky Way at the IAU General Assembly in Honolulu

 

Artist's impression showing the Milky Way over Hawaii

Kai‘aleleiaka: artist’s impression showing the Milky Way over Hawaii. (Courtesy: IAU)

By Hamish Johnston

Earlier this week the triennial XXIX General Assembly of the International Astronomical Union (IAU) kicked off in Honolulu, Hawaii. Founded in 1919, the IUA has about 10,000 members based in 96 countries worldwide. About 3500 astronomers are attending this year’s meeting, which runs until 14 August and is hosted by the American Astronomical Society.

A long-standing tradition of the congress is the production of a daily newspaper for delegates and 2015 is the first year that an electronic version is available to the general public. You can catch up with all the daily news by downloading a copy of Kai‘aleleiaka, which is pronounced “kah EE ah lay-lay-ee AH kah” and means “the Milky Way” in Hawaiian.

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Balancing bicycles, looking back on Trinity, pricing up Pluto and more

 

By Tushna Commissariat

Mechanics was never my favourite topic when I was studying physics for my BSc, but I think I might have been more interested if we had looked at real-world situations rather than square blocks sliding down an incline plane. A bicycle that carries on, sans rider, without toppling over for quite a long time, for example, would have got my attention. This is a rather well-known quirk of mechanics though and it isn’t even the first time we have discussed it on the blog. Indeed, Physics World‘s James Dacey, a keen cyclist, delved into the topic in 2011. This week, we spotted a a new Minute Physics video on the subject, over at ZapperZ’s Physics and Physicists blog. Watch the video to get a good, if a tiny bit rushed, explanation of the three forces that come into play to allow a bicycle at a certain speed to zip along without its human companion. As the video suggests, all is not known about the secrets of free-wheeling bicycles just yet though, and I have a feeling that we will blog about it again in the years to come.

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Pluto fly-by: New Horizons sails past cold, distant world

Image of Pluto todate taken by the New Horizons spacecraft

Perfect view: the sharpest image of Pluto to date taken by the New Horizons spacecraft. (Courtesy: NASA)

By Tushna Commissariat

After trundling through our solar system for more than 10 years, NASA’s New Horizons mission made its closest approach to the dwarf planet Pluto earlier today, at 12:49 BST. It was a mere 12,472 km from the planet’s surface – roughly the same distance from New York to Mumbai, India – making it the first-ever space mission to explore a world so far from Earth.

If you want to find out more about the New Horizons mission, read this recent news story by physicsworld.com editor Hamish Johnston. Above is best close-up view of this cold, unexplored world that the spacecraft sent back before its closest approach (when it was still 766,000 km from the surface), revealing in clear detail many of the planet’s surface features, including the “heart” at the bottom.

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A galaxy for a Galáctico and astronomers weigh in on a famous kiss

A galaxy far away: this false colour image of CR7 was taken by several telescopes (Courtesy: David Sorbal et al)

A galaxy far away: this false colour image of CR7 was taken by several telescopes. (Courtesy: David Sorbal et al.)

By Hamish Johnston

Over the past decade or so the Real Madrid football club has acquired a string of high profile players dubbed the “Galácticos”. Now the most expensive of these footballers – the Portuguese forward and Real Madrid number 7 Cristiano Ronaldo – has a distant galaxy named after him. The galaxy is dubbed “CR7” and was discovered by a team of astronomers led by David Sobral of the University of Lisbon using several different telescopes.

CR7 actually has two meanings, the second being “COSMOS Redshift 7”. COSMOS refers to the Cosmological Evolution Survey, which is using a number of telescopes to search for very old galaxies.

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Space Station vacancy, lead balloons on the fly and more

 

By Michael Banks and Tushna Commissariat

You may remember that the “classical crossover” soprano star Sarah Brightman had been undergoing strenuous training at Moscow’s Star City complex before hitching a ride on a Soyuz rocket to the International Space Station (ISS) in September. The singer was set to pay a whopping £30m for a ticket that would have seen her embark on a 10-day journey into space. Brightman even recorded a special song in March that she was planned to perform on the ISS itself – you can watch the 5 News report above. But Brightman has now postponed the trip, putting out a brief statement on her website citing “personal family reasons” for the decision. One beneficiary of Brightman’s no-show will be the Japanese entrepreneur Satoshi Takamatsu, who had been training as Brightman’s back-up. Whether he’ll do his own version of her planned performance isn’t clear.

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On top of the volcano – part two

 

By Matin Durrani at Sierra Negra, Mexico

Just as my Physics World colleague James Dacey mentioned earlier, neither of us felt super-wonderful yesterday visiting the Large Millimeter Telescope (LMT), which sits at a height of 4600 metres above sea level.  Spectacular though the facility is, the air pressure is roughly 60% of that at sea level and there is so little oxygen that even walking up a flight of stairs made me feeling pretty light-headed.

So, James and I were both quite glad to descend with LMT director David H Hughes to a height of 4100 metres, where it was time to visit another leading Mexican astronomy facility – the High-Altitude Water Cherenkov (HAWC) gamma-ray observatory.

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