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Tag archives: astronomy

Documentary explores the history of astronomy in China

 

By James Dacey

A new documentary explores the development of astronomy in China, taking viewers from the protoscience of ancient China through to the nation’s ambitious space exploration programmes of today. Directed by Beijing-based filmmaker René Seegers, the film has recently been broadcast on Shanghai Television along with screenings at a range of academic institutions, cultural and scholarly societies and embassies throughout China. Now, you can watch the film on the Physics World YouTube channel (with English subtitles).

“The Ancient Chinese believed that Heaven was a power, or a deity, which judged humans. Heaven was responsible for weather and for natural disasters. It was not a realm accessible to humans,” explains Ying Da, the documentary’s presenter. Ying is a media personality who shot to fame in China for directing the family sitcom I Love My Family (1993–1994).

Of course, in recent times Chinese scientists and engineers have taken a much more proactive approach to understanding the cosmos. Since the People’s Republic of China launched its first satellite in 1970 (Dong Fang Hong I), the nation has been ramping up its space programmes. The documentary takes viewers to observatories and the final construction phase of the Five-hundred-meter Aperture Spherical Telescope (FAST), the largest single-dish radio telescope on Earth. It also joins Chinese scientists in Antarctica and explores the leading role China is playing in the construction and operation of the Thirty Meter Telescope in Hawaii.

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Ancient eclipse art, asteroid finds early fame, unwitting face of graphene underwear

A Chaco Canyon petroglyph that may depict the 1097 total solar eclipse

Ancient eclipse: a Chaco Canyon petroglyph (Courtesy: University of Colorado)

By Sarah Tesh, Matin Durrani and Michael Banks

The approaching total solar eclipse on 21 August is the subject of much interest and excitement — but the Earth has of course been in and out of the Moon’s shadow since it formed. While we have the technology to take spectacular photos of the corona framing the Moon, our ancestors were limited to much cruder means of recording such events. For example, the ancient petroglyph (a carving in rock) shown above may represent a total eclipse that occurred in 1097.  The carving is on a free standing rock known Piedra del Sol  in New Mexico’s Chaco Canyon.  “I think it is quite possible that the Chacoan people may have congregated around Piedra del Sol at certain times of the year and were watching the sun move away from the summer solstice when the eclipse occurred,” says solar physicist J. McKim Malville from the University of Colorado, Boulder in the US, who focuses on archaeoastronomy. Other nearby carvings may be related to the 1054 supernova and the passing of Halley’s Comet in 1066. “The appearance of the spectacular supernova and comet may have alerted the residents of the canyon to pay attention to powerful and meaningful events in the sky,” says Malville. Hopefully our records of astronomical events will be as long lasting as those of the Chacoan people.

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The Doomsday Clock ticks over 70 years, an exoplanet Westeros

Circa 1988: the Doomsday Clock during safer times (Courtesy: The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists

Circa 1988: the Doomsday Clock during safer times. (Courtesy: The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists)

By Hamish Johnston

This year marks the 70th anniversary of the Doomsday Clock that is produced by The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists. Currently at two and a half minutes to midnight, the clock represents the likelihood of a human-caused global catastrophe. Originally, it focused exclusively on a nuclear Armageddon, but in 2007 climate change and other technologically-driven processes were added to the mix. The clock was initially set at seven minutes to midnight in 1947 and the Bulletin has produced a video that charts the ups and downs over the past seven decades. Is there any good news? In the image above you can see that South Africa was a nuclear power in 1988, and it has since disarmed.

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Snapping the Milky Way, art inspired by SLAC blueprints, doppelganger magazine covers

Top tip: use a remote shutter control (Courtesy: Clifton Cameras)

Top tip: use a remote shutter control. (Courtesy: Clifton Cameras)

By Hamish Johnston

If you are lucky enough to live somewhere with dark skies, you know that the Milky Way is a truly majestic sight. But how exactly would you go about capturing its magnificence with a camera? UK-based Clifton Cameras has put together an infographic with a few helpful hints. The image above is an excerpt and you can view the entire infographic here.

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New cosmic messengers, and what they can tell us

Bartos-multimessenger-astronomyBy Margaret Harris

Immediately after last year’s announcement that the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO) had seen its first gravitational waves, a lot of the discussion centred on what the discovery meant for general relativity.  This was understandable: getting further confirmation of Einstein’s century-old theory was (and is) a big deal.  But in the longer term, and as the LIGO detectors notch up a few more observations (they’re currently crunching data on six new candidates), the emphasis will shift away from the waves themselves, and towards what they can tell us about the universe.

The key thing to realize here is that gravitational waves are fundamentally different from other, better-studied cosmic “messengers” that travel to Earth from distant reaches of the universe.  Unlike photons, gravitational waves are not impeded by clouds of gas or dust; unlike cosmic rays, they are not deflected by electromagnetic fields. In addition, some of the most dramatic astrophysical events, such as the merger of two black holes in empty space, are “dark” or “silent” to other messengers: these events produce gravitational waves in copious quantities, but not, as far as we know, anything else.

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Chinese astronomers pin their hopes on LOT

Lei Hao from the Shanghai Astonomical Observatory

Lei Hao from the Shanghai Astonomical Observatory.

By Michael Banks in Shanghai, China

It was a cold, rainy day here in Shanghai, so coming from the UK, I felt right at home.

Jumping into a Shanghai taxi to avoid the downpour, I headed to the Shanghai Astronomical Observatory, belonging to the Chinese Academy of Sciences, to meet astronomer Lei Hao.

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The Science of Heaven

 

By Richard de Grijs in Beijing

Good things come to those who wait. Indeed, it has been almost six years since we initially thought about making an astronomy documentary set in China – and we finally showed it in public last month. The Science of Heaven premiered on 30 November 2016 at my institution, the Kavli Institute for Astronomy and Astrophysics at Peking University. By all accounts, it was very well received. While we are ironing out some final issues before releasing it publicly in early 2017, you can watch the trailer (above).

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Freeman Dyson on the physics dream team, Tycho Brahe’s heavy metal, Tintin bags an astronomical sum

Mr Freeman Dyson: “so lucky” not to have a PhD. (CC BY-SA 2.0/Jacob Appelbaum)

Mr Freeman Dyson: “so lucky” not to have a PhD. (CC BY-SA 2.0/Jacob Appelbaum)

By Hamish Johnston

What would it be like to have known Hans Bethe, Wolfgang Pauli, Robert Oppenheimer and Richard Feynman? One person who can tell is the theoretical physicist Freeman Dyson, who recounts his extraordinary life in an interview in Nautilus entitled “My life with the physics dream team”. Born in the UK, he got a degree in mathematics at the University of Cambridge before embarking on a PhD with Bethe at Cornell. Remarkably, Dyson did not complete his doctorate – something he seems rather pleased with: “I was so lucky. I slipped through the cracks.”

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To the stars, through adversity

pwastro16-cover-500By Margaret Harris

Space is, famously, “the final frontier”. It is also – almost as famously – “hard”. We saw this most recently in October, when the Schiaparelli lander crashed onto the surface of Mars, but throughout humanity’s nearly 60-year history as a spacefaring species, our hopes of exploring and observing the cosmos have repeatedly come up against the stiff challenge of building vessels that can survive the journey. Arguably, no other industry on Earth (or indeed off it) has rejoiced in such high “highs”, or agonized through such low “lows”.

That mix of heady dreams and harsh realities is one reason why the latest Physics World focus issue on astronomy and space science carries the tag line “To the stars, through adversity” (I’ll come to the other reason at the end of this blog post). The articles in the issue – which you can read free of charge – pay tribute to the ingenuity of the scientists and engineers involved in the challenging and rewarding practical work of exploring and observing the cosmos. Here, you can learn about the latest advances in astronomical instrumentation, get up to speed with future space missions, and familiarize yourself with recent developments in the entrepreneurial “new space” industry.

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Award-winning ‘Bailys Beads’, schoolyard accelerators , pulsar poems and more

 

By Tushna Commissariat

Its officially that time of the year again when we can marvel at this year’s winners of the Insight Astronomy Photographer of the Year 2016. The awards ceremony, held at the Royal Greenwich Observatory, has unveiled some truly spectacular and ethereal shots of our universe. The overall winner this year is a truly amazing composite image of the 2016 total solar eclipse that shows the ‘Baily’s Beads’ phenomenon and was taken by photographer Yu Jun in Luwuk, Indonesia. In the video above, the judges explain why this particular image was the main winner for the year.

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