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Tag archives: astronomy

Postcard from Rio – following in Einstein’s footsteps

Photo of Einstein visiting Brazil's National Observatory in 1925

Einstein visiting Brazil’s National Observatory in 1925. (Courtesy: Observatório Nacional)

By Matin Durrani in Rio de Janeiro

I don’t think I’ve ever talked to the head of a physics lab with a parrot screeching outside the window. But that was the case today when I visited the Brazil’s National Observatory – the country’s oldest scientific institution, founded in 1827 by Emperor Dom Pedro I just five years after the country won independence from Portugal.

The parrot was somewhere in the lush green trees directly outside the open windows of the director’s elegant first-floor office, which is currently occupied by the physicist Joao dos Anjos, who took over as head of the observatory earlier this year. (He also claimed his secretary had seen a ghost in the office recently, but that’s another story.)

After closing the windows’ shutters and switching on the air-conditioning, Dos Anjos explained how the observatory is now focused on three main activities – astronomy, geophysics and metrology. In fact, the observatory is still the official body in Brazil for setting time, which was one of its original missions, along with determining geographical locations and studying the country’s climate.

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Sun-skimming comets, the future of the Space Race, scientists on record and more

By Tushna Commissariat

This week, professional astronomers and enthusiasts all over the world pointed their telescopes (and satellites) at the comet ISON as it raced towards the Sun and had its closest encounter with our star yesterday. Of course, the big question was whether the “Sungrazing comet” would survive its close call. Now, it seems that no-one is quite sure – early on, it looked as if the comet faded rather dramatically, suggesting that its nucleus disintegrated, and then it disappeared completely as it made its way through the solar atmosphere, making scientists mourn its fiery death. But lo, today a very faint smudge of dust was seen again, and seems to be brightening up once more. For now, researchers are referring to ISON as “Schrödinger’s Comet” and we may have to wait a while to know for sure. Right now, it seems that some of the comet has survived, but just how much of it made it through and if it will be visible in the sky in December is unknown. In case you missed all the action yesterday, take a look at Phil Plait’s Bad Astronomy blog, where he was posting live updates on the comet and Karl Battams’s blog on NASA’s Comet ISON Observing Campaign site, where he explains what happens next.

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Safe graphene, Martian mollycoddling, mathematical tales and more

The

The “Telescope names” comic from xkcd. (Randall Munroe/Creative Commons)

By Tushna Commissariat

Just when we thought that it couldn’t possibly have any more practical applications, everybody’s favourite “wonder material” graphene is going to be used to develop “stronger, safer, and more desirable condoms”. Thanks to a Grand Challenges Explorations grant of £62,123 from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, scientists at the University of Manchester will use graphene to develop new “composite nanomaterials for next-generation condoms, containing graphene”. Unsurprisingly, the story made all the national newspapers with the BBC, the Guardian, the Telegraph and the Independent all having their say. The Guardian also noted that industrial graphene-producer Applied Graphene Materialsshares jumped by 40% during its stock-market debut, the day before the above story broke. You can read more about graphene’s many potential applications on page 50 of Physics World’s anniversary issue, a free PDF download of which is available here.

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‘Wizzing’ physics, fundamental prizes, galactic paradoxes and more

By Tushna Commissariat

“Wizzing” to the top of the Red Folder this week is a group of physicists at the “Splash Lab” at Brigham Young University who have studied the physics of “splashback” that occurs when people urinate. Using high-speed cameras the researchers filmed jets of liquid from a “synthetic urethra” striking toilet walls. They found that the stream of liquid breaks up into droplets when it is about 15 cm from the urethra exit. “Wizz kids” Tadd Truscott and Randy Hurd suggest that apart from sitting down on the toilet (and risk being called Sitzpinklers by their German friends), men should get nice and close when doing their business to eliminate splashback. Take a look at their video about “Urinal dynamics” above.

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Chelyabinsk exposed: the anatomy of an asteroid impact

Photo of Chelyabinsk meteorite fragment

Exhibit A: a 4 cm-wide meteorite created by the Chelyabinsk asteroid explosion with “shock veins” in it. (Courtesy: Science/AAAS)

By Matin Durrani

If there is one thing that will be remembered about Friday 15 February 2013, it’s that it was the day when a massive asteroid blew up above the city of Chelyabinsk in Russia – creating the largest explosion on the planet since the one that occurred over the Tunguska river in Siberia in 1908.

But whereas hardly anyone saw or recorded information about the Tunguska explosion, the Chelyabinsk asteroid blew up over a relatively densely populated region and – perhaps more importantly – its journey through the air was recorded by numerous cameras and webcams that nervous Russian drivers love to install on their cars. Video footage of the event was soon seen by people all over the world.

Now, based on data from those videos and visits to some 50 local villages, researchers from the Czech Republic and Canada have published a paper in the journal Science detailing the trajectory, structure and origin of what they call the “Chelyabinsk asteroidal impactor”. The paper goes live on Thursday 7 November.

To save you the trouble of reading the full article, I’ve picked out a couple of factoids that might intrigue and interest you.

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Grumpy astronauts, LEGO overpopulation, videogame quantum mechanics and more

The xkcd webcomic about LEGO titled

The “Minifigs” comic from xkcd (Credit: Randall Munroe/Creative Commons)

By Tushna Commissariat

This week, the Red Folder seemed filled to bursting with amusing and captivating news stories from around the web about physics. To start off, this rather hilarious and candid account of the Apollo 7 mission on the Discovery News website. I will not give too much away and let you read the story yourself, but suffice to say that having a rather bad cold while in space sounds dreadful and is bound to make the best of us quite grumpy – and I am sure the Apollo 7 crew would agree with me!

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Lectures with Peter Higgs, award-winning photographs, multidimentional shapes and more

Guiding Light To The Stars

By Tushna Commissariat

Each week, all of us here at Physics World comb the Internet for all things physics – we look at national and local newspapers, university news outlets, a variety of magazines, science websites and blogs, and, of course, all the  latest scientific papers. We then pool our research and pick the cream of our crop to report on. But we can’t always cover all the interesting bits of physics news that we have chanced upon and a lot of good stuff is left behind in a red folder. So, starting from today, at the end of each week we’ve decided to point all of you, our eager readers, to the stories that have caught our fancy but not made it to the site yet and leave you with some extra weekend reading from The Red Folder.

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Extending the ‘Goldilocks’ zone

Image comparing the inner planets of our Solar System to Kepler-62, a five-planet system about 1,200 light-years from Earth.

A comparison of the inner planets of our solar system, within the habitable zone, to Kepler-62 – a five-planet system about 1200 light-years from Earth. (Courtesy: NASA/Ames/JPL-Caltech)

By Ian Randall

In the modish hunt for exoplanets, the holy grail is discovering such a body within the habitable zone of a star – offering a tantalizing potential for extraterrestrial life. If our solar system is anything to go by, we can expect most planets to form outside of the confines of this zone. What if, however, the habitable zone is really larger than we thought?

This is the idea put forward by Sean McMahon from the University of Aberdeen, Scotland, and colleagues in a recent paper – proposing that the existing definition of the habitable zone overlooks the potential for life to survive below the surface of terrestrial planets that currently lie outside the zone’s reach.

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Is the fine structure constant affected by gravity?

Artist's illustration of a white-dwarf star.

Artist’s illustration of a white-dwarf star (Image Courtesy: NASA/JPL-Caltech)

By Hamish Johnston

If there is one thing our readers like it’s a good story about fundamental constants – and the fine structure constant (α) is always a favourite.

In case you are not familiar with α, it’s a dimensionless quantity (about 1/137) that measures the strength of the electromagnetic interaction. As such, it quantifies how electrons bind within atoms and molecules and therefore can be measured to great precision using spectroscopic techniques. And because atoms can be found just about anywhere between here and the edge of the universe, it’s possible to ask whether α is the same everywhere.

In a paper published this week in Physical Review Letters, an international team of physicists have measured α in the atmosphere of a white-dwarf star – where the gravitational potential is about 30,000 times greater than here on Earth.

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Physics on the big screen

By Tushna Commissariat

A new documentary of Stephen Hawking’s life is due in cinemas later this summer, with the esteemed physicist himself narrating the film. Hawking, as the documentary is simply dubbed, takes a personal look at the life of the celebrated scientist – his early days as a student in Oxford and his ongoing battle with motor neurone disease – as well as documenting his academic achievements.

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