Archive for the ‘Space’ Category

From the dungheap to the stars

January 25, 2013
Dung beetle

A scarab beetle – photo by Udo Schmidt

What a great way to end the week – with the discovery that scarabs (dung beetles) navigate by the stars to make sure their precious spheres of poo don’t get stolen. Finding this paper (by Marie Dacke of the University of Lund and her colleagues) on Twitter today made me unreasonably happy – because it perfectly encapsulates everything that’s great about science.

Who couldn’t be impressed by the contrast between a beetle rolling a ball of dung, guided by the enormous arm of a spiral galaxy? It’s lovely that these two vastly different things are connected – a link revealed by a brilliant experiment that involved beetles wearing hats and wandering around in a planetarium. (more…)


Voyager 1: boldly going where nothing has gone before

June 17, 2012
Voyager Golden Record

The Voyager ‘Golden Record’

This Friday, NASA reported that they believe the Voyager 1 space probe has reached the edge of our solar system. I’m really not sure why I only just discovered this (thanks Facebook nerds) – surely the fact that a man-made object has for the first time gone beyond the boundaries of our solar system should be big news?? As a friend of mine put it – ‘does this make us an interstellar species?’ I think it does… Wow.

It’s big news to me. The Voyager 1 and 2 probes were launched in 1977 – meaning they’ve been travelling for about the same length of time that my parents have been married (awww). In that time, Voyager 1 has reached a distance of 18 billion kilometres from the Sun, with its twin Voyager 2 (relatively) close behind at 15 billion kilometres. You can watch those kilometres flick by at about 17 per second on the Voyager mission’s official site.

The sensors on Voyager 1 have been showing a marked increase in charged particles thought to come from beyond the solar system – a sign that the probe has reached the edge of our little corner of the universe. As NASA rather beautifully put it, ‘Voyager scientists looking at this rapid rise draw closer to an inevitable but historic conclusion – that humanity’s first emissary to interstellar space is on the edge of our solar system,’ – weighty words for a genuinely awe-inspiring occasion (take that, Queen’s Jubilee). (more…)

The sound of science

January 26, 2012
Sound waves

The sound of science?

Do you remember the strange and mysterious noise of dial-up internet? My memory of that sound is as vivid as those images that come flooding back when you smell the scent of something long-forgotten. Remembering that dial-up noise – expressed in a tweet I saw this week as ‘beep boo beeeep ejwlekl’ – takes me straight back to the 90s when we used to put up with horrifically ugly webpages that took literally seconds to load (how were we ever so patient?).

I think I got a bit overexcited about this noise at the time – when we finally got the internet at my house, I used to pick up the phone just to listen to the sound of the data streams whizzing back and forth. The image I had in my mind was something like that green symbol cascade from The Matrix.

Typing this post over my wireless broadband, I feel like some of the magic has gone (even though invisible broadband in the air is a hell of a lot more ‘magic’ than an old-fashioned cable). So I started wondering what other ‘sounds of science’ are out there – things that our children will laugh at when we’re old, and that we’ll have a hard-to-explain nostalgia for?


The real wonders of the solar system

March 27, 2010


The solar system is truly awe-inspiring – so much so that the phrase doesn’t do it justice. Words can’t compete with images like ‘earthrise’, which manages to convey just how tiny, fragile and wonderful the Earth is without any superlatives being necessary. So I was excited to watch my first episode of the BBC’s new series ‘Wonders of the Solar System’ on Sunday. And it was brilliant, until I became distracted by trying to work out which images were actually real… (more…)

Bad science at the movies: fun for all the family

March 9, 2010
spaceship image

That rocket's way too big!

I love films with a bit of science. Especially if it’s really, really silly science. So I’m a bit worried about the recent news that scientists in America are advising film-makers to break just one law of physics per movie. That’s no fun for nerds who adore spotting mistakes and pointing them out to everyone else.

Professor of physics Sidney Perkowitz is behind the new guidelines. He’s a member of the Science & Entertainment Exchange, an offshoot of the National Academy of Sciences in the US. The Exchange “provides entertainment industry professionals with access to top scientists and engineers to help bring the reality of cutting-edge science to creative and engaging storylines”.

Sadly the ‘reality of cutting-edge science’ can sometimes be a bit underwhelming, so I thought I’d make a list of my top 10 stupid science movie moments that definitely add a little something (even if it’s just unintentional comedy). (more…)

Not loving the alien

January 26, 2010

Jupiter's moon Europa - a likely place to find alien life?

Life on Earth is weird and amazing enough to keep science going for the forseeable future, but that doesn’t stop us wondering about aliens. Are we ever going to find any? And if we did, what would they be like? This week a conference at the Royal Society is asking those very questions (among other things). I’m sure they won’t let the total lack of aliens discovered so far put them off.

The search for extra-terrestrial intellience has so far concentrated on ‘Earth-like’ planets, and some scientists believe that aliens are likely to be quite similar to life on Earth, made up of the same substances and perhaps even based on DNA. But surely it’s possible that aliens could be so strange we wouldn’t even recognise them as life at all? (more…)