Showing all posts tagged: science

Black hole stars, a weird cosmic entity and Soundgarden song

18 December 2022

Black hole stars, sometimes called quasi-stars, were a hypothetical star that may have existed in the earliest days of the universe, up to about half a billion years after the Big Bang.

They were larger — far larger — than any star known to be present in the universe today, and were capable of outshining entire galaxies. And, as the name suggests, they were part black hole. We know some stars become black holes at the end of their lives, but for the two to somehow co-exist, star and black hole, without one destroying the other? How can such a thing even happen?

In 1927, British-Indian scientist J. B. S. Haldane, in an essay titled “Possible Worlds” wrote the oft quoted sentence: “now, my own suspicion is that the universe is not only queerer than we suppose, but queerer than we can suppose.” It was Haldane’s way of saying we’re unlikely to ever make sense of the universe, no matter how much we learn about it. Black hole stars, in their bizarre weirdness, only add to the wonder.

And, as a bonus, American rock/grunge act Soundgarden’s 1994 track, Black Hole Sun, written by the late Chris Cornell, takes on a whole (er, no pun intended) new meaning in this context.


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Can an algorithm assess the quality of a novel manuscript?

18 December 2022

It pays to follow Australian scientist and writer Dr Karl Kruszelnicki (aka Dr Karl) on Twitter (as long as Twitter continues to permit such behaviour), especially if you are writing a novel.

The other day he posted a link to an article published in 2014, about a literary algorithm that is apparently capable of quickly assessing the quality of an unpublished novel manuscript. The article expounds upon research conducted (PDF) by Stony Brook University into the matter:

Regarding lexical choices, less successful books rely on verbs that are explicitly descriptive of actions and emotions (e.g., “wanted”, “took”, “promised”, “cried”, “cheered”, etc.), while more successful books favor verbs that describe thought-processing (e.g., “recognized”, “remembered”), and verbs that serve the purpose of quotes and reports (e.g,. “say”). Also, more successful books use discourse connectives and prepositions more frequently, while less successful books rely more on topical words that could be almost cliche, e.g., “love”, typical locations, and involve more extreme (e.g., “breathless”) and negative words (e.g., “risk”).

Fascinating, no? Remember though, don’t let the algorithm write the book, let it guide you in writing the book. But if you wish to avoid algorithms all together, look at the way Irish author Sally Rooney — for one — does things.


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Could flight of the bird propulsion power deep space travel

11 December 2022

It may be possible to construct deep space vessels capable of (eventually) reaching speeds equal to two percent of the speed of light:

Scientists have proposed a dazzling new mission to travel to the stars that is inspired by the elegant flights of seabirds, such as albatrosses, reports a new study. The interstellar concept mission would harness shifting winds generated by the Sun in order to accelerate a spacecraft to as much as 2 percent the speed of light within two years, allowing it to soar into the vast expanse beyond our solar system.

But two percent the speed of light, a velocity that would take some time to attain anyway, isn’t all that speedy considering the vast distances between celestial objects, such as the Sun, and the nearest star to us, Proxima Centauri.

If we round off the speed of light at 300,000 kilometres (km) per second, two percent of that is six thousand km per second. That’s 360,000 km per minute, and 21,600,000 km per hour. 518,400,000 km per day. If my maths is on spec — not always guaranteed — the journey to Proxima Centauri, some 40,208,000,000,000 km distant, would take 77,561 days, or about 213 years.

On the other hand, if Pluto is an average of 5,300,000,000 km from Earth — sometimes it is closer, sometimes more distant — it would take about ten days to travel there. Assuming such speeds could be attained at relatively close proximity to the Sun, that is. This method of deep space travel seems reasonable for reaching points in and near the solar system, but might be out of the question for interstellar voyages carrying people.



Alcyoneus a sixteen million light year long radio galaxy

4 December 2022
Spiral galaxy, image by A Owen

Image courtesy of A Owen.

Alcyoneus, a galaxy located some three and a half billion light years from Earth, at over sixteen million light years in length, is — without putting too finer a point on it — staggeringly huge. Our home galaxy, the Milky Way, at a mere one hundred thousand light years long, is positively minuscule in comparison.

But Alcyoneus isn’t a sixteen million light year long container of stars and whatever else fills a galaxy. Alcyoneus is what’s known as a radio galaxy, and the bulk of its length comes from radio lobes, which are a little like jets of radio energy, that fire out from opposite sides, into the surrounding space.

At its starry core Alcyoneus, which is likely an elliptical galaxy (unlike the image of the spiral type galaxy I’ve featured above), may not be all that much larger than the Milky Way. And that’s probably a relief for members of Alcyoneus’ galactic council, who only have to travel several hundred thousand light years to visit their constituents, rather than multiple millions.

If radio galaxies intrigue you though, Universe Guide has put together this explainer.



The Sun will not go supernova but it may still drive us away

25 November 2022

In five billion years, hopefully long after a, hopefully, still extant humanity have departed the solar system for a new home somewhere among the stars, the Sun will become a red giant star. In this late phase of its life, the Sun will expand in size to engulf all the solar system’s inner planets.

While this part of the Sun’s lifecycle will be relatively short-lived — some estimates suggest a mere one billion years — our home planet will have well and truly been obliterated, by the time the Sun shrinks in size again. Unless of course any of our descendants, who stayed home, succeeded in moving Earth further out into the solar system.

The idea has been mooted previously. Even before the Sun becomes a red giant, its gradually increasing heat output, or luminosity, will, in time, make living on Earth ever more uncomfortable.

Such as undertaking will be quite the feat of astronomical engineering. Being able to move the planet will be an achievement in itself, to say nothing of navigating to a suitable spot elsewhere, clear of the larger outer planets. But what happens when the Sun shrinks and cools off again? Do we try and send Earth sunwards again? Perhaps our efforts would be better served finding a Earth-twin planet to live on, orbiting a younger star. And, while we’re at it, figuring out a way of reaching said location in a reasonable timeframe.

At least it’s not something we need concern ourselves with right this minute though. Likewise, the prospect of the Sun exploding as a supernova. It’s something that cannot happen. But what about another star — one in the approximate proximity of the solar system — going supernova? That could be a whole another story.

That’s the question the people at Kurzgesagt explore this month, in their latest video presentation. Again the prospect of a relatively nearby star exploding is not something that will occur any time soon. At present, IK Pegasi, a binary star some one hundred and fifty four light years away, is the nearest possibility, though by the time it is projected to explode, it will be more like five hundred light years distant.

Still as Kurzgesagt explains, risks remain, and even supernovas occurring at some distance could have an impact, no matter how minor, on Earth.


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Tune into the aftermath of the Big Bang on television

21 November 2022

If you’re still using an aerial (is that still a thing?) instead of cable (is that still a thing?) or internet, to watch TV, and — presumably — still possess an old school (think rabbit ears) TV, you may be able to pickup remnants of the Big Bang, the force of cosmic nature, that brought the universe into being.

Like COBE, WMAP scans the sky over and over again, soaking up the ancient light from the Big Bang known as the cosmic microwave background. Microwaves are a low-energy form of radiation but higher in energy than radio waves. The cosmic microwave background blankets the universe and is responsible for a sizeable amount of static on your television set–well, before the days of cable. Turn your television to an “in between” channel, and part of the static you’ll see is the afterglow of the big bang.

All you’d see is static, some of which may be post Big Bang microwaves bouncing around the cosmos, but it might be more interesting than some of what is broadcast on the terrestrial channels.


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Mental time travel makes time travellers of us all

12 November 2022

Do you often recall events from your past? Things that happened days ago, or decades earlier? Do you frequently visualise your future? This could involve thinking about where you’ll be living in five years, or where you might be working in twenty years time.

It’s a phenomenon known as mental time travel, and if your mind wanders back and forth through time, you wouldn’t be the only one. While mental time travel may seem like a waste of time, mere daydreaming, there can be an upside. For instance, if enough people had a positive outlook on the future, the future may well become the place we hope it will be.



If the International Space Station orbited at 3000 metres

9 November 2022

What if the International Space Station orbited at a height of just three thousand metres? Benjamin Granville decided to find out. The answer to many “what-if” questions are often perfectly implausible, but some sure are worth asking. The scenario makes for quite the ride for those aboard the station…


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Not all work and no play as busy bumble bees play ball

31 October 2022

Researchers at London’s Queen Mary University have found bumble bees like to play, and accordingly, experience positive feelings. Despite there being no purpose to the activity, groups of bees rolled small wooden balls, sometimes repeatedly, around a chamber, for what researchers could only determine was fun.

Study first-author, Samadi Galpayage, Ph.D. student at Queen Mary University of London says that “it is certainly mind-blowing, at times amusing, to watch bumble bees show something like play. They approach and manipulate these ‘toys’ again and again. It goes to show, once more, that despite their little size and tiny brains, they are more than small robotic beings.”

This is reportedly the first instance of playful activity being observed in any insect species.



The Taupo Volcano and supervolcanoes a Kurzgesagt dissection

20 October 2022

Last month the alert level for the volcano below Lake Taupō in New Zealand’s North Island was raised from zero to one. A swarm of relatively small earthquakes this year prompted geologists to make the adjustment. But as scientists monitoring the recent seismic activity noted, the change in alert status is more down to improved surveillance techniques. In other words it seems such activity is relatively normal, but has simply gone undetected previously.

Let’s hope there’s nothing to be concerned about, as supervolcanoes are truly a force of nature. An eruption at Taupō over twenty-six thousand years ago was the largest known volcanic eruption in the world in the past seventy-thousand years. With a rating of eight on the Volcanic Explosivity Index, the blast caused temperatures across the entire southern hemisphere to plummet. If such an eruption were repeated today, we’d all notice the fallout no matter where on Earth we were.

It’s timely then Kurzgesagt’s latest video examines so-called supervolcanoes, and puts our minds at ease in terms of the likelihood of such an eruption anytime in the near-ish future.



How can nothing unreal exist in a not locally real universe?

10 October 2022

In addition to Annie Ernaux being named the Nobel Prize literature laureate , John Clauser, Alain Aspect, and Anton Zeilinger, received the Nobel for their contributions to physics this year. I studied physics in high-school for an ill-fated year, and struggled to make sense of any of it. Way too mathematical. And maybe way too weird.

All the more so, given the Nobel award winning work of Clauser, Aspect, and Zeilinger, effectively “overthrows reality as we know it.” This outcome spans the previous study of a whose-who of household names in the realm of physics, including John Stewart Bell, Boris Podolsky, Nathan Rosen, John von Neumann, and of course, Albert Einstein.

Quantum mechanics’ problem of nonlocal realism would languish in a complacent stupor for another three decades until being decisively shattered by Bell. From the start of his career, Bell was bothered by the quantum orthodoxy and sympathetic toward hidden variable theories. Inspiration struck him in 1952, when he learned of a viable nonlocal hidden-variable interpretation of quantum mechanics devised by fellow physicist David Bohm — something von Neumann had claimed was impossible. Bell mulled the ideas over for years, as a side project to his main job working as a particle physicist at CERN.



Kurzgesagt explores the realm of the minute and subatomic

8 October 2022

Kurzgesagt ventures to the most extreme place in the universe… a whole ‘nother universe, or microcosm: the realm of the minute and subatomic.

The universe is pretty big and very strange. Hundreds of billions of galaxies with sextillions of stars and planets and in the middle of it all there is earth, with you and us. But as enormous as the universe seems looking up, it seems to get even larger when you start looking down. You are towering over worlds within worlds, within worlds — each in plain sight and yet hidden from your experience.



DART helping to protect Earth from off planet threats

29 September 2022

It could be argued we’re not doing as much as we could to avert potential catastrophes on the planet. Climate change and global conflict would be two examples. When it comes countering possible threats from outside though, some progress is being made.

The test of an asteroid defence system, whereby a NASA probe was sent to collide with Dimorphos, a celestial object, to effect a change, albeit minor, in its trajectory, is one instance.

NASA did not send this probe to observe this asteroid or even scoop some samples from its surface to bring back to Earth, as other missions have done. The agency dispatched the spacecraft with the explicit hope of crashing it and changing the asteroid’s trajectory. This is a test run, but a future version of this mission could save Earth from a catastrophic impact by deflecting an asteroid on a collision course. A little bit of practice never hurts.

While Dimorphos does not pose a threat to Earth — at least not at the moment — another asteroid such as the one that brought about the demise of the dinosaurs, might in the future.



Sydney to host the 2025 International Astronautical Congress

26 September 2022

With a number of planets, particularly Jupiter, dominating the eastern night sky of Australia at the moment, what better time to make mention that the 2025 International Astronautical Congress (IAC) will be held in the NSW capital, Sydney.

Founded in 1951, the International Astronautical Federation (IAF) is the world’s leading space advocacy body with around 460 members in 72 countries, including all leading space agencies, companies, research institutions, universities, societies, associations, institutes and museums worldwide. The Federation advances knowledge about space, supporting the development and application of space assets by promoting global cooperation.

The last time Australia hosted an IAC event was in 2017, when the International Astronautical Federation conference took place in Adelaide, South Australia.

On the subject of astronomical matters, check out If the Moon were only one pixel, by American interactive art director and designer Josh Worth. Now we can see why they call it space


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UFO sightings surge in skies above Ukraine recently

16 September 2022

Astronomers in Ukraine have observed an uptick in unidentified flying objects over the country in recent months. While it seem obvious there would be more aerial activity with a war raging in the region, scientists are adamant what they’re seeing in Ukrainian skies are not military vessels.

Ukraine astronomers have reported a slew of UFOs observed in the country’s airspace. They’ve reported their findings in a preprint paper published by Kyiv’s Main Astronomical Observatory Ukraine’s National Academy of Science. Remember, UFOs don’t necessarily mean extraterrestrial spaceships from other planets. Perhaps they are advanced military aircraft from much closer to home, like even from one of Ukraine’s (ahem) neighbors.

All the more curious given recent reports from US Navy pilots who say they’ve seen unidentified flying objects during flight operations. Are unidentified flying objects drawn to areas where military craft are operating?


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Apollo Remastered, beautifully enhanced photos of the Apollo flights

5 September 2022
Aquarius, lunar module, Apollo 13, photo courtesy of NASA

Image courtesy of NASA.

The above image is of Aquarius, lunar module of the ill-fated Apollo 13 Moon flight of April 1970.

Here it is seen moments after being jettisoned by the Apollo crew. For those who came in late, Aquarius acted as a “lifeboat” for much of the shortened Apollo 13 mission, after an explosion damaged Odyssey, the command module. Without Aquarius the crew may never have returned home.

I’m not sure though if it features in Apollo Remastered, the new book by British author and science writer Andy Saunders, which contains a veritable trove of photos from the Apollo missions. Saunders has spent the last few years enhancing four hundred previously grainy images, making them far sharper and clearer than those originally released.

Some before and after examples of the remastered photos can be seen in this BBC report by Jonathan Amos. And if you’re not familiar with the Apollo 13 story, American filmmaker Ron Howard’s 1995 feature of the same name is well worth a look.


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Video of a solar eclipse on Mars, Phobos occults the Sun

30 August 2022

Footage of a solar eclipse on Mars, filmed by NASA roving probe Curiosity. Eclipses on Mars are a little different to those we are treated to on Earth though, with the speed of the red planet’s “moontatoes” making the phenomenon more of a blink and you’ll miss it occasion.

Mars’ moons Phobos (“fear” in Ancient Greek) and Deimos (“dread”) circle Mars every 7.65 and 30.35 hours respectively, a relative blink compared to the 27-day orbit of Earth’s moon. They’re also a lot smaller than the Moon, and considerably more lumpy – little moontatoes, rather than the nice round disk we see shining so argently in our night sky.

It makes me think. If Pluto doesn’t make the grade as a “proper” planet, why should the so-called satellites of Mars be regarded as moons? Surely “captured objects” would be a more apt classification.


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The sound of the Perseus galaxy cluster black hole

25 August 2022

NASA have again been applying sound, or musical notes, to the data they’ve collected from objects in the universe — a process called sonification — this time a black hole located about two-hundred-and-forty million light years away in the Perseus galaxy cluster.

People have variously likened the droning sound produced by the black hole to wailing ghosts or grumbling, hungry, stomachs. Somehow I think of water draining down a plughole.

The Perseus galaxy cluster is intriguing of itself being, according to Wikipedia, one of the most massive objects in the known universe, containing thousands of galaxies immersed in a vast cloud of multimillion-degree gas. I doubt we’ll be sending our star ships too close to that cluster…


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5000 exoplanets pinpointed and given a sound signature

23 August 2022

Prior to 1992 exoplanets — being planets orbiting stars other than the Sun — were unheard of. While scientists believed they existed, thirty years ago none had been found. Today though exoplanets are the rule rather than the exception with over five thousand such bodies having been identified so far.

And with an estimated one-hundred-thousand-million stars in our galaxy, the Milky Way, it is likely many, many, more exoplanets will come to light. This nifty animation and sonification produced by NASA pinpoints the location of stars hosting exoplanets, while a pitch or chime conveys other information about the planet.

This animation and sonification tracks humanity’s discovery of the planets beyond our solar system over time. Turning NASA data into sounds allows users to hear the pace of discovery, with additional information conveyed by the notes themselves. As each exoplanet is discovered, a circle appears at its position in the sky. The size of the circle indicates the relative size of the planet’s orbit and the color indicates which planet detection method was used to discover it. The music is created by playing a note for each newly discovered world. The pitch of the note indicates the relative orbital period of the planet. Planets that take a longer time to orbit their stars are heard as lower notes, while planets that orbit more quickly are heard as higher notes.

The question now is how many exoplanets are capable of supporting life (as we know it), and is life present on any of these bodies.


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How did Electric Eels develop their electric charge?

22 August 2022

How did electric eels become… electric? It’s an intriguing question. After all, the seabed isn’t littered with the recharge stations electric vehicles use, so what’s the deal? Israel Ramirez, a retired biopsychologist, explains:

It isn’t hard to produce slight electric currents. Most animal cells keep sodium out and potassium in. Regulating the flow of these substances across the membranes of their cells produces a slight electric current because sodium and potassium have a positive charge. Each cell produces only a slight current, but you can get many volts by stacking cells in the same way people stack low voltage batteries to get a higher voltage.