The Guardian: Primordial gravitational wave discovery heralds 'whole new era' in physics

17 March, 2014

I have a new story posted by the Guardian. This is the confirmation of the story I published last Friday that we were on the brink of a major cosmological announcement.

 

"Scientists have heralded a "whole new era" in physics with the detection of "primordial gravitational waves" – the first tremors of the big bang.

 

The minuscule ripples in space-time are the last prediction of Albert Einstein's 1916 general theory of relativity to be verified. Until now, there has only been circumstantial evidence of their existence. The discovery also provides a deep connection between general relativity and quantum mechanics, another central pillar of physics.

 

"This is a genuine breakthrough," says Andrew Pontzen, a cosmologist from University College London who was not involved in the work. "It represents a whole new era in cosmology and physics as well." If the discovery is confirmed, it will almost certainly lead to a Nobel Prize. ..."

 

Underlining the importance of the story, The Guardian ran this as a front page story on Tuesday 21st's print version of the newspaper.

 

You can read the full story here.


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The Guardian: What Are Gravitational Waves?

17 March, 2014

I have a new article posted by the Guardian. It is a Q&A designed to help make sense today's astounding cosmological announcement.

 

"What does the apparent discovery of gravitational waves by the Bicep telescope say about inflation and the big bang?

 

What are gravitational waves?

 

Gravitational waves are ripples that carry energy across the universe. They were predicted to exist by Albert Einstein in 1916 as a consequence of his General Theory of Relativity. Although there is strong circumstantial evidence for their existence, gravitational waves have not been directly detected before. This is because they are minuscule – a million times smaller than an atom. They are like tiny waves on a lake – from far away, the lake's surface looks glassy smooth; only up very close can the details of the surface be seen.

 

Particularly exciting are "primordial" gravitational waves, which were generated in the first moments of the universe's birth. These carry vital information about how the universe began. ..."

 

You can read the full article here.


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The Guardian: Gravitational waves: have US scientists heard echoes of the big bang?

14 March, 2014

I have an exciting new story posted on The Guardian.

 

"Discovery of gravitational waves by Bicep telescope at south pole could give scientists insights into how universe was born.

 

There is intense speculation among cosmologists that a US team is on the verge of confirming they have detected "primordial gravitational waves" – an echo of the big bang in which the universe came into existence 14bn years ago.

Rumours have been rife in the physics community about an announcement due on Monday from the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics. If there is evidence for gravitational waves, it would be a landmark discovery that would change the face of cosmology and particle physics. ..."

 

You can read the full story here.


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A New Sky's Dark Labyrinth short story

17 February, 2014

The Measure of Dreams is a short story set before the events of The Sky's Dark Labyrinth. It features Johannes Kepler and his attempt to construct a model of the Universe by turning it into a drinks dispenser. Yes: a drinks dispenser.

 

Surrounding the short story is an essay exploring the way astronomers love to invent invisible things to explain their observations.

 

"For a science based on observation, it is remarkable how often astronomy has invented invisible things to get itself out of trouble. Whenever its theories are at odds with reality, a little mathematical snake oil can usually be relied upon to make things slip together more comfortably.

"The snag is that the astronomers then have to say what this invisible mathematical thing is in reality. Perhaps it is an unseen planet tugging at the others to draw them off course, or a sea of particles designed to carry light like waves on an ocean. And once they have decided what the invisible thing is, astronomers then have to invent something that will find some evidence for it. That’s when life becomes really tricky…"

 

The story is published in Exit Strategies (Arc 2.1: The Journal of the Future, from the makers of New Scientist). It is available as a digital download here.


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Wake up Rosetta day

20 January, 2014

Today was the day that the €1 billion spacecraft Rosetta woke up from 31 months in hibernation. I spent the day with at ESA's control centre in Darmstadt, Germany. I was keeping a live blog updated for my Across the Universe blog for The Guardian all day, and I also wrote some reports for New Scientist.  Below are the stories in chronological order, with the oldest at the top.

 

 

 

New Scientist: Billion-dollar call: Waiting for Rosetta to phone home

 

"With hours to go until we know whether the first space mission designed to land on a comet can succeed, tensions are running high at the European Space Operations Centre, Darmstadt – the European Space Agency's equivalent of NASA's famous mission control.

I am spending the day here with the scientists and engineers at the heart of the comet-chasing Rosetta mission, and so far, it's been all about the wait. "I'm not calm, I'm not excited, I'm somewhere in between," says Roberto Porta, a member of the spacecraft operations team. ..." Read full article here.

 

Guardian: Rosetta comet-chasing spacecraft wakes up – as it happened

 

This was a live blog that ran throughout the day. It tells the story as it happened on the day. You may have to read from the bottom up. read the blog here.

 

When the signal arrived I wrote this:

 

New Scientist: Up and at 'em: Rosetta craft gaining on target comet

 

"Nothing for 31 months. Then a half-hour delay that drove everyone nearly mad. Finally, a triumphant signal that confirms that the comet-chaser Rosetta is alive and well, 800 million kilometres from Earth.

"I'm feeling relief, elation and now excitement. We have a mission," says Mark McCaughrean, senior scientific advisor in the directorate of science and robotic exploration at ESA. ..." Read full article here.

 

I filed a report to The Guardian as well. It was published online that night, and made it to the front cover of the print edition on 21st:

 

"There was a moment of silence, and then the room erupted. Two hundred scientists, engineers and journalists threw their arms in the air, cheered, and bear-hugged their nearest neighbours, whether they knew them or not.

Many had waited a decade for this. In 2004, the European Space Agency launched the Rosetta probe on an audacious mission to chase down a comet and place a robot on its surface. For nearly three years Rosetta had been hurtling through space in a state of hibernation. On Monday, it awoke. ..."

 

Read the full article here.

 

The day after I was still in Darmstadt. I had arranged a later flight home so that I could continue coverage if there had been a significant delay in receiving the signal. It allowed me to track down the reason for the signal's delay:

 

New Scientist: Snooze-button glitch delayed Rosetta's wake-up

 

"Why was the comet-chasing Rosetta spacecraft 18 nail-biting minutes late phoning home yesterday? Because a mystery computer glitch forced it to wake up a second time.

Rosetta's on-board alarm clock went off at 1000 GMT as planned but, like many a tired soul, instead of waking up, the craft hit the snooze button – and woke fully only after a second reboot."

 

Read full article here.

 

Many thanks to everyone at ESA who gave me so much access, and allowed me to work so easily. It was a great day, and one I won't forget.


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New Scientist: Wake up and smell the comet: Rousing the Rosetta probe

15 January, 2014

I have a new feature article published in New Scientist this week:

 

"YOU know that anxious feeling the night before an exam or a job interview, when the alarm clock absolutely, positively has to work. Take that feeling and double it. Multiply it by a large factor, add the number you first thought of... you get the picture. That's how restless mission controllers at the European Space Agency are feeling right now.

For if there is one alarm clock in the whole solar system that has to work, it is the one on their Rosetta spacecraft. Set for 1000 GMT on 20 January, it will, if all goes to plan, wake Rosetta from a three-year slumber travelling through the deepest reaches of space. Bleary-eyed and disoriented, the craft will keep mission controllers on tenterhooks for a few hours more until they hear a faint beep – just enough to tell them that the €1 billion, 3-tonne spacecraft is alive and well. ..."

 

Read the full article here (a registration may be required).


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