The Guardian: Sun's activity triggers lightning strikes

15 May, 2014

I have a new story published over at The Guardian.
"Streams of particles launched from the sun in the solar wind increase the number of lightning strikes on Earth by 32%


Activity on the sun significantly increases the rate of lightning strikes on Earth, say researchers, making it feasible to predict when lightning strikes will become more frequent.


They discovered that when streams of high-speed solar particles strike the Earth's atmosphere, the average number of lightning strikes increased by 32% for more than a month afterwards. The study is the first to implicate the solar wind – the stream of particles launched from the sun at over a million miles per hour – in triggering lightning, a phenomenon that has puzzled scientists.


Previous research had suggested the involvement of cosmic rays, highly energetic particles from deep space. In this scenario, the solar wind should protect Earth because it carries a magnetic field that was expected to deflect the cosmic rays, which would lower the rate of lightning strikes.


The new research shows the opposite effect. ..."


You can read the full story here.

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The Guardian: Beagle 2 scientist Colin Pillinger dies aged 70

08 May, 2014

My latest piece for The Guardian is to report sad news:


"The pioneering scientist Prof Colin Pillinger has died aged 70, his family has said.

The planetary scientist, who was the driving force behind Britain's Mars lander Beagle 2, suffered a brain haemorrhage at his home in Cambridge and died in hospital.

Pillinger, who was awarded the CBE in 2003, was an unconventional scientist who understood the value of showmanship to sell big ideas to the public.

"Colin had the rare gift of being able to make things that were complicated and ambitious seem simple and achievable. We need more scientists like that. He was unique, and I will miss him," said Alex James of Blur.

Pillinger enlisted Blur to write a song to be Beagle 2's call sign back home. It was to be broadcast as soon as Beagle 2 began work on the surface of Mars. He also persuaded the artist Damien Hurst to provide a spot painting to use in calibrating the spacecraft's camera. ..."


You can read the full story here.

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The Observer: Nasa swaps rocket science for rocket salad

04 May, 2014

I have a new article published in the Discover pages of The Observer.


"Veggie 'plant pillows' could soon give astronauts on the International Space Station their first taste of space-grown lettuce


Most people associate Nasa with rocket science but now the American space agency has turned its attention to rocket salad. A portable greenhouse to grow lettuces was taken to the International Space Station (ISS) during last week's supply mission.

Provided that the astronauts can cut the mustard, they should be eating their first homegrown space salad before the end of the year. This will be the first time a Nasa astronaut has tasted something grown in orbit. ..."


You can read the full story here.

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Herschel discovers mature galaxies in the young universe

29 April, 2014

I have a new article published by ESA:


"New Herschel results have given us a remarkable insight into the internal dynamics of two young galaxies. Surprisingly, they have shown that just a few billion years after the Big Bang, some galaxies were rotating in a mature way, seemingly having completed the accumulation of their gas reservoirs.


When galaxies form, they accumulate mass by gravitationally attracting vast, external gas clouds. As the gas clouds enter the galaxy, they fall into haphazard orbits. These disordered paths cause turbulence in the host galaxies, which can drive star formation. ..."


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New Scientist: Big bang breakthrough: The dark side of inflation

24 April, 2014

I have the cover story on New Scientist this week. It sprang from a dynamite email I received from John Peacock, Royal Observatory in Edinburgh, late on the day of the big bang announcement. It pointed out that there could be tragedy as well as triumph in the announcement, and that perhaps we would never know how the Universe truly began.


"The end of the beginning


Cosmology's big breakthrough is a triumph. But the joy is not unalloyed.


SUITABLE clients at Milliways, Douglas Adams's Restaurant at the End of the Universe, would have experienced six impossible things before breakfast. In the past decade or so, cosmologists have looked like they were halfway there.

Strike one: dark matter. Galaxies are whirling round faster than normal gravity alone can explain, so 80 per cent plus of the universe's matter is in a form neither we nor, so far, our detectors can see.

Strike two: dark energy. Contrary to all expectations, the universe's expansion is apparently accelerating, so the inwards gravitational tug of both normal and dark matter is being trumped by the effect of another substance so exotic no one knows for certain what it might be.

Strike three: inflation. After all that, the universe still looks rather less crinkly than we would expect, so it must have been smoothed out by a spontaneous faster-than-light expansion in the earliest phase of its existence, which then just stopped.

Extraordinary claims, requiring extraordinary evidence. So you could almost feel the collective sigh of relief last month when the team running the BICEP2 telescope, situated at the South Pole, announced that they had seen a sign of one of this terrible trio. Distinctive patterns of light polarisation in the cosmic microwave background (CMB) radiation were in fact two for the price of one. They represented an apparently unmistakable signature of inflation, but also provided indirect evidence for the existence of gravitational waves from the same era – another theoretically predicted phenomenon that has so far shied away from the limelight.

If the result is confirmed, it is heady stuff. Cosmologists will be able to begin whittling down a forest of ideas about how inflation might have happened, and close in on an understanding of the first microscopic moments of the universe's history.

But there is sobriety amid the popping of champagne corks. Besides the question of that all-important confirmation, there are wider-ranging considerations. "Although this is a historic advance, it is also a limit," says John Peacock, a cosmologist at the Royal Observatory in Edinburgh, UK. "We have now seen as far back in time as it is possible to see, and it is not to the very beginning." We may now know more about the moments following the big bang than ever – at the price of never knowing any more about the event itself. ..."


You can read the full story here (a registration is required).

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Hidden Black Holes Discovered by XMM-Newton

22 April, 2014

I have a new story posted by ESA:


"A pair of supermassive black holes in orbit around one another have been spotted by XMM-Newton. This is the first time such a pair have been seen in an ordinary galaxy. They were discovered because they ripped apart a star when the space observatory happened to be looking in their direction.

Most massive galaxies in the Universe are thought to harbour at least one supermassive black hole at their centre. Two supermassive black holes are the smoking gun that the galaxy has merged with another. Thus, finding binary supermassive black holes can tell astronomers about how galaxies evolved into their present-day shapes and sizes. "


Read the full story here.

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