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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What is TIme? on Charlie Brooker's Weekly Wipe

10 January, 2014

Yes, as unlikely as it sounds, I was a guest on Charlie Brooker's Weekly Wipe. They wanted to spoof science documentaries and asked me if I would take part. I was to answer questions from Diane Morgan's brilliant character Philomena Cunk, as she grappled with the mystery of 'What is Time?'


The whole episode will be in iPlayer in the Uk for a week. You can watch that here.


It looks like someone has uploaded the What is Time? section to YouTube. If it is still there, you will be able to see it in the viewer below. As you can imagine, it was a lot of fun to record. Get ready to laugh.


And for those of you actually interested in the nature of time. Here is a piece I wrote for New Scientist in 2011.


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New Scientist: Sleepy sun spreads slow solar wind

08 January, 2014

I have a short news story in New Scientist this week:


"EVEN the sun needs a break. A slowdown in solar activity has given us the first real clue about a period of dramatic solar behaviour 350 years ago.


In 2008, the sun entered a deep lull in magnetic activity. Spacecraft measurements show that this caused a belt of sluggish particles, known as the slow solar wind, to thicken. The belt is ruched like a ballerina's tutu, and Earth passes in and out of its ruches during the year. As solar activity dwindles, the belt thickens, and we spend more time passing through it. The speed of the slow solar wind affects the temperature of Earth's upper atmosphere, and impacts climate. ..."


Click here to read the story.

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The Guardian: The artists who own the moon

05 January, 2014

I have a new article in the Shortcuts section of The Guardian's G2 magazine. It is also reproduced online.


"With China sending the Jade Rabbit rover and Google egging on private companies to make their own landings, the race for lunar ownership is hotting up. But has a group of artists got there first?


With as much land as Africa, the moon is a new frontier. Lured by its natural resources, China sent the Jade Rabbit rover there last month. Meanwhile, Google is sponsoring a competition to spur private companies into landing similar vehicles by 31 December 2015. Yet the question of who owns the moon and its exploitation rights is a vexed one.


The 1967 Outer Space Treaty prohibits nations from claiming sovereignty of celestial objects, but is unclear on whether this ban extends to private companies. That makes the Google initiative more than harmless space fun. In law, there may be nothing to stop the competitors from claiming the moon, or at least part of it, for their own commercial exploitation. It could be the start of corporate imperialism in space. With nations hamstrung from competing, this would inevitably lead to private companies holding power over national governments. ..."


You can read the full article here.

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Tags: The Moon

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