Cosmic gas cloud fights supermassive black hole

18 July, 2013

I have a new post on my Across the Universe blog for the Guardian:

A supermassive black hole at the centre of our galaxy has a gas cloud in its gravitational clutches - but the gas cloud isn't giving up without a fight


If gas clouds could think, this one would class itself as the luckiest bunch of atoms in the universe. The front portion of a giant gas cloud called G2 has survived a close encounter with the supermassive black hole at the centre of our galaxy.


The huge gravitational forces that have been acting on the cloud have thrown it back into space with a velocity of 10m kilometres per hour. That's about one per cent of the speed of light, the fastest speed through space achievable.


The gas cloud was discovered in 2011 and shown to be on a nearly suicidal orbit that would carry it to within 25bn kilometres of the black hole, which is itself estimated to be about 7bn kilometres across, and contains more than 4m times the mass of the sun.


It is impossible to know what comprised that mass before it was swallowed by the black hole because it has been crushed out of existence and only its combined gravitational impression remains. Common sense would suggest that some of it was once gas clouds, stars and planets.


These new observations, taken by an international team of astronomers using the ESO Very Large Telescope, show that the latest victim has arrived earlier than calculated and that some of it has survived. Not all of it is expected to be that lucky.


G2 has arrived early because the gravity of the black hole has stretched the cloud into a giant string of "spaghetti" that will now take more than 12 months to complete its dangerous passage.


During that time, some of it is bound to stray too close and find its way into the black hole. This will spark a flare of radiation that should tell astronomers something about enigmatic objects known as active galaxies.


Read the whole story here

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Sabre rocket engine could open up access to space as never before

17 July, 2013

My latest piece is up on the Guardian
blog Across the Universe:

A £60m pledge from the UK government puts Reaction Engines' Sabre rocket on course to change space exploration forever

Imagine taking off from a runway like a normal aeroplane but flying so high and so fast that when you unclip your seatbelt, you float around the cabin. Look out of the windows: on one side is the inky blackness of deep space, while on the other is the electric blue of your home planet, Earth.


This is no joyride for a few brief minutes of space-tourism weightlessness. Instead you are three, five or even 10 times higher than those little hops. In front of you is your destination: a space station. Perhaps it is a hotel or a place of work. You are in low earth orbit - and you've got there in far less time than it takes for a transatlantic flight.

This is the promise of the spaceplane, and it took a step closer to reality yesterday. UK Minister for Universities and Science David Willetts confirmed the government's £60m investment in Reaction Engines Ltd.


Read the rest of the story here

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Storysack discount for a fortnight

16 July, 2013

Storysack have a special offer for the next fortnight centred around our children's book Little Moon. The sack also contains, a non-fiction book, parent guide, CD, fabric playmate and Moon, picture card game, and activity resource guide.





If you buy the items individually they cost:
Little Moon £7.99
What's in the Sky? £4.99
Little Moon Activity Guide £4.95
Little Moon Sack £8.39
Little Moon Playmat £18.00
Little Moon Card Game £7.19
Parent Guide £1.99

But until 31st July you can buy them all for £45 + VAT.
Simply quote 8215 when you place your order to receive the 15% discount.
Code valid only for new orders

If you are a school you can specify a September delivery date. Order here

Little Moon was born deep in space where it was cold and lonely. Join him on his amazing journey through our universe as he meets planets, black holes and stars in search of a warm, cosy place he can call home!
Storysack are proud to present in association with the European Space Agency this outstanding storysack. A must for space lovers everywhere. A wonderful introduction to the marvels of our Solar System.

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Tags: The Moon

The Universe Explained - speaker line-up

10 July, 2013

I posted on 13th June about the Manchester event at The Gorilla on Saturday 20th July, 7-10pm where I have been invited to speak.


The organisers of The Universe Explained state:
Both artists and scientists are explorers. There has never been more public interest or more scientific progress in understanding the fundamental workings of the universe but at the same time the concepts are extremely complex and occasionally bewildering to the lay person. They are also intrinsically fascinating and inspirational to artists. This is an attempt to translate the complexity and express the wonder through a variety of art forms.  This is public engagement with a difference.

The other speakers will be:
Professor John Ellis, leading theoretical physicist from the LHA in CERN
Jonathon Keats, artist and experimental philosopher (beaming in from San Francisco!)
Chella Quint, performer and comedian
Professor Maurice Riordan, poet and co-editor (with Jocelyn Bell Burnell) of Dark Matter: Poems of Space
John Robb and post-punk legends The Membranes
Suzie Shrubb, composer and pulsar enthusiast, with 16 musicians from the Edges Ensemble
Dr Radmila Topalovic from the Royal Observatory Greenwich
Michael Trainor, artist
More details here
or on Facebook

I think we are in for a thought-provoking treat!
Buy tickets from any of the following:
See Tickets
We Got Tickets

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New Scientist: Tick tick boom, the Earth spits out a moon

08 July, 2013

I have the cover story on New Scientist (Issue 2924) this week:

“Did a nuclear time bomb deep inside the young Earth tear the planet apart? The evidence could be staring down at us every night

HUMANITY has witnessed some pretty loud bangs during our short sojourn on Earth. Take Krakatoa. When the Indonesian volcano exploded in 1883, the din was audible 3000 kilometres away, and the ash thrown into the atmosphere cooled the world for decades. Then there are the explosions of our own making. The most powerful nuclear weapon ever detonated, the Soviet Tsar bomb of 1961, created a 10-kilometre wide fireball in the atmosphere.

But if Wim van Westrenen, a planetary scientist at the VU University in Amsterdam, the Netherlands, is right, these cataclysms are nothing compared with an experience Earth went through 4.5 billion years ago. With the paint barely dry on the new planet, a giant nuclear reactor deep in its interior went super-critical. The result was an atomic bomb that dwarfs our puny efforts. Detonating with the force of 11,000 billion Tsars, the explosion was enough to rip our infant world open. ... “

You can read the full article here but a free registration is required.

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Tags: Earth The Moon

Arts and Science

01 July, 2013



Last week I enjoyed two events that brought together the arts and sciences. On Monday I spoke for the London Salon beneath awe inspiring Rubens paintings in a vast and lofty room at The Banqueting House in London's Whitehall. The other speakers and I had to pretend it was 1649 and indeed Oliver Cromwell was in attendance (courtesy of Past Pleasures Ltd). The paintings, commissioned by Charles I to deify his father James I, were explained to us by Brett Dolman from the Historic Royal Palaces; we listened to music from the era, described by cellist and historical DJ Jane Cockcroft and Oliver Cromwell told us how Charles I's stubborn nature had brought about his own execution and why we must all return to more sober and responsible ways.



Here's a podcast made during the evening




Then on Sunday I'd been invited to SundayWise at The Ivy. The other speakers included artists Peter Kennard, who took us through some of his montage work published by The Tate in @earth, Josef Valentino (#AVERAGEJOE) who related his adventure on Damien Hirst's spot challenge, and film-maker Leah Borromeo reminded us of the dreadful societal effects on the sources of some of our cheap clothing. The chairman of Sotherby's Lord Dalmeny explained why auction items reach the prices they do, and Master Distiller Nik Fordham told us all about the new self-sustaining gin distillery at Laverstoke Mill. It will soon be producing our favourite brand and the company generously provided us all with an eminently refreshing glassful, so Nikki and I were delighted. The talks were interspersed by offerings from poet Greta Bellamancia.

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