A Brief History of Comets
28th October 2014
It is still not known exactly how life came into existence on Earth, although all life forms are built from amino acids, which can arise naturally. The first life consisted of simple cells, or prokaryotes, which evolved almost 4 billion years ago, within a billion years of the formation of the Earth. A common ancestor soon gave rise to two groups, bacteria, and archaea. There is evidence that viruses have existed for at least 3 billion years, although viruses are not generally considered to be alive. During this time, the atmosphere of the Earth was mostly composed of carbon dioxide, water...


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A Brief History of CERN
30th July 2013

This year marks 50 years since the first X-ray source was discovered outside of the Solar System. This began a race to map the X-ray sky, leading to the discovery of the most extreme objects in the universe. X-rays were first discovered by German physicist Wilhelm Röntgen in December 1895. Röntgen was firing beams of electrons across a vacuum tube, and noticed that they made the inside of the tube fluorescent. He experimented with these rays - naming them 'X' for their unknown nature - and found that they do not have a charge, and can penetrate all kinds of matter...


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Earlier this year Dutch entrepreneurs Bas Lansdorp and Arno Wielders announced that their company, Mars One, will put four people on Mars by 2023. The catch is that they will have no way to come home. They will grow their own food, create their own oxygen, and begin building larger living spaces for the four extra people who will join them every two years, creating the first human colony anywhere other than Earth. Mars One plan to begin a nine-year training program for 40 astronauts in 2013. This will involve living in a simulation of the settlement on a desert on Earth, learning how all the equipment...


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Although there is no single accepted definition of science fiction, science fiction usually deals with worlds that differ from our own, as the result of new scientific discoveries, new technologies, or different social systems. It then looks at the consequences of this change. Because of this broad definition, science fiction can be used to consider questions regarding science, politics, sociology, and the philosophy of the mind, as well as any questions about the future. It is sometimes hard to distinguish science fiction from fantasy. This is because the definition of science has changed drastically...


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Where are all the Aliens?
27th January 2012
Science has disproved many specific aspects of religious texts if they are to be taken literally. The fact that the Earth is significantly older than the bible suggests has been generally accepted since the mid-1800s. In 1859 Charles Darwin showed that species were not all created in a matter of days, and that all life forms, including humans, are a product of evolution by natural selection, but despite the initial controversy, human evolution is now taught in publicly funded schools in almost every country in the world. These days the Catholic Church even has unofficial guidelines on what to do...


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Are we really alone in the universe or do other intelligent species know something we don't? Last year NASA Space Scientists predicted that half a billion planets in our galaxy may contain life. Modern cosmology suggests that the Milky Way formed about eight billion years ago, around the same time as the first habitable planets. It took about four billion years from the formation of the Earth, to the evolution of intelligent life, so assuming this is not atypical, the first intelligent life forms in the Galaxy could have evolved about four billion years ago...


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Women in Science
12th May 2013
We spend about a third of our lives sleeping, and much of that time dreaming, yet we still do not know why this happens. Almost all animals are thought to sleep. In complex animals, sleep can be defined as a state of reversible unconsciousness, illustrated by a change in brain wave patterns and eye movements. In simpler animals, like invertebrates, sleep can be defined as a state where the creature periodically stops responding to external stimuli. The simpler the creature the more difficult it is for researchers to determine whether or not they have fallen asleep...


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A Brief History of Cloning
27th April 2014
Cloning is the process of producing genetically identical individuals. This happens naturally in all asexual reproduction, and in sexual reproduction when identical siblings are born. Asexual reproduction is the primary method of reproduction for single celled organisms, and many plants and fungi. Insects, like bees and ants, can also reproduce asexually, as can some reptiles, fish and birds. When scientists refer to cloning, however, they are often referring to artificial cloning. This is most commonly achieved via a process known as somatic cell nuclear transfer (SCNT)...


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Comets have been documented for thousands of years, yet there is still a lot we don't know about them. We don't know what their surface is composed of, how thick the crust is, and how much frozen water is contained beneath. We also don't know what types of organic chemicals comets contain. Scientists are particularly interested in these questions since comets often collide with planets, and so it is theorised that they could 'seed' planets with oceans and amino acids, the 'building blocks of life'.
to the motion of the Sun, Moon, five visible planets, and the stars. This may be why they were often associated with bad luck or messages from God. The erratic behaviour of comets also led people to assume that they originated from inside of the Earth's atmosphere. This was disproved by Danish astronomer Tycho Brahe in the late 1500s.

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Earlier this month science educator Bill Nye debated young-Earth creationist Ken Ham, on the topic of whether the literal interpretation of Genesis is a viable model for the origin of the universe. At first glance, this debate may seem strange and pointless, Ham is free to believe whatever he wants, as everyone should be, and science and religion are not in obvious conflict. There are many, many, many, many examples of religious scientists. Ham does not accept this view, however, and believes that science and religion are in conflict. Specifically, Ham believes that his literal interpretation of Genesis...


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Science has a massive impact on everyone. How we teach it, and what we decide to fund, can literally have life and death consequences for millions of people. This means it is vital that everyone has a good understanding of what science is and how it affects them. If scientists want their claims to be taken more seriously than the claims of pseudoscience, for example, then they need to make sure that they, and their audience, know the difference between science and pseudoscience, and why this matters. Although many scientists think about this and contribute to the discussion...


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The Star Garden
For the last two years, I have been researching neutron stars at the University of Southampton, supervised by Malcolm Coe and Wynn Ho, and we have recently made a surprising discovery. Neutron stars are the most magnetic objects in the universe, with some having magnetic fields so high that quantum behaviour comes into effect. Only a few dozen objects in the universe were previously thought to have magnetic fields this high, but we have shown that perhaps over half of all neutron stars do. This means that the universe may be much more magnetic than previously thought...


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Before construction begun on the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN) in 1954, the atom was known to be composed of electrons (an elementary particle, and a type of lepton), and a nucleus containing neutrons and protons (which are hadrons, particles now known to be made of smaller particles called quarks and gluons), and all of these particles were thought to have an antimatter partner. Fusion and fission reactions had taken place, and new particles such as muons (another elementary particle, and type of lepton) and pions and kaons (which are also hadrons) had been discovered...


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Women are massively under-represented in physics and other STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) subjects, at all levels. A report by the Institute of Physics using data from 2011 showed that 46% of schools in the UK had no girls continue to study physics after the age of 16, although girls were over twice as likely to study physics at A-level if they went to an all girls' school. Girls made up 20% of all those studying A-level physics in 2011. This is 6 in every class of 30. Only about 6% of physics professors in the UK are female, and only two women have ever won...


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I have just completed the first year of my PhD at the University of Southampton and my first paper, written with the help of several co-authors, is to be published in the Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society (MNRAS) journal next month, and is available to read for free here. This paper began with the observation that a neutron star had been continually emitting X-rays for the last five years, and ended with the realisation that it might have one of the highest magnetic fields in the universe. The neutron star, known as Swift J045106.8-694803, is located in the Large Magellanic Cloud (LMC)...


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Armchair Explorers
14th October 2011

Welcome to the Multiverse
13th August 2011
Earlier this month physicists working in the UK and Canada provided evidence that there may be universes beyond our own. Their research, co-authored by Stephen M. Feeney, Matthew C. Johnson, Daniel J. Mortlock, and Hiranya V. Peiris, is to be published in the journal Physical Review D but can be read for free here. Fenney et al. have found a way to search for evidence of the multiverse predicted by eternal inflation theory. Eternal inflation refers to the inflationary epoch of the big bang, a period when spacetime expanded faster than the speed of light...


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Last week the Space Shuttle Endeavour left Earth for the final time, carrying banana spiders and fruit flies to the International Space Station. They are the latest in a long line of animal astronauts. Literally thousands of animals have been to space, including 32 monkeys, two cats, and at least 27 dogs. Many have orbited the Earth, and worms, mice and tortoises have even orbited the Moon. These days most spacefaring animals survive their flights, and suffer minimal harm and distress, but this was not always the case. In the early days of space travel, when rocket science was still in its infancy...


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The penultimate Space Shuttle mission is due to launch on the 16th May, transporting a device known as the Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer, or AMS-02, to the International Space Station. The AMS-02 is designed to identify cosmic rays, high-energy particles that originate from space. Although most cosmic rays are composed of ordinary matter, the leader of the AMS project, Nobel laureate Professor Samuel Ting, hopes that it will discover dark matter, strange matter, and antimatter. Ting would like to prove that isolated regions of the universe are composed entirely of antimatter, and if this...


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The obvious answer is that we can't remember the future because it hasn't happened yet, but this cannot be the whole story, after all Albert Einstein once stated that "people...who believe in physics, know that the distinction between past, present, and future is only a stubbornly persistent illusion" (Letter from Einstein to the family of Michele Besso, March 1955, quoted in Disturbing the Universe by Freeman Dyson, 1979). There are two ways to look at time, either it is something that flows as the present moves away from the past and towards the future, or it is something that...


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It has now been over 50 years since Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin became the first person to travel to space. On 12th April 1961, Gagarin spent 108 minutes orbiting the Earth in the Vostok 1 spacecraft, before safely landing back on Earth. Gagarin's flight was an early victory for the Soviet Union in the space race but, more importantly, it marked the first step in our exploration of the universe and highlighted the fragility of the Earth. Although there is no footage of Gagarin's journey, it has since been recreated, in real time, by the crew of the International Space Station...


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Welcome to The Star Garden blog. From now on, I hope to regularly post articles highlighting recent breakthroughs, or events, in science. I am also interested in the philosophy of physics so I thought I would start by briefly discussing what this is. The philosophy of science explores the assumptions, implications, and methodology of science. It asks how science can be defined, how science progresses, and whether or not science tells us the truth about the world. Two of the most famous arguments in the philosophy of science are pessimistic meta induction and the no miracles argument...


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Today marks the 21st anniversary of the launch of the Hubble Space Telescope (HST) and, in order to celebrate, NASA has released a new image showing the interaction of spiral galaxy UGC 1810, with its companion UGC 1813. The success of the Hubble Space Telescope took decades of persistence and hard work. German physicist Hermann Oberth was the first to consider a space-based telescope in 1923 and, in 1946, American astronomer Lyman Spitzer discussed the two main advantages to Oberth's idea. Firstly, a space-based telescope would have a much greater resolution...


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Earlier this year Rolf-Dieter Heuer, Director General of the European Organisation for Nuclear Research (CERN), announced that if they have not discovered the Higgs boson by the end of next year, then physicists should give up on finding it and reconsider the standard model of particle physics. The standard model was developed in the early 1970s in order to explain how all known particles interact. It divides elementary particles into fermions, which can combine to form atoms, and bosons, which carry forces. Fermions are further divided into quarks, which can form protons and neutrons...


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There is evidence that prehistoric man understood simple mathematics, as well as astronomy. The oldest evidence comes from the Lebombo bone, which is about 37,000 years old, and was found in Swaziland. It has 29 notches carved into it, which could have been used as a tally stick, to record numbers. Stronger evidence comes from the Ishango bone, which was found on what is now the border between modern-day Uganda and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. It is about 20,000 years old, and has a series of notches carved into it in three columns...


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This article was written in May 2011, and was shortlisted for the Wellcome Trust Science Writing Prize. It has since been published on the Wellcome Trust Blog.

The desire to explore our surroundings is part of human nature. It is that which drove our ancestors to leave Africa tens of thousands of years ago, walking across continents, and traversing unmapped oceans in simple rafts. It is that which led explorers like Christopher Columbus and Sir Walter Raleigh to rediscover these 'new worlds' during...


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These questions could be answered by landing a spacecraft onto the surface of a comet, something the European Space Agency (ESA) plans to do in less than two weeks.
Science in Art
4th August 2014
Scientists often utilise the same tools as artists, to record or illustrate their ideas. They may create computer-generated images to use in academic papers, animations to show during presentations, or models to educate the public, and scientific organisations and agencies often employ artists to do this for them. In these cases, the main aim is to increase our scientific knowledge in an accurate and unbiased manner. Artists, however, do not have to disregard their bias in their own work, and so can use art to evoke emotional responses to scientific ideas, forcing us to consider how we feel about them. I will look at some examples of art that does this below...


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Thousands of years ago, the motion of comets
seemed erratic and unpredictable compared