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 stars 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. Neutron stars form when 'normal' stars die. 'Normal' stars are fuelled by nuclear fusion which pushes matter apart the whole star would explode if it were not for...

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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, and within a billion years of the formation of the Earth. A common ancestor soon gave rise to two groups, bacteria and archaea. The first bacteria began a primitive form of photosynthesis about 3.5 billion years ago and there is evidence that viruses have existed for at least 3 billion years. During this time, the atmosphere of the Earth was mostly composed of carbon dioxide, water and molecular nitrogen.

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It is often said that there are not many female scientists, particularly physicists. Only two women have ever won the Nobel Prize in Physics, for example - this is 1% - and there are certainly less women than men studying A-level physics in the UK. A report by the Institute of Physics using data from 2011 showed that 46% of schools had no girls continue studying physics after the age of 16 and that girls were over twice as likely to study physics at A-level if they went to an all girl's school. Girls made up 20% of all those studying A-level physics in 2011, this is 6 in every class of 30.

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A brief history of CERN
30th July 2013

Last month I travelled to South Africa to use one of the telescopes at the South African Astronomical Observatory (SAAO), located about 350 km from Cape Town.

The SAAO currently has some of the best infra-red and optical telescopes in the world and its isolated, high altitude location make it ideal to view the sky on a clear night. It is located in the Southern Hemisphere and so neighbouring galaxies the Large and Small Magellanic Clouds (LMC and SMC) are visible with the naked eye.

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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 journal next month and is now available for free here.

This paper begun with the observation that a star had been continually emitting X-rays for the last five years and ended with the realisation that it must have one of the highest magnetic fields in the universe.

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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.

I recently had the privilege of attending a conference to celebrate 'Half a Century of X-ray Astronomy', where I was able to listen to scientists from all around the world talk about their place in its history and their hopes for its future. 

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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...

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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 over time...

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The Gods of Science
26th February 2012
Where are all the Aliens?
27th January 2012
Nanoscale Christmas
23rd December 2011
Armchair Explorers
14th October 2011

Illuminating the Universe
9th October 2011
Welcome to the Multiverse
13th August 2011
Animal Astronauts
22nd May 2011
Twenty One years of Hubble
24th April 2011
Science has disproved many specifics 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, Darwin showed that species were not all created in a matter of days and that humans are a product of evolution, but despite the initial controversy, human evolution is now taught in schools in almost every country in the world. These days, the Catholic Church even has unofficial guidelines on what to do if extra-terrestrials are discovered...

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Are we really alone in the universe or do other intelligent species know something that we don't?

Last year, NASA Space Scientist William Borucki predicted that at least half a billion planets in our galaxy could 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...

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The image to the left shows one of the world's smallest Christmas cards. Created by the University of Leeds in 2007, it shows Santa flying over the Parkinson Tower. The image was created using a focused ion beam (FIB) machine which works in a similar way to a scanning electron microscope (SEM) but uses ions instead of electrons to illuminate objects that would otherwise be invisible. The scale is in nanometres (nm). A nanometre is equal to a billionth of a metre, (or a millionth of a millimetre). The whole image is about 8500 nm wide. By comparison, a human hair is almost 10 times as...

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Two months ago, physicists working on the OPERA (Oscillation Project with Emulsion-tRacking Apparatus) experiment at CERN announced that they may have discovered particles travelling faster than the speed of light. This implies that either there are conditions when Einstein's theory of special relativity breaks down, or that the particles took a 'short cut' through spacetime, perhaps through an extra dimension. Either way, if information can arrive faster than light, then it should also be travelling back in time, challenging our linear notion of cause and effect...

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Last week, NASA announced that water-covered planets, like Earth, may be common in the universe. This is because a team of scientists, led by Dutch astronomer Michiel Hogerheijde, have recently discovered cold water vapour surrounding the orange dwarf star TW Hydrae. Their findings have been published in the October 21 issue of Science and can be read for free here.

Planets and asteroids form from the disk of dust and gas that surrounds newly formed stars, known as a protoplanetary disk. Since this matter is...

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This article was written in May 2011 and was shortlisted for the Wellcome Trust Science Writing Prize.

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 the European Renaissance...

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Earlier this year, the Wellcome Trust held a competition to find new science writers. I was lucky enough to make the shortlist and, on Wednesday, I attended a science writing workshop at the Guardian offices followed by the awards ceremony. The workshop was hosted by science journalist Alok Jha and covered three different routes into science writing, with discussions from science writer Michael Regnier, science journalist James Randerson and scientist and prominent blogger Stephen Curry. The winners - Penny Sarchet and Tess Shellard - were later announced by comedian and judge Dara...

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As human beings, we are used to seeing the universe through a very narrow range of light waves, known as the visible part of the electromagnetic spectrum. The light that we see is composed of photons, 'bundles' of energy travelling with wavelengths of about 390 to 750 billionths of a metre. We perceive different wavelengths as different colours. Whilst some animals can see ultraviolet light, humans have had to invent machines in order to map the universe beyond the visible spectrum and they have found that things can look vastly different. The pictures below show the Earth in infrared...

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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 Feeney, Matthew Johnson, Daniel Mortlock and Hiranya 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. This idea was first proposed by American physicist...

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As with astronomy, there is evidence that prehistoric man understood simple mathematics. The first of which is 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, found in the Congo. It is about 20,000 years old and has a series of notches in three columns. Some argue that patterns in these numbers show they were made by someone that understood addition, subtraction, multiplication, division and prime numbers...

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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 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, and leptons...

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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 thirty two monkeys, two cats and at least twenty seven dogs. Many have orbited the Earth and worms, mice and tortoises have even orbited the Moon. These days, most space-faring 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...

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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...

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The obvious answer is that we can't remember the future because it has not happened yet, but this cannot be the whole story, after all Einstein once stated that "people...who believe in physics, know that the distinction between past, present, and future is only a stubbornly persistent illusion". 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 which is static, the past is just as real as the future and our experience of the present is an illusion. The former idea is known as the tensed theory...

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Today marks the 21st anniversary of the launch of the Hubble Space Telescope and in order to celebrate, NASA have 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...

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In this week's issue of Science, physicists working in Japan and Australia reported a breakthrough in quantum teleportation. Using the devise above, known simply as the teleporter, the team, led by Dr. Noriyuki Lee of the University of Tokyo, transported information contained in a beam of light. This is not the first time information has been teleported, the theory of quantum teleportation was devised by American physicist Charles Bennett in 1993 and it was first demonstrated by physicists in Europe and America in 1998. Matter was first teleported in 2009. The results of Lee's team are...

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It has now been over fifty years since Russian cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin became the first person to travel to space. On 12th April 1961, he spent one hundred and eight minutes orbiting the Earth in the Vostok 1 spacecraft before safely landing. Gagarin's flight was an early victory for the Soviet Union in the Space Race but, more importantly, it marked the first step in man's 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 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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The periodic table could be described as the most beautiful diagram in science. It depicts all of the known elements in order of the weight of their atoms from left to right and is arranged in rows which reflect the fact that the elements show periodic behaviour. All of the elements in the first row, for example, are highly reactive and those in the last are the least reactive. If you know where an element resides on the periodic table, then you can predict what it will look like and how it will act in almost any situation...

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The Star Garden
The life and times of stars
19th August 2012
Stars are arguably the most important objects in the universe. They start life as simple clumps of hydrogen drawn together by gravitation, they go on to create almost all of the elements and visible light in the universe and, when their life finally ends they either become diamonds so large they have their own atmosphere (white dwarfs), atoms so large they are held together by gravitation (neutron stars) or they create a hole in spacetime so deep that not even light can escape (black holes). These objects are incredibly important to scientists because they can be used to test physical theories under conditions we could never replicate on Earth.

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Astronomy in South Africa
3rd January 2013
Women in Science
12th May 2013
A few weeks ago I attended a conference on stars with extremely high magnetic fields in Geneva and while I was there I took the opportunity to visit the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN). People who just turn up at its visitor centre in Meyrin can experience the Microcosm - a museum-type exhibition showing both the history of CERN and how everything works - and the Globe - which houses a number of historic items, such as the computer on which the world-wide web was invented, and shows a short film Universe of Particles twice an hour. If you book in advance, you can also go on a guided tour where you get to visit the control room where the discovery of the Higgs Boson was announced.

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String theory is a potential theory of everything (TOE). It predicts that the universe has more than three spatial dimensions. It also suggests that the universe may be a hologram and that there may be universes beyond our own. In the 20th century it was discovered that all the forces that we experience in the universe are caused by just four fundamental forces - electromagnetism, the strong and weak nuclear forces and gravity. Electromagnetism and the strong and weak nuclear forces are now understood using quantum mechanics. Quantum mechanics shows that at high energies electromagnetism and the weak force combine to form a single force.

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We spend about a third of our lives sleeping and much of that time dreaming, yet we still don't 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 brainwave 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 they have fallen asleep. The most primitive creature thought to sleep is the Caenorhabditis elegans, a type of roundworm which becomes unresponsive before it moults.

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A brief history of string theory
30th September 2013

This is where philosophers come in, philosophers of science are paid to think about this and almost any other subject that relates to science but doesn't full within the job description of scientists...

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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...

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A brief history of cloning
27th April 2014
Cloning is the process of producing genetically identical individuals and 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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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. Though many scientists think about this and contribute to the discussion, it is not the job of scientists to define science. They are trained to be a scientist, in whatever capacity that entails, and that is what they are paid to do.