Would we know if an alien spacecraft enters the Solar System?

26th August 2015

Alien spacecraft

It seems likely that alien life has evolved somewhere in the Galaxy, given that there may be millions of habitable planets, and many of these may have existed for billions of years. If just one species in the whole of the Galaxy were able to explore using self-replicating spacecraft, then they might be able to place probes across the Galaxy within a million years or so. Yet we have never found evidence of life beyond Earth.

This is known as the Fermi paradox. There are a number of possible solutions to the Fermi paradox. It may be the case that alien life is not common in any form, it may be the case that intelligent life is not common, or that intelligent species never explore space in this way, either due to physical limitations or because they simply don’t want to. It may also be the case that space-faring alien life is common...

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A Brief History of Pluto

29th July 2015

Pluto and Charon

Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn are all visible with the naked eye, and can be distinguished from stars because they move around the sky in a different way. The orbits of the planets were determined in the 1600s, and confirmed with telescopes, which had just started to be used in astronomy. There was no reason to think that planets stopped existing beyond what we can see...

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Trans and genderqueer scientists

16th July 2015

Trans flag

Many scientists used to think that there are only two genders, male and female, and that a person’s gender can be solely determined from their genitals. We now know that this is not the case. While a person’s sex can, by definition, be determined from their genitals, gender is much more complex than this. Scientists now think that a person’s gender is determined by both genetics and hormones...

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Robot Dreams

7th July 2015


Last month, a team of software engineers working for Google released images created by programs designed for image recognition software. Image recognition software has multiple uses; the police, for example, could potentially use it to search for images of suspects or missing people using CCTV footage, nature enthusiasts could use it to identify plants or animals, and shoppers could use it to identify items of clothing.

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Neutron stars and extreme physics

1st July 2015

Neutron star

Neutron stars are some of the most extreme objects in the universe, and so they can be used as ‘natural laboratories’ where we can observe matter behaving in ways we could never replicate on Earth. Neutron stars form when massive stars (O-B-type stars, which are about 8-20 times as massive as the Sun) stop fusing matter...

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How to weigh objects in space

10th April 2015


People on the International Space Station do not appear weightless because of their distance from the Earth. Instead, they appear weightless because the Space Station accelerates towards the Earth at about 8.7 m/s2, this means that it is in free-fall. Skydivers would feel weightless when they are in free-fall if it were not for the drag of the air...

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A Brief History of Comets

28th October 2014


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...

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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...

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Why science needs philosophy

9th June 2014


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...

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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...

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Creationism and Science

16th February 2014


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...

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Be X-ray binaries and the super-magnetic universe

8th December 2013


For the last two years, I have been researching neutron stars at the University of Southampton, supervised by Prof. Malcolm Coe and Dr. 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...

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What happens to us when we dream?

17th November 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...

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A Brief History of CERN

30th July 2013


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...

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Women in Science

12th May 2013


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...

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A Brief History of Life on Earth

17th March 2013


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...

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A Brief History of X-ray Astronomy

7th October 2012


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...

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Want to go to Mars? Applications opening soon

27th June 2012


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...

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Why society needs science fiction

3rd April 2012


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...

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Are there room for Gods in science?

26th February 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...

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Where are all the Aliens?

27th January 2012


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...

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Armchair Explorers: how members of the public are taking an active role in the search for other worlds

14th October 2011


This article was written in May 2011, and was shortlisted for the Wellcome Trust Science Writing Prize, in association with the 'Guardian' and the 'Observer'. 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...

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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...

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A Brief History of Mathematics

11th July 2011


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...

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Two years left to find the Higgs boson

12th June 2011


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...

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A Brief History of Animal Astronauts

22nd May 2011


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...

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The Search for Antimatter Galaxies

8th May 2011


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...

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Why can't we remember the future?

3rd May 2011


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)...

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A Brief History of the Hubble Space Telescope

24th April 2011


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...

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Over 50 Years of Manned Space Flights

14th April 2011


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...

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The Star Garden Blog Launches

14th April 2011


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...

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