Tag Archive: astronomy

The end of us


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From the mighty Tyrannosaurus rex to the itty-bitty Tobias’ caddisfly, 98% of all species to have ever existed on Earth are now extinct. Whilst it seems unthinkable that humanity is no different to our doomed predecessors, our days are probably numbered too. Unless we can master interstellar travel, the sun’s evolution into a planet-engulfing red giant will ultimately spell the end of humanity. Fortunately it’s a few billion years before we have to worry about that. Unfortunately, there are several other theoretical scenarios that could result in Homo sapiens’ demise well before the sun boils our planet alive. Firstly, and this isn’t so bad, we may just evolve into something else. You might well think that, with all of our medicine and technology, there is no longer any driving force (selection pressure) for the process, but scientists are still recording subtle changes in human biology such as the lengthening of the reproductive period. There are also arguments that advanced civilisation …

Astrology – part 1


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Just the other day a friend asked me about astrology, and whether it had any scientific merit. She said that she’d read all sorts of astounding claims about the validity of astrology, as well as “scientific proofs” of its efficacy. Well, as far as I can tell, it’s all bunkum, although, as we shall see, it does possibly have a certain psychological palliative value, I think. The first thing to note is that astrology was invented a very long time ago, when most people believed that the earth was at the centre of the universe, and was orbited by all the other planets, as well as the sun and the other stars. Needless-to-say, this outdated scheme fit very nicely with humankind’s sense of self-importance, a sense that comes out very clearly in the scriptures of many of the world’s religions -in which the creator of the universe puts human beings in the centre of all things. Anyway, this ancient belief is based on what is known as the terra-centric model of …

Poor old Pluto

pluto solar

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Two things happened in 1930 (well, ok, more than two things to be precise): Disney gave Mickey Mouse a big floppy, friendly puppy-friend; and a young astronomer, Clyde W. Tombaugh, 22 years old, and working at the Lowell Observatory in Flagstaff Arizona, assigned to a meticulous task, after much arduous work, identified a new planet. Neither had a name at first. A few months after Tombaugh discovered it, an 11 year old British school girl (Venetia Burney), with an interest in classical mythology, suggested the name Pluto for it because the Roman god Pluto could disappear at will, and was thus as elusive as his namesake planet which had proved so hard to find; I’m not sure when and how Mickey’s dog acquired its name. It was all so simple then, any large body orbiting the Sun was a planet, and there were 8 of them until Pluto came along. New discoveries since however, seem to have rewritten the rules …

Hell hath no fury like a Venus scorned


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From a distance, the planet Venus looks a calm and serene place. But take a closer look, and things might not be quite so peaceful. Named after the Roman goddess of beauty, the surface of Venus is actually a very unattractive place to be, with choking fumes of sulphur dioxide and a surface temperature hot enough to melt zinc. Things have got even uglier, as scientists get more evidence of active volcanoes on its surface. This hellish image is really an artists impression of what an active volcano on the surface of Venus might look like. Although, the surface of Venus is littered with shield volcanoes, most have been inactive for millions of years. Evidence comes not from the surface of Venus, but from its atmosphere. Although on average its atmosphere only has 0.015% sulphur dioxide, this is concentrated in the lower sections. Higher up, interactions with radiation from the sun break it down into different chemicals. The Venus Express spacecraft …

Star trails in the southern skies


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The movements of the heavens above are sometimes hard to notice. This photo, however, shows clearly the stars rotating around the Earth’s rotational axis. The telescope in the foreground is the Yepun telescope (UT4) in the Very Large Telescope (VLT) complex at Paranal Observatory, Chile. The picture was taken by Farid Char, an astrophotographer from Chile. I asked him a few questions about his magnificent picture: How long does it take to create the picture? The photo is an artistic composition. I took several captures, then stacked them, but I superimposed a single frame to see the telescope quiet, otherwise it would appear distorted because of its continuous movement during the night. The basics of the picture are shown on its web section, but I can tell you is a composition of 867 single captures over a tripod (15” each), and the overall exposition was 4 hours 12 mins (from 23:50 h to 04:02 h local time). What does it mean to …

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