Posts by: Science Brian

Turn off the lights and I'll glow

The sun isn’t a tidy sphere. If you go a little closer, you’ll see it looks a bit… fuzzy. Its plasma doesn’t sit as a smooth surface; it’s a roiling sea, throwing itself high above the sun, responding to magnetic fields that would tower many times over our entire planet in a way that would make any sane person feel very tiny indeed. So best not to think about the scale of it too much. We get enough existential panic from the possibility of a Michael Bay remake of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.

Some of this plasma gets enough of a kick to leave the pull of the Sun altogether, and it heads out into the universe. It’s barely there – just some electrons and protons held together by the merest hint of a magnetic field. But it’s there. After about 18 hours, if it’s lucky, it’ll hit the Earth. Now, it might have whizzed passed Mercury and Venus, but the Earth is slightly different – we have a magnetosphere.

Our place in the Universe

So any time there’s a transit of Venus, everybody gets excited. Astronomers go on special trips, physicists prepare sensitive equipment…okay, not *everybody* gets excited, but a lot of scientists do.

But what is so exciting about it?

Well, for a start, it was how we first worked out where we are.

How much does a kilogram weigh?


The International Prototype Kilogram is under all of those bell jars

This is a picture of the international prototype kilogram, or IPK. It is exactly, and always, a kilogram. It’s a big lump of metal which the world has agreed is how much a kilogram weighs. It was made in 1879, and it is still beautifully, perfectly, and exactly the same as it was then.

Er, more or less. And that is the problem. of time travel

Time travel. Time travel. Science blog, time travel. Okay. Right. Let’s do this thing.

We can’t do time travel. Time is a strange thing which is hard to get a handle on, and the best definition I have come across of it is John Wheeler’s, who said “Time is what prevents everything from happening at once”. And it only points one way.

So that’s that.


You want more than that?

Oh alright then, let’s talk about a weird idea. It’s not time travel like we here at AST depict, but it’s…well, let’s not get ahead of ourselves.

Computer Magic

Image via CERN

Computer Magic at the LHC (Image via CERN)

At the Large Hadron Collider, two protons are accelerated to a fantastic speed and then smashed into each other. This piece of sub-atomic vandalism is not just for kicks. Scientists there are looking for the Higgs Boson, a particle that, if found, could help explain why some things are heavier than others. It looks like they might have found one last July, too.

Now these collisions are watched by all sorts of detectors. And each collision creates about 1Mb of data (if you had the first minute of a classic song stored as an mp3, that would be about 1Mb, to give you an idea). Which doesn’t sound like much! Except, and here’s where things get tricky, there are millions of collisions a second. Even if you’re reading this blog post on a high-end computer, your hard-drive would fill up within 30 seconds. And the LHC operates throughout the year, and will for years to come. Too much data is generated for anyone to possibly store, never mind sift through.

So when they designed the LHC they had a huge problem to solve – just how do you store and process that much information?

Epigengle all the way...

Santa on a horse

It’s Santa on a… I’m going to guess horse?

Most people these days are familiar with the idea of DNA – our genetic code. The big list inside us that enumerates – to a greater or lesser extent – everything about us. Eye colour. Height. Diseases or conditions we might fall foul of. How many limbs we have. Where our organs go. Naughty or nice. It’s what separates us from bananas, or monkeys, or trees. We pass this DNA down the generations, and this list is not something we can do anything about. The slow march of evolution takes hundreds of generations to make a change. I am stuck with my DNA, and so are you.

Except, what if we could just… ignore parts of this list? Just turn off this bit of DNA, or that bit? And then pass it on to our kids, a change in one generation…

Well, turns out that we can.

Solvay and the Catastrophe

Solvay Conference 1911

The 1911 Solvay conference attendees.
With an addition by our own Action Dan

1911 was an interesting time to be a physicist. At that time, as best as anyone could figure out, the foundations of our understanding of physics seemed to be cracking. Small, annoying little differences between what classical physics predicted and what actually happened began to get bigger and bigger, and could never be explained away. These little threads were unravelling the whole tapestry of physics that had been built up since Newton.

So maybe interesting isn’t a strong enough word.

Night of the Living Prions

Train Danger

Image from

Proteins are very useful things. They are the little helpers to your body’s Santa Claus. They do pretty much everything that needs doing in your cells. They are great little workers.

Right up until they go wrong.

And the thing is – we have no idea how they could possibly go wrong. How could the little helpers turn against Santa?

Dignified Kings

The answer to the question this magazine asks is: No.

So, the main character in the latest episode was working on a paper arguing that Triceratops was not a real species. This, to be very clear, is something we made up. Triceratops is fine. We can all breathe a sigh of relief, secure in the knowledge that we don’t have to learn a new name to answer that oft-repeated question “Which dinosaur is the best one?”

But another three-horned dinosaur might suffer another extinction, thanks to Triceratops.

Blood simple

You’re squared off against your foe. You’re usually a good shot, but the rain is coming down pretty heavily and besides, you need to do some long division in your head if you’re going to get that bomb defused in time. Not to mention you’re bleeding pretty bad from the gunshot wound your foe gave you moments before.

A shot rings out, and you both fall.

Luckily, you manage to drag yourself to the bomb and type in the code before you pass out from blood loss. You wake up in the hospital and the doc is about to give you a transfusion. You thank your lucky stars for Karl Landsteiner, because without him there was a good chance you wouldn’t survive the procedure.