I am an experienced Science, Technology and Business editor/reporter, ex-BBC News & Nature magazine. Now Business and Space editor at WIRED.
I am also a regular contributor to Quanta
magazine. My stories about physics, astronomy and other topics have appeared in Nature, Science, Wired, Scientific American, The Economist, Nautilus, New Scientist, the
BBC and other publications. An aerospace engineer by education with a masters in journalism and postgraduate physics training, I'm the author of the book Call me ‘Pops’: Le Bon Dieu Dans La Rue,
and am currently writing a book on the mysteries of neutron stars.
Based in London, UK.
18 April 2017
How airline pilots beat jet lag
15 March 2016
London’s dawn sky was orange when I boarded the flight. When I got off some six hours later in Montreal, Canada, it was still orange.
My body didn’t like it one bit. All of us operate based on the circadian rhythm, where light determines whether it’s time to be active or have a snooze. Those constantly darting across multiple time zones are familiar with that sinking feeling when the body clock gets completely mixed up and won’t adjust to the quick change in the light-dark cycle. The result, of course, is jet lag, caused by the disruption to the circadian rhythm – and for many of us, it’s a zombie-like state that results in moodiness, irritability, and deep fatigue. “Our internal clocks are not set to 24 hours. Unfortunately, exposure to light at the wrong time of day will cause your social sleep schedule to desynchronise from your internal clock,” says Erin E Flynn-Evans, a member of Nasa’s fatigue countermeasures group. ---> Keep reading
Now you can pick the perfect plane seatmate
29 January 2016
If I could choose whom to sit next to on a long-haul plane journey, I’d pick Albert Einstein. I’d chat to him about general relativity, quantum entanglement, wormholes, you name it. The problem is, not only would Einstein have to travel in time, he’d also have to create a LinkedIn or Facebook account, and then book the same flight with one of the few airlines currently experimenting with a concept called ‘social seating’.
This is the concept programme offered by just a handful of companies allowing passengers to choose a seat buddy based on interests. “A lot of people travel alone, and it's typically a very unsocial experience,” says Nick Martin, founder of social seating start-up Planely. “What people don't like is meeting and talking to people they don't have anything in common with. What they love is spending time with someone who is like-minded.” ---> Keep reading
Developing world: The minority minority
04 March 2015
Women are under-represented in physical sciences and in science in the developing world. Meet three who beat both sets of odds.
Patchanita Thamyongkit was waiting patiently near the stage at a conference on the importance of science for Thailand, when the organizer rushed up to her and asked whether she had seen the next presenter, Professor Thamyongkit. “That's me,” she replied. An awkward pause followed. “Oh, I thought you were his secretary,” came his reply.
The presenter was probably more embarrassed by the 2008 incident than Thamyongkit, who is used to being taken for a secretary. She is a physical organic chemist at Thailand's biggest scientific establishment, Chulalongkorn University in Bangkok, where she has won several awards for her work. But senior female scientists are a rarity in Thailand: top science positions are scarce, and many women are forced out of research because of cultural expectations that they will take care of their households, raise children and help ageing parents. ---> Keep reading
19 November 2014
The International Centre for Theoretical Physics was set up to seed science in the developing world; 100,000 researchers later, it is still growing.
The dust in Kathmandu cloaks everything. It carpets the streets with a dingy layer. Women cutting waist-high grass are wearing face masks to keep it out. And it settles on the dilapidated buildings of Tribhuvan University (TU) — the biggest scientific establishment in Nepal.
Narayan Adhikari, however, has managed to stay clean. Clad in an impeccable white shirt and black trousers, he adds his motorbike to a collection of some 20 others parked haphazardly in front of a 3-storey building, the university's physics department. Before entering his tiny lab, the 44-year-old researcher removes his shoes to keep the dirt out. In the lab are a dozen desktop computers, which the department received in 2009 — before that, there were none. Power blackouts happen every day, lasting for up to 16 hours, and the Internet connection works “maybe one day a month”, Adhikari says.
Despite this, for the past eight years Adhikari and his students have been producing a stream of theoretical-physics papers on the properties of materials such as atom-thick graphene. It is a rare — if not unique — achievement for a physics lab in Nepal, and Adhikari's contributions are also helping to build up his department as a whole, by boosting the number of PhD students being trained there. “Doing physics in a country like Nepal is a real challenge,” he says. ---> Keep reading
01 October 2014
The tank looks oddly out of place here on the windy Pampas of western Argentina. Surrounded by yellow grass and spiky thorn bushes, the chest-high plastic cylinder could be some kind of storage container — were it not for the bird-spattered solar panels and antennas on top.
More tanks can be seen in the distance, illuminated by a crimson Sun dropping behind the far-off Andes. “Some locals think that the tanks influence the weather: they make it rain or snow, or make a dry season,” says Anselmo Francisco Jake, the farmer who owns this stretch of land. “But I know they don't. I know they catch cosmic rays.”
Jake is right. There are 1,600 of these tanks, spaced over a 3,000-square-kilometre expanse that could fit all of Luxembourg with room to spare. Together they comprise the Pierre Auger Observatory: a US$53-million experiment to reveal the mysterious origins of ultra-high-energy cosmic rays, the most energetic subatomic particles known to exist.
But for all its size, the array has fallen short. After almost ten years of hunting, it has observed dozens of ultra-high-energy cosmic rays, but has not managed to solve the mystery of where they come from. As a detector, “the device worked twice as well as we expected”, says project co-founder James Cronin, a retired astrophysicist at the University of Chicago in Illinois. But the particles seem to be coming from all over the sky, with too little clustering for researchers to pinpoint the sources. “It's up to nature with experiments like this one,” he says. ---> Keep reading
17 September 2014
We are the unwitting subjects of subtle mind games to make us better passengers. And it sometimes starts before we even board.
On a United Airlines flight from Newark to Denver in August, a small piece of plastic caused an unexpected diversion to another airport – and headlines around the world. It started when one passenger had used a “Knee Defender” – a $21.95 piece of plastic that attaches to the tray table and blocks the seat in front in an upright position. A furious row ensued, with name-calling and drinks being thrown – and the plane had to make an emergency stop in Chicago, with police escorting both passengers off the flight.
The use of the Knee Defender is an extreme example of some of the tricks we use to try and make our commute – by bus, train or plane – that little bit more comfortable. The fight for space on public transport can turn the meekest among us into a rebel. But while we might be aware of the tricks we pull to afford ourselves that extra bit of space, we’re not necessarily aware of those being played on us by transport operators – the “nudge”.
Persuading people to do the right thing when they’re travelling is a nuanced business. The nudge is the unspoken ushering towards a way of acting that makes life easier for everyone, be it on a cramped Tube train or a commuter flight. So how do they trick us into behaving the way they want – ideally without us even noticing they are doing it? ---> Keep reading
20 July 2014
Black holes suck – but do they have mirror twins that blow? A far-flung space telescope is peering into galactic nuclei to spot one for the first time
PHYSICS is full of opposites. For every action, there's a reaction; every positive charge has a negative; every magnetic north pole has a south pole. Matter's opposite number is antimatter. And for black holes, meet white holes.
Black holes are notorious objects that suck in everything around them. Famously, not even light can escape their awesome gravity. White holes, in contrast, blow out a constant stream of matter and light – so much so that nothing can enter them. So why have so few people heard of them?
One reason is that white holes are exotic creatures whose existence is speculated by theorists, but ... ---> Keep reading (Subscribers only)
17 April 2014
When conventional road signs have no effect, designers are turning to increasingly clever ways to subconsciously make drivers slow down or pay attention.
A spooky, black human silhouette suddenly appeared out of nowhere on the roadside of a picturesque country road in southern France. It was the size of an adult, but it had no face; instead, a lightning bolt seemed to split its head in two.
Speeding down this road with no traffic, no lampposts and no speed traps – just ancient plane trees towering on both sides – I dismissed the figure as a weird prank. But then there was another. And then two more, an adult and what looked like a child. ---> Keep reading
26 March 2014
Plants that absorb metals from the soil could clean up old mines and allow farmers to harvest valuable resources without ruining the environment still more
ALAN BAKER squatted to get a closer look at the delicate white flowers that shouldn't have been there. He knew that the soil in that part of England's Peak District was laced with metals toxic to most plants. Yet here, in the desolate surroundings of an old lead mine, he had found spring sandwort flourishing. ---> Keep reading (paywall)
24 March 2014
Beam me up, Einstein. The world's most powerful atom laser could one day be sent into space to probe the mysteries of general relativity and perhaps offer clues to the long-sought connection between gravity and quantum mechanics.
Atom lasers emit beams of matter instead of photons. This is possible using an ultra-cold gas called a Bose-Einstein condensate, which makes millions of atoms behave like a single wave. Previous work created atom lasers by bottling up the ultra-cold gas using powerful electromagnets. ---> Keep reading
21 March 2014
They gush along the ocean floor and can wipe out the internet. Need another reason to understand the planet's underwater rivers?
UNDERNEATH the Bosporus Strait flows a mysterious river. It has banks and rapids and in places is a kilometre across. If it snaked across the land, the volume of water careering through it per second would make it our sixth largest river after the Amazon, Ganges, Congo, Yangtze and Orinoco. Yet the crews on board the ships that ply the strait between the Sea of Marmara and the Black Sea don't even know the river exists. It flows silently 70 metres beneath them before reaching the edge of the sea shelf and disappearing into the deep.
The hidden river has no name, yet is by no means unique. Myriad underwater rivers criss-cross the ocean floor, some many thousands of kilometres long, tens of kilometres wide and hundreds of metres deep. They are the arteries of our planet. ---> Keep reading
19 March 2014
Modern airliners go through a series of exhaustive tests, from the earliest stages of design, to make sure they are as safe as possible. Katia Moskvitch lifts the lid on some of the stresses plane-makers put them through – from Arctic freezing to shooting chickens at the cockpit.
Aeroplanes have moved on more than a little since the first aviators soared into the sky, clad in leather jackets, caps and goggles. Back then, they needed quite an element of faith before taking to their flying machines. One hundred years on, they board highly complex machines often made from unusual materials such as carbon fibre and flying partly thanks to computers. The days of flying on “a wing and a prayer” are over.
Nowadays, aircraft testing is incredibly elaborate and rigorous. New planes only make it into the air after a long list of tests – from chucking chickens into jet engines to simulate bird strikes to bending the wings to extreme angles.
In the last 10 years, the testing methods have undergone major changes– both on the ground and in computer simulations. The aim, in both cases, is to minimise the number of hours testing planes in flight. ---> Keep reading
13 March 2014
Flight delays are tedious at the best of times. But it’s even worse when it’s cold, and the plane you’re in poised for take-off suddenly lumbers down a taxi way to join a queue of aircraft waiting to be de-iced – as many people in the US can testify during the recent bad weather.
Ice and aircraft do not mix well. The weight of ice on the wings and fuselage of a fully-fuelled aircraft can prevent it taking off. During the Arctic conditions the US this January, when temperatures dropped as low as -51C (-60F) thousands of flights were cancelled or delayed. Some airports further south, where sub-zero temperatures are rare, didn’t even have de-icing equipment. At O'Hare International Airport in Chicago, Illinois, the jet fuel and de-icing fluids froze altogether, according to American Airlines. ---> Keep reading
06 Feb 2014
If you were watching Iranian state TV in early December 2011, you would have seen an unusual flying object paraded in front of viewers. Windowless, squat, with a pointed nose, its two wings made it the shape of a manta ray. The trophy on show was an RQ-170 Sentinel stealth drone, a key weapon in the intelligence gathering arsenal of the US Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). Standing in a hangar on a military airfield, the drone was seemingly undamaged. Indeed, Iranian officials insisted that it had not been shot down; rather, they claimed an unusual coup: to have hacked the drone while it was flying near Iran’s border over Afghanistan and forced it to land.
Outside Iran, many snorted in disbelief at hearing such claims. Todd Humphreys, assistant professor of aerospace engineering at the University of Texas in Austin, US, was one of the sceptics.
---> Keep reading
31 Jan 2014
IF YOU were to draw up a list of the most pressing issues in science, it's unlikely that astronomy's carbon footprint would be on it. If it were, it would probably end up somewhere between effective male birth control and how to fold headphones to stop their wires getting tangled in your pocket.
Ueli Weilenmann, deputy director of La Silla Paranal Observatory in Chile, would disagree with that assessment. Recently, while grappling with the costs of running the place, he was shocked to discover the scale of the observatory's carbon emissions. A bit of further digging revealed that the problem is not limited to Paranal: many other observatories exude more greenhouse gas than their size betrays. ---> Keep reading (subscription only)