A SELECTION OF MY ARTICLES

A more comprehensive list of articles I have written can be found on Journalisted.com


Forgotten force: The other great cosmic attractor

07 Nov 2013

Milky Way's magnetic fields have been mapped with highest precision (Credit: Max Planck Society)
Milky Way's magnetic fields have been mapped with highest precision (Credit: Max Planck Society)

WHEN it comes to the cosmos, gravity is the big attraction. The same force that keeps our feet on the ground also shapes the universe. It takes clouds of gas and sculpts them into planets and stars. It fashions hundreds of billions of stars into galaxies, which clump together to form clusters, then superclusters. Yet gravity isn't the only player in the game – another force operates across the cosmic landscape, and that is magnetism.

Magnetic fields stretch for vast distances in the near-nothingness of deep space, even spanning the billions of light years between galaxies. Admittedly, these fields are feeble. A fridge magnet is more than a million times stronger than the weak, all-pervading sea of magnetism in the Milky Way and beyond. That might explain why cosmology has largely ignored magnetism. After all, how could something so puny influence a galaxy? ---> Keep reading (Subscription only)


Penal code: The coming world of trial by algorithm

6 Sept 2013

JOHN GASS was certain he'd done nothing wrong. Yet there it was, in black and white: the Massachusetts Registry of Motor Vehicles had revoked his driving licence.

It took him nearly two weeks, numerous calls to the registry and a court hearing to put things right. For the 41-year-old it was a nightmare, threatening his livelihood as a professional driver. For the registry it was clear: Gass had committed fraud by applying for more than one driver's licence – caught thanks to a facial-recognition algorithm.

In Massachusetts, and most other US states, the headshots on millions of licences are scanned routinely to spot criminals, underage drivers, people using fake names, and those suspended from driving. Yet in Gass’s case, originally reported by the Boston Globe, the computer had made a mistake. It was policing-by-algorithm gone wrong.

Over the past few years, law enforcement agencies have begun replacing human police officers with efficient, all-seeing, algorithms. They watch for crimes using ubiquitous sensors, cameras, facial-recognition software and intelligent computerised analysis. From traffic offences to theft, increasingly it’s an algorithm watching out: alerting police, or even dispatching punishment with no human oversight whatsoever.

Advocates argue that automated policing cuts cost, frees up resources and ensures wrongdoers do not escape justice. Yet many lawyers and computer scientists warn that we may not want to live in the algorithmically enforced world we’re headed for. ---> Keep reading

Frozen fuel: The giant methane bonanza

2 Sept 2013

Gas hydrates are plentiful on the bottom of Lake Baikal (Credit: Shimizu Corporation)
Gas hydrates are plentiful on the bottom of Lake Baikal (Credit: Shimizu Corporation)

CROWDED around a hole in the ice, the dozen or so people clad in thick jackets could be local fishermen. But the rope winch, carefully lowering a long, fat pipe into the frigid Siberian water, hints that it is not dinner they are here to catch.

The men on the ice are researchers from the Limnological Institute in nearby Irkutsk, and the treasure they are after, hidden at the bottom of Lake Baikal, is a trove of white, ice-like chunks called methane hydrates. Put a flame next to them and they'll ignite, burning what may be the cleanest fossil fuel currently known.

For over a decade, scientists have trekked to this remote corner of the Russian wilderness from around the world, funded by governments eager to understand how to exploit these peculiar accumulations. "We've hosted scientists from everywhere – Japanese, Belgian, Indian and others," says Oleg Khlystov... ---> Keep reading

Exoplanets: New missions hunting for alien worlds

29 August 2013

Cerro Armazones in Chile is the site for the European Extremely Large Telescope (Credit: Science Photo Library)
Cerro Armazones in Chile is the site for the European Extremely Large Telescope (Credit: Science Photo Library)

As mountains go, Cerro Armazones may not be much to look at. Standing 3,000 metres (9,800 feet) tall, it is a shapeless reddish dust heap in Chile’s hot and arid Atacama Desert. The only sign of life is a dirt road zig-zagging all the way to the top.

But for astronomers like Joe Liske, this is arguably the world’s most interesting mountain right now, and not just because in the next few months more than 100 tonnes of dynamite will blow off its top to create a flat platform. By the early 2020s, that platform will become home to the biggest-ever eye on the sky, the E-ELT, or European Extremely Large Telescope. ---> Keep reading

Blast from the past: Solving the Tunguska mystery

3 July 2013


The Chelyabinsk meteor may be able to help us to finally solve the Tunguka mystery (Credit: L. Kulik)
The Chelyabinsk meteor may be able to help us to finally solve the Tunguka mystery (Credit: L. Kulik)

IT'S just after 7 on a quiet Tuesday morning in June 1908 when a dazzling fireball streaks across the Siberian sky. Minutes later an immense blast topples 80 million trees and knocks people off their feet 60 kilometres away. It's the violent end of an alien dogfight, with one spaceship destroyed in mid-air and the other turning and vanishing into space.

His voice trembles as 79-year-old retired Russian physicist Viktor Zhuravlyov tells me this rather unorthodox theory of what happened that day at Tunguska. The enigma has fascinated scientists for more than a century. Something exploded over the Siberian taiga – but what?

---> Keep reading

Red-hot Chile peepers: How to make a very large telescope

 

By Katia Moskvitch, 28 March 2012

The Milky Way over Paranal may give the impression that the sky is falling (Credit: ESO)
The Milky Way over Paranal may give the impression that the sky is falling (Credit: ESO)

In the hot and desolate lands of Chile's Atacama Desert, seemingly lonely and lost, four huge metallic structures tower over the dusty summit of Cerro Paranal.

Look closer, though, and you will detect a buzz of activity.

The structures have names - Antu, Kueyen, Melipal and Yepun - and each encloses a telescope. Together they form the VLT, or Very Large Telescope, the world's biggest optical telescope facility.

Every now and then, the VLT is in the news, when its astronomers make yet another discovery. Run by the European Southern Observatory (Eso), the VLT became fully operational in 2000.

Since then the telescope has tracked stars moving around the supermassive black hole at the centre of our galaxy, shown us the first-ever images of an exoplanet and captured the afterglow of the furthest known gamma-ray bursts.

The Paranal Observatory offers perfect natural conditions for astronomers: there is virtually no light pollution; the skies are clear; clouds appear on only about 30 days a year. Still, observations would not be the same without the cutting-edge technology of the VLT.

The telescopes are packed with instruments, both above and below ground.

They allow scientists to capture images of stars and nebulas billions of light years away with the clarity you would expect of a snap of your cat snoozing on your living-room sofa.

Journey of light

As the intensely red sun above Northern Chile disappears beyond the horizon, the domes of the four silvery towers slowly open.

They gradually expose the telescopes, ready to eye the night sky and send astronomers valuable data about the Universe.

"Look at this mirror," says Stephane Guisard, an optical engineer at Paranal, pointing at a piece of glass eight metres in diameter. One of the VLT's units is slowly rotating just above our heads. (...) Read original article in full here

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