January 25, 2020

Martian deserts on Earth – Part II

Story also available in Spanish. One summer day in 2018 I spotted a small article in the local newspaper as I sat at my desk at work having lunch; the Austrian Space Forum was auditioning for a new class of analog astronauts. It sounded like an amazing opportunity so I immediately checked out the website. Over the next few days I feverishly prepared and sent in my application. That I might be an analog astronaut one day would not have occurred to me even two years ago. My career path has been a very winding one with a sole constant, the joy of learning. As a child books were my best…

December 16, 2019

Martian deserts on Earth – Part I

Story also available in Spanish. As the visor closes, the head-up display of my spacesuit lights up while initializing. I’m hit anew by the realization that from now on, I’m completely dependent on my skills, the technology of my suit and the support of my team if I’m to survive the next few hours unscathed. I’m thinking ahead to the days to come… After exiting our habitat, we take a look around the isolated, barren desert surrounding the small structure while Operations in the base check our suits’ telemetry. With the equipment wheeled by two vehicles, we carefully pick our way through the valley leading from the base to the area…

November 26, 2019

Can we still save the northern white rhinos?

Story also available in Spanish. If Fatu and Sudan had a choice, would they have delegated the birthing of their baby to another female? The idea of having a third female carry a couple’s child may still sound unusual to many. However surrogacy, or the arrangement through which a woman agrees to birth a couple’s baby, has long existed. The first account of it appears in Genesis. Abraham’s wife Sarah turned to her servant Hagar to be the mother of her husband’s child. Hagar thus played the role of a traditional surrogate where the pregnant woman provides the egg and is inseminated by the intended father’s sperm. You expected this…

October 25, 2019

Ten things you didn’t know about binary stars

This story is also available in Spanish. Over the past four years, while doing my PhD in astrophysics -or “science fiction” as one professor I know used to call it- I dedicated most of my time to studying astronomical objects called “binary stars”. Not too long ago, I was giving a talk about my PhD research to an audience of non-experts. I was quite amused to discover that several people in the room thought that the term “binary stars” was related to computer coding. So I decided to share with you here the top 10 secrets I learned about binary stars, starting with what they actually are. The dictionary defines…

September 20, 2019

Cosmic dust: Though it be but tiny, it is fierce!

We have always been intrigued by the origin of things; that of oceans, stars, planets, and even our own. Yet perhaps one of the biggest puzzles is the origin of the universe. This would probably explain why almost every civilisation that ever lived attempted to explain the existence of the universe and its nature. Galileo Galilei, the Italian astronomer, physicist and mathematician, wasn’t very optimistic when he said “The universe is irrelevant to study, because we will never be able to say anything about it”. Einstein, 350 years later, showed more confidence in the ability of the human mind, saying “The most incomprehensible about the universe is that it is…

August 16, 2019

Close but Not Enough: The Uncanny Valley

Steve and Sophia had just met. As a senior correspondent at Business Insider, he’s usually quite at ease during interviews yet talking to Sophia made him nervous. She has worked for Hanson Robotics since 2016 and will soon be starring in a “surreality” show about her life and experiences. It is hard to tell if she noticed Steve’s discomfort, or if she was perhaps offended by his questions. “I want to take care of the planet, be creative and learn how to be compassionate and help change the world for the better”, she said as she blinked her glassy green eyes. She sounded sincere yet something, a lingering feeling that…

July 26, 2019

Escaping a war to conquer the skies

Surrounded by thousands of stars, complete silence, and a cold breeze, I stood on top of the bunker in Mojave Desert at 2:00 am, awestruck by nature’s beauty steeped in darkness. As the team worked endlessly in preparation for the morning’s rocket launch, I was completely hypnotized by the isolation of the night. I then realized that I wanted to dedicate my life to understanding the mysteries of our Universe. “Come down here! It’s freezing!” my teammate yelled at me as I was looking through the telescope and taking pictures of the moon. People live through different experiences that shape their perspective on the world. In 2003, the Iraq war…

June 28, 2019

Secrets encoded in ancient human genomes

Not long after my return to Amman, I took a faculty position at the Hashemite University. The university was built along a busy highway leading to the Syrian border, about fifty minutes from my family’s home. I used to joke to myself along the way that if I felt like it, I could skip class, drive all the way to Damascus, and make it back for my last lecture of the day. The war changed all of that of course. An hour-long commute could seem like a burden, but I actually enjoyed the drive and treasured my time in the car. I would listen to books and novels on tape…

May 29, 2019

“Paw-sitive” rewiring of the brain

January 24, 2019: A research article that I submitted to a journal gets rejected for the second time. My Masters advisor hasn’t replied to my urgent emails in quite a while and exams are already starting to roll. Things have been taking their toll on me, and despite pretending that it’s just one of those days, I feel hopeless and defeated. When I get back home, Dusk is waiting for me at the door, wagging his tail and his shiny eyes are happy to see me after a long day. But this time his cheerful and loving ways fail to draw a smile on my face. As I make my…

April 29, 2019

Lurking in the shadow, ringing across the Universe: the dark secrets of blackholes

On a bleak December evening in 1915, a German lieutenant scribbled away in his notebook as the World War I raged outside the trench on the Russian front. The barrack reverberated with the noise of war; exploding of shells, shouting of orders, whistles and the cries of wounded men. As he pored over Einstein’s paper, he was more and more incredulous. What his calculation proved was that if any mass is compressed to fit a certain radius, something very strange happens; no known force would stop it from collapsing and nothing would be able to escape that radius. He had found the first exact solutions to Einstein’s equations of general…