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…

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…

March 28, 2019

Music of the Spheres

Humans have been in awe of the harmony of the heavens since times immemorial. Ancient Greeks believed that celestial bodies made music. In the clinging of hammers Pythagoras heard “a clue from God”, or so a folk myth goes. Stretching strings and plucking them, he discovered an intimate connection between mathematics and music, and that objects produced sound when in motion. He was thus convinced that planets moving in orbit should be humming a heavenly tune, and he sought to find the astronomical harmony of the cosmos.   In our modern times, another polymath longed for a similar fulfilment. In 1926 Arthur Eddington, an English astronomer lamented in his book The…

December 21, 2018

The Long Hand of Darkness

Mist lifts over the Boyne Valley in Ireland as the Sun dawns on the stone tomb Newgrange. A narrow sunbeam streams through the passage just above the entrance. It reaches the floor and slowly crawls towards the back of an ancient crossed-shaped chamber. The beam of the rising Sun expands, flooding the tomb of ancestral ashes and bones with light for 17 minutes. This Stone-age alarm announces the 355th day of Earth’s year-long journey around the Sun. Today darkness yawns and stretches over the North, its longest stretch of the year. In a wheat field nearby, Aisling glances up to see the Sun tracing its shortest arc. It hasn’t escaped…

November 30, 2018

Darwin’s principles unravel the evolution of our Galaxy

Chemical elements that make up our bodies and everything around us were made in stars. A star is born once it starts to shine, a process triggered with nuclear fusion in its core. This fusion produces heavier elements. The more massive the star, the heavier the elements it can fuse and produce. A massive star burns up its fuel by cooking heavier and heavier elements up the periodic table to iron. An iron core, however, is unstable because it can’t support the gravity of the outer layers. Thus it collapses, releasing a massive amount of energy and neutrons. Neutrons quickly get captured by the different nuclei produced during the star’s…

September 27, 2018

From chaos to order in stellar systems

At times when humanity is troubled with the insufferable conflicts of the world, people turn to the sky for serenity and inspiration. One would indeed find it soothing to dream about the planets, the stars and the harmony of their existence.   This is exactly what the crowd was seeking that day, sprinkled around the courtyard on vibrantly coloured rugs, thirsty for Scheherazade’s tale about the Sun and the planets. However, Scheherazade had news for them they did not expect to hear…   Gracefully poised on her ottoman near the courtyard’s water fountain and green foliage, she unfolded her tale..   Looking at our Solar System now and seeing how…

August 3, 2018

Stellar atmospheres and their dietary requirements

stellar spectroscopy

Declaring that I’m an astronomer at social events never fails to cause a sensation. Sat next to a starry-eyed historian at a College dinner last night, he asked: “how do we learn about stars?” as he picked through the salad vegetables on his plate.   Starlight which we observe using telescopes, I said, encodes a wealth of information about the star’s temperature, gravity, and chemical makeup. Telescopes collect parcels of light, called photons, like a bucket collects rain. In1610, Galileo used a simple tube with lenses which he called a spyglass to observe the sky and collect more light than his eyes could. Telescopes have developed a lot since then….

July 17, 2018

The life and fate of our mortal Sun

This story is also available in Spanish. Today I woke up on the wrong side of the clouds. Having been graced with unusually genial sunshine for more than a month, today looks particularly grim. “Return, alas! return, O radiance dear! And drive from me that foul, consuming Fear” pleads Bradamante in 16th century “Orlando Furioso”. This got me thinking about our 4.6 billion year-old beast and her glittering head. She bewitchingly promises warmth and cheer and when she’s beclouded our moods flop like a wet towel. But what’s going on in that head of hers? At times she scoffs and flares up, spewing fiery flames. She is spotty and certainly has…

July 5, 2018

A journey from your backyard to the stars

Last time you lay down in your backyard gazing at a night sky studded with twinkling lights, could you imagine them being born, living eventful lives then fading away and donating matter back to the Universe, matter which may form new stars and planets one day?   As you lay there, did you wonder why some people spend their lives studying stars?   I’ve been studying them for the past ten years. True story! Tax money pays my salary, so I can’t help but wonder, how does society feel about the stars? Does society even care at all?   If you’re undecided, here are a couple of interesting facts that…