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…

October 27, 2018

Of sunburns and solar cells

On a recent hike, I endured what was a sharp reminder of the Sun’s might. I stood at the treeline, surrounded by a rocky, lunar-like landscape and thought, ‘I should have put on sunscreen’. But I quickly shrugged it off –  I needed to focus on the new terrain and challenges of navigating.   It wasn’t until that evening, sharing a post-hike pizza with my fellow hikers, that the thought returned to me as I caught a glimpse of my face in the mirror: tomato-sauce red. I should have put on that sunscreen!   This encounter got me reflecting on the Sun’s power. The Sun is an ever-present being in our…

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

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 her moods. Last month a scientist…

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…

June 19, 2018

Starlight: the muse, compass and human right

Credit: Amanda Smith/IoA

The spectacular splashes of constellations across the heavens have been the muse of story-tellers before humans even learned to write, at times now lost in the mist of history. Around flickering flames and within the ornate walls of the courts of kings, tales were woven around patterns in the stars. The sky then burst with stories of great goddesses and gods, of chained queens, of hunters and heroes suckling on divine milk. Celestial myths are infused with sacred cultural traditions and worldly views of the natural cycles and human condition: plunging into the autumn equinox, toiling throughout the long winter nights and emerging with the rebirth at the spring equinox….