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February 27, 2019

Catching Up With a Girl Left Behind

Sputnik launched just as I started elementary school; the first astronauts landed on the moon soon after I finished high school. I watched the story of our first space age unfold on our old black-and-white Philco TV as CBS news anchorman Walter Cronkite deftly narrated events that held me enraptured. What kid growing up during this heady time wouldn’t want to be an astronaut? Sadly, girls of my era were not allowed, encouraged or academically prepared to pursue careers in science and tech. “You don’t have the right temperament,” my high school guidance counselor admonished me when I told him I wanted to take advanced trigonometry. He signed me up…

January 31, 2019

When AI says ‘no’ to your mortgage application

Imagine this scenario: A married couple working hard for a few years finally save up enough for a deposit on a small house. At last, they think, we can move out of this rented property into our own home. They fill out the necessary forms for a mortgage and send it off. Afterwards, for a couple of weeks, they eagerly await the postman every morning hoping that the brown envelope of acceptance will fall through the door onto their mat. Eventually something does arrive, but unfortunately it’s the brown envelope of rejection. They look disbelievingly at the letter and at each other. Why was their application rejected? The lady makes…

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…

December 14, 2018

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…

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…

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 even…

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…