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…

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…

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…

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 28, 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….