Short story: Wei Lai and Mazu

The moment of Wei Lai’s conception was streamed live in schools across China. As the microscopic glass needle punctured the egg, Commander Xue answered carefully rehearsed questions from pupils back on Earth.

No, the baby would not be going on the colony ship to Sirius. This was just an experiment.

Yes, it would have a mummy. He or she (the gender neutrality of Mandarin pronouns is a godsend) would be implanted back in the mother on returning to Earth. Tests of the artificial wombs would come later, once the viability of IVF in space had been proven.

No, a child conceived in space should be no different to one conceived on Earth. Continue reading

Why we need more continents

In any group of geography nerds, one of the biggest peeves will be “Europe’s not a continent”. From this perspective, Europe is just a peninsula of Asia, and the listing of Europe in the seven traditional continents (Africa, Antarctica, Asia, Australia/Oceania, Europe, North America, South America) is just a result of Eurocentric bias.

This isn’t an unreasonable view – “continent” doesn’t really have a set definition, but a common one is “large area of land surrounded by water”. By this definition, Australia and Antarctica definitely fit and North and South America nearly do, as does Africa. Asia and Europe are then the weirdos, since they share a long, indefinite land border somewhere in the Urals. So you redefine this as one big continent, Eurasia, and then everything just about works.

But there’s another problem. By population, the continents are uneven. There are about 1.2 billion Africans, 750 million Europeans, 600 million North Americans, 400 million South Americans and 40 million Oceanians. That adds up to just about 3 billion people. The other 4.2 billion people on this planet all live in Asia. More people live in Asia than live in all the other continents combined. Adding Europe to the mix gives Eurasia a total population of 5 billion, or around 70% of the world’s population. What’s the point of dividing the world into continents if you’re going to have one continent with almost everyone?

In fact, what’s the point of dividing the world into continents at all?

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Short story: Messier

A short story, loosely inspired by Tabby’s Star. Fun fact: when Messier was first categorising galaxies, he actually hated them. He was a comet hunter, and galaxies really annoyed him because they looked like comets (at least with the small telescopes they had the time) but weren’t. His list of galaxies and nebulae was originally compiled to warn other astronomers away from mistaking them for comets. It was only much later that people realised what galaxies were, or that they were actually located a long way outside the Milky Way. Anyway, story time.

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Time Crystals

I couldn’t find any actual pictures of time crystals, so here are some coupled pendulums.

A short story, based on a cool bit of recent news.

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Can the Moon be used as a weapon?

When the Moon hits your eye… (CC-BY State Farm)

Twitter likes to have its daily figures of mockery, and today that role fell to Brianna Wu – game developer, women’s rights activist and prospective politician. In response to Space X’s announcement that it was aiming to send people to the Moon (a pizza-pie in the sky idea, if you ask me) Wu tweeted “The Moon is probably the most tactically valuable military ground for earth. Rocks dropped from there have the power of 100s of nuclear bombs.” (The original tweet has been deleted, although she clarified that by “dropped” she meant “fired“, which seems fair enough).

She was mocked from both sides of the political spectrum, by people who often seemed to little understanding of the science involved themselves (for instance, people who believed that rocks would burn up in the atmosphere, and therefore be harmless – something very much untrue) but claimed to have the support of astrophysicist PhDs.

So, how plausible is the plan of attack that Wu outlines? Well, in a nutshell, the physics is correct, but the engineering is ridiculous.

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How easy would it be to cover up alien life?

The surface of TRAPPIST-1f

It’s a godawful small affair

It wasn’t aliens, despite what The Telegraph claimed, but it was cool. TRAPPIST-1 has a whole clutch of planets orbiting, including several rocky Earth sized planets in its habitable zone.

“Well,” the conspiracy theorists are already saying, “of course they wouldn’t announce the discovery of alien life. They’d cover it up.”

But could they? How easy would it be to actually cover up the existence of aliens? Here’s a little follow up to Tuesday’s post. If scientists did discover aliens, how could the government keep it under wraps?

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How would scientists announce the discovery of aliens?

Planets around a red star

An artist’s impression of planets orbiting TRAPPIST-1 (image CC ESA/Hubble)

On Monday 20th January, Nasa announced a sudden press conference on a “discovery beyond our solar system“. Admittedly, Nasa has become a bit notorious for calling press conferences at the drop of a space helmet, but this one has people quite excited.

Included on the panel are Michaël Gillon, who heads the exoplanet detecting project TRAPPIST in Belgium, and at least two experts on exoplanet atmospheres, Nikole Lewis and Sara Seager. Last year TRAPPIST discovered a star called, with all the imagination you’d expect, TRAPPIST-1, orbited by three small planets that it just so happens are perfectly aligned so that we can see them eclipse the central star – and this means that we can watch how the starlight is absorbed by the planet’s atmospheres and calculate what gases they contain.

And the rumours (to repeat, rumours) are that they might have found oxygen which, it’s argued, would be an almost certain sign of life. Oxygen is ridiculously reactive – good news for life, since the reaction between oxygen and sugar is our main source of fuel, but not so good for the metal that tarnishes and wood that burns – and if left on its own, pure oxygen will rapidly disappear as it becomes water, rust, or gases like carbon dioxide. If the atmosphere contains a lot of pure oxygen, something must be putting it there, and that something might be some form of life.

It’s tenuous, I admit. But it’s possible. And it raises an interesting question. What happens if scientists do discover life on other planets? Not intelligent beings, but the sort of life you see in David Attenborough documentaries – things resembling bacteria, plants, animals, or blobs of matter completely alien to our understanding. Surprisingly, it’s not clear.

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Google Search Q&A 6

Spuggies! (By Daniel Marchese on Flickr, CC-BY-2.0)

It’s been a long time since we did this, and the boring reason why is that Google now encrypts its search engine referrals (officially for privacy reasons, but it will still show you search terms for paid search adverts…)

But not every search engine does, and the “Search terms” box in our stats page has been very slowly filling up…

  • dove mixed with sparrow
  • pattern of sparrow for embroidery
  • sparrow in cross sticking
  • difference between mocking jay and sparrow
  • small brown garden bird
  • small speckaled uk sparrow like bird
  • what would the difference be when reffering a person as a dove rather than a sparrow
  • cayenne pepper and sparrows

…with sparrows.

Today, we’re going to answer one (non)Google Search with the help of another.

  • nom of sparrow graph
  • sparrow energy drink

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What would really happen if the Earth lost oxygen for five seconds?

I’ve seen this Buzzfeed video floating around a bit on the internet (a more readable picture version is here). Purportedly, it explains what would happen if the Earth lost oxygen for five seconds. But… well, perhaps you shouldn’t use Buzzfeed as your main source of scientific information.

So, what would really happen?

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