I realize I’m privileged to have access to some of the world’s cutting edge science, but last week was particularly special with a visit to University College London to hear a mixture of astrophysicists and astrobiologists talk to journalists about their cutting edge work,organized by the ABSW, the Association of British Science Writers, of which I’m a member.
Now we all know scientists can sometimes waffle, but this brave half-dozen weren’t allowed that luxury. The format for the talks was a pecha kucha – born in Japan, you have 20 slides, each lasting for exactly 20 seconds, to get your point across. That’s 6 minutes, 40 seconds (and not a second more) to say who you are, what you do and pitch for a place in the science columns of Britain’s newspapers.
First up, Giovanna Tinetti asked what exoplanets are actually made of. For those out of the loop, exoplanets are those orbiting other stars, far beyond out own solar system. We weren’t sure such things even existed until the 1990s, but nowadays there are more than 700 confirmed cases, with hundreds more candidates awaiting confirmation. recently some astronomers have gone so far as to sayy that every star in our galaxy must have planets orbiting.The most productive way to search for these faraway worlds is by using the Kepler Space Telescope. Looking back along a populous spiral arm of the Milky Way, this other Hubble is a study in concentration, staring fixedly at a single window on the stars, watching for the most minute variation in their light. And by analying this light – the chemical clues hidden within the spectra, scientists like Giovanna can tell what planets hundreds of light years away are made from. She’s looking for those that are habitable. Soon, New Earth need not be a thing of science fiction stories, especially if Giovanna’s plans for ECHO, the Exoplanet Characterisation Observatory, are approved by ESA (the European Space Agency).
Ofer Lahav, Professor of Astronomy at UCL, chose to talk about dark energy, the mysterious entity that apparently makes up three quarters of out universe, but which we didn’t even know was there until 1998. For me the most incredible, unexpected discovery of the last fifty years has been that the rate of expansion of the universe is increasing. No one expected this. Everyone wants to know why, but Ofer was impressively agnostic in his views. Either an entity we call dark energy permeates space itself, acting as Einsteins cosmological constant, or the best theories we have are very wrong. Once upon a time our best theory was Newton’s, but it couldn’t explain why Mercury orbited the Sun the way it did. Along came Einstein, General Relativity and a revolution in science. With the dark energy anomaly, are we on the cusp of another such paradigm shift?
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