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Monday 31 December 2012

The Sun's Bubble

This guest post is by Roger Duthie, Doctoral Candidate in Space Plasma Physics at the Mullard Space Science Laboratory.

In the late 1970s, Nasa’s Voyager probes began an epic journey through the solar system to explore the outer planets (Jupiter, Saturn, Neptune & Uranus). The “in-situ” measurements sent back from Neptune and Uranus by Voyager 2 are still the only local observations of the magnetospheres of these ice giants. But what is so very special and unique about the Voyager missions is that they are still operational over 35 years on and they are heading out of the solar system into new territory within our galaxy (the Milky Way) at large.

Image courtesy NASA/JPL-Caltech
NASA's Voyager probes are the furthest man-made items from the Earth.
Image Courtesy NASA/JPL-Caltech.
Image copyright: ESA
The Earth's magnetosphere is also important for keeping
ahold of the planet's atmosphere. Image credit: ESA
The solar system of eight planets, plus many minor planets, asteroids and comets, is bathed in plasma ("solar wind") streaming outwards from our single, central star (the Sun). The Sun also provides a magnetic bubble in the form of the heliosphere, much like the magnetosphere which Earth possesses. The Earth's magnetosphere is the region around the planet where its' magnetic field dominates, and to some extent it protects the Earth from the impinging solar wind; the heliosphere plays the same role for the entire solar system, diverting the plasma of our galaxy's interstellar medium (the ISM). Where we are able to extensively probe and measure the structure of the Earth's magnetosphere and interaction with the solar wind with satellites and even observations made from the ground, the outer reaches of the heliosphere are the sole domain of the Voyager spacecraft. It happens that they are both heading out towards the 'nose' of the heliosphere, one into the northern part and one to the southern. The nose is the direction facing upstream within the flow of the ISM; in the downstream direction is the heliosphere's tail.

Friday 21 December 2012

Apocalypse When?

Today marks the end of the Mayan long count calendar. So will the world come to an end today? Probably not. But the world will come to an end eventually, and there are a number of scientists looking into various possible ways it might happen.

All life on Earth depends on the Sun. Without its energy plants couldn't grow, and everything would freeze before you could say "it's a bit chilly today". So it is perhaps fitting that the Sun may also be the doom of the planet, in about 5 billion years. Or maybe 6 billion. Our Sun isn't big enough to explode as a supernova, that most spectacular firework of nature, but it will start to get bigger. Much as we fear running out of oil on Earth today, sooner or later the Sun will run low on hydrogen, and will start to change.

Our Sun is performing a balancing act. Its gravity is trying to make it collapse to a tiny point, but the energy from nuclear fusion counteracts it. You can think of it a bit like a balloon, the elastic skin is trying to squeeze it all together, but the pressure of the air inside is keeping it at a steady size. Take away the gravity (elastic) and it would fly apart - but take away the air pressure, and it contracts. When the Sun runs out of hydrogen, this energy will reduce, and gravity starts winning, making the star smaller (our Sun is a star). But it won't make it to a tiny point, because as it gets smaller the pressure gets higher (try compacting a tin can into the size of a pea) and nuclear fusion starts up again - this time, burning helium.

An artist's impression of what our Sun may look like from Earth as a Red Giant Star
What would our Sun look like as a Red Giant?
Image credit: Hiro Sheridan (Creative Commons)
But as the core of the Sun collapses in this way it also gets hotter, so the outer layers of the Sun will expand and turn the Sun into a red giant - about 250 times bigger than it is now. There has been quite some debate about exactly how large the Sun will get, and what will happen to the Earth. Mercury and Venus will be swallowed, but the Earth may be left intact. As well as being scorched to a crisp, the Earth's gravity may create a 'tidal bulge' on the surface of the Sun, which could eventually drag the Earth down to fiery doom. Either way, you wouldn't want to be around.

Whether or not humanity will survive to see this happen is another question entirely. Or rather, several questions. There are so many possible ways for humanity to meet its grisly end, that it might feel we should be asking "which one will get us first?"

Monday 10 December 2012

Biofuels – Why bother?

A while ago someone figured out that the Earth's ever fluctuating climate was now changing too quickly and blamed it on excessive emissions of carbon dioxide from human activities. The scientific community, policy makers and the general public more or less agreed that something ought to be done to prevent a global catastrophe. One of the main sources of such climate-harming gases is burning fossil fuels for our transport and industries. Conveniently, such fuels are also a cause of great economical and geopolitical distress in the whole world, since every country needs them but only a handful are able to supply them.

One possible solution for these issues is the use of "biofuels". Biofuels are burned to release energy, much like conventional fuels, but whose energy was stored by consuming (sequestering) carbon dioxide in the first place.  In other words, using biofuels only releases the carbon dioxide that was removed from the atmosphere by making it, resulting in no overall increase. The most obvious example of biofuel is wood.

Grass grown as a biofuel crop for Drax power station
This grass is grown as an annual crop for biofuel, burned at Drax power station in Northern England.
Photo credit: Allan Harris (Creative Commons)

Tuesday 27 November 2012

Would you like to write for us?

Do you work in science and could share some of the things we don’t know about your area of expertise or research?

We’d love for you to write a guest blog post for us to publish on this site.

The process is pretty simple, all we need is a:

  • Few hundred words on a topic of your choice
  • Relevant image or two if possible
  • Couple of sentences about you to help readers learn more about our guest bloggers.

We’ll run the post past our editorial team here before it’s published just to check it’s clear and easy for our non-scientist readers to understand.

As you can tell from our name, we are focussing on the Things We Don’t Know in science, so some background on the topic you're writing about is fine, but remember to tell us mainly about the things that are still open questions.

If you’re interested in writing a guest post for Things We Don’t Know drop us an email ( or leave a comment below.

Sunday 18 November 2012

Why do we yawn?

Photograph of newborn baby yawning
Babies: A common cause of yawning worldwide.
Image credit: Björn Rixman (Flickr/Creative Commons)
With a newborn baby at home, you probably won't be surprised to hear I yawn a lot these days. But why do I do it? Although the answer seems obvious: "I'm tired", the question "why do we yawn" is very much unsolved.

Boredom and tiredness are the two most stereotypical reasons for yawning, but what's the connection between these two conditions? Neither explains why we yawn because we saw somebody else doing so, and there's even a good chance that simply reading this article will make you yawn - and hopefully not because you're bored! Why do we yawn? Is there a physiological reason? Or a psychological one? How about evolutionary? Why can't we control whether or not we do it?

It has been suggested, and even taught, that yawning is a response to a need for more oxygen in the brain, but this has been shown to be wrong1. But what about temperature? It could be that we yawn because the brain is getting too hot, and that yawning helps cool it down again. The cooling effect is thought to come from both the air flowing through the skull as a result of the deep breath, and by increasing the blood flow to the brain by stretching the jaw. This research so far seems promising, but this still wouldn't explain why it's contagious.

Sunday 4 November 2012

Things We Don't Know on stage in Berlin

The Sophiensæle, Berlin - former meeting place of the German Communist Party, and now a theatre, is probably not the sort of place you expect to find a group of entrepreneurs explaining their new business ideas. And yet earlier this week, that is exactly what happened.

Sophiensaele, Berlin
Sophiensæle, Berlin
When I received an email from Thom Reinhard via the Hub, it immediately leapt out at me as something special. A business school graduate turned artist, Thom was looking to combine the worlds of business and art with his partner Monica Truong. Specifically, they wanted to put social enterprise on the stage.

You probably know Things We Don't Know is a social enterprise. What may not be obvious is that in order for us to focus on explaining science well, we have to pay a lot of attention to aesthetics, design, language, imagery... in other words, art. 

Their concept was quite straightforward - they wanted to conduct an experiment. "What happens if you take an entrepreneur looking for funding, have their pitch rewritten by a team of artists, get a professional actor to train them and put them on the stage?" The result is the theatre performance "Invest In Me!", part of the Freischwimmer international arts festival, now touring Germany, Austria and Switzerland.

The opportunity to connect with "non-traditional" science audiences was too good to miss. When I contacted Thom and Monica, they were immediately as excited about what we're doing as we were about them, and in August we announced that we would be joining their project.

A few short but very intensive months later, Tuesday evening was the show's première where we had a very warm reception from the audience. I can't say too much about the show itself without giving away surprises for our future performances, but it was great to connect with people from both the art and business worlds, and hear their feedback and perception of what we're doing. I will say that we have three very unique social entrepreneurs, with very different concepts and equally unique performance styles.  It was particularly interesting to hear one person describe our concept as creating the first "uncyclopedia", we hadn't really looked at it like that!

The "Invest In Me!" stage setting
Setting up the "Invest In Me!" stage

For anybody who saw us on stage and is now reading the site, thank you for your support! Next stop: Vienna.

Sunday 28 October 2012

We’re recruiting!

Would you like to join Things We Don’t Know in explaining the questions to which science still seeks the answers?

We are creating an interactive repository where people can read about all the mysteries that science has not yet found the answer to - in other words, the rationale for current scientific research.

To help fill this repository with the "things" that we don't know, we are employing interns from universities around the world, and have a new vacancy.

We’re looking for a student currently studying Chemistry, or a related subject, to join the team on a part time basis. The role will require you to explain complex problems in simple language, and involve interviewing science researchers at your institution and writing up these pieces for the database. You will learn and develop a range of skills - improving writing skills, learn how to interview people, manage your own time etc.

The role is a paid internship, working part time (approximately 10h/wk) initially for a 3 month period, starting in January 2013.

Our main office is in London, but our team is intentionally distributed around the world and we rely heavily on digital communication and collaboration tools. As the role is intended to run concurrently with studies, we don't expect the successful candidate to be working from our London based office. Indeed, given the role requires talking to researchers at your university, it would make little sense! Therefore you will be "working from home". 

If this opportunity interests you and you think you fit the criteria please send your CV and covering letter to our recruitment team by emailing by 17:00 on Friday 30 November 2012.

Wednesday 17 October 2012

Open Questions in Embryo Development

There are many things we still don't know about the very first hours of an embryo's development. In this time, does an embryo separate its back from front? Left from right? Or is this decided later?

We know about certain pathways that are involved in the early development of embryo.  But do we have the whole picture? And how can we even try to look at it?

This is what I am interested in my work. On my daily commute people often ask what it is that I work with. I tell them I use a technique to try to look at all the proteins at once within early embryos, mass spectrometry proteomics.

"What kind of embryos?  Human (with varying tones)? Mouse? Rat?"

"No."  I reply.  "Frogs."
A frog embryo, or 'Frogspawn'
A frog embryo, more commonly known as 'Frogspawn'.
Image credit: Andrew Michaels (Creative Commons)

Wednesday 10 October 2012

Investigating Fragile X syndrome

Our research focuses on the neurons in networks in the brain and aims to understand the mechanisms that underlie the workings of our minds.

Our approach is to study how networks of nerve cells in the brain communicate together, how they connect with each other and how a change in a single gene in the brain can alter a brain network. The Human Genome Project has shown that humans have 20-25,000 different genes. We're still working on the exact number, but current estimates put it at 23,2291. Around 20,000 (86%) of these genes are thought to express in our brains2, but again, the exact count is unknown. Given these vast numbers, it may seem surprising that one gene can have a strong effect. But a single gene really can cause the difference between say a normal IQ and having learning difficulties & cognitive impairments. For example, take the intellectual disability and autism disorder, Fragile X syndrome: people with this monogenic disorder have an impairment of one specific gene3. This results in cognitive impairments, anxiety, higher levels of autism & epilepsy along with other non-cognitive symptoms. Within the brain itself, we find the structural connections made between nerve cells, the synapses, look different to those in an unaffected brain. The synapses are more immature in their development, on average, and are more abundant in the brain.

Diagram of synapses in typical and Fragile X brain networks
Synapses in a typical brain network, and those in a Fragile X network.
Image credit: Meredith lab, VU University Amsterdam

But how do we study the effects of a single gene on brain cell networks in a cognitive disorder? And is the increased number of structural connections between nerve cells in Fragile X syndrome reflected in brain function? To directly test our ideas that there are changes occurring in brain networks due to a single gene, we use brain tissue from  genetically-engineered mice to measure functional connections between nerve cells. We test if a nerve cell is connected to its immediate neighbours ('short-range') or to more distant nerve cells ('long-range' partners) using a combination of electrodes to measure neural activity and fluorescent dyes that monitor changes in brain network activity4.

Friday 5 October 2012

Do Aliens Exist?

Asking scientists if they believe we're being visited by aliens in little flying saucers is likely to get you a few funny looks. Yet there are a number of scientists interested in the question "Do aliens exist?". The key point here, is that the two questions are completely different.

Many scientists believe there is life elsewhere in the universe. Some even believe it's likely to exist on other places within our solar system, such as on Jupiter's moon Europa. That's not to say they believe in UFO's - this life could be as simple as bacteria.

The Arecibo radio telescope
The Arecibo Observatory is a radio telescope near Arecibo, Puerto Rico.
Image credit: NAIC
Scientists have been searching of evidence of intelligent life on other worlds for more than a century - a search known as SETI. The most famous aspect of this search is probably SETI@home, which allows people to download an application onto their home computers, to analyse data from the Arecibo radio telescope (left). The program has been running for more than a decade (since 1999) and has attracted more than 5 million participants. They are searching for a radio signal that might be coming from an intelligent species, elsewhere in our galaxy - the Milky Way.

But is there likely to be another civilisation out there for us to detect?

Wednesday 26 September 2012

Why not economics?

We have more fascinating guest blogs coming soon, and hopefully some exciting new announcements, too.

A few weeks ago I was on stage in Bern, Switzerland, explaining what Things We Don't Know is trying to achieve. We met with a very warm reception, and I'd like to say a big hello to our new Swiss followers! I explained that we are looking to employ students to write about seven sciences: Biology, Chemistry, Medicine, Physics, Planetary Science, Psychology and Sociology. A few people asked us why we decided to draw the line where we did, and exclude economics, for example.

This was a very difficult decision. A few people think we're crazy for trying to write about all the open questions of these seven, and it's certainly a huge task we're taking on. Before we launch the main site, we want to have a good selection of topics in all of the branches of all of these areas - and that's a lot of work. We wanted to cover as many of the sciences as possible, but knew the more subjects we added the longer it would take us to get ready for launch. We had to draw a clear line somewhere, and this is where it ended up. These seven sciences are very closely linked, which is the main reason we decided to include them all. It would be almost impossible to create a comprehensive description of the research being done in any subset of them, without linking to the others.

Archaeology, computing, economics, engineering, history and mathematics didn't make the cut - but that doesn't mean we want to exclude them forever. As the site grows after launch, we'll be looking to expand into these topics as soon as we feel able to do so.

The key to getting our database ready for launch is the student interns we recruit to interview researchers - that's why we're putting a lot of our effort right now into securing funding for these placements. If you think your university or research institute would be interested in working with us, please get in touch.

Thursday 23 August 2012

Science, Art and Economics.

It’s been a couple of weeks since our physics intern (Jon Cheyne) finished his internship with us, and all in all it’s been a great experience for us - both working with SEPnet (a consortium of seven world-class universities in SE England) and with Jon himself. The work he did interviewing physics researchers at QMUL about the Things We Don’t Know is invaluable. I’m really pleased that Jon wants to maintain a relationship with us in the future, too.

If you’ve missed any of his great blog updates I highly recommend them all. We’d never have learned the Northern Lights make noises; that scorpions glow in UV light; or that the atmosphere of the sun is a thousand times hotter than the surface below it without his posts. Of course, those posts were just the tip of the iceberg for Jon. In fact, the knowledge Jon gained about ongoing scientific research in a wide variety of fields nicely mirrors one of our goals, which is why we're working directly with students.

Things We Don't Know wants to explain all the mysteries of science, not just a handful. We also want to explain them to everybody, not just scientists. Jon's day to day task was writing about as many open questions (which we call "Things") as he could, and putting them all into our database. We're combining related Things to create interesting articles, which anybody can read. But these articles will be more than just fascinating stories - we're adding features to turn them into an interactive repository that is useful to students, scientists, and journalists too. In the case of students like Jon who wish to go into research, we want to help them make the right choice about what research question to focus on - and where to do it.
Once we feel we have enough of these articles written, the site will go live.

We’re very keen to offer others the opportunity to gain some new skills and experience in science communications, and help us to build our database through internships in the future – if you’re interested either in helping to fund an internship or taking part in one, get in touch with our recruitment department.

In other news, I’m currently jumping on a plane to Zurich every few weeks to meet up with the guys running an arts project we’ve been chosen to take part in. It might be surprising to hear the words "art project" from a site dedicated to science, but there's method in our madness! Thom Reinhard and Monika Truong’s project "Invest In Me!" brings together venture capitalism, crowdfunding, and theatre.

Thom Truong's "Invest In Me!" logo
Image: Thom Truong

If you're familiar with the TV show "Dragon's Den", and probably even if you're not, the idea of an entrepreneur pitching to investors almost certainly conjures up a very specific image in your mind: an entrepreneur standing in front of a few rich people behind a desk, possibly using a projector screen with a presentation on it to "sell" their vision.

What if you threw away this standard pitch, replaced it with one written by dramaturges and playwrights, had the entrepreneur trained by actors, and put them onto the theatre stage? As a part of the Freischwimmer festival, this is exactly the experiment Thom Truong are conducting.

They have brought together five social enterprises from different parts of Europe, and we're happy to announce that we're one of them. We'd love to see as many of our fans at the event as possible. A full schedule of events will be posted on their website and facebook. We'll be speaking about our vision to audiences in Germany, Austria and Switzerland - and challenging each audience to help us make it a reality.

Sunday 19 August 2012

How many species are there?

The south eastern United States is not exactly unexplored frontier. It's been inhabited for a good long while, and the population density is fairly high. You might expect that we have found and described all the animal species living there.

That's why I'd like you to meet Barbicambarus simmonsi.
Crayfish species Barbicambarus simmonsi
(From Taylor and Schuster 2010.)

This is a crayfish species that was discovered in Tennessee a couple of years ago (Taylor and Schuster 2010). It was previously unknown to science, which is surprising for two reasons. First, that south eastern region of the U.S. has had no shortage of biologists looking for crayfish there, because it has some of the highest diversity of crayfish species in the world. Second, this is not a small, inconspicuous crayfish. As crayfish biologist Chris Taylor tells it, this crayfish species is so big that when he asked the locals if there were crayfish around, they said no, "but there were some big lobsters upstream." Lobsters!

I bring up this story because it shows that one of the things we don't know is how many species we share the planet with. This is a serious problem if we want to understand and preserve life. Species are critical to how we organize our thinking about life. Each species has its own distinct combination of features that you don't see in any others. People have tried to estimate how many species there are, but those estimates range wildly. Most are in the millions or tens of millions.

You might just accept that we may never get a handle on how many different kinds of microscopic organisms are out there. But still, the problem doesn't go away if you limit yourself to big organisms: the plants, animals, and fungi, mostly.

Monday 6 August 2012

Martian Curiosity

It looked like it shouldn't work. It looked like it couldn't work. It looked like NASA's most talented engineers had got drunk together at a party and, for a dare, designed the most ridiculous, dangerous way of landing a multi billion dollar robot rover on Mars possible then giggled  "Yeah, let's try that!" But early this morning, after screaming through the barely-there martian atmosphere in a fireball, the nuclear-powered "Curiosity" rover was lowered down from a hovering rocket platform and touched down softly and safely on the floor of the huge Gale crater.

The first pictures - although hazy and blurred - suggest it came down within a few kilometres of its goal: an ancient, layered mountain called Mt Sharp which rises up from the crater's heart to scrape the pink martian sky. Planetary scientists and armchair explorers alike are delighted and impatient for Curiosity to begin rolling across the crater floor and start exploring.
Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech
Artist's impression of Curiosity landing on Mars. Image: NASA/JPL-Caltech

But what will Curiosity actually be doing on Mars? Well, a Google search of its name will bring up a lot of stories in the media about how the "Mars Science Laboratory" is going to look for life. It isn't. It's been sent to Mars to travel back in time and see if Mars, or at least this part of Mars, was once capable of supporting life.

Friday 3 August 2012

The line between knowledge and theory

There's a hexagon on Saturn's North Pole, and we don't know why.

The northern lights make sounds, and we don't know how.

Ebola is deadly and wildly contagious, but between outbreaks it must be hiding somewhere, and we don't know where.

Something in the middle of our galaxy is emitting a whole bunch of gamma rays, and we don't know what.

There are places around the world where we know there are likely to be big earthquakes, but we don't know when.

Someone may answer each of these questions one day, but right now we don't know who. It may be someone working in the field today, or it might be someone who is just starting school. It's only by making people aware of the questions that remain unanswered that we are inspired to push back these boundaries.

These are all puzzles I've been writing about this week, and for each of them I did the majority of my research online. When looking into the background for each of puzzles, and indeed for all of the research I have done over the course of my internship I have been astounded by the way in which the slightest tentative advances in our understanding are reported as though they are definitive solutions to monumental problems. This is a bias Ed warned me about when I started work at Things We Don't Know but it represents a huge problem with the way in which we are taught about science.

Sunday 29 July 2012

Science communication and the Sun's crown

Have you ever seen a solar eclipse? Did you notice the ring of light spreading out from the dark circle where the Moon covers the Sun? That's called the corona (from the Latin word for crown, after its shape) and it's a kind of plasma atmosphere extending millions of miles into space from the Sun's surface. One of the questions I've been looking at this week is why this corona is about a thousand times hotter than the solar surface below it. Heat doesn't naturally flow from cooler regions to hotter ones (try cooking your dinner in the fridge!) so how does the Sun keep its atmosphere so hot?

Solar Corona
Image from: Luc Viatour /

This is just one of the questions I've been looking at over the past few days, others have included how we evolved to produce milk for our children, and why ancient stars spin more slowly than expected.

With just this week and next to go in my internship I have been focussing on writing up all the information I have been able to glean from my interactions with various researchers. In addition to writing up a number of individual “things”, I have also been putting together a larger piece on why everything in our galaxy and those around it (and perhaps in the whole observable universe) consists of matter rather than anti-matter.

Working on these larger pieces with the editorial team has helped me to develop a much better perspective on the aim of the website both in terms of style and content. These interactions have shaped the way I view my role within the team. There is always a difficult line to be drawn between scientific accuracy and avoiding jargon or overly technical language. Given that the site uses editors to compile the final articles, I now tend to be happier being more comprehensive and specific than is always necessary, trusting that extraneous language can be removed later.

With just one week left to go, I still hope to get a significant number of new things written up, although I cannot see myself simply stopping at the end of my internship. For sites like this to work, they require submissions from volunteers, and I feel strongly enough that TWDK is a good and necessary project, that my intention is to continue submitting pieces whenever I come across an interesting new unsolved question in science.

If you want to get involved in Things We Don't Know get in touch via email.

Friday 20 July 2012

Through the looking glass: symmetry and stained glass windows

So why are we here then? Come to that, why does anything exist at all? These questions might sound more philosophical than scientific, but this is the true scale of the questions on which the scientific method can now be brought to bear. The question of why the world around us exists, why the matter in the universe has not all annihilated with antimatter is a big one, and this week I was fortunate enough to speak with Harry Cliff at the London Science Museum, formerly of CERN, and Dr. Adrian Bevan at QMUL, about why this asymmetry exists. We spoke at some length about violation of symmetries and the experimental techniques we can use to see where matter and antimatter behave differently, I am extremely grateful for their assistance, as I feel that I have learned a great deal about the way in which cutting edge particle physics research is carried out.

These big questions can seem daunting at times, but it is worth remembering that science often progresses in small steps, the solutions to seemingly trivial questions leading us bit by bit towards the answers to larger ones. One of these smaller questions, which I have been looking at this week is why there are giant arcs of light beside distant galaxy clusters. We understand quite well the gravitational lensing effect which produces these phenomena, but our best models of the universe predict that the probability of us seeing it so far away in space is practically zero. So this small question points us towards possible issues with our greater understanding of the universe itself.

Image credit: ESA/NASA
An Einstein ring caused by gravitational lensing, pictured by Hubble

Back here on earth, I had a discussion this Wednesday with Dr. Kostya Trachenko at QMUL, regarding the nature of glasses and the glass transition. He dispelled an apparently apocryphal notion regarding the fluidity of stained glass windows with which I had been impressed some time ago - I had been misinformed that the thickening towards the bottom of the panes in these old windows was due to the glass flowing like a liquid.  According to Dr. Trachenko, although this flow would occur, it would take longer than the age of the universe to produce the observed effect! Our conversation also helped me gain a greater insight into what constitutes a phase of matter and the outstanding problem of describing the behaviour of liquids. He also provided me with links to a range of other resources for further reading, which I found most helpful.

Of course, if you'd like to read more about these mysteries, then don't forget to follow TWDK on facebook or twitter, so we can tell you when the main site goes live!
I have just two weeks left working for TWDK, and the best use of my time at this point will most likely be to spend it writing. I have yet to write up the considerable bulk of the information I have accumulated over the last month and a half. It is unlikely therefore that I will meet face to face with many more academics over the course of this internship, so I will take this opportunity to thank those who I have spoken to for their invaluable assistance. This has made my job not only easier, but immeasurably more interesting and educational as well.

Tuesday 17 July 2012

Questions the Higgs Boson may or may not answer

In 1964 when Peter Higgs first proposed the mechanism that bears his name, I had just started secondary school. Little did I know that 48 years later I would be a member of the ATLAS experiment celebrating the discovery of a new particle that bears all the hallmarks of the particle predicted so long ago by Peter Higgs and others.

On 4 July 2012 the two experiments, ATLAS and CMS, at the CERN Large Hadron Collider announced that the search for this elusive particle is probably at an end. Over several decades, particle physicists have built up an understanding of what we believe are the fundamental constituents of matter, called quarks and leptons (such as the electron), and the forces that hold them together. These forces are characterised by the exchange of other particles such as the photon that is responsible for electric and magnetic forces. This understanding is encoded mathematically in what we call the Standard Model. The Standard Model makes precise predictions for the behaviour of the particles and has been tested to a very high accuracy.

ATLAS Experiment © 2008 CERN

However, the original Standard Model only makes sense mathematically if all the particles have zero rest masses. Were this true they would all travel at the speed of light and the formation of stars, galaxies and us would have been impossible. In fact we now know that all particles except the photon have rest masses, including neutrinos which were thought to be massless until recently. Peter Higgs and others got around this by proposing what is now called the Higgs Mechanism to allow the particles to have mass whilst still keeping the Standard Model mathematically self-consistent. The Higgs Mechanism suggests that the whole of space is permeated by a 'sea' of Higgs particles that stick to the other particles and slow them down, effectively giving them mass. Higgs particles stick to heavy particles like the top quark a lot, but not to the photon at all and so it remains massless. The theory predicted that with sufficient energy we should be able create these Higgs particles in an accelerator and watch them decay as we now appear to have done.

Saturday 14 July 2012

Bubbles, bosons and unexplained biology

Did you know that if you hit a bubble with enough sound, you can make it implode, emitting UV light in the process? 

Because I didn't! The phenomenon is known as sonoluminescence, and since we can't measure the conditions within the bubble directly, but must infer them from the nature of the emitted light, the mechanism behind it is still a topic of debate. This is just one of the things I've been writing about this past week. I had a very productive chat with Dr. Kevin Donovan where he explained some of the difficulties in measuring this effect, and hence attempting to understand the physics behind it. 

Earlier in the week I met with Prof. Steve Lloyd, to consider the question of why there are three generations of matter and to help me understand why the Higgs Boson is important, and what further questions it's tentative discovery raises. In fact we will be posting a guest blog by Prof. Lloyd on the Higgs Boson next week! I also talked with Dr. Theo Kreouzis, who introduced me to Organic Magnetoresistance, which has a number of competing explanatory theories, as well as pointing me in the direction of some more very useful people to speak to.

Last Sunday I visited the Royal Society summer exhibition and spoke to a number of exhibitors who suggested interesting questions I might look at, such as “why do scorpions glow in ultra-violet light?”, and “how can we build a large quantum computer?” It was great to see how others approach science communication and the variety of ways they were engaging people's interest, with demonstrations, interactive exhibits and games. I definitely felt that as with most science communication I have experienced, the exhibits focussed on what science has taught us, and the unanswered questions were not at the forefront. This re-affirmed my desire to convey the sheer volume of mystery that exists within our understanding of the universe.

Ed has been back in the UK this week, and it has been very helpful to get some face-to-face feedback on how the work has been going. We met with Claire from SEPnet on Wednesday at the TWDK offices in The Hub to discuss my internship and I was really pleased with what came out of the meeting. I would thoroughly recommend working in science communication to any scientific student as a way of broadening their knowledge of front-line research beyond their own field. If anyone's interesting in getting involved in Things We Don't Know in the same way I am get in touch -

Thursday 5 July 2012

Mysteries, Magnetars and Majoranas

Hey guys, Jon again, just letting you know how things are going here in the land of Things We Don't Know now I'm almost halfway through my internship here. It's been a busy few days. I have still been writing small pieces, and am learning to be more thorough in the manner in which I check facts and sources, thanks in no small part to substantial feedback and support from Ed.

You might be wondering what exactly it is that I've been writing about, well, the range of material I'm covering is very broad. Some of the things I've been looking at include the way black holes can spin, dragging the fabric of space-time with them, what Magnetars are and why their magnetic fields are so strong,  and why there is so much water here on Earth, yet so little on our close neighbour Venus. I think the area which I have enjoyed researching the most however has been in particle physics. I learned that in 1937, an Italian physicist named Ettore Majorana established that the equations which had predicted the existence of antimatter particles, could in some circumstances be solved such that a particle was it's own antiparticle. These hypothetical particles are known as Majorana fermions, but detecting them has thus far proven difficult. I find this theoretical approach to particle physics appealing, because it demonstrates the power of the underlying maths.

Last week I mentioned that I had begun work on a larger article, covering the topics of dark matter and dark energy. I am pleased to say that I have been able to make good progress on this front, having had exceedingly informative discussions with both Dr. Tim Clifton and Prof. Steve Thomas at QMUL. As a result of these conversations, I have expanded my own knowledge of the field, as well as being pointed in the direction of other useful areas of study. The Dark Matter piece is now in second draft form, and I am writing my next piece about Dark Energy.

The faculty at QMUL have been so helpful and it is my intention to speak to as many of them as possible, regarding the unanswered questions in their own fields. I would also be very happy to hear from anyone else who has something they think I should be writing about. Are there unanswered questions in Physics that you think are interesting, or that you'd like to see written about?

Feel free to get in touch with Things We Don’t Know about other sciences too – drop a message.

Wednesday 27 June 2012

Photographing the Venus transit

Last week, we explained why scientists are still interested in the Venus transit of the Sun, which featured this stunning photo taken by astronomer and TWDK contributor Nick Howes.
Photograph of the Sun using H-Alpha and CaK filters
© All rights reserved by Nick Howes, image reproduced with permission.

As promised, Nick explains how he did it in our first ever guest post.

Sunday 24 June 2012

A busy week writing up 'Things'

Hello, Jon here again, just a quick update on how things are going. Last week's visit to CERN (the European centre for nuclear research, site of the large hadron collider and home to scientists working at the very forefront of sub-atomic research) was great; I learned a whole lot about how experiments are conducted on a colossal scale. I returned to London smiling but exhausted (and sunburnt too!) late last Thursday. That gave me a full weekend to recover, ready to start writing again fresh and early Monday morning.

This week has in the main been spent continuing with writing content based on news articles. These are spread across a wide variety of subjects. The work involved in producing this content leaves me with the impression that I am getting a better feel for how to conduct research online, checking facts thoroughly across multiple sources. I feel that my writing style is improving too, allowing me to present material in an engaging and accurate manner appropriate to the intended feel of the website.
As well as the numerous short pieces I have been submitting to the website, I have also begun work on a larger piece, outlining an entire research topic, and the unanswered questions therein (in this case the questions of Dark Matter and Dark Energy). To this end I have emailed academic staff at my university, Queen Mary, University of London, and after discovering who would be the most appropriate person to speak to, have arranged a meeting with a researcher for next Monday. Hopefully this will permit me a deeper understanding of the field and this should come across in my written work.

On a more personal note, the feedback I received after my last blog post was very encouraging, and I'd like to thank those who took the time to read it and especially those who went on to share it further. Feel free to leave a comment below, and remember you can stay up to date with what's happening at Things We Don't Know on Facebook and Twitter.

Wednesday 20 June 2012

Ogling at Venus

In the last few weeks, astronomers around the world have been getting hot under the collar about the beautiful planet Venus. Because Venus orbits the Sun inside the orbit of the Earth, every now and then we form a straight line - something astronomers call a "conjunction". This means that we can watch as Venus transits across the face of the Sun, and this is what happened on the 5-6 June.

Within hours of the transit finishing, the internet was awash with hundreds of images of a small black dot against the surface of the Sun. These were perhaps not the most awe inspiring of astronomy images out there, so why were astronomers so excited about it?

First of all, this is a very rare occurrence. Although conjunctions between the Earth and Venus happen every 19-20 months, the planets have different inclinations. In other words, we see Venus passing by a little bit above, or a little bit below the Sun. Only when all the conditions are exactly right can we see Venus crossing the face of our parent star, and that only happens every 243 years (in pairs separated by 8 years). The last transit was 8 years ago, so we won't see another one until December 2117!

Historically speaking, transits of Venus have been a boon to astronomers. In 1769, one of the biggest Things We Didn't Know of the time was the size of our solar system. Although we knew the relative spacing between the inner planets (we hadn't discovered the outer planets yet!) we had no idea what the actual distances were. How far was the Earth from the Sun? Watching Venus cross the face of the Sun would answer that, but there was one big problem - they couldn't just watch it from Europe.

Monday 18 June 2012

Introducing the team

The team at Things We Don’t Know is steadily growing, so I thought we could take this opportunity to introduce you to the main people involved behind the scenes.

You’ve probably seen a few posts already from Ed – he’s the man who came up with the concept, is one of our two directors and the person doing most of the technical stuff in the background. Ed is working hard to get the website ready to launch, but when he’s not doing that he works as a spacecraft Engineer in Germany.

I’m Laura, and I'm working on communications for the company. At the moment that’s mainly updating people on progress on our Twitter and Facebook pages, but once the site is live I think I’ll be a bit busier! When I'm not editing blogs and suchlike on here I'm working in London promoting Britain to tourists around the world.

Stewart, a former physicist is our second director and looks after the finance and legal bits and pieces. When he's not working for us he's busy in the complex world of tax, or setting up his own wine business.

Amruta is our chief editor for the site and works closely with Ed to ensure our editorial team will have all the tools they need to get the job done. She's got a lot of experience with online editorial work, previously working for the European and German space agencies, and the European Commission. Based in India, as well as keeping our editors in line, Amruta will play a key role in helping to ensure we have a truly global focus.

And finally Jon is our new intern from QMUL, here for the summer through our partnership with SEPnet, to help us gather information on current research in Physics and translate it into simple English. Jon will be blogging about his experiences working with us over the next few weeks. Catch up on his first week here.

To stay in the loop with what we’re doing you can follow us on the blog here, Twitter - @twedk or Facebook - Things We Dont Know.

Monday 11 June 2012

Jon's first week

Hi, I'm Jon, last week was my first week of a summer internship here at Things We Don't Know. I applied for a number of positions this summer, but was absolutely delighted to be offered the chance to work on this particular project, and so accepted immediately when I was offered the position. This is a great opportunity for me to share my enthusiasm for science, and especially to work with people who recognise how important it is to be able to honestly say "We don't know" and acknowledge the vastness of the mysteries which still exist in our scientific understanding.

This week, I have met with Ed Trollope, the man behind the idea for the project, who is in charge and also deeply involved with much of the content, especially in the area of physics. We discussed his vision for the company, and how he would like me to approach my role, writing up and tagging pieces on scientific quandaries across a range of fields. I was also introduced to the company's other director, Stewart, and he shared some of his experiences in science with me, these stimulating discussions around the communication of science, and the manner in which an engagement with the subject can be maintained, have helped form my own ideas in terms of the manner and style in which I will be writing.

On Wednesday, Ed and I were working at the Hub, a shared workspace near Kings Cross, with a diverse mixture of small and medium-sized businesses based there. The facility is unlike any office I have worked in before (and I've had the pleasure of a very wide range of working environments), with large shared working areas, a cafe area, and private meeting rooms available. It was full of interesting, vibrant, and hard-working people, focussed on a broad range of commercial interests, and the stream of snippets of overheard conversations were surprising and thought-provoking. I hope I'll have the opportunity to work there again soon, although the freedom to work independently on Thursday and Friday has meant I've been able to focus well and produce a number of pieces for the site.

As for the work I've been doing thus far, I have been producing content for the website based upon a series of articles provided for me as jumping-off points, and my own research into the unanswered questions these pointed to. I’ve really enjoyed the opportunity to work independently, following a thread and seeing if there is some interesting unsolved puzzle at the end of it has been tremendously exciting. I have been able to learn much about fields as varied as Active Galactic Nuclei and Nanotechnology, Climatology and Dark Matter.

I’m in Switzerland for the rest of this week visiting the research facilities at CERN with my university physics society (I have just completed my 2nd year at QMUL), but am very much looking forward to getting back to London and TWDK, and peering further into the unknown.