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Friday 24 October 2014

Can we make room temperature superconductors?

What do high speed levitating trains, MRI machines and particle accelerators have in common? They all use superconductors. Superconductors are materials that can carry electrical current for long distances without losing energy, and can even produce their own magnetic fields.

Why are superconductors important?

These materials have a vast and diverse range of uses, mainly because they allow for the production of extremely efficient wires. The relationship between electric current in wires and magnetic fields is an intimate one - a magnetic field is created every time an electric charge moves, and every time a magnetic field is changed an electric field is created. This means superconducting materials play an important role in creating efficient and powerful electromagnets. These can be used to construct MagLev trains that float above the tracks, eliminating friction and allowing them to travel at incredibly high speeds, in MRI scanners, and even in particle accelerators such as the Large Hadron Collider where the Higgs Boson was discovered! This is an incredibly exciting prospect - not losing power to electrical resistance could have a profound effect on saving energy resources.

The Shanghai Transrapid maglev train has a top speed of 431 km/h (268 mph), racing the 30km from Pudong International Airport to downtown Shanghai in just 7 minutes and 20 seconds. Image credit: Lars Plougmann

Monday 13 October 2014

India's MOM seeks answers

In 2010 the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) began a mission to send a spacecraft to orbit Mars – the Mars Orbiter Mission (MOM). Three years later they launched the craft and finally, on 24th September 2014 it reached its destination. The spacecraft’s primary objective is to test and develop the necessary technologies needed for interplanetary space travel - a technology which will allow India to plan future missions through the solar system and beyond. Its secondary objective, though, is scientific research. As the craft orbits the planet it will be collecting data about the planet’s atmosphere and surface.

The journey to Mars, though relatively short compared to a journey to other planets, is a complicated one; out of the 23 missions which have been launched to orbit Mars, only 10 have been fully successful. For India, this maiden voyage means the chance to explore the red planet whilst also developing their technological know-how. The whole mission has cost ISRO about $70 million - making it the cheapest vessel to enter Mars’ orbit since exploration of the planet began! For comparison, NASA had to pay a similar amount per seat to fly their own astronauts to the International Space Station in a Russian spacecraft. This is an incredible feat for technology and may lead to reduced costs for future missions to Mars.

Mars Orbiter Mission - India - ArtistsConcept
An artist's impression of the Mars Orbiter Mission spacecraft orbiting Mars. The basic structure was based closely on ISRO’s first mission - Chandrayaan-1. Image credit: Nesnad, via Wikimedia Commons. (CC-BY-SA-3.0)

Mars is the outermost of the four rocky planets in our Solar System, and is also Earth’s neighbour. Despite having similar rocky compositions these two planets couldn’t be more different. The oceans, flora and fauna which are so prevalent on Earth are completely absent on Mars, and yet the two planets’ orbits are separated by a mere 54.6 million kilometres – a galactic stone’s throw away. Astronomers and planetary scientists have been studying the planet for a while now, and yet there is still so much we cannot decipher about the planet and its history.

Tuesday 7 October 2014

Cosmic Inflation, BICEP2 and Planck

Cosmic inflation is the exponential expansion of space in the early universe. In other words, how did the universe go from being so small at the time of the big bang to the size it is today?

But why do we even think this occurred? In the 1920's, astronomer Edwin Hubble noticed when looking at galaxies through a telescope, that the galaxies were actually moving away from one another. The further apart they were, the faster they moved.

The only logical explanation for this was that the universe was in fact expanding. If everything seemed to be moving away from each other in all sorts of directions, then surely at some point in the past, it must have been very small, hot and dense. This led to what we now know as the Big Bang Theory, so called because of the implication that the universe began a single point and exploded outwards.

time line of the universe, from big bang to today. Public domain image courtesy NASA.
The Big Bang is believed to have occurred 13.7 billion years ago, after which the universe rapidly expanded in a period of time we call Inflation. Scientists are still searching for conclusive evidence of this, and seek to test the two fundamental assumptions upon which it is based; that the same physical laws apply everywhere in the universe, and that on large scales on large scales the universe is homogeneous and isotropicImage credit: NASA (public domain)

Everywhere we look in the universe, we see billions of galaxies evenly spread. Up until 1979, nobody could explain why this was. That was until a young cosmologist by the name of Alan Guth put forward a possible solution to the problem; he called it inflation.

Monday 6 October 2014

Science Writing Workshop

One of our recent pledges was to run a series of "how to write about science" workshops, designed to help kick-start careers in science journalism; and we're already working on our first such workshop.

UKSEDS TWDK science communication workshop banner

TWDK have teamed up with the UK's largest student space society, UKSEDS, to offer a science writing workshop aimed at university students. In a hands-on session lasting from 10am til 4pm, we will cover all the basics you need to get you started in science journalism including:

  • Language use – technical science writing is very different from popular science writing. This activity covers how to get your tone right, tailor your writing style to different audiences and age groups.
  • Picking a story – regular writing needs inspiration, but how do you find suitable topics? This activity covers how to find and read press releases, and practice choosing which ones are suitable for you to build upon.
  • “Good” vs “bad” science writing – what makes a piece of science writing good, or bad? We look at some common mistakes and pitfalls, and discuss how to identify and avoid them.
  • Writing from a science paper – published science papers are a common starting point for science journalists, but understanding them can be tricky if you’re not a specialist in that area. Learn some tips on how to read papers to extract the key points you need, and practice writing summaries of a number of real papers in a variety of topics.
  • Editing articles – no first draft will be perfect, and articles always need to be edited. Often this will be done by somebody else, and editing other people’s work can help you understand both the process and alternative styles that may strengthen your own writing.
  • Starting a blog - how to get started in the world of science blogging; setting up your own blog or joining a network both have their own advantages. We look at guest blogging, common sites, what you need to set up your own blog and some useful tools.