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Noble helium loses its reserve

[High-tech stuff like MRIs and particle accelerators rely on it, and the Sun is full of it, but we are running out – so what happened to all our helium?]

THE UNIVERSE WAS BORN as a roiling soup of energy about 13.8billion years ago in the event known the ‘Big Bang’. When things had cooled down a bit, the energy condensed into the first particles and, for the first few hundred million years or so, the entire Universe was a vast cloud of hydrogen and helium gas. Today, despite the best efforts of the stars to convert them into heavier elements, hydrogen and helium still dominate the mass of the cosmos.

Helium the second lightest, and second most common, element (behind hydrogen) still accounts for about 24 per cent of the mass of the entire Universe (that almost a quarter of everything everywhere). Yet here on Earth, it is incredibly rare  – making up just 0.00052 per cent of our atmosphere – and our supplies are running out. By some estimates, the Earth’s helium reserves could be exhausted within just 30-50 years.

Now, we all know the ‘hilarity’ that ensues when a party balloon-toting joker uses the gas to perform dubious Micky Mouse impressions, but, believe it or not, helium has a serious side.

Physicists smash man-made spin speed record

FOR MOST OF US, the last time we wondered how fast we could make something spin was probably as a child on one of those lunch-exorcising tea-cup rides you find at underfunded fair grounds. But, for one group of scientists at least, the quest for spin didn’t end in childhood.

A team of researchers at the University of St Andrews has succeeded in creating the world’s fastest spinning man-made object – a teeny tiny crystalline sphere set spinning at an astonishing 600 million revolutions per minute.

But they didn’t do it just for larks, the stunt did have a serious research goal. You see, physicists have a very good framework of rules that governs how macroscopic objects behave (laid out by the likes of Newton and Einstein) and they have a good framework that describes how the quantum world of smaller-than-an-atom-type stuff works, but they don’t really know what happens with stuff than sits on the border between them.

Supersonic tube travel (1820s style)


[Above: Elon Musk's proposed ‘Hyperloop’ transport system would travel at speeds of up to 768mph and complete a journey of 380miles in just 30minutes – a positively glacial pace when compared with a similar proposal from 1825. Image: Tesla Motors]

LET'S FACE IT, at one time or another, we’ve all wished we could travel in tiny capsules that are sucked along tiny claustrophobic vacuum tubes at hundreds or thousands of mile an hour. Well, if recent headlines are to be believed, you might get that chance sooner than you think. 

Last week, PayPal, SpaceX and Tesla Motors founder, Elon Musk, announced his ambition to build a solar-powered vacuum tube, called Hyperloop, that will be able to syphon commuters to their destination at a head-spinning 768mph. At that speed you could cover the 380-mile journey between San Francisco and Los Angeles (where he proposes it be built) in just 30 minutes – all for the bargain price of £4.8billion.

The announcement was greeted by fevered media coverage, which announced that the ‘future of transportation has arrived, and quickly followed by blogging naysayers, who derided it as over-ambitious and likely to cost at least twice his estimate.

Maybe they’re right – traveling through tubes at the speed of sound certainly sounds like a deluded futurist’s science-fiction fantasy.

Imagine then, the reaction if someone was to pipe up and announce their plans to build a vacuum-based, tubular transport system that would whisk you along the same near-400-mile journey, not in a glacial 30 minutes, but in fewer than five minutes. Now that’s futuristic fantasizing.

Skylon: Say hello to our sci-fi future


WHEN SCIENCE FICTION WRITERS first imagined humanity’s spacefaring future, they gave their protagonists spacecraft that could take off, pop into space, land and then take off again. No sensible futurist would imagine a successful space-traveling culture that has to travel in a spacecraft that, as they ascended, would drop 90 per cent of its structure and reach space in a teeny-tiny pod that can do little more than float around for a while before dropping back to Earth on the end of a parachute.

Imagine how dull the likes of Star Wars would be if, upon landing, Han Solo had to send the Millennium Falcon back to the factory to be rebuilt, or, an episode of Star Trek where Kirk could only leave the planet if it wasn’t too cloudy? By anyone’s standards we are not a spacefaring race – space-visiting perhaps, but not spacefaring.

True, with the likes of Virgin Galactic offering space tourism experiences, you could argue that we are taking our first tentative steps towards a plausible sci-fi future, but even this falls short. Virgin’s spacecraft, SpaceShip Two, however impressive, doesn’t really qualify as space travel – there is a huge technological difference between sub-orbital flights and actually breaking free of Earth’s gravitational shackles and entering space proper.

Doin' the black hole twist

SO YOU'RE LISTENING to the hit parade on the radio and bustin’ some moves on the rug-clad dance floor of your sitting room.

A quick glance at your reflection in the glass of your patio doors confirms the true extent of your awesomeness, so, overcome with exuberance, you perform a spectacular pirouette (or whatever the cool kids call them).

Unfortunately, the surprisingly high frictional coefficient between your ‘Totes Toastie’ socks and the rug causes it to gather up beneath your feet and, before you know it, you have a rug wrapped around your leg. Everything that was on the rug is likewise dragged violently inwards and half a sitting room’s worth of remote controls, discarded socks and one confused cat is hurled towards you. Yup, sometimes spinning sucks.

But if you think that cat has it bad, spare a thought for anything unfortunate enough to be too close to a black hole when one of these cosmic Travoltas does the Twist. Because, instead of messing up a mere woven floor covering, a black hole drags the very fabric of the Universe along with and you can imagine what that does to anything unfortunate enough to be occupying that particular region of the spacetime rug.

The lengths we go to (to measure length)

If you are of a certain age, you’d be forgiven for thinking that the metre was some new-fangled thing imposed on us sometime during the 1970s. Well, this week, the humble metre celebrates its 220th birthday and the chances are that you really couldn’t care less. But, whether you care or not, the story of how this mundane, yet elegant and efficient unit of measurement, which arguably helped to build the modern world, came to be is really quite remarkable.

THE CLOSING DECADES of the 18th century were, to say the very least, a little bit turbulent. 

The Enlightenment was reaching its zenith, and the world was in the grip of revolution with millennia of political, social and philosophical doctrine being questioned and cast aside. 

The American people were revolting against British rule; the French were revolting (no we won’t end the sentence here) against the decadence of their monarchy and, after 400 years of power, the Ottoman Empire was crumbling faster than a digestive dropped in tea.

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