Skip to Content

Ben Gilliland's blog

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.

Gold doubloons from cosmic kabooms!

[Above: An artist’s impression of two neutron stars colliding. Gold bars have been added by the author (astrophysicists don’t think it likely that pre-cast bullion will emerge from such a collision). Image (minus gold): Dana Berry, SkyWorks Digital, Inc 

IT HAS FEW PRACTICAL USES, but people have died for it; wars have been fought for it; kings and queens have been crowned with it and civilisations have risen and fallen because of it. 

Gold is arguably the most coveted of all the chemical elements but how it came to exist at all is a problem that has long puzzled scientists.

Prevailing wisdom has the Universe beginning life as an expanding mass of energy 13.8billion years ago in a ‘Big Bang’. From that single speck of infinite energy, matter coalesced from energy and the first simple elements of hydrogen and helium formed in an initial rush of fusion that petered out after just a few seconds.

Nothing more complex than lithium (whose nucleus contains three protons and three neutrons) was created in the Big Bang and yet today, 13.8billion years later, we live in a Universe filled with heavy elements, like gold, whose atomic nuclei contains hundreds of protons and neutrons. How was such complexity created from such simplicity?

I won something!

Well, isn't that pretty... I am massively pleased and proud to have been awarded the UK Space Agency and British Interplanetary Society's Sir Arthur Clarke Award for my space-related scribbles.

This was my third shortlisting for an 'Arthur' (as they are affectionately known), but I genuinely didn't expect to win. So massive thanks to those who nominated me and the judges who thought I deserved to win. The awards are presented as part of the UK Space Conference.

Got those (burning up, molten glass rain in a hyper-hurricane, losing my atmosphere) blues


FLUNG AROUND ITS PARENT star at 400,000km per hour, it is so close to the stellar furnace that its year lasts just 2.2 Earth-days. Flayed by solar winds, its atmosphere is stripped away and blasted into space by extreme ultraviolet and X-ray radiation at the rate of 1,000 tonnes every second.

The scorched atmosphere that survives the onslaught is rent by 1,000 degree winds laden with silicate particles, which, propelled by 7,000kph winds, become rain drops from hell propelled sideways as supersonic shards of molten glass.

Indeed, if there is one exoplanet that deserves to have the blues, it is HD 189733b (even its name is unfortunate), which is rather apt as it has become the first to have its true colour determined... and (in line with that rather laboured set-up) that colour is blue.

Located about 63 light years away, HD 189733b (which we’ll call Howlin’ Dave) is (relatively speaking) right on our cosmic doorstep. It also happens to be one of the closest extrasolar planets, or exoplanets, that can be seen crossing the face of its star – making it the most studied of all the alien planets.

Space, the fatal frontier

To baldly go... Hair loss would be just one of the unfortunate side-effects suffered by space travellers exposed to extreme solar radiation 

SO, AFTER DECADES of careful budgeting, you finally bought your very own interstellar camper van. You are a month into your trip to Mars – to boldly camp on the plains of Amazonis Planitia (with stunning views of Olympus Mons) when disaster strikes. Billions of tonnes of radiation, spewed into space by a colossal solar storm, is bearing down on you. With no time to move out of its path, the best you can do is lower your sun visors and hope for the best.

As billions of super-charged particles blast through your body, shattering DNA and obliterating your bone marrow, you have time to regret buying the embroidered seat covers instead of that radiation shield option. Your irradiated, blister-covered corpse is found months later by an itinerant asteroid miner. You are quite dead.

If only you had equipped your vehicle with Dr Ruth Bamford’s mini-magnetosphere, plasma radiation shield (patent pending). Designed at Rutherford Appleton Laboratory, Oxford, in the early decades of the 21st century, Dr Bamford’s radiation shield (patent pending) recreates the magnetic bubble that protects Earth from the worst of the Sun’s high-energy hissy fits.

Syndicate content