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Ben Gilliland's blog

The certainty of uncertainty

WHEN IT COMES TO its ability to formulate accurate explanations and make testable predictions, the science of quantum mechanics is one of the most successful theories of all time. Despite its astonishing successes, quantum mechanics has an unfortunate side effect – it can induce the cerebral equivalent of dropping a jellyfish into a blender and transform the human brain into a quivering mess of gelatinous denial.

Quantum mechanics is the theoretical construct that allows scientists to describe how matter behaves at the subatomic level. To say that it is weird is an understatement of galactic proportions and perhaps the weirdest of all its predictions is something called ‘Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle’.

Thought up by genius physicist Werner Heisenberg in 1927, the uncertainty principle states that, in the quantum world, it is impossible to simultaneously know where a particle is and where it is going – you can know its position, or you can know its momentum, but you can’t know both.

Cosm nominated for a Sir Arthur Clarke award (again)

I am most pleased to be a finalist once more for a Sir Arthur Clarke Award

Somehow, I have once more made it into the running for a Sir Arthur Clarke Space Achievement (Media, Broadcast and Written) Award.

Taking the 'uni' out of the Universe

ONE OF THE MOST COMMONLY asked questioned of Big Bang theorists is ‘what came before the Big Bang?’. The standard answer is that there was nothing at all. 

Normally we are quite comfortable with the idea of ‘nothing’. We are conditioned by experience to think of nothing as being an absence of something within a given area, but if space itself was created in the Big Bang, there can’t be ‘nothing’ because there’s nowhere to put the ‘something’ that doesn’t exist. Asking what came before the Big Bang is equally meaningless because ‘time’ was created along with space – you can’t have a ‘before’ because time didn’t exist.

For a species that experiences the world by interacting with time and space, that’s a slightly uncomfortable, brain-blending concept.

Luckily (depending on your point of view) there are physicists who believe that, far from being the beginning of all things, the Big Bang was just the moment our Universe burst from the womb of a parent universe – just one offspring of a much larger multiverse.

Is dark matter made of doughnuts?

SINCE THE EXISTENCE OF DARK MATTER was first suspected back in the 1930s, scientists have been trying to figure out what it might be made off. In the last eighty years all sorts of oddities with funky names have been put forward as candidates. We’ve had the mighty ‘Macho’ (Massive astrophysical compact halo object); the feeble ‘Wimp’ (Weakly Interacting Massive Particle); the villainous (in a sci-fi kind of way) ‘Axion’; the unfortunate ‘sterile-neutrino’; and the sexy ‘Susy’ (supersymmetry) particle.

Now there’s a new dark matter kid on the block and this one comes complete with magnetic doughnuts.

Dark matter makes up more than 80 per cent of all the matter in the Universe and accounts for more 26 per cent of the total energy (‘ordinary’ matter makes up less than five per cent of the energy). This mysterious substance doesn’t interact with the electromagnetic radiation   (heat, light, radio etc) that we rely up to see the Universe so it is invisible and is only detectable by the gravitational influence it has on stuff we can see.

It has been assumed that dark matter was invisible because it interacts through exotic forces that we are unaware of in our normal existence, but now there’s a new theory that puts dark matter back into the realm of the everyday.

A very cosmopolitan graveyard


WE USED TO THINK that we knew what it meant to be British. We were a proud, ancient nation who sat at the top of the global pecking order and could justifiably look down our noses at the rest of the world (most of which we ruled anyway). But then we lost our empires, slipped down that pecking order and opened our gates to a tidal wave of immigrants who steal the jobs of ‘proper’ Britons and blur the lines of what it means to be British.

Of course, like so many national identities, the idea of there existing a single British identity is, well, a bit pants really. The entire history of our nation is one of a people in flux – people come in, people leave, people conquer and people integrate. Immigration and exodus aren’t new phenomena, in fact, they are the foundations of the nation we know today.

As if the history books didn’t contain enough examples (see below), archaeologists have made a new discovery on the coast of Kent that shows, even in prehistory, people from all over Europe were making Britain their home.

We're all DOOMED! (we're probably not doomed)


MORE THAN 400 MILLION years ago, the Earth was a very different place than it is today. The climate, encouraged by excessive levels of greenhouse gases, was hot enough to ensure no water was locked away at the poles. Sea levels were a hundred metres higher than today and, in their balmy waters, sea life had exploded – dominating life on Earth. 

Then this all changed. Inexplicably, the climate cooled, glaciers formed at the poles, sea levels plummeted and more than 85 per cent of the Earth’s species died out. The Late Ordovician mass extinction, as it has come to be known, was one of the most catastrophic extinction events in the planet’s history, but what caused the climate to take such a dramatic U-turn?

One explanation is that the Earth was the unwilling recipient of a massive dose of gamma radiation gifted to us by a distant star, dying a violent death. Gamma ray bursts (GRBs) are the most powerful cosmic explosions we know of. When a massive star explodes in a supernova explosion, sometimes, as if in a fit of raw fury, the star will spew intense beams of deadly gamma radiation into the cosmos.

If the Earth was at the receiving end of such an outburst all those millennia ago, gamma radiation would have smashed into the atmosphere – destroying the protective ozone layer and blanketing the planet in suffocating blanket of smog that blocked sunlight and sent the climate into the tailspin that resulted in the death of more than three-quarters of life on Earth.

Well, get your best apocalypse trousers on, if some scientists are to be believed, the Earth could be on the receiving end of another dose of gamma rays.

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