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Why existence is miracle enough

We really don't need a god to see the miraculous in our existence. Image credit: Ben Gilliland (with a little help from Michelangelo)

Which is the more impressive: a man who has become the CEO of a global company when, (a) His powerful dad created the company for him and installed him at the top, or, (b) he worked his way up from nothing after years of struggle? Obviously the answer is b.

So why are so many people more impressed by the idea that mankind was created by a god and installed at the head of Earth corp than the idea that we started from nothing and worked our way to where we are?

Why do we need religion to see miracles in the world around us, or to find significance in our existence? Let’s set aside the religionist creation story and examine how we really got to where we are now.

The next space age: Cuberty

It is human nature to superimpose human characteristics onto the world around us (it’s why cars can talk to us and misshapen marshmallows can look like your Uncle Barry), so let’s anthropomorphise the space programme for a moment.

There was its conception in early 20th century (a screaming, loud, often messy affair). There were the baby years (it fell over a lot) of the Second World War as folks like Werner von Braun tried to turn rockets into weapons. Then came the toddler years (frantic, shouty and everything done at full pelt) of the Apollo era and the space race.

Recently though, the space programme has had to grow up. Trying to find its own way in a recessionary world, it has struggled to do big things on smaller budgets. But why struggle to do a few big things when you can do many small things?

Back to the cosmic drawing board – source of cosmic rays remains a mystery

In 1912, scientists discovered that the Earth is bombarded by a constant stream of high-energy particles from beyond the solar system. They called the mysterious particles ‘cosmic rays’ and set out to find out where they were coming from – 100 year later, they are still looking.

The charged particles that make up cosmic radiation can be produced in all sorts of astronomical processes – such as the nuclear reactions in stars. But the origin of the highest energy of these particles, which can strike the Earth with energies up to a hundred million times higher than those created in man-made particle accelerators, remains a mystery.

Over the years there have been several contenders, but the most promising was thought to be a phenomenon known as a ‘gamma ray burst’ (GRB) – a massive burst of energy released when a massive star explodes in a supernova.

To test the theory, scientists built an array of particle detectors 2.4km high and 800m wide and inserted it beneath the ice at the South Pole.

The way of the dodo

For thousands of years the island of Mauritius was a paradise. Spat out of the ocean floor by a volcano eight million years ago, it was soon colonised by bird and reptile life. With warm sun, plentiful food and no predators to speak of, the island’s life was carved by the idilic isolation into new species – a cornucopia of flightless birds and unique reptiles.

Then, in 1598, demons came to make paradise their own. Accompanied their accustomed host of animal familiars – dogs, pigs, cats (and not a few rats) – the invaders found themselves facing an army of innocents. Curious and unafraid, Mauritius’ wildlife offered itself up for slaughter and, within just a few decades, much of the island’s uniqueness had been extinguished for eternity.

Spitzer space telescope celebrates 1,000 days of infrared wonders

For the last 1,000 days the Infrared Array Camera (IRAC), aboard NASA's Spitzer Space Telescope, has been operating continuously to probe the universe from its most distant regions to our local solar neighborhood. The IRAC "warm" programme began once Spitzer used up its liquid helium coolant, thus completing its "cold" mission. To commemorate 1,000 days of infrared wonders, the programme has released a gallery of the 10 best IRAC images.

Celebrating 100 years of cosmic ray science

Back in 1901, some English scientists noticed a puzzling thing. They were experimenting with the radioactive element radium (radioactivity itself had only been discovered five years earlier). They were measuring its radioactivity using a gold leaf electroscope, which used an electric field to hold two strips of gold leaf apart – when “radium rays” entered the devise, they ionised the air around the gold leaf, which allowed electrical charge to escape – the more radiation was present, the less charge the gold leaf held and the closer the two strips would move together.

The scientists noticed that, even when the electroscope was removed from the radium, it still lost electrical charge. Somehow radiation was coming somewhere else.

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