Category Archives: Articles

Wish you were here? 7 chances to experience totality in the 2020s

My latest piece for Physics World is a travel guide to the seven total solar eclipses of the 2020s.

Physics World logo


Luxor, on the banks of the River Nile in Egypt, will enjoy 6 minutes 22 seconds of totality on 2 August 2027. (Image: Mahmoud Algazzar)

The top five films about science or scientists

To celebrate the Oscars weekend, Physics World asked me to come up with the top 5 films about science or scientists. They span 51 years and include two Stanley Kubricks, one Ridley Scott, one Steven Spielberg, and one film by the not-so-famous Shane Carruth.

My top 5, in order of the year of release, is as follows. My reasons for choosing them are here.


  • Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb
    1964 | Director: Stanley Kubrick
  • 2001: A Space Odyssey
    1968 | Director: Stanley Kubrick
  • Jurassic Park
    1993 | Director: Steven Spielberg
  • Primer
    2004 | Director: Shane Carruth
  • The Martian
    2015 | Director: Ridley Scott

The Martian is also one of the great disco movies…

Japanese spacecraft set to attempt asteroid sample grab

At around 8am on Friday morning (Japan time), Hayabusa2 will attempt to grab a sample from the surface of the asteroid Ryugu. My latest piece for Physics World is an interview with mission manager Makoto Yoshikawa.

Citizen scientists spot meteorite strike during lunar eclipse

This week’s total lunar eclipse featured a dramatic bonus: shortly after the start of totality, a space rock hit the moon and vaporised in a flash of light. My latest piece for Physics World tells the story…

Can you spot the lunar flash…?
Here is a link to the moment of impact on our timeanddate.com broadcast. It’s on the left edge of the moon, just below the 10 o’clock position, at 04:41:43 UTC.

Astronomy beyond sight

Our favourite astronomy professor Richard Gelderman (Western Kentucky University) and I have produced two stories for EarthSky about astronomers who are exploring the universe through hearing and touch.

In Listening to the patterns of the universe, Richard talks to Wanda Díaz Merced (International Astronomical Union) about using ‘sonification’ to find signals hidden in large data sets; in Astronomy beyond sight, Amelia Ortiz-Gil (University of Valencia) tells me how she uses tactile models to bring people into contact with the constellations, moon and planets.

The complicated relationship between science and sci-fi

How important is the science in science fiction? I talked to three big thinkers – physicist and philosopher David Deutsch, film-maker Olga Osorio, and scientist turned novelist Gianfranco D’Anna – for a piece in Physics World.

What can lunar eclipses do for science?

As part of the build-up to the July 27th/28th total lunar eclipse, Sky & Telescope have published an interview I did with Noah Petro, Project Scientist for NASA’s Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter mission.

What is the saros cycle and how does it foretell eclipses?

My latest article for Sky & Telescope begins 2,500 years ago in ancient Babylon, and ends with next week’s total lunar eclipse.

Sky and Telescope, 24 January 2018

Coming soon to a sky near you: a teachable moment

There are 100 days to go until the next eclipse… On January 31st 2018 a total lunar eclipse will produce a red full moon for people in parts of Asia, Australia and the Pacific, and North America.

Total lunar eclipse (Juan Carlos Casado)Image: Juan Carlos Casado

Why does the moon turn red? The earth – a rocky planet about 13,000 km across – moves between the sun and the moon. This blocks the sun’s rays from reaching the moon directly.

But the earth has an atmosphere – a layer of air about 100 km thick. The atmosphere bends some of the sun’s rays around the earth (this is called refraction; it’s why a straw looks bent when you see it in a glass of water). The atmosphere also filters out the blue colour from the sun’s rays (this is called scattering; it’s why the sky looks blue).

So the sun’s rays that eventually reach the moon – after having travelled around the earth, through the atmosphere – are red. This is what gives the moon its awe-inspiring change of colour.


If you miss the red moon in January – because of weather, geography or some other reason – you might get another chance six months later. On July 27th/28th 2018 there will be a total lunar eclipse across Africa, Europe, Asia and Australia. And six months after that – on January 20th/21st 2019 – there will be another total lunar eclipse across North America, South America, Europe and parts of Africa.


Thank you to the brilliant Science Learning Hub for the pages on refraction and scattering.


 

Mystery of the moon’s tilted orbit

I’m extremely grateful to the brilliant planetary scientist Kaveh Pahlevan, who shared some wonderful thoughts in this interview for EarthSky. “When a crime happens, investigative police quickly arrive on the scene and try to preserve the evidence. In the case of the moon’s origin, there was a violent event, but there were no witnesses, and we are arriving on the scene five billion years late!”