Category Archives: Articles

The top ten ephemeral moments in the sky

As part of the build-up to next week’s Mercury transit, I’ve put together a list for Sky & Telescope on the top ten fleeting phenomena in astronomy…


At Number 10: An Overhead Pass of the International Space Station.
Image: Bob King.


Coming soon: there will be a lovely ‘ephemeral moment’ at the end of this month… Shortly after sunset on 28 and 29 November, a crescent moon will hang above the horizon next to three planets.


Image: Sky & Telescope.


 

Physics at the movies

The November 2019 Physics World is a special issue on “Physics at the movies – the science behind the scenes”.

Among the highlights: Harry Potter star Daniel Radcliffe talks to friend and physicist Jess Wade about what it’s like as an actor to work with visual effects (VFX), from 3D body mapping to green screens and tennis balls. And Benedict Cumberbatch, who once starred as Stephen Hawking, explains the challenges of portraying scientists in film.

My contribution was an interview with Douglas Trumbull, the legendary VFX pioneer who has worked on classic films including 2001: A Space Odyssey and Blade Runner:


Fun fact: we are in Blade Runner month… A caption at the beginning of the 1982 film announces the story’s setting — LOS ANGELES / NOVEMBER, 2019.


 

How ‘the little stuff’ helps language learners

Later this month the Japanese publisher CosmoPier is bringing out a special magazine on foreign TV dramas that can help people learn English. I was asked to write a piece about the BBC comedy The Office.

How can The Office help learners improve their English skills? I quoted the show’s creators, Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant.

SM: The difference between our show and other sitcoms that are in an office is that they always seem to be too full of incident. There’s people doing one-liners and being zany, which is not what the experience of being in an office is like at all. It is just about monotony, occasionally interspersed with someone making a joke. So we wanted lots of sequences of people just working.

RG: Drama is life with the boring bits taken out. But we left some of them in. Because they can be the funniest bits.

The boring bits can also be the most useful bits for English learners. Many students say that the most challenging part of learning a foreign language is not ‘the big stuff’, like giving a presentation. Instead, it is ‘the little stuff’: things like small talk, chit-chat and banter.

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.