How Many Earths?

How Many Earths?Ever wondered how many stars in the night sky had planets like Earth going around them? That’s what my latest interactive feature for New Scientist is about. I built it with my colleagues Peter Aldhous and MacGregor Campbell, using data from the Kepler space telescope. Rather than taking up more space here, I’ll let the feature speak for itself; I hope you enjoy it as much as I do.

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Spooky Wormholes

Image credit: Bettmann/CORBIS

Image credit: Bettmann/CORBIS

Einstein called it “spooky action at a distance.” Entanglement is the strangest feature of quantum mechanics — yet it might be the stuff that space and time are made of.  My latest piece for New Scientist is about this strange idea, and how it might shed light on some of the biggest puzzles in physics.

Also, the same set of ideas might enable what a friend of mine called “the ultimate lover’s leap”: entangle a couple of black holes, jump into one of them, and meet up with your partner who jumped into the other, spending your last few moments together inside a wormhole before you slam into the singularity inside. I wrote about this too, and MacGregor, one of my colleagues at NS, made a video about it.

Also, there’s a reference to Carly Rae Jepsen (and, arguably, to Radiohead).

Have I mentioned I love my job?

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Black Holes, Lifeloggers, and Space Brains

I’ve been having a great time working for New Scientist for the last few months. Here’s what I’ve been writing and coding for them, from newest to oldest:

Black hole feasting may help crack four cosmic puzzles: the supermassive black hole at the center of the Milky Way is guzzling an enormous gas cloud.

High-energy cosmos is violent with hint of dark matter: a new high-energy gamma-ray map of the sky tells us more about the most extreme events in the universe.

Obese black holes outshone stars in earliest galaxies: black holes millions of times more massive than the sun may have formed incredibly fast and violently in the early universe.

The fundamental theorem of arithmetic: wrote about this in my last entry.

(Image credit: Lynette Cook/SPL)

String theory may limit space brain threat: seriously!

Atomic weights revision changes periodic table: your chemistry teacher lied to you.

Lifelogger reveals the day’s emotional highs and lows: what was the most intense experience you had today?

Hints of lightweight dark matter get even stronger, and the shorter version from the magazine: the hunt for cold dark matter heats up.


Water worlds bring us closer to finding Earth’s twin, and the related story, First neighbouring planets that are both life-friendly: three new potentially-habitable exoplanets discovered by the Kepler satellite.

Faint flashes reveal moment a black hole is born: an “un-nova,” rather than a supernova, might be the birth cry of a new black hole.

NASA’s next exoplanet hunter to launch in 2017: a robot named TESS will search the whole sky for a place like home (now that I think of it, this sounds like a Pixar movie).

Little ripples make syrup stringy: unlocking the secrets of honey.

Cosmic ripples come into focus: wrote about this on here back in March.

I’ll post new stories on this blog as they come out in New Scientist. For now, enjoy the back catalog!

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The fundamental theorem of arithmetic is, as the name suggests, pretty fundamental. I built an interactive infographic which does a better job explaining it than I could do using words:


My employer, New Scientist, has reached 100,000 likes on Facebook, and they’ve posted this infographic on their site to their followers to celebrate. Needless to say, I’m enjoying my new job. More on what I’ve been doing over there in the next post!

For those of you interested: I built this largely using D3.js. The source code is available as a gist on GitHub, and you can also view it live on


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A Cosmic Picture of Your Ancestors

Image credit: ESA/Planck collaborationBig news this week! The full data set from the Planck satellite has finally been released to the public and the scientific community at large. Cosmologists around the world have been itching to see this data for years, and with good reason: Planck has given us our sharpest full-sky image of the cosmic microwave background radiation, the oldest light in the universe. It’s a fantastically detailed set of “baby pictures” of our universe when it was less than 0.003% its current age. Planck has already told us that our universe has a little more dark matter and “regular” matter — stuff made of atoms — than we had previously suspected, and a little less dark energy. Planck also indicates that the universe is a little older than we had thought, to the tune of about 100 million years (so a little less than 1% older). And Planck may not be done changing our understanding of the universe: over the next few years, cosmologists around the world will be trawling through this data set, hunting for something new and strange. Phil Plait has an excellent summary with more details here.

The difference in temperature between the reddest red spot and the bluest blue spot in the Planck image is only about one part in 100,000 — about 0.0003 degrees Celsius. But the thing that always gives me the chills — in a good way — about this kind of image is the fact that these tiny differences are what led, very directly, to you and me. Those little temperature differences were caused by tiny clumps of matter in the universe 13.8 billion years ago. And over all that time between then and now, those tiny clumps got huge — the clumps attracted other clumps through gravity — and became the galaxies and stars and planets we see in the universe today. So everything you see around you, everything you know and love, everything from the stars in the sky to the fish in the ocean to the computer you’re reading this on, all of it is directly descended from those tiny temperature differences in the image from Planck. In other words: that’s a picture of you, and me, and everyone and everything else, 13.8 billion years ago.

There’s also news of another sort: for the next six months, I’ll be working at New Scientist’s San Francisco office, creating interactive online graphics and reporting on news in astronomy, physics, and other areas of science. My first set of graphics — about Planck, naturally —  went live on the New Scientist site today! I’m really excited to be working at NS, and I hope to have more of my work with them to post here soon.


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Where were all of the things a long time ago? Can we find out by looking at things now?

I took a stab at writing about my research using only the thousand most common words in English, with the help of the upgoerfive text editor — and I had a blast. Restrictions breed creativity, and I like anything that makes it easier to get ideas across to a wider audience. Hopefully, you’ll find it interesting too.

Some of my friends and I use big computers to try to find out where stuff was — all of the stuff, in every place out in space — in the first tiny part of a second, at the beginning of time. We do this by looking at where all of the stuff in space is now, and trying to guess what that means about where stuff was before. But it is very hard to do that, even with a big computer.

Part of the reason it is hard is that the first tiny part of a second was a long time ago — say the word “hundred” five times, and then say “years,” and that will be close to how long ago it was. Because it was so long ago, most of the things that were around then are not around anymore — they changed, because time changes things.
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Seeing Strands in the Cosmic Web

Science writing is something I enjoy immensely — hence this blog — so when I found out that the AAAS runs a Mass Media Fellowship for science students and recent graduates, I jumped on it. As part of the application, I wrote a 750-word news story about a scientific paper that came out in July. This story will never appear in any news outlet, but I figured you all might find it interesting to read. (Science news outlets did cover this paper back in July.) So, hot off the presses, I give you a story about the hidden structure of our own universe:

For the first time, a part of the dark matter “skeleton” of the universe has revealed itself. The discovery strengthens our understanding of the universe’s history and tells us more about the formation of galaxies like our own, billions of years ago.

Current theories about the largest structures in the universe predict the existence of giant structures made of dark matter — the unseen substance that comprises over 80% of the matter in the universe — between most galaxy clusters. Now, for the first time, a team of cosmologists led by Jörg Dietrich at University Observatory Munich has found hard evidence that the long-sought-after strands of dark matter actually exist.

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What’s Cooler Than Being Cool?

You may have seen some news reports over the last week or two saying that scientists had made a substance with the hottest temperature ever recorded — but that temperature was somehow below absolute zero, a negative temperature on the Kelvin scale. Weirdly enough, this is absolutely true. A lot of the other stuff that showed up in those stories was completely false — my favorite was a statement that this would let us build a 100% efficient engine, breaking the laws of thermodynamics — but there is such a thing as a negative absolute temperature, and those negative temperatures are hotter than any positive temperature. In fact, these scientists pushed a substance a few billionths of a Kelvin below absolute zero, which is far and away the hottest temperature ever recorded. But the surprise is that they managed to do it with this substance in this particular way, not that negative temperatures are so hot. The idea of negative absolute temperature has been around for decades, and this isn’t the first substance to be prodded into a negative temperature.

So what is “negative absolute temperature”?

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Feynman Lectures, Chapter I: The Most Important Idea in Science

Well, that’ll teach me to make promises about when the next post will be. In totally unrelated news, I hate moving to a new apartment.

Back to the Feynman lectures! The writing is quite beautiful — Feynman is very clear and readable, while still packing a great deal of information into a small space. There’s no way one blog post of reasonable length could cover all of the ground that Feynman does in each chapter. And this chapter is especially densely packed, because this chapter is setup. After some brief introductory remarks — and some philosophical comments on the nature of science that I’ll get to in a later post — Feynman gives the class a killer hook, and then uses that hook to reel the students (and readers) in through a quick introduction to many, many concepts that will come up again later in the text.

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Blogging the Feynman Lectures

I’m trying something new here, starting with this post: I’m blogging the Feynman Lectures on Physics, chapter-by-chapter (approximately). For those of you unfamiliar with the Feynman Lectures, they’re a classic set of introductory college physics lectures given by the great Richard Feynman 50 years ago at Caltech, compiled into book form. But despite their provenance, the books are not really introductory. They’re more like a rite of passage for advanced students within the field. One of my professors in college actually did assign the Feynman Lectures as supplementary texts for his intro-level class, but he explicitly said that they were “not really for the beginning student — but every good physicist, at some point or another, should read the Feynman Lectures.”

Here’s my dirty little secret: I’ve never read the Feynman Lectures. Continue reading


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