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Announcing the death of MetroCosm

 

A LITTLE OVER NINE YEARS AGO, spurred on by my encroaching 30th birthday, I walked into my editor’s office at the Metro Newspaper and asked ‘any chance I could get my own science page?’. 

At the time, I was the paper’s graphic’s editor and had never written anything longer than a few captions and random front page blurbage. Nor, in fact, did I have any sort of science background... all I had was a passionate interest in the sciences – one that had chosen to remain hidden until after I had left school. 

So I really didn’t have any right to be asking the editor of the country’s third largest national newspaper for my own chunk of editorial real estate. Yet, incredibly, Kenny Campbell agreed to give it a shot and, on June 16, 2005, MetroCosm was born.

Portends of magnetogeddon

(Headline may be somewhat overdramatised)

[Above: ESA's Swarm satellites have detected a weakening in the Earth's protective magnetic field, which might be a sign that the planet is readying itself for a magnetic pole reversal]

IT IS HARD TO OVERESTIMATE the importance of the Earth’s magnetic field. Generated deep within the churning, molten iron bowels of the planet, it inflates a magnetic bubble around our little blue world that protects us from the full radiation-spewing fury of the Sun. Without it, life would be irradiated, the atmosphere would be stripped away and lost to space and Earth would become little more than a larger version of Mars (only with more crumbling tower blocks and empty swimming pools).

Now there is new evidence that our vital magnetic shield is weakening and could soon flip out entirely – with the magnetic field becoming a tangled mess; Magnetic North and South Poles trading places entirely; and a million orienteering boy scouts becoming hopelessly lost. But, fear not feeble humans, it isn’t quite as bad as it sounds.

Putting the brakes on the speed of light

Could a supernova witnessed 25 years ago provide the first evidence that the speed of light is slower than Einstein predicted?


IF THERE IS ONE CONSTANT in the Universe it’s that almost nothing is constant. Any measurement you make – be it speed, distance or even time – is really only relevant to you and your immediate frame of reference. Someone measuring the same thing from a different frame of reference is likely to get a very different result (take a woman on a train: in her frame, she’s sitting still, but, to a chap on a platform, she’s whizzing along) – as Einstein discovered: everything is relative.

But Einstein did believe that there was one thing that could be measured by anyone anywhere and always yield the same result – one constant in an entire Universe of inconsistencies: the speed of light. Special Relativity describes light as always travels through a vacuum at 299,792,458 metres per second and, no matter where you are or what you are doing, this is the speed you will measure. 

But what if he was wrong?

Earth story: refining the first chapter


FROM SINGLE-CELLED PRIMORDIAL
blob thing, (through spineless fishy thing; swamp-dwelling fishy-walky thing; litter-scurrying dino-dodging furry thing; tree-dwelling opposable thumb-wielding ape thing) to the bipedal lords of technology we are today, throughout our journey, humanity has only ever called one planet home – Earth.

The story of our world’s beginning is inexorably linked to our own, so it makes sense that we would want to understand how our little blue planet and its oversized lunar sidekick came to be. But if the 4.5billion-year story of Earth was likened to a book, we humans have only been protagonists for the last paragraph or two, so figuring out the story as a whole was never going to be easy.

The star with a brother for a heart


THEY SAY THAT TWINS
share a bond – an inseparable, almost supernatural connection forged in the womb that remains unsevered throughout their lifetime. In humans, this connection can be expressed by dressing in the same clothes, or with one scratching his nose when the other’s has the itch. At its most extreme they might become ‘those crazy old twins that live alone with all those pet turtles’.

So, does this bond apply to the heavens? Do cosmic twins forged in the womb of a collapsing nebula exhibit the same sibling strangeness?

Yes they do... and then some.

Black hole? Or wormhole in disguise?

 

WE'VE KNOWN FOR SOME TIME that there is a monster lurking at the centre of the galaxy we call home, the Milky Way – a supermassive black hole with the mass of four million Suns squashed up inside its spacetime-twisting guts. This gravitational behemoth, with the power to fling stars around so fast they are hurled from the galaxy, is the lynchpin around which the entire Milky Way rotates.

After decades of languishing as a purely theoretic object (and occasional science fiction villain) the black hole has been accepted as being a very real and, occasionally crucial, addition to the cosmological pantheon. In fact, you might say that we’ve have grown used to the dark fairy hiding at the bottom of the galaxy’s garden. But what if it’s all been a lie and, instead of a pit of gravitational fury, there is something even more mysterious hiding there? Something masquerading as a black hole: a wormhole.

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