Stand down space cadets: there is (sadly) no alien megastructure around star KIC 8462852, also known as Tabbys star
As if a divisive Star Wars film wasnt bad news enough this Christmas, now an analysis by more than 200 astronomers has been published that shows the mysterious dimming of star KIC 8462852 is not being produced by an alien megastructure.
The evidence points most strongly to a giant cloud of dust occasionally obscuring the star. The cloud was most possibly produced by the collision of two comets or the break-up of a single one. Another option is that the star itself is undergoing some sort of internal convulsion that astronomers have never seen before.
KIC 8462852 is approximately 1,500 light years away from the Earth and hit the headlines in October 2015 when data from Nasas Kepler space telescope showed that it was dimming by unexplainably large amounts. The stars light dropped by 20% first and then 15% making it unique. Even a large planet passing in front of the star would have blocked only about 1% of the light.
For an object to block 15-20%, it would have to be approaching half the diameter of the star itself. With this realisation, a few astronomers began whispering that such a signal would be the kind expected from a gigantic extraterrestrial construction orbiting in front of the star and the idea of the alien megastructure was born.
Tabetha Boyajian, then at Yale University and now at Louisiana State University, led the investigations into the mysterious signals. It was after her that the star was nicknamed Tabbys star. She said at the time that a constant monitoring programme was needed to watch the star for more dips.
Todays new analysis is the result of that programme. It was funded by a Kickstarter campaign that attracted support from more than 1,700 people and raised more than $100,000. In partnership with the Las Cumbres Observatory, a privately-funded organisation that operates 21 telescopes at eight sites around the world, the astronomers monitored the star from March 2016 to December 2017.
In that time they recorded four more dips, though none were as dramatic as the originals, reaching only a percent or two. These were named by the Kickstarter supporters as Elsie and Celeste, Skara Brae and Angkor. Significantly for the analysis, the dimming events were captured at multiple wavelengths.
If an alien megastructure had been causing the drop in light, being a solid object, it would block all wavelengths in the same way, at the same time. Thats not what the team saw. Instead, different wavelengths of light dropped by different amounts. This is exactly what you would expect from starlight passing through a tenuous dust cloud.
It happens because dust grains scatter light depending on its wavelength. Blue light, which has short wavelengths, is scattered more easily than red, which has longer wavelengths. This is why our sky is blue; that colour has been scattered out of the suns direct light by the molecules in the air.
In the case of Tabbys star, the new observations show that it dims more at blue wavelengths than red. Thus, its light is passing through a dust cloud, not being blocked by an alien megastructure in orbit around the star (#sadface).
While it is not aliens this time, the story serves as a valuable reminder that unexpected signals of this kind are definitely the ones to look out for. Something unexplainable in some unexpected observation rather than a deliberate radio message to us is probably the way we are going to spot the presence of extraterrestrials if theyre out there in the first place, of course.
Some people exude self-assurance, while others dread putting themselves forward. But is lack of confidence societal or genetic, and what tricks can we use to overcome it?
Above the entrance to Manchester Grammar School lies a coat of arms and a Latin inscription: Sapere Aude. Ian Thorpe, then the schools development officer, translated it for me Dare to Be Wise as we stood in the front quad on a warm day last July. First used by the Roman poet Horace in his book of Epistles, the phrase was later employed by the philosopher Immanuel Kant: Dare to know! Have the courage to use your own understanding is the motto of the enlightenment, he wrote. And it makes a fine motto, too, for a school that counts among its alumni the writer Thomas de Quincy and the director Nicholas Hytner.
Manchester Grammar is the largest all-boys day school in the country, and when I visited they were in the throes of summer sports day: a loudspeaker reeled race results out across the grass, a large marquee stood by the track. There was, I felt, a sense of gentle splendour there in the trees that line its long driveway, mature and broad-branched, and in the quad designed in the style of an Oxbridge college. Certainly, the school wants for little: it stands on a 28-acre site, has a history dating back to the early 16th century, and commands fees a little shy of 12,000 a year.
In the cool of the library, I joined Thorpe, his colleague Laura Rooney and some of their students. We talked about the benefits of the school, their previous educational experiences at a rowdy primary and a local state comprehensive. Theres more attention to individual pupils here, said one. When I came to this school, I felt more important, said another. Rooney spoke of the schools old boys network. We look after them for the rest of their lives, she said, and told of how, only the previous week, she had arranged a sixth-form work experience placement with an Old Mancunian who is now a vehicle engineer for a Formula One team.
The boys were open, articulate and delightful, their demeanour imbued with a confidence I found striking. But a school such as Manchester Grammar engenders confidence not just through the depth and breadth of its education, but through the sense of history and lineage it bestows upon its pupils, the belief that it is quite something to join the ranks of Old Mancunians, the familiarity with Oxbridge and the professional world, a feeling of ease in a variety of social settings and occasions. And although not every public school child will brim with confidence, many will go on to live their lives with the deep-rooted sense that they have worth.
Confidence is a peculiar beast. At its most fulsome it can seem repellent. In some cases it could even prove dangerous consider the circumstances brought about by the unwavering confidence of Donald Trump or Nigel Farage, for instance, or the kind of financial maelstrom unleashed by the overconfidence of stock market traders. Yet as I left Manchester Grammar that July day I felt a great wash of sadness that not all young people will know that sense of self-assurance; that many will spend their lives feeling perpetually on the back foot. And I wondered whether confidence might be something we can learn at any stage in life.
To an extent, confidence is something hardwired into us from birth. A study of 3,700 twins by behavioural geneticist Corina Greven at Kings College London and Robert Plomin of the Institute of Psychiatry, for instance, concluded that academic self-confidence was 50% nature and 50% nurture. Women, meanwhile, have a biological tendency to seek acceptance and avoid conflict, while men tend to take more risks under pressure, meaning that, in some lights, women might appear to lack inner confidence.
But external factors play a huge role in shaping our feelings of self worth. Lets say you are white and male and raised in a detached house in the home counties. You attend a fee-paying school, your family is financially secure and well-educated as it has been for generations. It seems brain-numbingly obvious to suggest your levels of confidence are likely to be higher than if you were female, black and state-educated, growing up in a single-parent family on benefits living on a council estate in, say, Burnley.
No working-class kid, however self-confident, is ever going to be made the editor of the Evening Standard without any journalistic experience, in the way that George Osborne was, says the writer and broadcaster Stuart Maconie, who has written often on matters of class, politics and regional divide. What he has is a complicated nexus, a network of power and relationships that means you cant really fail. Underpinning that sort of confidence, he adds, is actual material and political power and I think this is forgotten sometimes when well-meaning people are accusing working-class kids of lacking the confidence and self-assertion that comes with middle-class people.
Whether you are the rough and rebellious type or the charismatic thrill-seeking sort, this short test will reveal what sort of cool you are, says Ben Ambridge
Are you as cool as a cucumber? Or as naff as a 40-year-old using slang from the 1990s? To find out, simply tick off each of the personality traits you think you possess on each of the lists below.
List A Thrill-seeking; unconventional; hedonistic (eg partying, self-indulgence); pro-social values (eg caring, unselfish); driven for success; friendly; competent; charismatic; attractive; confident; trendy; warm.
List B Rebellious; ironic; rough; aloof; anti-social values (eg selfish).
So, are you cool?And, if so, what type of cool? If you ticked mostly traits on List A, then you have what coolness researchers, for example Professor Ilan Dar-Nimrod of the University of Rochester, New York, call cachet-cool. This is the type of cool enjoyed by the popular, conventionally attractive kids. If you ticked mostly items on List B, you have contrarian-cool. This is enjoyed by the tough rebels who eschew sports in favour of smoking behind the bike sheds.
If youre very attractive, youll be perceived as cool (thats cachet-cool), whatever you do. If not, youll have to work harder, for example by being friendly and partying extra hard. If you want to go the contrarian-cool route but are not naturally rebellious, youll need to dial up the irony and the rough demeanour and never use the word cool.
Unlike other arrangements, if we dont get this right, business stops. There will be no trade. If we cant arrive at safeguards and other principles that allow compliance [with international nuclear standards] to be demonstrated, no nuclear trade will be able to continue.
Asked by the chair of the Commons business, energy and industrial strategy select committee if that would see reactors switching off, he said: Ultimately, when their fuels runs out, yes. Cowen said that in his view there was no legal requirement for the UK to leave Euratom because of Brexit: Its a political issue, not a legal issue.
The UK nuclear industry would be crippled if new nuclear cooperation deals are not agreed within two years, a former government adviser told the committee.
There is a plethora of international agreements that would have to be struck that almost mirror those in place with Euratom, before we moved not just material but intellectual property, services, anything in the nuclear sector. We would be crippled without other things in place, said Dame Sue Ion, chair of the Nuclear Innovation and Research Advisory Board, which was established by the government in 2013.
She said movement of the industrys best intellectual talent was made easier by the UKs membership of Euratom.
The government said it was working on alternative arrangements to Euratom. Describing the notification of withdrawal as a regrettable necessity when article 50 is triggered, energy minister Jesse Norman said that the UK saw clear routes outside of Euratom to address issues such as the trade of nuclear materials.
We take this extremely seriously and are devoting serious resources [to looking at new arrangements], he told the Lords science and technology committee on Tuesday.
Tom Greatrex, chief executive of the Nuclear Industry Association, said there was a lot to be done to put in place transitional measures replacing Euratom.
What were collectively warning about is the potential for there to be a very hard two-year period during which there are lots of other things the government has to deal with, that could leave it in a position where some of these things arent in place, he said. Greatrex said one possible option was an associate membership of Euratom.
Over the weekend, the GMB union called on ministers to reconsider their foolhardy rush to leave the treaty, claiming it could endanger the UKs entire nuclear future.
But the Office for Nuclear Regulation argued there could even be be some positives to leaving Euratom, such as a reduction in bureaucracy. If we relinquish Euratom there would be reduced burden from not having to comply with directives, said David Senior, an ONR executive.
From car to rail, its hard to find a terrestrial journey that matches SpaceXs astronomical cost
It is a stratospheric sum but it does, at least, include the return journey. Elon Musk, the billionaire American transport visionary, has suggested that the first, so far unnamed, passengers on his SpaceX flight round the moon will pay about $70m (56m).
Musk says the journey, tentatively scheduled for 2018 on an untested Falcon Heavy rocket, will cover up to 400,000 miles, although the Apollo 13 crew, on their trip to the moon in 1970, were a record 248,655 miles from Earth, so this figure seems modest if anything. Either way, 400,000 miles (about 16 times the circumference of Earth) for 56m is equal to about 140 a mile, which is easier to fathom. But how does it compare with terrestrial journeys?
Tube: The closest you can get to matching the cost of lunar travel is on the London Underground. The shortest Tube journey is the 350 metres, from Covent Garden to Leicester Square. A cash ticket costs 4.90, which equates to almost 23 a mile, about a sixth of the cost of a trip to the moon and back and a lot quicker.
According to research it takes babies approximately two years for their eyesight to fully develop. In fact children can’t focus on their parents’ faces, even close up, until they’re around three months old.