An iconic image of a black hole

The first image of a black hole
Caught on camera: the first image of a black hole (credit: EHT Collaboration)

It’s been a landmark week for astronomy and physics following the publication of the first-ever image of a black hole.

Taken by the Event Horizon Telescope (EHT), it is surely set to become one of the most iconic images in science.

You can can find out all about the discovery by reading my story in Physics World, watching this cool social video we made as well as listening to me ramble on about it in the Physics World weekly podcast.

And if that’s not enough then check out this round-up I wrote about all those black-hole inspired memes that spread over social media on 10 April.

It will be fascinating to see how astronomers improve these images over the coming years through adding extra radio telescopes to the EHT array as well as improved data analysis.

 

Reading room: Brief Answers to the Big Questions

Given the level of hype around the recent release of Brief Answers to the Big Questions, I was somewhat disappointed by Stephen Hawking’s final book.

Hawking died in March and was apparently working on the tome a year before his death. With it unfinished, various collaborators and friends have helped out, delving into his vast archives to complete chapters or fill in the blanks. Indeed, the acknowledgements name over 20 scientists who have given their time to finish the book.

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Suitable for all ages

And this is one of the problems I had. As I read the book, it wasn’t clear what passages were fresh and what was taken from the archives, or even whether it was his Hawking’s own voice or someone else speaking for him.

The book also could have done with some editing. I lost count of the number of times I read a page about a definition or history of the Uncertainty Principle. With the chapters being so short (the book itself is around 55 000 words), such repetition becomes obvious.

Also in one chapter Hawking seems to suggest that we have only discovered Jupiter-sized planets outside our Solar System, when we have actually found many that are Earth-sized. There are also brief mentions of Brexit and Donald Trump that seem to be thrown in rather unnecessarily, presumably to give the book a more up-to-date feel.

The strongest chapters in the book are when Hawking is describing quantum mechanics, time and black holes (although the chapter about black holes is pretty hard going… supertranslations, anyone?). However, I was less convinced when Hawking tackled other issues. He made it seem like all our problems as a species would be solved if only we colonise another planet. But who is to say that those same issues would magically disappear the minute we land on Mars?

He also seems to suggest that artificial intelligence would be positive for humanity, but doesn’t really discuss the potentially huge societal changes that would result. He also seems to extrapolate the rise of machines and artificial intelligence, but doesn’t do so with humans, pointing out that evolution is incredibly slow. But who is to say that decades from now humans could be easily genetically engineered (notwithstanding the huge ethical issues) to be so evolved that they could outsmart any type of artificial intelligence, or even join forces with it. A scary prospect indeed.

That apart, this book will undoubtedly be devoured by popular-science readers and it has already made its way onto the top 10 non-fiction list. But I doubt it will have anywhere near the same impact as Hawking’s classic A Brief history of Time.

Superconductivity at 236K?

A new paper on the arXiv preprint server is causing quite a stir. It’s about the apparent discovery of high-temperature superconductivity in a samples made of silver and gold.

Superconductivity is when a material conducts electricity without any resistance. One aim of many working in the field is getting a material to do so at room temperature (and ambient pressure). This would have a myriad of applications from magnets to low-loss power cables.

So far, no material has been found to be superconducting above around 200 K (-73 C). The current record is hydrogen sulphide at 203 K, but that is only at huge pressures of 155 GPa.

But now two researchers working at the Indian Institute of Science in Bangalore have apparently seen superconductivity at 236 K (-37 C) and not only that but at ambient pressure. The sample in question is a nanostructured material made of silver nanoparticles in a gold “matrix”.

It’s safe to say that if the discovery is verified, it would be huge.

The surprise about this result is that both silver and gold are themselves not superconductors. And there are also some intriguing aspects to the data, notably the identical “noise” that is seen in some of the measurements.

Apparently, the paper has been submitted to Nature.

Having worked in a lab that worked in superconductivity, I know that many groups will be racing to replicate these results, so we will just have to wait and see

Reading room: The Life of Dad

The Life of Dad by Anna Machin

Being a (relatively) new dad, I find all the research around babies and fatherhood rather fascinating.

When my wife was pregnant with our first child, I would spend most evenings reading books about pregnancy and child development, much to my other half’s amusement.IMG_2214

Once our little one arrived, I became a fairly hands-on dad, but quickly discovered that society’s view of fatherhood isn’t so flattering. Some of the other books aimed at dads I read focussed on the rather tired stereotype of fumbling dad who has no idea what he is doing.

So when I heard about this book, I thought finally a serious book for dads.

By Anna Machin, a psychologist at Oxford University, The Life of Dad takes a look at the latest research into fatherhood, a field that only really kicked-off a decade ago.

The book originated from Machin’s own experience. After giving birth (an event she notes was fairly harrowing), she was supported by staff while her husband was left to deal with it all on his own. Machin was frustrated by this lack of support for dads and concerned about what impact it is having not only on their own health but that of the  family.

This book removes any doubt about how important fathers are to the development of their offspring, particularly in the first two years following birth. It documents how fathers also go through hormonal changes and even how their brains adapt to their new situation.

What is particularly interesting is the research around non-biological fathers and how  “social dads” can be so important to the upbringing of children.

Machin ends the book with a call for society to change how it treats fathers, particularly in the work place. She says that while scientists have presented much evidence for why dads are so important to their offspring’s developement, this has so far failed to produce meaningful change in society.

The only way that will happen, it seems, is if dads themselves take up the issue.

The science behind talking to your baby – or why choo-choo is better than train

One thing I have always stopped myself doing when talking to my newborn is lots of “baby talk”.

This is the mostly annoying (at least, I think) way of talking to your baby that involves saying words that either end in “y” (i.e. bunny or doggy), sound like their meaning (such as woof or splash) or have repeated syllables (like choo-choo).

My mantra has always been to talk to my two little ones like I would to an adult.

Yet while that might sound incredibly boring and dull, maybe it is actually the wrong thing to do.

That is because linguists at the University of Edinburgh have discovered that infants whose parents used more instances of baby talk actually learnt new words quicker than those babies that didn’t get so much cooing.

The linguists measured 47 infants’ language skills and then recorded samples of speech spoken to each infant by an adult. They then analysed the speech for baby talk before measuring the infants’ language skills again when they were 15 and 21 months old.

They saw a boost in language ability for those infants that were talked to using “y-ending words and repeated syllables. But not all types of baby talk saw a similar boost — there was no benefit when saying words that sound like their meaning, such as woof or splash.

So less of the woof and more of the choo-choo.