Five amazing things: astronomy

The best of the web, brought to you.

The best of the web, brought to you.

The internet is full of astonishing videos, pictures and articles but the noise-to-signal ratio can be boringly high. So, from now on, I'll be regularly collecting five of the best texts, movies and images, old and new, on a variety of subjects.

This time: astronomy. Next time: dancing.

1. Scale by Brad Goodspeed

How big would the other planets look if they orbited the earth at the same distance -- 380,000km -- that the moon does? Brad Goodspeed's visualisation will show you. Watch out for Jupiter, which is intimidatingly vast.

2. Bill O'Reilly doesn't understand the moon

While we're talking about the moon, it turns out that Bill O'Reilly doesn't know how it works -- which is why he believes in God. "How did the moon get there?" he asks. "How come we have that, and Mars doesn't?" As I think Jon Stewart pointed out recently, O'Reilly seems to believe that if he doesn't understand a given concept, no one does. (By the way, Bill, National Geographic has the answer here.)

3. Eclipsing the sun

File this under "Eek". The French photographer Thierry Legault took a photo of the International Space Station passing in front of the sun. A humbling reminder that even our most cutting-edge technology is pretty small beer on the cosmic scale.

Oh, and if you want to see what the astronauts on the ISS are looking at right now, you can do that at the Nasa website here.

4. Nasa's astronomy picture of the day

Always beautiful, often mind-boggling, these photos have recently included the cracked surface of Jupiter's moon Europa, the deep-space contortions of the Seagull Nebula and gorgeous skies over Libya and Stockholm. Look out, too, for the amazing video of the Peerskill meteor of 1992, which, despite being only the size of a bowling ball, was brighter than a full moon as it screamed towards earth.

5. "Pale Blue Dot" by Carl Sagan

My final pick is a personal one: Carl Sagan's "Pale Blue Dot". We had this as a reading at our wedding, because its both humbling and hopeful. Starting with a photo of earth taken in 1990 by Voyager 1 from the edge of the solar system -- 3,781,782,502 miles away -- the great science educator reflects on our responsibility to care for that "mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam . . . the only home we've ever known". If you don't feel a little prickle in your tearducts by the end, you have no soul.

An image from NASA''s Hubble Space Telescope of a vast, sculpted landscape of gas and dust where thousands of stars are being born. Credit: Getty Images

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

Yu Ji/University of Cambridge NanoPhotonics
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Nanoengine evolution: researchers have built the world’s smallest machine

The engine could form the basis of futuristic tiny robots with real-world applications.

Richard P Feynman, winner of the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1965, once remarked in a now-seminal lecture that a time would come where we would “swallow the doctor”. What he meant, of course, was the actualisation of a science-fiction dream – not one in which a universal cure-all prescriptive drug would be available, but one in which society would flourish through the uses of tiny devices, or more specifically, nanotechnology. 

First, a quick primer on the field is necessary. Nanoscience involves the study and application of technologies at an extremely tiny scale. How tiny, you ask? Given that one nanometre is a billionth of a metre, the scale of work taking place in the field is atomic in nature, far beyond the observational powers of the naked human eye.

Techno-optimists have long promoted potential uses of nano-sized objects, promising increases in efficiency and capabilities of processes across the board as a result. The quintessential “swallow the doctor” example is one which suggests that the fully-realised potential of nanotechnology could be applied to medicine. The idea is that nanobots could circulate our bodily systems in order to reverse-engineer the vast array of health problems that threaten us.

It’s natural to be sceptical of such wild aspirations from a relatively young field of study (nanoscience unofficially began in 1959 following Feynman’s lecture “There’s Plenty of Room at the Bottom”), but associated research seems to be gaining widespread endorsement among prominent scientists and enthusiasts. Ray Kurzweil, Director of Engineering at Google, thinks a booming nanotechnology industry is crucial in the creation of a technological singularity, while futurist and viral video philosopher Jason Silva believes the technology will help us cure ageing.

The high-profile intrigue surrounding nanotechnology means that word of any significant developments is certain to stimulate heightened interest – which is why researchers’ achievement in building the world’s tiniest engine this month is so significant.

Reporting their results in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, the University of Cambridge researchers explained how the nanoengine was formed and why it represented a key step forward in the transition of the technology from theory to practice.

The prototype nanoengine is essentially composed of charged particles of gold, bound by polymers responsive to temperature in the form of a gel. The engine is then exposed to a laser which beams and heats the device, causing it to expel all water from the polymeric gel. The consequence of this is a collapsing of the gold particles into an amalgamated, tightened cluster. Following a period of cooling, the polymer then begins to reabsorb the water molecules it lost in the heating process, resulting in a spring-like expansion that pushes apart the gold particles from their clustered state.

"It's like an explosion," said Dr Tao Ding from Cambridge's Cavendish Laboratory. "We have hundreds of gold balls flying apart in a millionth of a second when water molecules inflate the polymers around them."

The process involved takes advantage of the phenomenon of Van der Waals forces – the attraction between atoms and molecules. The energy from these forces is converted into elastic energy, which in turn is rapidly released from the polymer. "The whole process is like a nano-spring," said Professor Jeremy Baumberg, who led the research.

Scientists have been tirelessly working towards the creation of a functional nanomachine – one which can effortlessly swim through water, gauge its surroundings and communicate. Prior to the research, there was a difficulty in generating powerful forces at a nanometre scale. These newly devised engines, however, generate forces far larger than any previously produced.

They have been named “ANTs”, or actuating nano-transducers. "Like real ants, they produce large forces for their weight. The challenge we now face is how to control that force for nano-machinery applications," said Baumberg.

In an email exchange with New Statesman about the short-term and long-term goals in bringing this engine closer to a practical reality, Baumberg said: “It allows us for the first time, the prospect of making nano-machines and nanobots. The earliest stage applications we can see are to make pumps and valves in microfluidic systems. Microfluidic chips are really interesting for synthesising pharmaceuticals, biomedical sensing and separation, as well as many other biochemical processes.

“But all pumps and valves currently need to be made with hydraulics, so you need a pipe onto the chip for each one, limiting strongly the complexity of anything you do with them. We believe we can now make pumps and valves from the ANTs which are each controlled by a beam of light, and we can have thousands on a single chip. Beyond this, we are looking at making tiny nanomachines that can walk around, controlled by beams of light.”

The embedding of nanobots into all facets of culture is still a long way off, and researchers will need to find a way of harnessing the energy of nanoengines. However, the prospect of one day seeing the fruition of nanorobotics is worth all the patience you can get. The tiniest robot revolution has just begun.