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Lunch Hour Lecture: On supernovae and serendipity

ycrnf0113 October 2014

Like a white dwarf, autumn 2014’s first Lunch Hour Lecture was dense, full of energy and tightly packed (but in this case, time and not space, I might add).

Psyched for my first Lunch Hour Lecture, I was ready to explore the world of supernovae with a 45-minute guided journey through the stars, namely, ones in the process of exploding very dramatically.

Radiating enthusiasm and demonstrating expertise from start to finish, Dr Steve Fossey (UCL Physics and Astronomy) took a capacity audience on a whistle stop tour of January’s discovery of a Type ia supernova, memorably named SN 2014J, and situated in our neighbourhood galaxy, the sci-fi sounding, Messier 82.

After summarising the rules for supernovae discovery (there are two options: looking, and not looking but accidentally finding), Dr Fossey gave a short overview of history’s accidental supernova discoveries.

One scenario for Type Ia supernovae: a white dwarf accreting matter from a neighbour till it becomes unstable Credit: European Southern Observatory

One scenario for Type Ia supernovae: a white dwarf accreting matter from a neighbour until it becomes unstable
Credit: European Southern Observatory via Oli Usher

Beginning with Tycho Brahe’s find in 1572 – labelled SN 1572 – which rewrote the rules of astronomy, he moved on to Johannes Kepler’s discovery of SN 1604 in, wait for it, 1604 (are you seeing a pattern here?) and finally, and more recently, SN 1987A, found by astronomers in Chile.

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Exoplanets, alien atmospheres and life, Jim…but not as we know it!

news editor12 June 2013

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Exoplanet by NASAblueshift on Flickr

Artist’s impression of the exoplanet Tau Boötis b from
NASAblueshift on Flickr.

Written by David Robertson, who attended a lecture by Dr Giovanni Tinetti (UCL Physics & Astronomy) at the Cheltenham Science Festival, entitled ‘Exoplanet explorers’.

1992, was the year it hit me! As I entered the brave new world of primary education, I remember being startled with the knowledge that we lived on a ball of rock, travelling some 67,000 miles per hour around a massive burning ball of fire. Naturally, this was a pretty terrifying turn of events!

As the shock subsided, and my terror turned to awe, I was told that the Earth was one of a small group of planets orbiting our local star.

There was more.

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99% of the universe and other plasma facts – video

ucjtlmv8 June 2011

Did you know that 99% of the known universe is made up of plasma? This fact was only one of the surprising and thought-provoking facts revealed in Exploring the Plasma Universe at the Cheltenham Science Festival yesterday. Flanked by some exciting experiments involving fire and the simulation of lightning, Kate Lancaster, Melanie Windridge and UCL researcher Lucie Green explained the physics behind plasma, including how it might be used to power spacecraft and provide energy, as well as future directions in plasma research.

But what is plasma? Good question. I have to admit, my first thought on seeing the title of the talk was blood plasma and none too irrelevantly either – it is sometimes thought that this substance was named after blood plasma. Plasma is a state of matter produced by heating a gas until some of the particles are ionised. The molecular bonds break apart into atoms and you are left with a matter containing positive ions and negative electrons. It conducts electricity thanks to the charged atoms which respond to electromagnetic fields, and produces photons, which creates the iconic flashes of colour that you see in lightning, plasma television screens and plasma lamps.

Watch Dr Lucie Green in action at the festival (2 minutes)

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