Breaking News

Ndaba | September 2011

The pioneers who tamed electricity had an exciting ride, and the picture became much more enticing once the intimate relationship of electricity with magnetism came out of the closet. Halfway through the 18th century, Benjamin Franklin was magnetising and demagnetising iron bars by subjecting them to an electrical current. 70 years later, the accidental arrangement of a compass needle and an electrically charged wire at an evening lecture by Danish physics professor Hans Orsted provided the first experimental evidence of the dynamic relationship between the two phenomena. By subsequent investigation Orsted was able to show a principle of profound importance to our understanding of the universe, and indeed, to the dazzling acceleration of man’s advance into an era of high technology. He observed that a freely suspended magnet tended to curl around an electrical conductor, in other words, that an interaction between electric current and a magnetic field produced rotation. It wanted to spin! Quite by chance, Orsted had stumbled upon the principle of the electric motor. And then came Faraday.

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Ndaba | November 2009

The Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico has over the years been home for radically innovative thought. From its days as focus of the Manhattan Project which gave us the first nuclear weapons, out-the-box thinking has characterised the successes of Los Alamos. The legendary Dick Feynman was a citizen there, and so was plasma pioneer Tony Peratt. The most recent news to reach me from Los Alamos is a paper that addresses supernovae light curves in a way that prompts me to say, “Damn! Why didn’t I think of that?” The author is John Middleditch, and using SN1987A as an example, proposes that issues still outstanding after 22 years of analysis may be explained by one simple fact, so obvious in hindsight: What we see in supernovae is directly influenced by the progenitor object.

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Ndaba | October 2009

The much-vaunted “perfect fit” curve published by John Mather et al in 1991 allegedly shows the exact alignment of theory and observation in the Microwave Background Radiation. It is indeed a wonderfully precise match, the result of years of intense scrutiny. In private correspondence, my friend and helmsman Professor Paul Jackson shared the experience.

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Ndaba | September 2009

Oh dear! My every good intention of doing September’s Breaking News on the science of Jules Verne has gone by the wayside—dashed by the cruel march of time to the pile labelled “Work In Progress”. How M. Verne’s literature could be seen as the latest news is something only Skywalker could comprehend, but be that as it may, I shall bless you with it in some (unspecified) future edition of Ndaba. My editor at this esteemed and widely-read journal has now also placed her regal presence upon the throne of omniscience and irresistible timekeeping at the Durban Centre meetings. Her hand “that the rod of empire might have swayed, or waked to ecstasy the living lyre”, now stills the rumble of inane thought—and lets the show begin!

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Ndaba | August 2009

Astronomy ought to be an observational science. It really should. It used to be, after all, a hundred years ago or so. Ideally, astronomers would point their instruments at the heavens, find astounding new things, and publish them where we could all share in the joy of discovery. I wish it were so. The appalling truth is that we are permitted to see only what a faceless, nameless group called “the moderators” deems fit for our eyes. Thought Police are alive and well in the world of space science, and who knows, some of them might even be friends of ours. Alas, so great is their commitment to anonymity that we would simply never know.

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Ndaba | July 2009

I am terrified of Geoffrey Burbidge. I admit it. He makes me quake in my boots. The larger by a considerable margin of the famous husband-and-wife team that has earned the moniker “B-squared”, Geoff is certainly a different kettle of fish. Margaret, on one hand, is a motherly figure, treating visitors to their lovely San Diego home to tea and crumpets in the glorious English tradition. Dealing with her husband is quite another matter. Geoffrey does not suffer fools gladly, and it would seem to me that by his definition, all the world’s a fool. And that includes me, of course.

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Ndaba | May 2009

We live in a 3-dimensional Universe. Maybe the defining characteristic of celestial objects in general is how far away they were when they sent their portraits to us. It can additionally be argued that distance is the defining problem of astronomy. The spatial arrangements in 3 dimensions of objects we see on the sky, and the quantified relationship between them, sets the ground and marks the field of play.

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Ndaba | April 2009

I consider myself an environmentalist. I would like to see human beings become better citizens and treat their planet with greater respect. However, as a scientist, I am really deeply despondent about the whole paradigm that has arisen around Al Gore’s Inconvenient Truth road show. The reason is simply this: The theory of catastrophic global warming he has publicised so brilliantly is completely unfounded in fact.

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Ndaba | March 2009

Astronomy is the study of the greater environment, that part of the Universe that appears to us as the celestial sphere—the sky. By day, it is dominated by the Sun, our very own star, but by night it becomes a wonderland as the earth’s shadow dims the sunlight and allows us to see the Milky Way. With the naked eye we can see, depending on conditions, the Moon (the Earth’s only substantial natural satellite), 6 planets, part of the Milky Way galaxy, and our sister spiral galaxy, Andromeda M31. Of course, there are also transient phenomena that come and go from view relatively quickly, like artificial satellites, comets, and meteors. And Jumbo jets!

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