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In the dusty and hot depths of northern Israel, something remarkable was recently discovered in the Zhevulun Valley by the precious stone mining company Shefa Yamim.

Geologists struck on a mineral embedded in sapphire with the extraordinary and extraterrestrial property of being harder than Diamonds – something only alien gems in outer space are known to possess. Subsequent density testings do indeed reveal that this trumps its established Diamond competitor.

The mineral was found close to Mt.Carmel which serves as the inspiration for its name ‘Carmeltazite’.  It has also been trademarked by Shefa Yamim with the name of ‘Carmel Sapphire’. Its legitimacy has been further supported by the International Mineralogical Association’s Commission on New Minerals, giving it official status as a new mineral.

This incredibly rare mineral has its origins in the era of the dinosaur when Israel was a highly volcanic area, with over a dozen volcanic vents constantly spewing out molten lava.

Carmeltazite is similar in its molecular structure to ruby and sapphire (aside from its being rarer with a higher density) and varies in colour from black, blue, green and an orange-y brown.

Unfortunately, saving up to give your loved one a Carmel Sapphire engagement ring may be out of most of our budgets, as the stone’s special properties make it more valuable than even diamonds.

Humor aside, the discovery of Carmeltazite is incredible and delving more into its structure as well as researching other new minerals could be a great way for geologists and natural scientists to have the edge at interview.

On the 12th of August 2018, following technical problems and delays, the Parker solar probe finally started its record-breaking mission towards the sun. Named after the astrophysicist Eugene Parker, the solar probe is programmed to fly into the sun’s corona (an aura of plasma surrounding the star) and ultimately come within 6.1 km of the sun’s surface. Travelling at around 724,000 kph, the probe will hitchhike on Venus’ gravitational orbit seven times to come closer and closer to the sun.

Several measures have been put in place to protect the probe and its equipment from the scorching temperatures. The spacecraft will be protected by a state-of-the-art carbon heat shield, and has built-in sensors to rapidly compensate in case it turns and exposes its equipment to the full heat of the sun. Although the plasma that makes up the corona reaches well into the millions of degrees Centigrade, the probe will only be exposed to a breezy 1,400°C due to the very thin structure of the corona, which means that the probe won’t actually touch that many of the superheated plasma particles; “think of putting your oven on and you set it at 400 degrees, and you can put your hand inside your oven and you won’t get burned unless you actually touch a surface”, explains Nicola Fox, a solar scientist at Johns Hopkins University and part of the Parker probe team.

Through this ground-breaking mission, scientists hope to solve some of the sun’s best-kept secrets, for example; why is the corona so much hotter than the surface of the sun? And what lies behind the solar wind, the term coined in the 1950s by Eugene Parker to describe the gas that speeds away from the sun at over a million miles per hour?  When Parker first proposed this idea, he was scorned by the scientific community. But in time, research came to vindicate him, and we now know that such a wind does indeed exist and has a significant impact on the solar system. “We’ve had to wait so long for our technology to catch up with our dreams,” says Fox. “It’s incredible to be standing here today.” Parker himself is rather more prosaic: “I’ll bet you 10 bucks it works”.

Applicants for Physics, Natural Sciences, or Engineering might be interested in learning more about the solar probe’s mission and the research and questions that lie behind the mission. Those particularly interested in astrophysics may wish to read Eugene Parker’s 1958 paper on solar wind.

On the 25th of July 2018, scientists announced an exciting discovery: promising signs were identified of a potential lake lying beneath layers of ice on Mars’s south pole. Researchers have long harboured suspicions that there might be water lurking on the planet, but the research led by Roberto Orosei of the Italian National Institute for Astrophysics is the first to point towards a proper body of water, and a large one at that—the lake is estimated to be around 12 miles in width.

The lake was spotted using low-frequency radio wave technology which can penetrate deep beneath the thick layers of ice. However, the low frequency also means that the results gleaned are not as precise, because the resolution of the reflected signal is relatively low. Because of this, the team’s conclusions are not yet certain, although they are confident that the existence of a lake is the most likely option presented by the data.

Could extraterrestrial life be swimming around in this polar lake?  It is certainly not a welcoming environment. Firstly, the temperature presents an obstacle to life. The lower limit for the majority of organisms on earth is around –40° Celsius; the ice layer on Mars is around –68° C. Secondly, for the water to exist in liquid form at such low temperatures is has to be very salty—another condition that poses a challenge to life. Similar conditions do exist on earth, for example in deep sea brine pools or in Antarctica’s subglacial lakes, and certain organisms (known as extremophiles) have adapted to life in or around these conditions. So although a Martian lake might kill off even the hardiest of such terrestrial species, it is not unthinkable that Martian organisms may be able to survive there. Finding out whether this is indeed the case would likely involve drilling below the ice, something which is not only beyond our current technological abilities but which would face opposition from the scientific communities. However, signs of methane variation in the planet’s atmosphere has been picked up as a possible sign that Mars’s liquid water may host life.

Applicants for physical and biological science degrees alike may be interested in the ongoing discussion about the potential Martian lake. How likely is it given the evidence that such a lake really exists? How likely is it that life can thrive and survive there?

We’re all aware of the negative effects of human activity on the environment on Earth. But what about in space? Increasing and largely unregulated activity from various states and corporations is filling up the space around our planet with orbiting trash and threatening the future of space exploration.

The Outer Space Treaty, formulated in 1967, states among other things that bodies such as the moon and asteroids cannot be used for private development and that nations must monitor the space activity of private companies.However, the problems of this current era were not foreseen or covered by the treaty. There are now over 17,000 satellites orbiting Earth, and it is increasingly cheap and easy to get in on the game. As the space industry develops, there may well be other kinds of clutter jostling for space as well. Collisions between these objects could create a barrier of debris preventing further travel. There is as yet no way to deal with these issues, and no overarching authority to regulate activity.

However several space scientists, lawyers, and policy experts are collaborating on the first Institute for the Sustainable Development of Space. The Institute sees space as common property and therefore a common responsibility. They aim to implement long-term strategies and to find solutions to the growing problems so that people around the world can continue to explore space and to use it fruitfully but sustainably. A comparable example would be the oceans, where the cumulative actions of corporations and nations can have enormous implications for the environment and for humans around the globe.

Students interested in space travel and technology, law, international politics, or environmental issues may wish to think about what problems we may face in the future and how we can tackle them, with reference to analogous environmental or legal situations on Earth.

Would you like to take a trip to the year 3000? It might not be as impossible as it seems; in fact, time travel is going on every day on a tiny scale, and one astronaut currently holds the record for time travel (yes, you read that right).

Don’t get too excited though. When Gennady Padalka returned to Earth after spending 879 days in space, he found the Earth to be 1/44th of a second in the future of what he had expected. Hardly a fitting plot for a sci-fi film. And yet it demonstrates in real-life terms Einstein’s theory of general relativity, which states that time is not fixed but rather depends on speed. He also suggested that gravity slows time, meaning that being far out in space would make time run faster.

Astrophysicists such as Richard Gott of Princeton University think they know how to create a time machine that could take you much further forward than Padalka’s measly record, by travelling much faster than his 17,000 miles per hour. On a subatomic level this has been achieved—the Large Hadron Collider does send protons into the future by accelerating them to 99.999999% of the speed of light. Conceptually, it is possible to do something similar with humans. To visit the Earth in the year 3000, it is necessary only to hop in a spaceship that can travel at 99.995% of the speed of light. For example if you were to pick a planet that’s a bit less than 500 light years away, travelling at 99.995% of the speed of light it would take you about 500 years to get there from our perspective, and another 500 to get back, so you would arrive home in 3018. But since you are travelling so fast, your internal clock would be going at only 1/100th of the speed of the clocks on earth; hence, you would only experience the journey as ten years and would age accordingly.

For now, engineering limitations prevent us from realising this possibility. The fastest spacecraft ever made will soon be the Parker Solar Probe, which can travel only 0.00067% of the speed of light. It would also take an enormous amount of energy to propel a spaceship at almost the speed of light, energy which is not provided by any fuel that we currently use. Other obstacles would also compromise the safety of the astronaut and their ability to travel as far as possible into the future. Theoretically, however, these can be overcome.

What if you want to go back in time to have dinner with Julius Caesar? As the limerick goes, “There was a young lady named Bright/ Whose speed was far faster than light;/She set out one day/ In a relative way/ And returned on the previous night”. Unfortunately, however, Einstein’s theory posits the speed of light as the ultimate speed limit beyond which it is not possible for anything to travel— so you’ll have to cancel your dinner plans.

Applicants for Physics or Natural Sciences should be familiar with Einstein’s theory of general relativity and should think about its implications for the future of technology and space travel. What practical obstacles would there be to human time travel, and how could these be overcome? 

Did the atheist scientist Stephen Hawking unwittingly strengthen the argument for the existence of God? The question hinges on the so called ‘fine-tuning’ of the laws of physics to produce life; if the fundamental numbers in physics (such as the strength of gravity) were even slightly different than they are, it would make life impossible. To some, this is a strong point in favour of the existence of a creator—it would be too much of a coincidence if all the values underpinning the universe had by chance aligned perfectly to sustain life. However, in his book The Grand Design, Hawking and co-author Thomas Hertog argued for a naturalistic explanation based on the multiverse hypothesis. This depends on the theory of ‘cosmic inflation’, which proposes that the big bang was followed by a rapid expansion, and then by a rapid deceleration, which may have created a number of ‘pocket universes’.

Originally, Hawking and Hertog suggested that the physical laws of these pockets are radically different from one another. But such wide variation is unhelpful in explaining why we happen to live in this perfectly balanced universe. Among pockets with no matter at all, pockets completely full of matter, pockets that are very short-lived (to name just a few possibilities), the likelihood of our pocket being the way it is remains tiny. Hence in their final paper together, Hawking and Hertog imposed strict rules on the kind of pockets that could exist, limiting the variety. But this poses a problem once again; if all the pockets have identical or almost identical laws, we still have to explain why these laws are fine-tuned for the development of life. Hertog is confident that their multiverse theory may ultimately be scientifically testable, and may help to shed light on the origins of the universe. However, as long as the ‘fine-tuning’ question remains open, the idea remains popular that the laws of the universe show that it must have been designed by an intelligent creator. As Hertog comments, “Stephen would say that, theoretically, it’s almost like the universe had to be like this”.

Applicants for Physics and Natural Sciences may wish to familiarise themselves with the work of Hawking and Hertog, and to get to grips with the various theories about the beginning of our universe. Students wishing to study Theology or Philosophy should be aware of the traditional arguments for the existence of God, and may want to consider whether modern scientific research has dispelled or strengthened these arguments.

 

Recent research has uncovered a startling fact—the universe appears to be expanding 9% faster than it should be.  The European Space Agency’s Gaia mission has produced a figure for the Hubble constant (the rate at which the universe is expanding)  by observing the flickering of a specific type of star and so deducing their original luminosity, which then allows scientists to calculate how far they have travelled since their birth. This new data has produced a Hubble constant value of 73, which means that galaxies are travelling away from us 73km per second faster with each extra megaparsec (roughly 3.3 million light-years) of distance between us.

However, scientists have also calculated the Hubble constant from observations of the Cosmic Microwave Background—lingering radiation from the Big Bang—arriving at a Hubble value of 67. This discrepancy has proved a puzzle for physicists, as the Hubble constant is meant to be a cornerstone of cosmology. Adam Riess, who led the latest analysis of the situation, commented, “if this continues to hold up we may be dealing with what we call new physics of the universe.” So what’s the answer to this conundrum? One suggestion is that so-called dark energy, which is believed to speed up the expansion of the universe, is exerting more and more power. Others propose that a new, unknown type of neutrino may be interfering with calculations. As yet, however, the question mark remains.

Applicants for Physics or Natural Sciences, especially those interested in cosmology and astrophysics, should be aware of established theories underpinning our understanding of the universe as well as recent developments and unanswered questions. They should think about what current scientific issues interest them in particular, and be prepared to talk about them in an interview.

‘Slippery rail’ is a condition suffered by many railway tracks in Autumn and Winter. More commonly known in the UK as ‘leaves on track’ (a phrase that sends dread to a British commuter’s heart), this condition is caused by a mulch of moist, decomposing leaves. The fallen leaves are travelled over by trains, crushing them and releasing pectin (a bio polymer used as a gelling agent in the making of jams). This creates a slippery surface which causes trains to have to slow down, as they have difficultly braking effectively, which causes delays.

In a year, Network Rail has to handle £4.5 million of passenger delay costs, £10 million of track repair, and £5 million of expenditure on vegetation management due to fallen leaves. The trees responsible for the problem were originally planted near railway lines deliberately for their beneficial sound deadening properties!

Technologies are been developed, however, to combat this expensive leaf problem. Train lasers, created over a five year period by Malcolm Higgins (a Royal Navy Lieutenant Commander), were first realised after Higgins listened to a report on train delays on BBC Radio Four and thought that ‘there must be a better way’.

These tiny lasers, attached to train wheels, vaporise leaves on the track. Previous solutions had included everything from hand scrubbing the leaves to using water or sand jets, but these solutions also resulted in damage to the line. The lasers are still in a trial phase, but, due to the short wave length of the beams, the tracks are unharmed by the process. The beams are also more cost efficient and effective than the old water jets. In the initial testing phases, the vibrations caused by the motion of the trains meant that the lasers weren’t accurate enough to hit the leaves. Those used on today’s trains have a higher pulse rate than the originals and used fibre optics.

Aspiring Biology students might wish to investigate the plant properties of pectin further. Those hoping to pursue and academic career in Physics could delve more into the many uses for laser technology. Engineers might be interested in investigating railway engineering work and its causes.

Isaac Newton is famous for some of the greatest scientific discoveries in the history of mankind: the theory of gravitation, inventing calculus, the laws of motion as written in ‘Principia Mathematica’ and demoting the Earth’s status from the centre of the universe to a simple planet in a defined elliptical orbit. But who would have thought that he, and many other classical scientific theories, could contribute to answering one of Britain’s most divisive questions: how to make the best cup of tea.

  1. Never boil twice.
    In 1946, George Orwell wrote what was then the definitive guide in how to make “A Nice Cup of Tea”. What he didn’t insist upon was that the water in a kettle should only be boiled once, something William Gorman, chairman of the Tea and Infusions Association, warns is ‘crucial’. A second boil is claimed to remove chemical constituents (including oxygen and nitrogen) that leads to a flat cup of tea and a duller drinking experience. Instead of wasting water, Mr Gorman suggests using a microwave to heat up subsequent cups of tea. Whilst many will gasp at such a concept, there is method in the madness as a microwave applies the collision theory to liquids, heating them up without any change in composition or taste.
  2. Milk first or last?
    Newton’s theory of cooling states that how fast a substance cools depends on the difference in temperature between the substance and its surroundings. A boiling cup of water therefore cools much faster than a cooler cup of water. So, those in desperate need of a quick cup of tea might want to consider waiting for the tea to cool down before adding milk. Alternatively, for those desiring a longer tea break, adding the milk first will ensure the tea stays warmer for longer.
  3. Don’t walk and tea.
    There’s a reason why cups of tea are notoriously easy to spill. Brian Cox’s ‘Infinite Monkey Cage’ adequately describes that a cup of tea possesses an innate ‘slosh rate’. Imagine sitting on a park swing and being pushed just as you reach your highest point. Now imagine when you reach the top on the other side, you’re pushed again. The frequency of being pushed is directly matched by your natural swinging frequency and after a while you’ll be reaching ridiculous heights. Well, this is exactly what happens when you walk with a cup of tea. The frequency of the average human’s walk directly corresponds to a cup of tea’s sloshing rate. So, when doing the next tea run do just that: run.

George Orwell wrote “the best manner of making tea is the subject of violent disputes”. Perhaps now we can use fundamental science to settle those disputes and perfect those 60 billion cups of tea made in Britain every year.

Those applying for Natural Sciences might want to consider why water boils faster at higher altitude and the topic of simple harmonic motion. The ‘Infinite Monkey Cage’ podcasts are available on the BBC Radio 4 website.

A ‘surreal’ story has emerged this week concerning the exhumation of Salvador Dalí’s body, twenty-eight years after his death. The decision to unearth Dalí’s corpse was made after a Spanish tarot card reader, Pilar Abel, made the claim that the Surrealist artist was her biological father. The paternity has not yet been established, however another curious discovery has been made – Dalí’s intact moustache!

The famous facial hair characteristic for its upward sweeping waxed points has remained in a remarkable condition. Dalí’s embalmer referred to the discovery as ‘a miracle’, but science says otherwise. As all biology students will know, hair is composed of the protein Keratin which resists decomposition by enzymes due to the tight disulphide bonds. Keratin is also insoluble in water, and therefore resists rainwater damage.

Even when not preserved, hair can last for many thousands of years. The oldest example of hair found to date is 9,000-years-old, however analysis is being performed on a potential 200,000-year-old sample. Ancient Egyptian hair is frequently discovered intact as the mummification process involves a fat-based gel that acts as an excellent preservative, but even unpreserved Egyptian hair can be often discovered due to the dry nature of dessert burial grounds.

The Dalí exhumation and paternity suit has fascinated scientists and art historians alike, and has angered the authorities involved. Ian Gibson, a biographer of Dalí, argues that the artist having a child was ‘absolutely impossible’ as Dalí always boasted: “I’m impotent, you’ve got to be impotent to be a great painter”.’ The local council and the foundation carrying Dalí’s name were both against the exhumation, claiming that they were not given enough notice. The Dalí Foundation also assert that Abel’s claims are false.

Natural scientists hoping to study at Oxbridge should investigate the stages of decomposition in organic matter and the chemical reactions involved. Art historians should consider the impact of the recent news stories about Dalí on the value of the artist’s work. Historians should study burial environments and the impact on the preservation of remains.

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