The pre-existance of the mathematical biochemical equations
The manifestations of rock, plant, air, fire and water
which are in it’s basic formation, solid liquid and gases
that caused the land masses, and the space catalyst
and all matter that exists and is dense
Third dimension, that must be observed through physical comprehension
It takes a nerve to be struck, wisdom is the wise
poet spoken to wake up, the dumb who’ve been sleeping
The fourth dimension is time, it goes inside the mind
when the chakras energize through the back of your spine
So I observe as my chi energy strikes a vital nerve
One swerve of the tongue it pierces like a sword through the lung
Have you not heard, that words kill as fast as bullets
when you load negative thoughts, to the chamber of your brain
And your mouth pulls the trigger that propels
wickedness straight from Hell
From the pits of your stomach where negativity dwell

The world is too big for love to be real. There are too many people in the world to ever know, beyond everything, that you are with the right person. That your heart is as swollen as it can be. Think of all the people in China. It is unlikely anyone will ever meet all of them. How can we know for certain, that trapped inside a foreign language and thumping in a foreign heart there isn’t a love that is meant for us. The infinite possibility of existence, its limitless potential, is the proof that we need that love is nothing more than an imagination, a human folly, friendship swollen with self-importance, a final retreat from the storm of possibility. The love of our life could so easily have been someone else. It is random and accidental, haphazard and unsystematic. That which we feel for one person, clinging on to the delusion of destiny, could so easily be felt for a million people should the timing and the meetings and the mutual readiness have coalesced at some other time in some other place. Should someone else have accepted us or rejected us then everything would have been different. And once we know this, we know that all love is a lie. Not honesty but deception. Not heroism but cowardice. An unspoken agreement of mutual consolidation and compromise, a shield from possibility and a bed in which to sleep, nothing more than that. But I do still miss her.

Reblogged from

There’s a war going on for your mind.

Media mavens mount surgical strikes from trapper keeper collages and online magazine racks 
Cover girl cutouts throw up pop-up ads 
Infecting victims with silicone shrapnel 
Worldwide passenger pigeons deploy paratroopers 
Now it’s raining pornography 
Lovers take shelter 
Post-production debutantes pursue you in Nascar chariots 

They construct ransom letters from biblical passages and bleed mascara into the holy water
supplies 

There’s a war going on for your mind 

Industry insiders slang test tube babies to corporate crack heads 
They flash logos and blast ghettos 
Their embroidered neckties say “Stop Stitching” 
Conscious rappers and whistle blowers get stitches made of acupuncture needles and marionette
strings 

There is a war going on for your mind 

Professional wrestlers and vice presidents want you to believe them 
The desert sky is their blue screen 
They superimpose explosions 
They shout at you 
"Pay no attention to the men behind the barbed curtain 
Nor the craters beneath the draped flags 
Those hoods are there for your protection 
And meteors these days are the size of corpses” 

There’s a war going on for your mind 

We are the insurgents

4 reasons why astrology is bollocks.

“I don’t believe in astrology; I’m a Sagittarius and we’re skeptical.”

- Arthur C. Clarke

night skyMan has always been curious about the night sky.  I sometimes picture our distant ancestors roaming through Africa’s Great Rift Valley, gazing up on a clear summer’s night and becoming awash with marvel and wonder at the tapestry laid out above them; much in the same way as I experienced as an awestruck child echoing the sentiments unquestionably felt by Copernicus, Galileo and Newton just a few centuries before.  Never has there been more justifiable a spectacle as unanimously admired throughout human history than the ethereal  magnificence of a starry night sky.

But contrary to what the rather crude title of this blog suggests, it is not with too much ridicule that I refute astrology; I think if more people took the time to look upwards instead of inwards we wouldn’t have half the triviality and petty squabbles we are surrounded by in our every day lives.  I can see how the grandeur of the heavens can be spellbinding enough to trigger belief in a connection between us and the stars, but what was once a genuine search for the meaning of human existence has mutated into a money-making industry based entirely on non-scientific speculation that preys on the vulnerability, insecurity and curiosity of millions of people the world over.

Some may assert an honest interest and/or legitimate pursuit of the ‘science’ of astrology, but I can only assume that what they’re really laying claim to is a deluded kind of hobby, a pseudoscience at best.  Science is the method in which testable predictions can be made about the Universe; to date, not a single one has ever happened by way of astrology.

*DISCLAIMER* Before I begin I want to make it abundantly clear that I realise astrology has many furrows and off-shoots, and I don’t claim to have researched each and every astrological avenue; this blog is merely a broad look at the core principles involved and how they withstand to scientific scrutiny.  I’m sure many astrologers will denounce the credibility of other astrologers’ methods (and visa versa) but rather than pursue semantics, I am addressing the fundamental assumptions on which astrology is founded and why, in my opinion, they lack any shred of validity in today’s society.  If this causes offence, well perhaps you should have seen it in your tabloid horoscopes/tarot cards/tea leaves that a tall, dark stranger would appear and insult your mystical beliefs; in which case you really shouldn’t be very surprised, or indeed offended by, this blog in the slightest.

#1 – What force connects us?

Astrology, in its broadest sense, uses the positions of planets and stars at the time of our birth to predict future events in our lives.  This implies that the planets and stars somehow affect us, physically, in such a way that their position relative to each other (and indeed, us) at the time of our birth has a very real – and more importantly, tangible -  influence over what will happen in our futures.

A physical connection means a force must exist.

The Universe as we know it is composed of 4 fundamental forces: the strong and weak nuclear forces, whichact only at very short distances and govern the interactions between subatomic particles and atomic nuclei; electromagnetism, which acts between electrically charged particles, and gravitation, which acts between masses.  Absolutely everything we know of in the entire Universe happens because of one or a combination of these 4 forces at work, and we understand them well enough to send rockets to the Moon, supply electricity to homes, create medicines and technology, and blow up entire Japanese cities.  This doesn’t go as far to say we know everything there is to know, but from the inexorably vast leaps in scientific knowledge through the ages we can safely say we have capitalised on what we do know, and heroic feats have been accomplished by those endeavouring to seek and discover new and terrifying advancements of mankind.  So for those that decree an ‘unknown’ force as the puppeteer of astrology I say this: if science, in all its rigour and tenacity, knows nothing of this force by now, then I can assure you that practitioners of astrology know even less.

It seems only logical then to discount the nuclear forces, due to their inherent proximity limitations, and concentrate instead on gravity and electromagnetism as possible candidates for the mystery force of astrology.

If the supposed connection between us and the planets was down to gravity, then due its own definition the gravity experienced between a human and a planet would be proportional to the two masses involved and inversely proportional to the distance between them.  This means that both mass and distance are defining characteristics of the ‘force’ of gravity (Newton proposed gravity as a force; Einstein later postulated that gravity is simply the act of falling into the curved spacetime caused by a massive object – see a previous blog ‘Once upon a spacetime).

This raises two very important points: 1) if gravity is the force used by the workings of astrology then any object of mass will affect the predictions; moreover, the larger the object, the larger the force of gravity.  2) the distance between an object and the Earth is also vitally important – the further away something is the less ‘pull’ of gravity it exerts.  The implications are therefore very clear, objects with more gravity in relation to the Earth exert a higher force, meaning they should have more influence in astrological terms.

However, as will become repetitively apparent, this couldn’t be further from the truth.

Jupiter, for example, holds no more sway than Saturn even though it is much nearer and far larger.  Diminutive Pluto, barely even two-thirds the size of our moon, has no less say-so than Mercury even though it is a few billion miles further away from the Earth.  Seemingly exempt are also the various moons, other dwarf planets, and asteroids of the Solar System; indeed, two moons outsize the planet Mercury and a further five outsize Pluto.  The dwarf planets Eris and Makemake are comparable to that of Pluto and there are many other TNOs (trans-Neptunian objects) well over two hundred miles in diameter, usually found in a region known as the Kuiper Belt (a vast reservoir of asteroids, similar to the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter, but found much farther out past Neptune).

Solar system objects to scaleSolar system objects to scale
The main planets and dwarf planets to scaleThe main planets and dwarf planets to scale

So knowing what we do about gravity, it does beg one glaringly obvious rhetoric: surely the Moon, being as massive and as close as it is, would have the only influence over our lives?  The other planets (somewhat larger than the Moon, granted, but are so much further away than they are more massive) exert next to no gravity in comparison, so how would they have any influence whatsoever over our lives when pitted against the huge rock on our cosmic doorstep?  It’s like saying a lit match several fields away has equally as likely a  chance to burn you as the raging bonfire you are standing next to.

One might go so far as to say that the actual planet we reside upon exerts more gravity than anything else; the very fact we remain rooted to the spot as the Earth spins at 1000 mph attests to it, and yet the colossal mass directly in contact with our feet has about as much input into astrological predictions as a penguin does in an avalanche.

Of course the real nail in the coffin for gravity being the solution to astrology is its inherent weakness when compared with the other three forces.  It is so much weaker, in fact, that a simple fridge magnet can beat the entire Earth in a tug-of-war with a paper clip.  Not even the whole of the Earth’s mass, pulling at the paper clip gravitationally, can stop the humble magnet from picking it up.  This shows just how ‘superior’ electromagnetism is as a force when compared to the strength of gravity.  To suggest the planets can gravitationally affect our futures due to conditions set when we were born is, quite simply, ludicrous.

So what about electromagnetism then?  The problem with this theory is that electromagnetism deals with the interaction of electrically charged particles, either in the form of electric or magnetic fields, and because of the composition of the various planets, not all have electric or magnetic fields – they can be neutral.  All the planets would need to be equally ‘charged’ for any astrological predictions to be made and as far as is known to science — and more importantly, astrologers — this just isn’t so.

In any case, by far the largest emitter of anything electromagnetic is the Sun itself.  Making up over 99% of all the mass in the Solar System, the Sun dwarfs anything else in the neighbourhood and if electromagnetism is the source of astrology’s mysterious force, then any and all predictions about our futures would only deal with the Sun and nothing else (to do otherwise would be akin to thinking that spilling a glass of water during a tsunami made a noticeable difference!).  Again, this is not so in astrology.

#2 – why some ‘planets’ and not others?

There’s more than just 9 (pardon, 8) planets.  Pluto’s declassification as a ‘proper’ planet was bad enough for astrologers, but since then many other Solar System objects, comparable in size, have been discovered, with undoubtedly many more on the cards.  Unless astrologers grant some special pass to the main 8 planets, why should they be dealt with any differently to any other object orbiting the Sun?

We already established that gravity – or more precisely, mass and distance – cannot figure in astrology, and this isn’t an opinion, this is according to astrologers themselves and the way they treat each planet equally when formulating predictions.  So by their own admissions, astrology cannot be based in gravity.

So if mass and distance are redundant, and the only factor of importance is proper classification as a planet, then what do we do about the hundreds of new planets that have been discovered orbiting other stars in our galaxy?  Distance clearly plays no part, and these newly discovered planets are proper planets, so why shouldn’t they figure?

#3 – The falsifiability of star sign astrology

If science has been dropping bombs on ignorance, stupidity and mumbo-jumbo over the last few centuries, then the one about every person on the planet being the wrong star sign has got to be up there with other great explosions of scientific sanity such as carbon dating and the Earth being spherical.  Yes, when I first heard this it amused me too.  The fact that there are actually 13 signs in the zodiac only added more sprinkles to an otherwise already very tasty slice of cosmic in-your-face cake, which I shall now explain.

There are 3 critically essential problems with the branch of astrology commonly found in newspapers and magazines.  Star sign astrology, or horoscopes, deal with the apparent position of the Sun relative to a set of constellations when someone is born (otherwise known as the zodiac).  They claim that being a particular star sign assigns someone particular and specific traits about their personality, and allows for the determination of certain future events in their lives – usually days, weeks or months in advance.

The first problem is that of axial precession.  If the Earth was perfectly spherical all the time then it would spin about its axis and demonstrate no ‘wobble’ whatsoever; kind of like the wheel of a new car as it spins around the axle.  But due to the Earth bulging slightly at the equator and the fact that the Sun, Moon, and other planets tug at it gravitationally, the spin becomes ever so slightly offset and over the course of approximately 26,000 years the Earth’s north direction traces out a complete, but small, circle in the night sky.  Analogous to this would be a spinning top when slightly off-balance; the toy would begin to wobble away from dead upright and trace a small circular motion about the centre (but of course spinning tops obey friction laws and the Earth’s gravity, and so the circle becomes larger and larger until it topples over).  This means, many years from now, that Polaris (the North Star) will no longer be our northern reference point in the sky; instead it will move towards the stars Deneb and then Vega, before returning once more to Polaris.  This precession causes the apparent position of the Sun against the backdrop of the constellations to move over time, meaning that the Sun will not always be in the same sign of the zodiac at the same time each year.  Furthermore, over the course of 26,000 years the Sun actually regresses through each one of the zodiac constellations until it is back where it started, meaning that astrology’s dependence on the position of the Sun relative to the stars is complete and utter nonsense.

This stellar regression has resulted in star signs shifting forwards in the year by about a month since the zodiac was constructed 2000 years ago, so pretty much everyone alive is now a different star sign; cancers are now Gemini, Capricorns are Sagittarius  and so on and so forth.  Those born in the first half of December might be intrigued to know that they are actually Ophiuchus, the ’13th’ sign of the zodiac.  Left out by astrologers in favour of only wanting a collection of 12 star signs, Ophiuchus is evident in the sky for all to see but is very seldom spoken of, lest known or accepted, by astrologers and the general public alike.  Just another example of astrology cherry-picking and ignoring the evidence put forward by astronomers.

Axial precessionAxial precession

The second problem concerns the movement of the stars over time.  All stars in the Universe career through space at astonishing speeds, bound by the force of gravity as they orbit the centre of mass at the centre of their respective galaxies.  Stars in our own galaxy, the Milky Way, are not fixed relative to the Earth.  They are moving relative to us and we are moving relative to them; it only seems like the stars are continuously found in the same place each year because of the immense distances involved.  You only have to look out from the beach to a small boat on the horizon to see that it appears to barely move.  It gives the illusion of staying still even when crashing through the waves at a given rate of knots.  After a short while you might notice a small degree of movement to the left or right, and this is analogous to the astronomical time it would take for a star many light years away to appear to have moved in the sky at a given rate of tens of thousands of miles an hour!  Every single one of the constellations we see now looked completely different to the dinosaurs and will look completely different in the future, thus rendering star sign astrology and its dependence on the zodiac totally falsifiable.

Thirdly, a process known as cognitive bias can occur because of the vague and highly ambiguous predictions of star sign astrology.  A bit like tv weather forecasts, the outlook for a given region can only be honed down to the precision of ‘widespread gales with a chance of rain’, or ‘patches of cloud’ and ‘sunny spells’.  The same is evident in all horoscopes ever written.  ’Your luck will turn’, ‘beware of financial problems, ‘you will meet someone who does something’ are all common ‘predictions’ of horoscopes and yet they are so vague it is any wonder why people take the slightest notice.  The deliberate ambiguity only heightens the inherent lack of legitimacy.  Cognitive bias is the process by which people act upon what they have heard.  So in other words, after hearing they might be lucky or make some money, or meet someone, they will unconsciously go out of their way to make it happen.  This might take the form of taking more chances to become lucky, or deciding to go to a nightclub after all, thus increasing the chances of ‘acting out’ their horoscope.  This applies to the traits assigned to their star sign too; an individual who is a Cancer might grow to fit their profile as outlined by astrology because they subconsciously think it’s the way they are meant to act.

There is also one strikingly obvious flaw with star sign astrology.  Assuming that statistical averages hold true (and they always do when dealing with large numbers) this means that roughly an even amount of people are born into each star sign, meaning that if we divide all the 7 billion people of this planet into the 12 [accepted] signs of the zodiac, there will be over 580 million people with the same star sign as you.  Suggesting that my weekly horoscope in the Daily Mirror applies to 580 million other people makes the prediction of me coming into financial success that little bit less fortunate (not to mention economically unlikely!).  Also there are only so many tall, dark and handsome strangers on this planet.

Finally, if astrologers choose to ignore axial precession and the movement of distant stars, they cannot dispute that each orbit of the Earth around the Sun does not bring it back to exactly the same spot.  On average, the Earth is 44,000 miles further away each year, implying that someone born on the same day as you the following year would not have been in the same position as you were in relation to the Sun.  Again, this throws the validity of astrology right out the laboratory window.

#4 – Consistency, consistency, consistency!

If a mysterious force as of yet known to science (but somehow understood and utilised by astrologers) really does exist between humans and the stars, then proof would be in the planetary pudding, so to speak.  This would take the form of a certain level of consistency between predictions made by astrology as a whole; and yet there is not one ounce of this pudding anywhere to be seen.  In fact, some statistical tests have debunked the claims of astrology so heavily that it’s been stated that pure chance has, in many instances, been more consistent than astrological predictions (Dean and Kelly 2003).  And that doesn’t even make mathematical sense!

You only have to compare weekly horoscopes between various magazines, newspapers and tv shows to see the inconsistencies.

Astrology, clearly and indisputably debunked.

It is often said that recollections of certain memories are finite, that experiences you thought inexhaustible at the time are actually more precious than you know.  Included in this I would undoubtedly put the memory of a crystal-clear, star-filled panoramic view of the night sky.  I’m sure as children  most of us spent some time peering upwards after dark with all sorts of questions about the cosmos reeling through our curious brains.  But when was the last time, post childhood, we remembered such an experience?  I know a certain percentage of you will recall — probably with a certain nostalgic fondness — a time spent with friends outside on a clear night, lying on some grass, gazing up at the stars and trying to differentiate between planes, shooting stars and UFOs, but how long ago was it?  And more importantly, how many times will you ever experience it again?  Is it inconceivable then, in the most regrettable of ways, that this particular childhood memory might be the last, or indeed only, time you’ve ever spent really appreciating the starry night sky?  How long before the memory fades into obscurity and is lost forever?

What is now and what was surely a glittering display of celestial magnificence in the times of our first ancestors, the stars are rightly a spectacle to be cherished and used as a catalyst for imagination and discovery.  There is absolutely no need to conjure an imaginary bond between us and these amazing objects, much like the unnecessary invention of gods we seem to require to assign meaning to our lives.  It should be enough that we are able to bear witness to the view, and as science delves deeper into the mysteries of the cosmos, so too do we learn more about the Universe in which we live, and ultimately about ourselves in the process.

Written by Chris Phoenix Clarke

What looks like a star-filled sky is actually the Hubble telescope's most distant image ever recorded.  Each point of light is an entire galaxy, formed in the early universe!What looks like a star-filled sky is actually the Hubble telescope’s most distant image ever recorded. Each point of light is an entire galaxy, formed in the early universe!

Wish you were here.

So, so you think you can tell Heaven from Hell,
blue skies from pain.
Can you tell a green field from a cold steel rail?
A smile from a veil?
Do you think you can tell?
And did they get you to trade your heroes for ghosts? 
Hot ashes for trees?
Hot air for a cool breeze?
Cold comfort for change?
And did you exchange a walk on part in the war for a lead role in a cage?
How I wish, how I wish you were here.
We’re just two lost souls swimming in a fish bowl, year after year,
Running over the same old ground. 
What have we found? The same old fears.
Wish you were here.

The violent Universe: Pulsars, magnetars and neutron stars

Knowledge of the existence of something we cannot penetrate, of the manifestations of the profoundest reason and the most radiant beauty – it is this knowledge and this emotion that constitute the truly religious attitude; in this sense, and in this alone, I am a deeply religious man.

-Albert Einstein

There is a lot to be said for the creationist’s view of the Universe.  Design by a supernatural creator — or intelligent design for want of a better term — suggests that all things were crafted according to the blueprints drawn-up by the great architect in the sky; a  power so fantastic, it is beyond our human comprehension.  It’s a very nice thought – albeit one that reeks of unapologetic convenience.

In the history of mankind, invoking the supernatural has often been the case when dealing with the unexplained or the unknown; people can’t explain what they don’t understand.  Inventing a supernatural creator is just a nice and tidy way to account for all that there is, without the need for messy and complicated details.  If this ‘god theory’ is questioned?  No matter!  You can’t speak to them directly or see any physical evidence for it, but books compiled by faceless men thousands of years ago promise wonderful and everlasting afterlives upon receipt of blind faith in these inherently elusive, but supposedly ubiquitous and omnipresent entities.  The same ilk of whom claimed just a few hundred years before that Zeus et al resided atop Mount Olympus, and a thousand years prior, that the sun god Ra wept and moulded Man from his own tears.  It might very well be the case that these religious scribes believed in what they were purporting, but one cannot simply rule out the possibility of deliberate obfuscation at work; for example, it has long been the opinion of many that Christianity was formulated for the sole purpose of uniting the Roman empire.  But as with most historical accounts, it’s validity is fated to be peppered in ambiguity and inaccuracy – deeming it forever unknowable.

Religion, then, appears to have all the ingredients of a foolproof plan, but a plan that (ironically enough) seems to only have the foolish fall for it.

And so it does beg the question:  why would a god so wise and wonderful possibly feel the need — or indeed, be devoid of any logic and rationality — to create the parasitic Cordyceps fungus that possesses the rather gruesome trait of sending its host mad, before (in the case of the bullet ant) steering it up a tree, spellbound, so as to slowly dissolve whilst the fungal spore grows out the back of its head?  Charles Darwin even used one family of parasitic wasps as evidence for natural selection, writing to a colleague: “I cannot persuade myself that a beneficent and omnipotent God would have designedly created the Ichneumonidae with the express intention of their feeding within the living bodies of caterpillars.”

This does not sound like the handiwork of a perfect, all-knowing, all-powerful creator to me.  This sounds more like the harsh, inevitable consequence of millions-of-year’s worth of natural selection as the biological cogs of evolution grind by.  Why, indeed, do humans possess a coccyx bone and appendix?  Much does not add up, and it’s not just restricted to our planet.

Removing ourselves from the weird-but-not-always-so-wonderful demonstrations of nature on Earth, we encounter all sorts of strange and bizarre creations out in space:  the icy rings of debris circulating Saturn; the triple Earth-sized hurricane tormenting Jupiter, or the toiling great nuclear furnace — our Sun — radiating light and warmth out into the Solar System so we may have the chance to question our very existence within it.  Removing ourselves further, it gets stranger still: not just our Sun, but a hundred billion other stars maraud together around a supermassive black hole at the centre of the Milky Way — resembling some kind of enormous cosmic roundabout — silently and without choice obeying to the behest of  gravity.

These supermassive black holes may indeed be the epitome of extreme, but as of yet we can only observe their effects when we look at the surrounding matter.  We know they are there, but by their very nature they do not radiate light and are therefore unobservable, so I’ll leave the black hole blog for another time and instead focus on what we can see, and trust me – the following are equally as terrifying and just as mind-blowing!  It is inconceivable, then, to think that the very same gods mentioned earlier would go to such vast lengths to create the pure fury and sublime chaos of these awesome monsters.

Neutron stars

Neutron stars are the rapidly rotating remnants of ‘core-collapse’ supernova explosions – in particular, for stars having been more than 8 times the mass of the Sun.  A supernova explosion occurs when a star exhausts all of the fuel in its core and is no longer able to sustain the fusion process, resulting in the inward pull of the star’s immense gravity exceeding the outward pressure created by nuclear fusion, thus causing the star to collapse in on itself.  In a split second, the bulk of the star’s mass implodes in towards its centre at speeds approaching 23% of the speed of light (155,000,000 mph) creating unfathomable pressure and temperatures of over 100 billion degrees Celsius.  The atoms in the core — fused to iron by this point — can undergo no more fusion and, as they are forced closer together during the collapse, their electrons are forced ever closer towards the nuceli of the atoms and end up combining with the protons to become neutrons.  The neutrons then recoil with an amazing burst of energy – sending out a shock wave that obliterates the star’s outer layers (or envelope)  into space.  The reason for this is down to a principle of quantum mechanics called Pauli’s exclusion principle which states that no two fermions can occupy the same quantum energy state.  Broadly speaking, this means that two or more neutrons (themselves fermions) with the same attributes cannot occupy the same space at the same time and are therefore unable to collapse any closer together; consequently, the energy from the collapse is rebounded outward as a supernova.

All that remains of the star following the supernova explosion is a super-small and super-dense spinning ball of [mostly] neutrons.  Although relatively tiny — approximately city-sized — the neutron star possesses mass comparable to that of the Sun, meaning that it’s density is so extreme that a teaspoon-full would weigh no less than 5000 billion kilograms!

Neutron stars can spin extremely fast.  Unimaginably fast.  The reason for this is due to a law of physics known as the conservation of angular momentum.  Much in the same way as an ice-skater — upon bringing her arms in during a pirouette — speeds up her rotation, so does a star as it transforms from roughly a million miles wide to about 15 miles wide after a supernova.  All the angular momentum the star possessed before (as it spun on its axis like the Earth does each day) is then concentrated and magnified as it shrinks in mass, causing it’s rotational speed to increase.  It’s hard to imagine, but something the size of Brooklyn, New York weighing more than our own Sun can actually rotate, fully, in excess of several hundred times per second!  Indeed, the current record [recent discoveries pending] for neutron star spin is 712 times per second – 6 times faster than the maximum RPM of most road car engines but a SHED LOAD larger, meaning the rotation clocks in at a quarter that of light speed.  You might wonder why it simply doesn’t break-up and fly apart into space; this is because the inward gravitational forces acting on the star — due to it’s extreme density — overcome the centrifugal forces pulling it outwards (although it is claimed the most rapidly spinning neutron stars become oblate spheroids - or ‘satsuma-shaped’).

There are certain physical limits that govern the behaviour of dying stars.  The Chandrasekhar limit states that the fuel-spent cores of stars can only sustain 1.4 times the mass of the Sun (2.9 × 1030 kg); any more and the electrons give way to the pressure, forcing them into the nuclei of the atoms and combining with all the protons to form neutrons (hence, a neutron star).  If they are under the 1.4 solar mass limit they can end their days in the relative tranquillity of a white dwarf star and do not undergo core-collapse; instead, they quite un-spectacularly  shed their outer layers into space leaving behind a star remnant about the size of Earth.

Larger cores of dying stars are alleged to bypass the formation of neutron stars entirely and collapse straight into a black hole.  Intuitively, these sinister creations are even denser than neutron stars, so much so that their gravity requires an escape velocity greater than that of light – making any attempt at escape impossible.

It is theorised that neutron stars, too, have a limit of mass.  An existing neutron star might accrete matter from a nearby or wayward star and upon exceeding a certain upper limit of mass – known as the Tolman–Oppenheimer–Volkoff limit - the theorised quark star is formed where the neutrons break apart into their constituent quarks.  This process still abides by Pauli’s exclusion principle, but it is now the quarks – who are themselves fermions – that the principle shifts to.  Quarks are believed to be the final ‘Russian doll’ in the particle set; that is, they can get no smaller and are therefore indivisible.  As the neutrons break apart and the star collapses inwards, the quarks get squashed together until they too cannot violate the principle and collapse is halted and produces a quark star.  It is not known whether this collapse generates a smaller supernova of sorts or not.

Pulsars

Pulsing neutron stars (or pulsars for short) are both the lighthouses and the Swiss watches of the Universe.  They are neutron stars that emit vast, concentrated bursts of electromagnetic radiation from their magnetic poles, usually in the radio and x-ray ranges of the spectrum, and are generally caused by the fastest spinning neutron stars or those that have accreted matter from a close, neighbouring star (otherwise known as a binary star system).  The beams of radiation are only visible when they sweep past an observer’s point of view as the star rotates — much in the same way as a lighthouse beam appears to ocean vessels — and due to the wizardly precision at which they spin, they also perform better than any atomic clock developed on Earth!  Indeed, it is estimated that certain neutron stars and pulsars will only slow down by 10−15 seconds per rotation, meaning that [for argument’s sake and ease of comparison] a pulsar with a 1 second rotation will slow to 1.03 seconds after one million years!

A pulsar emitting jets of radiation from its poles

Magnetars

Sounding like a prehistoric monster made entirely from magnets, this third incarnation of a neutron star is rightly considered as the ‘mad uncle’ of stars.  Not one thing about a magnetar hints at any snippet of logic, sense or purpose, and goes to show what a barmy, chaotic and violent place the Universe really is.  Although more is yet to be discovered about magnetars, it is believed they are a very brief phase in the lifetime of a pulsar; some scientists speculating that they are formed immediately after a supernova and live for about 10,000 years until the star transforms into a pulsar.  ’Blessed’ with the strongest magnetic fields known in the entire Universe – they are a trillion times stronger than the Sun’s and up to 1000 times that of an ‘ordinary’ pulsar – their force is such that a magnetar at the Moon’s distance away (250,000 miles) would wipe every single bank card on the planet.  The same beams of radiation seen emanating from pulsars are also a feature of magnetars, but due to the hellish conditions caused by the crushing magnetism the star’s turbulent interior allows for the emission of gamma rays – the most powerful type of radiation in the Universe.

Like pulsars, these jets of gamma rays are restricted to the north and south magnetic poles, but probably the most violent attribute of a magnetar is its ability to erupt enormous gamma-ray flares from anywhere on its surface thanks to a phenomenon known as a star quake.  The imposing magnetism of our own Sun is responsible for its internal and surface disturbances and quite often results in magnetic field lines snapping to release solar flares.  Now imagine a star with magnetism a trillion times more powerful (that’s 1,000,000,000,000 – or 1 followed by 12 zeros!).  When these magnetic field lines snap, the flares that are produced are so powerful and so energetic that they can only manifest in the form of gamma radiation.  Moreover, the current record for the brightest radiation ever recorded is from a magnetar flare which blanketed the Solar System in 1979 – 100 times more powerful than anything witnessed previously.

And so…

If there is one thing I would want people to take away from reading this, it would hopefully be some new-found awareness of the majesty of the Universe.  Not down to it’s beauty or simplicity, but because of it’s ferocity, chaos and complexity.  A creator didn’t design or sculpt these amazing beasts, just as much as one did not have a hand in the process of the evolution of parasites.  The incomprehensibility of the immense forces at play regarding pulsars, magnetars and neutron stars is overwhelming in itself, but just as valid is the question concerning the purpose of it all.  Why would god design such constructions that ooze of excess and in-necessity, that possess chaos and fury in such ways that we may never understand them or the reasons behind?  And if there is a purpose to it all, a reason for their existence, then it certainly isn’t written in the books of organised religion here on our unremarkable little planet, situated on the outskirts of a typical galaxy, just one of several hundred billion in the observable universe.  If a god or supernatural power ignited the spark at the beginning of time and space it most certainly was not for our benefit, and I find it arrogant and somewhat insulting to every other star or planet out there that we might believe it to be so.

The Universe is beyond reach and beyond comprehension, but as soon as we stop putting faith in fabricated and fictional creators the sooner we can begin to unlock its secrets, and that, in my opinion, is surely the real meaning of god.

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Once upon a space-time.

Imagine a lift at the top of the world’s tallest building.  The lift fails and plummets towards the ground.  You find yourself inside this lift, completely weightless due to the lift’s free-fall, with any books and phones you had in your possession seemingly floating alongside you.  Now imagine yourself in the same lift, but this time drifting in the isolation of space.  The exact same effects are observed: you, and anything else in the lift float weightlessly  around wondering what the hell’s going on.  So it beggars the question:  from the effects alone, how do you know the difference between being trapped in a lift undergoing free-fall on Earth and being inside a lift floating in space?

Now picture yourself standing in a stationary lift on Earth, feet firmly pressed to the floor, all belongings resting on their appropriate surfaces.  Then, imagine also, being inside a lift in space that is being towed by a rocket accelerating fast enough as to mimic Earth’s gravity.  You find your feet again pressed just as firmly to the floor and are no better at determining your location than you were before.

This thought experiment, the like of which Albert Einstein frequently posited, goes to show how gravity and acceleration are indistinguishable; they are one and the same.  The effects maybe identical but the situations can be very different and clearly depend on where the person happens to be (or as physicists like to say, the ‘frame of reference’ of the observer).

This was the cornerstone of Einstein’s theories of relativity.

The theory of special relativity

Special relativity is the description of the motion between two or more related locations in the ‘special’ case of uniform motion only.  This sounds quite complicated at first glance, but, to put it more simply, it explains the motion of one frame of reference with another so long as no acceleration in either frame is taking place (uniform motion).  An example of two frames of reference applicable to special relativity would be you, sitting at your computer chair reading this (frame 1), while a bird flies past your window at a constant speed (frame 2).

With me so far?

The theory arose due to Einstein’s realisation that there really is no absolute frame of reference in the entire Universe; everything is moving.  You might feel completely stationary sitting in your chair, but really the Earth is spinning on its axis at almost 1000 mph and in doing so, orbits the Sun at the incredible speed of 65,000 mph.  The Sun, along with the rest of the solar system, orbits the centre of our own galaxy (the Milky Way) in one of the galaxy’s spiral arms.  The Milky Way, too (along with its neighbouring galaxies), is orbiting around the centre of gravity in what’s known as the Local Group of galaxies, which are themselves part of a super-cluster of local groups of galaxies that are marauding apart from all other super-clusters as part of the continuing expansion of the Universe.

…And breathe.

So as you can see from the gravity party above, there is nothing fixed in the Universe with which to measure motion from; even the empty space between galaxies is constantly expanding.  The only thing with any relevance is something’s motion relative to something else.

The speed of light is just under 300 million metres per second

This brings us to the speed of light (although not literally, as we will see why in a moment).

The actual speed of a beam of light was predicted by Maxwell through his famous equations on electromagnetism 150 years ago and was subsequently confirmed by experiment around the same time.  But the really important discovery about light was that it always propagates at the same speed no matter how it is observed.  In other words, even if a beam of light was shone from a moving car, an observer down the road would measure the same speed for the beam of light as if the car had been stationary.  This is clearly counter-intuitive; the following example illustrates why:

Imagine 2 cars: a red one stationary and a blue one driving past it at 30 mph.  Just as the blue car passes by the red car, a passenger in the blue car hurls a cricket ball out at 60 mph in the direction of motion.  How fast does the cricket ball appear to travel when measured by the driver of the red car?  The answer is quite simply 90 mph.  The velocity of the ball is added to the velocity of the moving car to give a total answer.  Makes perfect sense right?  Now imagine the scenario where somehow the blue car is whizzing past the red car at half light-speed and the passenger this time throws the cricket ball forwards at the speed of light itself.  Observed from the red car, the driver (according to the previous example) would measure the total velocity of the ball to be 1.5 times the speed of light.  Unfortunately for common sense, this is not the case at all.  The speed of that cricket ball will only ever be the speed of light, no matter how fast the blue car is driving.  The reason?  It’s just a fundamental feature of our Universe and nobody knows why!

The discovery that the speed of light is the same regardless of the motion of the source and/or the observer meant that the view Isaac Newton had proposed a couple of centuries earlier had to be amended.  It also implied that if the speed of light was constant, then the simple act of moving in relation to something else threw up all sorts of peculiar effects, especially when travelling close to light-speed.

Time dilation

Again, you’ll need to picture the following thought experiment:  Two people invent a very simple clock consisting of a particle of light bouncing up and down between two mirrors a fixed distance apart.  It acts as a clock because the distance remains the same and the speed of light is constant between the mirrors.  One person stands still and the other picks up the clock and moves horizontally in front of the stationary person at a given (fairly high) speed.  Rather than see the particle of light move vertically up and down, the stationary person sees it move sideways as well as up and down, in a kind of zigzag fashion looking something like a pattern of the letter WWWWW instead of a pattern of the letter IIIIIII (see below).

As you can see, the light particle on the right travels further to bounce up and down from the perspective of the stationary person.

This implies that the light particle has appeared to have travelled a longer distance between each bounce, but because the speed of light is always the same no matter the vantage point, it also implies that a longer period of time must have elapsed between bounces.  The person who is moving, however, sees no change in the light particle’s motion as he/she is moving along with it.  To them, it is still bouncing straight up and down, exactly the same as when they were stationary.  This means that the clock is running faster for them than what their friend (the stationary one)  perceives it to be.  This leads to an effect known as time dilation, and although the time difference is minuscule when considering most types of movement, it becomes particularly noticeable when an object is travelling close to the speed of light.

For example, an astronaut travelling the 4 light years from Earth to the next nearest star (Proximo Centauri) at 90% of the speed of light would have a total round journey time of just under 9 years.  But upon returning home, 20 years would have elapsed on Earth making everyone on the planet 11 years older than the astronaut!  Time travel, it seems, is really quite possible in this sense!  For similar reasons, the astronaut, whilst hitting 90% light speed, would appear to have contracted in length from the frame of reference of the observer on Earth – if it was possible for them to see – and have also doubled in mass  (more on that in a moment).  If this sounds like make-believe to you then you’ll be shocked – and hopefully pleasantly surprised – to learn that these ‘relativistic’ effects are completely real phenomena and are accounted for in particle accelerator experiments (such as the LHC at CERN) and in GPS.

The speed of light is the maximum speed with which an object can travel.  The main reason for this is causality, the process by which cause precedes effect, and states that the reverse is impossible.  Lighting a fuse to detonate a bomb is cause followed by effect; the explosion followed by the lighting of the fuse is effect followed by cause and is quite obviously absurd.  This is why nothing can reach superluminal speeds (faster than light), as observers could witness events before they’ve even happened!

It is also impossible for any object of mass to accelerate to the speed of light.  Due to the effects of special relativity, it would take an infinite amount of energy to accelerate a body towards light-speed as more and more energy would be required to continue to accelerate a body that is becoming exponentially heavier as it speeds-up.  Why would something ‘put on weight’ simply by going this fast?  The answer is found in what is undoubtedly the most elegant and well-recognised equation in history:  E=mc².  This beautifully simple equivalence states, very basically, the interchangeability between energy and mass.  They are, rather crudely, the very same thing.  And seeing as the faster something goes the more energy it has (remember, kinetic energy is the energy something possesses as it moves), then due to Einstein’s equation the mass must also increase.  This means that an object becomes heavier and heavier the faster it goes, thus the need for more energy to keep on accelerating.

The only ‘stuff’ that can travel at the speed of light are massless particles (such as particles of light, or ‘photons’), and they can only travel at this one speed at all times.

Einstein’s breakthrough, then, was to establish not only that the laws of physics were the same in all ‘inertial’ frames of reference (in short, where the observer is undergoing uniform motion) but also that the speed of light is always the same speed no matter the frame. The exotic side-effects he predicted in his special relativity required immense speeds, so what happens in the presence of immense gravity?  We established earlier that gravity and acceleration are one and the same, and if relativistic effects (such as time dilation) occur at high speeds then they can also occur at high acceleration.  Would it be reasonable, therefore, to suggest that the same effects should occur in high gravity also?

The theory of general relativity

Such was the ground-shattering implications of Einstein’s seminal paper that it took him over 10 years after formulating his special theory of relativity to complete it.  It truly is, alongside special relativity, one of the greatest intellectual achievements in science and has been verified countless times by experiment.  That isn’t to say the theory is complete (or even correct), but along with the spooky mechanics of quantum theory it somehow delivers results.

The simple definition of general relativity is the gravitational attraction experienced between objects (such as the Sun and the Earth) is  caused by the  curvature of space.  It says that all objects of mass warp space in the same way that a bowling ball does when placed on a taught sheet of rubber.  So what appears like an actual force of attraction between objects is actually just the process of falling into the curved area caused by an object’s warping of the space around it (formally known as gravity).  And just like a marble being rolled onto the sheet of rubber demonstrating a change of direction as it encounters the curved area around the bowling ball; planets (such as Earth) show the same effects in space.

Light, too, is  ’bent’ in the the presence of strong gravity and is known as gravitational lensing.  This is where light from a background object follows the curvature of space caused by a nearer object and is focussed towards an observer, just like a lens does, and sometimes causes multiple images of the same object to appear (or even a distorted ring right to appear around the nearer object) to the observer.

Light from a background object is bent around a nearer object due to the curvature of space

4 images of the same quasar appear in the picture

It also allows for the observation of objects that would otherwise have been obscured from view, as the light – had it not been bent towards us – would not have penetrated our field of view and would literally be hidden behind whatever it was that was blocking it.  I should probably point out that the light isn’t actually bent as such; rather it continues to travel in a straight line like it always does, but due to the curving of space around a large object, it follows the curved path of that space and just  appears to bend.

Probably the most remarkable prediction of general relativity is the concept of gravitational time dilation.  Recall the first couple  of paragraphs where I introduced the thought experiments involving lifts.  It highlighted how being accelerated and being in the presence of gravity are indistinguishable from one another and, going on what we learned about special relativity in the section before, should both demonstrate ‘relativistic’ effects.  And this is exactly what does happen!  Satellites orbiting 30,000 km above the surface of the Earth experience less gravity than you or I do standing on the surface.  This is because the curvature (or warping) of space is greater nearer the Earth and less the further away you get, meaning time runs ever so slightly faster for satellites than it does for us; a time dilation effect that has to be accounted for when GPS is used for example.

This brings up another remarkable concept; that of space-time.  If time can be altered by the presence of gravity – or rather by the curvature of space caused by a massive object – then it is redundant to consider space and time as two separate entities.  The 3 dimensions of space (height, width, length) and the ‘temporal’ dimension we call time, are therefore classified as one single, 4-dimensional entity known as space-time.  This is hard to visualize, so it’s probably better not to.  Instead, it would be more prudent to understand that time and space are inextricably linked and that ‘movement’ through one is also movement through the other.

What this concept does imply, however, is the existence of black holes.  Objects so dense and so massive that the space-time in which they sit is warped so severely that anything passing by literally falls into this curved space, never to be seen again.  Even light itself cannot escape the gravitational chasm that is a black hole.  Again, we established before that gravity is the same as acceleration, so just like time seems to slow down when an object travels close to light-speed, so does it in the presence of very strong gravity (like a black hole).  It’s been a few paragraphs since the last thought experiment, so it seems appropriate to insert one now:

Picture an unfortunate astronaut aboard a spaceship that has ventured too close to a black hole (Einstein himself said only two things in life were infinite – the Universe and human stupidity – but that he wasn’t sure about the Universe).  Viewed by an observer at a safe (considerable) distance away, the spaceship would appear to slow down and come to a complete stop, frozen in time.  But from the point of view of the astronaut on the spaceship, time would continue to run like normal; they would continue to move into the black hole until they met their grizzly death of being torn apart by gravity.  If, before they fell in past the point of no return (known as the ‘event horizon’) they were to look at the observer watching them, they would see time whizz by at ever-increasing speeds.  The witnessing observer at the safe distance would grow old and die, civilisations would rise and fall, and planets, stars and galaxies would come in and out of existence as time marched on.  And all of this in the briefest of moments as experienced by the stupid astronaut, such is the effect of time dilation.  For the same reason, travelling at nearly light-speed would also give the effect of time standing still as everything else would age incredibly fast (as explained above in the special relativity section).

The curvature of space caused by the enormous mass of a black hole (2-dimensional depiction)

Einstein’s legacy

What Einstein accomplished with his special and general theories of relativity is nothing short of a miracle.  The fact that his one and only Nobel Prize was awarded for something else entirely is one of the scientific crimes of the century!  The beautiful simplicity of his mass-energy equivalence E=mc² led to the understanding of radioactivity and the development of nuclear power, and his insight into the effects of relative motion based on the constancy of the speed of light allowed for the development of the Global Positioning System (GPS).  But most of all, it was his ability to ignore what everyone else was doing and derive his brilliantly crazy theory of general relativity; an outstanding intellectual achievement that has inspired generations of scientists to think outside the box ever since.  It describes the behaviour of everything in the Universe, from the projectile motion of a cannon-ball on Earth to the motion of large groups of galaxies billions of light years away and predicts strange and violent objects such as super-massive black holes.

The only drawback with general relativity is that it is not complete.  That is to say it does not sleep well with quantum theory: the study of the Universe on its smallest scales.  This is most definitely a blog for another time, but the basic problem is that both theories work for their own scale; quantum mechanics for its atomic and sub-atomic particles, and general relativity for everything larger we can see with our eyes.  Neither work for both.  There is no unified ‘quantum theory of gravity’ to explain absolutely everything in the Universe.

For now then, we will have to continue using both.  The one thing I can say with utmost certainty is that if you thought relativity was mind-bending enough, wait until you encounter the weird and wonderful effects of the quantum world.  Expect a blog to follow… although this one might take a little longer to complete!