How Black Holes Are Born

In this cool video, we learn how black holes are created from the death of massive stars, leaving behind a collapsed star so dense and with such skull-crushing gravity that not even LIGHT can escape it! Here’s a cool fact… if you were floating towards a black hole, the atoms in your feet would accelerate towards it faster than the atoms in your head and so effectively, you would be instantaneously ripped apart. Fun!

Video Source: “The Birth of a Black Hole” Uploaded by Alexander Guseff to YouTube channel

Neil DeGrasse Tyson Answers Angry Tweets on Pluto's Demotion

Many moons ago, Pluto – the outermost planet in our solar system – was demoted. For those of us who grew up with the nine-planet solar system model, this came as somewhat of an affront to everything we knew about anything, ever. I mean, what is the meaning of life if the planetary status of Pluto can so easily be revised and revoked? Why, Neil, why??

In this hilarious video, Neil DeGrasse Tyson answers to the angry rants and raves (and insults) of those really strange people who were truly and deeply wounded by Pluto’s demotion from planetary status to mere space-wandering rock. Why people give such a damn is beyond me. After all, Pluto is only a quarter the size of our moon and even then, most of its mass is ice.

Video Source: Uploaded by National Geographic on YouTube channel

Neil DeGrasse Tyson is a megamind and, not coincidentally, also curator of the Hayden Planetarium, as well as the presenter of Carl Sagan’s revised TV-series, “Cosmos” He is awesome and anyone who has watched any of his videos, lectures or presentations will appreciate just how erudite and smart this man is.

But by far one of Neil’s greatest talents is the perfect balance between a sophisticated understanding of science and the ability to communicate with those who don’t. This makes him one of today’s most powerful and persuasive public figures in science and technology.

Astrology Owes You an Apology

Horoscope circle astrology

What’s your star sign? Sagittarius? LIAR!!

If your horoscope a little out of scope, it’s because you’re reading the wrong one.

This is not really your fault. How are you to know that things have changed in the heavens since the zodiac was assigned to each calendar month just over 2,500 years ago? This is the problem with astrology in the 21st Century. It is the single most ridiculous cluster of notions that have ever been conceived, second only to the idea that womankind was created from the rib of a man. How insulting! If anything, man was created from the rib of a woman. Why else would men have nipples?

On the upside, on issues of astrology and horoscopes, I’ve finally found something I can agree with Christians about.

If you’re keen on these subjects, I am really sorry to burst your bubble. I’m all for esoteric beliefs if it distracts people from judging thy neighbour and killing in the name of You-Know-Who. But the entire rational framework of astrology is completely and inexcusably flawed. This isn’t only from a logical standpoint, but for one very particular reason, which we shall discuss shortly.

First, let’s find out what on Earth our ancient counterparts were thinking…

The Gods are Grumpy Angry gods fist smash

A cluster of ridiculous notions is forgivable of an ancient civilization that has no understanding of the physical world around them and of all its beautiful and intricate macroscopic and microscopic complexity. Back in the day, a sickness was not the result of a virus running rampant in your body: it was a punishment for wrong-doing or an expression of some deity’s dissatisfaction with your most recent sacrifice. Even though said sacrifice was your sister…

Lightning wasn’t an electrical discharge between a negatively charged sky and a positively charged Earth; it was Zeus throwing his toys out the cot. The stars were not balls of intense and unending nuclear reactions held together by gravity, they were the souls of dead people (or fireflies, if you’re a Lion King fan).

Every civilization has sought to explain the physical observable universe using what little bits and pieces of knowledge they had. A few thousand years ago, in the absence of powerful telescopes, super computers, mathematical equations and the cumulative work of tens of thousands of scientists, that knowledge stemmed from tradition, superstition and beliefs that had been passed down from generation to generation.

Scientific these explanations were not.

Meet the Babylonians

The Ishtar Gate and the Processional Way, Babylon,The Pergamon Museum

Humans are inherently creative and seek symbolism in just about everything around us, so naturally the patterns perceived in the arrangement of stars against the night sky became other people, animals and objects. These constellations were then bestowed with significance over and above their random scattering across the sky.

And who can blame our ancestors? Back in the day there was no TV, so our ancient counterparts looked to the sky for their daily and seasonal weather forecasts; the stars were their GPS. If a decent crop yield depended on you sowing seeds at precisely the right time of year, you too would regard the sky as something sacred and symbolic. Your life could depend on it.

Around 7th century BC, Babylonian astronomers (dudes who puzzled over the sky and made attempts to measure and record the migrations of the stars and planets) divided the constellations that coursed across the Milky Way into the zodiacal signs, which, in Latin, literally means “circle of animals.” Think “zoo.”

astrology and zodiac

Although some of the constellations that make up the zodiac have origins elsewhere and in other times, the Babylonians were the ones who landed the Oscar for incredible breakthrough work in scientific observation, measurement and recording. They were the ones who divided the sky into the co-ordinate system that has largely survived to this day (with subtle modifications and a greater accuracy, of course.)

Each calendar month was assigned a ‘star sign,’ beginning with the constellation that was positioned behind the sun at the time of the spring equinox. This was around March and April in the northern hemisphere. Remember, back in these days, the seasons very much governed the life and times of these people. Spring was an auspicious time of year because your farm animals would start bonking like mad, which was a good thing if you wanted your farm animals to make baby farm animals.

Funny Goat picture

At the time this was all cooked up (just over 2,500 years ago), the constellation that took position behind the sun at the spring equinox was Aries, the ram. Baaa. Every year at the same time, the same star sign would resume its rightful position in the sky.

But the Earth’s movement relative to the stars changes year after year. Every time we make our way around the sun, our aspect is very slightly different thanks to Earth’s wobbly axis of rotation. Just under three millennia later, the constellation positioned behind the sun at the time of the spring equinox is no longer Aries. It’s Taurus.

What does this mean?

The Zodiacal Identity Crisis

Cute lion pictures
“Screw this, I’m not a Leo anymore… I see myself as a Virgo anyway.”

What’s your star sign? Libra? Nope! Actually, you’re a Scorpio. When you were born, the constellation positioned behind the sun was Scorpio, not Libra. So all that crap about being sensitive, artistic, fickle and in love with the idea of love blah, blah, is just that: crap. Whatever star sign you thought you were, you are actually one ahead:

Aries’ are Gemini’s

Gemini’s are Cancer’s

Cancer’s are Leo’s

Leo’s are Virgo’s

And so on and so forth.

Everything you’ve ever read about yourself in a horoscope – what kind of person you are, your personality traits, your likes, loves, potential health problems and more – is all fundamentally flawed because you are reading the wrong star sign. Plain and simple. What’s the point in reading the horoscope for, example, Sagittarius when you’re actually a Capricorn? And why don’t astrologers or whoever writes this garbage picked up on this very simple, yet grave error?

Little Gypsy Fortune Teller

My birthday is on the 19th October. Every horoscope I have ever read in any magazine, newspaper or book has told me that my star sign is Libra. But every single one of them has been inaccurate. The constellation behind the sun on the date of my birth is Scorpio, which makes far more sense because I can be quite a bitch.

Class Dismissed: Your Take-Home Message 

Milky Way over the mountain
The Milky Way, the spiral arm of our galaxy, courses across a darkening sky.

The idea that the stars and planets play a part in forecasting our future is a very romantic one. It makes us feel very important. But those giant impartial elemental worlds composed of ice, rock, fire and air have about as much to do with your love life as scientology has to do with science.

Sure, those horoscopes you read in People while sitting on the porcelain throne can make sense sometimes. But horoscopes are self-fulfilled prophesies. If Madame Zola tells you that your love life is about to get hot and heavy, you’re immediately primed to see significance where there is none. You regard the world with fresh eager eyes; watching and waiting for your Prince Charming or Pussy Galore (guys) to come and sweep you off of your feet.

The bottom line is: stars are far too busy exploding and being catastrophically nuclear to worry about your office dynamics and how that bitch down the aisle keeps stealing your stapler. The planets couldn’t be less interested in how flaccid your sex life has been recently and the moon couldn’t give two hoots about what colour you should dye your hair next.

Perhaps it’s our innate fear of being ordinary that compels us to seek evidence of our extraordinary nature outside of ourselves – in the relative orientation of the stars and planets – when in fact we already ARE extraordinary.

We’re made of star dust, aren’t we?

Symphony of Science: We Are Star People!

If reading lengthy blog posts (albeit written for the lay person) about how the atoms within our bodies came from exploding stars isn’t on your agenda for today, then this video absolutely has to be…

For more on this theory, check out the blog We Are Star People!

The “Symphony of Science” series puts together beautiful graphics and music with the autotuned voices of some of the most eminent of modern scientists for us to learn from and enjoy. This video is a visual and audio feast and a beautiful ode to the work of the 20th and 21st century astrophysicists and astronomers.

Also, Niel DeGrasse Tyson is such a rock star. I have a total nerd crush on him.

Check out the Symphony of Science website – they actually sell CD’s!

7 Ridiculously Cool Pictures of Space

# 1: Earth’s true distance from the moon. It takes a space shuttle about three days to cross this yawning chasm of space, which measures approximately 238,900 miles or 384,400 km across.

enhanced-buzz-wide-2723-1420723206-7Image Source:

# 2: A view up Jupiter’s skirts. Here we see Jupiter’s south pole and the many concentric rings that represent the planet’s different atmospheric pressure zones. The transitional areas between these zones feature great instability and are the source of Jupiter’s notoriously vicious and persistent super storms, called “hypercanes.” That’s like a hurricane on steroids. The most famous of these hypercanes is the “Great Red Spot,” which has been raging on for many centuries, although apparently it is decreasing in size.

Amazing space picturesImage Source: NASA/JPL/Space Science Institute / Via

# 3: Every single dot you see in this picture is a galaxy. Makes you feel small, doesn’t it?

Amazing space picturesImage Source: NASA, ESA, G. Illingworth, D. Magee, and P. Oesch (University of California, Santa Cruz), R. Bouwens (Leiden University), and the HUDF09 Team / Via

# 4: Sunrise from Mars. It’s interesting to see the size of the sun from the perspective of Red Planet, as opposed to from Earth.

Amazing sunset on MarsImage Source: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS/TAMU / Via

# 5: The thickness of Earth’s atmosphere. Just a thin blue blanket of oxygen, nitrogen, carbon dioxide and other trace gases is all that separates us from the vacuum of space.

Beautiful Earth from spaceImage Source: NASA / Via

# 6: When two spiral galaxies collide… the greatest show on Earth (as seen through a super powerful telescope, of course). In a few billion year’s time, our own galaxy is predicted to collide with our closest galactic neighbour, Andromeda.

Amazing galaxy picturesImage Source: NASA, ESA, and the Hubble Heritage Team (STScI/AURA)-ESA/Hubble Collaboration

# 7: View of Earth from Mars. I.e. no view.

Amazing space picturesImage Source: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS/TAMU / Via

Holy Hit!

Asteroids over planet earth

If you’ve seen the movies Deep Impact, Armageddon, Asteroid or The Land Before Time, chances are you’ve entertained the idea: what would I do if a meteor was on a collision course with Earth? What would happen? Would NASA send out a space shuttle to intercept the galactic gate-crasher? Could North Korea be coaxed into donating its caches of nuclear warheads to the task of obliterating the Earth-bound asteroid? What’s the post-apocalyptic weather like? Will you need to pack an extra jersey?

All of these are important questions. But not all meteorite strikes need to result in global catastrophe, although the dinosaurs would beg to differ. Some are actually responsible for sculpting some of the most beautiful landscapes and fascinating geological features here on our planet and on every planet.

Meteors, Meteorites, Meteoroids, Asteroids, Comets, Shooting Stars… What’s the Difference?

There are more names for space-travelling rocks than Elizabeth Taylor has had surnames. But there is a degree of difference between these names that needs to be appreciated, whereas I’m sure that each of Ms Taylor’s successive marriages was just as dull as the previous.

Comet ~ A comet is (relative to a planet) a small chunk of dirty ice-clad rock that orbits the Sun: think Halley’s Comet or Comet McNaught. When it comes close enough to the sun, blasts of solar radiation send particles of ice streaming off its surface to form a long visible train called a ‘coma’.

Beautiful comet McNaught

Image Credit: Miloslav Druckmuller (Brno University of Technology)

March 30th, 2007: Comet McNaught blazes a beautiful trail across a star-studded sky. The Milky Way, which you can see as a dense streak of stars in this picture, is actually one of the spiral arms of our galaxy. You can also see two irregular dwarf galaxies, known as the Large and Small Magellanic Clouds (right hand side of the image).

Asteroid ~ An asteroid is a small chunk of rock that is also in orbit around the sun. Only, asteroids are composed of rock, metal and sometimes even organic compounds. Not ice. As a result, they don’t get to wear a bridal train.

Meteoroids ~ A meteoroid is, relative to an asteroid, a much smaller chunk of rock. Where asteroids can be kilometres in diameter, meteoroids are no more than 10 meters across, although they can also be as a small as a pebble. Anything larger officially joins the terminological ranks of asteroids.

Meteor ~ A meteor is a meteoroid that has made it into Earth’s atmosphere and is visible to us humans. Remember that one sexy night you spent with that guy in his crappy car, staring up at the stars? Suddenly, there was a brilliant streak of light across the night sky, and then he looked deep into your eyes and said that it was a sign you’d be together forever. And then he dumped you the week after for some tart with bigger knockers.

Yes! A shooting star and a meteor are one and the same thing.

Falling comet and Aurora BorealisQuick, make a wish!

Meteorite ~ This is where things start getting interesting. A meteorite is, just like a meteor, also a meteoroid (c’mon keep up!) But a meteorite survives its entry into the Earth’s atmosphere and actually makes it all the way to the ground where it causes all sorts of inconveniences for the local biology.

Now, we know that our local biology has been inconvenienced on several occasions by rocks galavanting around the galaxy. But how come our moon is more pock-marked than a pubescent teen and we seem to be relatively unscathed? Where are the big impact craters on Earth?

As it turns out, they’re everywhere.

Earth’s Impact Craters

Meteor Crater ArizonaBarringer Crater, Arizona, USA. Formed 50,000 years ago.

The largest confirmed impact crater on Earth is right here in my own back yard in a small town called Vredefort, South Africa. This appreciable dent in our planet’s facade (a 300 kilometre-wide dent to be precise) was caused by a meteor impact that happened over two billion years ago. This impact crater, which is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site, is even bigger than the crater left by the dinosaur-demolishing Chicxulub asteroid.

Take that, Mexico.

Vredefort impact crater, South Africa“Vredefort Dome STS51I-33-56AA” by Júlio Reis (User:Tintazul)

Arial view of the Vredefort impact crater, Free State, South Africa. Formed more than 2 billion years ago.  – [1]. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons

According to the Earth Impact Database, there are:

  • 21 confirmed impact craters in Africa,
  • 3 in Antarctica,
  • 18 in Asia,
  • 26 in Australia,
  • 37 in Europe,
  • 8 in South America and
  • 30 in North America (31 if you count Chicxulub off the Yucatán peninsula, but last I heard the U.S. wasn’t very welcoming of Mexicans.)

These are confirmed impact craters, which have met the rigorous qualification requirements laid out by the Earth Impact Database; our official scientific pageant for meteor-strikes (world peace is most certainly not one of them). If we were to consider the list of unconfirmed impact craters, these numbers would easily double.

So you see, unscathed we are not. Our planet is just as pock-marked as the moon. We just have the benefit of plate tectonics, wind erosion, water erosion and a biosphere to cover up evidence of our acne scarring.

Somewhere off the Yucatán Peninsula in a Galaxy Surprisingly Nearby

Extinction of the dinosaurs, artwork

65 Million years ago, a large extraterrestrial hunk of rock approximately ten kilometres (6.2 miles) in diameter raged into Earth’s atmosphere and smashed into the ocean off the Mexican coast. Sunbathing dinosauritas didn’t even have a chance to reattach their bikini tops before a shockwave so f&*king inconceivable in size and rage hit, I am forced by sheer necessity to use a curse word as an adjective to describe it.

“Within microseconds, an unimaginable explosion released as much energy as billions of Hiroshima bombs detonated simultaneously, creating a titanic fireball hotter than the Sun that vaporized the ocean and excavated a crater 180 kilometres (110 miles) across in the crust beneath. Shock waves blasted upwards, tearing the atmosphere apart and expelling over a hundred trillion tonnes of molten rock into space, later to fall across the globe. Almost immediately, an area bigger than Europe would have been flattened and scoured of virtually all life, while massive earthquakes rocked the planet. The atmosphere would have howled and screamed as hypercanes five times more powerful than the strongest hurricane ripped the landscape apart, joining forces with huge tsunamis to batter coastlines many thousands of kilometres distant.”

– “A Guide to the End of the World”, Bill McGuire (2002)

The ‘Chicxulub’ impact was the catastrophic event that forced the extinction of much of Earth’s biology. The life that wasn’t instantly extinguished upon impact would die in the weeks and months of acid rain, falling debris, plummeting global temperatures, shuddering earthquakes, tempestuous weather and raging wildfires to follow.

Or in the subsequent years of icy nuclear winter.

Or in the years of solar radiation exposure caused by the Earth’s disintegrated ozone layer.

Yeah, sucked to be prehistoric.

Class Dismissed: Your Take-Home Message


Diagram showing the orbits of potentially disastrous Earth-crossing asteroids. The four white circles indicate the orbits of our solar system’s four inner planets, Mercury, Venus, Earth and Mars. The sun lies at the centre.

Our universe, galaxy and solar system are swarming with lost and wandering bits of space rock. Some have managed to find a gravitational focal point to orbit around and we see these visitors from our vantage point here on Earth with accurate predictability. A perfect example would be Halley’s Comet, which we see once every 75, 76 years. Others wander our solar system far more eccentrically, although the gravitational pull of our Sun and planets do affect the path they travel.

The take-home message is that we, just like every other planet or moon in our solar system, are just as vulnerable to a catastrophic meteorite impact. We are not safe on our little blue planet. We have suffered in the past and we will suffer again in the future. Life here is precious. So make sure you appreciate it the way it is now, because tomorrow you might not have time to reattach your bikini top before a shockwave so f&*king inconceivable in size and rage hits, I will be forced by sheer necessity to use a curse word as an adjective to describe it.

Asteroid Earth

Image Source:

Sciencey LOL of the Week

unny_science_test_answerI’m almost certain this kid knew the answer and, at the expense of one mark, decided this joke was too good to pass up on.

For those enquiring minds who really do want to know the answer…

Saturn is one of the largest planets in our solar system, in mass and size. It is known as a gassy giant because of its penchant for Mexican cuisine. I’m kidding. Because it is so massive and its gravity so great, that everything from giant space rocks to gass molecules were drawn in towards its centre at the formation of our solar system, approximately 4.5 billion years ago. If Saturn was just a little bit bigger (“a little bit” being an approximation for a whole lot), the intensity of its gravitational pull would have generated the central pressure and heat necessary to initiate nuclear reactions. And THIS would have made Saturn a star! The same applies to Jupiter, which is also a flatulant giant.

So, in other words, Saturn and Jupiter are failed stars… or that is what my astronomy professor always referred to them as.

Picture of planet Saturn
Saturn in all its real colour glory. This image was taken by the Cassini satellite in 2004. As a matter of interest, Saturn appears a sickly yellow colour due to the great glittering clouds of ammonia crystals held aloft in its atmosphere. I can only imagine what smells one would have to endure on a stroll around Saturn. Similar to your single toilet after you and 15 of your beer-soaked friends have relieved yourselves, I’m guessing.

Saturn’s rings are composed of orbiting particles of rocks and ice, some no bigger than snowballs and others the size of a bus, according to NASA’s fun cosmology website. Each of these particles, gargantuam and minute, are by definition moons, all in gentle orbit around the giant planet. They share this orbit with 63 other more “traditional” moons, the largest of which is the aptly-named Titan.

While it is unclear as to why all of this orbiting debris has accumulated into almost perfect geometric circles around the planet, the answer is suspected to lie in gravity. Over the many millions of years subsequent to the formation of the solar system (or seven days subsequent to creation), each particulate, snowball, moon and hunk of rock has had the time to settle into a position that reflects, in part, the force of attraction between itself and its giant parent planet. One might suspect that the larger, heavier particles will be arranged in belts closest to the planet, while the lighter and less dense particles will be in belts further away.

Saturn's ringsAnd you might suspect this because the force of attraction between two objects is proportionate to their respective masses and disproportionate to the distance between them. In other words, the heavier you are, the more attractive Earth finds you, which is why your bathroom scale groans every morning. You can refer to this spectacular blog entry for elucidation on this point: Gravity And The Laws of Attraction, Somewhat Revised.

This is precisely what I thought, but the picture is more complex than that. Each particle in orbit around its central giant – each particle of dust and each bus-sized space rock – is travelling at a certain speed. And while gravity acts to pull these particles in towards Saturn, they continue along a path that is perpendicular to it, rather than careening inwards. The force that propels these “moons” forward is called the centripetal force and you would have experienced that as a child when you were flung off a merry-go-round, because your douchebag brother seemed to think the word “stop!” meant “faster!”

Saturn’s rings are therefore organised into belts of particles that are travelling at different velocities. I have a very helpful reader to thank for this relevation and you will find his comment below.

And so, this gasy giant finds itself swathed in many beautiful, carefully arranged rings all consisting of particles, rocks, snowballs and moons travelling at varying velocities; trapped in an eternal dance around itself. Here’s something else: so does Jupiter and Neptune! The only difference is that the two latter planets’ bridal trains are thinner and far more translucent and so Saturn, with its ostentatious display, has become the planet in our solar system famed for its rings.

beyonce-put a ring on it