Note (12/2015): Hi there! I'm taking some time off here to focus on other projects for a bit. As of October 2016, those other projects include a science book series for kids titled Things That Make You Go Yuck! -- available at Barnes and Noble, Amazon and (hopefully) a bookstore near you!

Co-author Jenn Dlugos and I are also doing some extremely ridiculous things over at Drinkstorm Studios, including our award-winning webseries, Magicland.

There are also a full 100 posts right here in the archives, and feel free to drop me a line at with comments, suggestions or wacky cold fusion ideas. Cheers!

· Categories: Astronomy, Physics
What I’ve Learned:

Hypervelocity stars: what happens in the galaxy doesn't always stay there.
“Hypervelocity stars: what happens in the galaxy doesn’t always stay there.”

Many things move at a proverbial “million miles an hour”. Vacation days. Your heart, when a hot-bodied stranger in a swimsuit walks by. And your gossipy friends’ mouths, telling everyone how you drool over hot-bodied swimsuited strangers on your vacation.

You knew you should have never invited them to Cancun. Live and learn, gringo caliente. Live and learn.

Some things that don’t literally move that fast are stars. Sure, stars are usually clustered into galaxies, and galaxies zoom around the void at a million miles an hour or more — depending on which other bits of celestial fluff you measure them against. But the stars are just along for the ride; relative to their host galaxies, they don’t reach those insane kinds of speeds.

Except when they do.

The universe is full of exceptions — even Keanu Reeves made that one good movie once — and turbocharged stars are interesting examples. Known as hypervelocity stars, they whip around at speeds up to two million miles per hour, relative to galactic speed.

That’s like gunning a Ferrari down the highway and being overtaken by a cruise missile. Even your motormouth vacation friends can’t keep up that pace.

Hypervelocity stars are fairly new to astrophysics — predicted in 1988, and first observed in 2005. There are only a handful known to exist, mostly because confirming their speed requires measurements over a period of decades. We can’t exactly set up a speed trap and flash these things with a radar gun as they zoom past.

The really interesting thing about hypervelocity stars is that they move so fast, they can reach the escape velocity of their galaxies. Meaning, instead of swirling around in a galactic spiral forever like our boring old sun, these stars break completely free of galactic gravity and ping off into interstellar space, never to be heard from again.

(Maybe somebody could have pitched that to Keanu Reeves after the first Matrix. I’m just saying.)

What we don’t know for sure is how these stars get all hypervelocitized in the first place. But two theories explain the current observations pretty well.

It’s thought that some hypervelocity stars are formed near our galactic center, where a supermassive black hole looms. Computer models say if a binary system — two stars closely orbiting each other — got caught in the black hole’s clutches, one could be sucked in while the other is flung outward at ridiculous speed. Like a marble fired from a slingshot shot out of a cannon mounted on a jet plane. Times a lot.

The other, equally violent, theory also involves binary systems. Only in this scenario, the partner star isn’t stuffed into a black hole; instead, it goes supernova — exploding so catastrophically that it accelerates the surviving star to supergalactic speeds.

Either way, the presence of a hypervelocity star means that things went terribly, terribly wrong for that star’s old flame. So basically, if your sweetie ever tells you he or she wants to become a hypervelocity star some day, you should pack your bags and leave. Like, yesterday.

You can always take a rebound trip to Cancun. Your friends may gossip, but at least none of those swimsuited hotties are going to explode you or unceremoniously stuff you down a black hole. That kind of shit only happens in Las Vegas.

And apparently, all around the Milky Way. Stellar breakups are a bitch, yo.

Image sources: Tech Guru Daily (hypervelocity star), El Horizonte (beach bods), Oh No They Didn’t! (fast Keanu), Universe Today (binary breakup)

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· Categories: Astronomy, Physics
What I’ve Learned:

Exoplanets: When one Earth just isn't mega-super enough.
“Exoplanets: When one Earth just isn’t mega-super enough.”

Our planet is pretty okay, as far as it goes. Sure, we’ve come up with stir fry, chili cheese fries and Stephen Fry — but are we really being the best Earth we can be? Some astrophysicists make me wonder.

In particular, the astrophysicists scouring the visible cosmos for worlds circling other stars. Or in a word: exoplanets.

(Don’t let the “ex” part throw you. These are not planets who used to date Earth, then got upset when Earth made googly eyes with Venus, or slept over in the house of Mercury after a sexy session of grab and terrestrial tickle.

Rather, exoplanets are those big hunks of stuff that spin around a star that isn’t the one we happen to circle. Sorry, “Real Housewives of the Solar System” fans. It’s not like that.)

These world-watchers have detected nearly two thousand exoplanets to date, with more on the celestial radar all the time. And until recently, there were pretty well-defined rules for what these faraway planets look like. Basically, planets came in two flavors: rocky and gassy.

(Yes, just the two. Extrasolar planets are interesting. Nobody ever said they were Baskin-Robbins.)

When planets reach a certain size, they tend to accumulate gasses like hydrogen, helium, carbon dioxide or nitrogen. Scientists believed that any planet heavier than about ten Earth masses would largely be composed of gas pulled in by the hefty planet’s enormous gravity. The “gas giants” in our own solar system — Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune — follow this formula precisely.

Smaller planets, on the other hand, are usually big round balls of rock. Venus, Mars and Mercury all fit this bill, in addition to the hunk of dirt we’re currently riding. As do a number of discovered exoplanets — but only those on the smaller side.

When these exoplanets are the same size-ish as Earth, they’re called “Earth-like”, but that only means that these worlds are generally the same shape and density. There’s no guarantee the inhabitants of any “Earth-like” planets have, for instance, independently invented Happy Hour or Taco Tuesday or Rice-A-Roni, the interstellar San Francisco treat.

(And without those things, how “Earth-like” could those planets be, really?)

The planets significantly bigger than Earth but smaller than our solar system’s gas planets are often called “super-Earths”. Technically, the super-Earth set is a mixture of rocky and gaseous planets, depending on the size and density of each. Like the saying goes, some super-Earths are like your Mars, and some are like Uranus.

(That’s not a saying? Well, it should be.)

The super-Earth label doesn’t mean these worlds are necessarily extra-special. It would be great if some “super”-Earth came up with even tastier chili cheese fries, or a Stephen Fry wittier than a speeding bullet. Or maybe a stir fry that stirred itself. But no. We’re on our own for those.

Recently, though, scientists discovered a new sort of planet that’s thrown them for an orbital ellipse. Named Kepler-10c, it’s a planet orbiting a star about 560 light years away. It appears to be made of rock — but its seventeen times more massive than Earth. The theory said it should be full of gas, but there it was when they looked — solid through and through, mooning us through our telescopes and thumbing its rocky core at us. Scientists have dubbed this jacked-up behemoth a “mega-Earth”, and it’s the only one of its kind yet known to exist.

Personally, I’d have gone with “Andre the Planet”. This is probably why I never get invited to any astrophysicist parties. Maybe this isn’t such a “super Earth”, after all.

Image sources: (planet parade), Metro UK (feathery Fry), Orange County Mexican Restaurants blog (Taco Simpsons) and Crustula (Andre with a whole world in his hand [a whole world in his hand])

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· Categories: Astronomy, Physics
What I’ve Learned:

Coronal mass ejection -- don't cross the sun, or it'll set the whole building on fire.
“Coronal mass ejections: sometimes the ratio of badass to sunshine is too big.”

Here’s the thing about the sun: it’s always working. At night, you go to bed. You don’t see the sun, so maybe you think it’s sleeping, too, or out hitting on Class G babes at some seedy stellar hot spot.

But no.

While you’re drooling on your pillow, the sun is pulling double shifts on the other side of the planet. There are sidewalks in Saigon to warm, Tibetan teahouses to light, and those crystal waters lapping the Great Barrier Reef aren’t going to dapple themselves, the lazy bastards.

So the sun takes care of that business, and then reaches back around to tickle the other hemisphere, without so much as a lunch break. It’s tireless. It’s also unpaid, has no insurance, commutes a hell of a long way and occasionally gets so worked up it sets something on fire. Basically, the sun is our solar system’s Milton Waddams. Do not touch the solar stapler.

Instead of torching a building, though, the sun lets off steam with coronal mass ejections.

(Technically, it lets off plasma, which is to steam approximately what ghost chili extract is to Arby’s Horsey Sauce.

As the saying goes: if you’re going to eject substances in public, at least make it impressive.)

In addition to plasma and fused hydrogen and other ridiculously hot things that make napalm look like a cold water spritzer, the sun also creates intense magnetic fields. When two oppositely-directed fields come together — like a perfect storm of being relegated to the basement and having your precious Swingline swiped — something snaps.

On a good day, this might cause a solar flare — those impressive leaping arcs of fire you see in astronomy photos, curling off the surface of the sun. Solar flares are idiots. They put on a big show, like an undersized bully or a fresh business school graduate, but there’s no oomph. It’s all flash and no substance; solar flares are like the Cirque du Soleil of… well, the soleil.

Coronal mass ejections, or CMEs, on the other hand, will bite a planet in the ass. Also spawned by magnetic reconnections, CMEs are solar flares’ bigger, hotter, angrier brothers. And they’ll come at you, on average, like a billion tons of bricks riding a magnetized solar wind at over a million miles an hour. Because, on average, that’s exactly what they are.

(Except for the ‘brick’ thing. But plasma is scarier, anyway. You don’t fight off alien hordes with “brick rifles”. I’m just saying.)

When they slam through the Earth, coronal mass ejections wreak havoc on satellites, electric lines and radio transmissions. They’re like EMPs on steroids, whose steroids also took a bunch of steroids. The Jose Cansecos of electromagnetic phenomena.

Coronal mass ejections are also responsible for auroras, which are dancing lights near the North and South Poles that indicate our atmosphere is getting the shit kicked out of it by high-energy solar particles. Auroras are cosmic “Check Engine” lights, only much prettier and artsy-fartsy.

So I guess a CME has a little Cirque du Soleil in it, too. Just don’t say that to its face. Next time, it might decide to set you on fire.

Actual Science:
NASA Marshall Space Flight CenterCoronal mass ejections
NASA Goddard Space Flight CenterThe heart of space weather observed in action
EarthSkyWhat is coronal mass ejections or CME?
RedOrbitSun’s coronal mass ejections behave like Crab Nebula’s gas tendrils
ABC SciencePlasma plume defends Earth

Image sources: RedOrbit (coronal mass ejection), ZDNet (Milton Waddams), Obscure Gamers and FunnyJunk (Ash shooting bricks), General Depravity (aurora borealis)

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· Categories: Astronomy, Physics
What I’ve Learned:

Black holes: scarier than galactic Bieber
“Black holes: scarier than LiLo, galactic-sized Bieber or astrophysicists settling bets with encyclopedias.”

In science, “black hole” means something very specific; it’s not just a catch-all term for scary, life-sucking things like Congressional speeches or a trip to the DMV or Lindsay Lohan’s vagina.

A true black hole has certain characteristics. Unimaginable denseness and an irresistible gravitational pull, created by a star that’s given up its fire and collapsed into itself.

So, more like Lindsay Lohan’s career.

Cosmically speaking, it takes a special kind of star to form a black hole. It’s not like any old class K hayseed can fuse a few hydrogen atoms together and call itself a singularity. To go full-on black hole, you’ve got to be big. Like, Disney movie or Lollapalooza-ten-years-ago big. And then you have to violently implode — the violentlier, the better — and still keep enough mass to suck in all the matter and light and paparazzi for light years around.

Most stars never get the chance. Take our sun, for instance. It could appear in every edgy Sundance flick and Marvel comic blockbuster made in the next 5.4 billion years, and it still won’t go out as a black hole. Our sun is like the Larry the Cable Guy of stars. It’ll just hang around, getting fatter and occasionally shilling heartburn medicine, until it finally pops an aneurysm on the toilet.

Or engulfs the solar system in a baking-hot inferno. Whichever comes first.

Other stars are big enough to implode — that’s “supernova”, in star talk — but there’s basically nothing left afterward. These become neutron stars: reclusive, dim and not so interesting. Think Peewee Herman, or Tawny Kitaen. And then forget them again.

Black holes, though, are fascinating. It’s thought there’s a supermassive black hole at the center of our galaxy, and most others. Ours is four million times the mass of our sun, with the entire Milky Way orbiting it. It’s like the Justin Bieber of black holiness. And nearly as dense.

No one knows what happens inside a black hole, but space physicists are working on it. Stephen Hawking figured out that one kind of energy can escape a black hole, so they named “Hawking radiation” after him. Later, John Preskill won a bet with Hawking that this radiation would contain information about the stuff sucked into the hole previously.

(That’s some serious shit, winning a bet off the guy the thing was named for. Especially when it’s Stephen Hawking. He’s the smartest thing on four wheels since the Knight Industries Three Thousand.)

Recently, scientists argued about whether black holes are surrounded by a giant wall of fire — as if black holes weren’t badass enough already. One camp says “yes”, because monogamy of quantum entanglement, duh; the other says “nuh-uh”, because Einstein’s equivalence principle, obviously. They flung a bunch of math at each other, Hawking declared black holes dead (sort of, though most people agreed they weren’t) and the firewall finally (probably) went down. In flames. But no one knows for certain.

I vote we load Captain Bieber on a rocket, point it at galactic center, and let him find out for us. Maybe he can even get his own autograph on the way down the gravity well.

Image sources: (black hole), Scary Movie 5 (Lohan), Sky and Telescope and NYPost (Bieber galaxy), John Preskill/CalTech (Hawking-Preskill bet)

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