Unexplainable Astronomy? Part 1: The Wow! Signal


By Sam Jarman

The scribble that started it all | Image: Big Ear Radio Observatory, NAAPO

Monday was dragging for Jerry R. Ehman, in a way that only a volunteer astronomer at the SETI project could truly understand. The frequency data printed out by the IBM 1130 computer was, as always, infuriatingly ordinary. The stream of paper he needed to analyse by hand was seemingly endless. Coffee in a Styrofoam cup was slowly growing lukewarm. Then… something different.


On August 15 1977, Ohio State University’s Big Ear radio telescope picked up an intense and unexpected burst of radio waves, which lasted for a full 72 seconds. Stunned by the break in the monotony of his task, Ehman couldn’t help but briefly forget his deeply engrained skills in data analysis. Taking a bright red marker, he drew a circle around the numbers and letters indicating the burst, and wrote one word next to it: “Wow!

Ehman wasted no time in letting his fellow members of SETI know about his discovery. The implications of the burst were not lost on any of them. The SETI volunteers knew there and then that the burst could not be explained by any current science. On each of their minds was the possibility that the purpose of their project had at long last been fulfilled: evidence of intelligent life beyond the Solar System.

 It doesn’t sound much like ‘We come in peace’, or ‘As you no doubt will be aware, the plans for the development of the outlying regions of the western spiral arm of the galaxy require the building of a hyperspace express route through your star system and, regrettably, your planet is one of those scheduled for demolition’, but the Wow! Signal could be the closest thing we have to a message from aliens

Hey, I know that frequency!

To understand why Ehman and his colleagues were so excited by the burst, we need to look at the characteristics of the particular frequency their telescope was picking up. The Big Ear radio telescope had been programmed to detect signals with the very specific frequency of 1420.406 Megahertz. That number might not roll off the tongue, but it’s incredibly important in astrophysics, and even has its own name: the Hydrogen Line frequency.

The red colours shows where hydrogen gas has been detected within the Milky Way. As it turns out, there’s a lot of it | Image: NASA

Hydrogen gas is extremely common in the wide expanses of space which lie between the stars. Atoms of the gas, consisting of an electron orbiting a single proton, are normally very stable and pretty uninteresting. But occasionally, the electron will flip over spontaneously due to quantum processes – a phenomenon known as spin flip transition, making the system unstable. To return to normal, the electron needs to flip back around, releasing a flash of light with a specific energy – a radio photon – in the process.

This process is incredibly rare for individual hydrogen atoms, but when hydrogen gas is gathered in clouds which span many light years, enough radio photons are given off by spontaneously flipping electrons that they can be easily picked up by radio telescopes on Earth. These photons make up the radio signal of the Hydrogen Line, which is important both to radio astronomers and to those hopeful that other technologically advanced civilisations could be out there somewhere.

The Hydrogen Line frequency is useful to astrophysicists, as they can use it to detect the exact locations of clouds hydrogen gas within our galaxy, and in those beyond. The clouds will always be densest in galactic arms, allowing radio astronomers to map out the distinctive structures of galaxies. They can also use the Doppler Effect to measure how fast hydrogen gas at various distances from the centre of galaxies is moving. From this, they can then create rotation curves for different galaxies, which currently give the clearest evidence we have for the existence of Dark Matter (but that’s a whole other story!)

So when astronomers point their radio telescopes at hydrogen gas clouds, it’s hardly surprising for them to observe radio waves at the Hydrogen Line frequency. But what if we observe them in places in the sky where we aren’t expecting them, or at higher-than-expected intensities? Any astronomer will agree that if this happens, something unexplained is going on.

“Huh, these aliens know about hydrogen spin-flip transition and have an in-depth understanding of their place in the galaxy… so why haven’t they invented clothes yet?” | Image: NASA

Astronomers at SETI became interested in the Hydrogen Line frequency because it is such a fundamental figure in astronomy. Clouds of hydrogen gas are so abundant in the galaxy that their signal can be picked up no matter where you go in space. SETI figured that if there are any other enlightened civilisations elsewhere in the universe, then they must realise this too. No matter how different their scientific units are to ours, if we asked them to create a radio signal at the Hydrogen Line frequency, it would be exactly the same as the signal we would create. So what better way to announce your presence to the galaxy than to send out a distinct, high-intensity transmission of the frequency?


SETI has already sent signals like this out into space, in the hope that others out there may be listening. In fact, they have a strict control over the transmission of the Hydrogen Line signal; it is now illegal to get anyone’s hopes up by transmitting the frequency yourself. But that isn’t the only method we have used to broadcast our knowledge of the Hydrogen Line. In 1972, under the efforts of Carl Sagan, Frank Drake and other journalists and astrophysicists, the famous Pioneer plaque was attached to probes Pioneer 10 and Pioneer 11.

In the top-left of the plaque is etched a diagram representing the distinctive electron flipping process which causes the Hydrogen Line. Between two representations of hydrogen atoms with electrons in the two different states is a horizontal line 21.106 cm long – the exact wavelength of a radio wave at the Hydrogen Line frequency of 1420.406 MHz. If an intelligent civilization ever finds one of the probes then it’s a safe bet that they will understand exactly what the diagram is representing, no matter their language.

 An explanation, or an alien-killing pretender?

Not long after Ehman’s bizarre discovery in 1977, the newly dubbed Wow! Signal, named after Ehman’s hasty scrawl in red pen, had taken the worlds of both science and the media by storm. While astrophysicists rushed to discover the astronomical source of the signal, journalists began to enthusiastically speculate that without any existing scientific explanation, it could have been more purposefully created in origin. For hopefuls of the existence of extra-terrestrial intelligence, the evidence was now more tantalising than ever.

Sorry it was me all along… or was it? | Image: NASA, ESA, J.-Y. Li

Yet for all the attention the Wow! Signal gained, the search for its origin proved fruitless for scientists and alien hunters alike. For over 40 years, the result sat there unexplained; frustrating some, and instilling hope in others. But in April 2017, astronomer Antonio Paris from St Petersburg College, Florida claimed in a paper to have solved the mystery once and for all.

Paris argued that on August 15, 1977, two comets inside the Solar System – 266P/Christensen and 355P/Gibbs – passed directly in front of the Big Ear radio telescope. Surrounding one of the comets was a cloud of hydrogen gas, which was given off by one of the masses of ice and rock. Naturally, the telescope picked up the Hydrogen Line signal of the cloud, but only as it passed through Big Ear’s field of view. For the first time, it looked like the mystery had been solved. But not everyone was satisfied with the new explanation.

Within weeks, Paris was receiving backlash from scientists, who had some strong criticisms of his paper. In June, Robert S. Dixon, director of the SETI project himself, published a rebuttal to Paris’ paper, claiming that the two comets weren’t in fact within Big Ear’s field of view on the day of the Wow! Signal. Other criticisms included claims that the comets were a long way from the Sun and therefore inactive, meaning neither of the comets could possibly maintain a hydrogen cloud around themselves. Some scientists even had many harsh words to say about Paris’ scientific methods in general. Paris stands by his theory, but he’s open to debate.

So for now, many astronomers still regard the Wow! Signal as a mystery, and hope remains that the true explanation of the burst could be another advanced civilization broadcasting its existence. But this isn’t the only case where strange signals in astronomy have gone unanswered for long periods, or where far-fetched and alluring explanation theories have been thought up.

Over the last century, the world of astronomy has been become famous for detecting mysterious signals, making bizarre discoveries, and throwing up seemingly unanswerable questions. Some of these questions have had mundane explanations. Others have led to new research which has come to revolutionize our understanding of the universe. And, like the Wow! Signal, still others remind us just how much we have yet to learn.

In this series, we will find out more about the signals which have both answered and created some of the most enticing questions in modern astronomy. Next time, we will turn back the clock to before 1977, when astrophysics was reeling at the revelation that our place in the universe was far less significant than we realized.


F is for Flying

By Siobhan Fairgreaves

Don’t listen to Jon Snow, summer is coming!

Whether you will spend your (hopefully) sunny days looking up at blue skies or jetting off on an adventure, one thing may cross your mind- how do those aeroplanes stay up there!? In this post we will learn a bit more about how aeroplanes get up, stay up and get back down again.

Plane wings: black magic sorcery, or a clever bit of engineering? (This isn’t actually discussed in the article, it’s obviously the second one)

This is one post I’ve been really looking forward to writing- I’ve been well and truly bitten by the travel bug and I can’t think of a better feeling than the rush of the engines as your plane prepares to take off. It’s certainly obvious from the noise of the engines and the speed of the objects flashing past outside that it takes a lot of force to get in the air but what changes between just going forwards really fast and flying?

In order to understand this (and everything else about flying) it’s important to consider another very important F in the physics world- Forces. There are four key forces acting upon an aeroplane.  Horizontally, there is thrust and air resistance. Thrust, generated by those powerful jet engines, propels the plane forwards. Air resistance, or drag, slows the plane down- like when you stick your head out of a car window and the air hits you hard in the face, that force increases the faster you go, and planes go very fast!

Vertically the plane is subject to gravity (more on that next time) and overcoming the weight of the plane which is a downwards force. The final force is lift. This is slightly less obvious but extremely important and keeps the plane in the air.

In order for the plane to change take off it needs to move forwards and upwards (we’re talking passenger planes here- some military aircraft, like the Harrier, are capable of extremely short take offs.

We’ve got moving forwards covered thanks to the powerful jet engines providing enough thrust to overcome the force of drag. Moving upwards requires the cleverly designed wings to come into play. As air rushes over the wings it is thrown down towards the ground creating lift. In order to get off the ground, there must be enough lift created to overcome the weight of the plane due to gravity.

So when thrust is bigger than drag we go forwards and when lift overcomes the weight we go upwards. Very useful for take-off but we don’t want to keep going up forever.

Enough is enough! I’ve had it with these stably-balanced forces on this stably-balanced plane! | Image: Amada44

The wings are shaped and angled to ensure that we stay up, without constantly rising, throughout the flight. The curved and thicker front of the wing is designed to ensure air is at a lower pressure above the wing and a higher pressure underneath. The angle of the wing effectively allows the plane to push down on the air which also helps it stay up- think about pushing down on the water in a swimming pool.

Once the pilot has reached the right altitude they can level out the aircraft and just keep moving forwards. As long as the vertical forces of lift and weight, and horizontal forces of thrust and drag are all balanced, the plane will cruise at a steady altitude at a constant speed.

Getting down again simply (easy for me to say!) requires the forces to be reversed. We now want to go slower so the thrust force can be reduced and drag is allowed to help with the braking. As we also want to get closer to earth we allow the weight of the plane to help. By changing the shape of the wing using flaps, you may have seen these during take-off and landing, the pilot can reduce the strength of the lift force and transfer the weight of the plane onto the wheels which are lowered in time for landing.

Of course, numerous other environmental factors make the business of flying a plane very difficult indeed, but with a little more knowledge of the physics pilots use to help them out you can now sit back, relax and enjoy the journey.

Until next time!


E is for Electricity

By Siobhan Fairgreaves

Last time, in D for Detectors, we looked at some of the applications of physics that you might encounter during your day. In this post, we’re going to find out more about something I can guarantee you use almost every day- electricity!

Far from simply being a piece of tack on your ‘cool’ uncle’s shelf, the plasma lamp is one of the best ways to see electron flow  in action

A reliable source of electricity is something we could easily take for granted, but how does it actually work? Well, surprise surprise, it all comes back to our friend- the humble atom. More specifically, electricity is the flow of electrons – remember them?

Electrons are the tiny negatively charged subatomic particles which whizz around the outside of the nucleus. In some materials, such as copper, the outer electrons break off quite easily and their movement through the material (a copper wire for example) creates an electric current.

Of course, not all materials can conduct electricity. I’m sure you remember the experiment in school where you tried to complete a circuit with different materials- they didn’t all work. Rubber, for example, holds onto its electrons pretty tightly so they can’t easily flow. This means rubber can’t conduct electricity.

Now back to that circuit experiment you may have tried. Your copper wires alone aren’t enough to light the bulb- you also need a source of power, like a battery.  The battery is a source of “pushing power” to move the electrons along. The official name for this is the electromotive force (EMF) but it’s more commonly known as voltage.

Ah, the good old Mexican current… at least that’s what it’s called among scientists who advocate Mexican wave-particle duality | Image: Martin Thomas

One way of thinking about electricity is a bit like a Mexican wave in a stadium. It usually takes a few people acting together to get it started- that’s the battery, and then the wave (or energy) transfers through each person and onto the next. The moving wave is a bit like the moving electrons.

Time for a fun fact now- did you know that the band AC/DC can actually teach us more about electricity? Their name came from seeing a symbol on their sisters’ electric sewing machine. This symbol stood for Alternating Current/Direct Current and meant that the machine could work with either type or electrical current.

“I’m on the hiiiiiiighwaay to… oh yeah, I’m periodically changing direction, so I guess I’m not really going anywhere” – an electron in an AC power line

Direct Current is best explained by the Mexican wave analogy used above. All the electrons move in the same direction. This type of current is used in toys and small gadgets. Larger machines tend to require Alternating Current.

The electrons forming an Alternating Current reverse direction 50 to 60 times a second. It’s a bit difficult to imagine how that could create a current but remember it’s all about transfer of energy. The battery still provides the initial push but these electrons don’t run in a straight line, they run on the spot instead. It doesn’t work in quite the same way but, just like Direct Current, still requires loose electrons and they still need energy.

See you next time for a convenient start of summer post- F for Flying!


D is for Detectors

By Siobhan Fairgreaves

So far in the series, we’ve looked at some big physics concepts, but now, we’re trying something a little different. In this post, we are going to have a look at some of the practical ways we use physics in our daily lives. Specifically, we’re looking at detectors.

Smoke detectors

Air molecules ionized by the radiation given off by americium-251 can detect smoke particles. Unfortunately, they can’t tell the difference between smoke particles caused when your house is burning down, and when you’ve put your crumpet down one too many times in the toaster | Image: Whitepaw

Hopefully, you are pretty comfortable with what a smoke detector is, and why it is useful- but have you ever wondered how they work? Surely that’s not physics!?

Well, surprisingly- yes it is.

Inside your humble smoke alarm is a small amount of americium, a radioactive material. The presence of this radioactive material means the particles of air inside the detector are ionized, allowing an electric current (more on that next week!) to flow across the chamber.

When smoke particles go into the detector some of the ionized particles attach to them. The current drops, setting off the alarm.

There are actually two different types of smoke detectors. Most common is the type that uses an electric current generated by radioactive material but there is another type.

Photoelectric detectors work in a totally different way but are still a pretty good example of how physics can help us out every day. Under normal conditions, in a photoelectric detector light travels from one end of the chamber to another unobstructed. When smoke enters the chamber the light hits the smoke particles, this causes the light to scatter and hit a sensor which then triggers the alarm to sound.

And now you know what is going on when you burn your toast!

Metal detectors

Heheh… those fools will never know about my emergency supply of plastic knitting needles! | Image: Hunter Desportes

I don’t know about you but when somebody says metal detectors I still think of somebody trawling beaches in search of buried treasure. Of course, there are also much more serious applications of this technology. Those beeping things at airports? They are metal detectors too, and they work in more or less the same way.

Metal detectors rely on the fact that an electric current will always generate a magnetic field in a direction perpendicular to its movement. And likewise, a magnetic field across a wire will always induce a current in the wire.

When forming wires into coils of many loops, strong magnetic fields can form through the loop of the coil, simply by firing a current through the coil. Metal detectors can cleverly use these physical laws to their advantage.

In an airport, metal detectors work by firing currents which rapidly alternate in direction through coils of wire – producing a magnetic field which itself alternates in direction. The presence of metal in your pockets, belt or jewellery as you pass through can be enough to disrupt this magnetic field.

Side-view of a magnetic field as it compellingly comes through a current-carrying coil in characteristic curves | Image: Geek3

Due to an important affect in physics known as Lenz’s law, small currents are induced in the metal on your body, which produce their own magnetic fields to resist the field of the detector.

Another coil of wire in the detector is there to measure the overall magnetic field. This time, instead of having an alternating current fired through it directly, a current will be induced by the magnetic field – the strength of the field can be measured by measuring the strength of the induced current.

If the overall magnetic field is any different to that created by the initial coils, the detector will know something is up. An opposing magnetic field was generated as you passed through, which can only mean that there is metal on your body, and the detector sounds the alarm.

Radiation detectors

Geiger and Muller had some trouble persuading everyone that their invention wasn’t just a silly looking hammer, and could actually save thousands of lives | Image: Mrjohncummings

Well, this one might seem a little more abstract but you’d be surprised to realise how common radiation detectors are.

Radiation detectors can be given a number of names, but a Geiger counter or Geiger-Muller tube is a pretty common choice. “Geiger” and “Muller” refers to the scientists Johannes “Hans” Wilhelm Geiger and Walther Muller who discovered an improved method of detecting radiation way back in 1928.

The Geiger-Muller tube detects ionizing radiation such as alpha particles, beta particles, and gamma rays. Once radiation has been detected an electric pulse is produced which shows on the Geiger counter display allowing you to get out sharpish if things start to reach scary levels.

No, it’s never a good idea to play a game of ‘Who can make the Geiger counter beep the most?’| Image: Cygaretka

Sounds interesting but not exactly relevant? Think again.


Radiation detectors can be found all over the UK in schools, hospitals, airports and of course power plants. Any workplace that handles, or could handle, radioactive material must use one of these clever little detectors to ensure that radiation stays at a safe level.


Well, radiation can be pretty dangerous stuff if you’re exposed to it for too long. With a range of effects ultimately all stemming from corrupted cell functions it’s really important to stay safe. You may remember the suspicious poisoning of Alexander Litvinenko? Exposure to radiation can be deadly.

Until next time!


Throat singing: a storm of sound on the steppes

By Sam Jarman

The day dawns cold, clear, and still. A nomadic Mongolian herder knows that sound will carry well in these conditions, so he takes his chance. Climbing onto his horse, he rides into the wilderness, intent on finding a place where he can honour one of his people’s most sacred traditions. Using only his voice, he will imitate the song of birds, the hum of wind streaming over a rugged mountainside, and the hooves of wild galloping horses.

Finding the right spot is crucial. The herder needs to probe the nearby river valleys and mountaintops, to discover the place where his song will sound the most clearly.  If he chooses well, his voice could be heard for miles across the surrounding plains. He has learnt from his ancestors to use the Mongolian steppe as a sound studio; its open landscape providing the perfect acoustics to carry his voice. When he finds the right place, he begins his song.

His mesmerising chant often doesn’t sound like anything a human could create with their voice. The song could vary in pitch between being hauntingly deep, and as high as a flute. But astonishingly, he can sing both of these pitches, and many tones in between, at the same time.

For generations, people in Mongolia and surrounding areas in Siberia and northern China have learnt to use their voices to mimic the sounds of nature with a hypnotic accuracy. Even in the face of modernisation, the tradition remains as strong as ever today. It’s hardly surprising that the extraordinary talent of throat singing has become one of the most famous and iconic traditions in Mongolian culture.

Many Mongolians learn to throat sing from a very young age, but the techniques they use to produce such a bewildering array of sounds are anything but simple. To truly understand how they do it, we need to explore the anatomy of our own voices, and the physics of the acoustic waves we create with our vocal apparatus. Throat singers have learnt to intricately manipulate these acoustic waves to produce some astonishing sounds.

How it’s made: the human voice

Like any breath, or a normal speaking or singing voice, the song of a throat singer begins life as the lungs contract, forcing out a column of oxygenated air. The air travels upwards through the tube connecting our lungs to our throats, known as the trachea. But to distinguish the breath from a noiseless exhale, it first needs to pass through the larynx, sitting just above the trachea. The larynx contains a set of two vocal chords, which contract to a thin slit when we decide we have something to say, or rather sing.

Looking top-down: this little slit is responsible for every word you’ve ever said, even the embarrassing ones | Image: Henry Vandyke Carter

As air passes through the contracted vocal chords, they are forced to vibrate. These vibrations chop the air column up, forcing it to vibrate itself. At regular intervals, the air will be blocked entirely, and then be let through in a sudden rush. So, the air coming through the vocal chords vibrates in a pattern we are probably very familiar with: a sound wave.

The pitch, or frequency of these sound waves is ultimately decided by the size of our vocal chords. The tension in the chords, and the size of the gap between them, determine how much the sound waves they produce will vibrate over time. This gives them an important property, called the fundamental frequency – a value which entirely defines the unique pitch of each of our voices.

The fundamental frequency is heavily dependent on gender. Women’s vocal chords are usually smaller, meaning the air column in the trachea vibrates more over time, giving the sound waves a higher frequency. For men, larger chords will cause the air column to vibrate at a lower frequency. But the fact that no two voices sound the same can’t be explained by variations in pitch alone.

A sound wave in it’s purest form – you can see how air is compressed and spaced out at regular intervals. This type of wave is easy to understand, but lacks emotional depth… | Image: Pluke

On top of a fundamental primary wave in our voices, there are many smaller, higher-frequency waves also created by the vocal chords. Called overtones, each of these waves has a distinctive frequency; the first will have twice the frequency of the fundamental wave, the second will have three times the frequency, and so on. When stacked on top of each other, all of these waves create one intricate and complicated sound wave. This is the sound of our voices, as unique to each of us as our fingerprints.


…The sound waves of our speech are much more complicated

Already, these sound waves can accurately express our emotions. When listening to other people, our minds can tell if their voice indicates happiness, sadness, anger, or surprise, simply by picking up subtle patterns in its loudness and variations in frequency. But to turn the sound waves into a coherent language, the air finally passes through our mouths. The continuous movements of our throats, tongues, and lips sculpt sound waves into the words we use to communicate with each other (here’s a pretty hilarious demonstration of how it works).

We use our vocal apparatus so often that we don’t need to consciously think about how we need to manipulate it to produce the particular sounds we want. But for Mongolian throat singers, the anatomy we normally use to talk and sing has untapped potential. The secret of their captivating sound lies in an important phenomenon in acoustic physics, known as resonance.

Resonance: a perfect storm of sound

Every object in nature has a natural frequency it vibrates at. Normally, any vibrations the object interacts with won’t have the same frequency as its natural frequency. But if the two frequencies match up (with a few physical constraints), the object’s vibrations can become much larger. One of the most famous examples of resonance is the bizarre collapse of the Tacoma Narrows bridge in 1940:

The reasons why the Tacoma Narrows bridge acted so strangely before collapsing have been strongly debated, and still aren’t fully understood. But the most agreed-upon theory is that patterns in the strong winds blowing across the bridge that day had just the right frequency to induce resonance in the bridge, causing a huge standing wave to form in the it’s road. Eventually, the bridge’s suspension cables gave out, but not before giving an outlandish display of the properties of physics.

In the case of our vocal apparatus, the natural frequency is determined by the sizes of the gaps which the sound waves of our voices need to pass through. If the wavelength of the sound is equal to the size of the gap, the gap itself will be forced to vibrate, creating its own waves with the same frequency as the original sound. All of the waves add together in a ‘perfect storm’ to amplify the sound, making it much louder than it was originally – a resonant sound wave is formed.

Throat singers have learnt to manipulate parts of their vocal anatomy to produce resonant sound waves artificially. Different types of throat singing can cause resonance in different parts of the singer’s vocal apparatus. This creates a wide array of different types of throat singing, which each have their own name in the Mongolian language. The different styles are too numerous to cover in one article, but a smaller number of fundamental styles give rise to many of them.


In this style of throat singing, one or more of the smaller, higher-frequency overtone waves are caused to resonate as they pass through small, specifically-sized gaps in the singer’s throat and mouth. These waves are normally subtly engrained into our voices as individual overtones, but here, they can be heard as distinct, mesmerizingly clear sounds.

Astonishingly, the sound can be heard over the singer’s primary singing tone, meaning more than one note can be sung at a time by a single person. By the nature of our natural vocal sound waves, if we isolated all of the overtones which make up our voices, they would all be in harmony with one another. That means that the singer’s overtones create a one-person symphony without any further effort.

Typically in Khoomei, the singer will chant one continuous primary note, and then vary the overtones which are resonated. This creates a strong base sound, with a higher -pitched tune being sung above it. Mongolians believe the multiple tones of Khoomei give the impression of wind as it swirls around rocks and boulders, creating an enchanting natural chorus.

Sound: Alash Ensemble


The highest of our natural overtones have far higher frequencies than anything a human could create with their natural voice. In this style, singers create a tiny gap between their tongues and teeth, to match the wavelengths of their highest-frequency overtones. The sound is shrill and piercing – as close as the human voice can come to sounding like a flute.

Like Khoomei, this style involves a steady fundamental tone being sung, with the resonant overtone above it. Yet in Sygt, the high-pitched overtone dominates the song; the gap which sound waves need to pass through is so small that the primary wave is greatly diminished. To Mongolians, Sygt is intended to mimic the sound of birdsong, and the warm, gentle summer breezes over the steppes.

Sound: Alash Ensemble


Situated right above the vocal chords are two folds of membrane which look similar to the vocal chords, but normally serve an entirely different purpose. The ventricular folds are there to prevent food and drink from entering our airways, but throat singers have learnt to manipulate them to produce one of their most iconic sounds of all.

By manually contracting their larynx to exactly the right shape, throat singers can bring their ventricular folds and their vocal chords together. So when air passes through the vocal chords, the ventricular folds will resonate themselves, producing their own sound. However, this resonance is unlike the effects seen in other types of throat singing; here, the ventricular folds vibrate at exactly half the fundamental frequency, creating an artificial undertone.

In musical terms, halving the frequency of a sound will bring it down an entire octave. This has astonishing implications for throat singers. Kargyraa singers can reach a wide range of notes far deeper than anything they could sing using their vocal chords alone. The effect is a haunting, low-pitched sound, reminiscent of rolling thunder, or the mournful cries of a camel after losing her calf.

Sound: Alash Ensemble

Kargyraa in particular can partly explain why throat singing still remains so popular in Mongolia today, and is even facing a resurgence. In the past, social taboos meant that women weren’t allowed to practice the tradition, but now, these barriers are breaking down. Female vocal chords may be smaller, but women can still contract their ventricular folds to create a fantastically deep sound:

Now that men and women have equal opportunities to practice the art, throat singing is being taught to boys and girls across Mongolia and the surrounding regions; all eager to pass on the traditions of their ancestors. The iconic sound has made its way into concert halls and recording studios, and in the West, throat singing has gone from a mysterious, alien practice, to one which is beginning to influence our own culture.

Anatomically, there is no special adaptation among the Mongolian people that enables them to throat sing better than anyone else. It’s no easy talent to learn, but we are all capable of recreating the effects of resonance on our voices, if we practice for long enough.


C is for Collider

By Siobhan Fairgreaves

In this post, we will learn a little more about the world’s largest particle accelerator, the Large Hadron Collider (LHC).

Do you remember a few years ago when there was a lot of fuss about a black hole being created? I know there were a few nervous questions fired at our unfortunate science teacher that day.

Proton beams in the LHC can at least enjoy a few thousand trips through the scenic Alpine countryside before being annihilated | Image: CERN

The reason for all that fuss is situated 175 metres underground, on the border between France and Switzerland. The LHC is a circular tunnel with a diameter of 27 kilometres, where scientists and engineers are working to solve some of the big unanswered questions in physics.

But how does this machine work, and how is it going to help?

Well, as the name suggests, colliding is a pretty big part of the whole idea. This machine usually uses protons (the positive subatomic particle) but can sometimes use the whole nucleus of the material lead. Remember what they are? If not, we’ve already covered a bit about what protons are.

Naturally, it’s not as easy as just throwing them at each other and observing what happens. The particles are so small that the chance of getting a successful collision is described by the creators themselves as about as likely as “firing two needles 10 kilometres apart with such precision that they meet halfway.”

Hmmmm, not easy stuff then.

Rumour has it that to make sure the LHC’s superconducting electromagnets were cold enough, CERN hired a group of Canadians to touch them, and were only satisfied when they admitted “they’re pretty chilly, eh?” On a side note, you shouldn’t believe everything you read on the internet | Image: MaGIc2laNTern

To add to the complications, the particles must be going at almost the speed of light to have enough impact when (or if) they do collide for anything to happen. The Large Hadron Collider is designed to help speed up the particles using thousands of seriously strong magnets. These magnets actually have a pretty impressive name, officially they are superconducting electromagnets. There’s your dinner party lingo for the day!

With all that whizzing around and accelerating you’d imagine things are getting pretty hot down there, right? Well, no. Another complication arises. In order for the electromagnets to work they must be kept at -271.3 °C. That’s colder than outer space! In order to achieve this, a complicated cooling system is in place which uses liquid helium to keep things chilly.

I’m beginning to understand why this project is such a big deal.

But what is it all for?

Collision data for the Higgs event. When your raw data looks this cool, it’s not too hard to persuade anyone that your research is justified | Image: Lucas Taylor/ CERN

Well, sometimes science for science’s sake is a good enough reason to conduct an experiment. However when setting up that experiment cost an estimated £6.2 billion and involves over 10,000 scientists and engineers in an international collaboration you need a slightly better excuse.

The team at the European Organisation for Nuclear Research (CERN) have certainly got more than one decent reason for this mammoth undertaking. They hope to answer some fundamental questions about the structure of space and time, to better understand forces which are part of our lives every day and even to discover brand new particles. In July 2012 the team announced the discovery of the Higgs boson, a particle which will now be studied intensively to help answer some of these big questions.

The Large Hadron Collider is at the forefront of some of the most profound scientific discoveries of our time and we should certainly stay tuned for more exciting discoveries. If you’re interested in finding out more visit the CERN website which even includes a virtual tour of the tunnel itself.

Until next time!


B is for Black Holes

By Siobhan Fairgreaves

In our last post we looked at atoms and their subatomic particles. That’s the tiny end of physics, this time we look at something at the other end of the scale- black holes.

Cheesy sci-fi films have been trying to warn us for decades… but we never listen! As it turns out, that’s probably for the best | Image: Martin

Ooooo, now this is the good stuff, right? The fuel of sci-fi movies and something that you think you should be mildly concerned about. Remember when scientists were apparently going to make another one in Switzerland? That was a bit of an anti-climax.

I was at school when the Large Hadron Collider in Switzerland was switched on and I remember a lot of panicky talk about black holes and us all being sucked into space. To find out more about what on earth a Large Hadron Collider is you will have to read the next post- C is for Collider, cheeky I know.

For now, though, what is a black hole?

I know you’re hiding in there somewhere – astronomers can only find black holes by mapping out the paths of stars orbiting around them | Image: ESO

Well let’s start off with a quote from the brilliant Stephen Hawking, “It is said that fact is sometimes stranger than fiction, and nowhere is this more true than in the case of black holes.”

He certainly got that right. Black holes are pretty mysterious and teams of scientists are still figuring out what exactly goes on up there. This is made all the more difficult by the fact it’s not even possible to see black holes, only the effect they have on other objects. In a nutshell, though, black holes are an area of space where gravity has become so strong that nothing can get out- not even light.

Born from the death of a star: the Orion Nebula, made up of the explosive remnants of a star which could once be seen just under Orion’s belt, is thought to have a black hole at its centre| Image: Ljubinko Jovanovic

Because this gravity is so strong it’s easy to go along with the assumption that one day we will be sucked into one and disappear. You’ll be pleased to hear that NASA thinks this is very unlikely- there simply isn’t one close enough for us to worry about.

For a long time, I imagined black holes as a sort of Pacman travelling around in space munching on stars, planets and everything else in their way but this is not the case. Black holes are actually caused by a star collapsing and as the star collapses in on itself the gravity gets so strong that a black hole is created.

A horrific yet tasty way to go: the difference in gravity between an astronaut’s head and their feet as they fall into a black hole would lead to the process of ‘spaghettification’ | Image: Cosmocurio

That’s all well and good but there are billions of stars out there, does this mean that every star will one day make a black hole? And, hang on a minute, our Sun is a star- are we orbiting a wannabe black hole? You’ll be pleased to hear that our Sun simply isn’t big enough to become a black hole- it takes a pretty big star to cause such a powerful pull of gravity when it collapses.

Instead of Pacman, you could think of a black hole like water going down a drain. When the bath is full, the water rushes down the drain and sucks everything with it but when there is only a dribble left it isn’t even strong enough to take down any leftover bubbles.

So yes, black holes are crazy giant plugholes travelling through space which, as the European Space Agency says, would see an astronaut “pulled apart by the overpowering gravity” if they were to get too close- but should we be worried about them right now? No.

Until next time!

This probably won’t ever happen to you, but if you do ever find yourself in the devastating clutches of an inescapable gravity source, it might be nice to know what to expect


A is for Atom

By Siobhan Fairgreaves

Never trust an atom- they make up everything!

Scanning Tunnelling Microscopy can give us incredible images like this one of a piece of graphite, showing how its atoms fit together like Lego. Luckily, treading on atoms isn’t like treading on actual Lego, or walking would be incredibly painful | Image: Frank Trixler

Terrible jokes are finished, for now…


In this post, we will look at the basic structure of the atom. But first, what are atoms?

Atoms are the building blocks of the world- think of Lego. If the whole world was made of Lego an atom is that tiny single square block. Imagine how many of those tiny blocks would be needed to build the whole world and all the people, animals and stuff inside it… That’s a lot of Lego, and there are a lot of atoms. A single grain of sand contains millions of these tiny particles.

For a long time atoms were thought to be the smallest piece of the puzzle. Then in 1897 a scientist named J.J. Thomson identified an even smaller particle which helps to make an atom.

Cheer up J.J., you’ve revolutionised modern physics! | Image: Benjamin Crowell

Thomson made the discovery when he was experimenting with mysterious beams of particles called cathode rays. When firing cathode rays at hydrogen atoms, he measured how the path of the beams changed as they interacted with the atoms. Thomson realised that the cathode rays were made of tiny, negatively charged particles – around 1/2000th the size of a hydrogen atom. He named the particles ‘corpuscles’, but we know them today as electrons. But Thomson’s discovery doesn’t tell the whole story about what we came to know about the atomic structure.

In fact, we have another scientist to thank for that. In 1909, New Zealander physicist Ernest Rutherford fired some positively charged radioactive particles through a sheet of gold atoms, and measured the different paths they took. He was testing out J.J. Thomson’s ‘plum pudding’ model, which proposed that atoms were made up of electrons sitting happily inside a positive sphere, holding them together.

Thanks to Ernest Rutherford, scientists can now study atoms without constantly thinking about delicious desserts | Image: Library of Congress

Rutherford noticed that most of the particles passed straight through the atoms, but a tiny proportion were deflected back. That meant that instead of being plum puddings, each atom was made up of a small positive nucleus, surrounded by orbiting electrons, with lots of empty space between them. And so, the basic model for  an atom was born!

A typical illustration of an atom will show a ball in the middle surrounded by orbits- but what is going on in there? The ball in the middle is the nucleus which Rutherford discovered, and inside the nucleus are protons and neutrons. The things whizzing round the outside are the electrons. Protons, neutrons and electrons are known as sub-atomic particles, now that’s an impressive dinner party phrase.

Electrons in different energy levels form a cloud of negative charge around the nucleus| Image: Mets501

It might look like electrons are in a messy, complicated cloud but they are actually very precisely arranged. Around each nucleus are different shells, or energy levels, which have space for a different number of electrons.


The very first energy level around the nucleus can only hold 2 electrons. In an atom of the element Helium both of the spaces in the first energy level are filled by an electron. So, using Helium as an example, what else is in there? To work that out you should know that it is really important for an atom to be balanced. Each electron carries a negative charge so to balance Helium we now need two positive charges. Fortunately, protons have a positive charge each. So we’ve got two negative electrons whizzing around the outside, two positive protons snug in the nucleus, the charges are balanced. So, are we finished?

It might seem fun to try and chop a uranium nucleus in half, but it’s not actually a very good idea… | Image: Scienities

Almost, don’t forget the third component, neutrons. Luckily, they are- you guessed it- neutral, so it’s okay for the number of them to vary between different forms of the same element.  Most of the time, Helium has two neutrons and with two of everything it is nicely balanced and known as stable.

Helium is a nice example with small numbers but not all elements are quite so compact. Take Uranium, for example, there are a lot more protons (92!) and electrons involved to try and get Uranium to balance.

That’s a very basic introduction to atoms- and for sticking with it, you’ve earned yourself another terrible joke! What a treat…

A neutron walked into a bar and asked for a drink.

“How much?” asked the neutron.

The bartender replied, “For you, no charge!”

Hopefully, that joke will make a bit more sense now you know your stuff about subatomic particles and their charges.

Until next time!


Lionfish wreak havoc on marine ecosystems

By Roisin McDonough

Look at me. I’m the top predator now. | Image: Jens Petersen

The lionfish, beautiful in appearance and un-problematic in their native regions of the Indo-Pacific have wreaked havoc as an invasive species in the Atlantic; having become well established  in the Southeast coast of the US, the Gulf of Mexico and the Caribbean.

The Lionfish invasion was likely caused by humans releasing this popular ornamental fish from home aquariums when they were no longer wanted (over the course of 25 years). Their journey to the Atlantic was then possibly aided by the warm Gulf Stream  current which dispersed buoyant lionfish eggs and larvae further afield.

Warm currents like the Gulf Stream could be letting lionfish blag a cheeky ride to where they aren’t welcome | Image: Sommerstoffel

At first, their arrival into new areas was not considered to be much of a problem, as it was thought that that they would not survive very long. However, over the years, the lionfish have not just survived, they have thrived. Their success has led to the unfortunate and worrying decline of many native fish species and an alteration in the very delicate reef ecosystem.

Lionfish out-compete, out-live and out-breed native fish. But why?  For starters, they are highly tolerant to a range of temperatures, salinities and depths and biologically resistant to most diseases and parasites that affect native fish. Further, they have very few, if any, natural predators in the Atlantic. They become sexually mature at 1 year of age and can live in excess of 15, so have a long, rich reproductive life. In optimal conditions, females can release a staggering 2,000,000 eggs per year!

“Do you think that new guy looks dangerous?” “Who, the grumpy looking stripy one who’s at least 1000 times bigger than the rest of us?” “Yeah” “Nah, there’s something about his vast, leafy appendages I find sort of… comforting” | Image: Alexander Vasenin

Lionfish are un-selective carnivores with voracious feeding habits, encompassing a huge range of small fish and crustaceans. Included in their diets are popular commercial fish like grouper and snapper and commercially important crustaceans such as lobster, crab and squid. In their non-native environments they have easy pickings when it comes to food, as generally, native species do not recognise the lion fish as a threat. In fact, some small fish will assemble around these invasive creatures in the hope that their fin rays/feathery pectoral fins will provide them with shelter and protection.

So far, lionfish hunting  seems to be the only feasible method of controlling their numbers. Certain areas which are regularly hunted see an increase in the number of native fish over time. However, the areas that can be reached by lionfish hunters is very small in relation to the vast marine environment lionfish now cover.

Invasive lionfish populations are an ever-growing problem – native marine life has suffered dramatic reductions as a result of their predation. Commercial fisheries, recreational activities and food security have also all been negatively affected as a consequence. We do not know the extent of the devastation to marine habitats in the near future, but it is likely to be bleak if their populations are not controlled.


Design, Naturally: Lateral lines provide a sixth sense for underwater robots

By Anwen Bowers

More little fish swimming in a school.
“We turning left now?” “Yeah, you do know we have a sophisticated biological mechanism for finding that out, right?” “I was just asking for a friend” | Image: Tom Thai

Have you ever seen two fish bump into each other?

The underwater world is an assault of sensory signals. Sound, for example from crashing waves, travels over twice as fast in water than it does in air. Smells, ranging from mating hormones to decaying organisms, clash against each other like instruments in an orchestra and would be overwhelming to us if we had noses sensitive enough to detect them. Light is changing constantly, with the different wavelengths becoming increasingly filtered out with depth until animals are left navigating waters so dark that they would be impossible to penetrate with human eyes.

But despite the chaos, fish are able to identify predators, prey and potential mates with lightning reflexes and take the appropriate action within milliseconds.  This is thanks to a super-human sensing mechanism called the lateral line, which gives the fish a sixth sense with which to navigate in their watery habitat.

A subtle stripe of hair can tell fish everything they need to know about their environment | Image: Pogrebnoj Alexandroff

Sometimes visible as a dark strip running along the fish from fin to tail, the lateral line consists of minuscule bundles of hair that can be either attached to the surface of the scales or slightly submerged in channels below the skin. These hairs work similarly to whiskers on a cat, bending in response to any change in the flow of water around the fish. Cells at the base of the hairs then send messages to the brain, containing information on the scale, speed, and direction of the disturbance. This can then be interpreted to give information about the size and shape, and therefore species and likely friendliness, of anything moving in the local area. The ability to identify friend from foe by the flick of its tail is an invaluable tool of survival.

Seas and oceans are one of the least understood habitats on earth, with vast areas being simply too inaccessible to explore. As space on land is becoming rapidly exhausted, we are extending further and deeper into the oceans to source food, generate energy and hunt for new minerals and medicines. Faced with challenges such as the extreme pressure and low temperatures, increasingly we are depending on the work of underwater robots to bring us information on the chemistry, physics, and biology of the deep sea.  Engineers looking to improve the performance and capabilities of these underwater robots have found inspiration in the lateral line to improve the performance of these robots.

Bass-ta la vista, Ray-by: artificial lateral lines have inspired highly sensitive robotic fish | Image: Titus 140

Researchers in Germany and the US have independently come up with two different systems that recreate the processes that take place in the lateral line hairs. Integrated into underwater robotic technology, these systems could create a robot with much greater perceptions of their surroundings. Traditionally, operators would rely on images from video and sonar to navigate and direct the actions of the robot underwater. Both of these technologies are limited, as they can only provide information on the small area that they are pointing at Imagine only being able to view the world through a toilet roll tube – it’s a bit like that.

Lateral lines could provide a much more detailed 3D picture of the surrounding environment, allowing more informed decisions about how the robot should proceed. The more information available about the surrounding area, including any obstacles, the greater the chance of the robot completing its mission as efficiently and safely as possible. For example, if the battery is running low, the lateral line would be able to identify nearby areas of low water movement where the robot can go to rest and conserve energy out of the current. Taking inspiration from nature, and building robots that can sense like fish, scientists can expect to soon be announcing plenty more exciting discoveries from the mysterious deep ocean.