On the 15th September 2017, a twenty year long mission by the NASA Cassini space probe came to an end when it plunged into Saturn’s upper atmosphere.

Launching in 1997, and planned for years beforehand, Cassini was intended to study as many moons as possible, in particular, those surrounding Jupiter and Saturn. One of the objects of the mission was also to learn more about the possible existence and availability of water in on the astral bodies it passed. In this regard alone, the many pictures taken by Cassini produced much revealing and exciting information.

Thanks to Cassini’s observations of Saturn’s largest moon, Titan, scientists have discovered that it possesses lakes, rivers, channels, dunes, rain, clouds, mountains and possibly volcanoes, just like Earth. Another of Saturn’s moons, Enceladus, revealed sprays of icy particles erupting from its surface; jets of ice-water three times taller than the width of Enceladus itself. Further, Cassini was able to get as close as 15 miles from this moon’s surface and determine that there was a global subsurface ocean, which might have the conditions suitable for sustaining life.

One of Jupiter’s moons, Europa, also shows extensive evidence of water. Its surface is covered with a layer of frozen ice, which scientists again believe hides an ocean beneath. As a consequence, Europa is often touted as a possible abode for life. Cynthia Phillips, a Europa project scientist at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, believes there is a lot of indirect evidence for a liquid ocean, “We’re almost certain one is there…” she told “… the mass of Europa, combined with its density… gives a figure close to one [gram per cubic centimetre] …water is the only material like that.”

The question of the amount (or existence) of water in space has long been debated, often with a view to it sustaining mankind in the future. Mars in particular has attracted a lot of speculation of this nature. Images from the so-called Red Planet have shown dried up riverbeds, lakes, and coastlines across its surface. Recent satellite images from the Aeolis Dorsa region of Mars have uncovered new evidence of the densest river deposits recorded to date. These deposits are believed to date from water that flowed on the surface over 3.5 billion years ago. The channels and ridges formed by these ancient rivers are being studied in the hope that we can better understand the two evolutionary cycles of Mars and Earth, to see if links can be made.

With Cassini’s mission generating a colossal amount of data, scientists now have the opportunity to learn more about the environment of space, the evolution of numerous planetary moons, and the amount of water those moons and their commanding planets could hold now, or may have done in the past.

Will this information lead to mankind ultimately growing food- or even living- in Space? Only time will tell.

At the present time, one of the worst storms in American history, Tropical Storm Harvey (seen below at full strength), is laying waste to east Texas. It also generated the worst hurricane to hit Texas in fifty years and is  causing unprecedented flooding in the city of Houston. The neighbouring state of Louisiana is also beginning to feel its effects. Harvey, which made first landfall as a category 4 hurricane, has brought flash floods and extreme winds across the land; claiming lives, destroying the environment, and damaging the long term economy. Tropical storms can include hurricanes as was originally the case here, or cyclones and typhoons, or a combination of all three. With them comes heavy rainfall, mudslides, and floods.

As tropical storms need intense heat in which to form, they only occur either just to the north or south of the equator, where the sea temperatures can reach up to 27ºC. Generating where the air above a warm sea rises, it is this combination of temperature between the water and the sky that causes the sort of atmospheric low pressure which can spark a tropical storm.

When superheated air rises, it begins to spin, forming the eye of a forthcoming storm. Once that air has risen it cools rapidly, condensing into massive clouds. Compacted air within these clouds creates areas of intense low pressure. In turn, that low pressure sucks at the air around it, creating incredibly strong winds. Only when the storm blows inland, where the air and ground cover are cooler still, do these major weather events begin to blow themselves out.

To make storm weather data easier to track and record accurately for future meteorologists and historians, tropical storms are given names. These names are alphabetical and alternate between male and female. It means that the next tropical storm in America will be given a female name beginning with the letter ‘I’.

Due to the erratic nature of the air pressure near the equator, it is very difficult to accurately predict the path a tropical storm will take. This means that evacuating people and livestock from a threatened area is not easy. For example, when Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans in August 2005, over 1,800 people died and 300,000 homes were destroyed before the area could be completely evacuated.

The social impact on an area hit by a tropical storm can often be major and long term. Power is often cut, with vast populations being left without electricity for many weeks, if not months after the storm has passed. Homes have to be abandoned and many will be destroyed entirely. Mass migration from the affected area leaves entire communities temporarily, or permanently, homeless. Neither is it certain that affected communities will return entirely. In fact it is more probable that a significant number will not. It is estimated that around 50,000 of the population left or did not return to New Orleans after Katrina. What will happen to Houston remains to be seen.

As well as homes, businesses, towns, farms and power stations are all vulnerable to destruction. The looting of abandoned homes and shops can also come from criminal and desperate locals alike. On a national level, resources such as petrol can’t be taken safely into a hurricane hot spot, which means fuel prices rise, as does the cost of food and clean water. Houston will be a prime example, as it produces a great quantity of the oil America runs on, let alone exports. Tourists also stop coming to the area, and as most places on the equator rely heavily on tourists from countries with cooler climates, the economic impact can be extreme. An industrial city like Houston might not feel this, but New Orleans certainly did.

If a tropical storm burns itself out quickly, then the environmental, social and economic costs can be quickly mitigated. When storms of the ferocity of Hurricanes Katrina and Harvey hit, however, the costs are far higher- and can take decades to overcome.

Primarily a visual communicator, a graphic designer is someone who creates eye catching concepts by hand or by using computer software. These images are used to communicate ideas, to inspire, or to inform, via an imaginative use of fonts, shapes, colours, images, print, photography, animation, logos and billboards.

1) Communication

A graphic designer cannot begin a project without first winning a commission from a client, be they an individual, a small business or a larger corporation. Therefore, a graphic designer will spend some time accessing the requests they’ve had for new work, and discussing ideas with their peers. Once they’ve chosen a project they’d like to work on, they will go over ideas with the client in order to make sure that they meet specifications.

2) Prototypes

Once a graphic designer has decided on a project he or she will develop a prototype for the design. Once that prototype, such as a logo, a menu, or a poster, had been finalized, the designer will present it to the client. A great deal of customer interaction takes place during a typical working day.

3) Finalizing a design

Using a variety of design elements, the graphic designer will develop the overall layout and production design for their client using both text and images. Graphic designers need an excellent eye for detail and a good understanding of popular trends in adverting and art to be able to pitch their designs correctly for each given project.

Often working alongside art directors and communication designers, the graphic design world has strong links with public relations, advertising and promotional work. As advertising and communication via social media becomes increasingly relevant in our day to day lives, the role of the graphic designer is also becoming more important. Consequently, it is essential for a graphic designer to always be up to date with the latest computer design software so that they can remain competitive in the graphic industry market place.

An architect’s day revolves around creating and developing designs for buildings (or entire settlements), and then communicating those design ideas to a client before either helping them make that design a reality, or adapting it into a real build possibility.

Typical tasks in the day-to-day of an architect include:

1) Tackling design problems
Often working as a team, time will be spent tackling spacial issues, a structures appearance, and cost, to make sure a design can go ahead to their client’s satisfaction. For example, a client might want a building to cover a certain amount of space and fulfil a number of functions. It is up to the architect to design the building in such a way that it meets those requirements.

2) Making drawings and 3-D computer models
Architects spend a lot of time making visual models and drawings of what proposed buildings will look like on completion. These models are mostly produced on the computer, and can be displayed as 2-D or 3-D pictures, allowing a client to see every angle of the design.

3) Coordinating with multiple different parties
Architects are the link between the clients who want the building constructed, the builders on the site, and the planning permission and council officers who might need to be involved in a property build. They also have to meet with other specialists, such as structural engineers, to make sure the build goes to plan.

Employment in the world of architecture is both challenging and exciting. You get to see your idea develop from an idea into a practical plan and schematic, then into an actual building, street, housing estate, town or city. It can be immensely rewarding and even influential to the character of a community.

Architects have to have very good attention to detail, as every part of their designs has to be perfect, or the buildings they are working on won’t work, or will be unsafe for use. Consequently the hours can be long in the quest to meet deadlines with flawless design plans.
From designer to budget manager, to customer liaison, an architect’s day involves a wide range of rewarding and challenging tasks.

Albert Einstein was born on March 14th, 1879 in Ulm, Württemberg, Germany. He was to go on to become the most celebrated physicists of all time.

Of a secular Jewish family, Einstein attended elementary school at the Luitpold Gymnasium in Munich. Einstein never settled at school and towards the end of the 1880s, Max Talmud, a Polish medical student became Albert’s informal tutor. It was Talmud who introduced Einstein to science.

Before he could finish his schooling, Einstein’s parents moved to Italy for better jobs. However, he chose to remain in Germany to finish his studies. This despite the fact that whilst he was good at maths and science, his teachers didn’t agree he was a worthy pupil. His Munich schoolmaster said “he will never amount to anything”. Hope for us all, perhaps.

Einstein went on to Zurich technical college. He graduated with only average marks, and two years later he was employed at a patent office in Bern. He found the work easy here, and was able to spend a good deal of his time thinking more about physics!

It was during this time that he wrote a paper entitled “On the electrodynamics of moving bodies”, which would later become known as Einstein’s Special Theory of Relativity. This showed that measurements of space and time were relative to motion, and this subsequently forced physicists to re-evaluate some of their most basic concepts.

As time passed, so Einstein’s fame and influence continued to grow. In 1915, he announced his most famous work, the General Theory of Relativity, which was the final culmination of an eight-year obsession with gravity. With its astonishing implications about the nature of time and space, it displaced Newtonian mechanics and shook the physics world. It suggested that space and time were one and the same and that gravity was not a force as Newton described, but rather the effect of objects bending space-time. His theory was given the weight of observational evidence when it was used to correctly predict anomalies in the orbit of Mercury; a problem that Newton’s theory of gravitation had been unable to resolve.

In 1919 the British physicist Arthur Eddington went to a small African island to observe the total eclipse of the Sun so that he could test Einstein’s theory; Einstein had predicted that gravity should bend light. The eclipse proved he was right, and our view of the Universe was changed forever. As a result of this and all his other work, Einstein was subsequently awarded the 1921 Nobel Prize.

Einstein continued to make substantial contributions to physics, including his desire to find a more complete and less complex theory for Quantum Physics. He sought to make sense of sub-atomic behaviour in a way that his general relativity theory could not.

Einstein died at the age of 76 on 18th April 1955, after suffering an abdominal internal bleed, which he refused to have treated. For all his successes, Einstein never was able to find a theory for Quantum Physics, though. He made a huge contribution to the way in which we understand the Universe, but with this failing, Perhaps some things are meant to evade the greatest of minds, though – it is a theory which still eludes physicists’ today.

Why do leaves change colour in the autumn? It’s a simple question with a simple answer, you might say – they start to die. But there is a bit more to it than that, if you’re interested in the science, and how it can produce some of nature’s most picturesque scenery.

Every autumn the leaves from deciduous trees change colour before falling to the ground. This is due to the fact the leaves contain many chemical pigments, the most important being chlorophyll. Chlorophyll makes leaves green and helps in the process of photosynthesis, which attracts sunlight to the tree, helping them grow. Leaves also contain the chemical carotene, which has a yellow colouring. Carotene lives in the leaves all year, but is masked by the green of the chlorophyll.

The process of leaves turning from green to yellow, red or brown, is dependent on the climate. When autumn approaches and the warmer temperatures of summer begin to dip, the chlorophyll within the leaves begins to break down. Other pigments that live beneath the chlorophyll, such as the carotene, come forward.

Chlorophyll is dependent on water as well as sunshine. As the climate cools and the tree draws colder water up through its roots, the tree prepares for winter. It does this by growing a thin layer of cells over the water tubes in its leaves, closing them up in preparation. Without a regular supply of water, the green chlorophyll starts to disappear and the other colours in the leaf, such as the yellow carotene, can be seen. In some trees, when the leaf cells build, the water blocking wall which seals the tubes in the leaf’s stem traps sugar inside the leaf. This turns the sap and therefore the leaf red, or even purple.

The final part of the process before a leaf falls is when the water within the tree dries up completely. This dehydration kills any remaining green chlorophyll, as well as the yellow and red pigments. Consequently, the leaves turn brown and start to die, becoming dry and crunchy before they fall from the tree.

All in all, it’s quite a complicated and intricate process that provides us with this often beautiful time of year. When it isn’t raining at least!

Today marks the birthday of a man who History has shown to be one of the great pioneers of modern medicine, whose work led to the advent of vaccination. Bearing in mind how much we rely on these to protect us against numerous conditions and diseases now, it is one worth remembering.

Born in Berkeley, Gloucestershire on 17 May 1749, Edward Jenner was the son of the local vicar. He was only 14 years old when he became an apprentice to a surgeon, and began training to be a doctor. Working in the countryside, Jenner noticed that, despite the rife nature of the smallpox disease across England, the milkmaids never suffered from it. They didn’t even show signs of the scarring that commonly affected smallpox sufferers. He did know, however, that the milkmaids often suffered from the far less serious condition of cowpox. Jenner therefore began to work on the theory that perhaps milkmaids did catch the smallpox disease, but had somehow become immune to it.

Taking his thought processes further, Jenner speculated that if you had the relatively harmless cowpox, then perhaps you wouldn’t get the far more lethal disease of smallpox at all. Wanting to prove his theory, in 1796 Jenner carried out his now famous experiment, which involved using a needle to insert pus from Sarah Neales, a milkmaid with cowpox, into the arm of an eight-year-old, James Phipps. A few days later, Jenner then exposed James to the smallpox. The boy failed to contract the disease, and Jenner concluded he was now immune to it. Calling this new method vaccination (after the Latin word vacca, meaning cow), Jenner submitted a paper to the Royal Society the following year about his discovery. It was met with some interest, but further proof was requested. Jenner proceeded to vaccinate and monitor several more children, including his own son.

Although the results of Jenner’s study were published in 1798, his work met with opposition, and even ridicule. It wasn’t until 1853, 30 years after Edward Jenner had died, that his smallpox vaccination was to be made a compulsory injection across both England and Wales. However, Jenner’s work would ultimately lead to a wave of medical innovation, and further, to the large number of life saving vaccinations available today. For this, he is surely worthy of remembrance.

Almost every health scare these days seems to concern viruses. From bird flu and Ebola and now to Zika, these pathogens appear to have medicine on the hop. But what exactly is a virus, and why are viruses such a problem?

A typical virus is a remarkably simple machine. It is just a short stretch of nucleic acid (DNA or RNA) surrounded by a protein coat. The nucleic acid contains coded information for making new virus particles, while the protein coat may help the virus gain access to its host. And that is that. Viruses have no membranes, no complicated machinery for carrying out reactions, and no metabolism like one of your own cells. Viruses do not feed, move, or respond to their surroundings like proper organisms. And they are so small that they were not even visible until 1939, following the development of the electron microscope.

However, introduce a virus into a host cell and the results are dramatic. It hijacks the cell’s processes and redirects them exclusively to the manufacture of more of itself. New virus particles are then budded-off from the surface, each surrounded by a piece of host cell membrane. Or, the cell splits open, releasing hundreds of new particles to infect other cells. Either way, viruses damage and kill our cells, which is what makes us ill when we have a viral infection.

Another trick of viruses provides a hint as to their origins. The genes in our own cells are remarkably like virus particles, also consisting of nucleic acid (DNA in this case) surrounded by protein. Sometimes a virus splices itself into this host DNA like an extra gene. The virus then lies low, being copied with the rest of the DNA when the cell divides, and passing to each of the daughter cells produced. Later, it may emerge without warning to form more viruses in the normal way, causing illness years after it first invaded. This is what happens when the chicken pox virus causes shingles in later life, or when people recovered from Ebola relapse, as recently happened to the Scottish nurse Pauline Cafferkey.

So, if viruses are constructed and can behave just like normal genes, perhaps that’s what they really are? Perhaps they are “escapee genes” that left their cells long ago to take up an independent existence? That would explain why they find it so easy to invade and take over our cells, and why we find it so difficult to defend against them.

Whatever the truth of their ancient origin, viruses present modern medicine with a formidable challenge. Antibiotics do not work against them, and the particles mutate rapidly to keep ahead of vaccines prepared to defeat them. One thing is certain: Ebola and Zika are not the last health scares that they will bring us.

Viruses and the diseases that they cause, including ‘flu and Ebola, are covered in depth by the new A Level Biology course recently launched by Oxford Open Learning. You can find out more about the course here:


For most of us, sound is a good thing. Our personal entertainment systems, myriad music channels, as well as downloads, mean we pretty much listen to what we want to most of the time. But how did this come about? How did we get to have such a wide choice? And just what is the history of radio and recorded sound anyway?

The British Library has decided to preserve as many sound recordings as possible. This will be a national project covering public and private collections. Recordings could be 100 years old, as old as the work of Thomas Edison himself.

The technology used back then is getting increasingly hard to use now. It must all be digitised, and the thought is that the experts have got 15 years to do it before some of these oldest recordings become impossible to work with.

To give you some idea of the size of the project, the library surveyed nearly 4000 collections containing 2 million items. And they come in all different forms, from material in tubs as big as cake tins to six inch long ‘concert cylinders’. They might even be made either of wax or lacquer! Some of these already need rare equipment to play them, so modernisation is essential.

So what’s going to be in this sound archive that’s so important, so desirable? Well, the answer is quite a lot: Drama and literature recordings including poetry going back to 1955, and drama to the mid sixties; oral history, which can be ordinary people telling their stories; a survey of English dialects going back to the 1950’s ( Did you know, for instance, that the Isle of Wight has its own ‘old’ language, which you and I would never fully understand?).

There are all sorts of music on record too, of course. They call this range ‘jazz to grime, music hall to metal.’. There’s classical music going back to 1937, and something the library calls ‘forced entertainment,’ which they explain is experimental drama and ‘happenings’.

It’s quite a collection and far too much for anyone to listen to it all. But at least it’s going to be there, and we will know that this really old material is going to be preserved indefinitely.

Virtually anyone who can get on to the British Library website can enjoy these sounds. Imagine studying music or drama – or just being interested in local history or early pop music – and being able to listen to original recordings. Several partner radio organizations are involved in the project, and it’s going to cost £9.5 million of Heritage Lottery funding plus contributions.

So is it worth it – saving old treasures like this that we can all enjoy? What do you think? Sounds good to me.

Scientist and mathematician Galileo Galilei was born on February 15th, 1564, in Pisa, Italy. A pioneer of maths, physics and astronomy, Galileo’s career had long-lasting implications for the study of science.

In 1583, Galileo was first introduced to the Aristotelian view of the universe, which was a religion-based view of how the world worked. A strong Catholic, Galileo supported this view until 1604, when he developed theories on motion, falling objects, and the universal law of acceleration. He began to openly express his support of the controversial Copernican theory, which stated that the Earth and planets revolved around the sun, in direct contrast to the doctrine of Aristotle and the Church.

In July 1609, Galileo learned about a telescope which had been built by Dutch eyeglass makers. Soon he developed a telescope of his own, which he sold to Venetian merchants for spotting ships when at sea. Later that year, Galileo turned his telescope toward the heavens. In 1610 he wrote The Starry Messenger, where he revealed that the moon was not flat and smooth, but a sphere with mountains and craters. He discovered that Venus had phases like the moon, and that Jupiter had revolving moons, which didn’t go around the Earth at all.

With a mounting body of evidence that supported the Copernican theory, Galileo pushed his arguments against church beliefs further in 1613, when he published his observations of sunspots, which refuted the Aristotelian doctrine that the sun was perfect. That same year, Galileo wrote a letter to a student to explain how Copernican theory did not contradict Biblical passages, but that scripture was written from an earthly perspective, and that this implied that science provided a different, more accurate perspective.

In February 1616, a Church inquisition pronounced Galileo as heretical. He was ordered not to “hold, teach, or defend in any manner” the Copernican theory regarding the motion of the Earth. Galileo obeyed the order until 1623, when a friend, Cardinal Maffeo Barberini, was selected as Pope Urban VIII. He allowed Galileo to pursue his work on astronomy on condition it did not advocate Copernican theory.

In 1632, Galileo published the Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems, a discussion among three people: one supporting Copernicus’ heliocentric theory of the universe, one arguing against it, and one who was impartial. Though Galileo claimed Dialogues was neutral, the Church disagreed. Galileo was summoned to Rome to face another inquisition, which lasted from September 1632 to July 1633. During most of this time, Galileo wasn’t imprisoned, but, in a final attempt to break him, he was threatened with torture, and he finally admitted he had supported Copernican theory. Privately, though, he continued to say he was correct. This ultimately led to his conviction for heresy and as a result he spent his remaining years under house arrest.

Despite the fact he was forbidden to do so, Galileo still went on to write Two New Sciences, a summary of his life’s work on the science of motion and strength of materials. It was another work that has helped cement his place in history as the world’s most pioneering scientist, even if he was not fully appreciated in his own time. Galileo Galilei died on January 8th, 1642.

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