As an astrophysicist, Professor Geraint Lewis lives and breathes science. Much of what he reads and hears is couched in the language of science which to outsiders can seem little more than jargon and gibberish. But one word is rarely spoken or printed in science and that word is “proof”. In fact, science has little to do with “proving” anything.

Read Geraints full article first published in the Conversation here


Results from photoelectric effect experiment from the Ideas to Implementations module from Kickstart Physics


Part of my job is to answer questions from High School science teachers, and I love it! These last questions came from a teacher and her year 11/12 students. I thought the questions were good and showed the great depth that some students are thinking at, and also the great interest in science.

I hope I’ve given them justice. This stuff can get quite mind-warpy very quickly!

How do we know how many light-years away we are seeing - as in we have seen stars 13 million light-years away.

Redshift will tell us the velocity of galaxies away from us, then with a calculation as fundamental as c=fλ we can approximate it’s distance. BUT…It’s not a simple as that…of course! There are effects due to our atmosphere, relativity, gravitational lensing, objects in the way, expansion of space etc that get in the way of accurate measurements.

So, we have to KNOW the distance to a whole bunch of objects in order to compare that with others. There are a few ways to do this, either with cepheid variable stars, quasars, pulsars, and parallax. There are a couple of satellites that are tackling the problem with parallax that are very interesting.

Have a look at Hipparcos and Gaia. These two satellites are involved in Astrometry, a very interesting area in astronomy. Literally measuring the stars! The precision is amazing by the way. Gaia can detect a movement of a star of 10 microarcseconds, (or something like that) the equivalent of seeing the length that my hair grows in 10 minutes from a distance of 10 meters. The angle between the smallest division on a protractor is a degree, that’s made of 60 arc minutes, each one of those is 60 arc seconds, and then 10 1000ths of that!

With all of these methods, we can get some very accurate measurements.

The text book states that when the universe was one second old it was at least 1 light-year across but wouldn't that mean it was expanding faster than the speed of light?

YEP! It’s called inflation, and it is not very well understood! We talk about it as if we know what happened, but we really don’t! (like when we talk about how we know what the universe is made of, when we really only know what 4% of it is made of!) The experiment BICEP2 had a pretty close shave with the answer, but there is still some discussion, and of course we need to replicate the experiment.

Due to the fact that we don't understand inflation, we need to observe it and measure it, once that has happened, we can then start to try and figure out some details. So in order to measure it, we've tried to measure the effects of what that period would've done to the gravitational environment. In short, we're searching for gravity waves

If the universe started to collapse - could you travel fast enough to escape and can you exist outside the universe?

No. The idea of existence outside of a universe is, with our current understanding, non-sensical. If the universe collapsed, so would everything in it. The physical space between galaxies, stars, planets, etc would also collapse. Think of the usual stars (dots) on a balloon. If you deflate a balloon, the balloon also shrinks, the stars don’t move independent of the balloon, and interestingly (and in line with the analogy) the dots also get smaller!

The idea of “outside" the universe is not defined in physics (like dividing by 0, you just can’t do it. The idea of putting things into 0 groups is a non-sensical idea!) Space and time break down, we have no way of describing that condition mathematically or physically.


High school students in regional NSW had the chance to Kickstart their science studies when the outreach team from the University of Sydney's Faculty of Science visit Armidale, Broken Hil land Dubbo in terms 2 and 3 this year. Students got to interact with hands-on activities in Kickstart on the Road workshops.

Kickstart on the road with Science communicator Tom Gordon (right) and Physics students from Dubbo
"It's very exciting taking Kickstart on the Road out of the labs in Sydney," said Tom Gordon, Science Communicator and Kickstart Physics coordinator in the School of Physics at the University of Sydney.

Dr Cecily Oakley, Science Communicator in the School of Biological Sciences, said, "Our program aims not only to aid in exam preparation for these students, but to excite, intrigue and inspire them about the natural world."

Kickstart in the flagship outreach program for the University of Sydney Faculty of science, the Kickstart workshops are interactive with educational sessions specifically designed around the HSC Science syllabus. The Kickstart program runs regularly in Sydney, with over 5 000 high school students participating in the workshops each year. In fact, for Kickstart physics alone, almost one quarter of the entire physic cohort for the HSC visited the flagship outreach program in 2013.

The Kickstart on the Road workshops introduce students to specialist experiments and concepts and is a wonderful opportunity to take our program out of the University labs and into high schools in regional areas.

Kiri Simon, Tom Gordon and ABC Western Plains Mornings presenter Dugald Saunders.

"Not everyone can get to Sydney to see and experiments with equipment from a university lab - equipment that is used by university students and researchers," said Tom.

Kickstart activities and experiments are based on the HSC syllabus and Kickstart on the Road takes that a step further where we take the experiments into regional areas," said PhD student and Kickstart Tutor Fran van den Berg.

"If you want to do well in the HSC, this is the place to come," said Wagga Wagga student Patrick Byrnes. He continued, "It's great revision, the hands on approach and being able to talk to people that have done the HSC, they know what's up!"

"We are very excited to be able to bring the Kickstart program to visit students in regional NSW. We are bringing with us insects, superconductors, eyeballs, plasmas, brains and telescopes as well as some very talented and enthusiastic tutors." - Tom Gordon, Science communicator, School of Physics

"A benefit of the Kickstart on the Road Workshops is that it encourages students to consider that there's a lot more to science than what the HSC presents, that University open up a whole lot of doorways and experiences," said Kickstart tutor Liam Chalmers-Giddy.


A recent HSC exam featured a question that could be described as either projectile motion, or angry birds (or both). So I thought a post on the physics of angry birds would be appropriate.

This post was written by Lucy Zhang.


Ever since its release in December 2009, Angry Birds has been downloaded 2 billion times across dozens of platforms, filling in countless hours of what would otherwise be tedious boredom. However, during that respite from real life, you would have immersed yourself in a world somewhat removed from the laws of physics. Instead, this parallel universe obeys different laws to ours, for instance:

1. Air resistance? What air resistance?

From the moment you launch your wingless bird into the air, it follows a majestic, perfect parabolic trajectory, nothing like your disappointing attempt to scoring a paper bin 3-point shot using your scrunched up artistic impression of a winged tiger spewing rainbows.

2. Casually laying an egg in mid-air makes you go faster

The white bird is one that seems to deny so many laws of physics that it would undoubtedly deny climate change as well. Sure force does equal mass times acceleration, but losing half its mass doesn’t halve the gravitational acceleration – it’s a constant, so white bird should surely continue to follow the same, air-resistance-defying trajectory.

3. Action < REACTION!!!!!!!!!!!!

Every action has an opposite reaction, so assuming that white bird is twice the mass of the egg, then the bird should only experience half the acceleration of the egg. Out of all the birds, except for green bird, who somehow turns into a bird boomerang, white bird is the one most like that person who didn’t finish high school but created a consumer electronics company and completely reinvented computers. White bird is the Steve Jobs of Angry Birds – reinventing physics to distract us from the fact that everyone can smell that one guy’s casserole on the train home.


There will be a total lunar eclipse next Tuesday evening (15 April). The already-eclipsed moon will rise in the east at 5:30pm, weather permitting. This is a good year for lunar eclipses. There will be another one, even better than the first, on the night of Wed 8 October.


To sweeten the deal, Mars is also at it's closest and therefore relatively large and bright in the night sky. After you've had a look at the Moon, once it has finished it's eclipse, then had your fill with Mars, look back down to the horizon a little bit to see Saturn rising. With even a small telescope (Mine is a 5.25 inch Dobsonian) or a pair of binoculars you should be able to see some features of Saturn.

A couple of weeks later there is a partial solar eclipse in the afternoon of Tuesday 29 April - low in the west, just before sunset. It starts at 4.14pm and the Sun sets at 5.15 with half the Sun's diameter covered. For more, see this fact sheet from the Australian Astronomical Society.

Click here for more info

If the weather isn't on our side, you can view the live webcast from space.com


Written by Jonathon Leonard

A group of scientists in France have approached the problem of the age of the moon at a whole different angle and have totally changed our previous estimates of its age. The study was published in the prestigious journal Nature​ and has received a fair bit of media attention. They team used computer simulation to re-estimate the timing of the huge celestial collision between Earth and a Mars sized body that created the moon.

Giant impact, Credit: Wikipedia Before we get into the details of the study, let's first have some background information.

At some stage after the formation of the solar system (called the condensation of solids), there was a huge collision with Earth by a body similar to the size of Mars. This collision significantly changed the structure of Earth's mantle and core as well as causing the formation of the moon by a large chunk flying off post-collision.

Before this study, all attempts to date this huge collision were done using dating from radioactive elements. Much of these dates of collision were between 30 and 50 million years after condensation of solids in the solar system (that is, the formation of the solar system). However, this team of scientists took an entirely different approach to dating the moon-forming impact. They used a series of computer simulations that predicted the formation of the solar system.

The computer simulations initially used classical ideas on the early solar system, such as similar orbits of the planets as they have today and a large area of matter around the sun that contained all the building blocks of the solar system. However they found this simulation had problems. For example, the sizes of Mars were all wrong.

Instead the scientists changed the initial conditions so that the disk of matter around the sun that contained the building blocks of the universe was much smaller. After a few adjustments, they achieved simulations of our solar system similar to our current system.

Yet even after making these successful simulations, there were still a range of viable simulations that predicted a moon forming collision at a wide range of dates. So which predictions are more likely to be right? Well to do this, the group of scientists measured the abundance of a group of elements in the mantle that are high siderophile (which means easily dissolve into iron). During the huge moon-forming impact, these elements should pretty much all have sunk into the mantle since they dissolve into iron so easily. Thus the presence of highly siderophile elements (HSEs) that aren't in the core must be from after the impact, called late accreted mass. By comparing the amount of HSEs in the mantle to those we find in meteorites that have a similar composition to the early Earth, we can take a good guess at how much late accreted mass the Earth has gained.

Now comes the fun part. The scientists compared the late accreted mass measured on Earth to the values predicted in the simulations. The values where the simulations consistently agree with our measured values (within an acceptable uncertainty) was between 67 and 126 million years after the formation of the solar system. In fact, out of the large number of different simulations, not one had the correct late accreted mass that had an impact earlier than 48 million years after the formation of the solar system. The scientists estimated that there is only a 0.1% chance that the big impact occurred before 40 million years after condensation, a huge result considering this was smack bang in the middle of many previous predictions.

So what does this result mean?

Well firstly, it means that the moon formed much later than we previously expected. It also means that the disk of matter that revolved around the early sun and contained all the building blocks of the planets has a much smaller area than previous thought. Finally the wrong radio dating figures could mean that these figures may have come from elements before the collision, meaning that the moon-forming impact didn't totally reset the mantle as previously thought.

Perhaps the biggest lesson from this study should be that to solve a problem in science, it is often useful to look at it from a completely different perspective. This is where Einstein achieved much of his genius (look up the Equivalence Principle from General Relativity for example). Those successful in science (and life!) aren't necessarily the most intelligent, but the most creative and willing to look outside the box for a solution.

Read the full article here: http://www.nature.com/nature/journal/v508/n7494/pdf/nature13172.pdf