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April 2014

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


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‚Äč 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:


Written by Jiro Funamoto

The universe is huge, and we're tiny!

The space shuttle. Credit: NASA

Our lives are ~80 years. On the other hand light takes 45 billion years to get from one side of our visible universe to the other. So it's commonly thought that there's no way living humans could really travel away from the Earth further than some invisible sphere of perhaps 80 light years (given that we can travel at the speed of light, and we put a newborn baby on a spaceship).

Since the speed of light is finite it therefore seems like such a restriction on how far living humans can venture into space, since at most we can only go almost as fast as light.

This is a misconception.

Time dilation (or equivalently length contraction) means that as long as the spaceship is travelling close enough to the speed of light, you can get to the edge of the universe in your lifetime. In fact, you can get to the edge of the universe in 2 sec (of your life) if you were going close enough to the speed of light. If you had a spaceship that could really approach the speed of light, you can travel to any destination in any amount of time you wanted.

Unfortunately, when you get there, the outside world might be 45 billion years older than what you felt was 2 secs ago.

Mind blown yet?


Research into thin films is wide and extremely interesting. Ranging from household mirrors to flexible semiconductors.

This pic is from a drop or two of a water insoluble substance (probably oil) on a wet road.