Detecting gravitational waves caused by black holes

  • 11 December 2018
  • From the section England
Artists impression of two black holes locked in a “death spiral” Image copyright LIGO
Image caption An artist's impression of two black holes locked in a death spiral

If I'm honest, I was a bit jealous when gravitational waves were discovered. One hundred years after Einstein said they existed, researchers from the University of Birmingham throw the switch on their big new detector and find gravitational waves on day one.

I mean, who does science like that? That's just showing off.

I wrote about the discovery back in 2016. Click here for more details, but, long story short, physicists from the University of Birmingham are a key part of a 1,000-strong global team behind the LIGO gravitational waves experiment. In Birmingham, they both helped build the actual detector and also analyse the data it produces.

Since the aim of LIGO was to prove the existence of gravitational waves and it did that on day one, what on earth have they been doing since then? And was that early result a fluke? Well now we know.

Violent cosmic events

First a quick word about gravitational waves themselves. These are ripples in the very fabric of the universe. Wobbles in actual space-time itself. They are only created by the most violent of cosmic events. In the case of the first signal detected by LIGO, they were generated by two black holes that were locked into a death spiral. Orbiting each other in ever decreasing circles before smashing into each other.

Image copyright LIGO
Image caption Ten different binary black hole events have now been discovered by LIGO

Read full article Detecting gravitational waves caused by black holes

Discover the violent end of the Oxford dodo

Display model of a dodo Image copyright University of Warwick
Image caption A dodo model on display in Oxford - the actual dodo remains are usually kept under lock and key

For a bird that has been extinct for more than 350 years, you probably think there is not much left to learn about the dodo. But you would be wrong, thanks to the latest research at the University of Warwick.

The specimen that the team based at WMG has been studying is a very famous dodo indeed. It belongs to the Oxford University Museum of Natural History and it is so precious it is kept under lock and key.

Read full article Discover the violent end of the Oxford dodo

Soggy Spring causing a real headache for our farmers

Muddy field
Image caption This Staffordshire farm has seen over 100mm of rain in March, that’s twice the usual amount for them

Actually soggy doesn't really do it justice. Depending on where in the Midlands you ask the question this is the wettest March for six or even eight years and it tops a pretty miserable start to 2018. All of this is having a huge impact on every sort of farming.

This week I've been talking to farmers about the weather and the impact this snow, endless rain and cold have been having since the start of the year. No farmer has emerged unscathed.

Read full article Soggy Spring causing a real headache for our farmers

New kitchen appliance turning rubbish into hot water

Nik Spencer and David Gregory-Kumar
Image caption Nik Spencer, the man behind the HERU, shows me how it works

A kitchen gadget that reduces your rubbish and recycling to spoonful of ash while heating your home's hot water? Sounds like science fiction, and yet that's just what a new invention promises.

In my job there are various sorts of inventions you come across. Ranging from the really crazy ideas to the inventions that seem promising, but that you can't see making it beyond the prototype. Rarest and most exciting are the inventions that are both amazing and clearly in the hands of people who can turn them into reality.

Read full article New kitchen appliance turning rubbish into hot water

The future of farming after we leave the European Union

Lamb from Lambing Live
Image caption When it comes to British lamb, French shoppers are prepared to pay. But will tariffs be pushed up post Brexit.

To mark a year until the UK officially leaves the EU I was asked by the team at BBC Farming Today to take a look at how preparations for Brexit are going when it comes to agriculture in England.

I thought you might like to read the slightly longer version of my contribution which you can also hear here.

Read full article The future of farming after we leave the European Union

Cutting plastic pollution from bottle to bin and beyond

Plastic bottles on factory conveyer
Image caption Wenlock Spring has halved the weight of plastic in its bottles and wants to move to using 100% recycled plastic

For the last few weeks I've been looking at the problems posed by plastic pollution. From the companies that make and use plastic bottles through to the people who pick up plastic litter on our canals. There have been huge steps forward in reducing and recycling plastic waste but all of us could be doing more.

Inspired by the BBC's Blue Planet II we set out to learn more about the problems posed by plastic. But first, if we're going to talk about plastic, we need to accept that sometimes plastic is a really useful material. As a director of a Midlands spring water firm said to me: "No one wants to take a glass bottle of water to the gym."

Read full article Cutting plastic pollution from bottle to bin and beyond

Is bitcoin finally going mainstream in the Midlands?

Bitcoin machine
Image caption The machine has a large touch screen and makes the process of buying and selling bitcoins pretty painless

Hanging around with bitcoin enthusiasts is intoxicating.

It's a seductive idea, free magic money from the internet.

Read full article Is bitcoin finally going mainstream in the Midlands?

Farming productivity puzzle a serious challenge

Farm machinery
Image caption More training and a better connection with researchers could boost farm productivity

Farmers are already making business decisions that will come to fruition after we leave the EU. But according to a new report, in a world outside Europe, our farmers are at a big disadvantage when it comes to competing in a global marketplace. They're just much less productive than farmers in other major economies.

Productivity is something economists like to try and measure. In this case as farmers try new ideas and invest in new technology then over time their productivity goes up. The difficulty is, even though it is rising, our productivity is pretty poor when compared with other countries.

Read full article Farming productivity puzzle a serious challenge

Wild parakeets take roost in Birmingham's Shard End

Ring necked parakeet
Image caption Although native to Africa and Asia the parakeets are more than capable of surviving our winters

A few years ago I was at a friend's barbecue in South London. Suddenly over the sizzle of the sausages I heard an extraordinary noise and a flock of about sixty bright-green birds flew squawking overhead.

Ring necked parakeets, our only naturalised parrot. In the South East large flocks of parakeets are now a common sight as escaped birds have formed breeding colonies. And now it seems they are spreading to the Midlands.

Read full article Wild parakeets take roost in Birmingham's Shard End

Tackling pollution from stubble burning in India

Pollution Image copyright Aston University
Image caption Pollution from burning fields makes the already bad pollution problem even worse

Stubble burning is an event that dominated my childhood.

When you lived in the countryside in the 1970s it was common for farmers to set fields of straw ablaze and living in a thatched cottage it was a nerve wracking time.

Read full article Tackling pollution from stubble burning in India