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Earth granted reprieve 9 January, 2002, BBC
Theory predicts that the Sun will expand By BBC News Online's Helen Briggs

The Earth has been granted a reprieve.

Astronomers believe the planet may now escape being swallowed up when the Sun dies in about 7.5 billion years' time.

The new calculations actually extend the length of time the Earth will be habitable by 200 million years.

But, in the end, the surface of the planet will simply become too hot for life to survive. Earth-dwellers will have to find alternative homes in space, say astrophysicists in the UK.

Dr Robert Smith, Reader in Astronomy at the University of Sussex, said: "We had better get used to the idea that we shall need to build our own survival capsules - the planets are simply too far apart for planet-hopping to be a viable solution.

"Perhaps this is the ultimate justification for developing an International Space Station."

Fuel crisis

Solar evolution theory predicts that our star will eventually run out of fuel.

As it does so, it will expand to an enormous size, becoming what is known as a red giant.

It will then swallow the closest planets, including Mercury and Venus. Until now, astronomers had always thought that the Earth would be engulfed too.

But the Sussex team thinks the figures are wrong. According to new calculations, the orbit of the Earth will increase slightly beyond the outer atmosphere of the red giant, as its gravitational pull weakens.

If this is the case, the Earth will escape destruction - although its surface will be charred.

"Previous calculations suggested that the Earth will be vaporised by being swallowed up by the Sun," Dr Smith told BBC News Online.

"Our calculations show that the Earth will survive as a body but it will still be lifeless because it will get so hot that nothing will be able to survive on its surface."

Text book dilemma

The new figures are based on theoretical calculations checked against data from real stars.

They predict that it will be 5.7 billion years before the planet becomes too hot to sustain life.

Dr Smith told BBC News Online: "One effect of the calculations is that we may have 200 million years longer than previous people have thought."

Other scientists are less optimistic. Professor James Kasting, a geoscientist at Pennsylvania State University, US, believes water on Earth will boil away in about one billion years' time, spelling doom for the planet.

He told BBC News Online: "The story for life on Earth is long over by the time the Sun becomes a red giant.

"The question of what happens 6-7 billion years from now is interesting from an academic point of view but that's not when life will end."

The new calculations raise another concern, albeit more mundane.

"The text books will have to be slightly changed because we no longer think that the Earth will be swallowed up by the Sun but it will be frazzled to a cinder," said Dr Smith.


Artist's impression of the planet circling the star

Planet found circling dying star 10 January, 2002, BBC By BBC News Online science editor Dr David Whitehouse

Astronomers have made the first discovery of a planet orbiting a giant star.

Unlike our Sun, this giant, called iota Draconis, is an old star that has already burned its hydrogen fuel at its core.

Such stars grow much bigger towards the end of their lives and this one has reached a radius 13 times that of the Sun.

What is interesting, however, is that iota Draconis has not devoured the planet during its expansion - a fate that may befall the Earth when our star dies in a few billion years' time.

"Until now, it was not known if planets existed around giant stars," says Sabine Frink of the University of California, US.

"This provides the first evidence that planets at Earth-like distances can survive the evolution of their host star into a giant."

Earth's future

Iota Draconis, also known as Edasich, is located at a distance of 100 light-years from Earth in the constellation of Draco. It is currently visible with the unaided eye in the morning sky, just east of the Plough.

Like all of the extrasolar planets that have been discovered orbiting Sun-like stars, the one around iota Draconis was detected using the Doppler technique - where the gravitational pull of the planet causes a wobble in the measured velocity of the parent star.

The planet completes one orbit every 1.5 years and the shape of its orbit is elliptical rather than circular. Its mass is 8.7 times the mass of Jupiter.

Because the Doppler technique determines the minimum mass, the astronomers say, it is possible that the true mass of this companion is a brown dwarf - a "failed star" that lacks enough mass to start nuclear fusion.

However, even if this companion is a brown dwarf, the researchers say its detection around an evolved star represents a first.

Scorched Earth

Astronomers say it is more difficult to detect the signature of a planet orbiting a giant star because they often pulsate, producing wobbling effects that could give the illusion they had planetary companions.

It is believed that our Sun will eventually undergo a similar fate to iota Draconis. Several billion years from now, when the Sun evolves into a giant star, the Earth's temperature will rise to several hundred degrees Celsius.

"The oceans will evaporate, and the water vapour will escape the Earth's atmosphere because of the high temperature," says Andreas Quirrenbach of the University of California.

"Observing the fate of this companion to a dying star is a reminder of the ultimate fate of our own Earth," says Debra Fischer of the University of San Francisco.


The planet passes in front of its star (artist's impression)

Planet circling another star probed Tuesday, 27 November, 2001, 18:07 GMT By BBC News Online science editor Dr David Whitehouse

The first direct detection and chemical analysis of the atmosphere of a planet outside our Solar System has been made by astronomers in what is being viewed as a landmark scientific achievement.

The unique observations show it is now possible for Hubble and other telescopes to search for the chemical signature of life beyond Earth.

"This opens up an exciting new phase of extrasolar planet exploration, where we can begin to compare and contrast the atmospheres of planets around other stars," said David Charbonneau of the California Institute of Technology, US.

The unnamed planet orbits a yellow, Sun-like star called HD 209458, which lies 150 light-years away in the constellation of Pegasus.

Ideal target

The planet was discovered in 1999 because of its slight gravitational tug on its parent star. It is estimated to be 70% the mass of Jupiter, or 220 times more massive than Earth.

Subsequently, astronomers discovered that the tilt of the planet's orbit makes it pass in front of the star making it unique among all the approximately 80 extrasolar planets discovered to date.

In fact, the transit of the planet across the face of the star had been detected years earlier by the Hipparcos satellite but was not recognized for what it was.

As the planet passes in front of the star, it causes the star to dim very slightly. Observations by Hubble and ground-based telescopes confirmed that the planet is primarily gaseous, rather than liquid or solid, meaning it is a gas giant, like Jupiter and Saturn.

Filtered starlight

It was an ideal target for repeat observations because it transits the star every 3.5 days - the time it takes the planet to orbit the star at a distance of 6.4 million kilometers (four million miles).

This close proximity heats the planet's atmosphere to a 1,100 deg Celsius (2,000 degrees Fahrenheit).

The planet's atmosphere was probed when it passed in front of its parent star, allowing astronomers for the first time ever to see light from a star filtered through the planet's gases.

They saw less sodium than predicted for the Jupiter-class planet, leading to one interpretation that high-altitude clouds in the alien atmosphere may have blocked some of the light.

Life gases

The observations, made with the Hubble Space Telescope, were not tuned to look for gases expected in a life-sustaining atmosphere, which astronomers consider improbable for a planet as hot as this.

Nevertheless, this unique observing technique opens a new phase in the exploration of exoplanets, or extrasolar planets as they are also called. Such observations could provide the first direct evidence for life beyond Earth by measuring unusual abundances of atmospheric gases associated with life.

The team plans to look at HD 209458 again with Hubble in other colours of the star's spectrum to see which are filtered by the planet's atmosphere. They hope eventually to detect methane, water vapor, potassium and other chemicals in the planet's atmosphere.

Once other transiting giants are found in the next few years, the team expects to characterize chemical differences among the atmospheres of these planets.

Women have more brain cells Tuesday, 13 November, 2001, 13:14 GMT Men's and women's brains are different Women's brains are more tightly packed with cells in the area that control mental processes such as judgement, personality, planning and working memory, researchers have found.

A team from McMaster University, Ontario, Canada, found that women have up to 15% more brain cell density in the frontal lobe, which controls so-called higher mental processes.

However, as they get older, women appear to shed cells more rapidly from this area than men. By old age, the density is similar for both sexes.

Researcher Professor Sandra Witelson said it was not yet clear what impact, if any, the difference had on performance.

Performance

Dr Tonmoy Sharma, a consultant psychiatrist at Stonehouse Hospital, Dartford, Kent, said the greater density of cells did not mean that women could out-perform men.

He told BBC News Online: "Women have smaller brains, but there is no difference in the mental performance of men and women.

"The greater density of cells could be one way by which nature ensures that women can perform adequately despite the smaller size of their brain."

Dr Sharma said it was possible that the fact that women shedded cells at a greater rate put them at a higher risk of neurodegenerative diseases.

Alzheimer's disease, for one, is more common among women.

But he said there were many factors which could come into play.

Dr Richard Harvey, research director for the Alzheimer's Society, told BBC News Online that the fact that women lived considerably longer than men was by far the most significant factor.

The findings were presented to the Society for Neuroscience meeting in San Diego.

Fundamental theory under question Friday, 16 November, 2001, 18:15 GMT Fermilab's control room: The result was a surprise By BBC News Online science editor Dr David Whitehouse

Physicists may have found a flaw in the theory that for the last 30 years has successfully explained the behaviour of the fundamental building blocks of matter.

New measurements of neutrinos, ghostly sub-atomic particles that hardly interact with anything, indicate a surprising 1% discrepancy between predictions of their behaviour and the way they actually behave.

"One percent may not seem a big difference," said Professor Kevin McFarland, of the University of Rochester, New York US, "but the measurement is so precise that the probability that the predictions are right, given our result, is only about one in 400."

The findings, announced to puzzled scientists at the US Fermilab, the world's highest-energy accelerator, could mean that an unknown force or undiscovered particle is influencing the neutrinos.

One in a billion

Physicists designed the NuTeV (Neutrinos at the Tevatron) experiment to observe the interactions of millions of the highest-energy neutrinos ever produced.

Starting with a proton beam from Fermilab's Tevatron, the world's highest-energy particle accelerator, experimenters created a beam of neutrinos that were directed at a giant particle detector, a 700-tonne sandwich of alternating slices of steel and detector.

As the beam passed from the first to the last slice, one in a billion neutrinos collided with a target nucleus, breaking it apart. After the collision with a nucleus, the neutrino could either remain a neutrino or turn into another particle called a muon, a particle that is a heavier cousin of the electron.

When experimenters saw a nucleus break up, they knew a neutrino had interacted. If they saw a particle leaving the scene of the collision, they knew it was a muon.

If they saw nothing leaving, they knew a neutrino had come and gone. The scientists measured the ratio of muons to neutrinos and compared it with the predicted values according to the so-called Standard Model, which other experiments have verified to an accuracy of 0.1%.

But that is not what they observed.

"It might not sound like much, but the room full of physicists fell silent when we first revealed the result," said physicist Sam Zeller from Northwestern University.

Neutrinos have surprised particle physicists before, but the new data have left the experimenters wondering if their neutrinos have felt a new force previously unobserved in nature, or if there is some hitherto undiscovered particle influencing neutrino interactions.

Physicists in the United States, Japan, and Europe are planning a next generation of neutrino experiments that may solve this puzzle - or find new ones.

A paper describing the result has been submitted to Physical Review Letters.


The underground neutrino detector viewed from above

Ghostly particle mystery 'solved' Monday, 18 June, 2001, 16:24 GMT 17:24

By BBC News Online science editor Dr David Whitehouse

An international team of physicists claims to have solved a 30-year-old mystery: the puzzle of the missing solar neutrinos.

In the past scientists detected only about a third of the expected quantity of these tiny particles coming from the powerhouse at the Sun's core. It was a major flaw in our understanding of matter and energy.

New observations made by a giant underground neutrino detector in Canada show that the solution lies not with the Sun, but with the neutrinos, which change as they travel from the core of the Sun to the Earth.

The finding raises new questions about the so-called Standard Model of Particle Physics, which seeks to explain the basic building blocks of matter.

'High confidence'

The research was carried out at the Sudbury Neutrino Observatory (SNO), Ontario, in collaboration with Oxford University, UK.

"We now have high confidence that the discrepancy is not caused by problems with the models of the Sun but by changes in the neutrinos themselves as they travel from the core of the Sun to the Earth," says Dr Art McDonald, SNO project director and professor of physics at Queen's University in Kingston, Ontario, Canada.

"It's taken longer than we thought, but it's all been well worthwhile," says Dr Steve Biller, of Oxford University. "We've pushed the limits of engineering, chemistry... and patience, in order to push the limits of physics."

Fundamental particles

Neutrinos are fundamental particles of matter. They are often called 'ghostly' because they interact so weakly with other forms of matter.

They come in three types: the electron-neutrino, the muon-neutrino and the tau-neutrino. Electron-neutrinos are emitted in vast numbers by the nuclear reactions that power the Sun.

Since the early 1970s, several experiments have detected neutrinos arriving on Earth, but they have found only a fraction of the number expected.

This meant there was something wrong with either the theories of the Sun, or the understanding of neutrinos.

It was to solve this puzzle that the SNO experiment was conceived nearly 15 years ago.

The detector is located 2 kilometres (1.4 miles) below ground in a nickel mine near Sudbury, Ontario. It is unique in its use of 1000 tonnes of heavy water to trap different types of neutrino interactions.

Installing the giant underground tank But despite its large size the SNO only detects about 10 neutrinos a day.

'Mind-boggling'

"The engineering requirements alone are mind-boggling. We were breaking new ground in every sense and there were times that we weren't sure we were going to make it," says Professor Nick Jelley of Oxford University.

"It is incredibly exciting, after all the years spent by so many people building SNO, to see such intriguing results coming out of our first data analysis - with so much more to come," adds Professor David Wark of the University of Sussex.

Dr McDonald points out that earlier measurements had been unable to provide definitive results showing that this transformation from solar electron neutrinos to other types occurs.

"The new results from SNO, combined with previous work, now reveal this transformation clearly, and show that the total number of electron neutrinos produced in the Sun are just as predicted by detailed solar models," he says.

Expansion of the Universe

The confirmation that neutrinos change has implications for the future of the Universe.

"Even though there is an enormous number of neutrinos in the Universe, the mass limits show that neutrinos make up only a small fraction of the total mass and energy content of the Universe," says Dr Hamish Robertson, Professor of Physics at the University of Washington in Seattle.

This means that neutrinos cannot contribute enough mass to the Universe to halt its expansion.

Under this scenario, the Universe will expand forever, eventually becoming starless and just diffuse gas.

Thursday, 17 January, 2002, 23:16 GMT World inequality rises
by BBC News Online's Steve Schifferes

A new study shows that the world is becoming a more unequal place, with a growing gap between rich and poor households.

The news will raise concerns about the effects of globalisation on the world's poor.

According to the economist Branko Milanovic, global inequality is rising fast - increasing by around 5% in the five years between 1988 and 1993, the same rate that inequality widened in Britain during the Thatcher years.

The gap is so big that the richest 1% of people (50m households), who have an average income of $24,000 (£16,000), earn more than the 60% of households (2.7bn people) at the bottom of the income distribution.

Gains go to the rich

The new study is the first to compare household income across countries, using a series of surveys that cover 84% of the world's population and 93% of world income.

Previous research had only been able to compare the average income of one country against another but this study shows that the gap between rich and poor is much greater than previously understood.

Nevertheless, the biggest source of inequality is the difference between the income of people in the five major economies (USA, Japan, Germany, France and Britain) and the poor in rural India, China and Africa.

But the study points to the growing gap between urban and rural areas in China as another major source of inequality.

In the five years of the study, world per capita real income increased by 5.7%.

But all the gains went to the top 20% of the income distribution, whose income was up 12%, while the income of the bottom 5% actually declined by 25%.

Two regions in which the poor got much poorer were Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union, where the income distribution worsened dramatically after the end of Communism, and sub-Saharan Africa, where wars, famine and disease led to falls in economic output.

Causes and consequences

The study raises the concern about the lack of a "middle class" at the world level, with most people concentrated at the bottom or at the top of the income scale.

The huge gap between rich and poor - with 84% of the world receiving only 16% of its income - has become more worrying since the world has faced the threat of organised terror from groups based in some of the world's poorest countries.

And the spread of global communications may make the income gap - with the richest 10% receiving 114 times the income of the poorest 10% - more difficult to maintain.

However, with the world's richest countries on the verge of recession, there appears little hope that an ambitious development agenda will emerge from the most recent round of negotiations.

Talks have stalled over increases to the World Bank's development lending, while the proposals by UK Chancellor Gordon Brown for the doubling of aid to the poor do not seem to have found favour in Washington.

Poor countries also made only limited gains in recent trade talks in Doha in the Gulf Arab state of Qatar.

As aid flows and the movement of private capital to poor countries continues to slow down, other measures to address the income gap could become more urgent in the future.

The research, carried out for the World Bank, is published in the Economic Journal, January 2002.