Robert Lea

Freelance Journalist

United Kingdom

Science journalist specialising in science, space, physics, astronomy, astrophysics, cosmology, quantum mechanics, and technology. Published in Newsweek, Physics World, New Scientist, Astronomy Magazine, Space dot com, All About Space, and ZME Science. Science communication articles for Elsevier and the European Journal of Physics.

The most powerful black holes in the universe may finally have an explanation

Scientists may have solved a 60-year-old mystery by discovering that quasars - energetic objects that are powered by ravenous supermassive black holes and can outshine trillions of stars combined - form when galaxies collide and merge. The findings indicate that the Milky Way could host a quasar of its own when it collides with the neighboring Andromeda galaxy several billion years from now.
Rare galaxy with three black holes leads astronomers to the most massive objects in the universe

Glimpsed only occasionally at the hearts of massive clusters of galaxies, ultramassive black holes are some of the largest and most elusive objects in the universe. These black hole behemoths have masses exceeding that of 10 billion suns, making them far more monstrous than even the supermassive black holes found at the centers of galaxies like the Milky Way, and their tremendous size has long perplexed astronomers.

Physics World
'I see a piece of myself in every student that I've mentored, and we motivate each other' -...

Wen-fai Fong, assistant professor in physics and astronomy and head of Northwestern University's Fong group, talks to Rob Lea about her journey into physics and mentoring the scientists of the future during one of astronomy's most exciting eras "It's very cliché, but I was never really interested in astronomy in particular until I was forced to look up at the sky in the 8th grade," says astronomer Wen-fai Fong.
1,500 supernovas offer most precise survey of dark energy and dark matter to date

(Image credit: NASA/CXC/U.Texas) Two decades' worth of observations of supernova explosions and a powerful new analysis tool has provided the most accurate accounting of dark energy and dark matter to date. Dark energy and dark matter - often collectively known as the "dark universe" - are mysterious because despite making up at least 95% of the universe's energy and matter content, they can't be observed directly.
Gamma-ray burst may represent the most powerful cosmic explosion ever recorded

(Image credit: NASA/Swift/A. Beardmore (University of Leicester)) Astronomers have spotted a bright blast of high-energy light that may be the most powerful cosmic explosion ever detected. The high-energy emission known as a burst (GRB) - the most powerful type of explosion seen in our universe since the Big Bang - likely represents the moment a dying star collapsed into a , triggering a tremendous supernova explosion, astronomers said.

Popular Mechanics
Black Holes Could Give Us Clues About Dark Energy (And the Expanding Universe)

New research suggests that using gravitational waves from the collisions of distant black holes could solve one of the most troubling aspects of cosmology - the rate of expansion of the universe, known as the Hubble constant. There are two standard ways of measuring the Hubble constant.
What are bosons?

(Image credit: Mark Garlick/Getty Images) Bosons are particles that carry energy and forces throughout the universe. The standard model of particle physics  -  the most robust theory we have of the sub-atomic world  -  divides every particle in the universe and even the larger composite particles fit into two broad categories; fermions and bosons.
Hubble Space Telescope sees spiral of star formation in neighboring galaxy

NASA's venerable space telescope has spotted stars and gas spiraling towards the heart of a massive, curiously shaped stellar nursery in the nearby Small Magellanic Cloud. Astronomers think that the outer arm of this spiral of and gas could be providing a river-like flow of gas that is fueling star formation in the stellar nursery, called NGC 346, seen in the newly released image captured by the Hubble Space Telescope .

Physics World
Citizen scientist discovers 34 brown dwarfs in binary systems - Physics World

New research has uncovered 34 new binary-star systems in which low-mass stars partner up with a so-called "failed star" or brown dwarf. The discoveries almost double the number of known systems and could help astronomers better understand where the dividing line between planets and stars is.

Popular Mechanics
Finally, Scientists Prove the 'Dead Cone Effect,' Shaking Up Particle Physics

Researchers have observed the "dead cone effect" for the first time ever. The dead cone effect is a fundamental element of the strong nuclear force, which is responsible for binding quarks and gluons. This work, published last month in the journal , proves that the charm quark has mass.

Physics World
Slowest ever neutron star is found in cosmic graveyard - Physics World

An unusual pulsating radio signal emerging from a "stellar graveyard" could be evidence for a new class of neutron star, according to an international team of scientists. The pulsar signal comes from a 53 million-year-old neutron star rotating once every 76 s  - making this the slowest rotating neutron star ever observed.
A black hole formed by a lopsided merger may have gone rogue

Astronomers have uncovered the first solid evidence that merger events between black holes can deliver a "kick" powerful enough to send a black hole spinning out of its galaxy. The team, which included Vijay Varma, a physicist at Max Planck Institute for Gravitational Physics, Albert Einstein Institute, Germany, examined gravitational-wave data from the merger event known as GW200129 collected by the LIGO detectors and their European counterpart, Virgo.
The Chandrasekhar limit: Why only some stars become supernovas

(Image credit: NASA/CXC/SAO) The Chandrasekhar limit determines if a star dies as a white dwarf, or has the mass to exceed this, launching a supernova to create a black hole or neutron star. Stars are locked in battles against their own gravity, all of which will eventually be lost, leading to violent and radical changes that mark the end of their main sequence lifetimes.
Temperatures colder than space achieved here on Earth using superconducting X-ray laser

(Image credit: Greg Stewart/SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory) A particle accelerator that slams electrons together here on Earth has achieved temperatures colder than those of outer space. Using the free-electron laser at the Department of Energy's SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory   -  part of an upgrade project to the Linac Coherent Light Source (LCLS), called LCLS II  - scientists chilled liquid helium to minus 456 degrees Fahrenheit ( minus 271 degrees Celsius), or 2 .

Physics World
The legacy of Liverpool's forgotten synchrocyclotron - Physics World

Taken from the May 2022 issue of Physics World. Members of the Institute of Physics can enjoy the full issue via the Physics World app. The University of Liverpool's synchrocyclotron helped define physics in the 20th century, yet little trace of it remains.
Sagittarius A*: The Milky Way's supermassive black hole

(Image credit: NASA/CXC/Caltech/M.Muno et al.) Sagittarius A*, often abbreviated to Sgr A* and pronounced "Sagittarius A star", is a supermassive black hole located at the center of our spiral galaxy, the Milky Way. Sagittarius A* is mostly dormant and only occasionally absorbs gas or dust, but nonetheless has an estimated mass millions times that of our sun.
Saturn V: The mighty U.S. moon rocket

The enormous Saturn V rocket is one of humanity's most impressive and important technological achievements. In the history of human achievement and scientific progress, few moments are as singularly important as the first time we set foot on the moon.
Dark matter could be a cosmic relic from extra dimensions

(Image credit: Illustration Credit & Copyright Tom Abel & Ralf Kaehler (KIPAC, SLAC), AMNH) Dark matter, the elusive substance that accounts for the majority of the mass in the universe, may be made up of massive particles called gravitons that first popped into existence in the first moment after the Big Bang.
Exoplanets: Alien worlds beyond our solar system

(Image credit: ESA/Hubble, M. Kornmesser) Exoplanets have long occupied the thoughts scientists and dreamers. Ever since humanity first discovered that the stars in the night sky were bodies similar to our own sun, we have imagined and speculated about the worlds that could orbit these stars.

"Remarkable" binary stars could birth 3 planetary systems hosting life

Astronomers have observed a remarkable arrangement in a young binary star system which is giving birth to three separate systems of planets. The team also found within the three planet-forming disks of gas and dust, complex organic molecules that could, in the future, seed life on the planets that form.

Most tilted black hole ever could change what we know about how they form

Astronomers have discovered a distant binary arrangement that contains the most tilted black hole system ever found, consisting of a black hole feeding on material snatched from a companion star. The misalignment between the two cosmic bodies (in what is known as an x-ray binary) is so extreme that it could force scientists to change models that explain how black holes form.
Asterisms: Definition, facts and examples

With billions of stars visible from Earth, cataloging asterisms provides beneficial reference points in the night sky. And throughout history, this cataloging process, which still only encompasses a tiny fraction of the stars in the night sky, has been guided by our myths and legends, as well as the objects and creatures that populate our terrestrial lives.
When is the Winter Solstice and what happens?

(Image credit: Wikicommons/Angus MacRae) The Winter Solstice, or the December Solstice, is the point at which the path of the sun in the sky is farthest south. At the Winter Solstice, the sun travels the shortest path through the sky resulting in the day of the year with the least sunlight and therefore, the longest night.
Tachyons: Facts about these faster-than-light particles

(Image credit: Yuichiro Chino via Getty Images) Traveling faster than light and time-travel could be real for tachyons. If one thing science fiction excels at, it's allowing us to marvel at the breaking of the physical laws of the universe.
Apophis: The asteroid we thought might hit us

(Image credit: ESA - P.Carril) On Friday, April 13, 2029, Earth will experience a dramatic close encounter with the 99942 Apophis. The 1,120 feet (340-meter) wide object will pass within just 19,000 miles (31,000 km) of our home planet - a distance that brings it closer than most geostationary satellites.

Spanish volcanic eruption won't cause mega-tsunami in U.S., officials Say

A volcano has erupted on the Spanish Canary Island of La Palma, prompting unfounded fears that a so-called mega-tsunami could be headed to the East Coast of the United States. The Cumbre Vieja volcano began erupting at around 3.12 p.m. local time (10:12 a.m. EDT) on Sunday, according to officials.

Physics World
Saturn's rings oscillate to the tune of its large and 'messy' core - Physics World

The internal structure of Saturn has been mapped by using data from the Cassini spacecraft to observe seismic oscillations in the planet's rings. The study reveals that the core is both larger and more diffuse than previously thought. The research is described in a paper in Nature Astronomy and could improve our understanding of the Saturn's formation and evolution.

Physics World
Newly discovered planetary nebulae could improve cosmic distance measurements - Physics World

Planetary nebulae as far away as 40 Mpc (about 130 million light-years) have been observed by astronomers for the first time. The objects had been too distant to see until an international team of astronomers used a new filter on data from the Multi-Unit Spectroscopic Explorer (MUSE) instrument - which operates on European Space Agency's Very Large Telescope (VLT).

Physics World
New images show when it comes to black holes size doesn't matter - Physics World

Astronomers have followed up their seminal 2019 observation of the supermassive black hole at the heart of the galaxy Messier 87 (M87) with stunning images of another black hole. This time they have used the Event Horizon Telescope to make high-resolution observations of a jet of plasma emerging from the supermassive black hole in the active galaxy Centaurus A, which lies 12 million light-years from Earth in the constellation of Centaurus.

ZME Science
Astronomers Solve the Mystery of Betelgeuse's 'Great Dimming'

In late 2019 and early 2020 Betelgeuse, a red supergiant in the constellation of Orion, made headlines when it underwent a period of extreme dimming. This dip in brightness for the star, which is usually around the tenth brightest in the night sky over Earth, was so extreme it could even be seen with the naked eye.
The Vera C. Rubin Observatory: New view of the universe

(Image credit: Rubin Observatory/NSF/AURA) The next era of our investigation of the cosmos is about to be kick-started by the Vera C. Rubin Observatory, a ground-based telescope currently under construction on the El Penón peak of Cerro Pachón in northern Chile. The observatory is a federal project run by the National Science Foundation (NSF) and the U.S.

Physics World
A new generation takes on the cosmological constant - Physics World

Taken from the March 2021 issue of Physics World. Members of the Institute of Physics can enjoy the full issue via the Physics World app. The long-standing problem of the cosmological constant, described both as "the worst prediction in the history of physics" and by Einstein as his "biggest blunder", is being tackled with renewed vigour by today's cosmologists.
Dark matter: Taking a closer look at the (un)usual suspects

Over the centuries, our understanding of the cosmos has grown by leaps and bounds. But it wasn't until relatively recently that astronomers discovered that around 85 percent of the matter in the universe takes on a bizarre, foreign form.

New Scientist
Black holes leak energy when they eat plasma near the event horizon

Black holes could be a cosmological engine. When their magnetic fields disconnect and reconnect, they can accelerate plasma particles near the event horizon - the point beyond which nothing can escape a black hole's gravitational pull. The finding could allow astronomers to better estimate the mass and spin of black holes.
Small stars are vital to dispersing the building blocks of life

Despite peacefully floating in the night sky, stars are not docile creatures. They're churning caldrons of roiling plasma stirred by countless nuclear explosions within. Scientists know that such stellar nuclear fusion is responsible for creating many heavy elements necessary for life in the universe, such as carbon, oxygen, and nitrogen.

ZME Science
Black Hole Seen Clearly in Historic New Direct Image

Using the Event Horizon Telescope (EHT) to observe the supermassive black hole at the centre of the galaxy Messier 87 (M87), astronomers have once again produced another first in the field of astronomy and cosmology.

New Astronomy Reviews Elsevier
The quest to discover supermassive black hole binaries

Supermassive black holes may be monsters, but that doesn’t mean they are always alone, cosmological models suggest they can exist in pairs, but evidence is sparse. A new review points the way to future investigations of such systems.

ZME Science
Rogue Planets Could Outnumber Stars in the Milky Way

Our galaxy is teeming with rogue planets either torn from their parent stars by chaotic conditions or born separate from a star. These orphan planets could be discovered en masse by an outcoming NASA project - Nancy Grace Roman Space Telescope.

ZME Science
Distant 'Milky Way Look-Alike' Challenges Theories of Galaxy Formation

Using the phenomenon of gravitational lensing astronomers have examined an extremely distant galaxy that shares many features with the Milky Way. The discovery of a calm galaxy so early in the Universe's history calls into question our theories of how galaxies form.

EPJ--ST Highlight – Introduction to Celestial Mechanics in the XXIst Century
Reducing the risk of space debris collision

Details Published on 29 May 2020 An increase in space launches requires the development of a method to clear space debris which could collide with valuable equipment. One plausible method of achieving this through the use of a tug vehicle requires a successful connection procedure.

An early dark energy model could solve an expanding cosmological conundrum

Much mystery surrounds dark energy and the cosmological constant, the proxies used to explain the accelerating expansion of the Universe. New research suggests that an early model of dark energy presents a competing theory that offers all the benefits of current models without the baggage that comes associated with the cosmological constant.

ZME Science
Warped gas disc torn apart by three stars directly observed for the first time

Astronomers have discovered a spectacular first in terms of star clusters and planet-forming discs of gas, a system-GW Orionis-with a warped disc with torn out inner rings. The team believes that the disc's odd shape -which defies the common view of a flat plane orbiting planets and gas discs-was created when the misalignment of the three stars at the centre of the disc caused it to fracture into distinct rings.

Annals of Physics, Elsevier
Solving the quantum conundrum: Uniting quantum and classical physics

Caption: The unification of classical and quantum mechanics is quite the puzzle. But, new research suggests the solution may lie in a new approach to an old idea. (Peter Morgan/ Robert Lea) Without a shadow of a doubt, the crowning achievement of early twentieth-century physics was the development of quantum mechanics.

Physics Reports Elsevier
Secrets of the Universe’s most powerful and explosive events

Image: Provided by the author. Original source Ore Gottlieb graduate student at Tel Aviv University - author's institute.] Caption: A snapshot of a relativistic shock propagating from a black hole engine after the collapse of a stellar core. When it breaks free it will create an initial electromagnetic signal that could teach us a great deal about how stars die.
High-energy cosmic rays: Solving a century-old mystery

"The Earth is being constantly bombarded from space by cosmic rays of an unknown origin!" This may seem like the cry of a panicking news reporter in a lurid sci-fi tale, but it's actually a scientific fact - albeit a slightly hyperbolic one.

Understanding electron transport in graphene nanoribbons

Graphene is a modern wonder material possessing unique properties of strength, flexibility and conductivity whilst being abundant and remarkably cheap to produce, lending it to a multitude of useful applications -- especially true when these 2D atom-thick sheets of carbon are split into narrow strips known as Graphene Nanoribbons (GNRs).

ZME Science
Death By Spaghettification! Astronomers Spot a Star Being Consumed by a Black Hole

This could solve the mystery of tidal disruption events or 'spaghettification.' Astronomers have spotted the light emitted from a star as it is ripped apart and consumed by a supermassive black hole. This detailed investigation promises to unveil the mystery of tidal disruption events or 'spaghettification.'

ZME Science
Water Found on the Moon's Sunlit Surface

Using the Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy (SOFIA) NASA researchers have made a stunning discovery regarding the Moon, finding that water is present on the natural satellite's dayside, as well as its colder nightside. Hydrogen traces had previously been found at the lunar south pole, which experiences near-constant sunlight, but researchers did not believe this was related to water molecules.

ZME Science
Astronomers discover an exoplanet system with rhythm

Astronomers have discovered a unique system of exoplanets in which all but one of the planets orbit their parent star in a rare rhythm. The finding could force us to revise our ideas of how planets-including those in our own solar system-form.

Physics Letters B Elsevier
Solving the mystery of universal expansion with the Hubble bubble

If the galaxy Messier 106 (pictured) is contained within a 'Hubble bubble' of low-density, it could explain Hubble tension - why local and global measurements of the Hubble constant continue to disagree. Ever since Edwin Hubble and his colleagues discovered the expanding nature of the Universe in the early 20th Century, scientists have tried to measure its rate of expansion.

ZME Science
Exoplanet telescope CHEOPS gears up for launch day

The European Space Agency's (ESA) space telescope CHEOPS (CHaracterising ExOPlanet Satellite) begins its journey into space aboard the Soyuz rocket on December 17th. In preparation for the launch from French Guiana, collaborators in the mission, the ESA, the University of Geneva and the University of Bern held a press conference on the morning of the 5th December.

ZME Science
Marie Curie: The Price of Knowledge

Marie Curie is rightly regarded as not just one of the greatest women who ever lived, but also, one of the most accomplished scientists in history. Her tale is one of sacrifice and suffering for science and of unparalleled dedication to unlocking nature's secrets.

Proximity to Massive Bright Stars may Stunt Planet Formation

By studying Westerlund 2, a dense star cluster containing stars 100 times the size of the Sun, astronomers have discovered why planets don't form around some stars. Using the Hubble Space Telescope researchers have conducted a pioneering 3-year study of the massive dense young star cluster Westerlund 2.

Photoaccoustics Elsevier
Aerosol particles and their effect on the environment

Caption: A depiction of the photoacoustic process originating from an aerosol particle (represented by the purple sphere). A laser induces periodic heating and cooling of the particle, creating a measurable sound wave. Credit: Diveky et al., Figure 1 of the cited paper. Earth's atmosphere is filled with aerosols-tiny particles that absorb and reflect sunlight, influencing our planet's temperature.

ZME Science
The Universe's Missing Matter Problem is Solved

Our theories of the Universe have a missing matter problem: half of its matter is missing. But now this 'missing baryon problem' one of the most lingering puzzles in cosmology has been solved.

ZME Science
Certainly Uncertain. Simplifying Heisenberg's Uncertainty Principle

Heisenberg's uncertainty principle is more than a mathematical quirk, a handy guiding principle, or the inspiration for some really nerdy t-shirts. It is intrinsic to nature, weaved into the fabric of all matter. Together we take a trip to ZME labs to use some everyday objects to demonstrate how nature tells us "you can't have it all."