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Monthly Archives: May 2016

Milky weigh: our galaxy has the mass of 700bn suns, say scientists

Most accurate measurement so far has estimated the collective mass of the Milky Ways stars, black holes, dust, dark matter – and unidentified flying objects

Our galaxy has a collective mass 700 billion times that of the sun, according to the most accurate measurement yet by scientists.

The estimate covers the mass of all the stars, black holes, gas clouds, dust, dark matter and other unidentified flying objects in the Milky Way. The previous rough ballpark figure was around a trillion solar masses – the standard measure for big astronomical objects.

Scientists began trying to weigh the Earth two centuries ago, and astronomers eventually established the distance to the sun. Later, using Newtons equations, they arrived at a mass for the sun (it is 330,000 times the mass of the Earth).

But the galaxy had proved more intractable. One big problem is that to arrive at a good estimate, astronomers have to be sure of the speeds of very distant objects. The other is that because Earth is where it is only a fraction of the galaxy is visible to telescopes.

The fact that we sit inside the galaxy does introduce some difficulties, said Gwendolyn Eadie, a PhD student at McMaster University in Ottawa, who led the study which was presented at the Canadian Astronomical Societys annual conference in Winnipeg on Tuesday.

We have a heliocentric perspective: we see everything from the perspective of our suns position (and movement) through the galaxy. Its important that we take the movement and position of the sun into account when we measure the motions and positions of other objects in the Milky Way. Luckily, in this regard I can stand on the shoulders of giants. Over the years, many astronomers have put in an enormous effort to figure out how to take these things into account.

She and her supervisor, Professor William Harris, an astronomer and physicist at McMaster, made the best of the incomplete data and devised a galactic mass estimator to make calculations that they believe are more plausible than any so far. They have submitted a paper to the Astrophysical Journal. The ultimate prize, in research of this kind, is a better understanding of dark matter the cold, invisible, untouchable but massive material that must act as gravitational glue in every galaxy, but which so far has not been identified. But better estimates of mass will deliver better understanding.

The mass of a galaxys dark matter halo plays a large role in the formation and evolution of that galaxy. Certain properties such as star formation rates and the size of supermassive black holes are known to depend on the mass of the galaxy, Eadie said.

So, pinning down the mass of our own galaxy, the Milky Way, is incredibly important both for our understanding of our own galaxy, and putting the Milky Way into the context of other galaxies in the universe.

The new approach, she says, provides an estimate for the total mass held within any distance from the galactic centre. The galaxy is roughly 100 to 120 million light years in length so the calculations are a work in progress. She believes that comparisons of measurements and results will lead to better calculations and more accurate models of the galaxy.

We can also compare the total mass estimate to the amount of visible matter that we see in the Milky Way and then get a prediction for the amount of dark matter, said Eadie.

With our estimate, it seems that dark matter makes up about 88% of the Milky Ways mass.

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For sale: Greek islands, hotels and historic sites

As privatisation agency chairman, Stergios Pitsiorlas is seen as the right man to expedite disposal of a growing list of assets

Stergios Pitsiorlas

Stergios Pitsiorlas

In Greece today, government power comes with few trappings. Unable to tap capital markets and dependent wholly on international aid, the debt-stricken country’s senior officials are acrobats in a tightrope act. They are placating creditors, whose demands at times seem insatiable, and citizens, whose shock is never far away.

Few know this better than Stergios Pitsiorlas, the head of Greeces privatisation agency. The agency’s asset portfolio readily available online goes some to explaining why. A catalogue of beaches, islands, boutique hotels, golf courses, Olympic venues and historic properties in Plaka in hills next to the Acropolis, it could be a shopping list for the scenery in a movie, not a list of possessions that Athens is under immense pressure to offload.

In the coming months, the list will grow as the contours of a super fund established to expedite the sale of ailing utilities and state-owned properties take shape.

The fund, the product of last weeks agreement to disburse an extra 10.3bn (7bn) in bailout loans in return for further reforms, takes the divestment of state holdings to new heights. More than 71,000 pieces of public property will be transferred to the umbrella entity in what will amount to the biggest privatisation programme on the continent of Europe in modern times.

Seven years into Greece’s seemingly unstoppable financial crisis, lenders are not taking any chances. The European Union and International Monetary Fund, which to date have poured more than 250bn (190bn) into Greece in the form of three bailouts, have demanded that the organisation operates for 99 years.

Greeks have reacted with anger and derision, viewing the fund as the lowest point in the country’s epic struggle to remain anchored to the eurozone.

For many, it is the ultimate depredation, another dent to their dignity at a time of unprecedented unemployment, poverty and suffering. If this is the way, they say, then only the Acropolis will retain a patina of Greekness about it.

There is nothing we are not giving up, splutters Maria Ethymiou, a small business owner encapsulating the mood. The Germans are going to take everything. I hear that even beaches are up for sale. Is this the Europe that we want? Is this the united Europe of our dreams?

The criticism is not lost on Pitsiorlas, a veteran leftist and lawyer by training. The ruling Syriza party, which he helped found from its previous incarnation as Synaspismos, or the left coalition, lost a deputy when the multi-bill detailing the fund was recently put to vote in parliament.

MPs, who otherwise closed ranks to pass the legislation, have since described it as criminal. The opposition has argued that it effectively mortgages the country for generations without any guarantee from foreign creditors to effectively deal with Athens unmanageable 320bn debt pile.

In some ways they [critics] are right. The truth lies somewhere halfway, Pitsiorlas told the Guardian. But there is a dignity far worse, the indignity of being forced to rely on foreign lenders. If we want, as a true party of the left, to help workers, if we want to stop salaries and pensions being cut and taxes being augmented, we have to find money from somewhere, we have to develop our economy.

Privatisations have been at the heart of Greece’s rescue programmes, but from the start have been riven by discord and problem-plagued. Since being first bailed out to the tune of 110bn in mid-2010 in what was then the biggest financial rescue in global history, Athens has raised only 3.5bn from asset sales a far cry from the original target of 50bn set by creditors.

Ideological resistance, lack of investor interest and bureaucratic obstacles have been mostly to blame. Pitsiorlas, the funds sixth chairman, could be the man to reverse that process. Last week he predicted that the sale of Greece’s biggest piece of real estate at Athens erstwhile Hellenikon airport would be concluded in June, boosting proceeds from state sales this year to more than 2bn.

By 2018, he reckons asset-stripping could bring in 6bn. After initially opposing the sale of the country’s two main ports in Piraeus and the northern city of Thessaloniki the Tsipras government re-launched tenders after the terms of a 86bn bailout, Greeces third, were finally agreed last August.

In April it approved a bid by the Chinese shipping giant Cosco to buy a 67% stake in Piraeus. The German transport operator Fraport has similarly won a bid to operate 14 regional airports including those on popular tourist destinations such as Mykonos, Santorini and Corfu for the next 50 years. The state of our airports on islands like Santorini are a national embarrassment, says Pitsiorlas. So why not improve them? They are not going to own them forever and when they come back to us they will be in much better condition.

The straight-talking privatisation chief has won plaudits from unlikely places. If [prime minister Alexis] Tsipras wants to survive politically and make the definitive U-turn to the centre left, he has to speak the language of business, investment, growth and extroversion, says Dimitris Kerides, who teaches political science at Athens Panteion University and has close ties with the main opposition centre-right New Democracy party.

Pitsiorlas is business-friendly. He is capable and confident. He is regarded as the best of the best on the left by the right.

The fund, which will also encompass public corporations and publicly owned bank stocks, is aimed at facilitating privatisations by allowing sales of real estate to proceed without ministers fearing accusations of fraud. More than 500 islands, and large tracts of Greece’s pristine, 16,000km-long coastline are also on the list, with the full details to be revealed in the next few months.

But the overarching fear is that the government is about to embark on a firesale of the family silver at rock-bottom prices. Pitsiorlas fiercely rejects any such notion, saying public utilities such as the water board will not be denationalised. There are a lot of misunderstandings and misconceptions. For instance, we have hotels on our books that have been confiscated by banks. Why should the state be a hotelier? he asked.

In the same vein, why should the state pay thousands of euros in rent every year for the hangars that house two airbuses that will never fly? We need to get out of the place we are in. Last weeks agreement offers a ray of hope but we have to run fast and make the changes that need to be made quickly.

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Top Gear: Trying to hold on to the magic – BBC News

Image caption Matt LeBlanc and Chris Evans are among the new team of six presenters along with The Stig

Star in a car – check (It does have a new water splash and jump).

Comic race – check. “Some say… he’s called the Stig.” – check (Word for word). Supercars speeding through exotic locations – check.

Power lap times – check (leader board is unchanged). Clarkson? “We don’t talk about catering on this show.”

Jokes? Not so many.

Chris Evans said he wasn’t going to mess with a winning formula and he was right. Shows are normally relaunched in an attempt to revive a flagging format – but this was all about trying to hang on to the magic with different people.

The Guardian was so interested, it live blogged the show. Their reaction? I won’t spoil the surprise you can read it for yourself. The post show online discussion on the BBC Worldwide site also wasn’t impressed.

Everyone knows the only reason there were two new faces in the Top Gear studio was because of an incident at a Yorkshire hotel in which Jeremy Clarkson gave a producer a swollen bleeding lip and a torrent of abuse.

The question is how much the success was down to the formula developed by Clarkson and producer Andy Wilman, and how much it was the personal chemistry of the team who are now creating a motoring programme for Amazon.

I think Top Gear fans can now hazard a guess.

Certain things cannot be denied. Evans was born to stand in a crowded studio exchanging larky banter. The reinvention of Top Gear in 2002 by Jeremy Clarkson probably owes something to the atmosphere and irreverent energy of a show like Evans’s TFI Friday.

But, the running around in the studio, the shouting – there was more than a touch of eager puppy here.

Image copyright Amazon
Image caption Former Top Gear hosts James May, Jeremy Clarkson and Richard Hammond have signed a deal to front a new motoring show for Amazon

The first race was classic Top Gear across the country between Chris Evans and Matt LeBlanc in Reliant Rialtos, but the race came to an end with a breakdown after a few minutes. However, the film carried on.

Checking on Twitter reassured me that I was not the only one who was surprised when we returned later in the show to more from Blackpool. At least Blackpool’s Mayor was funny.

One of the things that is overlooked in Top Gear is just how much work goes in to the script. The filming, editing and post production is obvious from even a casual viewing but the construction of the narrative of the stories, the interactions, the jokes and the resolutions were what made it stand out.

What seemed spontaneous and effortlessly funny, wasn’t. If watching people driving cars was inherently entertaining then the world would be filled with internationally successful car programmes. In many ways Top Gear was a sitcom pretending to be a car programme.

Clarkson spent more than 10 years working on Top Gear car films before truly cracking it: In the late ’90s Top Gear was a dead format – even the relaunched Top Gear before James May was introduced was far from the show it was to become.

This, however, isn’t being allowed a long run-up time in which it can tinker and experiment.

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