Follow the reluctant adventures in the life of a Welsh astrophysicist sent around the world for some reason, wherein I photograph potatoes and destroy galaxies in the name of science. And don't forget about my website,

Thursday, 2 June 2022

My Chemical Enviromance

Yay, science post !

It's always nice when you wake up and see an email saying, "Your paper has now been accepted" but you're still half-asleep so you wonder "Dafuq ? I haven't written any papers, bloody spam journals again" but you're curious enough to keep reading the email just in case and realise "Ooooohh yeah, I didn't write that one but I'm a co-author, yay for me cos I didn't have to do any real work this time !" and then you fall back into a satisfying slumber.

Obviously we all sleep at our desks the whole time.

Funnily enough, that's more or less what happened to me last week.

This paper is by long-term collaborator and all-round thoroughly good egg Robert Minchin. It's all about my second favourite topic in my first favourite place : that is, it's about how galaxies lose gas in the Virgo Cluster (my favourite topic being little gas clouds that don't do anything).

I've covered gas loss in Virgo before, but since it's been some considerable time (read : the whole pandemic) since previous posts about this, I won't expect you to go trawling through old posts for details. Oh, you can if you want, but there's no need, I'll just bring you up to speed right now.

Some background : when galaxies get naked

A typical galaxy consists of a disc of stars and some gas all bound together in a dark matter halo. Even outside galaxies space is never truly empty, and especially in dense clusters, the external gas can be significant. It tends to be substantially less dense but also a lot hotter. If a galaxy moves through it fast enough, it can experience a pressure strong enough to dislodge its own gas in a process worryingly known as ram pressure stripping

Sometimes, though rarely, the stripped gas can be so dense that you get a star-forming "wake" behind the galaxy as it moves through the cluster. Normally you can't see this gas using optical observations, but have to use other wavelengths like radio to see the stripped gas trails.

While this might happen to some extent in all galaxy environments, clusters are where it really matters : here the external gas is relatively dense and galaxy motions are (by far) the most rapid. Other processes like gravitational encounters between individual galaxies become much less important compared to the enormously strong ram pressure, which can completely strip a galaxy of all its gas in less than an orbit. 

After that... the galaxy is doomed to a slow, lingering death. With no remaining gas it simply can't form any new stars. Its youngest, hottest, bluest stars soon die off, leaving behind only the smaller, dimmer, red stars. And without the mass of the physically thin but dense gas disc helping to hold them together, the random motions of the surviving stars eventually destroy any hints of structure in its stellar disc. Eventually, it turns from a magnificent blue sparkly spiral into a pathetic red elliptical. Everybody hates ellipticals so it becomes a social pariah and never gets invited to parties anymore. Not even during lockdown. No, not even at Downing Street.

The details of the process are controversial, but the basics are accepted well enough :

  • Ram pressure is strong enough in clusters to cause even massive spirals to rapidly lose all their gas
  • Spiral galaxies in clusters typically have much less gas than those elsewhere
  • Other mechanisms can't seem to explain the gas loss.
Which all leads to the main conclusion that ram pressure plays a dominant role in galaxy evolution in clusters.

Some time ago I was co-author on a paper that attempted to model this process using nice, simple analytical formulae. The gold standard is to do full-on numerical simulations that includes all the complex gas dynamics and stuff, but it seems that the simple formulae are actually plenty good enough to predict the basics. This saves an awful lot of time and, more importantly, effort, because running simulations is annoying. More recently, I was able to show that our model does quite well at matching which specific galaxies are predicted to be currently losing gas and which actually show the long gas streams expected when stripping occurs.

Now I like looking for gas streams very much - looking at data is just inherently a good idea, and it also lets you see what's happening as directly as possible. So you might think that this is just a cunning ploy to let me do more data visualisation.... not so ! For we've also shown that sometimes the gas streams are inherently hard to spot, and the gas disperses quite rapidly. So could there be a different signature of stripping we could look for to test which galaxies have been affected ?

In our latest paper it seems the answer is a tentative but enthusiastic "yes !". We found a radically different test for ram pressure that seems to provide a very pleasing confirmation of the model completely independent of its original formulation.

How to hunt for farting galaxies

The way I mentally group my astronomy knowledge is into three basic categories : atomic hydrogen, stars, and everything else. While stars are what get all the glory, and atomic hydrogen is the largest component of the gas, I'm vaguely aware that there's really quite a lot of stuff contained in the "everything else" category.

You get the idea.

Fortunately, Robert is much more acutely aware of this than I am. For example, we can estimate star formation rates by looking at how much light galaxies emit in different wavelengths. The bluer the light, the more it's dominated by hot, short-lived stars* and so the higher the current rate of star formation must be. We can do this just by looking at broad-band optical filters, much like the RGB components you'd see in an ordinary digital image, or we can user similar filters at shorter wavelengths than visible light (for example, ultra-violet emission is an excellent way to look for some of the hottest stars of all). 

* I am simplifying quite a lot here. Chemical composition also affects colour, as does the total intensity. But these factors can be accounted for.

But we can also do something quite a bit different. Broad filters take in emission from a wide range of wavelengths, but some processes produce photons only over very narrow windows. These "spectral lines" provide another way of testing for the high energies associated with hot young stars. One of these lines, the [CII] ("C two") line, from singly ionised carbon*, has become popular in recent years as another tool in the arsenal of available methods of estimating star formation rate. 

*Any sort of astro-chemistry is something I'd normally steer well clear of, on the grounds that even feckin' hydrogen isn't properly understood, but Robert is a much braver man than I. Personally I think of astro-chemistry some sort of advanced alchemy.

However, [CII] is not emitted directly by stars, but from the interstellar gas. And it turns out that injecting energy into the gas from other sources besides star formation, even mechanical energy, can also trigger [CII] emission... and ram pressure stripping might just be a very good way to do that. 

See, the world of galaxy evolution is anything but woke (though there are some very odd attempts to claim that its offensive language is all due to colonial oppression), and stripping is a violent process*. So slamming the galaxy into the intracluster medium might be indeed be a means for causing it to emit at the [CII] frequency. It's already though that other sorts of gas collision can induce this. Indeed, a paper from as far back as 1999 noted that a spiral galaxy in Virgo had a weird excess of [CII], and this later turned out to be one of the best examples of a galaxy experiencing stripping !

* To the authors suggesting we need to use less violent terms I say OH GOD NO, this is one area in which astronomy is at least still able to give things decent names (unlike new telescopes, which are always called the Very Large Something Or Other). I want my silly jokes about naked bestiality, dammit !

So this bodes well. If we can find galaxies with an excess of [CII], more than predicted from their star formation rates, we can compare this with our model. Since we already predicted which galaxies are currently stripping, we can potentially use this as a completely independent test on whether or not our model is any good.

The results

Spectral line observations are always more challenging than broad-band observations, and the [CII] line is technically difficult. So instead of doing our own observations, we mined the Herschel archive. Of the ~2,000 galaxies in the Virgo Cluster, just 14 had suitable observations. 

So right from the start it was clear that this could only be a limited pilot study. But even given this, initially the results looked confusing at best, and at worst, disappointing. Here's our plot of the excess of [CII] emission as a function of distance from the cluster centre :

Yeah, not exactly the clearest trend in the world... take away the two outliers (VCC 737 and 841) and arguably the "trend" goes away completely. Hmm.

What we might naively expect to see is a clear decline with cluster-centric distance, as the corresponding ram pressure should decrease because the cluster's gas is less dense at greater distances. But it's hard to argue we see anything more than a hint of that, and it's not at all convincing.

You can also see we divided our already tiny sample into two even more miniscule samples : some of our galaxies lie close to the centre of the main cluster (the "northern" sample) while the others are all significantly further away ("southern"). The big blue and purple symbols on the right show the means of the two samples. The southern sample is a control group since ram pressure should be less effective at these distances, while the big green symbol shows another set of galaxies of similar masses but found completely outside the cluster - this forms a second control.

At best, there's a bit of a difference. The [CII] emission is a little bit higher in the northern sample than the others. This is what we'd expect, but it's not exactly an edge-of-your-seat result.

But using cluster-centric distance as a proxy for ram pressure may be too simple. As we'd shown in a previous paper, assuming clusters are nicely symmetrical is about as bad as the proverbial cow :

Or graduate students, according to Fritz Zwicky.

Which is where our earlier, analytical model for ram pressure comes in. Surely what we should do, instead of using that old-fashioned crude approach of cluster-centric distance, is check whether our fancy model tells us if the galaxies are currently stripping or not. With this we should have a much more accurate proxy than simple distance.

Our model calculates two things. First, it estimates how much ram pressure a galaxy should be currently experiencing. This is derived from an earlier model of the gas density within the cluster and assuming the galaxy is moving at about the local escape velocity at its current position. We call this parameter Ploc (pressure at the local point). Secondly, given the mass of gas within the galaxy, we calculate the well-known parameter of deficiency, which just means how much gas it's lost compared to a similar galaxy found in isolation. From this we can compute the parameter Pdef, the pressure needed to reach its current deficiency.

There's a lot of simplifying assumptions in all this, but it gives a nice, simple result : the higher the pressure ratio, the more likely a galaxy is to be currently losing gas. In contrast, galaxies with low pressures may have lost gas in the past but can't be doing so any more. Sounds great ! And remember, this result agreed well when we looked at which galaxies do seem to be losing gas based on their gas streams. But the result when looking at the [CII] excess ?

This is the most boring plot about strippers I've EVER seen.

Yeah, not so much... This was a bit disappointing considering how well the model had worked when looking for gas streams. What was going on ? Does the [CII] just not tell us anything at all about ram pressure but only star formation ? Had we messed up somehow ? Should we go and hang our heads in shame ?

Probably not. Actually, we'd probably over-complicated the situation. The model was constructed in the framework of the usual way of looking for for stripping, by directly searching for lost gas : either just be measuring how much gas a galaxy had, and/or by seeing if it had any detectable gas streams due to stripping. The pressure ratio works well for that scenario because that's the very thing it was based on. But for just injecting energy into the galaxy, which is what the [CII] is sensitive to... that won't work. The pressure ratio is almost irrelevant here : much more important is simply the current pressure. That, not whether a galaxy is losing gas or not, is what dictates the injected energy - which is what might provoke the [CII]*. And when we plot that :

* For example a galaxy which is currently not actually losing gas, i.e. having a low pressure ratio, might still have a high absolute value of ram pressure. The ideal would be to work out how much energy is being injected and how this relates to [CII] emission, but this is a much bigger task. The point is that pressure should be a much better proxy, and doesn't relate linearly to cluster-centric distance.

Bingo ! Now that's a nice clear trend, especially considering the tiny sample size - and the difference between the two sub-samples is stark. Granted there's one weird outlier, which we're unable to explain, but it'd be surprising if there wasn't. If you don't have one weird outlier in observational astronomy, everyone laughs at you or calls you a liar. Or both.

Actually we were a bit surprised by just how clear this trend is. The model is by design simple, and subject to many uncertainties. One of the biggest is that it still does have to consider projected distance (that is, distance on the sky) from the cluster centre when calculating pressure - it can't use true 3D distance, because we just don't know it. This means the true pressure can always be lower, since the galaxy might actually be a bit in front or behind the bulk of the cluster gas. Yet it works even so.

And the trend seems to continue down to very low ram pressures indeed. So ram pressure might be having an effect even in much less dense environments than clusters, like groups. This is perfectly possible, it's just surprising to see such striking evidence of it. Yet as far as we can tell, there is no good reason to expect this trend to be due to anything mundane : there is no selection effect artificially restricting us to galaxies which only appear to follow the trend but actually do so only by chance. 

We also accounted for the fact that some of the [CII] excess will be due to star formation. The thing about ram pressure is that although on sufficiently large and long scales it becomes very simple (all gas gone => no more stars !), on small and short scales it becomes fiendishly complex. As the pressure builds, it can initially compress the gas disc, temporarily triggering an increase in star formation. Then you get all kinds of terribly turbulent structures developing, which look nice but can't be modelled without proper simulations. But we can account for how much the star formation - whatever its cause - increases the [CII] emission, and find that it isn't enough. The simplest explanation is that we're seeing the direct impact of the ram pressure on the gas - we're not seeing galaxies with an excess only because they happened to have high star formation activity.


I wouldn't want to oversell this, because it's still based on a very small sample. But there's an almost startlingly nice trend between our prediction for how much ram pressure a galaxy is experiencing and the intensity of its excess [CII] emission. So our happy-go-lucky, simple model of ram pressure is vindicated for a second time by a totally different method.

It also means that this could be a new way for looking for the signatures of the effects of environment. Even if the ram pressure isn't actually strong enough to cause gas removal, it seems we can see its effects using the [CII] line. And since this appears to happen even at modest pressures, this could apply not just in clusters (where it's a bit of a case of "big bloody deal, we knew ram pressure was happening anyway"), but also in groups and filaments, where the situation is much less clear. That gives us a new way to examine the external influences acting on galaxies.

But again, 14 galaxies ! That's a sample size less than a full-strength rugby team, for crying out loud. So let's not go nuts : it remains a pilot study, a case of, "hey, this seems to work, let's try this some more and see where it goes", not, "everybody just go home now because we're done."

There are two important caveats to end on. First, an earlier study didn't find any correlation between environment and [CII], though this is probably because the authors (a) had less sensitive observations; (b) targeted larger galaxies, which would require more injected energy; (c) didn't consider the pressure parameter. Second, more problematically, getting [CII] observations is difficult. This is something that the SOFIA telescope would be very good for, so let's just hope NASA don't decide to do anything daft like cancelling it.

(Oh, and an apology. It has only just struck me that the title, "Environmental effects in Herschel observations of the ionized carbon content of star forming dwarf galaxies in the Virgo cluster" is probably one of the most boring titles we've ever done. Can't win 'em all.)

Sunday, 15 May 2022

Where The Magic Happens

Today's post will be an unusual mixture of home d├ęcor, medieval navigation, and extragalactic data visualisation. Which sadly does not mean involving any interior designer astro-pirates, although it obviously should.

Hypothesis : there is no blog post that cannot be improved by the addition of interior designer astro-pirates.

Anyway, since the start of the year I've been indulging in some retail therapy. My home office where I've been working for most of the last two years is a 3x3m space consisting entirely of bog-standard IKEA furniture. You know, stuff like this :

I mean, it works. It's definitely a table. You can tell because you can put stuff on it and they stay cleverly well above the ground at an easily accessible height. It's not even ugly, but it's certainly minimalist... and that's just not my aesthetic at all.

After two years of various levels of lockdown (and a great deal longer in terms of living independently) I decided that I needed to do something about this. These days I have enough disposable income that I can indulge myself and there's just no need to go for the basic-but-boring stuff any more. The latest and hopefully final lockdown really pushed me into going slightly Grand Designs, even though I think such programs are only one step above Big Brother or Love Island in terms of sheer mindless inanity. 

My preferred aesthetic is an 18/19th century drawing room. The sort of place the First Sea Lord of the Admiralty would gather his underlings to discuss an expedition to the Northwest Passage, all while sipping a big glass of brandy. Something like this :

Or perhaps this :

Or this :

I want it to look rich and dark. I want it to be cosy. I want it to be ornate. I want gleaming brass instruments that look functional but don't actually do anything useful. I want everything to have unnecessary detail. And - and this is the important bit - I want the walls to be covered in maps. Basically, I want the exact opposite of the IKEA design philosophy.

Of course this project suffers from a few teeny-weeny limitations :

  • I have a 3x3m space to work with
  • I'll need to transport most of my stuff at some point when we eventually get a permanent* home
  • I'm not a millionaire.
* Whoever decided to coin the term "forever home" was a linguistically deplorable moron.

Still, there's a lot that can be done within those restrictions. And now I'm going to annoy the heck out of y'all but not having taken a picture before I got started...

Initially I had nothing on the walls at all, which I really do not like. So finally I got around to hanging a couple of old maps, one of Prague (I got it free in a shop years ago) and one of the world (I had a much bigger version back in Puerto Rico but was unable to transport it, and to my annoyance posters are a lot more expensive here for some reason).

Not at all easy to photograph because of the lighting and room size. They look a lot nicer in reality.

These are okay, but as things progressed I began to find them inadequate. So now they're relegated to the mezzanine area*, where they're doing a decent job of making the walls look better than if they were blank.

* We actually have a large and very comfortable flat, but it doesn't really make ideal use of the space - hence my tiny office room.

All maps are hung with plastic poster hangers, which are a great alternative to traditional frames - those are vastly more expensive, non-transportable, and size-restricted. I'd have preferred something more wooden, but finding the right size is tricky. I should add a fourth constraint that everything for this project needs to be available in or ships affordably to the Czech Republic, which can be surprisingly difficult.

After this prelude, the first real task was the sofa. This came with the flat and is fine in itself, but the cheap red IKEA throw I bought years ago now seemed less of a pleasantly inexpensive addition and more of a horribly garish detraction. What am I, a bullfighter ? I wanted something more astronomical, so after a good deal of searching I eventually found this one. I was willing to spend quite a bit more than for the bog-standard stuff, but something in me rebels very strongly against a throw costing much more than about £50*, so finding one that also reached the necessary size took some considerable searching.

* As a rule, I'm against expensive fabrics. I mean, it's a piece of cloth, for heaven's sake. It doesn't do anything except sit there waiting to be stolen by astro-pirates.

Next (I think - the order might not be correct) came a globe - surely an essential part of any map room. I was quite tempted by a more fancy version, but in the end I settled on a very cheap brass/gold-effect model with an overall aesthetic that I like very much. It's amusingly inaccurate, claiming that Puerto Rico is part of the UK for some reason (it isn't and never was; our attempt at invasion resulted in 10,000 soldiers getting dysentery). It's also a bit wonky and the grid lines don't match up, but I like it very much anyway. It just looks nice, which is all I need it to do.

The miniature Stonehenge, oddly, sort of works.

I believe the next step was the rug. Again much searching in order to find one of the right design and size. While I hadn't initially planned on this blue and gold colour scheme, it was very important that everything be self-consistent. No longer would I tolerate a higgledy-piggledy mixture of styles, because the First Sea Lord of the Admiralty certainly wouldn't put up with such shenanigans. So I found this one, which I am thoroughly satisfied with. 

Now we're getting somewhere. Next, I think, came more accessories. In my protracted searching I came across armillary spheres, which you often see large versions in country gardens. This led me to the wonderful Etsy site, which is a great place for inspiration if nothing else. It's got tonnes of armillary spheres and similar products, but suffers from not all stores taking ordinary payment methods - some only do Pay Pal, which is extremely irritating. Eventually I found one for an acceptable price on ordinary old Amazon.

The armillary sphere is a simple way of tracking the positions of the stars throughout the year. The elaborate brass construction is exactly what I'm going for, although the size was disappointing. I spent a long time searching for an affordable option which would closely match the globe in size, so they'd pair nicely as earth and sky. But this one is considerably smaller than advertised. Later, as you can see, I purchased a second, more expensive model, but to my great irritation this was exactly the same size. I left a negative review of the seller on Amazon and used them as a flanking pair to the globe instead. Not exactly what I wanted, but it does the job. Plus I get to make endless jokes about how my big brass balls are too small, so there's that.

Probably at this point I started replacing the maps. I wanted a more genuinely ancient appearance than the accurate vintage style poster I already had. At this point Redbubble entered my sphere of consciousness, and it must be said that this is a truly excellent - if somewhat expensive - site. Their choice of maps is vast, and you can get all the designs printed on a veritable plethora of different products. 

But in the end, finding posters of the right size, design and cost proved too difficult. Rebubble's main annoying limitation is you can't customise the size of the posters. I circumvented this by doing custom poster printing directly through a local service. This is rather cheaper than Redbubble for posters of the same size, and the print quality is excellent. Their "advertising posters" are apparently meant to be viewed from a large distance but honestly you could jam them in your eye and the resolution would still look great, apart from all the blood getting in the way. Plus them come on matte paper which looks an awful lot better than glossy photo prints. They get very unfairly low reviews on Google Maps - every time I used them, the service was excellent.

Anyway, after much searching I found two publicly available high-resolution scans of historical maps. One of these came about because I remembered a gorgeous image in a book I have : The Sky Atlas by Edward Brooke-Hitching. If you like maps and space, then this is the book for you. My favourite image was the horoscope of Iskandar Sultan, grandson of the should-be-much-more-notorious Tamerlane. Showing the planetary alignment at the time of his birth, it's a fabulously intricate and opulent piece of work, and looks great as a printed poster. It also matches perfectly with the colour scheme of the rug and throw.

Next a more conventional map for the opposing wall behind my monitor. For this I found a 1630 Dutch map which was the first to be published in an atlas and one of the first to show Australia. I chose it entirely based on the design and colour scheme.

It's interesting to see the evolution of styles in maps through the centuries. Medieval maps tend to be elaborate cartoons. Renaissance and Enlightenment era works are more informative but still gloriously rich works of art. Later pieces tend to reduce the purely decorative elements to a minimum, while the modern versions usually strive for accuracy above all else and use only the data itself to create anything you could call "art". Personally, it's the 17th-18th century styles I find most appealing, though I do like the later Victorian designs as well.

I think at about this point it became necessary to do something about the IKEA tables. I considered replacing them, but the design I want is usually very expensive and they'd be difficult to transport when we eventually move. I did add two small sets of bamboo drawers, which look nice enough and hold enough stuff to significantly reduce clutter, but for some reason a small set of darker drawers with brass handles proved nigh-on impossible to find.

For the tables, Shirley had the bright idea to use contact paper. This is much cheaper than getting a replacement and the results do look very convincing. Applying it is quite some hours of work for even a small table, however - it's quite a fiddly process, and at all stages you have to continually smooth out air bubbles. The final results are not perfect, but they are more than adequate for my needs. You really can't see the defects unless you go looking for them.

We're almost at the end of the "look at all the lovely things I bought, aren't I a good capitalist" section. The penultimate step was to have some ornamentation for the side table. What I really wanted was a vintage style constellation globe, but for some reason affordable replicas of these just don't exist. The armillary sphere looked nice for a while, but when the big brass lamp I ordered eventually arrived, it just looked a bit sad and lonely, and I was in no mood for a third attempt at getting one of the correct size.

There are three main items on my wish list for my ideal permanent office. One is a brass astrolabe. Another is a drinks globe. The third is a working brass orrery. All of these are just too expensive, but my searching had revealed many wooden alternatives. I settled on this tellurion, which is a type of orrery limited to the Sun, Earth and Moon. This sounds simply but actually to ensure accurate rotation periods the gearing system is quite complex, and this intricate appearance is something I'm very keen on. There are a number of versions of this available but this particular model sold itself by the size, design, and the fact that it's a Ukrainian company. How could I say no to that ?

Finally, the old red cushions on the sofa were now looking just plain silly in contrast to the dark blue throw, and the galaxy conference towel and Welsh flag draped over the side rail (my office is on the mezzanine above the bedroom) just didn't just it. So for the finishing touches, the most expensive part of the process took me back to Redbubble. For this I ordered four cushion covers and two "tapestries". The cushions consist of two medieval world maps and two Sun/star mandala designs. The wall hangings are archaic maps of the northern and southern sky hemispheres, showing the constellations as mythical figures.

Et voila, my miniature map room is almost complete.

But not quite. With most other blank space now full of colour and pattern, the wall space next to the bookshelf (which you can't really see here) began to look increasingly empty and in need of filling. For this I decided I needed to really make the space feel like my own by making my own poster from scratch. 

As the area of the sky I've spent far the most time investigating, I chose the Virgo galaxy cluster. You may have seen some of my efforts on this before, but for this I needed something different. I needed a map that prioritised atheistic over information content, filled with purely decorative elements and prepared to sacrifice - if necessary - accuracy*. At the same time, I felt as much information as possible should be preserved and I would far rather simply omit information rather than doing anything as perverted as altering any.

* In the old-style depictions of modern information, I was heavily inspired by Eleanor Lutz, although her stuff definitely doesn't compromise on accuracy. 

This is what I came up with - my attempt at how the Virgo Cluster would have been depicted in the 18th century :

A clearer view of the image itself can been seen here. Fun to do as a one-off but it would be hell if regular publication figures were expected to conform to this sort of styling...

I made it using a customised version of my data visualisation tool FRELLED, which I spent a lot of lockdown time recoding. Making this map actually helped me to finally realise that sky axes on scales this large need to be curved, though this still needs to be properly implemented into the main code. I customised FRELLED so I could import each component on separate layers, which was essential when combining and managing so many different elements.

The map shows pretty much all the known galaxies in the Virgo Cluster Catalogue, except for a few which had to be hidden by the text. Major structures within the cluster are labelled, following Boselli et al. 2014. I deliberately avoided drawing boundaries between the different structures, however, because it really isn't possible to define these very precisely. I also added X-ray contours from the ROSAT X-ray satellite (a file I was fortunate to have from many years back, as this is very difficult to find), which is a crucial component of the cluster as it's widely believed to have a dominating influence on galaxy evolution. And then around the sides we have the Virgo figure herself, a key explaining the different galaxies plotted, the location of the cluster in the larger constellation, and scales to indicate the size at the different distances of cluster sub-structures. I kept this in the conventional unit of Mpc, not light years, because this is a map for me and not for public outreach. Note also the compass indicates that east and west are reversed, as is astronomical convention.

There was nothing particularly complicated about making the map - it was largely just a matter of iterations. By far the most time-consuming part of this was labelling all the galaxies. There are several thousand of the little buggers, and as new components were added, these labels had to be moved and resized several times. This part wasn't fun, but it's very satisfying that just about every galaxy label is visible and legible.

For the rest, I thought about adding stuff about the dark hydrogen clouds I study, but I decided this would be too technical*. Similarly, I could have added boundaries of other surveys besides the VCC, or added different selections of the galaxies from multi-wavelength catalogues. This too would have resulted in an overly-complicated appearance. I kept it simple : optically selected galaxies from the three major catalogues of the area**, with the figures of the major observes shown in little portraits : Charles Messier (who catalogued fuzzy blobs for the explicit purpose of not being confused with comets, note the decoration above his frame), John Dyer (who compiled the New General Catalogue, though I think there's a typo and he should actually be Dreyer), and Bruno Bingelli (who produced the indispensable Virgo Cluster Catalogue, a true bible for Virgo studies). 

* Someday I would love to have a true atlas of the cluster, showing the distribution of different structures - different galaxy types, redshifts, wavelengths, in all the various parts of the cluster. A man can dream...
* Which range in time from the 18th century to the present day. This means that giving the galaxies symbols which are sized based on which catalogue they were first recorded in is a reasonable proxy for their true size and brightness, since the earliest catalogues could only detect the biggest, brightest galaxies.

As to the purely decorative elements, most of these are, ummm, acquired from the internet. This being a case of something which is only ever going on my wall, I didn't pay much attention to where I got the clipart from (hence this one will never be made available at full resolution, let alone for sale). My major contribution to this was the swirly pattern found within parts of the purple bordering, especially around the portraits - this is so intricate that even on the final gigantic 12k x 8k resolution print, the finest details are unresolved. Which was probably overkill but never mind.

So that's the saga of my mini map room. It's basically complete now, except for the need to apply contact paper to the big black bookshelf and some minor odds and ends. It may not be my dream study, but it's a heck of a lot closer than the the IKEA standard I had before. And all for less than the price of an Oculus Quest - not a bad spring project, and it finally got me doing artwork again. Hooray !

Monday, 28 March 2022

The Long Dark Tea-Time Of The Soul

Following on from my previous post, I've been keeping a diary of events to try and help my mental health. This has generally been very helpful. As the war enters its second month, I'm in a vastly better place than I was a few weeks ago. My fears about imminent nuclear brinkmanship have come to nothing. While I would hardly say everything is tickety-boo, I'm more convinced than ever (at a deep, gut level) that WWIII is at worst a remote possibility. I'm not having more than the occasional brief moment of worry any more. Most of the time, I can go about my day as normal.

So let's take a look back at the month. At the end I'll try and summarise my thinking and what's helped keep me calm. Most of this is taken directly from my notes, lightly edited. Remarks added later are in square brackets.


Day 8 of the invasion and day 4 after Putin's nuclear remarks, and I'd largely succeeded in talking myself down into a state of lower-level dread. Pretty much all intelligence experts agree that this was not a specific threat or indicative of intent. Thinking it over, nuclear weapons are only ever a deterrent. There is absolutely no point in a "surprise" launch (which is basically impossible) because the attacker would themselves be destroyed. So you use them to threaten people, making them think you're mad and bad enough to actually do it. Which means you issue ultimatums - if you don't, you're wasting your strongest message. So for the Kremlin to say the remarks were in response to comments about fighting NATO troops [and - for heaven's sake, Liz Truss (!)] means nothing much at all, really - it is status quo that a Russia/NATO war risks becoming a nuclear conflict. All Putin did was send a signal to reinforce that; and again, intelligence experts say there's been no actual changes on the ground whatsoever. Moreover, if Russia actually wanted WWIII, it would already have started it. Far more likely, Putin wants Ukraine as a symbol of strength and achievement. This message is "keep out NATO", not, "I want to watch the world burn".

Still, I had quite a moment of anxiety at lunchtime after (somewhat ironically) the Russian foreign secretary said they weren't contemplating WWIII but that the Americans were. Now, this has already been completely buried in the BBC's live feed and few other networks have deemed it important enough to make anything out of. It rattled me because it felt a bit... pretexty. But again, unless a specific demand is attached to it, it could mean anything. This is the same guy who conceded that Russia would acknowledge Zelensky as the President of Ukraine, so very mixed messages there. He might be a windbag. He might be a genuine nutter. Or he might be trying to remain scary while making diplomatic concessions. I don't know nearly enough to judge.

[Worth remembering also that plenty of Western politicians use high-handed rhetoric and hyperbole.]

Going for walks does help, as does reducing how often I check the live feed. Going to the office was a mixed bag : we had a horrible lunchtime discussion on Tuesday, but when asked if people thought it was really going to happen, the responses were "No" and "almost non-existent". I guess it's easy to have black humour when you don't really believe something is at all likely. The others are concerned, and depressed about the situation in Ukraine, but I don't think they're actually much worried about WWIII. If the Russians would kindly keep the nuclear rhetoric down for a few days, and NATO would kindly keep repeating that they won't get involved, then perhaps I can calm down a bit more.

[I will stress that this lunchtime discussion was truly awful. Afterwards I felt much like running into a hole again.]


Day 12 of the invasion and day 8 after the nuclear remarks. I have good days and bad days. Needless to say, the morning when a nuclear power station was - briefly - on fire was a very bad day. One other morning I woke up at about 3am and spent the next two hours entirely consumed by an anxiety I've never previously experienced about anything. It was... not good.

What's helping a lot is a very heavy news detox. I've removed the BBC News app from my phone (I tried keeping my phone in a cupboard at night, but it didn't really help much) and the hyperlink from my web browser. Although of course I can if I really want to still just go to the website, I don't. Part of the habitual news-checking is the physical action of clicking a specific button - the action of typing in the address, on the other hand, isn't a thing, and I'm not going to let it become one.

A big part of the problem, I think, is that the live feed [the online text one which gives short stories and clips every few minutes or so] implicitly reports everything with the same level of seriousness. 24 hour televised news still at least has expert curation as to what's likely to be important, whereas the live web feed has no such filter. Everything reported is given the same priority, urgency, and credence, all of which is purely chronological. This I can manage just fine for other stories, but not this one - particularly as I'm just not familiar with Russian politics. So I've instead replaced my news with the very short hourly summaries on the radio and asking Shirley. This is sufficient to sate my curiosity and quell the desperate need to check for updates without feeding me excessive information. 

And excessive information is another big factor in anxiety, I think - that morning I went off the rails into a dark hole of wild speculations, imagining all kinds of horrible things I might see popup on the news feed, none of which had any basis in reality. It was, as I say, not good. I've never got myself into such a state about any news story before, ever. Fortunately, eventually I went through so many permutations that my brain actually fizzled out and the rest of the day was much, much better.

Another part of the problem is that I tend to be very analytical... but I can't be rationally analytical at 3am, and it's very hard to quiet my mind when something stressful pops in. But, so far, the heavy news detox does seem to be helping tremendously. Again, when I do think things through calmly and clearly, I invariably come out feeling better. Is Putin horrible ? Yes. Is he stupid ? Morally yes, analytically it's more a mixed bag. Is he suicidal ? Very much no. Does he act from pure self-gratifying malevolence ? No, he's goal-oriented, it's just that those goals are lamentable. Is he deliberately provoking the west ? Again no - we haven't seen any build-up of troops near any other borders, nor - rather surprisingly - even any threats against trying to import weapons. I got fixated on the idea that NATO would consider a no-fly zone, but NATO aren't stupid or suicidal either, so this isn't going to happen [though to be honest it's only now that I'm feeling more or less completely assured on that front]. These are the major, large-scale facts, which the constant stream of smaller details are all too effective at washing away. The reality seems to me far more likely that both Putin and the West have one common, crucial aim : containment of the hideous situation to within Ukraine's borders. If he really thought he could challenge western power, he'd have made far more demands already than simply reinforcing the status quo. 

Another quote has been running around my head that helps quite a lot :
Men are not as weak as he supposed; there is courage still, strength enough perhaps to challenge him. Sauron fears this. He will not risk the peoples of Middle-Earth uniting under one banner.
Perhaps it's the frequency of information coupled with a lack of priority which led me to a wholly irrational belief that there was going to be a seismic change in events at any moment. Technically, this could happen. It is entirely sensible to be concerned. But my anxiety was becoming outright debilitating, and this level of fear, I am increasingly persuaded, is just not called for. There is no need for this level of despair, and we're a very long way from that becoming the case. What's happening is awful, but we've endured far worse than this before.


Day 14. Two steps forward, one step back. Decoupling from the news has helped a lot. Overall I'm doing very much better than I was, but I still have moments where I'm thrown right back into the pit.

Yesterday I mainly had a good day. I went for a long sunny walk and I tried again to consider the big picture facts : Russia has not mobilised any additional troops anywhere; the Belarussian forces haven't moved;  it took at least a year of planning for this operation and months to assemble the army and it's going badly. Russia has deployed the entire assembled force and it's nowhere near enough for occupation [estimates I've seen as to the numbers required for occupation range from 500-800,000 troops]. While we shouldn't trust anything Russia says, that Putin says the demilitarisation is almost complete, and the Russian demands of Ukraine aren't ludicrous (reportedly dropping the requirement for demilitarisation, which makes sense if Putin says Russia has accomplished this anyway), the overall picture is one of an over-committed army that's looking for an exit strategy (note also the protests even in Siberia - this is not at all a popular war). Being a pathological bullshitter, Putin's way to save face is to simply declare victory and go home, preferably - though not necessarily - after having extracted at least some tangible concession from Ukraine. Perhaps we're looking at weeks until the end of the conflict rather than months ? I dare to hope, but it's only hope, not a prediction.

On the western front, America's firm rejection of the plan for them to deliver Poland's Mig-29's indicates that they are indeed very wary of triggering any larger conflict, even as they publicly state that Russia's nuclear threat is a bluff (and Russia clearly isn't in a position to wage a larger war, despite their claims to the contrary). This strongly indicates that neither side is seeking conflict and are even trying to de-escalate it : the west by maintaining arm's length; Russia by high rhetoric threats. The risk of a NATO-Russia war thus appears very low. We should take Russian threats seriously but not cower in fear : hold the line and the economic approach may very well work. It might not dethrone Putin, sadly, but it can halt, perhaps, the conflict.

(I'm aware that there might be an element of denial in all this, but right now this is all I've got.)

Yesterday here was an incident in Chernobyl being disconnected from the power supply. This made me feel a bit nervous, but nowhere near the pseudo-panic it would have triggered a few days ago. Nuclear experts quickly announced that there was little cause for immediate concern, which helped a good deal.

Having been able to cope with this, what really triggered me was a woefully misleading headline. I've deleted the BBC app and hyperlink, but I still check my Feedly periodically. This is generally safe as a way of getting very short summaries of what's going on, plus the news there is diluted by other non-political sources. But I happened to see it at an inopportune moment, which showed a breaking news headline from the Independent that Russia was considering using chemical weapons. It took me some time to calm down, and I had to get Shirley to summarise it for me : it turns out to be no more than speculation as to what might eventually happen, not an immediate or even very credible threat.

[These moments really are absolutely debilitating. I go into a panic, not knowing where I want to be or what I want to do with myself. It is punch-in-the-gut incapacitating.]

Right now I'm calm and stable again. To be on the safe side, I'm disconnecting from the news almost completely and relying exclusively on Shirley for summaries. For now, that's about all I can do.


Day 15 : As we begin week 3 of the invasion, my mental health continues to be a case of two steps forward one step back.

I took great comfort from the EU categorically rejecting any rapid accession of the Ukraine, especially Macron's statement that they shouldn't admit any country currently at war [this prospect at been gnawing away in the back of my mind for some time]. The West continues a very strong policy of refusing to even risk escalating the crisis. How Russia would react to suddenly finding themselves fighting in an EU country is far too big a risk to contemplate. I did expect the EU not to really consider any sort of instant-entry proposal, but this rejection is quite a bit firmer than that, which I'm glad of. I take further comfort in that my fears that we were days away from nuclear brinkmanship have been considerably undermined by the passage of time. I can't say they've been alleviated completely - I still do worry about that - but they have at least receded.

Today's issue is more of a mixed bag. The chemical weapons allegations have alas not gone away, with Russia accusing the US of helping the Ukraine develop such weapons. This does not feel as pretexty to me as it might have done a week or so ago, at least not in the same way... again because Russia is in absolutely no position to mount a further offensive against anyone. Rather, as Britain and America are saying (and for all the faults of Western intelligence in recent years, they seem to be very much on the money lately concerning Russia), it's more likely that this is intended as a justification for Russia to take further action only within Ukraine. It could be them using chemical weapons themselves (but even in this most extreme case, even Zelensky has said that in this case Russia could only face "further sanctions") or just an increase in the intensity of the offensive. Russia could then claim a victory over America without any need to escalate the crisis beyond the Ukrainian border (why blame the Americans at all ? Probably because absolutely nobody would believe the Ukrainians would have such capability by themselves - that would be a claim too far even for Russian propoganda). It's trying, very badly, to rally support for Russia, which is simply not going to work. Whether it's actually planning to use chemical weapons I don't know, but it's now more reassuring that Western officials already made such a speculative announcement before the Russians did - in the past, pre-empting their false flag operations does seem to have been successful. And if Russia doesn't use them or mount a stronger offensive, it can then claim a propaganda victory : look, we said we weren't planning anything, and we didn't. No-one will believe them, but that doesn't matter much.

The real problem for me is that Russia is such a pathological liar. They threatened the West with instant destruction pending any interference, which simply hasn't happened. They've had limited success with setting up humanitarian corridors. They said they weren't going to invade but then they did. On the other hand they've insisted it's not an occupation, and it probably isn't because it's much too small. So fathoming Russia's goal is mind-wrenchingly torturous. This unpredictability makes the ongoing crisis difficult to handle.

Still, today I don't feel half as bad as I would have done even a few days ago. I feel tense, concerned, but not panicky and not wanting to crawl into a hole. I continue a heavy news detox, and remind myself that there has been an issue-of-the-day practically every day so far. But I am more confident now that Russia's bullshit is not aimed at some grand reconquest of the Soviet Empire (at least not in the immediate future), but rather some piss-poor effort to paint themselves as the victims, to justify what they're doing but not to actively seek a suicidal conflict with the formidable might of the west. They are playing mind games, actively seeking to make themselves unpredictable. But actually soliciting conflict beyond the Ukraine - it doesn't seem so. They want to appear as scary yet victims, a powerfully effective source of confusion in the short-term. Of course, in the long term this is a terrible strategy, because no-one will trust them at the negotiating table.

Thinking it over some more, if the Russians were really angling for an excuse to challenge the west, then according to their own standards of rhetoric they have more than enough justification already. "Don't interfere or we'll instantly wipe out the world", they said. The west openly supplies the Ukrainians with weapons and Russia does nothing. Russia responds to economic sanctions only with counter-sanctions. Far more likely, then, this business of the chemical weapons is all about Russian pathetically trying to justify whatever horrible action it's planning in Ukraine, not a challenge to America itself.

Still, I must be braced for Russia continuing to do horrible things in Ukraine, and for the situation there to remain turbulent. This is a reality I must learn to accept for the foreseeable future.


Day 18 : Continued cautious optimism. No further threats from Russia against the West, Biden reaffirms no military intervention, military convoy remains stalled, Russia doing very badly in Ukraine (no additional troops mobilised, no action from Belarusian forces), peace talks are apparently making progress (!) according to Ukrainian, US and Russian sources (!! - consensus here worth remembering in the midst of the rhetoric and shelling). Humanitarian situations continues to be appalling. US says Russia has asked China for military assistance, but China completely denies this and says it's trying to foster talks and respects the sovereignty of Ukraine. It seems very difficult to believe that China would militarily support Russia, it just does not fit any pattern - there is far more for them to gain by acting as peacemakers here than belligerents (there was a BBC article a couple of weeks ago about why Russia can't expect much from China despite their professed support, but I can't find it now). Chinese support for Russia largely appears to be superficial. I do not get the impression of China being as duplicitous as Russia when it comes to saying one thing and doing another (at least internationally, I think they want to be seen to respect treaties and diplomatic norms - they have after all publicly supported Russia many times, for them not to do so here is surely telling); I think they have a much more genuine desire to be seen as doing the right thing even if they don't actually want to do it.

Chemical weapons thing has faded into the background, could all just be bullshit. Power restored at Chernobyl. Again, remember "issue of the day" changes constantly. Note also that Chinese thing is not even the top headline, or even on the radio news at all. Could be entirely bullshit.

So long as China continues to play a neutral/peacemaker role, I'm less anxious of any imminent threat of WWIII. I cannot see China making a sudden, radical shift - that does not fit their pattern at all. It feels just credible enough to warrant concern, but not so likely as to necessitate worry. Worst case : China might send Russia a fig leaf of military equipment and/or limited ways to mitigate the economic sanctions. Best case : China condemns Russian action and doubles down on trying to facilitate peace talks. Most likely ? They remain neutral but intensify calls for peace, being one of the few countries in a position to bring Russia back into the fold. China is nowhere near ready for a larger conflict, and that Russia is so desperate to ask them for support would seem to make them look weak in the eyes of the Chinese.

Basically :
- Pre-invasion, China sides with Russia on many issues that the rest of the world disagrees with
- China goes neutral when Russia invades Ukraine
- China says it respects sovereignty, wants to foster talks, and calls the invasion a war : this is a hair's breadth from condemning Russia
- China denies Russia has even asked for assistance
- China then decides to send Russia weapons ? This would just not make sense. The Chinese seem to be quite open and consistent when they do support Russia, it would be a major change if they flipped into bullshitting here. Remaining at arm's length, stopping short of condemning but not providing any significant, tangible assistance seems more likely.

I had really hoped that the chemical weapons thing might have been part of an exit strategy : look, we stopped these horrible weapons, Ukraine is demilitarised, we can go home now. Looks more likely now that it's part of a justification for the war instead... but this doesn't mean Russia isn't still seeking an exit strategy, given their reported very high losses and progress in the peace talks.

A couple of points of Russian consistency throughout their bullshit : they say it's not an invasion and they're not going to occupy. They can therefore, when they choose, deem the country to be adequately "demilitarised" and "de-nazified" whenever they so wish and leave, at least the north-west of Ukraine. The "de-nazi" thing is strange, but given that there are no Nazis in Ukraine, this enables them to leave whenever these imaginary threats have been neutralised. They might just have used the phrase because everyone hates the Nazis, but it could also be a get-out clause because no objective, measurable action is required to declare the place free of Nazis that never existed.

Another thing : Russia hasn't advanced any additional troops, neither has Belarus. Both are clearly willing (morally and politically), so the most likely explanation is that they're unable. For whatever reason, further troops are not possible [in the case of Belarus, probably because the departure of the army would mean the fall of the government; there are various rumours about Russia, including one claim that about 85% of their combat-capable troops are in Ukraine, meaning they just don't have anything else to send]. Other sources have been mooted and thus far rejected. The Kiev convoy has stalled. Russian losses may not be as high as Ukraine claims but they're clearly higher than Russia planned or expected, and their speed of advance is far worse than anticipated. Simultaneously, peace talks are are agreed by all sides to be making progress and the war remains hugely unpopular in Russia.

Overall : failed military strategy for an unpopular war with increasingly promising diplomatic efforts. The words "exit strategy" seem to loom large, barring the more apocalyptic rhetoric. Yet Chinese support seems almost a bizarre idea. While we cannot rule out an escalation of the conflict, this is desired by no-one. If Russia could find a military solution it surely would use it, but that even Putin is willing to say the talks are going well suggests that a diplomatic solution may yet prevail. Of course, even in the best case Ukraine will be rebuilding for years, and this won't solve the fundamental problem. But the immediate crisis, at least, might pass. Nothing, however, can yet be taken for granted - the situation is as yet too unstable and unclear, and remains perilously unpredictable.


Day 20 : the words "exit strategy" grow louder and louder. Zelensky seems willing to bend on the NATO issue while Russia is no longer demanding surrender/demilitarisation. Russia left itself an important get-out clause by never claiming it wanted to occupy Ukraine. Continued lack of threats against the west (though Poland was worried about stray missiles, that seems to have been another issue-of-the-day) and only petty sanctions as any form of response from Russia. Ukrainians stepping up their counter-offensive, and some now expect the war could be over in weeks, and even the Russian foreign minister (he of "America is planning a nuclear attack" nonsense) says a compromise can be reached ! Another Russian general reported killed, and a test pilot awarded "Hero of Russia" status comes out against the war, together with a Russian former deputy PM.

Zelensky continues to call for a no-fly zone, which still makes me anxious, but less so than before because it's been rejected so many times - he basically asks for this daily and everyone says, "hell no". I saw a social media story claiming that the Chinese have "responded positively" to Russian requests for military equipment, and this too triggered some minor anxiety - it was a day or so old and hasn't been picked up by any major sources, so is unlikely to be true, or if true then not very significant. Military equipment is a very long way from direct involvement (as per the western countries continuing to supply arms), and "responded positively" could mean anything.

So far the Issue Of The Day has been :
- Russia planning to nuke the West
- Ukrainian calls for a no-fly zone, i.e. NATO declaring war on Russia
- A fire close to a nuclear reactor
- Chernobyl losing power
- Poland trying to send MiGs to Ukraine
- The possibility of Ukraine being instantly admitted to the EU
- Missiles straying into Poland
- Claims that Russia is planning to use chemical weapons
- Claims that China could provide assistance
So far, none of these have actually been significant. This does not mean there isn't a real risk - there is. But news media tends by its nature to exaggerate the significance of each development, and/or the probability that it will lead to something more serious. There is also disinformation from the West, of course, despite not having any direct military involvement.

Big picture : unless the Russians manage to procure significant supplies, they are stuck. There does seem a real chance for a diplomatic solution in a matter of weeks. It all depends on whether the Chinese are willing to provide significant levels of aid or not. They might well send some token assistance, but whether they would be able/willing to provide enough for Russia to get back on track with its military solution seems much less likely. They could also simply be trying to remain in Russia's good books and not actually send much of anything, or drag their heels.

Thinking it over, the story may not add any data at all. The Chinese claim the request itself didn't even happen. This may still be US intelligence again aiming to pre-empt anything.

Are we playing Disaster Bingo ? Yes, somewhat... but we're probably NOT playing Apocalypse Bingo. Probably.

I have to acknowledge that the Chinese thing has got me a bit rattled though. Whereas before I was absolutely normal, now I'm a bit on-edge again. But nothing remotely like panic. I guess I should still stay off social media for a bit and continue to avoid the news - we're not out of the woods yet and I'm not in a fit enough state to properly handle it.


Day 21 : There being no further mention of China, that seems to have been yet another Issue Of The Day. Putin has said some nasty things about traitors, but seems much angrier at his own lot than the west - again no threats or warnings issued (no further mentions of the N-word, touch wood !!!), only statement that Russia will survive the sanctions. This suggests that the war is going very badly indeed, especially since he says it's going well. On the negotiation front, there appears to be a further compromise that discussion of the status of the breakaway regions could be left out. Diplomacy seems ever-more hopeful.

With things going in such an upward direction (in terms of avoiding WWIII), it's harder to resist the temptation to check the news. However, it's still a mistake to check Feedly, with the Pope warning against the dangers of nuclear war - that's not something I can handle yet.

... I fell for the mistake and saw a silly scare story in the Mirror, saying Putin was watching Britain's "terrible error". This was woefully misleading. The quote was not from Putin at all, but a UK army officer saying it was our "terrible error" to cut defence spending. There is nothing of substance here at all, so once again, checking Feedly - at least too often - is a huge mistake ! Still, reading it and realising it wasn't anything like what I feared did calm me back down pretty quickly.


Day 25 : Generally I've been okay lately. The war appears to have reached an impasse. No further progress from Russian troops, which is good, but peace talks have stalled as well. This is disappointing, but not unexpected - I was not so hopelessly optimistic as to expect a smooth process, which was just never going to happen. Nothing further on chemical weapons or China either. I've had a few moments, but nothing like previous incidents. Again, more Issues-Of-The-Day :
- A stupid story in the Mirror about Britain doing routine movement of its nuclear warheads, which is absolutely nothing abnormal except for the circumstances. But honestly, given that our missiles are all on submarines, this makes zero difference [I deleted the Mirror and the Metro from my Feedly, as both of these are too sensationalist]
- Johnson wanting to advance the Ukraine's interests at an upcoming NATO summit. Again means nothing, no hint of anything beyond sanctions/sending equipment
- Russia using two hypersonic missiles. That they haven't used more [a week later, still nothing else] strongly suggests they can't - either they're slow to deploy or they just don't have very many of them [or they don't work as well as claimed]. Given their obvious advantages, it makes no sense for Russia to hold back unless they have a very good reason indeed, i.e. for whatever reason they CAN'T use them, just as they can't mobilise more troops. So this is a [probably] real but very much long-term problem, not a short-term reason to panic.
- A silly statement about Biden (note : from an advisor, NOT Biden himself) supporting allies if they decided to send troops. This is frankly ridiculous, and not picked up by any major sources, because it's nothing more than a sentiment of support. The chance of sending in troops, given that a no-fly zone has been so often ruled out, is practically nil. The US has, much more broadly, ruled out military intervention itself, not just the specifics of troops and aircraft. So this really just reinforces Article 5. There is no way the US will send troops, and no way anyone else would be stupid enough to unilaterally send troops without a coherent plan of attack including the US and allies.
- The fact that there IS an upcoming NATO summit. This too means very little - of course there will be, given the circumstances, but there seems no reason at all for NATO to take any more direct action right now.
- The Russian ultimatum to Mariupol. I feared they might be threatening some more drastic action, but in fact it now seems it "only" means they close the humanitarian corridors, hoping to starve them out. That the Ukrainian troops don't feel the need to surrender is encouraging; given all the warnings they had, they ought to be well-provisioned for a siege. Russia might perhaps be running out of options altogether, especially given an apparent decline in their number of airstrikes.

[At this point we went on a week long holiday to Germany, March 18th-26 or day 22-30] 


Day 26 : I do feel safer here, about 60 miles from the nearest major city. We're really in the middle of nowhere. I wish we could stay until the situation really cools down... There are hardly any Ukrainian flags in Germany. [Unlike Prague, where they are everywhere. This is encouraging as a symbol of unity, but as a constant reminder of the situation it's not good for anxiety.]

We finally booked our big trip to the UK for June/July, which is something to look forward to. But my mental state is still tied closely to the situation in Ukraine.

The conclusion remains that the vast majority of stories in the media are only marginally significant and sensationalism is a massive problem. I am aware of this, but only consciously. Subconsciously I'm still dealing with all stories having real significance, though I am able to calm myself down very much more rapidly now.

Better news : apparently Turkey says the talks are very close to an agreement, which is much more encouraging. Poland still wants a no-fly zone, but given that they wouldn't even send a few MiGs to the Ukrainians by themselves, and America really, REALLY doesn't want this, this just isn't going to happen. So perhaps things are still looking positive after all.

Rhetoric-wise it makes sense to say, "if our allies initiate anything we will back them." Publicly you more or less have to say this, because you're allies. But it doesn't actually indicate anything significant at all. Behind the scenes, you can tell them, "no, don't do this". You can also make the public statements with some confidence if you know your allies don't actually intend to initiate anything - this has the added benefit of keeping all options open and remaining unpredictable to adversaries.

Reassuringly, NATO decides by unanimous decisions, NOT by voting. So military intervention by NATO is therefore enormously unlikely unless Russia initiates an attack itself. Note also the US saying about Poland's jet plan that that would be a matter for the whole NATO alliance - again, not going to happen.

(A bit more worrying : why does Poland even want to consider western aggression ? It doesn't really matter, since they clearly don't want to initiate anything themselves, but it's still strange. Perhaps they're nervous of Russian intent but believe they will ultimately back down in the face of the overwhelming force NATO could bring to bear. But again, since they're not even willing to send a handful of jets by themselves, this strongly suggests they're aware that their reach exceeds their grasp. Hell, if I were certain - really, absolutely certain - that Russia would back down, I'd be advocating for a no-fly zone too. But I'm nowhere near confident enough to take that risk, and nor, it seems, is Poland when push comes to shove.)


Day 26 : Read an article in the Atlantic yesterday stating the Ukrainians are, very clearly, winning. At least militarily at any rate, obviously not in terms of humanitarian concerns. Russian losses are unsustainable, Ukrainian military losses aren't. Russia hasn't been unable to marshal more forces OR supplies. The only thing western analysts seem to have gotten significantly wrong is in over-estimating Russia's capabilities : they have not, as everyone expected, been able to adapt to delays or learn from their mistakes. Today, Ukraine estimates Russia has three days worth of supplies left. All the west has to do is hold its nerve a little longer - keep giving supplies, hold off on anything direct - and this *may* all soon be over.

[I did not really expect it to be over that quickly, though just as I can't entirely avoid doom-mongering, I also can't completely avoid wild speculations about a positive outcome either.]

Zelensky suggests Ukraine could hold a referendum to commit to not joining NATO. There have been lots of hints that Ukraine was moving in this direction but this is by far the strongest move yet. It is something of a fig leaf to Russia, meeting one of its key demands but without actually changing the status quo in any way, as Ukraine was widely agreed to be years away from joining anyway. This is potentially a major breakthrough, but we'll have to see what the Russians say.

Biden warned about chemical or biological weapons again according to radio headlines. :( Not mentioned in any news feeds yet. Triggers a lot of anxiety again...

I hope this is just another attempt to pre-empt anything, to deter Russia from taking rash action. The other signs all seem to point to a Russian exit strategy : their military failures, their many get-out clauses, the diplomatic progress all point in the same direction. Russia could leave soon and claim their objectives have been achieved. What would a chemical weapons attack gain them except more hatred of the Ukrainians and everything else ??? Yet Russia is not sensible - the sensible thing to do would have been not to invade Ukraine, so a chemical attack fits the narrative of Putin being desperate - desperate for victory in order to cling on to power.

Need to hear headlines from Scala at 12pm to see if they pick this up as well !

Is Biden warning in case NATO would decide to implement a no-fly zone ??? This seems unlikely, since this was ruled out in the previous occasion of a chemical weapon attack.

Feeling tense again, a little shaky, hard to concentrate. Still nothing in other news headlines.

Metadata important ! Something picked up by a single news feed tends to be less important. Note more pessimistic tone of Classic FM news compared to Scala. Scale reported Zelensky statement as important diplomatic concession, Classic FM concentrated on the need for Russia to provide security guarantees for the deal to go ahead.

It's hard to stop the wild speculations from running amok. I even think that Classic FM is playing patriotic music as a prelude to something ! Which is ridiculous.

NOT picked up by Scala, suggesting this is just pure rhetoric. Still nothing on other news feeds either. Likely not significant at all - more of a general warning than about specific intelligence. Shirley also confirms not a specific intelligence warning. Phew !

Ukraine believes the war is almost over ("on the brink of surviving [the invasion]" - an unusual phrase :)). If they really do have only a few days of supplies left... also a twitter feed suggesting that Russians ultimatum on Mariupol was because they really don't want to send in troops, because they'd lose. Have already destroyed most of the city so long-range bombardment just doesn't work. 

All we need to do is stay the course ! Hold on a few more days without doing anything rash ! Which, since Zelensky says they can win, should be easier now than ever... FINGERS FUCKING CROSSED.

Article in the Independent says the war threatens to drag on indefinitely. But this goes much against the grain. That Russian forces aren't advancing doesn't mean they can maintain their position indefinitely. Lacking supplies, no-one can hold out forever. If Russia continues to be unable to resupply its troops, they will eventually (perhaps in short order) be compelled to surrender or be destroyed in a Ukrainian counter-attack.


Day 28 : Day of the NATO summit. A scare story this morning that the Russian deputy ambassador to the UN says Russia has the right to use nuclear weapons if provoked by NATO. Obviously, this made me tense and anxious, but within a few minutes the feeling had passed completely. I'm in a far better state than I was before, at least while I'm here in the middle of nowhere.

Thing is, crucially, what was previously unpredictable and unprovoked has now become a clear pattern. Russia keeps the nuclear thing very quiet unless NATO ever becomes involved - any hint of NATO doing anything direct and they try and look scary again. This particular incident is a rather junior figure (relatively speaking), not a high-ranking Kremlin official, and the story was only picked up by Sky News (mentioned on Scala in passing). The others, even those covering the NATO summit, don't mention it, so again metadata suggests insignificance.

Note that Russian warnings remain vague. They occur in relation to specific events (NATO involvement), but stop far short of stating what counts as "provocation". There is no ultimatum. No mention of NATO supplying weapons. The sole exception to this has been Russia stating that a no-fly zone would be considered an act of war, but this was obvious anyway. The status quo remains unaltered.

[Also, that they are prepared to state specifics when red lines might be crossed strongly suggests that they're not out to act retributively - they are trying to deter, not provoke.]

I'm generally feeling fine, but it's hard to resist the urge to check the news - ironically, because the lack of any focus on the nuclear issue is reassuring ! But checking always gives me a mild sense of dread.

Also worthy of note : Ukraine has indeed recaptured some areas, fought off yet more assaults on Kiev, and NATO (unofficially) estimates that Russian fatalities may indeed be as high as 15,000 - with casualties more generally reckoned from 30-40,000. Also saw a graph of Russian equipment losses being massively and increasingly higher than Ukrainian losses, while the number of Russian airstrikes is on a downward trend. The big picture remains. Militarily, Russia is losing badly. And the first member of Putin's inner circle has quit !

The general pattern seems to be Russian incompetence at every level. Their disinformation campaign has failed utterly (except perhaps within Russia itself, but even there, it clearly hasn't been a stunning success). Their military strategy is shite (the Atlantic again : tanks are not the answer, light infantry can now deal with them effectively). Their economic strategy to avoid the sanctions (if they even have one) does not appear to be working either. I would propose that this incompetence is distinct from stupidity. Stupidity means doing something is innately harmful to oneself. Russia's goal of thumping Ukraine to avoid it joining NATO (or just to aggrandise Putin, doesn't really matter what the motivation is) could in principle work - it's that Russia's management of the details being utterly crap which is its undoing here, not the goal itself. The goal could work if, e.g. there was more support for Russia in Ukraine; Western countries were more disunited/incompetent themselves; the Ukrainians were less determined. 

What exactly is Russia good at here ?

Intimidation, bullshit, and brute force. That's about it.


Day 29 : Two steps forward, one step back. Yesterday Zelensky stopped calling for a no-fly zone, which is huge progress on alleviating that concern. Instead he wants aircraft and tanks, which also seems extremely unlikely. Most leaders say "no", Boris says, "very difficult logistically". Realistically it seems a non-starter.

Ukraine has sunk a large Russian landing craft, and now pushed Russian forces back more than 20 miles away from Kiev.

Hilariously, Russia wants to host Euro 2028 ! Which severely undermines claims they want to destroy the world... sometimes I think this is degenerating into a farce, were it not for the humanitarian catastrophe involved.

Chemical weapons is now by far the biggest concern since Biden said that would trigger "a response in kind". However, he stopped short of directly saying that would mean a military response, and qualified it that the nature of the response would depend on the attack. Still no evidence of credible specific threat, just a personality assessment given that Russia is now actually losing. Statement surely cannot be taken at literal face value since US would never use chemical weapons; by extension, it might not mean a military response at all. Other figures deliberately and explicitly ambiguous, saying "we have to keep Putin guessing". It might also be a case of giving him his own rhetorical medicine, i.e. a deterrent.

Otherwise NATO summit was a mere formality, simply committing to doing the things they'd already pledged informally. 

Johnson not optimistic about peace, yet today there has been the first Russian-Ukrainian prisoner exchange.

I still wake up imagining possible horrible news headlines, but it seems to be fading.

The most worrying thing is that the chemical weapons issue has not gone away, suggesting it is genuinely significant. So far lack of Russian response. I still wish Biden hadn't said this though, even if it is meant as a deterrent...

No response from Russia so far but it belies belief that there won't be something, given how pre-emptively anti-NATO they've been throughout this whole affair. Most optimistic would be a denial of chemical weapons. Most pessimistic would be dialling up the nuclear rhetoric.

NATO must be very confident indeed that Russia is bluffing but I don't think they should go this far !

STILL no Russian response except a re-televising of Putin saying the West is trying to cancel Russia, quoting J. K. Rowling. Righty-ho then. [Again, there are distinct elements of farce to all this. Russia misses a lot of opportunities to be scary...]

From the relatively reliable rumour mill :
- Ukraine killed another general. Russian brigade commander killed by own troops.
- Russia can't keep going for more than another month without additional troops, and is thought not to want to mobilise any more due to unpopularity. May be seeking end by May 9th (WWII anniversary).
- Ukraine may now have more tanks than when they started, thanks to capturing them from the Russians
- Both sides combat efficacy may have peaked
- Reports of outright Ukrainian victory likely exaggerated
- Consensus is most likely war of attrition. Biggest concern is public pressure for NATO intervention if Russia uses any kind of WMDs (but, if even mobilisation of more troops so unpopular in Russia, surely them using WMDs would be even more so ?)


Day 30 : Russia announces first phase complete ! Seems to be in response to being driven off from Kiev. Exactly as hoped, but to a smaller degree, Russia can just claim victory despite overwhelming evidence of defeat. Now focusing (they say) on eastern regions, but not likely to do better there either.

Mixed reports on peace talks.

Hopes of imminent Ukrainian victory should be tempered, but that Russia unwilling to escalate conflict for first phase seems to make it very unlikely they would do so in the second, backup objective.

No response to NATO summit except Putin mentioning J. K. Rowling.


Day 31 : Back in Prague and feelin' fine. Which is rather surprising, but good.

Biden says Putin should be removed from power, but US immediately backtracks that this is not a call for regime change (accidental, off-the-cuff remark.) Russian response muted in the extreme : you don't get to say who are leaders are. Considering their other rhetoric, this seems like a complaint from an elderly Victorian tea lady. Well, how rude ! This will damage relations ! I will bid good day to you sir ! Nor any response to NATO hints of military action if Russia used chemical weapons.

BBC said there was a "strong" response from the Kremlin, but this is absolute garbage : their response was pathetic, and about as weak as could possibly be. Even the BBC does tend to sensationalise and doom-monger.

The Russian mask really appears to be slipping - they've lost their unpredictability. They consistently use fierce rhetoric as a deterrent, and rarely or never as a prelude. Rather, it's when they deny things one should be more worried, e.g. we're not going to invade Ukraine; here they are still genuinely unpredictable. Saw a comment on social media that Putin actively wants war with NATO, but this is nonsense - if he did, he'd have started it already and wouldn't pick Ukraine, nor warn NATO off from interfering. The nuclear thing really does appear to be bluff : not, however, that we should test this under any circumstances. We absolutely shouldn't. But there have been umpteen excuses he could have used to initiate a war with NATO by now and he hasn't, or even issued any threats when such a response would have seemed practically mandatory for a would-be geopolitical terrorist.

Other comment somewhere : Russia has committed ~85% of its entirely offensive combat capability, and it's still not enough. Overall big picture appears ever more clear that Putin has simply made a disastrous miscalculation. [You know things are going badly when your army's fall-back position is the Chernobyl exclusion zone...]

Conclusions so far
1) Geopolitics
There simply does not appear to me to be any desire on either side to initiate a larger conflict, at all. Both sides are if anything striving to avoid this. Russia's dire rhetoric pops up only ever in relation to NATO and rarely or never when nothing else is happening. When NATO does hint at anything, their response is often remarkably tempered or even absent entirely, with the single exception of the prospect of a no fly zone. They are willing to set red lines, but they very rarely do. Tellingly, when it looks like NATO is considering something, they bring up grim and dire hyperbole, but when NATO actually says anything of substance, they say bugger all. This doesn't feel like the actions of someone genuinely willing to follow-through at all.

Would they try and wage a larger war if they could ? Yes. Can they ? Lord no. They've had a whole slew of things they could have made threats about, but in the main, a country which harps on about J. K. Rowling and still wants to host European football in 2028 is hardly in keeping with one threatening a global apocalypse. The overall picture to me now appears almost overwhelming : warnings are issues as deterrents, not actual threats. They should not be pushed, but we should not be cowed either. Clearly, and somewhat bizarrely, they're actually fine with the west supplying Ukraine with thousands upon thousands of missiles, among other things. This simply does not fit Putin's initial "interfere and be destroyed" message at all.

2) Broad lessons on avoiding anxiety
What has helped for me is :
  • Heavy news detox. Remove more sensationalist sources from feeds, remove live feed sources entirely, asking a trusted source for regular summaries to sate curiosity. The latter is very important. Often, the article is nowhere near as scary as the headline, which is why it's better to avoid the sensationalism entirely. The positive benefits of reading the article as massively outweighed by information overload, which leads to wild, unbridled speculation. With less, but more pertinent, information, speculation is reduced to a healthy level and kept infinitely more plausible.
  • Social media is a mixed bag. On the one hand you get things which aren't covered elsewhere, like this phenomenally accurate Twitter thread by an Estonian analyst. Everything predicted here has come to pass. Of course on the other hand you get idiotic comments as well, and the cynicism among some is so high I don't understand how such people don't die of shame. As with the regular media, best used sparingly.
  • When I encounter something scary, I try not to hide from it. It's best to minimise the information intake, but not reduce it to zero. When this means I come across something worrying, so far I've found it invariably better to read the full article (or in extreme cases I get Shirley to summarise it for me) as the actual content is a) far less awful than the headline and b) far less awful than letting my imagination run wild.
  • Regular walks. These greatly help me stay rational and calm my nerves. I allow myself free reign to my thoughts and then think it through as rationally as I can. Invariably I come out in a better place than when I started.
  • Drinking a calming herbal tea. This really takes the edge off things, though it doesn't quash the lower-level anxiety.
  • Getting away for a while. Being in the middle of absolutely nowhere helped a lot. With nothing much to do except read books and work on an art project, and realising that it took just ten hours by train to get there, I realised that escaping Prague is not at all difficult. And it helped to be among people who all seemed to be far less concerned about the situation than certain work colleagues.
  • Talking when anxious. This is essential. It's no good keeping things bottled up. Releasing fears is a bit like grieving, or popping a blister - if you don't do it, it will only get worse. Contrary to folk wisdom, it won't get better if you don't pick at it.
Today I feel essentially fine, and have been on a very much upward trend for the last week or so. I feel neither ecstatic nor despondent, but basically... normal. I've gone through a lot of mood swings over the last few weeks, from feeling I want to crawl into a hole to avoid the imminent bombs, to feeling almost jingoistic and believing that everything would soon be over and that Putin would be replaced with the Teletubbies or something. It's important to recognise that these are feelings, not facts, and that for all people say you should trust your gut, this is often just a bunch of bollocks.

A few weeks ago I really thought I would need to talk to someone professional. But my apocalypse speculations have greatly receded (I would say almost gone), my anxious moments reduced to something absolutely manageable. This is not a result of burying my head in the sand, but through careful information management and emotional awareness. I'm going to continue avoiding live news feeds for the foreseeable future, but I can foresee a time when I could cope with this one again. However, I should stress that a big part of dealing with this has been coming to the sincerely held conclusion that the information suggests not Apocalypse Now, nor Apocalypse Never, but Apocalypse Not Bloody Likely.

3) Analysing the media
Many of these I've explored elsewhere, but it's fascinating for me to experience just how strongly these really do apply. In brief, to rationally analyse the news one should be aware of :
  • Metadata. Don't just read the article, but also consider context (e.g. timing, relation to other events), who said what, who thinks it's significant, how many sources pick up on it. And compare interpretations - some sources are much more pessimistic than others. Reading the raw version (e.g. the text of an original speech) is often highly beneficial compared to the summaries.
  • Sensationalism. Understanding the metadata is vital in understanding whether a story is really significant or just trying to make a sale. For example, when the Metro ran a story about the use of a thermobaric weapon, they felt the need to labour the point that it wasn't a nuclear device. Since the two are nothing alike, there was no need for this except scaring people. Note that even the most reputable sources cannot avoid this entirely, as the authors are only human.
  • Rhetoric. Watch for patterns. In politics things are only rarely meant literally. Things are often said not because they are true, but because saying them has consequences. Essentially : cui bono, but more generalised. Trying to understand the true intent behind making a statement is often more important than the statement itself.
  • Uncertainty and bias. Nothing can be ascertained with certainty, and nothing can be ascertained without bias. By necessity, we must take some sources to be more trustworthy than others. But trust and distrust nothing absolutely - nobody lies the whole time.
  • No-one is a wizard. Recall sensationalist doom-mongering about how Trump would inevitably win despite all the evidence showing that he wouldn't. Putin is contemptible, but he is not a force of unmitigated malevolence, whatever anyone might say. If he were, we'd all be dead by now.
  • Big picture thinking. Getting bogged down in minutiae is enormously unhelpful, both for analysing the situation and for anxiety. Even hearing what leaders say is nowhere near as important as watching what they do. This relates to sensationalism, wherein every minor development is viewed as inevitably changing the entire outcome of a situation. Even more so than with Brexit, with a war this simply isn't the case. If you listen to every piece of information, you'll understand nothing. Look for patterns and trends. Without doing this, it's easy to go off on wild, unbridled, ultra-cynical speculations about every minor development, virtually all of which will turn out to be wrong.
One thing I've had to cut out completely is the humanitarian stories. I'm never good at dealing with these and right now that is still a case of overload. Harsh though it may be, the civilian crisis is not relevant to my own fears (yes I donated money to the relief efforts and would encourage everyone to do so), so it's far better to excise that entirely.

So yeah, I'm feeling pretty normal again. I'm still going to maintain an arm's-length distance from social media, lurking around occasionally but not getting actively involved with anything (some of you people, frankly, can sod right off) and I won't be reinstalling the BBC app just yet. But I can now get on with my day without being paralysed by every single turn of events. I don't claim that any of the above will necessarily work for anyone else, but this is what's worked for me.