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,

Monday 17 June 2013


In a stunning breakthrough, scientists have announced today that the Loch Ness Monster has been found. Astonishingly, this revelation came not from Scottish biologists, but from a Puerto Rican astronomy student.


I don't often talk about cutting-edge research, but this time I can't resist making an exception. My summer student is currently experiencing the joys of trawling through data cubes looking for the hydrogen gas which fills many galaxies. He found this one just a few days ago. And bugger me (no, not literally) if it doesn't look quite a lot like a famous Scottish lake monster.

The galaxy image shown above is the optical counterpart of the hydrogen he detected, and comes from the Sloan Digital Sky Survey (the plesiosaur is some random painting from the internet since there isn't a corresponding Digital Plesiosaur Sea Survey) . Here's the galaxy without a visit from Nessie. I did no image processing on this whatsoever - this is exactly the image taken straight from the survey data.

A head, neck, flipper, and perhaps even spilling water from its mouth -
sure seems like Nessie to me.
Galaxies do not normally look like this, of course. This is pretty dang weird. Not nearly as weird as Hanny's Voorwerp, but definitely very unusual. To try and figure out what was going on, I contacted my theoretician friend (who we last met destroying galaxies) to see what he could come up with. His considered professional opinion was that the galaxy looks more like a scorpion. Maybe he's right. I wasn't going to argue - he'd just destroyed an entire galaxy, after all.

I normally avoid posting such contemporary research here for several reasons. Firstly because I never really wanted this to become a science blog at all, but that's what happened (anyway there aren't enough science blogs insulting the Queen and photographing potatoes in my opinion, so maybe that's not such a bad thing). But more importantly - new results should never be trusted. Science is slow, and above all, full of doubtMistakes are made and all too often results which seem exciting one day can seem pretty humdrum after a month of painstaking data analysis finds a critical flaw. Or, to quote Terry Pratchett : "It wouldn't be research if you knew what you were doing."

In this case, though, there's no amount of work that can be done that will stop that galaxy from looking strange. In fact, it can be stated with absolute certainty that the galaxy has a weird-looking morphology, if we accept that "weird" means different from the norm. Some other tidbits about Space Nessie :
  • About 700 million light years distant.
  • Nessie measures about 200,000 light years across (roughly twice the size of the Milky Way).
  • Contains around 10 billion times the mass of the Sun in hydrogen gas (this is quite a lot as galaxies go, but not really extreme).
So why does Space Nessie look so different to other galaxies ? Well, the honest truth is we just don't know what's going on here. It's probably the result of two or more galaxies colliding and merging, which is known to be able to produce really weird shapes. Maybe the "head" of Nessie is a smaller dwarf galaxy which is being ripped apart by a larger one, leaving behind a trail of stars to form the "neck". Maybe. It's going to take a lot of work to figure out exactly what's happening. Which is fun.

UPDATE : For those who like these things, this was reshared by Discovery News, CSIRO, The Sun (yes, right above the page 3 girls, pretty much) and... Fox News. Urrgh.

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