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,

Saturday, 21 December 2013

Winter is Coming, look busy

Christmas is upon us, so how better to end the blogging for a year than with pictures of Prague in the snow ? If I post anything else over the next two weeks, it probably means I'm not having a good enough time and you should shower me with pity.

Anyway, a couple of weeks ago Prague was treated to a light dusting of snow. Immediately I went for a walk. The webcams indicated the city center wasn't amazingly snowy, so I stuck with the less-picturesque local area where the snow was pretty heavy.

Nothing particularly special, although to be in a country where snow just magically freakin' falls out of the sky every single year ! as opposed to somewhere where such an event would be nothing less than apocalyptic is rather gratifying. Much more interesting, though, was the effect caused by two spotlights illuminating a billboard. This is in fact a giant glowing snowcone.

The next day I willingly dragged myself out of bed by 6:30 and was in the center of town by 7:30. It was still dark as I left the Institute, but unfortunately it was more or less full daylight by the time I got to the center. This time I at least had the good sense to check the webcam beforehand, just in case everyone else had the same idea and already trampled the snow into mush.

They hadn't, though the snow was not quite as thick as in the exotic mountain land of Roztyly. But it was enough. Wenceslas Square and Old Town Square are both lined with stalls for the Christmas market. While this is quite famous, it's surprisingly small. Actually it probably consists of no more than half a dozen small stalls, but someone accidentally hit CTRL+V a bunch of times, so it looks a lot larger than it is. 

More annoyingly, they don't sell anything you couldn't buy in the shops anyway (apart from maybe the one selling swords and medieval armour). It's quite pretty, but actually as a functioning market where you'd buy things, it's rubbish. Don't go. Even if you like tourist tat, and I do, the selection is poor and the prices high. You're much, much better off staying at home.

Somewhat surprisingly, Prague isn't big on Christmas decorations. I suppose they're probably unnecessary. Wenceslas and Old Town Squares are very nice at night though, with the trees covered in thousands of white lights. The Christmas tree in Old Town Square is particularly impressive. The surrounding market may be useless, but it does look nice.

Then I wandered to Charles Bridge, and was not disappointed. Though next time I shall force myself to get up even earlier and see it with the street lights on.

Convinced that the snow might suddenly disappear at any moment for no reason (it was -3 C and there were still occasional small flurries) I happily walked up to Prague Castle. The snow wasn't really heavy enough to make this look any more extraordinary than usual, but the view down the hill was worth it.

By the time I returned to the town center the hours of tourism were fast approaching so I headed up to Vysherad, fast becoming one of my favourite spots. I mean really, could it be any more gothic ? It was busier than normal, but it's quite a large space so this didn't really matter.

There is one thing, though, that I must admit. The pool at the Astronomical Institute just isn't as good as the one at Arecibo (except maybe as an ice rink, if it got even colder).

Identifying which is which is left as an exercise for the reader.
Back in Cardiff, all shopping was complete within 6 hours. No-one in their right mind takes their holidays in Cardiff (except for serious Whovians) so there are no pointless tourist souvenirs to get in the way. The fact that everything is in English may also have helped, slightly.

Well, that's all for 2013. Tune in again next year when anything could happen... but it probably won't.

Monday, 16 December 2013

I Set Fire To The Sky

At last, I've managed to combine recent efforts to depict the hydrogen of the Milky Way into a coherent YouTube video. For this one I'm trying something new : narration. But not by me. Alas, my suave and sophisticated British accent is... err... the wrong kind of suave and sophisticated for mere narration. Yeah. That's totally the reason.

There's no point writing another blog post about this, because I covered pretty much everything recently anyway. I updated the previous post to include the major new sequence : the hydrogen sky itself. This is what the sky would look like if we could see neutral hydrogen instead of all those stupid stars, and it's one of my favourites. Honestly, sometimes I think people who don't study neutral hydrogen must have some sort of serious mental problem. What a bunch of losers.

Without further ado, for that weird particular subset of people who only follow the blog but not my Google+ or YouTube channel... come on people, get with the program ! But anyway here's the video. The soundtrack is a bit gloomy, but it has the redeeming feature of making the narration sound tremendously melodramatic. And don't forget to watch The Hydrogen Universe too.

Monday, 2 December 2013

St George And The Small Plump Crocodile

Prague is a nice enough place, I suppose, in bright sunshine. But how much more awesome would that terrifying Gothic architecture be in, say, fog ? Or snow ? Or at night ? Or on a snowy foggy night... well, maybe not that last one. I imagine most places look extremely similar on a snowy foggy night, to wit, the inside of a ping-pong ball.

Look, it's Prague ! Or maybe it's Afghanistan... 
Still, night time is not a quantity in short supply, especially in winter. And yes, the ornate towers and fa├žades which comprise Prague are indeed most intimidating come the hours of darkness. Snow has yet to materialise this winter, but no doubt it will be worth the wait. Occasional frost has given a glimpse of the future.

Fog is a little more haphazard. At the Astronomical Institute, it's not infrequent (as seen above). Once suitably adjusted to something resembling a daily routine, I waited for the first foggy weekend and, with more enthusiasm than sense, headed into central Prague hoping to see everything I'd seen before but with more fog in the way. This objective was not really achieved. The fog turned out to be more like very low cloud, with the city center largely unobscured. Of course, if my laptop had been working I'd have been able to check a webcam first...

Still, the trip was not without merit. At 9am on a Sunday, the normally visible-from-space tourist route is totally empty. And finally I got to see the Astronomical Clock do its hourly thing. Then I wandered up to Prague Castle, where the cloud was low enough to make a difference.

Prague, it must be said, does not do everything right. One of the biggest mistakes I've spotted is the depiction of St George's battle with the dragon. This is a reoccurring motif around the Castle, and while it's invariably very well carved, there's something a bit... off about the proportions.

On his royal face there is no note how dreadfully small a dragon his horse
has almost stepped on, 
Shakespeare would probably say.
Just what exactly was this slightly plump, immature crocodile doing to the villagers that they felt the need to call in a hero ? Stealing their shoes ? Biting their ankles ? Digging holes in the garden, perhaps ? Quite why they felt the need to sacrifice virgins to it, I don't know. More importantly, how ? How do you sacrifice a grown woman to small, slightly plump crocodile that's so inoffensive you could be forgiven for accidentally tripping over it ?

That's a swamp dragon if ever I saw one. Even if it could breathe
 fire it would be about as dangerous as a malfunctioning toaster.
Clearly the Czech version of this legend is rather different to that elsewhere in Europe. Though somehow the tale of "St George and the Big Lizard That Kept Stealing People's Socks" lacks a certain heroic romanticism. Can't imagine why.

Another explanation is that St George was actually one hundred and fifty feet tall, which would then make the dragon a reasonably threatening size to ordinary villagers. One suspects that this little nugget would probably have been mentioned more prominently in the story. All in all, I was more impressed with the "George and Dragon" British pub, because it has cider.

Later I wandered back to Vysherad, where, as at Prague Castle, the cloud was low enough to make a difference. Gone were the sweeping views of the river, replaced by a cathedral and graveyard that were clearly designed by a prophet with a singularly unique vision. One that told him that, a thousand years hence, a show called Dr Who would feature relentlessly frightening stone statues called the weeping angels. Vysherad, in one very specific sense, is beyond perfection - it is the Platonic ideal of a weeping angels episode location.

Not all of the graveyard features exquisite Gothic statues and tombstones, however. When I saw this mosaic of a very nonchalant Jesus, one caption instantly sprang to mind :

Finally there were these statues. I can only assume the artist wanted to show what the weeping angels get up to in their off-hours. Apparently they thought this involved taking Jesus to a dance club, for some reason.