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,

Friday 8 August 2014

If I Wrote The Press Release


Apparently, when scientists talk to the general public they're supposed to sound "excited" and "enthusiastic" about their work. That probably explains why they wouldn't let me write the press release about the latest paper. Here's what I would have written.

Astronomers and students using the Arecibo Telescope have found a bridge of gas 2.6 million light years long between galaxies 500 million light years away. And they seem to be pretty pleased about that, because finding gas is "a jolly good thing", they say, in amusing British accents.
The bridge of gas (shown in green) stretches from the large galaxy at the bottom left to the group of galaxies at the top. A third nearby galaxy to the right also has a shorter stream of gas attached to it. Picture credit: me/Arecibo Galaxy Environment Survey/The Sloan Digital Sky Survey Collaboration,

Admittedly, the stream of gas is probably the largest known, a million light years longer than a gas tail found in the Virgo Cluster by another Arecibo project a few years ago. So that seems to make it fairly interesting. Gesticulating wildly, Dr. Rhys Taylor, a researcher at the Czech Academy of Sciences and lead author of the paper, allegedly made a bold, melodramatic statement that, “This was totally unexpected. We frequently see gas streams in galaxy clusters, where there are lots of galaxies close together, but to find something this long, and not in a cluster, is unprecedented.”

He then briefly passed out from the sheer excitement of it all.

While such allegations remain unsubstantiated, what he definitely said was, "This is a pretty hefty stream of gas. OK, it's really long, but that's no reason to take seven bloody months to referee the paper. I suppose it's kind of neat, maybe even exciting a year ago, but all of that has been ground out of me by the extremely tedious peer review process. Hell, seven months is only slightly shorter than a pregnancy. I think I need a nice cup of tea, or possibly a nice cup of whiskey."

Other researchers on the project remain more upbeat, probably because they didn't face a series of "badly-worded" and "downright strange" concerns to address from the referee. Roberto Rodriguez, a recent graduate from UPR Humacao, was so enthusiastic he worked on AGES data for two REU programs and two research-for-credit modules, and basically just wouldn't quit. "He even shows up now he's graduated," says project leader Robert Minchin, "which is great because now we have a willing vict- volunteer who does the work of a postdoc without any of the cynical ranting or the pesky need to provide funding and travel support."

Roberto enthusiastically explained, “We normally find gas inside galaxies, but here more than half of the gas – over 15 billion times the mass of the Sun – is in the bridge. That’s far more than in the Milky Way and Andromeda galaxies combined ! Also, on an unrelated note, Rhys totally bakes the best brownies ever. Have you seen his website ? I am saying this entirely of my own volition.”

The team doesn't have any convincing explanations for how the stream formed though. "Errr...." said Rhys, looking gormless, "Maybe one galaxy pulled the gas out of the other... because... umm... gravity ? Or maybe it just pushed all the gas out of the way. I dunno. What am I, a magician ?"

Sensibly, the team plan to use computer simulations to try and understand how the bridge formed. They haven't got very far yet, because all of their attempts to even form a stable gas disc have blown up in their faces - literally. "I just don't understand it," said Rhys, despondently, "It just sits there for about 400 million years happily enough and then it explodes for no reason. On the other hand, we've only been at this for three days, so give a guy a break."

The project involved three undergraduate students in the research work. As well as Roridguez, the team included Clarissa Vazquez, now a graduate student somewhere in America-land, and Hanna Herbst, now also a graduate student at the University of Florida. Dr. Robert Minchin, a staff astronomer at Arecibo Observatory, principal investigator on the project, professional beard-wearer and undisputed air hockey champion of Green Bank 2011, said “Student involvement is very important to us. We are proud to be inspiring the next generation of astronomers, and particularly proud of the involvement of Puerto Rican students, because they are the shizzle.”

Rhys adds, "Damn straight. I don't understand why Roberto is still here. If someone doesn't snap him up for graduate school, there's something very wrong with the system. But at least we get to keep him for a while longer."

STOP PRESS : With just hours to go before publication was due, Roberto announced that he had indeed been accepted into graduate school, and there was much rejoicing.

The bridge, as well as a whole bunch of other fairly interesting things, was found in data taken between 2008 and 2011 for the Arecibo Galaxy Environment Survey (AGES), which is using the awesome power of the Arecibo Telescope to survey a large area of sky with a high level of sensitivity. After a long-winded review by other, hopefully cleverer astronomers, the discovery has been accepted for publication in Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society. A pre-print of the paper can be found at

The Arecibo Observatory is operated by someone under a tremendously complicated and boring legal agreement with some other people.

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