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 13 April 2015



Yay !

If ever there was an excuse for the blog equivalent of a clip show, this is it. I've gone from being a bored student in Cardiff with nothing better to do that write short pointless blog posts, to a bored postdoc in Arecibo with nothing better to do than write moderate-length blog posts, and now a bored postdoc in Prague with nothing better to do than write really long blog posts. There are worse fates. Here are the highlights.

Top Five Most Viewed Posts

5 : The Curse of the SS

A simple tale about getting a social security number and the problems of having a name without any vowels in it. Apparently mentioning the old woman from Monsters Inc generated 2,500 hits. The internet is a strange place.

4 : Learning To Love The Bomb

Nuclear warheads and big shock absorbers
Towering black monoliths and contradictory orders
A deranged computer that's learning to sing
These are a few of my favourite things...

2,900 hits for the blog post, 4,300 for the video (which does not feature the song). An Orion-version of the Discovery originally considered for 2001 : A Space Odyssey but didn't make the grade.

3 : And Yet It Moves (but not like that)

Debunking some myths of a popular space video and some myths that sprang up around that video. No, our Solar System isn't a vortex, but the Solar System does move and the planets do trace helical paths some of the time. No, the video doesn't show the Sun leading the planets. 3,200 hits... but please see this more recent article. The creator of the video and I have come to an entirely amicable understanding.

2 : Infographic : Galaxy Size Comparison Chart

People love novelty, and I happened to notice  that typing in "galaxy size comparison" into Google images found pictures of smartphones. It still does, but at least now the top results are my charts (7,300 hits for the original post), which have nothing to do with Samsung. Much better*. See also the equally interesting dwarf galaxy version, which is also popular with 2,100 hits.

* But if Samsung would like to buy me out, I'm listening.

1 : VY Canis Majoris : Or, Be Afraid. Be Very Afraid.

People also love comparing the sizes of things. And why not. In this case, rather than directly comparing the size of a particularly massive star with other massive stars, I decided to see what it might look like if it replaced our Sun. This got on reddit and consequently resulted in 21,000 hits to date. Which is nice because sometimes I think that the more effort I put into making things, the fewer people appreciate the result.

Top Five Most Liked Posts

5 : Happy Birthday Arecibo !

With a mere 350 hits but 119 + 1's (a.k.a. "likes") this is one of the most highly rated posts. I suspect this is because Google+ includes likes for the posted image (in this case an animated gif) as well as the post itself. Still, it's a nice, short, image-heavy post which is worth a read. The video was used at Arecibo's 50th Anniversary symposium.

4 : Galaxies Suck, Let's Get Rid Of Them

One of those, "hmm, I thought this might attract attention" posts. I can't really complain with 810 hits and 126 likes... but come on, it's an exploding galaxy ! Using a science-class simulation generously provided by a friend who owed me a favour, I examine what would happen if dark matter disappeared. Of course, this wouldn't be true if our theory of gravity is wrong, but it's a graphic way to illustrate why dark matter is so important in contemporary mainstream cosmology.

3 : Blue Marbles

In contrast to the last one, this one was a case of, "oh look, 50,000 hits, how strange". Actually it was the sequel Rocky Marbles that attracted the attention, which got reshared by I Fucking Love Science, the Daily Mail, and innumerable others. And in fact virtually all of the hits were on YouTube, with only 3,000 on the combined blog posts. 133 likes though.

2 : Project Orion : How To Nuke A Spaceship Without Killing Anyone

To my knowledge I hold the honour of creating the first ever animation of an Orion-drive spacecraft. I probably should have jumped on the YouTube bandwagon much sooner, but back in 2005 creating animations of any length on a home PC was a major undertaking so it didn't seem worth it. This one probably took > 6 months from start to finish. Of course, the animation quality in the Space Odyssey version is much better, and the realism of the detonation sequence is much higher, but this one is much closer to the original design spec. 3,500 hits (>140,000 for the video) and 171 likes.

I have frequent delusions that I should remake this in high definition, which is a fine idea if only I could find the time.

1 : Damn That's A Nice Piece Of Gas

Although viewed by a mere 1,000 people, I'm rather pleased that my most liked (189) post is all about the ultra-specialist subject of visualising neutral hydrogen data. And why not ? Neutral hydrogen is ludicrously beautiful. You should like it, or you have no soul, damnit. This view of the hydrogen in the Milky Way at different frequencies is also my most liked (>500) gif.

Top Five Most Interesting Posts That Didn't Quite Make Either Of The Above Lists Through No Fault Of Their Own, Because, Like, Seriously, They're Quite Good And You Should Read Them

5 :
Quack Quack

I'm fed up with people declaring their Google skills to be superior to the years of training it takes to do real science. I'm particularly annoyed by people who declare things like, "we should stop searching for dark matter, it's an arrogant and dogmatic belief". Obviously, their arrogant and dogmatic belief that it doesn't exist trumps all the expert opinion that it probably does but might not so we should go and check to make sure. That said, some burden of the blame does lie with the scientists, and I believe we must stop stating opinions as facts - but more importantly the media has to convey science as a process, ugly and full of mistakes, not a stochastic series of amazing breakthroughs.

I'm also particular pleased with my essays on feminism and especially atheism, but any fool can be qualified to rant about them. Quack Quack, however, is an effort by a scientist to help explain the scientific method, so I can at least claim some small level of expertise on that.

4 :
The Best Space Rock Ever

Asteroid 1998 QE2 is an extraordinary place. A few kilometres across, if you fell over it would take you a minute and a half to hit the ground. You could easily jump into orbit around it or even off it entirely - and if you were very careful you could say, "that's no space station, it's a moon" shortly before you landed on its tiny moon (which is barely larger than the ISS). It's also of a size where comparing it to the QE2 is a vaguely-sensible way to get an idea of how large it is. Oh, and it would float.

3 :
Why Star Trek Is Clearly Better Than Battlestar Galactica

Battlestar Galactica was a depressing show, unless you realise that the entire thing was a highly elaborate ploy to explain the presence of a wonderbra in ancient Greece. Star Trek was a very, very happy show that inspired and continues to inspire generations of aspiring astronauts, astronomers and engineers. BSG just doesn't do that, because it's politics/angst in space and barely sci-fi at all. But hope is not lost. Dr Who is in many ways the moral heir to Trek, both in challenging social taboos and promoting how cool and shiny tech can be without anyone worrying if their toaster is actually a teenage emo psychopath. 

2 : Why NASA Paid Me To Photograph A Potato

They didn't pay me very much, you understand, but it did happen. Explaining why they did this at all in the introduction spoils the fun, so go read the article. I think this probably still trumps writing a fairy tale about a princess and a magical moose as a quick start guide and various interpretative dance performances for the title of "weirdest thing my job entails".

1 : Under The Hydrogen Sky

One of those posts I can't help but think, "hmm, I thought this would be more popular than that" (96 hits !). This is, as close as possible, what the sky would look like if we could see light emitted from neutral hydrogen. Unlike most of my other recent posts, it's not overly long and it's full of pretty pictures. It uses real data, matched as closely as possible to the sky in selected locations around the world. If we could see this with our eyes, we'd never have called it space. Being able to see the sky in another wavelength, and knowing that those features are absolutely real - well, I for one think that's pretty neat.

Here's to another 200 rambling posts about astronomy ! And potatoes !


  1. Great, Rhys. Congratulations! Please check the link to the VY CMa note: there is something wrong at the end of the link.

  2. Nice man :)
    And for what it's worth, I really liked "under the hydrogen sky" - doesn't that count like double?


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