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 30 November 2012

Website update !

Time for another website update, you lucky people. Quite a lot this time. Firstly, you can now buy selected renderings via StockTrek Images (click for a gallery of the images currently available). You can either buy images in high-resolution electronic format, or as actual physical prints. Quite why anyone would want to do this, I'm not sure, but apparently there's a market for this so what the hell.

A rather nice consequence of this is that I re-rendered the images at print resolution. Some of these needed a lot of work to bring them up to a more modern standard, which means now they're significantly improved I think. The most improved images can be seen below, with the old renders for comparison.

Aries IB lunar ferry from "2001 : A Space Odyssey"

Orion-drive nuclear spaceship leaving Earth

Orion launching from the ground

StockTrek have a contract which is nothing short of lovely for a commercial company - it's totally non-exclusive and I'm free to do whatever I want with the images independently. Therefore I've posted the updated images in full HD on my website, and though you can go through StockTrek to get the high-res versions, you can also negotiate with me directly, if you want. So I've avoided selling my soul to capitalism, which brings me nicely around to item 2.

Sometimes people contact me with requests for images that I simply have to outright refuse due to time constraints. I couldn't do that for the latest one - not in good conscience anyway. It would've kept me awake at night if it turned it down. The project was to illustrate a book cover for a sci-novel by a certain Robert Burns. The plot of The Unselfish Gene involves zombies, tsunamis of fire, Buddhists living on the Mooon, and oh yes, a a 40,000 tonne spacecraft propelled by nuclear bombs. Yet for some reason the original edition of the book had, as its front cover, this :

OK, it's a sexy lady, though I do wonder why our careless heroine has found herself sans clothing on a zombie-infested planet. Anyway, it's not an bomb-propelled spaceship escaping from Earth being hit by planet-killing comet, which is what we decided on for the new cover image. An earlier idea was to show the Anita blasting off from Dallas. As this would guarantee that Dallas would be even worse off than everywhere else (shortly before a giant comet wipes out the planet) - and by now readers should be aware that I dislike Dallas intensely - this was a very tempting option.

I didn't spend as much effort working out the physics of the Anita as I did the original Orion, of course, but I did do some fast-and-dirty numbers to check that the chemical rockets would be adequate. Not to get the ship into orbit, but just enough to get it off the ground. In fact they can do rather more than that, with enough fuel (based on the size of the tanks) to get it to 20 km. More than enough for a safe landing with a healthy margin on error.

Did I mention that the ship is friggin' massive ?
More images can be found on my website in The Unselfish Gene gallery.

And that leads me neatly into item 3. I discovered the wonders of Microsoft's service, which lets you convert huge (as in 400 megapixel) images into a format you can explore in a web browser. I have 3 zoomable images so far :

Timeline of the Universe - image I made for a public Observatory in Belgium.
Size Comparison Chart - of spaceships and other things I have made. 
The ALFALFA Sky - all eleven thousand galaxies in one image.

That's all for now. I'll be adding images to the StockTrek site as time permits. I'm also working on a colour version of the size comparison chart.

Friday 23 November 2012

Told You So

Well, doesn't time just fly by. No, actually, it sort of trudges along with great reluctance most of the time. At first I couldn't quite believe it had been a month since my last post, and then I realised I couldn't believe it because it felt like a lot longer.

Anyway, I am pleased to report that my failure to acclimatise to Puerto Rican life has not been entirely total, contrary to popular belief. Firstly, I discovered during a drunken pre-convention Trek marathon (in a small, massively overcrowded flat) that my capacity for heat tolerance has improved tenfold. Those who mocked my former susceptibility to modest increases in temperature are now laughing on the other sides of their faces. Ahahahahah.

Secondly, just after returning from the UK, a small delegation from Arecibo participated in a mini-conference in a university in Rio Piedras, part of San Juan. Rio Piedras is a very nice place indeed. It's practically European. There are actual, proper streets. It has buildings more than 50 years old, and more importantly, bus stops.

My adaptation to the ridiculous climate of the Caribbean was verified through discussions with the Puerto Rican students who had been drafted - I mean, attended freely of their own volition - to the seminars. At least one of them thought it was too hot. I thought it was alright.

But wait, there's more ! The aforementioned student had spent some time in France, and wished that Puerto Rico had a similar public transportation system.

HAH ! Take that, whoever thought I was whinging needlessly about the lack of a bus service !

I should probably add that although there are buses in San Juan (and a train service too), apparently they don't go anywhere useful. Some say this is because the taxi drivers objected. This wouldn't surprise me, given that Puerto Rico is investing nearly $80 million to build a bus lane on the motorway. And yes, I really do mean building an entirely new lane, not just painting "Bus lane" all over one part of the road.

One would have thought that the great advantage of buses, over, say, narrowboats, is that they don't require any specially-constructed canals in order to operate most effectively. Actually, they seem to do best without them. In fact, they work really very well indeed - much better than trains - on plain old regular roads. Which is why building special lanes for them is one really quite spectacular way to throw away a large amount of currency that would have been better spent on, ooh, I don't know... a fleet of buses and a multi-city transportation system, perhaps....?

Thursday 25 October 2012

The Best Phone Call IN THE WORLD !

Most readers will be aware that I recently went on one of my necessary-for-sanity trips back to Britain. I returned via a Star Trek conference in London, of which I expect I'll have more to say at some point. Unfortunately, the journey did not quite go according to plan.

The last trip I went on was an epic expedition to Socorro and Anchorage, and I've already related the horrors of that particular journey. Travel wise, things weren't anywhere near that bad this time. I got on a train from Horsahm to London and then Heathrow without incident. The plane to JFK wasn't much fun - it was full and the seats were unusually small, so I was literally elbow to elbow with my fellow cattle (I mean, passengers) for 7 hours. On the other hand, that's an hour less than I was expecting, which was nice.

I arrived in JFK on time with 4.5 hours until the flight to San Juan. Even so, since I had a connecting flight, I was able to skip the huge immigration line and go to this new-fangled "Quick Connect" thing that no-one else has ever heard of, and I was inside the airport in about 10 minutes. If you've ever been through US customs and immigration, you'll know that this is no small achievement.

Then I remembered that the spaceship Enterprise had been moved to JFK - literally, a real-life spaceship called Enterprise. The first space shuttle. It even features in the opening credits of the Star Trek series of the same name, which may well be the coolest possible way to break the fourth wall.

So, this is a spaceschip named Enterprise in a show of the same name which is derived from a previous show featuring a fictional spaceship named Enterprise which led to the naming of the real Enterprise which is seen in the credits of the fictional show called Enterprise. Just to be clear.

Since I now had several unexpectedly free hours, I wandered around the airport for a while hoping to find it. I didn't, because (as I half-suspected) it was quickly moved from the airport to a museum. Which is a pity, because riding atop a space shuttle called Enterprise would have been the perfect way to outdo my friend's efforts to fondle Kate Mulgrew while the Star Trek convention continued without me.

Be afraid, Kate. Be very afraid.

No matter. I got on the next plane, wherein being awake for over 20 hours began to take its toll. It wasn't as squashed as the first one, thankfully. So a little under 4 hours later I staggered off the plane and collapsed into a pre-arranged taxi. About 2 hours later I found myself back at my little orange concrete bunker, and only then did I realise I was now devoid of such essentials as my coat and wallet.

This turn of events caused me some level of distress. Normally, I'm so ultra-paranoid about checking I have all my belongings that losing any just can't happen. I check the pocket on the back of the seat in front of me at least 5 times. Even when I know full well I never put anything in it. I check for the essentials of keys, wallet and mp3 player in such a repetitive fashion that an anthropologist once wrote a paper on my ritualistic habits*.

* This isn't literally true. In fact, it isn't true at all.

This time the paranoia must have created a peculiar brand of self-confidence. Knowing that I'm too unsure of myself, I knew I must have already checked that I'd got all my stuff, because that's what I always do. So I proceeded from the airport safe in the knowledge that I was far too worried about leaving my stuff behind to have left any of my stuff behind.

Fortunately, though one rather major thing had gone horribly wrong, absolutely everything else was going right. The taxi driver is familiar with the observatory and nice enough to defer payment, knowing that I'm not attempting any scam. But I did have a thoroughly miserable 30 minutes while I struggled with second-guessing myself as to how I could have lost it. I concluded that it was probably on the last aircraft, but I wasn't sure.

Then I got a phone call.

"Hello, is this Rice Taylor ?"
"Err... yes."
"Hi, this is XXXXX from American Airlines -"
"Oh, hello, have you found my wallet ?"
"Yes - "
"Ah, wonderful. We should have dinner sometime, as I would like to father your children."

Even better, I had indeed left it on the plane to Puerto Rico, and it sounded like (from the remainder of the conversation, after we'd sorted out the family planning) everything was intact. Though I'd have to pay to get it Fed-Exed to me, this wasn't necessary, as by an extraordinarily unlikely coincidence I was planning to be back in San Juan anyway two days later (for a mini-conference I will describe later).

And indeed, I was back in San Juan two days later, where I retrieved my wallet which contained absolutely everything it was supposed to contain. Then everyone was happy and there were rainbows and kittens and sunshine and lollipops and all other wonderful things.

Rainbows are produced by vomiting unicorns, obviously.

Wednesday 24 October 2012

Myths of Star Trek (I)

I've just finished watching the first series of the original Star Trek. I've seen all of the others, of course, but until now I've only seen a handful of the original. I always had the impression that it was a much more primitive show, laughable by modern standards. And of course I was certain that every episode, Kirk would make out with a hot alien babe and a dozen men in red shirts would be brutally slaughtered.

Well, I was wrong on all counts. Yes, it is a lot more primitive, but once you swallow the cheap '60's styling, it isn't all that bad. The modern remastered version has replaced most of the effects shots with CGI, so the ship isn't made of stickyback plastic covered in tissue paper and PVA glue any more. Not all of them though - in "The Alternative Factor", the ship still gets attacked by the Triffid Nebula and (for some reason) a whirling newspaper. And yes, I mean that literally.

The Triffid Nebula will not stand for your shenanigans.

Watching the original series 40 years late is a little weird, sociologically. It's at once ground-breakingly politically correct (probably more than any show, ever), what with a black female officer and a Russian flying the ship, yet it's also quite bizarrely anti-feminist. So while most of the women are intelligent and professional (Uhura not only deals with communications but also takes the helm when required), the minute they find a pretty dress they become useless baubles who are totally incapable of doing anything. Not to mention the immortal line by Captain Pike in the pilot episode : "I just can't get used to having a woman on the bridge."

The characters may be identical but at least one of them is now ironic.
I already knew that Kirk never says, "Beam me up Scotty", but I was still expecting him to be a gung-ho womaniser. He isn't. He spends a great deal of time signing forms (seemingly without ever reading them) and often restrains his crew from violence rather than the other way round. And although he does sometimes order the hand phasers to be set on kill, when stun isn't working, he doesn't even use the ships phasers until episode 10. I contest that he's no more trigger-happy than Picard, and probably a lot less than Sisko and Janeway.

On the other hand, Janeway becomes very angry when she's drunk, which is all of the time.

There's also another aspect to Kirk (and Pike even more so) that we don't see in any of the other Trek captains : they're worriers. Picard wouldn't know self-doubt if it punched him in the kidneys and bit off his nose, and Sisko doesn't face more than occasional misgivings. Janeway admittedly does wrestle with her conscience that blowing up the only thing that could get the ship home might have been a bad idea, but that's the only thing she ever really questions. Whereas Kirk and Pike confess to doubts about being a starship captain at all, and admit to not enjoying the responsibility of trying to keep hundreds of people alive every day.

What of the famous Kirk the ladies man ? Lies and slander. He has many female admirers, it's true, but he could hardly be called a womaniser. In fact he usually stalwartly resists the flirtations of alien seductresses while his crew go instantly weak at the knees ("How'd you like to have her as your own personal yeoman, hur hur hur..."). He has one very brief, demure kiss with an old flame, but that's about it. Admittedly he does try quite forcefully (and utterly unsuccessfully)  to seduce a sexy android in "What Are Little Girls Made Of ?". but in context this incident is really quite bizarre and actually out of character. I'm going to give Kirk the benefit of the doubt and put this down to bad writing.

Then there's the famous guarantee that wearing a red shirt is a death sentence. It isn't. To prove this, I'm keep a tally of all the casualties reported during each episode, including what colour shirt they were wearing (when possible). Now, it's true that the average death rate is about 16,000 per episode in series 1, which, quite wonderfully, is because 500,000 people walk into actual freakin' suicide booths in "A Taste Of Armageddon".

It's also true that the first few episodes are particularly bloody for the crew of the Enterprise. In fact the rate of attrition is so high that a five-year mission is off the cards, because everyone would be dead in about three years. But these too are anomalies. The total number of on-screen permanent (i.e. not brought back to life by aliens / gods / McCoy / sheer luck) crew deaths is 4 red shirts, 3 blue and 4 gold. There are also reported casualties that we don't see, but these only total about a dozen. So, sadly, there's absolutely no basis for the idea that wearing a red shirt shortens life expectancy.

All in all, season 1 leads me to conclude that the good name of Captain James R / T Kirk (it's R in an early episode, then changes to T later on) has been sullied by later parodies. A violent womaniser happy to see his men fall in the line of duty ? Hardly. He's a worrying bureaucratic gentleman, devoted to his crew and mission of peaceful exploration. Ensign Ricky need not fear for his insurance premiums in season 1. Of course, whether all this lasts into season 2 remains to be seen...

Friday 21 September 2012

The fault, dear Brutus, lies not in ourselves but in our software

That's right, it's time for another post about FRELLED, my very own FITS viewer. Well, I have been tinkering with it on and off for about a year. I spent a large fraction of the summer ignoring... avoiding.... I mean, encouraging my students to work independently to finish coding it. Was it worth it ?


Never mind the fact that looking at data in three dimensions is pretty (we'll get to that in a minute). Or that I strongly believe in doing thinks on the basis that they are cool, regardless of whether they suffer from such petty attributes as usefulness. Nope. in this case it was worth it for hugely simple pragmatic reasons. Namely that instead of spending a full month searching a data cube, I can now do it in a day.

Just to emphasise - that's a full working month, every day, doing virtually nothing else besides staring at images of static hoping that they might contain galaxies. That's actually not so bad. The problems start when you find something, because then you have to carefully record the coordinates and type lots of different parameters into another program to measure it. Not any more. Now you can just point to the source, click on it, and FRELLED will generate all the parameters for you. It also masks the source at the same time, so there'll be no more wondering whether you already detected something or not.

Typing in the parameters for one galaxy isn't all that bad. Typing them in for 400 is massively tedious, and with that many objects it would normally be impossible to guarantee that you don't miss any, or record some twice. Not any more ! It's not every day that you get a factor x30 speed increase with no loss of accuracy, so you'll have to forgive my repeated excited posts about this.

I've previously posted a few short clips trying to show how lovely HI data is, using more primitive versions of FRELLED. Now that it's more sophisticated, making nice videos of data is much easier. So I've decided to enter this year's National Science Foundation Science And Engineering Visualisation Challenge. Wish me luck !

Here's my entry. It's a 5min video all about hydrogen. Hopefully it stands on its own. I would have preferred to call it "Pimp My Hydrogen" but I suspect that wouldn't go down so well with the NSF types. If this doesn't convince you that hydrogen is pretty, then I may as well give up and go home, 'cos I got nothin'.

In other news, my second paper as first author has been accepted for publication. That finishes off my thesis research, which I first started in 2006 - a terrifyingly distant era. At last I can bid farewell to the Virgo Cluster and move on to shiny new data set. This time I won't have to spend weeks cataloguing the galaxies, only have to do the whole thing again months later because more data becomes available. Hurrah !

Tuesday 4 September 2012


Readers should by now be aware that I work with 3-dimensional data and have a minor obsession with building a better FITS viewer. 3D rendering on a screen is all very well, but electronic data is sooo impersonal. Whatever happened to that bygone era when astronomers looked through telescopes and had no other option but to draw what they saw, or write poetry about it ?

Err, well, nothing, actually. Anyway my point, inasmuch as I ever have one, is that sometimes it's nice to have something good and solid that you can point to and, if necessary, bludgeon people with. Because laser pointers can only blind them in one eye at once. Or, if they're not trying to steal your research, you might just want to give them something to eat, and astronomical data may be many things, but no-one would ever describe it as nourishing.

For preference, I'd like all my data printed in .cake format. This would be something like a Battenburg cake (but with a better colour scheme). It'd be made up of hundreds and hundreds of little cubes of cake, each of just the right colour, so that the whole thing would be a physical model of an electronic data cube. As you slice through it, searching for galaxies, you'd also get a tasty snack. Of course, the resolution of the .cake format couldn't be much better than about 1cm per pixel. Which means that for a decent-sized data set, the cake would have to be about 7 metres long and 1.5 metres tall.

That's about right.
This of course is just idle fantasy. For now. But other approaches are yielding results. The .glass format offers the prospect of better data archiving (not being able to present your work because you ate it isn't normally a valid excuse), better resolution, and is much more shiny. Plus, when asked "what's a data cube ?" I can now just say "there's one on my shelf."

This cube is of HI data of the Virgo Cluster, which took 4 years of my life to analyse. Each blob is the gas in a distant galaxy. It measures approximately 14.5 x 14.5 x 6.5 cm. It looks somewhat better in reality, especially when properly illuminated. It doesn't photograph very well though, and owing to a lack of black surfaces I had to use a coat for a background. Here's what the data looks like electronically :

To create the physical cube, I converted the original FITS cube into a text file of x,y,z,v format using an IDL script I'd already written. Then I sent the data off to Bathsheba Sculpture. I stumbled on them having searched for custom glass etching companies. I couldn't find any that would just allow me to submit a model or text file, but I saw the astronomy section of the site and sent them an email - reasoning that since they'd obviously had prior dealing with astronomers, so were less likely to be thrown into a state of bewilderment.

Indeed they weren't. It took a couple of months to go from a state of raw data into a physical cube sitting on my desk, but this isn't very long considering the length of time I spent looking at this thing in its original format. Now all I need to do is find an illuminated base so that it's easier to see in daylight.

Saturday 1 September 2012

Why Star Trek Is Clearly Better Than Battlestar Galactica

I've just finished re-watching Battlestar Galactica for the second time, and Star Trek : The Next Generation for the ten millionth time. They're both very, very good shows and I've no doubt I'll watch them both again. And again. And again and again, eventually. Now it must be said that while BSG is far superior in terms of special effects, plot, dialogue, acting, storytelling, character development, political intrigue, costume design, sound quality, lighting, props, sets, hairdressing, and cinematography, TNG will always be the better show.

To be more specific, in terms of political drama BSG kicks donkeys. That's because it is a political drama. One that just happens to involve mystical forces in space with explosions and killer robots, which are pretty much guaranteed to improve anything.

Trek never tried or even considered being a commentary on contemporary American politics. Where it exceeds BSG is as a science fiction show. That's because it's got actual fictional science in it. Like phasers and photon torpedoes and warp drives and holodecks.

Spaceships not good enough eh ? Fine, add dinosaurs.
Neither show would benefit by gaining what the other lacks. Suppose Saul Tigh decided one day that instead of drinking to solve his problems, he'd go for a chat with Councillor Troy. Or that Gauis "Frakking" Baltar just got on with quietly scanning nebula all day like a good little scientist. Or that Captain Picard, instead of throwing the aliens a buffet reception, decided to shoot them all. Or that Dr Crusher found that treating patients was a waste of time and that she'd rather go and have sex with a nymphomaniac ghost.

I figured people would rather see this than Dr Crusher having sex with a ghost.
Err, well, ok, forget the last two - TNG actually featured both of these. But my point still stands. BSG is no more a science-fiction show than Star Trek is a political drama. In fact, comparing the two on equal terms is a complete waste of time, because it's impossible.

HOWEVER, the underlying psychology of the shows does not escape so lightly.  In fact that's where it gets interesting. While BSG is not really about cool tech in the way that Trek is, technology in the show is conspicuous by its absence. About the only ways in which the human civilisation in BSG is more advanced than our own is the use of FTL and cybernetics (although, importantly, Caprica did remind us that the Colonials were rather further ahead than this before the holocaust).

It also reminded us to beware of killer emo teenage robots. Very few shows do that.
The story of a great civilisation brought low by its own hubris and arrogant technological prowess is one of the oldest stories of all time. While the Colonials may have once prospered thanks to their advanced tech, ultimately their abuse of that technology becomes self-destructive. In the form of a bunch of angry robots, who were probably sick of having to spend every evening being miserable and alone in their black-painted bedrooms, in accordance with their emo progenitors.

There's nothing wrong with warning about the dangers of abusing technology. But Star Trek showed us what happens if we use it properly. Sure, it didn't come with anything quite as out-and-out cool as a lightsabre, but it did have holodecks, replicators, transporters, force fields and... iPads (they even called them pads, and this was 1993 for heaven's sake). It was also undoubtedly the inspiration for Google's decision to call their phone-based operating system "Android".

Star Trek was so utopian that even iPads and Androids could coexist.
While the Enterprise is basically a techie's flying holiday resort, you'd have to be stark raving mad to want to live on the Battlestar Galactica. Terrible food, squalid conditions, highly aggressive (though sexually insatiable) crewmates, and the prospect of a horrible death by killer robots / irate crew members / terrorists / the ship falling apart / summary justice / Adama's steely gaze each and every day. Worst of all, unlike Star Trek, I've never seen a single damn one of them drink any tea*. Actually, that probably explains why they're all so very, very angry. That and the genocide, of course.

* Caprica Six claims she does, once, but I don't trust her, on account of being a psychopathic anorexic killer robot.

What worries me is that Star Trek, by its very nature with a happy-clappy, "YAY TRIBBLES !" attitude, is a proven source of inspiration for legions of today's scientists and engineers. Battlestar Galactica isn't going to inspire anyone, because it doesn't contain a single piece of technology anyone either doesn't already have, or would want to invent. Unless you count - like many strange people - Caprica Six, but if anorexic genocidal robots are your thing then you can keep them to yourself, thanks.

"LOOK ! The monitor is too small. We need a viewscreen !"
In fact, I'm not so worried about BSG itself any more than I would worry that Yes Minister didn't feature enough zombie dinosaurs with lasers for eyes. What concerns me is the total lack of inspirational sci-fi shows around at the moment. Even Stargate made an attempt to jump on the "oh let's all be incredibly ANGSTY !" bandwagon, which it did with all the masterful control of a sheep trying to herd a bunch of rabid cats.

Perhaps we don't really need science fiction for inspiration, and this meandering rant hasn't achieved anything. All I know is that Star Trek is one of the two reasons I chose my career (the other is that nebula are goddamn pretty), and this is true for a lot of other people as well. Scientists are by no means Trekkies by definition, and vice-versa. And no doubt some scientists became Trek fans after discovering science, rather than the other way around. Just don't come running to me in twenty years when today's young BSG fans grow up and the hordes of angst-ridden robots start nuking the place.

Tuesday 21 August 2012

Website update !

Since a whole bunch of different people view my website, blog, YouTube channel and Google+ page (I could draw a Venn diagram, but I won't), here's a post to inform that particular subset who only read the blog that I've updated my website. And my YouTube channel. And my G+ page as well. Hmm. This is remarkably inefficient. Pretty soon it'll become an infinite loop of messages that I've updated the other places to tell you about the update messages...

A momentary pause leads to believe I may have unwittingly become a social networking whore, but since this has at no point involved Facebook in any way whatsoever, that's probably OK.

Anyway, this particular update mainly concerns the completion of an on-off project I've been working on for about a year - turning Blender into a FITS viewer. For the last few weeks I've decided that Paper II can gather dust while I indulge myself into making something that other people might, just possibly, actually want to use. Well, you never know.

The advantage of using Blender as a FITS viewer is that it can display full 3D-data in realtime. Having (with much help) perfected the technique of importing images mapped onto planes, and having found acceptable workarounds for all of Blender's weird, subtle nuances, I developed the script into something that may even be user-friendly. Every step* of the process can now be done within Blender via GUIs.

* Alright, ALMOST every step. If you want/need to view a subset of the data, for now you'll have to split the file with another program.

Since I already wrote about this extensively on my website (I even wrote a user guide - go, read it !) there's no point writing about it again. But by way of compensation for that subset of people who have read about this for the umpteenth time, here's another shiny video. Hopefully I'll have another 3D-data project of a tangential nature completed very soon...

The nice thing about being able to freely rotate around a cube is that no other software lets you do that, as far as I'm aware. The X-ray program dates from a time when digital watches still seemed like a pretty neat idea. It does a good job but has a hugely awkward interface, and forces you to press a "recalculate" button every time you change the view.  Which is not much fun.

The latest version of ds9 is nice (in fact it's far more advanced than my code), but doesn't use the GPU, so it has to re-render every time. It does this with impressive speed, but it's nowhere near realtime. And besides, mine has a way cooler name (thanks, Gwen !).

Sunday 19 August 2012

Deep Space Force

Some years ago I made a Project Orion video which is doing rather well on YouTube, and everywhere else on the internet come to that. Not so long after, I started one of several hopelessly ambitious projects, which is an absolutely normal thing for any CGI hobbyist to do. In this case the idea was to render an enormous battle between fleets of Orion-drive spaceships.

One of the original propositions of the Orion project was to use it as a warship - presumably it would initially have floated around in Earth orbit, ready to rain death upon those pesky Soviets if they started looking restless. It became known that the Russians did in fact have their own Orion program. It's just about conceivable that this could have led to giant American and Russian battleships prowling the solar system, looking for trouble. In the 1980s.

Well, it didn't, which is a very good thing. But it certainly was a fun concept to explore. In my scenario, the Cold War continues until the mid-21st century, long enough for each to develop some fancy kit, like Excalibur X-ray lasers, although sadly I never got so far as to actually render any of those, and rather more physically viable ordinary optical lasers.

In George Dyson's book (the title of the project comes from a chapter in the book), he mentions a Orion battleship model that was shown to President Kennedy, who hated the idea like any sensible human being. Having delved into the more obscure and dodgy parts of the net in the course of researching this, I found there was some doubt as to whether this really happened. In any case no images of the model exist, so I improvised my own designs.

I did some reasonably detailed calculations for this, mostly thanks to the stupendous Atomic Rockets website. Sadly I've long since lost all my notes. I worked out things like how thick the hull would have to be to withstand laser fire at different ranges, how massive the ships would need to be, and how fast they could rotate to provide gravity without making the crew get dizzy. I even worked out how much excess heat the American ship would dissipate to power its laser turrets.

I envisaged the ships being constructed in space, possibly utilising asteroid mining, so size and mass could be unlimited. Let's start with the American warship. I followed the general stereotype that the Americans would have the more advanced technology, so their primary armaments are laser cannons. Although some would have it that two would be sufficient - one at the front and one at the back - I'm not a fan of this idea. It seems better to me to employ as much redundancy as possible, so I gave it 32 laser turrets.

The way I see it, there are several advantages here. To deliver the same total power, each individual turret need only deal with a much smaller amount of energy than if only one or two were used, which I think is a sensible way to ensure greater reliability. It also means that up to 32 targets can be engaged at once, which, if the enemy is shooting a whole load of missiles at you, seems like a major win instead of having just two turrets.

The spherical shape of the American hull wasn't for any particular reason that I can remember, though it might be so that the laser turret's lines of sight are obstructed as little as possible. Following the more advanced (but possibly less reliable) American stereotype, gravity is provided to the crew by two centrifuges, counter-rotating to eliminate any gyroscopic effects. Oddly, these aren't enclosed within the main hull, making them rather vulnerable and giving it a hamburger shape.

The massive cooling fins enable a huge amount of excess energy to be dissipated, which with all those lasers is going to be necessary. These are retractable, allowing them to present a smaller target to the enemy during battle. Open-cycle cooling vents are available for emergencies if the fins are damaged.

It seems to me that while such ships could easily carry enough firepower to completely obliterate the other, this might not always be necessary. A ship with all its weapons disabled could be forced to surrender instead. So the ship is also equipped with smaller, conventional guns. These could also be used as a last-ditch defence against incoming missiles if all the laser turrets were disabled or destroyed.

Moving on, the Soviet ship has quite a different design. The pointed shape helps spread out laser-beam fire at long range, preventing the Americans from doing much damage until they're closer in. The ship has no centrifuge - gravity is provided by rotating the whole ship. This is also another way to prevent laser fire from doing much damage, if the ship is inclined toward the enemy. Since it's rather smaller than the American ship, the crew can't experience full Earth gravity, and if it's necessary to stop the rotation then they could get rather ill. However, these are trained military Cosmonauts, so I'm sure they'd cope.

The Soviet ship's weapons are mainly projectile-type. The Gauss cannons accelerate projectiles to high speed using electromagnetic coils. The other missile turrets fire conventional rocket-propelled missiles. The X-ray laser missiles are envisioned as Excalibur-style devices (even though this project probably wouldn't have worked in reality, it sounded like something fun to depict). The casaba-howitzers launch nuclear devices which explode in a tightly collimated beam.

Both of the ships can deploy armour to protect the vulnerable drive section. Of course, this won't help a jot in the event of a ship-killing weapon strike, but it ought to at least protect against debris and prevent (relatively) small arms fire from being able to cripple the ship.

A gallery of images can be found here. Below, you can watch the full 4min 45s video. But be warned. To say it hasn't aged well is being kind - but then, it wasn't finished. It ends right when the battle begins in earnest. It has a lot of problems with Blender's starfields, rudimentary animation and terrible lighting (which was partly due to technological limitations at the time). It's also far, far too long.

For the enthusiasts - and I know there are some - he's a breakdown of events as they happen. Originally there was a plan to add voice-overs, but this never happened, making things perhaps hard to interpret.

0:00 : We begin with some shots of the American fleet, en-route to the Jovian system. Perhaps the Soviets have a base there, who knows.

0:30 : The ships prepare for battle by retracting their cooling fins, causing them to heat up to maintain their energy output.

0:42 : The ships rotate and engage their Orion drives, in order to separate the fleet for battle. They travel in close formation to easily establish to the viewer that there are multiple ships.

0:55 : We see the Soviet fleet in normal cruising mode, rotating to provide internal gravity.

1:06 : The Soviet ships fire rockets to reduce their spin, preparing to use their Orion drives.

1:15 : The Soviet ships retract their cooling fins.

1:23 : A rather lengthy sequence shows the Soviet ships firing their Orion drives to separate.

2:08 : The Soviet ships are now shown to be more widely separated (though still not very far away, for narrative reasons).

2:18 : The Soviets prepare for battle by aiming their missile turrets and deploying their drive armour.

2:32 : For some reason we now see the American fleet through a telescope on a Soviet ship. I guess this is to inform the viewers that they're planning to fire on the enemy.

2:40 : The Soviets fire projectiles from their Gauss cannons.

2:55 : The projectiles splinter into thousands of metal shards.

3:02 : Establishing shot of the American fleet. We see the shards from their perspective, via another cheesy telescope view.

3:14 : With thousands of high-speed metal fragments heading towards them, the Americans are forced to spend time destroying them while the Soviet fleet closes. Yes, you can see the laser beams, even though they're in a vacuum. No, this isn't something that bothers me.

3:40 : As the Americans run out of targets, the Soviets prepare to endure their laser fire. They spin-up and orient themselves at an angle to the oncoming fleet.

3:59 : The Americans now target the Soviet ships and succeed in destroying several weapon systems.

4:30 : The Soviets respond by firing a bunch of missiles. Then it ends, probably because I started my PhD and ran out of free time.

That's all folks. Although I wanted some level of realism, I wasn't concerned about getting things 100% true to life (which seems an unachievable goal for this project in any case). Sadly I'll never be able to finish this. Which means the enthusiasts will never find out who wins, and the non-enthusiasts have just wasted at least five minutes of their lives.

Thursday 9 August 2012

Red Cliff

Seriously. It's an awesome movie and you should watch it at once. And with one-liners like "I never expected I would be defeated by a cup of tea" I'm at a loss to explain the complete absence of internet memes. Sure, it's 5 hours long and subtitled, but so what ? It's 5 hours of AWESOME. After watching the blu-ray, I have no problem with labelling this as one of the most spectacular films of all time, right up there with Waterloo. So go out and buy it right now. That is all I have to say.

Saturday 4 August 2012

Ten Things We Could Have Done Instead Of Watching Some People Run Around For Two Weeks, But Now We Won't Be Able To Because We're Short Of Cash

The Olympics have reportedly cost the UK about £9 billion, which is roughly about $15 billion US. That's quite a lot of money. What it's bought us is the privilege of watching some people go running, swimming, and generally larking about for two weeks in the summer. And some urban regeneration. which I suppose is fine if you believe that what deprived inner-city areas need most are world-class sports facilities. 

Now I'm all in favour of grandiose projects, but nine billions pounds for a two-week project is perhaps a tad extreme. We could have done quite a lot of other things with £9 billion. Here are a few suggestions. What's really bothering me is that it doesn't actually cost anything at all to get people to run around, or go for a swim, or even swing lumps of metal around.

1) Fully-fund the Arecibo Observatory for the next 1500 years, a period longer than the entire span of the Western Roman Empire. Now that's job security.

Say what you like, but I want my 15 centuries of science damnit !

So let's just be absolutely clear on this. The Government is forever complaining that we just don't have enough money, and have to make massive cuts to prevent an economic disaster. And then they spend enough money for people to take part in inherently free activities for two weeks that could have kept a first-rate scientific facility operational for fifteen centuries.

Bread and circuses anyone ?

2) Fund at least 260,000 post-doctoral researchers for one yearOr 2,600 post-doctoral researchers for a hundred years. Or about 250,000 PhD students for 3 years.
Two hundred and sixty thousand. That's a moderately sized city. There are roughly 50 or so PhD-level scientists in Cardiff's Astronomy department, so we're talking about enough staff for five thousand institutions. Or we could get some people to throw a ball over a net.

Perhaps funding a quarter of a million students is a bad idea. Best to give it to the post-docs instead, we're much better behaved...

3) Build an Even Larger Hadron Collider. Just to really make sure. Because, you know, we could either explore the fundamental structure of matter, or put some people on trampolines.

OK, I'd take it all back if Olympic trampolining was an event entirely for pigs.

4) Build about 170 Green Bank telescopes. Of course, that'd be silly. What possible use could we find for all those elaborate facilities dotted around the landscape in unexpected places ? Building white elephants isn't what the Olympics is all about, is it ?

For context, there's only one other steerable telescope as large as the GBT in the whole world, in Germany. We could have built 170 more of them, but decided that a large puddle* and a field** would be more useful.

* Swimming pool.
** Archery range.

5) Build 8 Square Kilometer Arrays. This is radio astronomy's Next Big Thing. It's going to solve all the mysteries of the Universe, and this time we really mean it. It's got a billion Euro budget and probably won't be ready for another 20 years. It ought to be pretty terrifying that the UK spent enough money in a fortnight to build eight of them.

However instead of funding a vast international project to understand the workings of the Universe, we decided to get some horses to jump over things instead. I hope the horses are well paid. Maybe if the SKA was somehow powered by jumping horses, we'd get more funding ?

6) Build 375 Allen Telescope Arrays. Last telescope in the list, I promise. This one is specifically looking for aliens. It's going to have 350 dishes when complete, but for $15 billion it could have about 131,250 of them. However, rather than wasting all that money in a boring attempt to make the greatest discovery in the history of history, we've instead opted to get some large burly men to hug each other.

7) Buy both of the UK's shiny new aircraft carriers with planes included. Sure, aircraft carriers aren't everyone's cup of tea, and maybe they're a terrible way to spend £9 billion. Still, this really ought to stop us complaining about the cost of them. On the other hand, maybe it's better we decided to throw some pointy sticks into the ground instead of shooting missiles into people.

8) Buy everyone in Britain 50 pints of beer. Or cider. Now this might not actually last as long as the Olympics for many people, but it'd be a nice gesture. A lot friendlier than those nasty aircraft carriers with all their frightful aerial weapons of death and what have you. Certainly I'd choose this option, if the alternative is nothing but sport on the TV for two weeks.

9) Build a tower of chocolate stretching more than halfway to the Moon, or nearly 4 times around the Earth.

Try as I might, I just cannot think of a good reason not to do this. Or even a bad reason not to do this. And I'm haunted by the idea that at some point in the bidding process. someone must have realised that yes, we could host the Olympic Games, but we could also give the entire country a year's supply of chocolate, but decided against it.

What a complete and utter bastard.

10) Fund the whole of science in the UK for two years. As opposed to a a sports contest that lasts two weeks. If I haven't made the point already, this should prove that science is quite cheap.

Which just goes to show that the Government is, in fact, amazing. Really, absolutely, genuinely amazing. Just not in a good way.

Friday 27 July 2012

History Lessons

What with all the sightseeing and assorted shenanigans of late, I almost forgot something very important. Something small and fluffy wid a widdle nose an' widdl wegs an' a widdle tail an' that goes "maaaaow !" Yes, you've guessed it,  for two weeks - just before gallivanting off to New Mexico - I got to experience life with Egypt's greatest Pharaoh, Ramesses.

Err, well, alright, it was an 8-week old kitten named Ramesses. The title of this post is, in fact, A Lie. I've no idea why the name Ramesses was chosen, because there's not a lot of similarities between Ramesses the Great (or even any of the other Ramesses, come to that) and a small fluffy kitten. Let's compare :

This incredibly poorly named fluffy creature has many advantages over a Egyptian Pharaoh who's been mummified for 3,000 years. For one thing, having a kitten around the house doesn't tend to freak people out in the same way that a preserved corpse would. On the other hand, corpses don't tend to pounce out unexpectedly on people, claws outstretched with an expression of mad, psychopathic glee :

Another important difference is that the dessicated bodies of Egyptian rulers aren't known for looking adorable if you put them in a box, or a bag, or indeed anywhere else for that matter.

On the other hand, while both the Ramesses were/are fully house trained*, the pharaonic Ramesses weren't known for an obsession with trying to eat internet cables. Ramesses the Kitten, on the other hand, was particularly fond of the antenna on my wi-fi router. Possibly, being an astronomy cat, he was trying to stop me from generating RFI.

* At least I assume so. There's no mention of Ramesses the Great crushing the Hittites and then pooping everywhere, so this is probably a safe bet.

Finally, if you take an Egyptian ruler and stuff him in a washing basket, you'll be in big trouble when he gets out. If you take the corpse of Egypt's greatest ruler and roll it around inside a washing basket, you won't live very long. But if you put Ramesses the Kitten inside a washing basket, you'll get an evening's entertainment.

While I haven't had a kitten since I was about 8 years old, and like all right-thinking people know that cats are the higher form of life, I had mixed feelings about giving him back (fortunately, this was immediately before the Socorro trip, so I had no choice). Having an adorable fluffy kitten is one thing. Having it continuously attack everything in sight is another. Especially at 12:30am. So, the house is calm, once again. And quiet. So very quiet...