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,

Tuesday 17 April 2012

Mapping the Universe

While at the aforementioned Tully-Fisher conference I saw a presentation by the ALFALFA group. ALFALFA is apparently either a major cereal crop or a huge neutral hydrogen survey depending on who you're talking too - in this case, the latter. Which is just as well because I've no idea how to make a major cereal crop sound interesting/funny/depict in some clever way with CGI.

Anyway one of their slides showed the distribution of the galaxies they've detected in 3D space, which is a standard thing to do. But it got me thinking that it would be pretty neat to show actual images of the galaxies rather than just boring old points. And then, happily, I realised that I already have all the code I need to do this, which is very nearly as good as finding a forgotten chocolate bar.

Of course any fool can plot static 2D images. Yawn. So, instead of opting for the faster but marginally more expensive option for self-gratification of buying more chocolate, I also made a 3D flythrough. This is in keeping with my strict policy of doing things for the sole reason that they are cool. After a well-timed 3-day weekend, an epic download of more than 11 thousand images and probably about that many cups of tea later, this is the result.

Anyone interested in doing their own extragalactic cartography, or just wondering how it was done, can read a short article on my website.

Saturday 7 April 2012

On The Tully-Fisher Relation And Milton Keynes

Readers may worry about the lack of posts of late, but fear not. It's only due to an overload of paper-writing, of which I'll have more to say just as soon as I can find the stomach to confront the agonising self-flagellation of ennui that was involved the whole sorry business.

Anyway, I've just returned from a trip full of win, on the grounds that a combination of spaceships and dinosaurs is the very definition of win. It started with a nice little science conference in Green Bank on the infamous Tully-Fisher relation. This is about as far removed from, say, the Jolie-Pitt relation as it's possible to get, but it's a lot more useful and a lot harder to understand.

Look ! SCIENCE !

I don't have any pictures from this one since nothing much really happened that would interest anyone, with most of the 12-hour days being consumed in talks. The one exception being Brent Tully (of said relation) doing a square dance while a bluegrass band played the night away (or at least the early evening). That was AFTER he cleared everyone's plates away, for some reason, and BEFORE he was honoured with a commemorative plaque that will forever adorn the Green Bank lounge. He also had an awesome tie.

From there I moved to a three-day jaunt in Washington D.C., capital of the most powerful nation on Earth and not all that dissimilar to Milton Keynes. Oh sure, it's got the Washington Monument, whereas all that Milton Keynes has is a couple of concrete cows, but after dark the similarities are uncanny. They both have the population density of Alaska, long orderly streets with nothing in them that don't go anywhere, and nightlife that's as dead as a dead dodo that's just been appointed Professor of Dead at Oxford University.

Admittedly it has a better skyline, and less roundabouts.

On the other hand, it's got the Smithsonian. Which has lions and tigers and bears and... lots of dinosaurs. And a pangolin, one of my favourite animals ever, cos they is awesome. While it doesn't have a life size model of a blue whale like the Natural History Museum in London does, what it does have is an IMAX screen that's 20 metres tall and 27 metres wide. Which shows, among other things, a 3D movie about dinosaurs narrated by Donald Sutherland. And yes, that is as good as it sounds.

Then there's the Air and Space Museum, which has got more win than Sarah Michelle Gellar wearing nothing but chocolate. No, seriously, it does. Original Mercury and Gemini capsules adorn the main foyer, while the Spirit of Saint Louis and Space Ship One hang overhead. They've even got Yuri Gagarin's space suit, for crying out loud. And a planetarium with a narration by Whoopie Goldberg, although no-one knows why. Yes, she was in Star Trek, but so were a lot of people with infinitely superior narration skills.

After this succession of dangerously intense nerdgasms I moved on to explore the National Mall and did all the standard touristy things - the Capitol Building, the White House, the Washington Monument, and the Lincoln Memorial. All very showy, apart from the fact that most of the mall is currently being re-turfed, which somewhat spoils the grandeur.

There's no denying the Mall is an impressive place, if rather larger than it needs to be. Everything is very far apart and often hidden by trees, giving it an apologetically pomp feel - not what I expected from America. I'm also uncertain why building the world's tallest obelisk is a fitting memorial for George Washington, unless he was also a noted Egyptologist. On the other hand, Britain's primary World War II memorial is basically a large lump of stone in the middle of a busy street, so perhaps I shouldn't criticise.

America's WWII memorial is between the Washington Monument and Lincoln Memorial. It's basically a large fountain. It's not as impressive as Lincoln or Washington, but it is perhaps more poignant for what it represents. It's inscribed with various memorable quotes. Unfortunately these live up to the stereotype that Americans believe they won the war all by themselves, except for a rather patronising quote by Truman that comes rather close to reducing the other Allies to the status of cannon fodder.