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 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...

Monday 23 July 2012

Wait, what ?

I apologise for writing yet another post about science, but not a lot has happened lately it's either this or posts about Netflix. Anyway, recently I discovered that the British government is to make publicly-funded research freely available* to the public who paid for it. This should be a given. But alas, while the scientific world has reacted far more sensibly to the advent of the Internet than the music industry - and so we should, because the modern internet was invented at CERN - the publishing aspect of it is still a little bit Victorian gentleman scientist.

* Read this link, it's important.

Firstly, let's be clear - publicly-funded research isn't "freely available" at the moment, but only in the sense that you have to pay to read it - NOT that it's kept secret. The reason that you have to pay is because once upon a time, in a dark and fearful age of myth and mystery, there was no internet. People had to spend their entire lives making their own entertainment, which led to travesties like Music Hall, and we all know how that turned out.

Not only was there no internet, but there weren't any photocopiers either. The only way to copy a paper was to have your secretary make a woodcut of each page. Err, well, not quite, but with no long-range communications aside from carrier pigeons, the only way to find out what other people were doing was to either spend three days travelling by stagecoach to talk to them, or buy a physical copy of a journal.

Indians were a common hazard on the London - Manchester route.

Although paper does grow from trees, trees are quite precious, as evidenced from the existence of paper money. Paying for journals made sense - but no longer. I quote from American Scientist, which sums up the whole affair very well :

"The government takes tax revenue from citizens and uses it to fund university research groups and libraries. Researchers obtain government grants and use the money to conduct experiments. They write up the results in manuscripts that are destined to become published papers. Manuscripts are submitted to journals, where they are handled by other researchers acting as unpaid volunteer editors. They co-ordinate the process of peer-review, which is done by yet other researchers, also unpaid. All these roles—author, editor, reviewer—are considered normal responsibilities of researchers, funded by grants.

At this point, researchers have worked together to produce a publication-ready, peer-reviewed manuscript. But rather than posting it on the Web, where it can contribute to the world’s knowledge, form a basis for future work, and earn prestige for the author, the finished manuscript is then donated gratis to a publisher: the author signs away copyright. The publisher then formats the manuscript and places the result behind a paywall. Then it sells subscriptions back to the universities where the work originated. "

Scientists are neither as stupid nor as wealth-obsessed as those in the music publishing industry, and everyone agrees that the current journal model is a dead duck walking. Unfortunately, the duck is not quite buried yet, so things are going to get pretty ugly while we struggle against its feathery zombified corpse before it completes its ducky death-march. And that's why the British government is planning to make research freely available by paying the journals. With £50 million that would otherwise have been used to fund actual freakin' research instead.
NO, NO, NO !!!

This is the worst possible solution to something that isn't a problem. For starters, a lot of papers are already freely available - at least as pre-prints. More importantly, the general public aren't going to be remotely interested in reading the vast majority of scientific papers in any case. They're sure as hell not going to be capable of understanding them if they do.

Sounds patronising ? It isn't. The prime source of finding new reading material in astronomy is astro-ph, where about 50 new papers are posted each day. I wouldn't like to risk claiming that I'm capable of understanding more than 10% of them. Every so often I note down papers with particularly catchy titles and/or bizarre abstracts - here's a select few. Hopefully, this will give a flavour of the gripping bedtime reading that £50 million will buy you :

A note on unparticle in lower dimensions
Using the gauge-invariant but path-dependent variables formalism, we examine the effect of the space-time dimensionality on a physical observable in the unparticle scenario. We explicitly show that long-range forces between particles mediated by unparticles are still present whenever we go over into lower dimensions.

Dark Energy, Hyperbolic Cosecant Cardassian and Virial Collapse for Power-style Cardassian 
Tthe Cardassian dynamical equations are introduced generally and logically under GF fluid scenario, together with the flowing process of constructing phase space and differential dynamical systems from Friedmann equation. Hyperbolic cosecant Cardassian term is employed for concrete computing. The analysis proceeds in two cases, namely a unified description of matter and radiation energy density (case 1) and a separate description of matter and radiation terms (case 2).Formalism of case 2 is more exact at the expense of more complicatedness, and due to the mathematical symmetry of matter term and radiation term in hyperbolic cosecant function, the differential dynamical equations are considerably simplified. Phase space and dynamical systems for both cases are achieved. When we calculate the critical points for case 2, amazingly interesting behaviors of self-consistency and auto-normalization are exhibited, which is a strong support for the new model,along with a forever positive sound speed. The process of virial collapse in Cardassian cosmos is analyzed. Power-style Cardassian term is employed for its simplicity.Calculation declares that virial collapse of matter alone isforbidden. Yet Cardassian has excellent ability for virial collapse,after the virial collapse ending up with a stable sphere, the ratio of the ultimate radius to the original radius depends on the adjustable parameters in Cardassian term. And, the mixture of GF fluid and matter could conduct virial collapse, the ratio of the ultimate radius to the original radius depends on the adjustable parameters in Cardassian term, too. No singularity is generated. 

Holographic Cosmology from the First Law of Thermodynamics and the Generalized Uncertainty Principle
The cosmological Friedmann equation sourced by the trace anomaly of a conformal field theory that is dual to the five-dimensional Schwarzschild-AdS geometry can be derived from the first law of thermodynamics if the apparent horizon of the boundary spacetime acquires a logarithmically-corrected Bekenstein-Hawking entropy. It is shown that such a correction to the entropy can arise when the generalized uncertainty principle (GUP) is invoked. The necessary condition for such a thermodynamic derivation directly relates the GUP parameter to the conformal anomaly. It is consistent with the existence of a gravitational cutoff for a theory containing $n$ light species. The absolute minimum in position uncertainty can be identified with the scale at which gravity becomes effectively five-dimensional.

Does that mean anything to you ? Because it sure as hell doesn't to me. But just because I don't understand it doesn't mean I want to cut their funding just so a lot more people can fail to understand it as well. That just seems spiteful. For all I know, they could be doing something really useful ! Knowing what the coalface of science is like, I'm prepared to trust that they're not just spewing forth words in the hope that a coherent sentence will develop.

Although sometimes I wonder...

And here's an important disclaimer. Public outreach is a vital component of modern science. It's entirely possible that all of the above authors have some really awesome lectures or public demonstrations, where they explain Cardassian virial collapse in an engaging and interesting way. Yes, yes, they probably don't, but they might. The point is that scientific papers are not part of public outreach.

Which begs the question, "Is it necessary to allow free public access to scientific papers ?" Yes, of course it is, you dolt. The public paid for every part of it. What's more, while there are not that many people hanging about with an interest in gauge-invariant Cardassian unparticle power cosmology, or whatever it was, only a fool would claim that the only people who benefit from reading papers work in academic environments. But taking away public money to pay private institutions so that the public can see what they paid for in the first place is Bloody Daft.

Fortunately, there is light at the end of the tunnel - and it's probably not an oncoming train. Already scientists are clumsily exploring the world of open-access publishing, and let's not forget that so much stuff is available for free anyway. If I had to guess, I'd say that within a few years someone will succeed in making this approach work really well, at which point the whole thing becomes moot and our wacky Tory government can find another excuse to cut public funding.

Friday 20 July 2012

Review : The Count of Monte Critso

Well well well, it's been a long time since I bothered to post a review of anything. I figure that more than enough people do that anyway, but very few of them take the trouble to tell you about the time they didn't meet the British Ambassador, or accuse amazon of racism out of sheer spite. However, the time has come to make an exception.

As I've previously mentioned, owning a Kindle is a perilous affair. I haven't even made a dent in its 3GB memory yet (filling it only with books is a good way to appreciate just how large a gigabyte really is) but I've already got more than I could hope to read in a year. Or, based on one of my latest reads, 20 years.

Having seen a decent film with Richard Harris some time ago (no, it wasn't Harry "Angsty Wizzard" Potter), I've long felt that The Count of Monte Cristo might be a worthwhile read. So, this being a Kindle, I downloaded the complete unabridged works of Alexandre Dumas for some amount of currency so small it's zero within errors. However, it's fortunate for Monsieur Dumas that he is dead, or I would be forced to write him an angry letter. I might do so anyway, but it probably wouldn't help much.

"Dear Mr. Dumas,
While your hair is truly something to behold, your writing isn't.
From the 800 reviews on amazon, I was expecting a magisterial masterpiece that would be indisputably one of the cornerstones of Western literature. I was wrong. What it actually is a bloody awful book that is almost entirely forgettable. Not that I gave up without a fight, oh no. I made it 70 chapters of the way through (there are about 120 total, I think) which took me about 4 months before I've finally had to admit defeat. Because, you see, it's just not very good.

99% of the time it feels about as twee as Lark Rise To Candelford, a comparison not to be made lightly. Almost everyone is an unbelievably prim and proper superlative of something, which results in them being completely unlikeable. The descriptions of places are almost incidental, Dumas preferring to insert 20 pages of completely pointless dialogue that doesnt't go anywhere rather than tell us anything about the setting. And when he does, it's again nothing but superlatives.

Well isn't this just jolly SPIFFING, what what !
The plot, for those who aren't familiar, is that our hero Edmond Dantes is imprisoned for a crime he didn't even know he didn't committ. Abducted from his wedding to the extremely boring Mercedes, he spends 15 years in a dingy dungeon. There he meets the impossiblly knowledgeable Faria, the 19th century equivalent of Google. Fortunately our hero has a perfect memory, and Faria, taking a shine to the young lad, tells him (via a long and
backstory) of a treasure hidden on the island of Monte Cristo.

On escaping from prison (a rare example of a good part of the book) Dantes embarks on a mission to very, very slowly track down his enemies, and very, very slowly exact his revenge upon them. Along the way there are yet more endless RFB backstories and improbable plot twists, or least meanders. It even features a 19th century version of Captain Pike - Monsieur Nortier - who can only communicate by blinking.

Why this mighty tome is deemed a classic by anyone is something which utterly escapes me. Maybe you're not supposed to actually read it. Maybe you're supposed to buy the hardback edition, for which I can think of a number of uses :

  • Starting forest fires
  • Blocking a toilet
  • Beating your enemies into submission
  • Making a lot of paper aeroplanes
  • Starting more forest fires
  • A handy substitute for cat litter
  • Weightlifting
  • Starting even more forest fires
  • Making yourself look erudite on the bus
  • A doorstop
  • Something to drop when you really need to generate a satisfying "thoonk" noise
  • Crushing small animals
  • Continuing to start forest fires

By the time I admitted defeat, Dantes had done no more than cause some mild inconvenience to his supposed enemies. Sure, there are a few much darker passages - like burying a child alive - but they're embedded in such a thick, rose-tinted mush that they lose virtually all force. And sure, the complex lives of the RFB characters are intertwined very cleverly, but it takes a life-age of the Earth to start to reveal any of this and it's just not worth the effort.

This could have been a memorable swashbuckling adventure, chock full of pirates and a man on a quest for bloody revenge. What it actually is is tedium incarnate. In short, I can think of better things to do with my time. Like stare blankly and silently into space for six solid, uninterrupted hours, all the while reminding myself how much worse it would be if that dreaded book was in front of me instead of a nice blank white wall.

Tuesday 17 July 2012

Madness, Science, and Opium

Recently I made a concerted effort to describe the schizophrenic nature of professional science. Readers will also have noted my heartfelt contempt for the unavoidable chore of writing papers. a process just as much of a double-edged sword as the analysis itself. While original thought is not only encouraged by a basic requirement to publish, original style is often looked on as heretical. 

There is, alas, a very good reason for this - anything that can be misinterpreted could ruin other people's research if they try and replicate the results. Which leads to virtually every paper feeling as though they've been written by the same very dull person. The kind who can't watch golf because it's too exciting and brings them out in a rash.

You might therefore expect that actually collecting the data in the first place allows for the same creative potential, as, say, watching a brick. Not watching it do anything, you understand, just generally watching it in case it misbehaves. In keeping with the theme of schizophrenia, you're only half right. Or only half of you is right. Or are right. Whatever.

What the observing process offers that the other aspects of astronomy don't is free time. Last time I mentioned that most of this is spent reading the BBC website, which is true, but it is not the whole story. One thing I do is to decorate my notebook, using a biro.

An earlier creative outlet, started by another observer, is to write poetry in the observing logs. Mostly these are in haiku form. Possibly this is because Wim van Driel really likes haikus, or maybe just because they don't take too much time and effort to write. The following are the haikus of other observers (namely Steve Schneider and Win van Driel) from the past 6 years of observations :

ALFA rotating
Universe slowly drifting
HI line searching

Warm winter moonrise 
Coquis outside harmonise 
Trained monkeys observe 

Seek on this island 
Koan you can understand 
Then clap with one hand 

End-of-year party 
Hot salsa cool Bacardi 
B4 mystery 

Night watches over 
Let others gas discover 
Sleep to recover 

spring stars flickering
atoms coolly emitting:
distant observing

Wim's busy tonight
no time for any haikus
that makes me so sad

starry night tonight
no time for radio waves
must install software

Ginger beer drinking
Alarms constantly sounding
Chips misbehaving

cajun spice smelling
into Orchid dscending
Lost season ending

Zen rock gardening
Manassas Stonewall standing
AGES observing

My own efforts are generally less poetic, with more of an attempt to use them as an actual observing log :

Observing quite smooth 
Not much RFI tonight 
All beams are working.

Observations fine
Not many warnings at all
Tea keeps me awake.

Not enough haikus
I shall rectify this now
With bad poetry

Beam 6B is down
Why so few haikus lately ?
We need Wim back now.

Just two scans taken, 
ALFA rotation problems, 
But all beams work now ! 

All scans completed, 
All beams are still working well, 
This haiku is done.

Being a fan of Edward Lear, like all good-hearted people, I attempted a single limerick :

It's a survey for deep HI data, 
From a telescope shaped like a crater, 
It really takes AGES, 
So it's done in small stages, 
And has a fixed-temperature calibrator.

Lately I decided that haikus lack a certain something, so I decided to go for broke and try to parody one of my favourite poems of all time : Kubla Khan by Samuel Taylor Coleridge. It probably helps to go and read the original first, if you haven't already. Coleridge was taking opium at the time, but all I had for inspiration was massive sleep deprivation.

In Arecibo did Kubla Khan, 
A stately observing-run decree, 
Where Tanama, the muddy river, ran, 
Through caverns measurable to man, 
Down to a sun-drenched sea. 

The Tanama is the local river, which flows through some nearby spectacular caves and also goes underneath the Observatory grounds.

So about a mile of telescope ground, 
With fence and towers girdled round, 
And there were gardens bright on sinuous rills, 
Where blossomed many a UMET-imported shrubbery, 
And here were forests ancient as the hills, 
Enfolding rainy spots of greenery.

UMET is the institution responsible for site maintenance. Which includes planting a lot of flowers.

But oh ! that very steep road which slanted,
Down the green hill toward a metal cover !
An underfunded place ! as holy as enchanted
As e'er beneath a waning moon was haunted
By a tiedown wailing from its demon-motor !

Tiedowns are cables which control the height of the platform. One of the motors is failing, which really does sound like the cry of a banshee, conveniently.

And beneath the dish, from unpaid overtime seething,
The drainage pumps no more were heaving,
A quite small lake momently was forced:
Amid whose swift rain-fed burst
Confusion spread like rebounding hail
Or scientists beneath [CENSORED]'s flail :

On several occasions over the years, for various reasons, a small lake has formed underneath the dish (in this case a reference to not being able to pay the necessary people to come and man the pumps, a particularly daft problem which was quickly remedied). [CENSORED] refers to an individual on whom I cannot possibly comment, for now.

And 'mid these dancing scientists at once and ever
Up flung momently the muddy river,
Several miles meandering with a mazy motion
Through wood and field the muddy river ran
Then reached the caverns measurable to man
And sank in silence to a tropical ocean.
And 'mid this silence so many from far
Sent a twitter message to a nameless star !

Which of course refers back to last year's music video and the current efforts to send twitter messages to aliens.

The shadow of the dome of Gregor
Suspended with metallic grace
Within was heard with mingled measure
A signal from the voids of space !
It was a miracle of rare device
A dome in air, and beans and rice !

The Gregorian dome - named after a mathematician called Gregory but Gregor will do - is where all the really cool instruments live. For the unaware, "beans and rice" is NOT an act of desperation to find something that rhymes - it refers to what is basically the Puerto Rican national dish.

A damsel wearing headphones
In a movie I once saw
She was an American maid
And with some telescopes she played
But what could be the headphones for ?

Of course, this is Contact, because one should never miss out an opportunity to make fun of Jodie Foster for using headphones at a telescope.

Could I contrive within me
To write dialogue and song
For an alt'rnate version of the movie
It would have music loud and wrong, [DAMN YOU KESHA !]
I will use that dome in air
That sunny dome ! The endless rice !

Since Coleridge's "caves of ice" just don't work here, I again refer back to the ubiquitous rice, and the music video.

And all who can should see them there,
A platform tour of ALFA's lair !
With flashing lights all twinkling there !

Clear a circle round him quickly,
And hold your nose with utmost dread,
For he on rice and beans fed strictly,
He rather'd something else instead.

Anyone suffering from questionable poetic tastes may continue to read this doggerel here. Most log entries aren't very interesting though, because not everyone who writes the entry (the "observer" column is the telescope operator, not whoever wrote the log) troubles themselves to assess the literary impact of their record of the night's events.

Friday 6 July 2012


A few months ago my first paper was accepted for publication. This monumental monument to tedium destroyed my ability to write anything just as surely as if I'd slammed my fingers in a door. Fortunately my second paper is nearing completion, so out of sheer perverseness this seems like an ideal time to explain the gruelling and glorious reality of the scientific method.

First, someone thinks of something worth observing. So then we observe it. This process consists of using a small program to make a another small program that the telescope operator runs and lo ! Data is collected. Or we observe it ourselves, which mostly involves reading the BBC News website in great detail because there's not much else to do at 4am in a telescope control room. Except eat cake, and try to stay warm because the air conditioning is part of an experiment to see if humans are capable of hibernation or just die of cold.

The observing can take anything from a few hours to a few years - literally. Mostly it only takes years because the telescope isn't steerable, so we can only observe a target for about 2 hours at a time, and only for a few weeks per year. At the end of all this there's a HUGE orgy. Or, to put it more accurately, we very quietly start processing the data, because raw data is a lot like raw eggs - bloody useless*. Most of what we observe is just noise, so it has to be cleverly processed before we can detect anything.

Unless you're a chicken. Umm. The similarities probably stop there, actually.

Data processing offers all the fun and excitement of watching a championship knitting contest (cos they totally have those, right ?). What we do is feed in a list of all the files we want to process to some magical software, and then we wait for about 2-4 weeks while it casts its enchantments on the 100 Gb or more of accumulated data. Finally, after years of observations and weeks of data processing, we end up with something that looks like this :

Those white blobs are, in fact, hydrogen gas clouds, even more rarefied than the most perfect vacuum ever created on Earth but with the mass of a billion suns and rotating at 450,000 mph. None of which stops them from looking like a bunch of blobs.

You may wonder what happens during all that time before the observations are finished. Well, I shall tell you, because now I've raised the question it would be cruel not to. Actually, it's very similar to what happens afterwards - at least, it is if your thesis depends on that data and you're not sure if the observations will be completed in time. In that case, you process as much data as you currently have and analyse all the blobs* you can find as you go along.

 *Or, if you prefer, magnificent broiling spiral clouds of gas, where shockwaves propagating across thousands of light years  ignite titanic stars; where white-hot hydrogen is forced to fuse in fire into all the elements that make up man in a hundred billion stars that glitter like a rain of diamonds in a vast cosmic maelstrom, but "blobs" is more succinct. 

What this means is that we run a program to measure the parameters of each blob, one at time. We can measure its mass (at least a million times that of the sun), estimate its distance away (in my field, at least 50 million light years) and measure how fast it's rotating (at least 70,000 mph but usually much faster). We get all this from examining graphs that look like this :

Depending on how large an area of the sky was surveyed, we analyse about 100-400 of these little blighters. Each one takes a few minutes. If you're still waiting for a Foster-esque moment where suddenly a revolutionary signal is found, you probably won't enjoy the rest of the post, so you should probably stop reading now. I haven't even mentioned the days / weeks of the manual examination of thousands of images it takes to find all the blobs in the first place, let alone the months of programming it takes to write code to do it for you.

Once all the measurements are taken they get tabulated. And those tables look like this :

But wait, there's more ! It's still not time to do any science, because small white blobs may be all well and good but they're not really of any interest to anyone except possibly Bill Clinton. Finding the size and spin of the gas is one thing, but the real question is - what is it doing ? Which means it's time to looks at pretty pictures, although people generally prefer to call them optical images.

Since the thing is typically as massive as a billion suns and made of hydrogen, the answer is usually, "forming a s***load of stars." Newly-formed stars are blue, so, usually the gas blobs are found in galaxies that look like this :

Lovely. And not very interesting, a bit like Denise Richards . Of course, people have spent decades trying to understand exactly how and why gas condenses into stars, and if you happen to have resolved maps of the gas there's a lot of interesting stuff you can do. Not with Arecibo though. All we get is the mass and spin of the gas, and that's pretty much it.

Fortunately, what we do have going for us is unrivalled sensitivity. Detecting gas clouds with the mass of ten million suns may not seem like much of an achievement, but if that gas is thinner than the most perfect vacuum ever created on Earth and over 300,000,000,000,000,000,000 miles away then it becomes a bit more difficult. In fact your only options are to spend many hours with a lesser telescope hoping to detect something, or use Arecibo, which can generally do it in about ten minutes.

This means we can detect the relatively little gas clouds. And that's nice, because they're way more interesting than the big pimped-up spirals. They're so interesting that some of them don't even have any stars at all. So my job, in a nutshell, is....

 To look for clouds of invisible gas that don't do anything !

And a whole bunch of other stuff too, like finding galaxies that have had most of their gas removed so that no new stars can form. Or, to put it another way, to find the last wraiths of gas ere it is banished from the vast cosmic graveyards of doomed and dying galaxies, which, death-struck, embark on their epochal voyage into the infinite void of blackest eternal night, their reddened and ruined stars starved and choked, bereft of hope, their darkening light a tragic echo of once-brilliant splendour now fading pitiless in the void. Probably.

So, that's what science is. It's the pinnacle of adventure in tedium and monotonay, a hopeless job where the only people who care about your results are your nearest competitors (and they're guaranteed to hate it), the study of the birth of stars and the death of galaxies, the grandest of quests to understand reality but mostly it's all about looking at very long lists of numbers all day and occasionally going "Hmmm." And eating cake.

Monday 2 July 2012

If I Could Talk To The Aliens...

Whenever someone asks me what I do, I have two standard responses. If I don't feel like talking, I tell them I'm an astrophysicist. Since I spend most of my time cooped up in a small house on my own, I don't use this one very much. My preferred response these days is to say I'm astronomer - which gives slightly less chance that the conversation will screech to a bewildered halt, but still engenders certain risks.

The main occupational hazard is people assuming that this is the same as astrology. Usually, this is because tehy is not to gud wid words. but that's OK. Worse, but much more rarely, they are genuinely unaware of the difference between the two. The most interesting / annoying are the UFO nuts.

Astrologers are basically wizards. I AM NOT A WIZARD.
That particular crowd are more excitable if I've ventured to say that I'm a radio astronomer, because that implies I must be a real life Jodie Foster despite all evidence to the contrary ("No, we don't use headphones, it's a radio telescope, not a radio....").


Anyway, some radio astronomers really do listen for aliens, something which I think is a jolly good thing because it doesn't cost a lot and could potentially bring about the greatest discovery in human history. So that's fine. But there's a huge chasm between real SETI programs and looking for flying saucers.

Not that I particularly object to some level of search for alien spaceships either, for the same reason as above. It's just that it isn't serious science, any more than cold fusion is. And though I'm wary of completely ignoring "fringe" research, because once in a while something earth-shattering does turn up unexpectedly, I've a very hard time swallowing the notion that aliens have travelled from other stars in order to mutilate cows, conduct anal probing and mess about making avant garde patterns in cornfields. 

National Geographic - bless their little cotton socks - have decided to do their bit to fuel that particular fire by having us transmit twitter messages into space. That's so bizarre it deserves repeating. The National Geographic channel is going to pay us money to film us transmitting messages from twitter INTO SPACE.


Unfortunately, the most talked about person on twitter is Justin Beiber. 



Humanity's first attempt to beam a radio message to aliens was an overly-sophisticated diagram that looked like this :

Which is a very clever way to tell the aliens that we know about prime numbers, chemical elements, have DNA, four limbs and a big radio telescope. In blind tests, no-one could decipher it. So apparently this time we're going to really dumb things down, and tell them all about a weird-looking youth with mad hair instead.

There will be no more pictures of Beiber on this blog. Ever.
Of course, I shan't be transmitting any messages. Fortunately for me I know nothing about using the radar. More importantly, if I'd wanted to send a message I'd have to have signed up for twitter, and I can think of more useful things to do with my time. Like chopping my arm off, for starters.

Howerver, if I had HAD deigned to do so, you can be damn sure I wouldn't have told the aliens anything about Mr Beiber. Messages I would like to send include :

"Hello, aliens ? Do you have any money ? We need funding !"



"I feel it only fair to warn you that all your base are belong to us."

"What did those cows ever do to you ?"

"All out lines are busy. To initiate inter-species relations, press 1, now..."

"You could be a winner ! To claim your cash prize, send the secrets of space travel to the following address...."

This project, which falls firmly into the category of "cool but foooookin' mental" is a response to the famous WOW signal. To commemorate this most ambiguous detection, we'll be tweeting the aliens on August 15th, the same date the 'Wow !' signal was received - and in the same direction too. But, since the closest star in this direction is 122 light years away, viewers will have to wait a couple of centuries to find out what the aliens think of Justin Beiber.