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,

Thursday 31 January 2013

Science Made Overly Simple

Science Made Simple is a Cardiff-based science outreach program, for those not aware of the pun. The Up Goer Five text editor isn't, but it could be. Sort of. It's a text editor that only lets you use the 1,000 words most often used. If you're too lazy to click the links, it's called Up Goer Five because the original xkcd comic described the Saturn 5 rocket in such a way.

Anyway. this begs the question : can I explain my job using only the ten hundred most used words ? I don't know, but I'll give it a go. Although the UG5 editor allows you to define words if they're not in its dictionary, I decided to do this in its purest form.

"In space, there are lots of stars in big groups which move around really really fast. Each star goes around and around the middle of all the stars in the group. Some stars are closer to the middle than others. The stars very close to the middle are okay, but the ones far away are going much too fast. In fact, they should all fly off into space without something really heavy to hold them all together.

We can't see what this really heavy thing is but it must be there. Sometimes we also find other stuff (which is a bit like smoke) that is moving even faster than the stars and is even further away from the middle of the stars. This 'smoke' is also moving much too fast so we can be quite sure there must be a really heavy thing we can't see holding the whole lot together. Maybe one day we'll find some fast-moving smoke without any stars inside. That would be really cool, and then we will have a party."

Someone then asked about microlensing :

"Really heavy things can make light turn. We can look at how much the light turns and work out how heavy the thing making it turn is. Sometimes we may not be able to see the things making it turn. These could be very large rocks or other things that are hard to see or maybe because of some interesting dark stuff we don't know anything about."

This is curiously addictive. I guess I got lucky that "stars" are in the dictionary. But what if it wasn't ? How to explain a star ?

"In space there are huge balls of stuff that's a lot like smoke. Sometimes they are so heavy that they start to get smaller, because really heavy things do that. This makes them get hotter. When they get really hot, something amazing happens.

Remember that everything is made of lots of really little things. When things get hot enough, these little things fly around very fast and hit each other. Sometimes they stick together. This sends out even more hot stuff, sort of like fire, only not really but close enough. The hot fire stuff makes everything even hotter, of course, and that makes it even easier for all the little things to hit each other, sending out more fire, and so on.

The big ball of smoke gets hotter and hotter as it gets smaller and all its little things hit each other faster and faster. When it gets really really really hot, there is so much fire stuff that it pushes out very hard. This makes the ball stop getting smaller. Then it just sits there for a very long time, making more of the fire stuff."

One day, someone's going to write an entire textbook like this. But not today.

Tuesday 22 January 2013

A Tale of Several Cities (IV) : Everything Else in Long Beach

Since I'd been told that Long Beach was a dump, I booked only one day to look around the place. That turned out to be a mistake, not because there's all that much in Long Beach (there isn't) but because there's a space shuttle lurking somewhere in Los Angeles, which I wasn't aware of so didn't get chance to track down. I didn't even see the eponymous beach. Maybe, like Greenland, it was all a cunning ploy to attract people.

Instead, I nervously began the day with a whale-watching trip - nervous not because of some sudden bout of cetaphobia, but because the last whale-watching trip cost $60 and I saw not the merest hint of any marine life whatsoever. While spending four hours hurtling around the sea in a cold, gale-force wind was rather novel the first time, it's not something I'd rush to do again.

Thankfully, this trip not only cost half of the Boston venture but I saw an infinitely larger number of whales. I'm really not sure how many, because Fin whales (despite being the second largest animal on Earth at 88ft long) can swim at about 25 mph so they're difficult to keep track of. Definitely several. Since they're also only visible for a few seconds, this makes them bloody difficult to photograph too. About 200 photographs and all I got was something that any Nessie hunter would balk at.

Rather more photogenic were the seabirds (by virtue of sheer numbers) and dolphins. The dolphins were particularly memorable, swimming alongside the boat for several minutes, jumping about and generally being very impressive. The trip ended as the boat crossed a school what must have been dozens, or more probably hundreds, of our marine cousins.

After that I continued with the nautical theme for the day with a visit to a Russian submarine. It's docked next to the Queen Mary, a British ocean liner from the 1930's. Rather wonderfully, as you approach a British ocean liner in an American port the first thing you hear is the Russian national anthem blaring out from the submarine's gift shop.

I went to the submarine first because large old boats are fine and all, but in the end are just floating hotels with funnels. There's no explanation (not displayed prominently at any rate) as to how Long Beach came to have a cold-war era Russian sub docked in its harbour, but Wikipedia tells me it was bought off the Australians who bought it from the Russians when it was decommissioned in 1994. So there we are.

Despite the submarine being a Foxtrot-class vessel, the Americans have decided to call it Scorpion. To make things as surreal as possible, the submarine talks to as you in the first person (with a terrible  fake Russian accent), narrating a tour of itself.
"Hello ! I am Scorpion. I can dive over 900ft down. Cannot tell you exactly how far - is secret !"

An audio tour is a great idea because the inside of the sub is tiny - quite plausibly too small to have say, visitors and signs at the same time. Having it speak in the first person is great because it's a little bit mental. I can only imagine what it would be like to do this for other tourist attractions.

"'allo, mate, I'm a bloody great castle...." (for some reason I imagine castles would probably speak with a cockney accent)

Anyway, the inside of the submarine is a fascinating place. How 80 people managed to live and fight in these conditions I'll never know, let alone how they remembered what all the valves did (in places these are wall-to-wall, and unlabelled). It only took about half an hour to see, but it was absolutely worth the minuscule $10 entry free.

The Queen Mary, as I suspected, was absolutely not worth the $25 entry free - it is after all just a hotel, albeit one from the 1930's that floats and has a gun turret on top. But it was something to do for the rest of the day, so I went in anyway.

About the only thing that's interesting about the place - apart from the quite stylish art-deco interior design - was that there happened to be a steampunk convention going on at the time. In my naivety, I wasn't aware such things even existed. But they do. Annoyingly, this meant that many of the rooms were closed off for whatever it is that goes on in steampunk conventions.

More weirdly but far less annoying was the presence of booth babes and other miscellaneous creatures wandering about the boat clad in strange, pseduo-Victorian attire. Fascinating. Though I had to prevent myself from declaring in a loud and obnoxious voice :
"You're all wrong, this ship is from a totally different century, don't you know ANYTHING ??"

Reasoning that steampunk enthusiasts would quite likely have some cleverly-concealed mechanical super-legs, I resisted. I was too tired to run away at this point. So I shall finish with a simple question : what the heck is this ? You can see it from the deck of the Queen Mary. My best guess is it's the lair of some fiendish supervillain hell-bent on secretly breeding an army of genetic supermen to take over the world, but you never know, I might be wrong.

Either that or it's a monument to golf.

Saturday 19 January 2013

A Tale Of Several Cities (III) : AAS in Long Beach

So I've finally recovered enough from a 9,000 mile trip enough to resume writing about it. Humans were never supposed to suddenly flit between 3 completely different time zones in a week, which is yet another reason we should bring back airships without delay. But I digress.

Long Beach was the venue for this year's AAS winter meeting. Two previous attempts for me to attend such a meeting failed spectacularly, but, third time lucky everything went to plan. I wasn't expecting a lot, having repeatedly heard Long Beach (which is basically a glorified suburb of Los Angeles) described as a dump. Which turned out to be very harsh, and having spent my formative years in inner-city Cardiff, I can most definitely tell you what a dump is, and Long Beach is Not It.

It is, however, a somewhat dull and lifeless place, though that might well be the hotel district in the middle of winter. It's also tremendously spread out, with the LA metropolitan area reputedly larger then the whole of Puerto Rico. And that's just silly.

The AAS meeting itself was indeed considerably larger than the summer meetings, almost too large. Going to every potentially-interesting talk and poster was probably impossible, perhaps because there were almost none of either in the summer meeting. On the other hand, there exists an entirely separate spacetime metric in which one can wander to collect freebies from the various booths without infringing on conference time at all. It's magic.

One thing I saw that I'll plug to a wider audience was Microsoft's World Wide Telescope. Yes. I know, it's Microsoft, the George Lucas of the computing world. They make products which everyone relies on and are a heck of a lot better (for many things) than the competition, but everyone hates them.*

* OK, George Lucas probably deserves it these days, because he's gone mad, but not ten years ago.

The fact of the matter, if you want my opinion (yes I'm aware that's an oxymoron) is that the WWT is a lot like Google Sky, except that it's better because it also includes something equivalent to Celestia. WWT has also done a much better job with the digitized sky survey images than Sky, so what you see out of the box (metaphorically - like Sky, it's free) is a lot prettier (though in fairness, Sky has done better processing on the SDSS images). You also don't get any ugly artifacts at the poles with WWT, and as the image tiles are loaded they fade in gradually, which looks much nicer than the instant replacement that happens in Sky.

I don't know if the 3D mode has quite as many features as Celestia, but it seems pretty capable. One thing it can do out of the box that Celestia can't is to zoom out to show the large-scale structure of the Universe (a phrase that never gets old). It shows a few hundred thousands galaxies, which is pretty fun... though I'm going to add the disclaimer that unlike my ALFALFA Sky video, it only uses a few template images - not 11,000 unique images. Cheats.

Another very cool thing I saw was in the booth of the Thirty Metre Telescope. Instead of bringing along a bulky, fragile model, they'd brought a lightweight, easy-to-pack hologram instead. Much like the plastic holograms that used to feature regularly as free toys in cereal boxes, only much bigger and better. The detail was really quite striking, as was the 3D effect but you'll have to take my word for that. I may have to investigate this further.

I also have to mention the freebies that Arecibo was giving away. Pretty conventional, but popular : stickers, magnets, keychains, etc. We also had two extras this year. First were some special CLAWS stickers. The Cat Lovers of Arecibo Welfare Society was formed over the summer to help care for the on-site cats, which it's done very successfully apart from an unfortunate incident involving a car (no, not my car, actually) which I won't go into here.

I made a CLAWS logo more or less as a reflex action, because it's what I do. Can't help myself. It's based on the old Arecibo logo from the Cornell era. It features LIDAR-car (who uses laser beams to study the atmosphere), planetary radar cat (who explores the solar system) and general astronomy cat (who makes cryptic philosophical comments about the Universe). Unfortunately we only printed 60 of these, which was a mistake because they were gone by Monday lunchtime.

My other contribution was a set of bookmarks used for a public outreach activity. The bookmarks illustrate the life cycles of stars of various masses, with ribbons for children (some of whom turned out to be at least 17) to tie different coloured beads on. Unfortunately, we only had a few groups of school-goers allocated to us, so we didn't really make much of a dent in the 900-strong pile of them we had with us. Thankfully, we got rid of almost all of the rest over the remaining two and a half days, which was nice. A few people even took them in bulk to use for teaching classes.

I was able to make the bookmarks in the space of an afternoon, although having made the star model some 9 years back does help, And somewhat gratifying to know that I got a least one useful product out of a hopeless project from such a worryingly long time ago in a city far, far away...

Short of talking about actual science, that about covers it for the AAS. Stay tuned for the final instalment of this thrilling journey, wherein I witness whales, dolphins, a Russian submarine and psuedo-Victorian booth babes wandering around a large old boat.

Sunday 13 January 2013

A Tale of Several Cities (II) : Grand Theft Bioshock

I've flown through New York several times, but I've never had the chance to actually see the place. Which is a shame because it's always been somewhere I'd quite like to visit. It is, after all, surely one of the most iconic of all American cities. Let's face it, who wouldn't want to visit the inspiration for Grand Theft Auto IV and Gotham City ?

So with the secondary goal of breaking up a 16 hour trip from London to Los Angeles, I managed to wriggle in a day trip to New York. Actually, two half days to be precise - an evening and a morning. I spent the first hour or more in my hotel sorting out a ridiculous Expedia problem whereby I'd booked 3 rooms instead of 1, then went off to explore.

I should first point out that my hotel was in the part of New York that inspired the first region the player encounters in GTA IV, except rather more surly-looking. "Iconic" is not the right word; "worrying" might be better. The only photos I took were from my hotel (while I was tempted to photograph the S&M shop advertising its video booths, I decided this probably wasn't a good idea, on balance). However, credit where credit is due, and the only people I interacted with did nothing more than give me helpful directions.

It was dark by the time I fixed the Expedia thing, but that's OK because this was the Big Windy Apple That Never Sleeps*. I couldn't make head nor tail of the online instructions for how to get around on the New York subway, so I instead opted for the more classical approach of talking to other human beings. This really does work remarkably well. I was in Manhattan about 45 minutes after setting off.

* Yes, I am aware that Chicago is the Windy City, not New York, but meh.

I should also say that the New York subway is indeed very good. I saw zero evidence - even when returning at about 11:30pm - of all those tales of how dangerous the subway is at night. Maybe it is in the small hours, I don't know, but when I was there it was very busy and yet a heck of a lot nicer than the London Underground (cleaner, better ventilation, more spacious and with more seats). This being America, however, it did have its surreal moments.

A sleeping man awoke and decided for reasons best known to himself to stand in between the railway cars. Doesn't sound that remarkable except that there are no enclosures between the cars, so he was effectively standing outside with nothing to prevent him from falling onto the track. Thankfully he didn't, and a few minutes later he came back in and went to sleep.

On another section, a couple of kids came by with a radio and proceeded to put on a brief attempt at a break-dancing display. No-one gave them any money, which was probably for the best*. More bizarrely, a small band came through playing some variety of Spanish music with an accordion, a trumpet and a full size double bass. Dedication or madness, either way it was quite impressive.

* I suppose the crowded nature of the London Underground does deserve some credit as it prevents the horrors of street entertainment from descending into the public transportation network.

Since time was limited I headed straight for my goal of the Empire State Building. Bugger the World Trade Center and ground zero and all that - mention New York, and it's Empire State that comes to mind. And also the Statue of Liberty, but I've heard several tales of disappointment on that one, and I'm not sure you can go inside any more. So on I went, quietly humming the Newport parody to myself, marvelling and just how gosh-darn tall the place was, and reflecting on how very similar it is to Liberty and Gotham Cities.

Empire State lit up for Christmas.
On reaching the Empire State I went immediately inside and found I had been transported into the world of Bioshock. The main lobby has been called a masterpiece of art deco, and rightly so because it is. It's downright gorgeous. I knew absolutely nothing about what to expect, so this came as an unexpected bonus.

From there it's a fast ride in a lift up to the 80th floor, where there's a small exhibition describing the construction of the building. I get the impression that this is really meant to accommodate crowds on busier days, but a cold night in early January isn't exactly peak time. From there, it's an even shorter ride up to the 86th floor viewing area.

I walked out into the freezing air and instantly knew that going up at night had been a very, very good idea. All right, America, I'll let you have this one. Well done. Very well done indeed.

The next day I had only a very little time before my flight, but an hour of wandering around Manhattan is a lot better than no time at all wandering around Manhattan, so that's what I did. Can't say I have a clue what I was looking at. I wandered into Times Square by sheer chance, which is probably for the best because it doesn't seem all that remarkable to me. Just a bunch of big grey buildings (albeit covered in signs), and I certainly don't understand why it's an iconic New Year's Eve destination.

Far more interesting to me was to simply wander around and gaze at the very tall buildings. Damned if I know what any of them are, but they're quite impressive. Though I am confused as to why America likes really grandiose post office buildings - yes, it's an essential public service, very nice, but in the end it boils down to a guy on a horse or a bike or in a van delivering letters. Why does that require a building with so many columns* ?

* In my view, the relative importance of old buildings is a direct function of the number of columns they have. The New York post office has a very high column density** and so must be one of the most important buildings ever constructed.

** Astronomer's joke. Sorry. It's a terrible pun.

That about wraps up my New York jaunt. From there I was whisked away to Long Beach (part of Los Angeles) for the American Astronomical Society's winter meeting, which I shall describe in the third and final instalment of this travel trilogy.

Saturday 12 January 2013

A Tale of Several Cities (I)

Christmas this year provided at least two miracles. The first one was catching the flight home. Having got into San Juan in about an hour, it took almost another 2 (in gridlocked traffic) to reach the airport (a distance of only about 10 miles). Then when I arrived in the airport, I found a sight I've only had the misfortune to witness once before - a total lack of anyone at the check-in desk. This was because it had closed.

This was, naturally, hugely frustrating, but not panic-inducing. Obviously, having gone through this once before helps. Also, and ironically, the previous Christmas disasters have built up a mental drive akin to that which makes salmon swim thousands of miles and leap impossibly high waterfalls to experience one almighty orgy before they drop dead from exhaustion. I was damn well going to get home for Christmas, a truth as sure as death and taxes.

Thankfully, being eaten by a bear was never much of a risk.

Although I wasn't planning on literally swimming (or even partaking in an orgy), which I guess makes me way less awesome than the fish, my determination to bloody well get home was enough that I didn't care how I did it - whether than meant waiting a day for the next flight or finding an alternative that evening, even if I had to shout at every airline operating in the airport.

Fortunately, it didn't come to this. The desk had only just closed. The nice people at American Airlines (the next desk, which was thankfully very quiet) were able to go and retrieve one of the British Airways staff, who, like some sort of magical wizard or perhaps the Ghost of Christmas Present, was able to make everything better. For a few minutes I face the prospect that I'd have to go tomorrow, then suddenly I found that I was able to get on the flight after all, even though the gate had closed 10 minutes before.

I learned later that the flight had been delayed slightly, which was probably how I was able to get on. Ah, but why was it delayed ?  Engine trouble ? GPS not working ? I think not. I place this one firmly into the Christmas Miracle category, it being the only truly logical and rational explanation. And then it started snowing in San Juan and everyone started singing in a street musical.

Wait... that's not San Juan at all !

Christmas Miracle 2 was even better. In the whole 3 weeks I spent in Cardiff, I never even saw a hospital, and after the previous 3 Christmases, that's probably the equivalent of our heroic salmon having survived his unlikely struggle in order to do the whole thing again next year. Hmm. Bad analogy. But it'll have to do.

Having survived the exotic city of Cardiff - and I describe it thus without irony, because exotic is a relative state - I embarked on an ambitious plan to attend the winter AAS meeting in Long Beach, California. This is ambitious for me since, due to previous Christmas disasters, I've never managed to attend one. Just to make things even more unachievable, I tacked on a day trip to New York in there as well, ostensibly so as to avoid a 16 hour flight but mostly because I've always wanted to visit New York. I shall describe my adventures in the Windy Apple That Never Sleeps, or whatever it's called, in the next post.