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,

Unpopular Science

Since my day job sometimes involves bizarre, unexpected, and downright surreal activities, I'm going to keep a record of the less conventional things I've been required / asked / did for no good reason whatsoever as an official part of my job. Anything I do in my spare time doesn't count. In chronological order, latest first...

My former housemate has a cool side project studying multi-generational spacecraft, in which I have a small involvement. One aspect he's particularly interested in is establishing how long the population could survive before they all died of inbreeding... which necessitates population control, hence, SPACE NAZIS. And then he went further and calculated the food requirements, so he's a look at this gloriously outrageous idea for a Nazi farmyard in space.

Did you know the Orion nebula looks like a dragon ? Neither did anyone else until the SOFIA observatory came along and I truncated the data to make it easier to handle on a laptop computer. So now I'm in a press release about a Nature paper talking about space dragons. In this post you can learn more about the visualisation as well as seeing material not included in the official release, including a VR flythrough of the data set.

How do you celebrate when your boss turns 65 ? Obviously, by describing the theory of star formation through the medium of interpretive dance. Professional scientists wearing crepe-paper, bursting balloons filled with glitter and using insufficient amounts of dry ice.

FRELLED was never going to be the most intuitive program ever written, so I wrote a lengthy, thorough and detailed manual to explain everything. EVERYTHING ! With particular thought to what non-Blender addicts might do. But it wasn't enough. The latest student complained, said it was unreadable and that it "needed a joke on every page", and, if possible, "a story about a princess". I don't know if she really expected the story - probably hasn't read Kubla Khan yet - but she got it anyway. As well as such useful information as, "Moose can run 400mph in short distance. After that they get bored." and "Each day bring a surprise to a moose, because they never read their horoscopes."

Did it help ? No.

I wrote a Python script called FRELLED to let you import 3D hydrogen data into Blender. As well as making pretty movies, it means I can find and catalogue galaxies 50 times faster (literally - that's not hyperbole). Which is great, but then I was asked to let it measure how much hydrogen was present in a spherical volume. Bugger that - I want to do arbitrary volumes. So I used Blender's inbuilt primitive, Suzanne. Et voilá, I give you a monkey head made out of galactic hydrogen. Because I can.

I spent several days traipsing around the telescope getting hot and sweaty for science. Actually I was making detailed little drawings, and then poring over the official schematics, all to create a digital 3D model. The aim was to laser etch the resulting creation inside a glass cube, which was done by Bathsheba Sculpture. Later my boss bought 160 of the things and gave them to observatory employees, though he berated me for getting some of the cables in the wrong place*. I also used the model to create an animation for Arecibo's 50th anniversary.

* Though he seems blissfully unaware that the Gregorian dome is completely the wrong shape and the girder layout ain't so great either...

Arecibo often bounces radar off nearby asteroids, sometimes to see if they're going to hit us but more importantly to see what they look like. Turns out they look quite a lot like potatoes, so I was asked to photograph one and turn it into a digital model. The digital potato can be converted into synthetic observations of an asteroid. And then back the other way - turning the synthetic observations back to a 3D model of a potato, using the same techniques normally used for asteroids. The point is that the shape of the potato is known perfectly (unlike asteroids), so it's a way to test how good the modelling techniques are.

I believe the potato was eventually cooked and eaten.

The Rhyme Of The L3 Satellite

What to do during all those long observing sessions ? Read papers ? Write papers ? Hell no. I doodle with a vengeance and write terrible parodies of Coleridge. Including the entirety of Kubla Khan and the Rhyme of the Ancient Mariner, parts I and II.

Arecibo Anthem

Because Science. The Arecibo REU programme is a tough, gruelling 10-week endurance challenge that few survive unscathed. But be warned... you watched it, you can't un-watch it ! And yes, it does feature yours truly dancing around (read : flailing arms wildly and trying not to hit anything) on the telescope.

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