Tags: astronomy



60 seconds over Idaho

I lived in Germany for the latter half of the nineties. On August 11th, 1999, parts of Germany were in the path of a total eclipse of the sun. Freiburg—the town where I was living—wasn’t in the path, so Jessica and I travelled north with some friends to Karlsruhe.

The weather wasn’t great. There was quite a bit of cloud coverage, but at the moment of totality, the clouds had thinned out enough for us to experience the incredible sight of a black sun.

(The experience was only slightly marred by the nearby idiot who took a picture with the flash on right before totality. Had my eyesight not adjusted in time, he would still be carrying that camera around with him in an anatomically uncomfortable place.)

Eighteen years and eleven days later, Jessica and I climbed up a hill to see our second total eclipse of the sun. The hill is in Sun Valley, Idaho.

Here comes the sun.

Travelling thousands of miles just to witness something that lasts for a minute might seem disproportionate, but if you’ve ever been in the path of totality, you’ll know what an awe-inspiring sight it is (if you’ve only seen a partial eclipse, trust me—there’s no comparison). There’s a primitive part of your brain screaming at you that something is horribly, horribly wrong with the world, while another part of your brain is simply stunned and amazed. Then there’s the logical part of your brain which is trying to grasp the incredible good fortune of this cosmic coincidence—that the sun is 400 times bigger than the moon and also happens to be 400 times the distance away.

This time viewing conditions were ideal. Not a cloud in the sky. It was beautiful. We even got a diamond ring.

I like to think I can be fairly articulate, but at the moment of totality all I could say was “Oh! Wow! Oh! Holy shit! Woah!”


Our two eclipses were separated by eighteen years, but they’re connected. The Saros 145 cycle has been repeating since 1639 and will continue until 3009, although the number of total eclipses only runs from 1927 to 2648.

Eighteen years and twelve days ago, we saw the eclipse in Germany. Yesterday we saw the eclipse in Idaho. In eighteen years and ten days time, we plan to be in Japan or China.

Jocelyn Bell Burnell

When most people see Peter Saville’s iconic cover for Unknown Pleasures, they think of Joy Division and the tragically early death of lead singer Ian Curtis. But whenever I come across variations of FACT 10, I see a tribute to Jocelyn Bell Burnell.

Unknown Pleasures album cover

The album’s artwork is an inverted version of an illustration from the Cambridge Encyclopedia of Astronomy (which brings up all sorts of fascinating questions about Saville’s “remixing” of the original). It represents a series of pulses from CP 1919, the first pulsar ever discovered.

The regularity of the radio pulses is what caused the source to be initially labelled LGM-1, standing for “Little Green Men.” But the actual cause of the speed and regularity turned out to be equally stunning: a magnetised incredibly massive neutron star rotating once every 1.3373 seconds.

Pulsars keep their regularity for millions of years. They are the lighthouses of their host galaxies. When Carl Sagan was designing the Pioneer plaque and the Voyager golden record, he included a pulsar map that pointed the way to Earth—a decision that was criticised by many for inviting potentially hostile attention.

The pioneer plaque

That first pulsar— CP 1919 (or LGM-1)—was discovered by Jocelyn Bell Burnell on November 28, 1967 while she was still a PH.d student, using the radio telescope she helped build. In fact, she discovered the first four pulsars. In 1974, the Nobel Prize in physics was, for the first time, awarded to an astronomer. It went to her Professor, Antony Hewish.

Jocelyn Bell Burnell herself claims no animosity on this point, but I can’t help but wonder if the committee might have made a different decision had the discoverer of one of the most important astronomical finds of the twentieth century had been a man.

She describes how the Daily Mail ran the pulsar discovery story with the headline Girl Discovers Little Green Men:

They did not know what to do with a young female scientist, you were a young female, you were page three, you weren’t a scientist.

For a fascinating insight into the career of Dame Jocelyn Bell Burnell, I highly recommend listening to Jim al-Khalili’s interview with her on BBC 4’s The Life Scientific.


The travelling time is underway. I’m in Denmark right now, leading an HTML5 workshop at NoMA, the Nordic Multimedia Academy, and thanks to some excellent questions from the students, it’s all going smoothly.

Last week I was in Belgium for the Phare conference, which also went smoothly. I enjoyed giving my presentation and I really enjoyed the excellent hospitality of the Ghentians.

While I was in Belgium, the occasion of my fortieth birthday arrived with a sense of long-foreseen inevitability. I spent it in Bruges.

Four zero. The big four oh. Two squared times ten. The answer to life, the universe and everything minus two.

The photons that were reflected from Earth at the time of my birth are arriving at GJ 1214 b. Or, to put in another way, the light that left GJ 1214 at the moment of my birth is entering our solar system, perhaps even reaching the retinas of human beings somewhere on this planet who happen to be looking into just the right part of the sky at just the right time.


From BBC News at 15:07 GMT on Tuesday, March 3rd, Space rock makes close approach:

The object, known as 2009 DD45, thought to be 21-47m (68-152ft) across, raced by our planet at 13:44 GMT on Monday.

From Low Flying Rocks on Twitter at 13:45 GMT on Monday, March 2nd:

2009 DD45 just passed the Earth at 9km/s, approximately seventy-four thousand, eight hundred km away.

The final frontier

When I was rounding up my favourite hacks of Hackday, I can’t believe that I forgot to mention one of the most beautifully elegant mashups I’ve ever seen.

Paul Mison and Candace Partridge, two London-based astronomy geeks, presented their train of thought as follows:

  • Iridium flares are glorious bursts of light produced by reflections on satellites.
  • It’s fun to watch the International Space Station fly over.
  • Both of these events are tracked on the website Heavens Above.
  • There’s no point looking for iridium flares or ISS flybys if the sky is clouded over.
  • Weather information is easily available from, for example, Yahoo’s API.
  • By mashing up satellite information with weather information you can figure out whether it’s worth going outside to look into the sky.

The icing on the cake is the way that the results are broadcast. Instead of going to a website, you just need to sign up to a Twitter account. Now you will be notified whenever there’s a flare or flyby over London and the skies are clear. Pure class!

There’s quite a bit of juicy astronomy data available from NASA. Remember a while back when NASA and Google announced that they would be working together? I wonder if they’ve got some geeky goodness planned.

Jessica speculated a while back about reverse Google Maps. Suppose that when you entered an address, instead of just showing you the top-down view of that point on the planet, you also got to see how the sky would look from that point. Enter a postcode; view the corresponding starmap.

Make it so.