Tags: astronomy

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Tuesday, August 22nd, 2017

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!”

Totality

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.

Sunday, June 4th, 2017

Hertzsprung-Russell diagram animation | ESA/Hubble

When I was in Düsseldorf for this year’s excellent Beyond Tellerrand conference, I had the pleasure of meeting Nadieh Bremer, data visualisation designer extraordinaire. I asked her a question which is probably the equivalent of asking a chef what their favourite food is: “what’s your favourite piece of data visualisation?”

There are plenty of popular answers to this question—the Minard map, Jon Snow’s cholera map—but we had just been chatting about Nadieh’s previous life in astronomy, so one answer popped immediately to mind: the Hertzsprung-Russell diagram.

Monday, May 1st, 2017

The Orrery at The Interval: An Invitation to Long-Term Thinking — Blog of the Long Now

The Long Now Foundation has been posting some great stuff on their blog lately. The latest is a look at orreries, clocks, and computers throughout history …and into the future.

Sunday, February 26th, 2017

Edge of darkness: looking into the black hole at the heart of the Milky Way | Science | The Guardian

Building a planet-sized telescope suggests all sorts of practical difficulties.

Tuesday, January 10th, 2017

Stargazing Live, 2017 : Outreach : Physics and Astronomy : University of Sussex

There’s going to be an evening of astro events out at Sussex University next Wednesday, January 18th. Stargazing, an inflatable planetarium, and the Ensonglopedia of science—fun for all the family!

Monday, December 26th, 2016

How a Couple of Guys Built the Most Ambitious Alien Outreach Project Ever | Science | Smithsonian

One might think sending messages to other stars would be a massive, expensive job. No. It isn’t. The Cosmic Call was essentially a crowdfunded hobby project.

Saturday, October 29th, 2016

Discovery of peculiar periodic spectral modulations in a small fraction of solar type stars

We find that the detected signals have exactly the shape of an ETI signal predicted in the previous publication and are therefore in agreement with this hypothesis.

Thursday, June 30th, 2016

Brighton Astro

The website for Brighton’s astronomy meet up:

Every month we will have one or two talks aimed at beginners with an interest in learning more about astronomy, but assuming no prior knowledge.

Also, we will take our telescopes out to observe in and around Brighton on clear evenings - on the seafront, Hove and Preston Park, Devil’s Dyke and beyond.

Saturday, May 24th, 2014

Archeology, Anthropology, and Interstellar Communication edited by Douglas A. Vakoch

A free PDF download from NASA on all things SETI, specifically the challenges of interspecies interstellar communication.

Thursday, November 14th, 2013

Star Axis is a profound meditation on the sky – Ross Andersen – Aeon

A beautiful exploration of the Star Axis sculpture—an artwork of the Long Now.

The ancients had pyramids to tame the sky’s mystery. We have Star Axis, a masterpiece forty years in the making.

Tuesday, October 15th, 2013

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.

Friday, July 26th, 2013

100,000 Stars

A gorgeous interactive visualisation of our local galactic neighbourhood.

Sunday, June 23rd, 2013

B612 Foundation

Defending Earth against asteroids, just like the Spaceguard organisation described in Rendezvous With Rama.

Detect. Deflect. Defend.

Wednesday, May 8th, 2013

SpaceWarps

Zooniverse have done it again. Now you can help in the hunt for sources of gravitational lensing.

It’s informative. It’s fun. It has genuine scientific value.

Sunday, October 21st, 2012

Data Visualization Reinterpreted by VISUALIZED on Vimeo

Peter Saville talks about the enduring appeal of his cover for Unknown Pleasures.

I like to think of all the variations and mashups as not just tributes to Joy Division, but tributes to Jocelyn Bell Burnell too.

Wednesday, February 29th, 2012

SETILive

This is not only the single most important human endeavour that you can participate in, it is also ridiculously gorgeous.

Science!

Friday, September 9th, 2011

Ole: the quest for aurorae on Vimeo

The story behind one of the winning photographs at this year’s Astronomy Photographer Of The Year that I was lucky enough to attend. This is beautiful.

Wednesday, June 22nd, 2011

Setistars

Would you like SETI to resume sweeping the skies in search of extraterrestrial life? Now you can put your money behind re-kickstarting that noble mission.

Monday, February 28th, 2011

101000

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.

Thursday, December 16th, 2010

Planet Hunters

Another great Zooniverse project: find planets by looking for tell-tale signs of light distortion from distant stars.