Friday, December 21, 2012

Happy "End of the World"!

As a graduate student answering questions for the Cornell University Astronomy Department "Ask an Astronomer" site I innocently picked up a question "What's going to happen on December 21st 2012?" to look into. A small Google search later and I entered a strange world of apocalyspe, misrepresented science and lots and lots of nonesense about what the Mayans may have believed.

Anyway I answered the question to the best of my ability at the time, and didn't think much of it.

To date, almost 2 million people have read that answer, and it's led to numerous other questions about 21st December 2012, including a radio appearance on Montel Across America on the topic.

I did what I assume will be my last interview on the topic earlier this week, now appearing in the Southport High School Journal for 21st December 2012.

Here's my final answers (note aimed to be read by a US High School audience)! I am a bit surprised to have no real plans to celebrate the (lack of) end of the world, but it is true that I will get to enjoy a day at home with my young son.

1.  Why will the world not end?  Why do some think it will?
The world definitely will end one day - just not in 10 days from now. The reason some people think it's going to end on 21st December 2012 is tied to the Mayan calendar and some other vaguely science related things people have linked into it. Some people think the Mayan calendar long count ends on 21st December (ie. today) and that the Mayans had special knowledge which allowed them to line this up with the end of the world. Mayan scholars actually disagree on the exact alignment of the Mayan calendar and our calendar, so the date itself is a bit debatable, and in any case the Mayans had names for times longer than the long count so it doesn't seem like they thought it would be the end of the world. And even if they did why would they know? The "end of their world" (or civilization) kind of came several hundred years ago!

 I think people have latched onto 21st December because it is the solstice (for us in the Northern hemisphere the shortest day), so a special day for the world - but one that happens every year.

2.  Have there been any signs?

3.  Why has the Mayan December 2012 theory been so widely spread, while others have not?

 Unclear. Actually you can find in cache versions of the internet discussion of the end of the world in both 2000 and 2003 (neither of which happened). There's a quote you can find online which says "People who have survived the end of the world of 2000 (or 2003) are 95% more likely than others to survive the end of the world in December 2012. (These figures are not official)". I've been debunking the 2012 myth since around 2000. It died off a bit in the last couple of years, but I suppose I shouldn't be surprised people are getting more worried about it again this month.

4.  What do you think will happen Dec. 21?  What will you be doing that day?

I think it'll be just like any other day. I mentioned it is the solstice (shortest day) and here in the UK that will mean sunrise close to 8am and it getting dark again around 3.30pm. I'll be wrapping up warm because it's getting cold, and preparing for Christmas. It's my daughters last day of school before Christmas, but my son's nursery will be closed so I'll have a day off work with him before we head off for our Christmas plans to visit my parents on 22nd December. 

 A famous scientist in the UK is hosting an "End of the World" comedy science event (he's been famous for debunking the 2012 nonesense too - check it out here). I kind of wish I could go to, but unfortunately can't. 

5.  What do you think of those who believe it will end?

Anyone who is making money off it by selling "apocalypse survival kits", or books spreading this nonsense I feel very angry with for upsetting gullible people. I'm a bit sad to be honest for anyone who is really worried about it and getting themselves upset. They really need not be concerned. I guess they'll feel a bit stupid on 22nd December (but presumably relieved!). I'll be curious to see what he next apocalypse they all start worrying about will be. It seems the lack of 2000 or 2003 apocalypses didn't stop people going on about this one, so I'm sure there will be a new one.

6.  What does the Mayan calendar actually mean, if it doesn't mean the world will end?

It's just a calendar. Our calendar has long cycles too (like millennia - ie. the switch from 1999 to 2000, or in the future 2999 to 3000, or on shorter timescales, centuries). This doesn't mean we think the world's going to end when the next cycle happens!

7.  Do you know of any statistics or interesting facts regarding this topic? (I.e., how many believe it will happen?  Mayan facts?)
There's an internet meme - "Keep Calm the Mayans were simply Counting Down to the Hobbit Movie" which I think is quite cute. I wrote a blog post about a talk I gave on this topic in a high school with more details and some little bits. 

8.  Any other feelings or last words regarding this topic, or things you think we should know?

 Well as I said at the beginning, the world really will end one day, and I find it interesting to think about that a bit. For example in about 1 billion years the Sun will have aged to the point where it is slightly larger, and slightly brighter so that the average temperature on Earth will be too high for any liquid water - that's likely to end any remaining life on Earth. About 3-4 billion years after that the Sun will expand dramatically and probably swallow the Earth. On shorter timescale we do genuinely need to worry about large comets and asteroids. It's important that NASA and other organizations continue to track any which might potentially hit Earth. The probability of this happening soon (ie. in our lifetimes) is very small, even though in the next million or billion years it almost certainly will happen. What's probably more concerning for us is the stuff humans are doing to the planet. Climate change seems to already be making real impacts on severe weather, and may well accelerate during our lifetimes. There are concerns about the melting of the polar ice and rising sea levels. I don't mean to alarm anyone, my point is that instead of worrying about vague apocalypses "predicted" by ancient civilizations lets worry about what the current civilizations are doing to the planet and work to look after it a bit better.

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Women's Leadership Workshop in Dubai

This weekend I travelled to Dubai to give a Keynote speech at a workshop on women's leadership being run by Liza Howe-Walsh and Sarah Turnball of the UoP Business School. This trip was part of Liza and Sarah's research project into the different barriers women face upon entering science fields both in the UK and the Arab world (read about their project in this UoP News Item).

I gave a talk about my research looking at galaxies, with a section in the middle about the contribution of women both to the research, and to my career in astronomy. I also gave a slide show of all the amazing things I've got to do because of being an astronomer which was fun for me (and I hope them!).

It was a very interesting experience, and I hope worthwhile both for us and for the Emirate women who participated. Liza and Sarah will be following up with them in the coming months and years so I'll be very interested to see what happens.

Some snapshots...

First a group shot with me, Sarah, Liza and some of the women who participated.

We ran the workshop at the Emirates Aviation College near the Dubai Airport.

Before we got started. 

The hotel I stayed at was attached to the Mall of the Emirates, which at the other end hosts this massive ski slope. 

And this is the Burj Khalifa - the tallest building in the world. Dubai doesn't seem to do small! 

It was a really interesting trip, and I'm grateful to Liza and Sarah for asking me to participate. 

Article I wrote on Athena SWAN blog about the trip.

Thursday, December 13, 2012

Galaxy Zoo Live Chat, and Zooniverse Advent Calendar

The Zooniverse has an advent calendar again this year. I think it's great. :)

The treat behind the door last Friday was a Live Chat with the Galaxy Zoo science team. You can watch us all in action below.

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Astronomy for medium children - paper models

Just a quick post to point out these awesome paper models put out by Canon (yes - the printer people - I guess this encourages you to use more printer ink or something!).

I made one weekend (with some success) the solar system model. It's not to scale at all, which is a bit annoying, but it's sort of nice.

Mobile solar system by Canon.

If you don't that, how about a model of a Subaru telescope, the structure of the Sun, a sundial, or a moving model illustrating the difference between the Copernican and Ptolemic models of the solar system?

Copernican and Ptolemic Solar System models

Perfect Christmas holiday activity for older children I would say. My two are still a bit young though. :)

Just a comment that the title of this post was a reference to my post "Astronomy for Young Children - Colour the Solar System", which is actually my most read article on this blog!

ALMA image of a star

On the front cover of a recent ESO newsletter in our coffee room is this image.

ALMA Observations of R Sculptoris. Credit: ALMA (ESO/NAOJ/NRAO)
This is an ALMA observation of a nearby red giant (or asymptotic giant branch) star R Sculptoris. The structure you can see is gas clouds around the star -  the result of its outer atmosphere expanding and blowing off during a "thermal pulse" in this advanced stage of the star's life cycle. 

This is really useful for astronomers to constrain how much mass stars loose during these stages (which helps us to weigh galaxies from measuring the amount of starlight they give off). 

What's neat is that this is what our Sun will probably start doing one day (in about 4-5 billion years from now or so). And to put it in scale, the material "puffed" off to make that structure, was more than a thousand times the mass of the Earth..... 

For some reason I missed this when it was first released, but no worries - Phil Plait wrote an awesome article about it where you can learn a lot more.

Monday, December 3, 2012

Meeting HRH The Princess Royal at the 2012 WISE Award

Last Thursday I attended the 2012 WISE Award Ceremony at the IET in London. I had been shortlisted for the WISE Excellence Award (for women at an early career stage in STEM who show both a commitment to their chosen profession and a dedication to encouraging girls and young women in STEM careers). I didn't win - Jia-Yan Gu, a Researcher at BT was the very worthy winner - although I was delighted to have been shortlisted, and was the only academic scientist on the list.

A news item about my shortlisting is on the ICG website and the Women in SET at Portsmouth blog.

The award ceremony was attended by HRH The Princess Royal, who I briefly met following the ceremony. 

 All of the photos from the event are online here and below I picked out a selection of the ones with me - either in the audience (I'm towards the top right) or in a group meeting HRH.

Friday, November 16, 2012

Wikipedia Success for Isis Pogson!

A couple of weeks ago I participated (remotely) in the Royal Society Wiki-a-thon to improve the visibility of women scientists on wikipedia.

One of the articles I started because of this event was about Isis Pogson, a British astronomer who worked for many years as an assistant to her astronomer father at the Madras Observatory in India. Of all the articles I created this is the one which has changed the most since - I guess one sign of success on Wikipedia.

And this article was nominated as a "Did you know" entry by Gonobobo a couple of weeks ago, and ended up on the Wikipedia main page yesterday with the text:

Did you know:
that British astronomer Isis Pogson was probably named after a river, and an asteroid was probably named after her?

And check out the hits as a result, of the 2277 people who've visited the article since I created it, 1765 (78%) went yesterday.

I think that has to count as a success for the Royal Society Wiki-a-thon. :) 

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Tracking Your Impact on Twitter

One of the themes of #solo12impact was that the first step in understanding the impact that your online or social media engagement has, is to track your number of followers and other simple metrics of engagement (retweets etc). I would argue the sooner you start tracking the better, as you can observe trends, and you never know what will happen to change your online presence.

I found this session really interesting to introduce me to a bunch of Twitter tracking tools. I've experimented with a few before. I'm just going to mention all the ones I know about in this post.

One I've used for a while now is "Twitter Counter". The free version of this tracks the number of tweets you make and the number of followers you have. You have to upgrade (pay) to export this, or see mentions/retweets, or to track back longer than 6 months. One thing I like is the ability to plot trends over long periods, and plot both number of tweets and number of followers on the same graph. I see interesting patterns in that. For example this screen shot from Jan-April 2012 shows the rise in followers I got from tweeting at the UK National Astronomy meeting in early April 2012, and also a boost from tweeting a lot during Stargazing LIVE (Jan 2012). My theory that your number of followers is proportional to the amount of time you've been tweeting is also based on these graphs, which seem to me to have rather constant gradient over long periods... at least for my account.

My conclusion from this is that number of followers isn't everything when it comes to your Twitter impact - but that's probably fairly obvious. However I do think tracking these trends is a good idea.

Another one I stumbled on that I kind of like is which tries to work out what are your best performing tweets. I find that sort of interesting - seems to be based just on number of retweets and "favourites". Some interesting results for me.

My best tweet so far surprised me:

I've also tried out Klout, mentions of which (from others) received at best mixed reaction in the room during this session. True - it's a bit over simplistic, but it's probably also the most recognisable of the results (beyond number of followers) - it's tagline has turned into "The standard for influence". However, I opted out of Klout a little while ago after reading this article sent to me by @eddedmondson: "Evil Social Networks". If you sign up, you also sign up all of your followers (without their permission). Lots of people disagree with their results too. To opt out of Klout you can visit this link. Peerindex was mentioned as similar to Klout, and doesn't have the same opposition (at least that I can find online), so may be a better option if you want a single number. I'm signing up for this as a write.

Probably the big winner of a recommendation from this session was CrowdBooster. I joined this service yesterday following the session and I've been impressed so far. It seems to do both the tracking of raw numbers, and the analysis of the most popular of your tweets in one location. I like the first plot showing the reach of tweets (basically the total number of followers of everyone who might have read your tweet based on who retweeted it). The statistics on influential followers and who retweets you the most also look useful.

The insights into the best time to tweet also look interesting. Seems I must have a lot of US followers - not much of a surprise given I worked in the US for some time, but I didn't join twitter until after I moved back to the UK.... It's a bit annoying that my best time to Tweet is when I find it hardest to do so (7pm - during dinner time with the kids), but then maybe that's not a coincidence. I probably only tweet really important things then.....

The other shout out went to as an alternative or complement to CrowdBooster. The downside of this being it auto tweets your results (which can annoy followers). I'm signing up for this as I write! also got a (twitter) mention. This is a paid service (with a 15 day free trial). It may well be true that you get what you pay for, but I haven't tried this one yet.

I suspect the answer at the moment as to which we should all be using is that there isn't a single best answer and that it will change with time. However it also seems to me that you need a baseline for anything to be any much use, so signing up to at least something (or all?) of these now may be a good idea. 

Attending Solo12

I spent yesterday at SpotOn (Formerly Science Online) London. My justification for going was to learn more about tracking the impact of online public engagement. I had a really interesting day, and came away with a bunch of ideas.

The sessions I attended were:

Raising the Profile of Women in Science Online and Offline (actually on Sunday) #solo12wis

Then on Monday:

Using Twitter for Science Communication (which turned into a workshop on the idea of using Twitter characters to improve engagement). Storify of this session. #solo12twitter

Using Social Media at Conferences and Other Events. Storify of this session.  #solo12

Tracking the Impact of your Online Presence. Blog post taster. #solo12impact. I'm going to blog some thoughts from this session next.

And How to Evaluate your Online Engagement. #solo12eval

Talking Black Holes and Galaxies on the Today Show

The interview I recorded with Tom Fielden from the BBC R4 Today show aired at 11:46 UK time, Saturday, 10 November 2012 . Tom also did a nice write up of it for the website: article "Gas Guzzler"

You can listen to the show in which this appears for another 4 days at this link: Today Show 10th November 2012.

I recorded the segment and posted in on Audioboo as well.

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Looks like Lunch for Sag A*?

In the past week I've fielded several questions about the gas cloud, G2, which is possibly on course to be accreted by the supermassive black hole at the centre of our Galaxy. So I decided I would update my knowledge (and the wikipedia page about Sag A*) on this object with the below:

Discovery of G2 Gas Cloud on an Accretion Course with Sag A*

An artists impressive of G2 approaching Sag A* (orange). The blue lines indicate orbits of known stars about the black hole. Credit: ESO/MPE/Marc Schartmann
First noticed as something unusual in images of the centre of our Galaxy in 2002 (, the gas cloud, G2, which has has mass about 3 times that of the Earth was confirmed to be likely on a course taking it into the accretion zone of Sag A* in a paper published by Nature in 2012 (Gillessen et al. 2012). Predictions of its orbit suggest it will have a closest approach to the black hole (a perinigricon) in mid to late 2013. At this time the gas cloud will be at a distance of just over 3000 times the radius of the event horizon (or ~260 AU, 36 light hours) from the black hole. Opinions differ as to the impact this might have on both G2 and the black hole. G2 appears to already be being distrupted over the past 3 years of observation (Gillessen et al. 2012), and may be completely destroyed by the encounter. If this is the case a significant amount of it may be accreted by Sag A* which could lead to a significant brightening of X-ray and other emission from the black hole, likely to last over the next several decades. Other astronomers ( have suggested the gas cloud may be hiding a dim star, or even a stellar mass black hole, which would hold it together against the tidal forces of Sag A* and the ensemble may pass by without any effect. 

The average rate of accretion onto Sag A* is unusually small for a black hole of its mass (Morris et al. 2012) and is only detectable because it's so close to us. This passage of G2 in 2013 will offer astronomers the chance to learn a lot more about how material accretes onto supermassive black holes. A suite of astronomical facilities are planning to observe this closest approach, with observations confirmed with Chandra, XMM, EVLA, INTEGRAL, Swift, Fermi and requested at VLT and Keck ( 

Groups at ESO ( and LLNL ( have been working on simulations of the passage. 

Gillessen et al. 2012
Morris et al. 2012

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Wiki-a-thon for Women in Science

On Friday I participated via Twitter in the Wiki-a-thon hosted by the Royal Society to improve/create articles about women scientists in wikipedia.

Ever since I heard about this I thought it was a fantastic idea, and while I couldn't make it to London on Friday I was happy to participate online via the Twitter hashtag #WomenSciWP

During the event I improved the article about Martha Haynes (my former thesis advisor), notable especially as a Henry Draper Medal Winner, and made a new article for Lisa Kaltenegger, a young astronomer (with a dual posting at Harvard and MPIA) who works on exoplanets, and is already notable - she has an asteroid named after her, and was named "America's Young Innovator in Science and Technology in 2007 - and will I'm sure become more notable in the future.

What I missed on the day was the page with the list of scientists the Royal Society suggested needed pages. This is an excellent resource to keep plugging away at improving this area of wikipedia. As soon as I found the list I made two new articles about women astronomers on it who are featured in a book I have on "Women in Early British and Irish Astronomy" (by Mary Bruck). These are Anne Walker and Isis Pogson. I was delighted to notice this morning that the article on Isis has already been expanded beyond the start I made.

During the event @edyong209 tweeted to ask me some questions (and said he was writing an article for Nature about the event). He quoted me in that article which was a nice surprise: Edit-a-Thon Gets Women Scientists into Wikipedia (a note for any twitter skeptics - if I wasn't on twitter I would neither have known about this event, connected with Ed to have this "interview", or been quoted in Nature - an event which got picked up this morning by my University's media stream and emailed to me by my head of department.....).

There's been several other articles about the event too. It seems to have struck a chord which is great.

Throw off the Cloak of Invisibility (by Athene Donald, also in Nature)
Wikipedia Edit-a-thon Brings Women Scientists out of the Shadows (in the Guardian)

And as I write this my book on early British and Irish women astronomers sits on the table next to me, and I'm itching to dig into it to add more women to wikipedia. This might turn out to be a bit addictive!

Friday, October 19, 2012

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Ada Lovelace Day Post: Nobel Prize Winning Women in Science

This post is for Ada Lovelace Day, and will appear on Finding Ada as a book reveiw.

Celebrated annually on 16th October, Ada Lovelace day is a day for sharing online inspiring stories of women scientists, engineers or mathematicians. The Guardian covered it yesterday (article). And if you don't know who Ada Lovelace is, well then she's just one of the amazing women you need to read about on this day.

I've been asked to write a book review about "Nobel Prize Women in Science", by Sharon Bertsch McGrayne. It's a book in which you can read chapter long biographies of 15 women who have won (or significantly contributed to the science of) a Nobel Prize in one of the science fields. Certainly a good theme for a day about celebrating inspirational women scientists. 

When I first read this book several years ago, the thing which struck me most about it, was that it could exist in a (then) complete form. In fact it remained a complete listing of all women who had won Nobels in science fields until 2008 (with Françoise Barré-Sinoussi being a joint winner of the medicine prize that year).

In the last couple of weeks, the 2012 Nobel Prizes in science fields (physics, chemistry and medicine) have been announced. The physics prize went to David Wineland and Serge Haroche for "ground-breaking experimental methods that enable measuring and manipulation of individual quantum systems"; the chemistry prize went to Brian Kobilka and Robert Lefkowitz for work on protein receptors; and the medicine prize went to John Gurdon and Shinya Yamanaka for their work demonstrating that mature cells could be turned into stem cells. 

These are undoubtably all great contributions to science, and well worthy of the prize (although there has been some controversy over if the chemistry prize winning work really counts as chemistry), but as I watched the announcements roll in I couldn't help be a little bit disappointed that yet again there were no women among the recipients. In 2012, six men won the prizes in science, in 2011 seven men shared the prizes. In fact in the last women to win a science prize were three years ago in 2009 when three of the nine total recipients were women (Elizabeth Blackburn and Carol Greider sharing the medicine prize with Jack Szostak, while Ada Yonath was one of the three winners of the chemistry prize). 

In the whole of the 21st century (2001-2012), only four of the recipients of Nobel prizes in science (out of 89 total winners) have been women (that's just about 4.5%); added to the 10 women who won in the 20th century, that makes 14 women who have ever been given Nobel Prizes in a science field. 

In a sense this is good news for the book which is only missing 4 stories to be complete to this day. But of course it's also disappointing. At the point of it's publication, the book claims that only 2% of the more than 300 Nobel Prizes in Science had gone to women. That we cannot do better than just doubling that fraction in the first decade of the 21st century is not encouraging.  

The book itself is well worth a read. I find it actually rather inspiring and motivating, and often dip into it when in need of a bit of perspective on the struggles of a career in science. The lives of these women were at times so difficult, and not one of them had an easy route. The common factor they all possess seems to be an overwhelming love of science and of discovering the world around them. Nothing more than that could have taken them to the point they reached. 

The book is arranged chronologically, and as such represents an interesting progression, from the outright discrimination and legal barriers faced by the pioneers in the early part of the 20th century (Marie Curie, Physics 1903, Chemistry 1911; or Lise Meitner and Emmy Noether - neither of whom won a Nobel Prize), to more complex (and often WW2 related) problems of the second generation,  (Gerty Cori, Irene Curie, Barbara McClintock, Maria Mayer, Rita Levi-Montalcini, Dorothy Hodgkin, Chien-Shiun Wu, Gertrude Elion, Rosalind Franklin and Rosalyn Yalow). 

 Many of these "second generation" women faced problems with anti-nepotism laws in the US (not allowing univerisities to hire married couples). McGrayne points out that even today something like 70% of women physicists are married to other scientists, and when working in a team with men, women's contributions have historically been overlooked. Several of these women only received formal recognition for their work after they won a Nobel. In the first Chapter of the book McGrayne writes an interesting summary of all these obstacles, concluding with a statement which sticks in my mind:
Given the enormous problems they faced and the important discoveries they made, the real question to be asked about these women is not "Why so few?" A better question is "Why so many?" (Chapter 1, pg 8).
The last two chapters profile what McGrayne calls the "New Generation". These are Jocelyn Bell (whose advisor won the Nobel Prize for the discovery of pulsars which she led the observations of) and Christine Nusslein-Vollard (Nobel Prize in medicine, 1995), who only appears in the Second Edition version. It makes me wonder if McGrayne was expecting this book to become dated quickly as significantly more women from this group won prizes. I wonder if she's disappointed in the still slow progress in the decade since this edition of the book was published. In her afterword some of this frustration already seems to be showing: 
Are women racing into science? Yes and no. The number of women earning science degrees rose steadily between the 1960s and the late 1980s. Then it stopped growing. Why?
She talks about one of the reasons being the poor representation of women scientists in textbooks (usually just Marie Curie appearing). I hope Ada Lovelace day will do its bit to improve this.

Curiously, women (well at least in goddess form, and perhaps less clothed than a typical scientist) are well represented on the medal itself. The reverse shows two female figures, the upright one depicts nature, in the form of the godess Isis, emerging from the clouds holding a cornucopia (a "horn of plenty); while the kneeling women holding up the veil off the face of Isis depicts the "Genius of Science". You can read a full description on the Nobel Prize website.

I hope one day the representation of women winning this prize will be as good. 

I linked to all the Wikipedia articles about these women where you can find some fascinating facts. For example, did you know that Rita Levi-Montalcini is the oldest living Novel laureate, and the only one so far to have reached 100! Also it reminded me of this great Royal Society Workshop happening later this week: Women in Science: Wikipedia Workshop, with the aim of improving wikipedia articles about women in science. The event can be joined online (Twitter hashtag #WomenSciWP). 

Friday, October 5, 2012

LOFAR observation of beautiful galaxy, M87

I just posted the below over on the LOFAR-UK blog, but is also fits into my series of Messier Object posts - this one M87, which has a beauty in the eye of the beholder perhaps as a "boring" elliptical, but check out that jet from it's actively accreting supermassive black hole. Amazing!


A paper appears on the arxiv today with new images of the centre of nearby elliptical galaxy M87, taken with the Dutch LOFAR stations.

M87 at Metre Wavelenghts: the LOFAR Picture, by de Gasperin et al. (A&A in press).

M87 (also known at Virgo-A) is one of the two massive elliptical galaxies found at the centre of our nearest cluster of galaxies (the Virgo cluster).

In the centre of M87 is a well know actively accreting supermassive black hole, which is emitting jets of energetic particles which emit significant amounts of radio. These jets are even (just) visible in optical images of M87 (the blue line below).

Optical image of M87 taken with Hubble Space Telescope. Scale 3x3 arcmins.  More details. 

M87 has often been a poster child for radio astronomy images. These images of the jet taken by the NRAO's VLA can be seen in many talks about radio galaxies and AGN.

M87 imaged at 90cm (300 Mhz) with the VLA. Scale 15x15 arcmin. More details. 
And especially this series of images zooming into the central regions.

For more details see the APOD entry for this image

The paper on the arxiv today used observations of M87 with both the HBA and LBA arrays of LOFAR. The Dutch stations only were used in this observation - adding in international stations like Chilbolton will be able to increase the resolution even further, and I will look forward to seeing that in the future.

I have extracted two of the images from the paper. This first was taken with the HBA at 140 MHz (2.1 m) and shows an area 15x15 arcmin in size (same as the VLA image above, but at wavelengths more than twice as large).

And this shows one of the many LBA images made - this one at 25 Mhz (12m) of a slightly larger sky area (21x21 arcmin). 

These new observations at lower frequencies than ever before allow scientists to better constrain the spectral shape of the radio emission from the jets, which in turn can be used to constrain the details of how the supermassive black hole in the centre of M87 is able to power these extremely extended emission regions.

Thursday, October 4, 2012

Talking about Girls in Physics on BBC News Channel

Last night I was invited to talk about girls in physics on the BBC News Channel. It was an interesting experience - driving to Southampton for just a couple of minutes on screen, but I felt well worth it to help highlight this important issue.

Thanks to @billkeck2 for tweeting this screen shot of me mid flow!

A report (It's Different for Girls) was published yesterday by the Institute of Physics which showed that almost half of all state schools in England do not send any girls to study physics A-level.

This has been picked up very widely in the UK, following an excellent article by Pallab Ghosh: "State Schools Failing Girls in Physics". It was also covered by the childrens news show "Newsbeat": A-level physics turns off girls from studying subject.

 I was interviewed as a "talking head" by Joanna Gosling about the subject. She started by asking me if I was surprised by the findings (not really, although it's disappointing it's not getting any better), then we talked about what might be the reason. I thought there'd been too much teacher  bashing about this, and so instead I brought up the early gender labelling we apply to children (using my daughter as an example) which must contribute to girls thinking they shouldn't want to study physics. We then talked about good ways to encourage children to be interested in science, and finally she asked me why I went on to study physics - I talked about getting hooked by being able to explain things you can see in the night sky with physics. 

Edited to include the below clip of the interview: 

Thursday, September 27, 2012

Women in SET at the University of Portsmouth

Due to my involvement in the University of Portsmouth Athena SWAN committe, I've recently started a new blog about Women in SET at the University of Portsmouth.

Mostly it'll be contributed profiles about women working in SET subjects at the university, but I also posted links to discussions of a recent study demonstrating gender bias is still real in science, and some beautiful posters honouring six amazing women who've changed the world with science.

Those posters are so lovely I'll reproduce them again here:

Credit: Hydrogene. Please visit his site here

Thursday, September 20, 2012

New Sloan Digital Sky Survey Galaxies in Galaxy Zoo

Cross posting from Galaxy Zoo blog. 

The relaunch of Galaxy Zoo doesn't only include the fantastic new images from the CANDELS survey on Hubble Space Telescope, but also includes over 200,000 new local galaxies from the Sloan Digital Sky Survey. We've had a lot of questions about where these galaxies came from and why they weren't put into earlier versions of Galaxy Zoo, so I thought I'd write a bit about these new images.

 The Sloan Digital Sky Survey Project (SDSS) is currently in its 3rd phase (SDSS-III). You can read all about the history of SDSS here, and here, but briefly SDSS-I (2000-2005) and SDSS-II (2005-2008) took images of about a quarter of the sky (which we often refer to as the SDSS Legacy Imaging), and then measured redshifts for almost 1 million galaxies (the "Main Galaxy Sample", which was the basis of the original Galaxy Zoo and Galaxy Zoo 2 samples; plus the "Luminous Red Galaxy" sample) as well as 120,000 much more distant quasars (very distant galaxies visible only as point source thanks to their actively accreting black holes).

 Following the success of this project, the Sloan Digital Sky Survey decided they wanted to do more surveys, and put together a proposal which had four components (BOSS, SEGUE2, MARVELS and APOGEE - see here). To meet the science goals of these projects they realised they would need more sky area to be imaged. This proposal was funded as SDSS-III and started in 2008 (planned to run until 2014).

The first thing this new phase of SDSS did was to take the new imaging. This was done using exactly the same telescope and camera (and methods) as the original SDSS imaging. They imaged an area of sky called the "Southern Galactic cap". This is part of the sky which is visible from the Northern Hemisphere, but which is out the Southern side of our Galaxy's disc. It totals about 40% of the size of the original SDSS area, brining the total imaging area up to about 1/3rd of the whole sky. The images in it were publicly released in January 2011 as part of the SDSS Data Release 8 (DR8 - so we sometimes call it the DR8 imaging area).
This illustration shows the wealth of information on scales both small and large available in the SDSS-III's new image. The picture in the top left shows the SDSS-III view of a small part of the sky, centered on the galaxy Messier 33 (M33). The middle and right top pictures are further zoom-ins on M33.The figure at the bottom is a map of the whole sky derived from the SDSS-III image. Visible in the map are the clusters and walls of galaxies that are the largest structures in the entire universe. Figure credit: M. Blanton and the SDSS-III collaboration

We have selected galaxies from this area which meet the criteria for being included in the original Galaxy Zoo 2 sample (for the experts - the brightest quarter of those which met Main Galaxy Sample criteria). Unfortunately in this part of the sky there is not systematic redshift survey of  the local galaxies, so we will have to rely on other redshift surveys (the most complete being the 2MASS Redshift Survey) to get redshifts for as many of these galaxies as we can. We still think we'll get a lot more galaxies and, be able to make large samples of really rare types of objects (like the red spiral or blue ellipticals). Another of our main science justifications for asking you to provide us with these morphologies was the potential for serendipitous discovery. Who knows what you might find in this part of the sky. The Violin Clef Galaxy is in the DR8 imaging area and featured heavily in our science team discussions of if this was a good idea or not.

 And interesting things are already being found in just a week of clicks. The new Talk interface is a great additional place for us to discuss the interesting things that can be found in the sky. For example this great system with tidal tails and a Voorwerpjie:
this weird triangular shaped configuration of satellites:
and an oldie (but a goodie) in the beautiful galaxy pair of NGC 3799 and NGC 3800 (NGC 3799 in the centre, NGC 3800 just off to the upper right):
and just this morning I discovered the discussion of this really unusual looking possible blue elliptical (IC 2540):
There are also rather more artifacts and odd stuff going on in these new images than I think we saw in the SDSS Legacy sample (from GZ1 and GZ2). Remember these are completely new images you are looking at. It really is true that no-one has looked at these in this level of detail (or perhaps ever) before. The original sample had a sanity check at some level, since when GZ1 ran the majority of the sample had already been targeted by SDSS for redshifts (so someone had to plug a fibre into a plate for each galaxy). In this new imaging all that has happened is that a computer algorithm was run to detect likely galaxies and set the scale of the image you see. Sometimes that mistakes stars, satellite trails, or parts of galaxies for galaxies. Always classify the central object in the image, and help us clean up this sample by using the star/artifact button. And you can enjoy these odd images too. I like this collection of "GZ Pure Art" based on just odd things/artifacts classifier "echo-lily-mai" thought were pretty. :)  If you get confused by anything please join us on Talk, or the Forum where someone will help you identify what it is you're seeing.

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Galaxy Zoo Relaunch

Galaxy Zoo relaunches today.

The press release from the University of Oxford was picked up by the BBC. Chris Lintott was interviewed on BBC Radio 4 this morning (well worth a listen).

There is also a press release from the University of Portsmouth.  And I posted a news item on the ICG website.

@jen_gupta (our new Portsmouth Outreach Officer) spotted a story in this morning's Metro:

This article in the Daily Mail was the only one to keep the quote from me I think.

Friday, September 7, 2012

Photos from the IAU in China

Here are some of the photos I took of stuff (related to astronomy!) at the IAU in China.

Here's the giant IAU 2012 sign outside the convention centre. Plus some SKA balloons (and someone's children!). ;) It was a busy meeting with the children accompanying us (my husband is also an astronomer) and attending an UNAWE run workshop during the first week (article about the workshop is online here) and also in the 8th Edition of the IAU Daily Newspaper.

Since my daughter was "quoted" here's the article. 

I enjoyed the Daily Newspaper, I admit partly because my talk (and me) were featured on the front page of the first one:

But also because I had been given the task to collect a newspaper for every day to share with someone special who has a collection of all such newspapers from every IAU GA since the meetings began. The 2012 addition to the collection I admit is still sitting on my desk, but will get sent off very soon. 

This was the Newspaper stand where you could collect the print editions: 

So I gave this big talk on the evening of the first day. Here's me by the sign which advertised the talk (which didn't come out). 

The (almost) empty hall before people started coming in. This is apparently the location of the 2008 Olympic Badminton Events. It seats 3000 - but a long stretch the largest room I've ever spoken in (as people seemed to want to point out to me often in the run up to my talk!). 

Here's my lovely title slide (with credit to Zooniverse designed David Miller) displayed on the  big screen. 

Bryan Gaensler (@SciBry) snapped (and tweeted) this shot of me talking to Brian Schmidt (@cosmicpinot) before the talk. Brian gave one of the other Invited Discourses. 

Finally, with credit to my husband Wynn Ho (for taking the video - and he apologise for the poor camera work which was related to him also watching the children at the same time), here's a short video of the introduction to the talk (given my my former thesis advisor Prof. Martha Haynes) and my 
Chinese welcome words. 

The day after my talk, the hall was rather more full for the Opening Ceremony of the IAU meeting, at which Chinese Vice President Xi Jinping (a potential sucessor to Hu Jintao) addressed us. The full text of his speech can be read in the 3rd Daily Edition of the IAU Newspaper. 

Following this speech, the award of the 2012 Gruber Prize and Fellowship, and a lovely public lecutre by Jocelyn Bell, was a display of Chinese culture (various dances, acrobatics, music etc). At the end of this the staff and students of the Chinese National Astronomy Observatory treated us to a dance display with an astronmical theme. 

Here are some pictures I took of this, which was a bit cutesy, but I enjoyed! 

I particularly enjoyed the silver umbrellas making a variety of radio telescope shapes. 

And the finale. 

The exhibition area at an IAU meeting is always fun, and I particularly enjoyed several of the models on display. Oddly given my interest in the project I didn't take a picture of the lovely LOFAR LBA models, but I was happy to finally see them in person. 

The ALMA booth had some great lego models. This one of the transporter which moves the dishes. 

And this model of an ALMA dish. 

This was a nice model of the Giant Magellan Telescope I think. 

The Korean Astronomy booth had the best takeaway models. You (well I) can build the below from a flat packed kit. My kids made during the day camp the moveable models of Magellan (which we also had fun destroying to pack to bring back to the UK). These were really impressive.

I also liked this model (and the setting of it) of a Cerenkov Array Telescope. These are designed to detect light flashes from Cerenkov radiation when gamma rays enter our upper atmosphere. 

In one corner of the main lobby was a collection of what looked like bad astronomy art. On closer inspection though you could discover, that these were actually silk embroidered versions of astronomical images - a craft typical of the Suzhou area (near Shanghai) which I had visited on a previous trip to China.

Here some of the artists are at work embroidering the Earth, and a map of the cosmic web. These were really impressive. 

I enjoyed the displays (and a lunchtime lecture) on Chinese Ancient Astronomy. The below panel is a list of predictions of solar eclipses. The Chinese in around the 10th century made astronomical observations and records comparable to those westeners used in the 16th/17th century to develop our models of gravity. The lunchtime lecture included an interesting discussion on the lack of a Chinese version of Kepler. 

There was also the below, full working replica (on a slightly smaller scale than the original) of an ancient Chinese water clock. This was the first clock in the world able to keep accurate time. And it was also beautifully carved.

Finally, the whole event had reminders of the previous use of the building. As is typical for most large conferences (AAS excepted) the poster sessions were in an out of the way corner of the event. I managed a visit while trying to walk my son to sleep one afternoon, and snapped the below shot of the floor of the room.