Thursday, March 29, 2012

Visiting Jodrell Bank as part of the UK National Astronomy Meeting

I'm in Manchester this week at the UK National Astronomy Meeting. As part of this, yesterday evening I went on a visit to the Jodrell Bank Observatory, with 120 other astronomers.

NAM Astronomers at JBO
It was a gorgeous spring evening, and the disk looked lovely as a contrast to the beauty of spring around it.

Jodrell Bank and a sheep

The Sun through the dish

Jodrell Bank and some daffodils

Jodell Bank and spring blossom

Jodrell Bank and a hedge of forsythia

We got to walk under the dish too. Here we are crossing the track which the telescope uses to rotate in azimuth.

Jodrell Bank azimuth track
And we stood under the dead centre of the dish.

Looking up at the base of Jodrell Bank

That's me directly under the centre of the dish
The sky was clear, and the crescent Moon was prominent, see if you can spot it through the dish below.

Required picture of me with the dish

We also got a tour of the control room - and the set of BBC Stargazing LIVE of course. 

And we're astronomers, so we like the details - this is some of the computers which run Jodrell Bank when it works with the eMerlin network of UK radio telescopes.

It need as "Totally Accurate Clock" to do this (actually that's totally true).

Our visit ended with a dinner in the cafe. We sat outside with the above view of the sky, and I saw Venus in the daytime finally. :) I think it's in the below image, but I haven't spotted it yet!

Moon and Venus in daytime, 28th March 2012

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Beautiful Galaxy M101 in wide field

M101 is becoming one of my favourite galaxies - not least because the post I did about it when a Supernova was discovered in it last August is the 3rd most read here.

So I was pleased to notice on the Twitter #bbcstargazing stream a link to a beautiful wide field shot of the galaxy.

And here's the image in its full glory from the Flickr stream:
M101 Widefield - 190312
M101 Widefield by Mike Hyde on Flickr.

So why do I like this image so much.... well I was just talking about it with my office mate Chris and he put it well. You can see the galaxy, and you can tell it's a galaxy made of billions of stars and unimaginably immense on human scales, but you can also get a sense of how tiny this galaxy is compared to the Universe, and even how tiny it appears on the sky from Earth. Check out the other galaxies in the image - an edge on disc towards the bottom, and a fuzzy patch at the upper right. 

And Chris (who works on supernova projects) tells me the supernova in it is still quite bright. It's currently about 16th magnitude - even months after it went it. Now that's not quite visible in this image, but still giving useful information via even quite small professional telescopes. There's already been several papers based on it discussing distance measurements to M101 and the scale of the Universe. 

Great image. :)

I'm a Scientist and I was the first evicted. :(

Well the first eviction in the zones was yesterday - and it was me. I'm not going to lie - it's not nice loosing, whatever it is, but intellectually at least I know it doesn't really matter. I took part in I'm a Scientist to engage and talk about science with lots of kids - and I did that whatever the outcome of a bunch of pre-teen and teenagers voting in a popularity contest. I look forward to getting the numbers of kids we engaged with later in the week, and I look forward to giving my typing hands a bit of a rest! ;)

So that's me gone, and oddly two of the other scientists have grown mustaches. They may regret those photos later in life! ;)

Monday, March 19, 2012

I'm a Scientist, and I'm getting a bit tired!

Just over half way through I'm a Scientist, and my fingers hurt from typing. It's been interesting, and the moderators keep reassuring us the kids get a lot out of the Live Chats, so I'm keeping at it!

 Live chats are a bit like being shouted at by a room full of 13 year olds (actually they are exactly like that in electronic form). There are some idiots, some who shout loud (CAPS!) to get attention, and some great questions if you can find them. It's not for the faint at heart, and I decided that the best policy was to ignore my fellow scientists (sorry guys) and focus only on answering interesting questions. I've had some fantastic interactions that way - even if they are all becoming a bit of a blur. I think I've done 11 of them so far. That's 5 1/2 hours in the last week. Right! ;)

I've taken a similar tack with the offline questions. I mostly answer those that interest me (although I have gone through others just to get them off my list of unanswered questions). I'd prefer to answer them first (or just by myself), but we have some very keen PhD students in our zone with what seems like endless time, so I'm usually not able to, but instead just ignore the other answers and pretend like they don't exist (again sorry my fellow Space Zone scientists). One of the other guys in the zone says we've had more than 400, and I think I've answered more than not - so 200+ questions done.... right! ;)

The first eviction is tomorrow at 3pm - ironically when I'll be physically in front of a room full of 9 and 10 year olds. At least I won't be worrying if I got kicked off - that'll have to wait! ;)

Beautiful Galaxy M95 - another Supernova!

There's been another bright supernova in a galaxy on the Messier list - this time M95 (which is currently near Mars on the sky, so fun for amateur astronomer to try - visit that link to see a finding chart of where it should be).

M95 is a beautiful barred spiral galaxy - one of my favourite kinds of galaxy at the moment. The below image of it was taken by astronomers using the William Herschel telescope, and shows the bar across the centre, with a ring of star formation surrounding it. Barred galaxies quite commonly will have rings around the outer edges of the bar, and M95 has been called a "typical ringed galaxy" (by the famous astronomer Alan Sandage).

M95. Credit: Johan Knapen (ING) and Nik Szymanek.

Here's M95 in the SDSS three colour images we use in Galaxy Zoo.

M95. Credit: SDSS

There is a stunning image of M95 taken by the Spitzer IR telescope as part of the SINGS survey of nearby galaxies (below). This image in red shows the interstellar dust around regions of intense star formation in the ring (link to Spitzer description)

M95 in IR. Credit: Spitzer/SINGS
The book I have on the Messier Objects (which is lovely - Amazon link here), says that M95 is just one of a handful of barred spirals in the list, and says that you can just trying to see it using 10x50 binoculars. Given it's location close to Mars it'd be an excellent thing to try for with a telescope about now.

Historically in astronomy M95 is important as a member of the set of galaxies using in the Hubble Key Project to measure the rate of the expansion of the Universe. These measurements give it a distances of about 30 million light years away.

NED page on M95
Wikipedia article on M95

Friday, March 9, 2012

I'm a Scientist, what have I let myself in for?!

On Monday I will start my (up to) two week tenure on "I'm a Scientist, Get Me Out of here!". I agreed to do this as it seems like an excellent public engagement program. It's an opportunity for me to interact with many more school children than I could by doing my own visits, and it sort of sounded fun.

For those of you who haven't heard of this, it's a Wellcome Trust funded programme (and in addition my zone is sponsored by the Institute of Physics). We sign up for 2 weeks, and answer questions and do live chats with the students in our zone. They can then vote for us, and during the second week the scientist with the least votes will be eliminated - one each day. The last scientist remaining gets £500 to spend on science outreach (I propose to buy a telescope for our Astronomy in the City events, and some solar system models to give out on school visits).

Anyway right now I'm a bit terrified about what's coming! So far we've had in our zone, 20 separate requests for live chats (each 30 minutes long). That's 10 straight hours of live chat (over 2 weeks) if I could even do them all. We're assured we don't need to sign up for all of them, but I didn't get to be a scientist without being just a little bit competitive, so of course I want to do as many as I can!

I'm not really worried about interacting with the kids - I think that'll be fun (and I expect also challenging). What I am worried about is the amount of time it will take given all the rest of the stuff I should get done in the next two weeks. I'm also a bit worried about how I'll feel if I'm the first person voted off! ;) Conveniently those two balance quite nicely - in that I'll get more time for the rest of my job if I do get voted off early at least!

Anyway stay tuned. If I can find any time I'll blog about how it's going! ;)

If you want to check me out on the site - here's my profile which will also link to all the question I answer.

Thursday, March 8, 2012

International Women's Day 2012 - Women in Science

For international women's day a quick post about women in science (well  mostly astronomy, but then I will admit to being biased!).

Thanks to @AnneOsterreider for an already excellent post. I'm not going to go on about the statistics or anything like that. I've done that before - for example in the series I ran on the Galaxy Zoo blog about the Women of Galaxy Zoo.

Alice Roberts does make a good point though....

I also totally agree with Anne that the Royal Society publication Mothers in Science: 64 Ways to Have it All is a good one to remember.

So what am I adding to the conversation. Well a couple of pictures and quotes. Here's Cecilia-Payne Gaposhkin with her husband and two of her children.

Prof. Payne-Gaposhkin had an incredibly difficult career path and was a real early pioneer for women in science. My favourite quote of hers is
"I simply went on plodding, rewarded by the beauty of the scenery towards an unexpected goal."
Vera Rubin is another personal favourite woman in astronomy (and a mother of a woman in astronomy too which I think is fun).

Here she is observing

and a quote (from "Brainy Quote")

"Science progresses best when observations force us to alter our preconceptions."
(seems appropriate for the woman whose data first demonstrated that galaxies must have dark matter).

That's it. This woman has got to get on with some science! ;)

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

School visit: The End of the World in 2012?

For the second part of my school visit a couple of weeks ago I spoke with the Springfield School Junior Cafe Scientifique group (an after school club) about "End of the World" myths surrounding 21st December 2012. I've previously written about my involvement with debunking 2012 myths online (2012 tag on this blog).

Image from the Movie 2012 which imagines what would happen if the myths were true. 

I started by showing a clip of the 2012 movie trailer.

Then I talked through the myths, the science behind them. This allowed me to cover basic things like the motion of the Sun across the sky, the solstices, precession, what the Milky Way looks like, but also talk about the life cycle of the Sun and other stars, the solar activity cycle, what the other planets look like in the sky (ie. if there were a massive planet about to hit Earth you'd be able to see it) and of course comets. You can use this theme to get a lot of astronomy in!

I used a couple more movies in my talk - one of the excellent clips made by Andrew Pontzen for BBC Stargazing LIVE which illustrates what our Galaxy looks like:

and this beautiful timelapse of the Milky Way over ALMA.

I also had fun with a "Keep Calm and Do Science" theme (aiming this at 14 year olds after all!).

(you can actually buy that T-shirt - nothing to do with me, and I haven't got one!).

So I was interested to notice the recent web meme for "Keep Calm, the Mayans were simply counting down to the Hobbit Movie!" (noticed it just yesterday so too late to include in the talk!).

I ended with what I throught was a great quote from this website which makes fun of all the end of the world myths

"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)"
It turned out that the students coming to Cafe Sci weren't really at all worried, but hopefully I've now given them some ammunition to help explain it to others if necessary. Less good I think I worried them a bit about comet impacts. I talked about the NASA list of potentially hazardous objects - mentioning Apophis, which is the closest approach known about through 2178. It will pass at about the distance of the Moon (which I demoed with a scale model) in 2029. Now it turns out there is a computer game based on the idea that Apophis will actually hit (according to Wikipedia this is "Rage") so one of the kids knew a lot about Apophis. And following that they didn't seem very reassured by the vast distance to the Moon and the argument that it's very unlikely to hit us! I think if I did this again I might talk more about probability and how unlikely such things are. Problem is of course that a big comet will hit the Earth at some point - although clearly not in 2012.... , and probably not for hundreds if thousands of years.... but still.

Anyway if you want you can download the (ppt) slides I used from Dropbox.

I'm on "This is What a Scientist Looks Like"

The information I submitted to This is What a Scientist Looks Like appeared last week.

My post.