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.