Astronomical anniversaries

Last week, my husband and I celebrated* 12 years together.  Being the astronomy nerd that I am, I wanted to put an astronomical spin on this event, so I decided to look up what stars are 12 lightyears away from Earth. It turns out that Tau Ceti is about that distance from us (11.9 lightyears), which means that if I had looked up at Tau Ceti on the night of our anniversary, I would have been seeing light that was emitted when my husband and I first started going out.

When I posted this on twitter, Portsmouth physics graduate James Bremner came up with the genius idea of anniversary tea towels but in terms of lightyears to celestial objects.

While tea towels would require more time and effort than I have right now, I thought for Valentine’s Day I would at least put together a list of astronomical anniversaries. As there aren’t that many stars near to our solar system, and it’s quite hard to figure out precise distances to stars, I’ve had to allow for some leeway with this!

And in case you’re ever tempted to buy a card that’s along the lines of ‘I love you to the Moon and back’, in my mind that would be appropriate for a 2.6 seconds anniversary (lightspeed) or 6 days (Apollo 8 mission length)…neither of which I would really say are significant enough anniversaries to warrant a card!

*ordered Dominos pizza and had an otherwise totally normal evening.

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So you want to study physics at university

Over the past month or so, I’ve done a number of talks to large groups of A-level students as part of The Training Partnership’s Physics in Action days. I’ve been sticking around to answer questions afterwards and inevitably would be asked questions about applying/going to university to study physics. As these questions came up a lot, I thought I would jot down some of my thoughts about the most common questions.

Bear in mind that these are my personal opinions, and aren’t in any way guaranteed to help you get into university or onto the course that you want! I will keep using the University of Portsmouth as an example, but only because it’s the institution that I’m most familiar with these days and I am not speaking for them in any kind of official capacity. Nevertheless I hope this post is useful in some way. The UCAS deadline is looming in the UK, so I imagine many 17 and 18 year olds will be spending their Christmas break with these questions on their minds.

Should I study physics at university?

This is a question that only you can answer! My personal opinion is that you should pick a subject that you’re passionate about, and that you want to know more about. You’re going to be immersed in this subject for three or four years, so when I was thinking about what to do at university, I didn’t think that being good at a subject was enough.

Having said that, there are a couple of misconceptions that I want to address.

First, you don’t have to be top of your class to study physics at university. There seems to be this idea that you have to be an A* student to do physics at university. This absolutely isn’t the case. For example, to get onto the 3 year BSc physics course at the University of Portsmouth (where I work), you need “104 points to include a minimum of 2 A levels, or equivalent, with 32 points from A level Mathematics, Physics, or Electronics.”  32 points corresponds to a C at A level; you can get 104 points from one B and two Cs.

Second, you don’t have to end up as a physicist if you study physics at university. Many people seem to think that physics closes doors and that the only jobs you can do with a physics degree are in physics and engineering. In fact, people with physics degrees go on to do a wide range of jobs, and studying physics equips you with a huge number of skills that are needed in different sectors. You can find out more about this on the Institute of Physics website.

What university should I go to?

There is no easy answer to this question because again it really depends on you. Growing up in a village outside of a small city, I decided I wanted to experience life in a large city and ended up in Manchester. The music scene there also played no small part in my decision and a good thing too – outside of physics I spent most of my spare time at university going to gigs. I wasn’t fussed about moving 200 miles away from home but you might want to not go so far.

When I was applying to university I remember only considering what I thought to be the “good” universities, but even then this is more complex than just looking at Oxbridge and the Russell Group universities. I don’t remember actually looking at subject-specific information, just what my teenage self had decided was good (I’ll admit, I was a bit of a snob!). To use my place of work again as an example, 17 year old me would have probably immediately dismissed it because it’s a post-92 university and has lower than usual entry grades for physics. However, the research carried out at Institute of Cosmology and Gravitation (where I work) is world-leading and many of the academics engaged in this research would be the ones to teach you. In the REF2014 assessment (which looks at the quality of research carried out at universities), the University of Portsmouth was ranked 8th in the country for physics research output, above four of the universities that I applied to go to.

Another thing to consider is the details of the course. At Manchester I was quite happy to be one of 250 physics students, anonymous to the majority of my lecturers and not plugged in to the wider goings-on of the department. I went to lectures, attended tutorials, and did labs, but never really participated in any extracurricular physics activities. The physics students at Portsmouth seem to have a very different experience – there’s a smaller cohort so most of them are friends and they socialise a lot as a big group. Portsmouth also seems to place a lot more focus on real-world applications of physics with links to industry and opportunities for students to experience physics outside of the university. Don’t get me wrong, I loved my time at Manchester and thrived on my course, but be aware that just because the courses all have the same name, it doesn’t mean the experience at different universities will be the same.

What can I do to help my application?

This is the question I probably got the most and the question I’m probably least qualified to answer! I’ve never been involved with the selection process at a university so all I can offer are some tips based on my experiences.

First, try to get some physics work experience if you can. Many university physics departments offer summer placements for students between years 12 and 13. I assume the same applies for industry. The Nuffield Research placements scheme is a good place to start.

Second, show your enthusiasm for physics in your personal statement but don’t lie! Everyone writes about reading A Brief History of Time and New Scientist – I’m not saying don’t do this, but make sure you have actually read them. I remember one university interview when I was asked to talk about any recent physics article I’d seen in New Scientist – frustratingly there hadn’t been a huge amount of physics in the past few issues so I got into a horrendous discussion about whether anything could travel faster than the speed of light! Try to go beyond the usual things that everyone will write about – attend public talks, join your local astronomical society, or subscribe to physics-related podcasts.

Finally, don’t hide your other passions. Physicists aren’t just physicists – we are an increasingly diverse group of people with different interests and hobbies. I think my personal statement talked about my love of music as much as physics. Having said that, make it relevant to your application – I seem to remember talking about how I loved that wave physics could explain the design of my flute, how playing in bands while studying for my A levels improved my time management skills, and how teaching music to young children gave me experience of being in a position of responsibility.

 

That’s it from me for now. I hope this has been a useful post if you’re thinking about applying to university to study physics. Feel free to let me know if there are any questions I’ve missed. If you’ve been through this process like I have, pop a comment below with your top piece of advice!

Astrolyricists #3 – Bomb the music industry! – Stand there until you’re sober

“We can’t see the stars tonight ’cause apartments generate ambient light”

Bomb the music industry! – Stand there until you’re sober

If you step outside on a clear night and look up at the sky, chances are you’ll see some stars. Not lots, but some.

Most of us live in towns and cities where ambient light from houses, cars, streetlights and other human-made sources create light pollution. This light pollution drowns out light coming from the fainter stars, so we only see the brightest ones, such as those in Orion’s belt or the Plough.

Orion over Cardiff. Credit: Stuart Lowe

Orion over Cardiff with the orange glow of light pollution on the horizon. Credit: Stuart Lowe

To really see the stars you need to get away from people! Heading out into a remote location on a clear night, away from the bright lights of the towns and cities reveals a spectacular sight. Let your eyes adjust to the dark and you’ll see countless stars, meteors, satellites, and the band of the Milky Way. Under really good conditions your eyes can even pick out the faint smudge of light that is the Andromeda galaxy, 2.5 million lightyears away. The International Dark-Sky Association maintains a list of Dark Sky Places which are ideal for such stargazing. Professional optical astronomical observatories are located in some of the most remote locations in the world, on tops of mountains or in high deserts, not only away from light pollution but above the clouds and much of the atmosphere.

Orion from a dark side with some bonus meteors. Credit: Darren Baskill

Orion from a dark side with some bonus meteors. Credit: Darren Baskill

Light pollution is becoming more and more of a problem. A recent study found that 60% of Europeans and nearly 80% of North Americans live in locations where the Milky Way has become invisible due to light pollution. While this might not seem like too big a deal to many people, after all astronomers can just go to one of the dark locations mentioned above, there are other, perhaps more direct, consequences. Light pollution has been reported to negatively affect birdsmammals, and even humans. Not to mention that it seems like a waste of electricity to light up the skies instead of the ground! Luckily projects like the International Dark-Sky Association are campaigning to raise awareness of light pollution, and protect our remaining dark skies sites. You can help by participating in citizen science projects such as Globe at Night, which asks members of the public to report how many stars they can see in a particular constellation, in order to measure the light pollution where they are.

Despite all of this, it’s still worth having a look up at the sky from wherever you are. Even from the middle of a city you can still see the brightest stars, as well as the Moon and some planets at the right time of the night/month/year. I’m yet to go somewhere where the light pollution is so bad that I couldn’t see any stars (as Bomb the music industry! suggest) and have successfully done public stargazing events from the centres of Portsmouth and Manchester. So get out and look up!

A new podcast? You can’t be Sirius!

Last month I wrote about The Jodcast and some of my favourite memories from being involved with the show. That post was inspired by participating in Jodcast Live – a recording of the podcast in front of a live audience, the result of which has now been released.

Jodcast Live reminded me of how much I loved podcasting, and how much I’ve missed doing it for the last  few years. It turns out that Dave, Mark, Megan and Stuart felt the same way, so we decided to make a new podcast! It’s called Seldom Sirius and episode one (mp3) was released earlier this week.

Our plan with Seldom Sirius is to record a show with an informal vibe, a lighthearted show that feels like we’re just sitting in the pub chatting about astronomy. This is what we do anyway when we all get together, we’re just unfortunately spread out around the country these days so don’t get to do it very often! If this sounds like the kind of thing that you’d like to listen to, then you can find us at www.seldomsirius.net, on twitter, and on facebook. Please do check it out 🙂

The Seldom Sirius mission patch, created by Stuart Lowe.

The Seldom Sirius mission patch, created by Stuart Lowe.

Jod-stalgia

Yesterday I went to Jodrell Bank for the second ever Jodcast Live event – a recording of The Jodcast in front of a live audience – to celebrate the podcast’s 10th birthday. For those of you who aren’t familiar with The Jodcast, it’s a twice-monthly astronomy podcast run by astronomers at the University of Manchester’s Jodrell Bank Centre for Astrophysics. I was involved with it as a PhD student from 2009 until I left Manchester in 2012, and in particular was the Executive Producer (responsible for the overall running of the show) in 2010-12.

The current set of Jodcast-ers, led by PhD students Benjamin Shaw and Charlie Walker, did a fantastic job with Jodcast Live 2016, and it was a much more slick and polished affair than when we held the first one in 2009! Several of us former Jodcast-ers were invited back, and others sent in video messages. Naturally, being in such an environment invoked much nostalgia and story-telling of Jodcast-past, and on the drive home I came up with my top five Jodcast memories:

1. The Beginning

I often describe my introduction to Jodcast-ing as a baptism of fire! In April 2009, six months into my PhD studies, I attended the Royal Astronomical Society’s National Astronomy Meeting in Hatfield. The Jodcast is a regular presence at the NAM conferences but none of the core team were attending the 2009 meeting, so before the conference they emailed round the department to see if anyone else would be up for taking the kit down to do some recording.

Despite being a somewhat shy and socially-awkward person, I ended up taking charge of Jodcast-at-NAM, alongside fellow first-year PhD student Neil Young (dubbing ourselves the Jodcast Juniors). Suddenly I found myself able to approach random senior astronomers, safe in the knowledge that recording Jodcast interviews gave me a reason to do so. When we got back to Manchester, Neil and I were asked to also join in for the presenting (I don’t think I really said anything!) and the rest is history!

2. Adventures with Dave

David Ault is one of the original Jodcast members, but had already left Jodrell Bank by the time the podcast started. This meant that for my first few Jodcast recordings, Dave was a mysterious voice at the other end of a Skype call. That all changed in June 2009 when we finally found ourselves in the same place at the same time…Milan train station! Dave and I ended up recording the presenting for the July 2009 edition sitting on a patch of grass at the side of the road, and getting some extremely funny looks in the process!

Dave and I continued our international Jodcast adventures the following year in the USA, meeting up while he was on his ‘astrotour‘ of science centres, and I had finished up at the VLA summer school. I flew over to Washington DC where he was staying with his (and now my) wonderful friend M, and spent a fun few days recording the July 2010 edition on a bed (it was the best place for the acoustics), nerding out at the Air & Space Museums, and doing some stargazing with local astronomers.

3. Jodcast Live 2009

The first Jodcast Live was held in November 2009, where we recorded what ended up as the December 2009 and December 2009 Extra shows. If I’m honest, the day is a bit of a blur, but certain moments stick in my mind: meeting Chris Lintott for the first time and cramming him into my tiny car when we picked him up from the station, being slightly freaked out when we went up on stage and the audience started taking photos of us (it was the first time we realised that we were almost famous to a very small set of people!), and the feeling of achievement in the pub afterwards that we managed to pull it off!

4. Spring 1990

The Jodcast has a tradition of creating April Fool episodes, and my favourite has to be the 2010 one. For this episode, Stuart had the brilliant idea of recording the episode as if we were in Spring 1990. The level of detail that went into the planning was incredible, from adding in tape background noise (we did actually record on tape but the sound quality was horrendous!) to creating artwork for a cassette case. For my part, I made a 90s version of the theme music, and pretended I had just returned from an observing trip in the States where I had watched a new cartoon called The Simpsons…

One of the main reasons why I love this April Fool so much, is that everything in the episode is correct for the time. In my case, my PhD supervisor was genuinely involved with observations that were being done with the VLA at that time, so it was feasible that his PhD student would have been over there! In the April 2010 Extra edition, we brought everyone up to the present day and discussed how things had changed in 20 years.

5. The eMerlin Road Trip

The eMerlin road trip remains one of my favourite days of all time! One day in August 2010, we set off from the Jodrell Bank Centre for Astrophysics in Manchester on a mission to visit all seven telescopes in the eMerlin array in a day. Along the way we got horrendously lost trying to get to the Defford dish, joined in on our walkie talkies with some kids playing air traffic control, and I drank so much red bull that I had a headache for a week! It was absolutely exhausting but one of the most fun days I’ve ever had.

6. The Next Generation…

I know I said five, but this isn’t really a memory so bear with me. As amazing as it was to help produce The Jodcast for three years (I presented 57 audio episodes, conducted 32 interviews, featured in three videos, and edited countless pieces of audio), I think what I’m most proud of is the fact that the show is still going. A lot of what I did in my time as Executive Producer was to start putting into place procedures that meant that The Jodcast could continue year after year. Whether that was formalising the roles, writing how-to guides, or just increasing the number of people who contributed to the show,  I’m genuinely pleased that my departure didn’t matter one bit.

I’m not exaggerating when I say that The Jodcast got me to where I am today. It was my first foray into astronomy outreach and communication, and transformed me from someone who hated giving presentations to someone who thrives on being on stage. I count my fellow Jodcast-ers as some of my closest friends, and I hope that the current and future generations get as much out of it as I did.

Jod on.

Ada Lovelace Day 2015 – Margaret Huggins

I seem to be developing a habit of not being able to write my Ada Lovelace Day blogpost on Ada Lovelace Day! This year I have the excuse that I was speaking at Ada Lovelace Day Live! in London on Tuesday, and spent the day polishing off my talk, doing bits for local TV and radio, and generally running round like a headless chicken!

Ada Lovelace Day Live! was a fantastic (if exhausting!) event and it was an honour to share a stage with such inspirational women, including Suw Charman-Anderson (founder of Ada Lovelace Day), Dr Suze Kundu (nanochemist in more ways than one), and Abbie Hutty (designer of a freaking Mars rover!). I learnt about how to use maths to explain music and bringing science to life on TV, but unfortunately missed Professor Uta Frith‘s talk as it was just before mine. The event was hosted by the always fabulous Helen Arney who I’m looking forward to seeing in Festival of the Spoken Nerd later this week.

My set was all about spectroscopy, the technique that astronomers use to split light up into its components, allowing us to identify chemical elements in stars and galaxies. I was keen to highlight a forgotten female astronomer in this field, and found just the person when perusing this great (but expensive!) book on women in early British and Irish astronomy. What follows is mostly a rough translation of part of my set from Tuesday evening.

The use of spectroscopy by 19th century astronomers to identify chemical elements in the Sun, stars, comets and planets is often heralded as the birth of astrophysics. One of the pioneers in this field was Margaret Huggins, who, as with so many historic female astronomers, has mostly been relegated by history to the role of a humble assistant to a prominent male astronomer. In Margaret’s case, this was her husband, William.

Margaret Huggins. Credit: UNAWE

Margaret Huggins. Credit: UNAWE

Margaret was born in Dublin in 1848. She was educated at home before attending finishing school in Brighton. By all accounts she developed a love for astronomy at an early age, reading books and magazines on the subject and observing the night sky with a small telescope.

Margaret married William Huggins in 1875, moving to his house in London and immersing herself in his research. The development of dry photographic plates at this time allowed them to finally capture photographs of the spectra they observed, rather than observing by eye and drawing what they saw. These photographed spectra could then be matched up to spectra of known elements observed on Earth. William and Margaret became leading experts in this new field.

Spectrum from Huggins, W, 1877, The Observatory, Vol. 1, p. 4-7

Spectrum from Huggins, W, 1877, The Observatory, Vol. 1, p. 4-7

For the first 14 years of their marriage, all of their work and observations were published under William’s name. That changed in 1889 when ‘Mrs Huggins’ was included as an author on a paper about the Orion Nebula. However, studies of their observatory notebooks indicate that she was a major contributor to their work long before then, sketching out ideas for experimental setups, and expressing frustration when William did not heed her advice.

Margaret and William worked together for 35 years. One of their key pieces of work was an Atlas of Representative Stellar Spectra that other astronomers could use for reference. I was lucky enough on Tuesday to see a copy of this book owned by the Royal Astronomical Society and it is a beautiful piece of work. Huge thanks to Sian at the RAS for tracking it down.

As you might expect, William received most of the accolades and recognition for their work. He was knighted and was President of the Royal Society. Margaret spent most of her life on the sidelines, although she was made an Honorary Member of the Royal Astronomical Society.

There are many aspects of William and Margaret’s lives that I admire. They were so devoted to astronomy that their house was essentially an observatory, and their dogs were named after famous astronomers (anyone who knows me will know that having a dog to name after a famous astronomer is a life goal of mine!). One of my favourite snippets of information about Margaret is that she received a spectroscope from a friend as a wedding gift! But I also find her story immensely frustrating, because it seems that she herself propagated the idea that she was merely William’s assistant.

Most of what we know about the Huggins’ lives is based on Margaret’s own accounts. She was apparently a romantic at heart, taken with the idea that a woman’s role was to support her husband and devote her life to his advancement. However, Barbara Becker has studied their observatory notebooks and correspondences and discovered that Margaret was far more than just an assistant. As she puts it:

“Margaret Huggins was more than an able assistant, amanuensis and illustrator, whose work conformed to her husband’s research interests:  her very presence and expertise not only strengthened but also shaped the research agenda of the Tulse Hill observatory.”

The work of the Hugginses paved the way for future astrophysicists to unlock the mysteries of our Universe. The work of Annie Jump CannonCecilia Payne-Gaposchkin, Vera Rubin and countless others all relied on spectroscopic observations, using techniques pioneered by Margaret Huggins.

Most of what I know about Margaret Huggins I learnt from Women in Early British and Irish Astronomy by Mary Bruck and Eclecticism, Opportunism, and the Evolution of a New Research Agenda: William and Margaret Huggins and the Origins of Astrophysics by Barbara Becker. Check them both out for a more detailed account of her life.

Solar Eclipse 2015

I wrote the below post for the excellent Manchester Girl Geeks who will be heading over to the Museum of Science and Industry in Manchester on Saturday 21st March for their eclipse event. If you’re local to Portsmouth, come along to Guildhall Square on 20th March to watch the solar eclipse with us, or check out our Stargazing Live event the following week. 

In the morning on Friday 20th March 2015 a partial solar eclipse will be visible from the UK. In Manchester the eclipse will start at 08:26 and finish at 10:41 with the maximum obscuration at 09:32. At this point, 90% of the Sun will be covered up and will look something like the image found here.

The timings of the eclipse and how much of the Sun gets covered up will be slightly different depending on where you are in the country. Where I work in Portsmouth, the maximum will happen four minutes earlier and only 85% of the Sun will be covered up. Go north to Edinburgh and the maximum obscuration will be 93% at 09:35. Of course realistically it won’t really look different wherever you are in the UK. To see the total solar eclipse, with the Sun completely obscured by the Moon, you’ll need to go way north, to the Faroe Islands or Svalbard.

Click here to see information about the eclipse in different locations

In this post we’re going to look at eclipses in more detail, including what an eclipse is, why they’re interesting, and, perhaps most importantly, how you can safely view March’s partial eclipse.

Continue reading

Wario’s adventure in Jodrell Land

[Message from Jen: Wario had access to parts of Jodrell Bank that are only accessible to researchers at the Observatory. If you want information about visiting Jodrell Bank as a member of the public then please see the Discovery Centre website…]

I’ma Waaario! If you’ve been following Jen on twitter for some time, you may be familiar with me. My devious distraction techniques enabled endless procrastination for Jen and her office mates during their PhDs. Two weeks ago I was liberated from JBCA following a cunning and devious plan by Jen, and decided to stowaway in her car to see what mischief I could get up to the next day. Here’s what happened…

0900

The car has stopped, I wonder where I am… Wherever this is, it looks like they get pretty bad satellite TV reception here to need a dish that big! Better take a selfie, I hear they’re the rage these days.

IMAG2108

0905

Ah ha!

IMAG2109

1000

Time for some light reading. Glad to see they’ve got my favourite journal in. Now’s where that classic paper from 2008 on how astronomers suckered over 100000 people into doing their work for them?!

IMAG2116

1100 

Jen and collaborators have left the building to sneak into the SKA headquarters for some decent coffee (a dastardly plan that I approved of!) but left laptops open. What a rookie mistake! I’ve heard lots of people talk about ‘rm *’ over the years, I wonder what it does…

IMAG2117

1300

This is more like it!

IMAG2107

1400

Selfie-tastic.

IMAG2112
1630

Found another telescopemajiggy. Looks like they missed a spot when they painted it…

IMAG2122
1645

No idea why there’s a big bell here but I’d better ring it to check that everyone’s still awake on a Friday afternoon. It’s for their own good! Ah hahahaha…

IMAG2119
1700

Bagsied the controller’s chair while his back was turned. Now where’s that big red button?!

IMAG2130

1830

Time to sneak back into the car for the long drive south. I wonder what mayhem I can make at the Institute of Cosmology and Gravitation

Astrolyricists #2 No Doubt – Stricken

“and all of the planets are lined in the sky”
No Doubt – Stricken

The simple response to this lyric is that it can’t happen – you will never get all of the planets exactly lined up in the sky. That makes for a very short blog post though so let’s go into a bit more detail!

There are two ways that you could think of the planets lining up. The first is them being in a straight line going out from the Sun. People tend to think of the solar system in this way because it’s how the planets are often shown in graphics like the one below. The problem with this picture though (besides the fact that the distances between the planets are far larger, and Pluto is included at the end!) is that the planets in fact all orbit in slightly different planes around the Sun; in other words each orbit is slightly tilted compared to the others. This means that at any one time, some of the planets will be higher up or lower down compared to the imaginary straight line drawn out from the Sun. If you flatten the solar system down to a 2D representation then I would assume that  the planets will pretty much line up at some point in the future but I couldn’t easily find an online orrery that could shown me when!

The solar system. Credit: NASA

The solar system. Credit: NASA

The second way to think about this is the planets being lined up in the sky as we see them from Earth. This is probably what No Doubt were going for in this song. We can often see planets in the night sky (as discussed in the Jimmy Eat World post) but which planets we see depends on where they are in their orbit compared to the Earth. For example, if a planet is on the other side to the Sun from us then we won’t see it. This means that it is very rare for all of the planets to be visible from Earth at the same time. According to these posts, the next time the planets will roughly be lined up will be 6th May 2492 as you can see in the below screenshot from stellarium; unfortunately I doubt any of us will be around to see it!

Stellarium screenshot showing the visibility of all the planets in 2492

Stellarium screenshot showing the visibility of all the planets in 2492. Credit: Stellarium/Jen Gupta

It is more common to have two or three planets in the sky at the same time, although because of the tilt of their orbits they often don’t appear in a straight line (e.g. see Mercury, Venus and Jupiter form a triangle in this post). However, occasionally the bright (naked-eye) planets do approximately line up; the last such alignment was in 2002 and a similar alignment will be visible in September 2040. If you want to see some planets tonight, currently (early January 2015) you can spot Mercury, Venus and Mars in the south-west just after sunset.

Finally, every so often a hoax goes round that a planetary alignment (of the first kind) will cause people to float into the air due to the combined gravitational pull of the planets. This is of course nonsense, but thanks to a photoshopped tweet it has been doing the rounds again, with weightlessness scheduled for tomorrow (4th January 2015). Thankfully, Universe Today has done a great job of writing about this so I don’t have to!

Astrolyricists #1 Jimmy Eat World – For me this is heaven

“the first star I see may not be a star”
Jimmy Eat World – For me this is heaven

This lyric often gets stuck in my head and was the one that inspired this series of blog posts. This is because it’s often true – the first star you see may not be a star, but instead may be a planet! Full points to Jimmy Eat World for scientifically accurate lyrics!

When the sky gets dark in the evening, the first stars you’ll see will be the brightest ones. There are several really bright stars in the night sky and which of these you’ll see depends on where you are and when you are. We see different stars from different parts of the world, and also at different times of the year as the Earth travels around the Sun. In the northern hemisphere, the brightest star in the night sky is Sirius, the dog star, in the constellation Canis Major. Assuming you’re looking for this first star as it gets dark, it has to be visible in the evening, so look out for Sirius in the winter and spring evenings by following the three stars of Orion’s belt down to the left. In the summer one of the brightest stars you’ll see is Arcturus in the constellation Bootes; find it by following the curve of the Plough down.

As bright as these stars appear to us, they are often trumped by planets. In particular Venus, Mars and Jupiter can all outshine the brightest stars, and Venus is sometimes so bright that you can see it during the day. Astronomers use the magnitude system to quantify the brightness of stars (and other astronomical objects), where brighter objects have a lower magnitude, extending into the negative for the very brightest. Sirius has a magnitude of -1.46, whereas the faintest stars the human eye can see will have a magnitude of around 6. In comparison, Venus can be as bright as magnitude -4.5!

Venus, Jupiter and Mercury at sunset over La Silla Observatory

Venus, Jupiter and Mercury at sunset over La Silla Observatory. Credit: Y. Beletsky (LCO)/ESO

So the next time you go out and look up at the stars, why not think of Jimmy Eat World and try to spot a planet instead! At the time of writing (December 2014), Jupiter in particular is starting to become more prominent in the (UK) night sky. By the end of December 2014, it’ll be rising at around 8pm and shining incredibly brightly at magnitude -2.4. If you want to know when it’s a good time to look for planets there are loads of night sky guides online, such as the one by Ian Morison on the Jodrell Bank website (or check it out in audio form on The Jodcast). Alternatively you can download software like stellarium which will show you the night sky at any location and time in the world on your computer.