As I’ve discussed previously, astronomy references pop up in songs quite a bit. I’d like to say that I have eclectic music tastes but I mostly listen to the pop-punk, emo and ska-punk that formed the soundtrack to my teenage years. Bands like Blink 182, New Found Glory, Jimmy Eat World and The Ataris write a lot of songs about relationships and it seems to me that a surprising number of the songs that I listen to have references to stars and the like (although it’s possible that I just notice them more now that I spend most of my time thinking about astronomy!).

These days I mostly listen to music when I’m driving, and the part of my brain that isn’t concentrating on the road often starts pondering the science behind these lyrics. I’m fully aware that these bands are unlikely to have ever considered what their lyrics mean in an astronomical context but I thought it would be fun to take them literally and see if they make sense! Consider this the introduction to a new series of blogposts about Astrolyrics; part 1 coming soon…

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


Ada Lovelace Day 2014

Yesterday was Ada Lovelace Day 2014. Founded in 2009 by Suw Charman-Anderson, Ada Lovelace Day is “an international celebration of the achievements of women in science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM)”. The original idea was for people to write a blog post about a woman in STEM that they admire, and although the day has now evolved into a much larger celebration including live events (such as the excellent Ada Lovelace Day Live that I went to last night) the blog posts are still an integral part, so here is my (slightly late) contribution.

There are plenty of inspiring women in STEM who I could write about. Astronomers from history, like Caroline Herschel who was the first women in this country to be paid to be a scientist, or Ruby Payne-Scott who was the first female radio astronomer. Women I know who have directly inspired me and helped me to get to where I am today, from my Mum who went to medical school at 16, to my physics teacher Jill Ensell who didn’t think I was crazy for wanting to be a rock star and and physicist, to my boss and generally awesome astronomer Karen Masters. But for my first ever Ada Lovelace Day blog post, I thought I would look to the future and write about a rising STEM star…

Amy Mather (aka MiniGirlGeek) is a 15 year old computer programmer and STEM ambassador who I first met four or five years ago at a Manchester Girl Geek tea party. I was waiting to interview Lucie Green after her talk for the Jodcast but she was being inundated with questions from two kids who turned out to be Amy and her brother Dan. I joined in the conversation and was amazed by the questions Amy and Dan were coming up with and the level of their understanding of complex astrophysics concepts. They then kept popping up at science events in and around Manchester and we had great fun discussing everything in the Universe from the Sun to black holes!

I haven’t had a chance to see Amy since I moved away from Manchester but I’ve been keeping up with her adventures by following her and her Mum on twitter. Despite my attempts to tempt her towards astronomy (!), Amy has followed her passion for coding, and is probably best known for her work with Raspberry Pi doing all sorts of awesome and creative things. She’s given talks about what she does at the Raspberry Jamboree in Manchester and Wired Next Generation, been on Radio 4 and Newsround, and teaches other young people how to code. In November 2013 she was awarded Europe’s first-ever Digital Girl of the Year Award. I am constantly in awe at what Amy has managed to achieve already, and am convinced she is going to rule the world one day!

During my PhD I quickly came to the realisation that I was never going to be a Vera Rubin or Henrietta Swan Leavitt. It was extremely unlikely that I would be known for my research and discover something that changed our understanding of the Universe. But if I can do something to encourage young people like Amy and Dan to be curious about the Universe they live in, if I can make young people realise that it’s OK to like studying STEM subjects, if I can help young people to decide that science is for them, then I think that’s a job well done.

Me with Amy and Dan at Jodrell Bank Live in 2012. Stolen from @elsie_m_ on twitter.

When physicists get married

I don’t normally post things about my personal life on the internet but this one event was so wonderfully geeky that I feel the need to share it.

Four months ago I got married. Not necessarily an occasion worth writing about on a blog that’s mostly about astronomy. However, as my now-husband is also a physicist (of the nuclear kind), we decided to see how much physics we could subtly (and not-so-subtly) fit into the wedding.

We started off with the stationary, where we decided to go down the handmade route. Luckily Hobbycraft is full of starry decorations and so we ended up sticking countless little plastic stars to pieces of ribbon on invitations, placecards and favour boxes:

The purple chest in the above picture contained sweets for the wedding favour. A pretty standard thing to do but instead of the traditional heart-shaped chocolates or sugared almonds, we chose to use Milky Way Magic Stars and Atomic Fireblasts to represent our two branches of physics.

Next up was the table names. Each table was named after a different physicist. We decided on Rutherford for the top table as we met in our first year of a physics degree at Manchester (and spent most of our time in the Rutherford lecture theatre).

Other tables were named after Bohr, Chandrasekhar, Herschel, Thomson, Curie, Lovell and Jansky. For each table we made a sign with a picture of the physicist on the front and a mini-biography on the back (even at my wedding I couldn’t help but educate!). On the table plan we thought we would have an extra treat for the astronomers in attendance and decorated it with a constellation in each corner:

Now there are a lot of geeky wedding cakes out there, from xkcd to programming. We played around with a lot of ideas for our cake and eventually decided to go all out with a solar system wedding cake. I’d seen a two-tier wedding cake decorated with the planets but we thought we could go one better with eight small cakes for the planets and a larger one for the Sun. When Sheila at Inspirations Cakes started talking about spherical cakes I was sold! Some miscommunication mean that Uranus had to be turned into the Earth at the last minute but I think it turned out pretty well! It’s obviously not to scale but I think that would have been a step too far (even for us).

And finally…

A few days before the wedding I checked Heavens Above and realised there would be a bright ISS pass over the reception venue just before our first dance. Despite the weather forecast not looking promising I fired a quick email off to our photographer extraordinaire Dave Burlison who was more than up for the challenge of a wedding photo with the ISS in the background! We gathered outside with some astro friends and amazingly the clouds broke just in time to get some awesome shots:

That little streak in the sky above our heads is the International Space Station! There are astronauts in our wedding photo! I still can’t quite believe we managed to pull this off. I just hope they remembered to smile…

All photos were taken by Dave Burlison from Burlison Photography.

Scale Your Cosmos Right!

Last month a group of us from the Institute of Cosmology and Gravitation (ICG) went to the Bestival music festival on the Isle of Wight with some hands-on astronomy activities for the Science Tent. I’ve been a fan of public engagement at music festivals for a while now, and although I helped out at the first two Live from Jodrell Bank events, this was the first full-on music festival that I’d done.

Nearly all of the public events that we do are for audiences that have already made the decision to come along and find out more about astronomy so we decided we needed something different for Bestival, where I doubt visiting the Science Tent was at the top of anyone’s list of priorities! After brainstorming with David (our PhD student outreach rep) for a few hours we came up with the idea of ‘Scale Your Cosmos Right’, a twist on the classic TV gameshow ‘Play Your Cards Right‘.

The game is pretty simple. Six cards are set out face down. The first two are then turned over:

The player has to decide which of the two cards shows the larger object and (potentially) switch the cards around so that the smaller object is on the left. In this example the Earth and Sun have to be swapped because the Earth is smaller than the Sun:

The player then turns over the next card and has to figure out where it fits in compared to the other two cards that have already been revealed. In this example the next card shows the Moon so this has to be moved to the far left and the other cards shifted to the right:

This continues until all of the cards have been turned over and placed in the correct size order so that the smallest object is the furthest left and the largest object is the furthest right:

We chose 12 different images to print on our cards, from the Moon to the SDSS map of nearby galaxies, and randomly selected six cards each time. The game seemed to go down well with the Bestival attendees and over 1200 people played Scale Your Cosmos Right over the four days we were there! You can see some pictures of us in action on our facebook page.

Anyone who has seen me give a public talk or run an outreach session will know that I really like talking about the scale of the Universe. So many people don’t realise how small we are compared to other planets, stars and galaxies and how far apart everything is. You’ll often find me demonstrating the distance between the Earth and the Moon with a basketball and tennis ball (thanks Tim O’Brien for first showing me that!) and I’m looking forward to adding in Scale Your Cosmos Right to my list of activities and trying it out with different audiences.

P.S. The plan is to eventually “release” Scale Your Cosmos Right as a pdf with the cards, instructions on how to play and information about the different objects. I’m hoping to get that done in November 2013 after World Space Week at Intech and the minor distraction of getting married!

Galaxy Zoo Navigator

I’ve been pretty completely quiet on the blog front for the last year. A lot has happened – I submitted my thesis in June 2012, passed my viva in August and graduated in December. In July last year I started work as the Outreach Officer for the Institute of Cosmology and Gravitation at the University of Portsmouth and am currently spending all my free time trying to decide how much astronomy and physics I can incorporate into my wedding later this year! Still, I’ve got a few new projects in the pipeline that should hopefully mean I’ll start blogging a bit more again.

The reason for this post is really just to have somewhere to post some pictures of a new tool that is now available for Galaxy Zoo users. The Navigator tool allows users to classify galaxies in a group and then investigate their classifications in more detail.

The above picture shows the home page of the Navigator tool. It’s pretty obvious from this picture what you can do with it! I quite like being able to compare my classifications with other people (see below), although as far as I can see it only shows your 12 most recent classifications and doesn’t go beyond your answer to the first question.

The most exciting part of Navigator for me is the ability to easily investigate your galaxies in more detail. There is the option to plot a histogram or a scatter graph and there are five parameters you can play with: redshift, colour, apparent brightness, absolute radius and absolute brightness. You then choose smooth or feature/disk galaxies, a small, medium or large sample size and whether you want to use your galaxies or a random selection of galaxies from Galaxy Zoo. You can also download the data if you want to make your own graphs. There are a few screenshots below showing examples of the different kinds of plots you can create but if you’re interested then I would recommend spending a bit of time on the Navigator yourself to get a feel for it. I personally think the Navigator is going to be really useful for schools outreach and I’m looking forward to trying it out with a group of students in a few weeks.

The ISS from Manchester

Tonight I decided to test out the video camera on my new phone by trying to catch the International Space Station as it passed over when I was leaving the office. I only managed to get a few seconds (linked below) – I was too busy waving to the ISS when I first saw it and then it passed behind a building.

Tested out the camera on my new phone and took this video of ... on Twitpic

I think it came out OK. There are some very bright passes over the next few nights so I’ll certainly try to get a better video (providing the clouds play nice and stay away). If you want to find out when the next visible ISS pass is for your location, check out Heavens Above or sign up for twitter notifications via Twisst.

The Astronomers who cried Earth!

Since the first discoveries of planets outside of our own Solar System in the early 1990s, the quest has been on to find a “second Earth”. The number of candidate extrasolar planets detected has rocketed in recent years, thanks to dedicated missions and telescopes, such as WASP on the ground and Kepler in space. Today the number of exoplanet candidate detections stands at over 700, all found within my (25 year) lifetime.

This is obviously an exciting field in astronomy, both for the scientists actively working to discover and understand these exoplanets and for the public who, in a way, are seeing science fiction become reality (for some reason the quest for Earth in new Battlestar Galactica always comes to mind!). However, I do feel that some of the press releases (and subsequent news stories) that accompany these discoveries are clutching at straws slightly.

There seem to be two categories of extrasolar planets that the media love. One is the “Earth-like” planets. These are planets that astronomers believe to some characteristic that is similar to the Earth. It usually means that they are similar in size (i.e. radius) or mass. However, this can be deceiving. For example, the planet could be orbiting a pulsar or it could have a surface temperature of -200 degrees celsius! Earth-like doesn’t necessarily mean that we could live there. The second category of planets that get the media excited is the habitable, or Goldilocks, zone planets. A planet in the habitable zone is basically orbiting its star at the right distance for liquid water to exist on the surface. However, there’s nothing to say that these planets have to be rocky like the Earth, and gas planets have been found in habitable zones around stars. Of course, this is still interesting, especially if they have rocky moons (like Saturn’s moon Titan), but again, it’s something to bear in mind.

The first press release I could find claiming the discovery of an Earth-like planet was from ESO in April 2007. This press release announced the discovery of Gliese 581c and was titled “Astronomers Find First Earth-like Planet in Habitable Zone”.Gliese 581c is (unsurprisingly) orbiting around the star Gliese 581, a red dwarf star about 20 lightyears away from us. Because its host star doesn’t output as much energy as the Sun, Gliese 581c is much closer to its star than Earth is to the Sun and only takes about 13 days to complete an orbit. In case you were confused how this might affect the view on Gliese 581c, the Daily Mail helpfully included a cartoon in their report!

The planetary system around Gliese 581 has actually made headlines 3 times for claims of habitable zone planets. Following the discovery of Gliese 581c, in 2010 the discovery of the planet Gliese 581g was reported as “NASA and NSF-Funded Research Finds First Potentially Habitable Exoplanet”. Note the use of language, it’s the first “potentially habitable” planet because by this time, doubts had been cast on the ability of Gliese 581c to support life. However, interestingly, one of the astronomers involved with the study was quoted as saying that it was the first planet in the system to be found in the habitable zone. Since then, further analysis of the data indicates that this planet might not actually exist. Then, earlier this year, there were claims that Gliese 581d could be the “first definitively habitable planet outside our Solar System”. Three planets around the same star, all of which have been claimed to be the first habitable exoplanet. Is anyone else confused?

Then this month there have been two more announcements of Earth-like/habitable planets, both from the Kepler mission. Kepler-22b was annouced as a “Super-Earth in the habitable zone of a Sun-like Star”. This led to the planet being dubbed Earth 2.0, Matt Burleigh has already covered what’s wrong with this. Yesterday there was a press release from NASA stating that “NASA Discovers First Earth-size Planets Beyond Our Solar System”. Kepler-20e and Kepler-20f are similar in size to the Earth but are way too close to their star to host life. So not really like Earth at all.

There have been so many “Earth-like” and habitable zone planets claimed recently that, as my officemate put it this morning, some of us are getting Earth-fatigue. I’m not sure who to blame for this. I would imagine that it’s the respective press offices of the universities or organisations trying to put a spin on the discoveries, and not the astronomers themselves. I guess it is important for us as scientists to let the public know what we are doing, after all they do fund (a lot of) us. Unfortunately this often requires a hook so you’d better hope that what you’ve found/are studying looks like food or is a giant gemstone in space. I just hope that when we do find a planet that is similar to Earth in size, mass, composition, atmosphere and is in the habitable zone, i.e. a true Earth 2.0 that we could live on (provided we could get there!), the public isn’t so sick of us crying wolf that they just don’t care.

And don’t even get me started on the “Tatooine-like” planet…

Lego + astronomy = awesome!

I love Lego. As a child my most prized possession was an electric Lego train set. These days I have a Lego Space Shuttle complete with mini Hubble Space Telescope sitting on my desk. However yesterday I was put to shame when the NRAO tweeted a link to the video below. This video shows a working Lego model of a VLA dish and transporter and is quite possibly the coolest Lego I have seen ever.

I thought Lego couldn’t get any better. I was wrong. A guy called Alan Rifkin has made a working telescope (almost entirely) out of Lego. It’s made of over 1000 Lego pieces, only 5 of which were modified and the only non-Lego bits are the lens and the tripod. When I finish my PhD I think I might have to dig out my Lego and attempt some creative model building. A Lego Lovell telescope has already been suggested

Stars are out tonight…

Just over a week ago I took part in Bright Club: Stars at the Bloomsbury Theatre in London. The audio of my set was recorded but it wouldn’t really work without my slides so I’ve thrown a quick video together, using a photo taken by my friend Paul Woods for the bits where there were no slides. You can see it below, screw ups and all.

I have to say thank you to Steve Cross and everyone at Bright Club London for letting me pretend I was one of the UCL cool cats for the night. You should all check out my partners in crime (Lucie Green, Jason Dittmer, Sarah Dhanjal, Sheila Kanani, Nick Canty, Martin Austwick and James Kneale) who were all fantastic and didn’t make me feel like an imposter! The professional comedians were of course all brilliant, especially the marvelous Helen Keen of Spacetacular fame. Finally, I have to thank Amanda Bauer aka @astropixie
for first drawing my attention to the wonderful M87 radio image through her dirty space news blog post.

Road signs and rock songs

In August 2010 some of the Jodcast team embarked on a some-what crazy adventure to visit all seven telescopes in the e-MERLIN array in a day. Setting off from Manchester in the early hours of the morning, we drove down to Cambridge, along to Defford, up to Knockin, Darnhall, Pickmere and finished at Jodrell Bank way too late in the night! The journey took a lot longer than expected, mainly because we got extremely lost trying to find Defford (partly because the co-ordinates on wikipedia were wrong) and had to be rescued by an engineer who was visiting the site.

Two members of the University of Salford’s SEE TV joined us on the road trip and filmed the journey. The resulting video has finally been released on the Jodcast website or you can watch it on youtube below. I personally think that the video needs an extra chart documenting my highs and lows as I consume an unhealthy amount of red bull!