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.


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, 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.


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…


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.



Ah ha!



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?!



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…



This is more like it!





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


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…


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



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

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.