Reading Douglas

So following Rita and Emmas cue here is my reading Douglas post. In honour of the great man and towel day I bring you a passage that I think should be the opening passage in every country in the worlds constitution.

I hope you enjoy it as much as I did, it exemplifies Douglas Adams ability to make a huge amount of sense with passages that snake around back and fourth, something I will always love him and his writing for

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Reading Douglas (badly)

Rita celebrated International Towel Day earlier by reading us one of her favourite Douglas Adams moments and she then challenged the rest of us to do the same. Well, Rita, here’s mine. It’s not a long extract, but it’s a passage that’s stuck in my head ever since I first read it.


Reading Douglas

Today it’s international towel day. If you don’t know what that means, you’re ill prepared for what lies ahead of you – meaning life, in general terms, which has a way to throw the unexpected at you. Hence your need for a towel, even if you don’t know it yet.

Today is also a good day to take 5 minutes and remind yourself and the rest of us of a passage, a sentence, a moment that Douglas Adams pulled out of his head at some point in time and that it never fails to make you smile. There are many for me, but this morning this one is the first that came to my head. Twitter’s limitations meant that I decided to read it instead, and Emma challenged me to put it up here. As she rightly points out – it’s space related. Kind of. I now challenge my fellow gutter dwellers to follow suit. And I challenge you.

I also want to say just how great a book ‘Last Chance to See’ is. It brings out the best of the world, even in some seriously dire situations. Sometimes something happens and I wish Douglas Adams was there to write it down, and crystallise something that my brain recognises as funny and ironic and insightful, but which my brain can’t quite bring into words. This is why I love this passage. I’m so much like that megapode, and yet it took Douglas’ genius to make me realise that, and endlessly smile at the world as I do so. Chances are,  I would see that megapode nest, write code to compute its volume, and simply leave with the nagging feeling that there was something else to the whole situation than what meets the eye.

Douglas Adams was great at these something elses. I wish he was around for more.


AAS in Boston – wicked smaat

So this is my first experience of the American Astronomical Society meetings. It’s being held in a rather posh area of Boston which feels like a merging of Piccadilly and the New Town but with suicidal pedestrians. The atmosphere of being in a large hotel in a city centre is somewhat different to the UK NAM (on a university campus) or the Dutch NAC (locked in a monastery in the rural Limburg* for three days).

So far we’ve had a very energetic talk on future Decadal Surveys by Malcolm Longair (do I even need to state that he was energetic and wonderfully enthusiastic, he always is). Also a very nice talk from Jeremy Drake of CfA about the weather on low mass stars. That had a lot of interesting detail on how X-rays can evaporate oceans and inhibit planet formation as well as touching on the controversial area of cosmic rays and climate. In the afternoon I was in the Pan-STARRS1 session, it was great to see what all fantastic work from all the key projects are doing as I only really see what the KP I work on does plus what I hear on the grapevine. There is a nice twitter stream describing the session here. I also popped in to the stars general session to see a nice but unfortunately too short talk on brown dwarf variability.

Waiting to speak on Wednesday and trying not to blow too much money on clothes you can’t get in Hawai`i and Irn Bru and Lucazade from Irish grocery shops.

*Limburg, where men are men and language is tonal.


Finding Fred & friends

“What’s your name?” Kit said. “I mean we can’t just call you ‘hey you’ all the time.”

True, the white hole said. My name is Khairelikoblepharehglukumeilichephreidosd’enagouni – and at the same time he went flickering through a pattern of colours that was evidently the visual translation.

“Ky-elik-” Nita began.

“Fred”, Kit said quickly. “Well”, he added as they looked at him again, “if we have to yell for help or something, the other way’s too long.”

(from So You Want to Be a Wizard by Diane Duane)

Fred, whilst being in many ways not a typical white hole (he talks for a start, and is surprisingly prone to hiccups), does exhibit their most fundamental property – he continuously emits stuff.

A white hole is a region of space and time which can’t be entered, but which gives out material. It’s the opposite of a black hole, we’ve never seen one and there’s a good chance they don’t exist. The possibility that they do arises from the maths of Einstein’s General Relativity. Even if they do, the combination of a strong gravitational pull and the constant stream of new material being emitted means that they’ll probably collapse in on themselves and form a black hole before we could see them.

Hang on though, what if they just popped into being for an instant, spewed out a load of stuff at once, and then vanished again? That’s the idea put forward in a paper which came out this week. The authors suggest that if this was the case they could pop up anywhere in the Universe, and we’d see them as brief, intensely bright, objects. This sounds suspiciously like the features of a mysterious type of object called a gamma ray burst.

The current best explanation for the majority of gamma ray bursts is the explosion of a massive star. However, there exists a subset of sources which don’t fit this picture, and it is these which might, just might, just possibly be white holes. The chances that any of them are like Fred though are, sadly, small.

ResearchBlogging.orgAlon Retter, & Shlomo Heller (2011). The Revival of White Holes as Small Bangs Submitted to ApJ arXiv: 1105.2776v1


Just a little note to say…

(For more information about the Herschel Space Observatory, and what it’s been doing for the past two years, check out the official UK site or some of our many, many posts about it. Picture credit: ESA, with some minor alterations by me. Oh, and don’t forget that it’s also Planck’s birthday too!)


Herschel’s view of Uranus

I’m sorry but the name of the seventh planet in our Solar System always makes me giggle. This can have unfortunate consequences – I suspect my friends and I once failed the audition for a schools’ version of a TV quiz show when we couldn’t suppress our laughter. So you can imagine how I feel when I read sentences like “Uranus is too small for the Herschel satellite to see as more than a very bright point of light”.

What Herschel sees when it looks at Uranus

My inability to grow up aside, Uranus is very important to the Herschel Telescope. William Herschel, after whom it is named, discovered the planet in 1781, and it has been studied extensively ever since. This makes it an excellent target for the SPIRE instrument onboard Herschel to use to calibrate its measurements of other targets, which is why it was one of the first things it observed.

Incidentally, in the picture above, the bright point of light is Uranus; the six-pointed star shape is caused by the construction of the telescope itself; and the red hazy bit comes from the optics of the telescope combined with the SPIRE camera. The faint dots in the background are all distant galaxies!

Image credit: ESA/Herschel/SPIRE