Tag: astronomy

570 million kilometres in 140 characters or less

This article was originally written for the ScienceRewired blog in the lead up to their launch event, “Connect, Collaborate and Communicate for Change” at the Science Exchange in Adelaide on October 11, 2012. It is reprinted here with their permission, in part as a late tribute to Ada Lovelace Day – the team behind the Curiosity twitter account are certainly all women I consider heroines of science!

The Curiosity mission is one of the great successes of current science. Oh, sure, it’s impressive they landed a nuclear-powered science-lab-in-a-robot safely on the surface of Mars – but I’m talking about their success at capturing – and more importantly, keeping – an audience.

Millions of people around the world stopped to watch, listen or read about the Curiosity landing as it happened (or rather, about 14 minutes after it happened; Mars is a long way away). But many – myself included – knew about Curiosity’s safe set down thanks not to television, radio or even world wide web – but straight from the rover herself, via Twitter:

Now, of course Curiosity isn’t composing and sending tweets across those 570 million kilometres (though it’s a tiny data packet, so I suppose she could if she wanted to), but the official Twitter account was a stroke of genius: @MarsCuriosity picked up over half a million extra followers on the day of the landing, and continues to grow in popularity. She’s made it into the top 1,000 most followed Twitter accounts, with nearly 1.2 million followers.

As if that weren’t enough, Curiosity’s twitter account also succeeded in that other important Twitterati metric: spoof accounts. Spoof accounts subsist on the popularity of their target; sometimes they are loving, sometimes scathing, but the Curiosity spoof accounts all served to boost the signal of their parent – and none more so than the still very successful @SarcasticRover. With almost 100,000 followers, it’s doing its bit to connect real science to everyday people – with jokes.

…okay, most of its tweets aren’t about actual science. But the jokes do often reflect the images sent back from (and tweeted by) the real deal, and it adds extra emotional context to the mission.

And that’s what makes these fake Twitter accounts of a real robot on another planet succeed: emotion. Personality. After all, it’s the characters that really make a story connect with us: no matter how well told the tale, it’s when we care about the people in it that we truly care about the story. You see it in the continuing cult of personality surrounding the few true celebrity scientists; in the fond memories people share of The Curiosity Show; in “NASA Mohawk Guy” (aka Bobak Ferdowsi) stealing the show during the live video stream of the Curiosity landing. And you definitely see it in the way people love an anthropomorphised Mars exploration robot, mediated by Courtney O’Connor, Stephanie L. Smith, and Veronica McGregor. Facts are important, and science should aim to be objective, but science engagement succeeds best with a personal, emotional tone – something at which social media, and Twitter in particular, excels.

Venus in Transit

I’ve just been to a park to look through a telescope at the Sun.

Now, this isn’t safe without serious filters in place, and normally you wouldn’t expect to see much more than a big ball of light even so – but today was the transit of Venus, a twice a century or so event in which our sunward neighbour passes directly between the Earth and the Sun. (While the last famous one was in 1874 – people sailed to Australia to see it – they come in pairs: there was a transit in 2004, though most of it wasn’t visible in Australia. The next ones are in 2117 and 2125.) So today, thanks to the sterling work of Stephen Luntz and some uncharacteristic breaks in Melbourne’s cloud cover, I looked at a fairly large dot moving very slowly across the bright disc of the sun. That dot, though our nearest planet, was 41 million kilometres or so away. Blows your mind just a little, right?

To mark the occasion, Stephen gathered a small collection of poets, musicians and one comedian (guess who?) to perform to the gathered astronomy enthusiasts. Rather than do my usual gear about black holes, climate change or dinosaurs, I thought I’d share some of my favourite FUN FACTS! about Venus, and I’ve gathered them here for your pleasure.

Venus, like Mercury, has no moons, but orbitally, it’s a bit of a show off. Not only is its orbit the closest of any solar planet to a circle (they’re all elliptical, but Venus’ is the least elliptical), but it rotates on its axis in the opposite direction to its travel around the Sun. All the planets travel anti-clockwise around the Sun, but Venus and Uranus rotate clockwise. This means that on Venus, the Sun would rise in the West and set in the East – good luck for Daenerys and Drogo. A day there is incredibly long, the longest in the solar system: it rotates on its axis only once every 243 Earth days! Plus, a Venusian year is shorter than a Venusian day, at only 224.65 Earth days – and you thought Mondays at the office were long! Thanks to the backwards (astronomers say “retrograde”) rotation and shorter year, this works out to a solar day (i.e. how long the sun is in the sky) of around 116.75 Earth days, sunrise to sunset.

Venus is thus clearly the best planet for lovers, since you could hold hands and watch the sunset for weeks on end, and wouldn’t have to get up early to see it! Well…okay, you can’t. Venus has worse weather than Melbourne. Or even London. The atmosphere is incredibly dense – at the surface, the atmosphere is 92 times denser than on the surface of Earth. Not very comfortable! The cloud cover is constant, so the surface isn’t visible from orbit. Likewise, you can’t see anything in the sky; it’s like the planet of the Krikkitmen. No sunrises for you, Venusian honeymooners!

But even though you can’t get a tan, you will at least be nice and warm; with the atmosphere made up of 96.5% CO2 (the rest is mostly Nitrogen), the greenhouse effect is extreme on Venus, producing the hottest temperatures of any planet in the solar system, but with enormous range. Venus can be anything from -200°c to 420°c. That’s really hard to pack for.

On the surface, when you can see it – using special cameras from orbital missions – you can see evidence of amazing volcanic activity. Many formations are distinctive of Venus, including ones shaped like circles, stars, pancakes and spiderwebs. There’s no ocean any more – the effect of extreme global warming, which goes poles melt, seas rise, ocean evaporates – but there are two “continents” which stand taller than the surrounding plains. The larger one in the north is named Ishtar, and the southern one Aphrodite. Yes, that’s like naming a continent on Earth “Soil”, but there are rules about these things. The IAU, which oversees the naming of astronomical objects, decided that all geographic features of Venus should be named after mythological women. It’s a nice theme, but one that is broken by one of the first features to be named: Maxwell Montes, the tallest mountain on Venus, is named for Scottish physicist James Clerk Maxwell, the guy behind classic electromagnetic theory. Yes: the biggest phallic object on the planet is named after an actual man, and its surrounded by goddesses and saints and mythical heroines. (There are only two other male-named features on Venus, both named before the IAU rule was established.)

But as well as being physically interesting, Venus is also fictionally interesting. Though traditionally much less popular in science fiction than Mars, there are two distinct phases in Venusian literature. In the early days of planetary romance and pulpy science fiction, Venus was thought to be a swampy, marshy place; at the same time, the prevailing view of dinosaurs was that they were immense, slow creatures which could only live in swamps.

You can see where this is going, right?

Yes, lots of Venusian tales populated the surface with dinsosaur-like creatures. Or in some cases, actual dinosaurs. As if there was a global conspiracy and they weren’t extinguished in the KT event, but instead migrated en masse, like Adamsian dolphins, leaving fossils behind as a final message of “so long and thanks for all the cycads”. But Venus has also been populated with giant spiders, and – as usual – people who are basically human but in a weird colour (aside from the standard green, the popular colour for Venusians seems to have been blue).

But I’d like to finish with one of my favourite, and most obscure, Venusian references. During his Action Scientist! days working with UNIT, the Third Doctor (John Pertwee) was a master of a martial art he called “Venusian Aikido”. He claimed he was one of only a few beings with four limbs to master the art, but more than that, he would often tell anecdotes of his Venusian friends – who we never met or even had described. But the best bit is the lullaby he learned on Venus, which he sings to soothe Aggedor, the savage beast of Peladon:

Klokeda partha menin klatch
Haroon, haroon, haroon
Klokeda sheenah tierra natch
Haroon, haroon, haroon

It’s all a setup for a gag: when asked, the Doctor claims the first line translates roughly to “Close your eyes, my darling; well three of them at least!” (Much later, in his “Missing Adventures” novel Venusian Lullaby, Paul Leonard fleshed out the Venusian society: turns out that have fivefold radial symmetry (and thus five limbs and five eyes) and can absorb the memories of their dead by eating their brains. I love that book.)

So thanks Venus, thanks Stephen, and thanks to all the other amazing performers at the Transit of Venus event today. See you at the next one! Well, assuming we’ve all uploaded our consciousnesses in iCloud before then, anyway.

Red rover cross over

It’s official – the Mars Rover, Spirit, is stuck in the mud. Well…sand, but that’s not an amusing cliché. Trapped in the sands of the Martian desert, Spirit has been unable to move for ten months, and has now been declared a “stationary research platform”. The news doesn’t seem to have reached the official NASA Mars Exploration Rover site, but you can find the announcement on their news page.

It seems unlikely we’ll hear much more about Spirit now until it’s covered with enough dust that it cannot recharge via solar power and goes silent forever – or at least until there’s a stiff breeze (as my beloved pointed out, this is not unlike what happens to Wall-E). But it’s striking how the language NASA uses is very…well, very Yes Minister. Spirit isn’t “dead” or “stuck”, it’s “no longer a fully mobile robot”; it’s not “retired”, it’s “entered a new phase”. I kept expecting to hear that it was “very happy with its brave decision” and that we can expect more reports from Spirit “in the fullness of time”. Or even: “Spirit’s close colleague, Opportunity, has not been available for comment.”

But for the definitive last word on the end of Spirit’s active life, I must pass you on to that ever excellent web comic XKCD; their piece on the subject is simply titled “Spirit“.

Russia: Defenders of the Earth

It’s true: the Russian government is going to save us all from Apophis. No, not the Egyptian demon more properly known as Apep – or the alien Goa’uld of the same name, which seems more likely given the space-based context – but the asteroid, which made headlines five years ago when it was thought likely to kill us all. Since then the probability of that has been greatly reduced by subsequent observations, though wise minds are keeping an eye on it. The Russian collegium, though, doesn’t agree with the lower probability, and are hatching a “secret plan” to save us all from the fate of the dinosaurs.

My favourite thing about the article, though, is that Dr Permiov, spokesperson for the Russian collegium (or “science-council” as he describes it, which seems delightfully steampunk) assured citizens that “there won’t be any nuclear explosions,” and then that “everything will be done according to the laws of physics.” Does he have the option of not doing things according to physics? What does the collegium know that we don’t?


Friday August 14 was a pretty busy day. I was at Freeplay all day, moderating a couple of panels and checking out some others; the highlight was without doubt the international keynote address by Crayon Physics Deluxe designer, Petri Purho, whose unconventional speech included a copious amount of gameplaying (mostly Spelunky, to which he is clearly addicted, but also Enviro-Bear 2000 and ROM Check Fail, all indie games) but more importantly some of the best artistic and creative advice I’ve received in years. The man’s a genius; watch out for his next game.

As soon as that was over, though, I rushed straight down to the BMW Edge theatre at Federation Square for HYPOTHESIS, a one-night-early launch event for Science Week in Victoria. It was a big line-up; as I arrived, Teacup Tumble were midway through their circus performance as labcoated scientists, recruiting children from the audience to help do some messy experiment or other. Polarized 3D glasses were being handed out so punters could see bits of our solar system in 3D, or perhaps join a simulated party to see the effect of various choices in drug and alcohol habits. The Australian Skeptics were on hand, and in a similar but more anarchic spirit, local arts collective Tape Projects were on hand with 100 Proofs the Earth is not a Globe. (I was later challenged to name three proofs that the Earth is a globe, and was happy to find I could do this, even if a couple weren’t entirely reliable and none from personal experience. My favourite is that when there’s a lunar eclipse, the Earth’s shadow on the moon is always round, no matter where on Earth you need to be to see the eclipse – something that could only happen if the Earth is a sphere.)

I was distracted from these at the beginning of the evening, though, as I was busy catching up with some old friends who were on the scene. By the time they left for dinner, the next main event was beginning – Speed Meet a Geek. This proved to be a bit of a highlight. It’s a speed-dating take on Science Week’s successful “Invite a Scientist to Dinner” scheme, and it involved several punters sitting at a table with a scientist, talking about whatever took our fancy. After a few minutes, there’d be an announcement and music, and the scientists would get up and move to another table. The time was, of course, all too brief, but the conversation was fascinating nonetheless; I could tell that my table mates Sue (a librarian from Albury) and Gina (who produces science shows for schools) agreed.

First up we met Steve, a young man with a similar taste to me in T-shirts, and who had studied both physics and philosophy. Fittingly he is now working in the history and philosophy of science programme at Melbourne University, where he recently has been thinking about a proposed plan to fly giant kites, equipped with turbines, 10 kilometres up in the sky, where the much faster and more constant winds would both keep them aloft and generate massive amounts of pollution free electricity. This plan was of course far too expensive to test with a prototype, so Steve built a computer simulation based on Bureau of Meterology data; the simulation sadly showed that the winds just weren’t consistently high enough to keep the kites in the air, so apart from the other practical considerations, the plan doesn’t seem feasible. It’s a shame; it’s such a beautiful idea. It makes me slightly prouder of our country that, even if we’re not really all that progressive in our ideas of power generation, we’re at least considering such things. I was left in the dark, however, about why such a plan was being tested by HPS academics, and not, say, engineers.

As if to prove that good things come in pairs, our next guests was also an HPS academic, and a very pleasant surprise for me: Neil Thomason, the man who introduced me to the history and philosophy of science through his courses at Melbourne University. I was sad to hear that Neil has retired, but not too much; after all, he now does much the same thing he used to do, just for no pay! As he himself put it, he used to ask why we should believe scientists; he now asks why we should believe statisticians. I think I made rather a hash of my attempt to answer the former, but of course the general answer is that we should believe scientists because they try to only make claims which they can back up with evidence, and use techniques to try and make sure their evidence is reliable. They’re still only human, after all…

Our next visitor was Justin, who works at the 3 Giga-electron-Volt Synchrotron located out in Clayton. More specifically, he works on one of the beamlines  – streams of highly accelerated electrons fired out of the synchrotron at 14 different points – doing analysis on crystalline structures hit by the beams. His work has implications mainly for materials science – finding new types of material for construction, technology and other uses. He was the only scientist to bring gifts – big posters of the synchrotron! I keep meaning to visit the place, and now it’s further up the list. Sue made the excellent suggestion that it would get more media attention if the whole thing lit up, so you could see something happening; while this would be completely artificial, I’m not at all against the idea. People are used to seeing stuff happen thanks to sci-fi movies!

Jo Sumner came to visit us next. I’ve met met Jo before, in her capacity as Manager of Genetic Resources at Melbourne Museum; she was one of the scientists on last year’s Not the Nobel Prize, if I remember rightly. In any case, she is lovely company, and she regaled us with a story of her trip to Indonesia when her husband, also a biologist, was studying Komodo dragons. When she revealed they’d brought their very young daughter along, I was instantly reminded of Douglas Adams’ Last Chance to See…, in which he recounts stories of dragons eating small children. Jo said that when she took her daughter to see her husband catch and release a dragon, she grew bored and started making a lot of noise; when the dragon was released, instead of scuttling off, it hid in the long grass and to watch Jo’s daughter. Creepy stuff…

Our next few guests were all astrophysicists and, oddly enough, all Americans currently at Swinburne University. Lee, the first cab off the rank, is studying globular star clusters, formed in the early history of the universe, and thus able to teach us about the conditions in the first billion or two years. Charmingly he carries a photo of such a cluster in his wallet, which he brings out to show us. He uses data from one of the many optical telescopes in Hawaii, where the distance above sea level reduces the distortion caused by turbulent air currents – something that makes Australia unsuitable for optical astronomy. Asked by Sue if his research can be related to mankind, he replies “only in the sense that it gives us inspiration, and is humbling”; it’s a terribly satisfying answer.

Emily, originally from Conneticut, is working on WiggleZ, a project to map 200,000 galaxies using spectral analysis data gathered by the Anglo-Australian telescope in Coonabarabran. Emily was a stargazer as a child and clearly, deeply loves her job. Since astronomers don’t really look through telescopes any more, when Emily goes to Coonabaraban to man the ‘scope, she likes to go out on the gantry at night and look up at the Milky Way, clearly visible without the light pollution of a big city. She hasn’t been yet, but as Sue suggests, she’d love to head out to the red centre and see the stars from there, too.

Our astronomical trio is completed by Andy Green, a Colorado native, who talks less about his own work but is no less fascinating for it. We mention the light pollution survey going on as part of Science Week – 2009 being the International Year of Astronomy – and he mentions that New Zealand is currently trying to have the night sky in Tekapo Valley registered as a World Heritage Site, because there is so little light pollution there that it gives a near perfect view of the Milky Way.

Our next and final guest was Tom Rich, white haired Curator of Vertebrate Palaeontology at Musuem Victoria. He’s wearing a tie patterned with pterosaurs; when I compliment him on it, he replies that he’s only wearing a tie as he’d been to a wedding before coming to the event. I instantly liked him, and asked what kind of palaeontology he was interested in, since I know that, as awesome as they are, dinosaurs are not the obsession of every bone digger. He revealed that he was mainly interested in the mammals of the Mesozoic era, but that since he found so many dinosaurs while looking for the mammals, he’d ended up becoming “the world’s most minor authority on dinosaurs”. His background was both in physics and palaeontology, but he decided he could either be a third rate physicist or  a second rate palaeontologist, and chose the latter. (Asked by Sue if he was humble or cynical, he replied: “Both.”) Another American, Tom is married to another palaeontologist, the “Queen of Slime” (she studies the Ediacaran fauna of the late pre-Cambrian), and accompanied her to Melbourne when she undertook some research here. He decided to learn about the country by reading an issue of The Australian from front to back, and promptly found the job he has now held for many years, commuting back and forth across the Atlantic until his wife took a job at Monash University.

Our time with the scientists over, the rest of the evening was given over to conversation with old friends, new friends, and entertainment, mainly in the form of another friend, Simon Pampena. He performed a truncated teaser version of his show Super Mega Maths Battle for Planet Earth, now touring for Science Week. I took a break after that for some food, returning for Science: fact or fiction?!, a sort of revamped version of Not the Nobel Prize. I wasn’t on the panel this year, but it was stacked with people I knew: local comedians Rob Lloyd, Tegan Higginbotham, Jason Geary and Xavier Michaelides, plus Melbourne Museum’s Rolf Schmidt, who I’d worked with on Not the Nobel Prize. I must confess I missed most of the panel as I was talking with some of the Science Week volunteers and the girls from Tape Projects, but I did enjoy Rolf’s introduction to the nigh-indestructable life forms known as tardigrades, or “water bears”, and Tegan’s subsequent impression of one.

Hypothesis was a big night, and a stirling kick off to the Victoria Science Week calendar. Let’s hope we see something similar next year!