Posts Tagged ‘astronomy’

You have to see Cosmos now, if not sooner

30 July 2010 Comments off

When I first visited the US in 2005, I couldn’t believe my luck when I saw the DVD box set of Carl Sagan’s Cosmos: A Personal Voyage sitting on the shelf in Fry’s. It featured an introduction by Ann Druyan (Carl’s widow), where she discussed how much of the work was still accurate, an addendum after each episode to highlight changes in knowledge and understanding, and was going for US$100 (~£65). I grabbed it without a second thought.

I’d have happily paid twice that for this 13 hour masterpiece on DVD. I value it that much.

While idly paging through Amazon’s Recommendations to me at lunch time today, I saw a re-mastered version of this box set had been released to the UK market. And the price: under £16. That’s for a box set containing 5 DVDs and 780 minutes of one of the best scientific, philosophical, optimistic and future-thinking works of the 20th century.

If you don’t have it, do yourself a favour and buy it now: Cosmos DVD box set (Amazon UK).

And while you’re there, please give some thought to Wonders Of The Solar System on DVD format or Blu-ray format (Amazon UK; under £13 and under £16 respectively). In my opinion, Brian Cox is the worthy successor to Carl Sagan as a brilliant communicator of science, particularly astronomy. Even his sense of wonder and awe at the majesty of the universe is the same.

Watching either of them at work is inspiring.

“If you wish to make an apple pie from scratch…

15 October 2009 Comments off

…you must first invent the universe.” -Carl Sagan

The time between posts here is an unfortunate side-effect of having to study like mad for the archaeology course I’m doing that is rapidly coming to an end, and numerous projects I’m either doing or starting. Never enough time in the day — particularly when you have to work a day job and maintain a social life, too.

And I’m trying not to just fill the posts with random gibberish or “cool stuff wot I found on the internets” — unless you’re okay with that? (Seriously, please let me know).

So, doing just that I thought I’d take a moment to post something to do with my hero, Carl Sagan. YouTube is a wonderful medium not only for the inevitable popular (and normally copyright-infringing) snippets from popular films and TV shows, but also for historical pieces that are hard to get and for mashups and other creative exercises.

And this is one of the latter — a brilliant homage to Carl Sagan featuring none other than his brilliant British counterpart, Stephen W. Hawking:

Carl Sagan – A Glorious Dawn (feat. Stephen Hawking)

It’s just amazing, isn’t it? Maybe I’m just a big girl’s blouse, but I’m not ashamed to admit it brought a tear to my eye.

I can only convey my appreciation to the tribute’s creator, melodysheep, and recommend that you check  out his website, Colorpulse.

Categories: art Tags: , , , ,

The fundagelical problem with humanism

8 July 2009 Comments off

While reading a friend’s blog post in which he puts down some thoughts about recent events and the subsequent comments from his readers, I was struck by one comment in particular which was a comment to a comment, so to speak. Here is the relevant snippet from Mark’s comment:

Humanist and Utilitarian beliefs existed long before religion and will continue to exist long after religion has disappeared into the annals of ancient history. One does not need a fairy godmother to understand right and wrong.

It’s a perfectly logical comment, as the basic tenets of humanism are universal to the wellbeing of a group or society, and obeisance to or existence of a higher power isn’t a prerequisite (e.g. I love my parents and a god does not need to exist to enable that).

The comment that intrigued me also confused me a little. I’d rather not simply copy and paste it here as it would then be out of context, so here is the link to the comment for you to read in situ.

It appears to me that the commenter considers Humanism to be a world view devoid of morals and values, and quotes from the American Humanist Association‘s Humanist Manifesto II, written in 1973 (the most recent is the Humanist Manifesto III, written in 2003), choosing to combine parts of the 3rd Principle (Ethics) and 6th Principle (The Individual) as follows:

Happiness and the creative realization of human needs and desires, individually and in shared enjoyment, are continuous themes of humanism… individuals should be permitted to express their sexual proclivities and pursue their lifestyles as they desire.

I presume the intent of this is to justify the commenter’s assertion that Humanism is devoid of morals and values, as at face value and out of context this quote may suggest that it is hedonistic and perverted, existing to encourage lascivious behaviour and baser expressions of human activities. I believe the Daily Mail are always looking for journalists…

To provide their proper context, here are these two principles in their entirety (emphasis mine):

THIRD: We affirm that moral values derive their source from human experience. Ethics is autonomous and situational needing no theological or ideological sanction. Ethics stems from human need and interest. To deny this distorts the whole basis of life. Human life has meaning because we create and develop our futures. Happiness and the creative realization of human needs and desires, individually and in shared enjoyment, are continuous themes of humanism. We strive for the good life, here and now. The goal is to pursue life’s enrichment despite debasing forces of vulgarization, commercialization, and dehumanization.

SIXTH: In the area of sexuality, we believe that intolerant attitudes, often cultivated by orthodox religions and puritanical cultures, unduly repress sexual conduct. The right to birth control, abortion, and divorce should be recognized. While we do not approve of exploitive, denigrating forms of sexual expression, neither do we wish to prohibit, by law or social sanction, sexual behavior between consenting adults. The many varieties of sexual exploration should not in themselves be considered “evil.” Without countenancing mindless permissiveness or unbridled promiscuity, a civilized society should be a tolerant one. Short of harming others or compelling them to do likewise, individuals should be permitted to express their sexual proclivities and pursue their lifestyles as they desire. We wish to cultivate the development of a responsible attitude toward sexuality, in which humans are not exploited as sexual objects, and in which intimacy, sensitivity, respect, and honesty in interpersonal relations are encouraged. Moral education for children and adults is an important way of developing awareness and sexual maturity.

As can be seen, when taken in context the 3rd Principle is explaining that morals, values and ethics are based upon self-evidential experience (students of American history should be familiar with the idea of self-evidence, if not the phrase itself) and free from absolutism or dogmatic interpretation. That we know without doubt that we have this life now, but anything beyond that is uncertain and unproven, so to form an ethical framework around words written by men and adhering to them unquestioningly is foolish. And the 6th Principle is explaining sexuality and the universal sexual rights of human beings, again without unquestioning adherence to a framework or dogma.

That this Manifesto has seen four versions shows that Humanism is like science — it adjusts, revises and corrects as necessary. Nothing is absolute. And that frightens the living daylights out of many believers and conservative people.

Unfortunately for them, life and the universe is uncertain, relative and without absolutes. Those responsible for tracking objects from the Kuiper Belt and beyond may tomorrow detect an object on a collision course with earth with an ETA of 2 weeks and after which it’s All Over (if it happens, we won’t get much notice), the leader of a nuclear power may lose the plot and push The Button throwing us all into a nuclear winter, or any number of end-of-the-world scenarios.

Once you understand that not only do you not matter, that your country doesn’t matter, that this planet doesn’t matter to the universe, then you will have some insight into the marvellous thing that is life. Someone once said that before he was born he was a long time dead and after he dies he’ll be a long time dead, so he makes the most of this blink of an eye in which we’re born, grow, live, grow old and die. It also shows why Humanists have such a thirst for life, and why things such as the AHA’s Humanist Manifesto are so necessary.

Whether a god or gods exist is immaterial — and there are logical refutations and arguments that can be used to illustrate why such existence is unlikely at best — as that is not the issue here. There is nothing in human existence to suggest that any of the millions of religious texts on this world weren’t either written by men seeking power or a genuine, primitive attempt to understand the wonders and horrors of the world: fire, lightning, weather systems, the joy of sex, the birth of a child, the death of a mother during childbirth, the untimely diseased death of a child, a volcano burying a city.

We’re born into a world where people with an imaginary friend’s supposed writing dictates not only the way they live their lives but they mandate the same behaviour on to everybody else. What if you’re wrong? Have you considered that possibility seriously for just 5 minutes? I mean really seriously, without falling prey to the inevitable Argument from Incredulity or Argument from Popularity within 30 seconds and snorting your derision. And then extend that and ask how it can possibly be right for your values (immaterial of whether they’re correct or not) to be forced upon others — upon entire nations.

We’re a race that have flown to the Moon, we’ve fired things we’ve made to the very edge of the known Solar System, we’ve worked out empirically the age and size of the universe as we’re able to see it today, and we’ve sequenced our own genetic code and are in the process of decoding half a billion years of post-Cambrian development

And to this day we’re going to war for the same reasons with the same Books that we did back in the Bronze Age. Now tell me again why religion is good but Humanism is bad?

Equatorial delight

3 July 2009 Comments off

After looking again through the boxes that my new tripod/mount came in, I stupidly realised that I actually had all the parts. That tricky foam packing with its little nooks and crannies!

So naturally I put the whole thing together and stood back to admire it sturdy heftiness, before remembering that I had a Baader solar filter I still hadn’t tried and astronomical sunset doesn’t occur until almost 21:30 local. Seemed like a good opportunity for a twofer, so I attached my 5″ OTA for the first time and took the it outside onto the front porch, where the sun was still well above my local horizon.

Attaching the solar filter was easy. It slid over the end where the dust cap goes, preventing unfiltered sunlight from entering the OTA, and fastens with 3 grub screws to ensure it doesn’t come loose. After I had done this I looked into the eyepiece socket (without an eyepiece) and pointed the scope at the sun until the view became brilliant, then attached the 25mm wide angle eyepiece and was rewarded with a lovely off-white image of the entire sun in the field of view. I tried the other eyepieces, though didn’t bother with the 2X Barlow, and used the fine-adjustment RA/Dec knobs on the mount to scan the edge and surface of the sun. Never look at the sun directly.

Unfortunately, the surface of the sun wasn’t particularly interesting because:

  • We’re in the sun’s 11 year solar minima cycle — and this cycle is particularly deep and quiescent — so there aren’t many sunspots to be seen.
  • Correspondingly, there isn’t a great deal of solar flare activity to be seen. Which is good news for the astronauts in low earth orbit.
  • The wavelengths of light seen via a solar filter provide a white image with little contrast. This can be addressed with an appropriate filter… that I don’t currently have.

What I did see was the sun up close and safely (that in itself is noteworthy) and I did see its boiling surface, particularly at the edge. Some of it would have been due to earth’s atmosphere, but there was enough there to make it enjoyable.

So the next immediate challenges are to learn how to use the equatorial mount correctly (despite inheriting an inexpensive one when I was a teenager, I never learned how to set it up properly), including the formidable setting circles, and to make the most of the plentiful summer sunlight by getting a filter that will enable more detail to be seen.

This is fun!

Categories: science Tags:

A new tripod for a world of difference

2 July 2009 Comments off

Celestron CG5 Mount

Posts have been few and far between lately due to being extremely busy with study (adult university distance courses take up a lot of time!), work and other things.

Over the weekend I managed to win an eBay auction for a telescope mount and tripod that I realised I’ve needed for some time: a Celestron CG5 equatorial mount on a “bomb-proof” tripod. It’s essentially what you see to the left, but without the computer and automatic tracking motor.

This became necessary because the motorised mount that came with my telescope is clearly not up to the task of reliably tracking objects — even after deciphering the instructions, carefully levelling the mount base and zeroing the unit, the drift is quite noticeable and requires regular, fiddly adjustment — and astrophotography requires either a fully-computerised AltAz mount that can track an object with pinpoint accuracy, or any level of equatorial mount. Trying to finely-adjust a motor-controlled AltAz mount to track an object is like using an Etch-A-Sketch: bearable for visual viewing, but astrophotography is out of the question. Even a cheap equatorial can track an object easily, providing the gears don’t have too much play in them and the unit is correctly configured.

A barn door mount for a camera would have done the trick, too, but I want to reap the benefits of an equatorial mount via the telescope’s eyepiece, too.

So today I have taken delivery of what appears to be 2/3 of the new mount and tripod assembly, with the joys of eBay meaning multiple packages. It’s definitely a solid, sturdy unit and I can see why the seller stated the need for something “lighter and more portable” — you wouldn’t want to carry this around to your local astronomy society’s evenings.

So once I’ve received all the parts and had a chance to test it out, I’ll post back with some pictures for your stargazing delight…

Categories: science Tags:

A mote of dust suspended on a sunbeam

1 June 2009 Comments off

As you should know by now — as I’ve quoted him often enough — Carl Sagan is my hero. Here’s something beautiful, humbling and inspiring from a lecture he did in 1994, two years before his untimely death:

Carl Sagan quote

Hat tip to irReligion.

Another evening looking up and out

18 March 2009 Comments off

Orion Nebula & Trapezium (from Astropix)As I checked the evening’s weather forecast before leaving for work I was delighted to see that both MetCheck and Astroforecast were forecasting clear skies, making the evening’s activities a given. I was very keen to get out again as I took delivery of a moon/atmosphere filter and 6.3mm eyepiece earlier this week, the latter stretching my telescope’s magnification ability from 273X to 476X (with 2X Barlow) – silly amounts, but nice to have.

Once the sun had set and I’d submitted this evening’s GLOBE at Night 2009 observation and watched the scheduled ISS pass (it was brilliant!), I setup outside. Blissfully, the neighbours weren’t using the back of their houses, so house lighting washing over me was at a minimum. The light pollution was still pretty ugly, but the particulates in the air must be low, so there wasn’t the obscene scattering I experienced last time. In all, clear skies making for fantastic stargazing conditions. First up I decided to try to zero the scope on Polaris itself, rather than use a compass, and this seemed to make the tracking motor work better. It was certainly a lot easier and less prone to error my nearby metal objects (including the batteries in the red LED torch I hang around my neck).

Still with the Messier Marathon challenge in my mind, I wanted to see how many Messier Objects I could see—it turns out that it wasn’t many (timing, valley wall, other light sources, etc)—and give the new eyepiece and filters a run for their money.

The Pleiades (M45) were beautiful at low magnification, and with my Mak at 60X I was just able to contain them within the one view. Increasing magnification gave so much more detail, but obviously lost the frame of reference.

The Orion Nebula (M42) was frankly awesome at 476X—yes, I had to give it a go. It was so good that I could clearly delineate the nebulosity and dust shadow, and the Trapezium Cluster was clearly visible as 4 distinct stars, along with the 3 bright stars that arc out like an arm away from it. It was magnified enough that I had to move the telescope to view M43.

The Andromeda galaxy (M31) was a bit of a disappointment for me, as it was quite low on the horizon where I was (fences, houses, etc) and the neighbours in that direction chose this time to do their nightly illumination of every corner of their top floor. I was barely able to see Mirach, so I had no hope of seeing M31 in all its glory.

Capella was crisp and bright. Betelgeuse was its beautiful red colour. I read the other day that Castor is a “double double double” star system (ironic that one of the Gemini twins is actually three sets of twins), so wanted to see if I’d be able to separate any least 2 objects. Thinking that Castor was the left head of Gemini, I viewed it with slightly disappointment as not being able to separate it out. Of course it wasn’t until I got inside that I realised I’d been trying to separate Pollux. Idiot.Saturn (from NASA)

Lastly, it was time to try Saturn at 476X. Oh man, what a sight! Even with the dew by that time reducing visibility, it was a stunning sight. So much bigger that I was able to make out the Cassini Division, even though the rings are almost flat now.

This coming Saturday marks the monthly meeting of my local astronomy society, so I am looking forward to attending for the first time. And the following weekend is their IYA 2009 event, with stargazing for all-comers on the Friday and Saturday evenings, and sun viewing on the Saturday and Sunday. If you’re in or near Berkshire and interested in coming along, leave a message here.

So there ends another evening of chilly delight, discovery and rediscovery. It’s again reinforced the need to plan out your viewing sessions based upon date and time, and therefore visible objects, particularly in my backyard environment. However, once I get a proper carrying box, I’m going to make a foray to the nearby rugby club that’s in a more rural setting than I am. That should make for a completely different experience.

Categories: science Tags: ,