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: ,

Citizen scientists: GLOBE at Night needs you!

16 March 2009 Comments off

Orion constellation (image from NASA)Those of you interested in astronomy and/or concerned about light pollution might like to know that today, 16 March 2009, is the start of GLOBE at Night (GaN) – a global initiative for UNESCO’s International Year of Astronomy 2009. GaN is a citizen science project that anyone can participate in: school children, parents, teachers, enthusiasts… anyone.

It simply involves viewing the magnificent Orion constellation with the naked eye from 16-28 March (or up to 7th April, if you like) 2009 in the evening after sunset, comparing what you see to a chart and reporting the results to the GaN website. It’s that simple!

Not only does it get you out of the house and under the night sky, but it gives you a chance to participate in science on a global scale.

As the Dark Skies Awareness website says:

At least 2 out of 5 Americans, 1 out of 6 Europeans and 1 out of 10 people worldwide have never seen 90% of the stars in our night sky. With half the world’s population now living in cities, this problem is only getting worse.

And read the first comment of this New Scientist article to place it into perspective.

The project’s function is to raise public awareness in the astonishing amount of light and electricity we waste for no useful purpose. So join in GLOBE at Night and the universe will open up to you… quite literally!

Categories: science Tags: ,

In which I learn about clear skies

14 March 2009 Comments off

Imagine my delight to look out my living room window after sunset to see that the Astroforecast clear sky prediction was coming true, and that the usual grey dome of sky was actually a reddish purple. Stargazing! So once the sun had set properly I placed the telescope outside – to allow it to acclimatise to the temperature difference – and worked out a list of Messier objects to view, as I quite like the idea of doing the Messier Marathon.

I went out to join the telescope 45 minutes later but my timing may have been off, as both my neighbours had their kitchen/dining room lights on, the back neighbour had every single light on (inside and outside!), and the sky had quite a bad orange glow. At first I thought the latter was something to do with the sun, but I saw it was a dome that went all around the horizon and at least 45° up from it – leaving just a small darkened cap with stars coming through. I couldn’t see the Pleiades or nebulae around Orion’s belt, Betelgeuse was okay, Aldebaran was barely visible, and Procyon was washed out.

An hour later I was becoming increasingly frustrated, my neighbours still had their lights on (I can’t blame them, of course), and the orange half-dome had no intention of going away. It was bad enough that Orion’s belt effectively set 20° before it went below my roof line. I did get a nice view of Saturn and Titan, but that was it – time to call it a night.

It turns out that clouds are not the only thing that matter when you’re viewing the night sky. Clarity of the atmosphere seems to make a huge difference, as does the time of day (and potentially day of week) in terms of the human factor – at least when not at a dark sky site. This may be obvious to you, but I grew up on the outer edge of suburbia in a Mediterranean climate where there weather and skies are clear 300 days a year. Careful night viewing planning is uncharted territory for this antipodean…

Light pollution is a truly appalling blight for the urban or suburban stargazer, particularly as it’s the easiest of all pollutants we emit to prevent. I accept it’s unreasonable to expect our neighbours to contain their indoor lighting (it really is their right to use inefficient lighting and waste power, though is something of which I’ve always been conscious), but my crime-free neighbourhood and the large town I live on the edge of is lit up like an orange Christmas tree from sunset to sunrise. Why? The oft-quoted reason is crime prevention and safety, and I concede there are places where that does apply – particularly in pedestrianised urban areas – but there is a growing body of evidence to show that it makes little if any difference in the majority of suburbia and rural areas.

I’m beginning to think the British Campaign for Dark Skies (CfDS) and International Dark-Sky Association (IDA) are worthy organisations, and will be looking into them in detail. I intend to bring it to the attention of my local residents’ association, and write to my council and member of parliament. My MP may well disagree with me (he has in the past), but at the very least it will raise his awareness of the issue.

There has to be a better way of using public lighting (and non-renewable resources) than floodlighting the planet during darkness. Anyone?

Unexpected Saturnian delight

9 March 2009 Comments off

Since my initial test use of the telescope last Thursday evening, the weather here has been… let’s call it sub-optimal. Aside from the usual rain and such one gets this time of year, the British Isles seem to get more than its fair share of high-level total blanket cloud cover. It’s so frequent and pervasive that I long ago began referring to it as “English blue”. I suspect it’s something to do with the Gulf Stream that also makes this little part of the world far warmer that it should otherwise be, and makes the west coasts of Ireland and Scotland quite verdant and… soggy. Swings and roundabouts, I suppose.

Yesterday afternoon I was visiting friends for Sunday lunch (how civilised!) and we were amused by the blustery weather and hail for much of the afternoon. So I was completely unprepared, when I finally left later that evening, to look up at a crystal clear sky with only minimal, fast-moving cirrus. I drove home liked an excited little boy, knowing I’d very soon be stargazing. Since my last viewing I’ve set the telescope up correctly, read the manuals, and have an idea of what I want to view this time. It was also a good time to test my back garden as a viewing platform – the street lighting at the front being prohibitive soon after night vision is gained.

Running Man Nebula (image from NRAO)

Running Man Nebula (image from NRAO)

On the mental list tonight was Betelgeuse, Rigel, Orion Nebula (M42), Horsehead Nebula (IC434), Aldebaran, Sirius, Procyon, Pleiades (M45), Andromeda Galaxy (M31), Saturn and the Moon. There were a few more I’d have liked to see, but the Moon was far too bright.

With the 2 eyepieces and Barlow, I had 60-273X magnification available to me. Neither Rigel nor Sirius were visible, as the former had set below my roofline to the west and the latter hadn’t risen above the valley wall to my south, but Betelgeuse, Aldebaran and Procyon came up nicely. Though even at 273X they were just slightly brighter lights, with the exception of Betelgeuse and Aldebaran whose redness became nicely visible. The Pleiades were also very nice.

When I setup to view the Orion Nebula, because of the inversion of the image I didn’t realise at first that I was actually viewing the Running Man Nebula (NGC1977) but was very impressed with the 5 bright stars I could see against the cloudy background. I think it is more impressive than the Orion Nebula when view through a telescope.

The reason is that it appears black and white to the eye, as there’s something about the colours being indiscernible in real-time over those distances, whereas a camera’s long exposure can pick up the colours. I’d read about this, but it’s the first time I’d experienced it. I also think it was the first nebula I’d ever seen, as I don’t recall ever seeing one when I did astronomy as a child.

Flame Nebula (image from AstroCruise)

Flame Nebula (image from AstroCruise)

Next was an attempt to view the Horsehead Nebula, but I couldn’t remember exactly where it sat relation to Alnitak. So instead of viewing it, I ended up viewing the lovely Flame Nebula (NGC2024). Again, it was in black and white, so my mind’s eye filled in the colour gaps, and it was most impressive.

Then there was the Moon, and again it took my breath away. It was almost full, but there was enough shadow left to allow me to focus on the craters at the shadow’s edge and observe them in relief against the background. It was amazing to see. And when I added the 11mm eyepiece with 2X Barlow, I was able to see a very high level of detail. Smaller impact craters were easy to examine, and each Sea took up the entire view.

Tonight I was determined to view Saturn, as I missed it last week. For those of you familiar with the fantastic but now-departed TV series Firefly, you’ll know the camera technique of showing a dot in the distance, then there’s like a “click zoom” which shows the identifiable object at a distance, then another “click zoom” and it will be closeup (in the show it’s typically used in space scenes outside the ship). That’s exactly what it was like viewing Saturn. To the naked eye and when lining it up in finder-scope it was just a bright ‘star’, then viewing with a 25mm eyepiece it ‘clicked’ as a tiny but clearly identifiable yellow/biege planet with a –strikethrough– line of flattened rings, and then with a 5.5mm eyepiece (11mm with Barlow) it was much bigger and breathtaking. It just sat there, quietly inspiring awe.

And much to my surprise, I was able to identify 3 of its moons: Tethys, Titan, and Iapetus. I was initially unsure of Tethys and Iapetus, but a check of Starry Night and online confirmed it was.

Lastly, I planned to have a look at the Andromeda Galaxy, but at exactly the wrong moment my neighbours decided it was their bedtime, so switched on every light on their top floor which – when combined with the British dislike for closed curtains – meant that my back garden (the lawn part is raised) was completely flooded with bright white light for about 30 minutes. This, along with the almost full Moon, washed out my night vision – it was time to call it a night.

Even packing up under such circumstances, I was extremely happy with the night’s viewing. I’d seen most of what I’d intended, and had replaced some of the desired objects with other ones, and I’d had good opportunity to practice my constellation identification.

I’ll not pretend that I didn’t have some help, and that came in the form of the brilliant GoSkyWatch planetarium software for the iPhone. Not only does it look great, but it has an excellent database of objects and is extremely easy to use. And its “night mode” ensures that your night vision doesn’t suffer (my only niggle is that the searching and setting screens are still full brightness black/white), making it easy to use during your stargazing activity. I find this easier to see and more convenient that a planisphere, as with that I’d need to juggle the red torch, too. The software is worth every penny of its £5.99 (US$9.99) price tag.

A great evening, in all. And as the title says, both Saturn and the opportunity to view at all was an unexpected delight. Can’t wait until next time!

Categories: science Tags: , ,