The Science of Doctor Who

This weekend I have been in St Louis, Missouri to speak at First Friday in St Louis Science Centre, on the subject of “The Science of Doctor Who”. Of all the talks I have been asked to give over all the years, I don’t think I have felt quite so excited about any of them as I do about this. It feels like I have been preparing for this since I have 10 years old, trying not to look at the Cybermen while watching Doctor Who through my fingers (Silver Nemesis).

St Louis Science Centre with a queue for tickets that went all the way around the building.

St Louis Science Centre with a queue for tickets that went all the way around the building.

Having never done a “science of -“ style talk before, I wasn’t sure how it would go. Would most people be there to hear about science or about Doctor Who? Would my british accent, and vocabulary sound strange to them? Could I get the balance between references to Classic Doctor Who and post-2005 Doctor Who right? Would they find the science be unsatisfyingly simple or impenetrably complex? And most importantly, would I have enough Jammie Dodgers and Jelly Babies?

Wibbly-wobbly, space-wacey, timey-wimey stuff

I gave my talk, which was a little bit about black holes and wormholes (wibbly-wobbly, timey-wimey) and a little about exoplanets (space-wacey stuff), twice because twice as many people turned up as the auditorium could accommodate. During the first talk there was a spectacular thunder storm which provided an excellent back-drop for discussing supernovae and black holes!

Just prior to my talk

Just prior to my talk

One part of the talk I am really proud of is that the comedian Jon Culshaw, did a blistering good intro for me as Tom Baker. In the questions people asked how I managed to record the 4th Doctor, so it was an excellent opportunity for me to thank Jon!

For me, giving public talks is one of the joys of being a scientist, particularly when the audience is receptive. This audience redefined what I considered a great audience could be. They were whooping as I walked out on to stage, which is always a great start. I had selected clips from The Runaway Bride, Midnight, and A Good Man Goes to War, to illustrate my talk, which they seemed to really enjoy. The enthusiasm of both audiences really kept the jet-lag at bay and made the whole experience exhilarating.

It was a real pleasure having many insightful questions from the audience about science (and quite a lot about Doctor Who). In each session someone asked who my favourite Doctor is (I have 3, of course) and someone asked my favourite companion (I really like Donna Noble, but Peri has a special place in my affections).

We finished the night with a showing of The Doctor’s Wife (one of my favourite episodes, written by Neil Gaiman) and the classic story The Robots of Death (a Fourth Doctor and Leela murder-mystery episode), which I gave a short intro to. Surrane Jones is quite terrific as the TARDIS and scenes inside  the TARDIS make The Doctor’s Wife one of my all time favourite episodes.

Embrace your inner geek

Two of the important messages from my talk were; science is fun and anyone can do it (although it can be hard). Also that everyone should embrace their inner geek. No matter what other people say or think about you, its fine to be a geek, don’t be ashamed of it.

It was particularly wonderful that loads of kids (surprisingly there were more girls than boys) wanted to talk to me afterwards, many of which just wanted to say “Hello. I’m a geek. Thanks!”. One girl asked for my autograph (!) and said “Thanks for your talk. By the way Ted Drewes does the best ice cream in St Louis”. She was right.

There were some truly imaginative costumes, some of which were captured by the Riverfront Times.

A huge thanks to the friendly, welcoming St Louis Science Centre staff and particularly Jenny Heim (Director of strategic planning and projects) who looked after me like royalty all weekend and made my stay immensely enjoyable. I hope to come back one day!

Ps. Here’s a great video montage from the night which will give you an impression of what it was like.

LittleBits and the Great Exoplanet Hack

This week I have been at the National Astronomy Meeting in Portsmouth. There have been many great talks and I particularly enjoyed organising the “Engaging the public and schools with astronomy” session with the famous Jen Gupta.

Wednesday was Hack Day (sponsored by GitHub and .Astronomy). I always enjoy hack days because I rarely have the opportunity of engaging in a little blue skies coding.

I brought along a cute circuit kit called LittleBits with the aim of doing not very much coding but hacking in a more hands on way. LittleBits are magnetic, modular circuit board kits, primarily for kids but really for anyone who is curious about doing fun things with electronics. The nice people at LittleBits were kind enough to send me their “Space kit” to play with.

LittleBits Space kitI was very pleased to have the awesome (not like a hot dog) Rob Simpson express an interest in playing with this kit. We spend a good 10 minutes clipping these modules together and making farty noises with the speaker and light sensor. Then we got serious with the hacking.

Little-bits exoplanet tranistor

We wanted to make a model of an exoplanet system. We so we used:

  • Motor
  • 2 x power packs (including 9V PP3 batteries)
  • LED
  •  light sensor (light dependent resistor)
  • speaker
  • 2 x connector cables

Other things that we hacked from the room were paper cups, tea stirring sticks, blutack, bottle of water and jelly babies (quite a few of them met with a sticky end). We also had to ‘borrow’ an audio jack

Exoplanets are planets orbiting stars that are not the Sun. Mostly exoplanets are too faint compared to the star their orbit for us to see them directly. One of the ways you can find these are by looking for stars that periodically dim. This suggests that a planet is blocking a bit of the light from its star from us.

Circuit #1 – The exoplanet system

We made a planet and its orbit out of a cup and sat this on a the motor, so it span around nicely.

We used the LED as the star (it would have been more faithful if it had been like a ball, shining in all directions but you get the point). We then suspended this from the stirring stick attached to the top of the water bottle, over the top of the spinning planet

Exoplanet littlebits

Circuit #2 – The astronomer

To find these exoplanets astronomers point telescopes at them and take regular measurements of their star’s brightness. This is what we did with our Little-Bits.

We made a circuit out of a power pack, light sensor, speaker and LCD (also known as the Laser Display Board, for fans for I’m Sorry I haven’t a Clue).

Pointing our ‘telescope’ (light sensor) towards the ‘star’ (LED), we can see how the brightness changes when the planet (cut from the paper cup) passes in front of it by the value on the Laser Display Board (LCD) decreasing.

We made planets of different sizes too. They should block out more light from the ‘star’ and we wanted to see if we could measure that.


Turn on both circuits and see what happens….

You can see in this great little slow-mo video Rob took, that the numbers on the Laser Display Board do decrease when the ‘planet’  passes between the ‘star’ and ‘telescope’ parts of the model.

Rob fed a pure tone or note into the ‘astronomer’ circuit, so we could hear the effect of the exoplanet. The volume of the note should decrease when the planet passes in front of the star. [WARNING: there is a graph coming]

jupiter transitThe graph (of volume against time) shows peaks where the planet is behind the star and troughs where the planet is blocking the light. There was a lot of stray light in the room, so its not a perfect graph.

In the picture above you can see we made 4 exoplanet solar systems with different size planets (one included 2 planets!).


I can highly recommend these LittleBits kits (the one we are using here is the space kit). They are very adaptible and loads of fun, especially for jaded astronomers like us. Playing with circuits, paper, scissors and Rob was just what I needed to get my astronomy mojo back :)

Intelligent Robots and the Story of Light

I was immensely proud to be asked to speak at TEDxCardiff (a local branch of TED) earlier in 2014. Here is the video of my talk. I think it’s come out rather well. I hope you get a sense of how much fun I was having!

It’s on a similar theme to a lecture I gave a couple of years ago for Pythagoras’ Trousers Lecture Series, called Telescopes in Strange places. Although I blogged a transcript of that at the time, I recently re-blogged it as part of Global Astronomy Month 2014, run by Astronomers Without Borders.

Using Twitter API with Python

My brain never rests. One of the ways I relax is finding solutions to problems. Sometimes thats with crosswords or old episodes of Poirot on ITV3, sometimes thats with writing code. I particularly like using Python.

I use Twitter all the time, for finding out all the latest news and political gossip in astronomy. So, I thought I’d have a bash at using Twitter through python. You used to be able to access Twitter just by using your account username and password, with their basic auth in Twitter API v.1.0. Not any longer. Version 1.0 is now defunct and to do interesting things with Twitter API you have to use version 1.1 which requires OAuth.

This can be a whole world of pain, so I’m writing my findings here to help anyone experiencing similar discomfort.

1. Find a Twitter library

Various people have written libraries to access twitter (I tried writing my own and it was a thankless task). I would recommend using the simply named twitter package. You’ll also need a python way of logging in via OAuth, so I would recommend using OAuth2.

They are both on PyPi so you should be able use:

2. Get developer credentials

You’ll need a Twitter account to go much further with this tutorial. Once you have that:

  1. Log into the Twitter developer site,
  2. Create a new app by clicking on your icon in the top left
  3. Click “My applications” in the menu,
  4. Click the button “Create a new application”
  5. Fill out all the details, sign your life away and click “Create you Twitter application”

You should now be redirected to a page with all the information about your new app, including “OAuth settings”. This page has the 4 horsemen of the OAuth apocalypse:

  • Consumer Key,
  • Consumer secret,
  • Access token (often called “OAuth token”)
  • Access secret (or “OAuth token secret”) – these last 2 in the lower section

3. Put it together

You are now ready to have a play with Twitter from python. Open up a python shell:

Substitute the 4 horsemen into those capitalised variables and hopefully that won’t give you any trouble.

Now you can take Twitter for a spin. There are loads of interesting things you can do listed on the Twitter REST API v1.1 help pages.

I really wanted to have a look at various #hashtags without being rate limited. The way you do this is by using the Twitter Stream and not the Twitter Search. This lets you enter hashtags, words or phrases and then sit on the stream of tweets happening which contain the words you are tracking.

I’ve popped my 4 horsemen into a dictionary called config.

Once you open a stream, tracking certain words, it will carry on forever. For this reason I stop the for loop which checks the stream with a timeout, in the variable stop (a datetime object).

Tip: You can’t look backwards in time in a Twitter stream, only forwards in real-time. If you want to look back in the Twitter feeds you’ll have to use search.

Thats my recent findings. There are so many more things you can do with the Twitter API, but that is just a taste.

A fool on a fool’s errand: Why STEM activity is vital for the future of society

A recent Nature article has slated STEM (Science Technology Engineering and Maths) activities to engage with young people, calling it a “Fool’s errand”. It’s author, Colin Macilwain, was an engineer but for the past 17 years has spent his life working for the dark-side (i.e. Nature and science policy think tanks).

“What no one asked was whether these many activities actually benefit science and engineering, or society as a whole. My answer to both questions is an emphatic ‘no’.” states Macilwain. He goes on to say “Start by asking why no such government-backed programmes exist to pull children into being lawyers or accountants. The obvious answer is that there is no need: young people can see the prospects in these fields for themselves.”

I was considering writing a blog post gently explaining why I disagree.

But not today. This man is wrong and his views are ill-informed.

I am involved in science communication and public engagement in UK. A portion of my job is designated to create STEM activities using the LCOGT telescopes.

However, I am an exception in UK. Most of my colleagues do public engagement because they enjoy it and see value in it, not because they are paid to do it (they aren’t). There is very little funding in UK for these sorts of activities. In the US there is considerably more leading to considerably more “education and outreach specialists”.

In astronomy it is certainly not the case that the goal of STEM activities is to produce more astronomers. That would be totally ludicrous. There are currently ~600 professional astronomers in UK. The public engagement activities I do annually reach more children and young people than that and I certainly do not tell them to all become astronomers.

Here is the crux of my case against the article by Colin Macilwain: we are trying to increase the scientific literacy of the whole population, not to push people into scientific careers.

1. Science is everywhere

I think science is amazing. Unlike history, law or language, science would continue to do its thing without humans. It is the fabric of the natural Universe we are part of. Can you ignore that when you let go of something it drops to the floor, that flowers follow the Sun, or that we only ever see one side of the Moon?

Macilwain suggests that students never need encouragement to follow careers in law and accountancy unlike science, therefore we should not encourage them into science because there are no jobs. I wonder if his argument  applies to apprenticeships too?

The occupations which attract the highest salaries are artificially inflated because of our reliance on them in this material world. 5 years ago I am sure Macilwain would have considered banking to be one of the top professions, along with stock brokering.

Many students are attracted to courses in law and accountancy because they can make money and there is a clear career path.

When you tell someone about a scientific idea, you change their view of the world forever.

Does the same apply to the description of VAT or conveyancing?

2. We have monkey brains

Not the chilled monkey brains from Indiana Jones. The human brain is a big problem solving engine. It is excellent at finding patterns and wants to work out why what we see around us happens. When my little sister was a toddler her favourite word was “Why?”. No answer was sufficient and would always be followed by “Yes, but why?”.

School curricula in US and UK is about learning facts, largely because it is easy to test facts. The UK education minister Michael Gove MP, wants the UK to have 100% of student marks to come from exams because he values learning over everything else. Gove has no time for coursework which he believes makes it easy for students’ to attain higher grades. What he is forgetting is that an exam largely tests recall and rarely tests understanding, whereas a presentation, talk, poster can test both.

Gove and Macilwain are similar in this respect. They appear not to value people forming their own questions about what they have learned.

When we do STEM activities in schools and with the public they are designed to make the audience question what they do and what results they get. In this way you can build understanding which is a far more useful commodity than storing facts. Obviously to be a scientist you need both, but the thing I have always liked about physics is that you can get by with only a few facts as long as you understand the underlying physics or nature.

3. Science for Development

I am co-chair of a task force for children and school, to assist the work of the International Astronomical Union‘s Office of Astronomy for Development (OAD). This was born out of the International Year of Astronomy in 2009 which reached 815 million people in 148 countries. This showed there was a huge amount of interest for astronomy, particularly in the developing world. The aim of the OAD is to use astronomy to raise the prospects of people in the developing world in 3 areas; children and schools, universities and tertiary education, and the public.

In many areas, providing really good STEM resources has resulted in schools (which in the developing world are often run by the community with teachers who have no training) giving a far better education than if they’d been left to their own devices.

4. Predestination

Macilwain is under the delusion that everyone is born knowing what they like and what is worth spending time at being good at.

‘“I just wish little Mary got the chance to do science at school” is not a phrase, I would submit, that politicians often hear on the doorstep.’

Many children are taught science badly or incorrectly. There are many excellent science teachers out there but there also non-specialists (e.g. biologists teaching physics) or even arts graduates who teach science and who struggle with the material (in UK you do not need a degree in a discipline to be able to teach it to 16 year olds).

The reason kids rarely beg their parents for more science is because the way it is presented in school is often dull and unengaging, and very much about following procedures, largely because of a prescriptive and unimaginative curriculum. At school I hated experiments because you had to blindly follow a list of steps and arrive at an unenthralling result. The chemistry experiments I remember are where things went totally wrong. This is the excitement of science.

STEM activities in schools should be encouraged because there is precious little of it actually happening in school. Kids want to do more music and more sport because they are engaged in it. They actually make the music. They experience the exhilaration of scoring trys, runs, goals, or roquets. They work as part of a team and are better people for it.

As a professional scientist I experience all of those things with science, but I never once experienced it at school. The science curriculum is lost in the Victorian age of teaching. We do a disservice to kids if we do not find new an innovative ways for them to explore science.

Macilwain suggests you should pursue what you want but not waste time on science because there is no job for you. I would argue the opposite. We do not know what we will end up doing because of changes and chances of this fleeting world. Science is always there because science is about questioning everything and looking for the underlying truth.

Some of the kids in STEM programmes Macilwain wants to stop may turn out to be policy makers, politicians and other people of influence. Would you rather have a scientifically literate person making decisions on stem cell research, GM crops or the nuclear deterrent, or someone who blindly accepts whatever a political aide hands them?

I would be delightfully happy if the end result of me running STEM activities was to stop kids believing science is hard and help them realise that it can be as simple as asking “Yes, but why?”.

So I am proudly on what Macilwain calls  ”a fool’s errand” but hopefully I am more like Ivan the Fool.

Ps. I’ll let you into a secret: STEM activities very often do legitimate, publishable science. See Zooniverse, Faulkes Telescope Project, International Astronomical Search Collaboration, and Las Cumbres Observatory (that’s just a very small sample within the astronomy community).

You are such a Git

I’ve been trying to migrate from using Subversion to Git for my version control. If you need to keep track of the different stages in the development of some work (this usually refers to code but could easily be a paper), you should be using version control.

I’ve been using SVN (often called Subversion) for nearly 10 years and I’m sick of it, so I thought I’d give Git a try. The organization I work for (Las Cumbres Observatory) is a non-profit so we applied for a free organization membership of GitHub (an online repository which will keep all your revision history and has a snazzy web interface). The problem was we have lots of software projects and lots of revision history we didn’t want to lose by giving up on SVN.

Fortunately, lots of people are in this position so there is a project called SVN2Git which will do the hard work of porting all your SVN history over to Git formatted history. It will even change your SVN users to GitHub users for a little more interactivity.

Step 1.

Install svn2git – You’ll need to have “git svn” installed. I’m on a Mac so I had to install Git from Homebrew, not from the .pkg distribution to get svn git.

Step 2.

Create a new directory/folder for the files you will convert from SVN to Git.

Step 3.

Set up an authors file in the correct GitHub format. This will translate your SVN users to GitHub users. You need to have every user who made commits on the SVN project using GitHub. I saved it as authors.txt in the current directory. The format is as follows

Step 4.

You will then run svn2git on your repository (not your local working copy) which will checkout a copy of the whole repository (trunk, branches and tags) and all the revision history. It will then convert all of that into Git format.

Step 5.

Create a repository on GitHub, and tell your newly Git converted project to point at your GitHub repository:

Step 6.

Merge your  newly converted project with the blank repository you created in step 5.

I had to “pull” down a copy of the files from GitHub (which were just the .gitignore and files). Without doing this step I had lots of errors including SSH port 22 fatal error – sounds more alarming that it really was (Git is a bit of drama queen).

Next you will merge the files that svn2git converted for you,

All of your files should have made it into GitHub, complete with committers linked to GitHub users and a full verion history.

Telescopes in strange places

During the middle ages if you were to look up at the night sky you would see something very different to the view you see when looking at the sky today. This is partly because the skies are now much bright because of street lights in all but the remote places, but mostly because our understand of the Universe is now so totally different.

The stars would appear as fixed points of light which appeared to never change, only interrupted by the planets meandering slowly through the stars. Occasionally there would be the flash of a meteor, a short-lived shooting star, or something larger falling to Earth. Very rarely a comet might be visible in the sky, and even rarer than that a supernova explosion would suddenly burn brightly in the sky over the period of months or sometimes years. Anything that changed in the night sky was treated with superstitious caution, as being portentous of impending doom. This was largely because people grew accustomed to the regularity of the night sky. The Sun, Moon and planets all appear with a regularity that allowed wealthy people to have Orreries constructed, miniature clockwork versions of the solar system. Comets and supernovae appearances disrupted that order rather like an enraged ex-lover on the Jeremy Kyle show.

400 years ago there was a sort of revolution as Western Europe started thinking about art and science in a very different way, reminiscent of the depth and breadth of scholarship the ancient Greeks had attained, called the Renaissance. Being an astronomer, I would argue that this was kicked off by the ‘invention’ of the astronomical telescope, almost simultaneously by Thomas Harriot and Galileo Galilei, in the early part of the 17th century (the telescope was invented by Hans Lipparshey but Harriot and Galileo were the first who used it for astronomy).

Science changed forever. Galileo observed Jupiter and found that it had moons which orbited the planet itself and not the Sun, or indeed the Earth.  He became fascinated with this microcosm and became convinced that the solar system at large was similar with the Sun and the centre not the Earth. Galileo got in lots of trouble for asserting this. This might have been because it was against the official doctrine of the Church and it might have been because he was a bit too forceful in expressing his opinions and made powerful enemies. Either way, that political hot potato meant Galileo found himself under house arrest.

Fortunately Harriot did not suffer the same fate as Galileo, although he was imprisoned in the Tower of London for a brief spell, for seditious activities during the reign of James I. It is a shame he is often overlooked in the history of the astronomical telescope.

Isaac Newton,  famous for his theory of gravity, did so much more physics, like his laws of motion, development of calculus and optics. He actually invented a telescope which used a mirror instead of a just lenses which has become the foundation for modern optical astronomy. Telescopes with mirrors can be made much larger than ones which are entirely made out of lenses, and it also makes them shorter than an equivalent refracting or lens based telescope. The largest optical telescope currently envisaged the inventively named “European Extremely Large Telescope” – 39 m

Gradually as people turned more telescopes on the night sky and built better telescopes our understanding of the Universe expanded. There came a point where the telescope became limited by the your observing location. The very early telescopes of Galileo, Harriot and Newton represented a substantial improvement on naked eye observations, but as technology developed to fine tuned the process of constructing a telescope, another problem reared it head.

The atmosphere is rather handy for us as humans because it allows us to breathe, keeps us warm (warmer than space at any rate) and shields us from harmful radiation from the Sun, cosmic rays, small meteors and other things that go bump in the night. So I don’t want to sound ungrateful but it’s a pain in the rear for us astronomers, because the it causes stars to scintillate or twinkle. Its a very similar effect to heat haze, and comes from pockets of the atmosphere continually changing in temperature and density. We call this phenomenon “seeing”, which is a bit of a daft name and open to misinterpretation, like the word “statistics” or the word “quiche”.

The astronomers’ solution to this problem is to take your telescopes up a mountain. This might seem an extreme reaction to something so poetic as the twinkling of stars, but it makes a huge difference to the observations you are trying to make. Remember that astronomy is virtually unique amongst the sciences in that it is almost totally passive. We sit on Earth and collect light because that is virtually all we can do to learn about the Universe. So to be an astronomer you have to be resourceful and extract every gram or millimetre of science from every photon. Only relatively recently have we been able to go into space and the distance that we have travelled is microscopic. We are still a very long way from being able to visit other stars and galaxies, to learn about how they form or take measurements of a Black Hole from close quarters.

So we put our telescopes in strange exotic locations, like up mountains Chile or at the summit of dormant volcanoes in Hawaii. This minimises the twinkling or seeing, because the air is thinner. If you choose your location carefully you can also eliminate the of glare from street lights, which reflect off the atmosphere giving the sky an artificial brightness. The older sodium street lamps  give the sky a sort of dirty orange glow. Air quality is important because any particles in the air will reflect light and make the sky glow. And finally weather. Ideally you would like to put your observatory above the clouds or at least some of them.

Taking all of that into consideration you have put your observatory in a remote place, away from cities and built up areas, 10 -15,000 feet above sea level.

Now the challenge is how you use the telescope. Very few astronomical observatories have an eyepiece attached to their telescopes and even fewer professional astronomers would look through an eyepiece to record measurements. Charge coupled devices or CCDs come into their own here. These are the devices which live inside all digital cameras that count light particles. Strap an industrial grade version of this on to the back of your telescope and you have a way of precisely counting the number of photons being transmitted from an astronomical source. By using filters with your CCD you can measure which colours appear brighter or slightly shifted to features with other colours, which combined with your knowledge of physics allows you, as an astronomer, to piece together what the object is and what processes happened to form it.

If you only have one telescope you are at the mercy of the elements, unless you can put it in the back of a van move it to and move it to a different Hawaiian island or remote mountain. For all practical purposes this is impossible. Many astronomers have frustrating observing runs where you travel to Hawaii, go surfing during the day in beautiful sunshine and then at night drive up the mountain to find that the clouds have rolled in so you can’t observe.

It sounds like that’s lots of fun but I can tell you that after 24 hours of travel the last thing you want to do is stay awake, up a desolate volcano, controlling a gigantic multimillion pound instrument in the freezing dead of night. The first night I went observing at the Caltech Submillimetre Observatory on Mauna Kea, my wife locked me in the observatory toilet. Which didn’t have heating. For an hour.

Fortunately we can avoid all of that hassle by making our telescope robotic. With carefully designed systems for monitoring weather, sky conditions, instrument statuses, telescope telemetry,  a small amount of computer code and the internet, you can have yourself a robotic observatory. Many amateur astronomers have robotic observatories in their back gardens. We have one of the roof of the university physics department. But these are mostly dumb robots, that require a person at the other end who is remote controlling every aspect – like when to open the observatory dome, and what to observe. The key here is that the person with the remote control can be doing all of this from the comfort of their living room in their slippers with a mug of a cocoa, or even 4000 miles away in a more appropriate timezone for doing an observing run. I can tell you that your decision making process is so much better if you are working during your day time, without altitude sickness and not having endured 24 hours of air travel.

Another approach is to pay a telescope operator to sit up at the telescope every night and do your observing for you. This is how many professional observatories run. You have to feel sorry for sorry for these people because they live in some of the most beautiful, unspoiled places on Earth and they sleep most of the day because all night they are sitting at a computer observing for people they’ve never met. At the end of the night the download all the data on to a tape drive, DVD or if you are really lucky an online repository. You get your data at some unspecified date in the future. This can be really frustrating if you need the data urgently because you’ve just discovered something new and exciting. I can also be really embarrassing if you get your calculations wrong and ask for observations of a target which isn’t visible from that location, or to dim or you get the coordinates wrong. You wait a long time for useless data.

The really challenging part is then to remove the telescope operator and making the observatory totally autonomous. This requires much more computer code, which can make decisions about whether the sky conditions are good and what to observe from a pre-scheduled queue. You also have to build in contingencies for something going wrong. If the telescope gets stuck whilst slewing some part of the autonomous control system has to recognize the signs and make the observatory safe, and alert a person so that it can be repaired in 2,5,12 or 24 hours time.

Its a lot of hassle to make an observatory autonomous but it can make the difference between an ok observatory and world class one. If part of your software is an adaptive scheduler you can take all your observation requests and turn them into an efficiently packed together schedule with minimum amount of gaps or human made procrastination. You can increase your on-sky time, allows you to get more observations of more astronomical objects for more people. If you attach your observatory to an online repository, you can be observing and analysing your data within minutes of each other.

There is still the problem of you only having one telescope. What happens when the weather rolls in or worse still something happens to break your telescope. The answer is simple: build more telescopes and build them in different locations. Splitting your telescopes between the northern and southern hemispheres and spreading them out evenly across the globe  is sensible because then you have full sky coverage. By doing this you now not only have a wet weather and technical difficulty contingency but you have something potentially more valuable. If you add in the internet and some more software, you have a telescope network, which is more powerful than the sum of its parts. Your intelligent autonomous scheduler has a much bigger resource to play with now, virtually guaranteeing that there will be somewhere on the globe suited to observe your important astronomical phenomena.

This sort of approach is being pioneered by Las Cumbres Observatory. Its a daunting task to build all of this from the ground up, all the software, electronics, and optics have been designed in house, but it is actually happening and telescopes are being deployed. This is the first example of an autonomous network of telescopes on this scale and is geared towards discovering and following-up transient phenomena which need to be rapidly observed or they are lost forever like exploding stars, chance alignment of distant planets orbiting distant stars and fast-moving asteroids and comets.

Over the past few years this is exactly the sort of thing I have been doing with Las Cumbres Observatory. Some of the most exciting results I have seen are because we have robotic telescopes which can rapidly respond to the first sighting of a new astronomical event. We have been involved in the discovery and classification of extrasolar planets by looking at a tiny dip in the brightness of a star which indicates a planet passing in front of us and the host star.

We have also been significantly involved in the follow-up measurements of newly discovered exploding stars, or supernovae. Having a good understand about how a supernova brightens and then dims, is crucial not only for understanding how these stars evolve but also because the peak brightness is used to measure how far away they are. We then use this to measure how far distant galaxies are away, and by combining that with other observations of these galaxies we can discover more about the history of the Universe and theorise about how it started based on what we observe. I told you astronomers had to be extra tricky every photon.

We have assisted in confirming 77 new Near Earth Objects (asteroids and comets passing very close to Earth) with follow-up observations, and discovered 21 of these objects serendipitously. These are particularly interesting because Near Earth Objects some of them cross Earth’s orbit. With robotic telescopes anyone can make exciting scientific discoveries from the comfort of their homes or even in the pub. We used to call these people ‘armchair astronomers’ but now they are part of a larger group of Citizen Scientists.

The capabilities of telescopes are continually evolving and will only get better with time. 400 years ago, with a telescope the size of a small dog, Galileo revolutionised the way we view the Universe. I wonder how different the Universe will seem in another 400 years.

This was written for the 2012 Pythagoras Lectures, aired in the Summer of 2012 on Radio Cardiff.

Saucy minx

The Double Decker effect

Have you ever had a Cadbury’s Double Decker? For the uninitiated it is a chocolate bar with a layer of nougat (is that pronounced ‘nugget’ or ‘noogar’?) on the top and a layer of rice crispy balls on the bottom, smothered in chocolate. When I get just over half way through one I always experience, what I call, the ‘Double Decker effect’.

The experience starts when you look through the variety of chocolate bars in The Shop. You simply cannot decide which to buy. Obviously it’s going to be either a Lion bar, Wispa, or Kit-kat Chunky but then you realise there are no Lion bars and you really wanted something a bit different. Its been a long time since you’ve had a Double Decker and the wrapper is a rakish combination of orange and purple. You a little bit too long and it has you. You can taste the sumptuous Cadbury’s chocolate. You can feel the crunch of rich crispies. You want it, and looking at it sitting on the shelf in that seductive manner, you can tell that it wants you.

You gently pull it from the roughly torn cardboard pack with all its sisters and look at it sitting in your grasp. It feels right. A bar that will not only satisfy you but make you hungry for more. You pay, and before you have left The Shop, you have subconciously torn the wrapper exposing an indecent amount of chocolate. Stepping into the street you tentatively touch the bar to your lips. You’ve been hurt before and you are nervous about that first bite. Close your eyes and take a modicum of chocolatey, nougatty goodness.

It is delicious! You wonder why you have been eating any other sort of food. This is the finest of all foods. If you could taste colour, this would be a rainbow. You eat and everything is good. Troubles are forgotten and all is calm. A tear trickles down your cheek.

This is not the ‘Double Decker effect’.

You are two thirds of the way through and it begins to rain. There is too much nougat. The sweetness overpowers you and you feel unpleasantly giddy. You masticate a gloopy mess which does not end. Each chew brings forth more of this unending saccharine. At the same time you realise that, next to previously chewed chewing gum, rice crispies are possibly the blandest substance in existence. You would expect the banality of the rice crispies and the potent sweetness of the nougat would cancel each other out. This is where Cadbury’s have been really clever because they on intensify each other’s strength, leading to an unending confectionary nightmare.

By the end you rue the day you ever were seduced into looking at this hate-filled chocolate bar.

This is the ‘Double Decker effect’.

I find this experience can be applied to all manner of things. Things where there is a sufficiently long gap between successive relapses. Like child birth, watching Last of the Summer Wine, drinking real ale on an empty stomach, skiing, listening to Portishead on wet February evening, visiting Coventry, and demonstrating to your wife that you know the name and director of every Star Trek: The Next Generation episode.

You have been warned.

Elemensus box

First appearance of Elemensus

Making words out of Periodic Table elements – We’ve all done it (well a certain subset of us have at any rate). Its a bit like making words on your calculator – you write a couple of them (‘goggles’ and ‘blobs’ were some of the words that had us school boys tittering) and then don’t take it any further. Periodicalised words are similar, you might realise you can make BaBe (out of Barium and Beryllium) or CaPuCCInO (out of Calcium, Plutonium, Carbon, Indium, and Oxygen) but how far can you take it?

I had this conversation with Tony Davis at the Hay Literature Festival in 2008 on the Art Meets Matter stall, whilst buying some of their iconic Penguin mugs. He was interested in the language and vocabulary you can create and I was interested in making something that could churn this vocabulary out automatically. We chatted in dribs and drabs but starting going on this project in earnest towards the end of 2011.

Fast forward to the 2012 Hay Literature Festival. Art Meets Matter is selling a brand new, word-based, periodic table inspired board game which gives you 162 tiles with Periodic Table elements on side and A-Z letters on the other. Its called Elemensus. For more about how you play the game have a look at the Elemensus info page.

It was quite a rush to get the board game finished in time but Tony and I were adamant we wanted it to be launched at Hay. All the graphic design work is down to Tony – he has produced a number of games previously so I knew it was in capable hands (see Penguin Bookchase). I personally think he’s done an amazing job. Elemensus looks beautiful.

All the phone calls, late-night coding, sourcing of astronomical images and tight production deadlines, were worth it when I saw people playing the game. Elemensus was launched on 1 June 2012. I spent the weekend of 8-9 June almost continually playing the game with the punters at the Hay Festival. It was truly amazing, rather like the feeling parents must have when their children grow, leave home and become professional scientists… I felt like a proud dad hearing people really like something that I helped create. I must have played 40 rounds of the game with different mixes of people, from 10 year olds to 70 year olds. Actually the 9-12 year olds seemed to enjoy playing much more than any other age group, which could be because instead of thinking too hard about spelling words letter by letter they were more used to constructing (and deconstructing words) phonetically. If they got a Thorium [Th] tile or Erbium [Er] tile they could effortlessly find loads of words involving the sounds ‘er’ or ‘th’.

Elemensus is just the first in a longer line of products designed around the periodic table, we’ve called Periodic Thinking. We will be publishing a ThEsAuRuS Aug/Sept 2012 with facts, word lists and the full richness of the Periodic Thinking project. Elemensus is the flagship of Periodic Thinking and I am really proud of it.

Haley and I playing the game at home. We played the rule that science words scored double. Fortunately from this angle you can’t see what the science words were…