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The Future of The Sky at Night

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In the last day or so, there's suddenly been a bit of press speculation about the future of The Sky at Night - the BBC's long running monthly astronomy programme. And when I say long running, I mean it. It's been going since 1957.

In some ways this isn't surprising. It always felt to me that the BBC didn't really have much love for the programme, but while Sir Patrick Moore was still alive, there was no way they were going to cancel it. Sadly Moore died at the end of last year, and the easy thing to do was to continue the programme with the group of presenters who'd been assisting him in the previous years anyway. It was probably put into a box marked "difficult" - to come back to you later.

The programme has, in my memory at least, always been a mixture of hard science about space, mixed with regular routes into the subject for those who are beginners. I strongly suspect that if you ask any British astronomer aged under 60, they'll tell you that they were inspired by The Sky at Night. I've watched it year in, year out, for as long as I can remember.

The programme stands apart from just about everything else the BBC puts out. It's a science programme that has not been "relegated" to BBC 2 or BBC 4. Natural history and Bang Goes the Theory aside, this makes it a rare exception to BBC 1's regular output. It airs monthly which is not how we "do" TV these days. But of course that allows the programme to highlight the different things we can see in our night skies across the year. It's erratically scheduled late at night on BBC 1, with a weekend daytime repeat the following week on BBC 2, and with BBC 4 prime-time repeats. So lots of opportunities to watch, but with Sky+, the country's most popular DVR being unable to correctly series link it, you have to keep your eyes open to catch it! And it's made very cheaply. I've no actual idea of the production budget, but it must surely give daytime TV shows that are ordered by the yard a run for their money in cost terms with no studio, and presenters who work in the area rather than just being professional TV presenters.

At this point in time, I think the BBC could go one of three ways:

- It could scrap the show, ending one of it's longest running franchises.

- It could continue the show in the same way as it is now. The New Broadcasting House Post-It note budget probably dwarfs it.

- It could "reinvent" the programme - updating it and investing in making it bigger.

I suspect a lot of hardcore fans would say the second option is the best. But I don't think that we should completely ignore the third. While I wouldn't want to see the science parts of the programme needlessly diluted to make it "accessible" to a mainstream audience (as I say, it already is), that doesn't necessarily mean that a refresh wouldn't be appropriate.

Stargazing Live has shown that there remains a strong interest in astronomy. That programme - which curiously sat alongside The Sky at Night while the two programmes essentially ignored one another - shows what's possible. Although I wouldn't want to use that as a template for how a refreshed Sky at Night should be automatically envisaged.

I recently went to a great talk from Helen Czerski at Soho Skeptics, and there was the inevitable question about TV dumbing down science. Czerski said - and I paraphrase - that for every episode Horizon about cats that seem a bit simplistic, there's another that gets much deeper into its subject. I do sort of agree with that, although I'd argue that most science TV comes to us with the assumption that we, the viewers, know nothing about the subject in advance. Whereas if you watch a programme about, say, the history of a certain school of art, it would expect that you're vaguely familiar with the subject. We don't start from first principles every time.

What I'm trying to say is that you can make a programme accessible without making it simplistic or covering hard science. And whatever route the BBC goes with The Sky at Night, I hope that this is considered.

One way or another, we need Sky at Night to continue. That's why I've signed this online petition.

A Fruitless Early Morning

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The alarm was set for 4.00am.

I'd bought some Baader solar paper.

I'd made a solar filter for my camera, essentially following these instructions.

I was already for the last Transit of Venus that'll be visible from Earth until 2117, and therefore, my lifetime.

Sadly, I hadn't counted on the wonderful British summer.

Actually, that's not true. I very much had counted on it. And for the last week, I'd been disconsolately refreshing the various weather sites to see what kind of cloud there'd be at 4.43am on 6 June. It was always going to be cloudy, if not wet as well. Fortunately, the rain held off.

The Transit of Venus was only visible in the UK briefly, between dawn at 4.43am and approximately an hour later. Using the very excellent Photographer's Ephemeris app on my phone (seriously - if you're any kind of photographer, this is an essential purchase), I was able to see exactly where there the sun would rise and at what position on the horizon. Less than half a mile from where I live, there's an excellent position high over surrounding farmland. So I cycled out there to take a look.

But I knew it was in vain.

There were very occassional breaks in the cloud, but nowhere near the horizon where the sun was rising. I didn't catch so much as a glimpse.

I was even joined by a chap who was also up early to have a look. Quite how he planned to do that I'm not sure, since he had no filters or equipment of any kind. And if there's one thing everyone knows, it's to not stare directly at the sun.

There was certainly the tail end of a dawn chorus to appreciate. But no Transit for me.

I shall instead make do with some of the amazing photographs that have been published online - not least many of those from NASA and others on their Flickr group.

Ironically, on my way into work later, the sun shone brightly. I guess that I can still use my camera filter to look for sunspots.

As an aside, there was a decent Horizon last night all about Venus, and its Transit. But it was oddly timed since it ended by explaining that you'd be best watching it with special filtered glasses. Except that at 10pm at night when the progamme finished, there was simply no way any viewer would be able to buy such filtered glasses before 4.45am the next morning. It'd have been much smarter to run the documentary - or that part of it - a week earlier.

James Burke

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James Burke-1

If you're old enough, you might know who James Burke is. He was the presenter of a TV series that had an enormous impact on me as a child - Connections.

First broadcast in 1978, I think my viewings came in later repeats - especially (if my memory serves me) during school holidays when the series got repeated in the mornings. The series was built around the history of so many advances made around us are brought about by what can sometimes be the most random of connections between unotherwise completely unrelated people and subjects.

It was one of those series that had a globe trotting presenter, and I suppose to me was as fundamental as Civilisation or The Ascent of Man (both extraordinary documentary series) had been to viewers a few years earlier.

Burke later followed Connections with The Day The Universe Changed which I remember being heavily promoted at the time. It took the same sort of idea, distilling the development of a whole scientific or industrial process down to a single idea thoroughly unrelated and developed years earlier and perhaps thousands of miles away.

Later Burke made two further series of Connections for US cable TV, although as far as I'm aware, these haven't been widely seen in the UK. Previously Burke had been a presenter on Tomorrow's World - although he pre-dated my viewing of that series. And he'd been part of the team that covered the Apollo landings. I know this not just from reading it online, but from the repeats of that coverage that have occassionally aired since.

But more recently, I'd completely lost track of him. Until tonight!

James Burke-2

Burke presented 1 + 1 = 3, very much in the spirit of the programmes that had made his name years ago.

The lecture formed the second of a three part Connections series being curated by Alex Krotoski at the Royal Institution. I missed part one, but am now tempted by next week's part three.

Burke strongly believes in the importance of making multi-disciplinary connections between sometimes utterly dispirate things. He delights in presenting those findings, and relates many tales of them. But then he says - of course anyone can do this given enough time.

He also demonstrates a very early prototype of some software that he's working on to faciliate this connectivity for children to learn about.

The final part of his lecture delves into what might happen in the future, and here we take a leap into the unknown. For Burke, nanotechnology is key. And the consequences of a nanotech world are all encompassing. He says that there've been two fundamental changes to our culture and society in history - thousands of years ago when the first crops were cultivated, and then the 18th and 19th centuries with the industrial revolution. Both were game changing breakthroughs. Nanotechnology will be the next step.

His predictions are bold and scary. Will we all essentially have free power and free nano-factories to build whatever we desire, allowing us all effectively to do as we please? It seems like something from a science fiction novel, but who knows. Nothing's utterly implausable - although it does feel unlikely.

In the Q&A that followed his lecture, someone asked why he wasn't back on BBC2. And that's an excellent question. He was very polite about it, but it's clear that he's still an excellent presenter, and there's no reason why he couldn't still be doing the job. Yes - we have Brian Cox, Marcus du Sautoy and Jim Al-Khalili who are younger (And sexier? Well perhaps one of the three). But then we also have Sir David Attenborough who we can still send to the poles aged 85.

I'd love to see him back on television presenting something similar to Connections.

The Royal Institution was videoing the whole evening, so I do hope it ends up on their website. Because he went at such a pace as to make note taking impossible.

James Burke-3

Incidentally, I've linked to Wikipedia references quite a bit throughout this piece, but I don't think that Burke would appreciate those links. He's quite critical of Wikipedia - mainly because there can be things wrong on it, and you simply don't know if what you're reading is wrong.

And while you don't seem to be able to get either the first series of Connections or The Day The Universe Changed on DVD (surely an opportunity for some enterprising DVD label), you can see the former series, and it's follow up on YouTube.

ISS

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ISS

The International Space Station (ISS) is very visible at the moment, appearing as an often very bright, yet very fast-moving star.

Taking advantage of a location that has much less light pollution than home, I took the above long exposure photo this evening showing the transit of the ISS across the sky, passing through Leo. Interestingly, it was preceded by another visible object that seemed to be following exactly the same trajectory as the ISS. This, I believe is the ISS Progress 41 cargo craft which was undocked earlier in the morning. It's currently being kept away from the ISS before being sent into orbit for a burn up.

The photo doesn't show two objects as they did follow the same trajectory across the sky. But I think my explanation makes sense. Note that the photo is a 2 minute exposure - hence the short star trails visible in the night sky.

A handy site called Heavens Above is excellent at letting you track when and where you can see satellites, the ISS, and other objects from your local location.

There are more possible views over the next few days, and with any luck, the double-dip of the cargo craft and ISS in one viewing should be good.

The next question is - will we really be able to see Space Shuttle Endeavour in a week's time?

Yuri Gagarin

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On April 12th it will have been 50 years since Russian cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin became the first man in outer space.

There are a fair few programmes coming up devoted to this anniversary, so I thought I'd link to a few.

First of all, here's a great piece from Robin McKie in The Observer a few weeks ago, that talks about Sergei Korolev, the man who got him into space.

The BBC World Service has a programme on Monday celebrating the anniversary. With any luck, that will be available in podcast form afterwards.

On Radio 4, there's already a programme called The Communist Cosmos broadcast a couple of days ago. And next Tuesday, there's a play telling Gagarin's story from the point of view of his training partner - Titanium.

The whole of Sunday evening is a space night on BBC Four. But the highlight must be a new Storyville - Knocking On Heaven's Door - which gives the background of the Soviet space programme.

That programme also featured on Night Waves on Radio 3 last night.

Finally, there's a lovely story on the BBC News site detailing Gagarin's trip to Britain, including a memorable detour to Manchester. Watch the accompanying videos.

Have I missed any programmes?

See Further Festival

2010 is the 350th anniversary of the Royal Society. We've had a special series of In Our Time earlier in the year, the president of the Society, Martin Rees has given the Reith Lectures, and there've been numerous talks and lectures.

Over the weekend, the Royal Society's annual summer exhibition moved to the Southbank Centre where it has became the See Further Festival. All around the South Bank and Royal Festival Hall, were exhibits of what British scientists are currently doing. Various research labs and companies were present with live demonstrations explaining the practical applications of what they're doing.

Amongst many things I saw over the weekend were a new holographic method being developed for finding landmines, what we can learn from how insects navigate, and the development of an incredible new magnifying lens. And they're just a handful of the exhibits. On Friday, I saw Material World's Quentein Cooper interviewing someone about volcanoes, and reporters from a variety of international media talking to the scientists involved. Elsewhere, a little girl was being CT scanned by a large pink Siemens magnetom. And Festo had an Air Penguin that was very gracefully flying through the enclosed Royal Festival Hall's atrium and was as elegant a flying machine that I've ever seen.

Air Penguin

Outside the BBC's Bang Goes The Theory roadshow seemed popular, with Dr Yan in attendence.

The exhibition is open to next weekend, and if you're near London, is well worth a visit.

The reason that I reached the exhibition so early is that on Friday the "Premiere" of 2001: A Space Odyssey with live orchestral accompaniament was taking place. I first saw this film in one of its re-releases (they still used to do things like that in the late seventies) with my dad and brother at the Barnet Odeon. It is one of the few times I'd experienced an intermission in a film. Indeed, so unusual was such a thing, that I remember wondering whether the projectionist hadn't just introduced it on the cinema manager's orders so that he could sell more Kia Ora and popcorn. But it left an indelible memory - not least as 9 year old tried to understand "Jupiter and Beyond the Infinite".

To my young mind, it opened with a tediously long sequence involving apes - "The Dawn of Man". But I remember watching and being mesmerised nonetheless. The moment that one of the apes throws a bone skywards and it becomes a spaceship heading towards an orbiting space station, accompanied by the Blue Danube, is one of cinema's most glorious moments. The piece is roughly 11 minutes long, and Douglas Trumball's effects, still stand up perfectly fine today. I guess that working with Arthur C Clarke for verisimilitude, Kubrick's ceaseless quest for excellence meant that he did as good a job in 1968 as anyone could do today.

For this production, Warner Bros had gone back to the film's audio master and separated the music cues from the dialogue and sound effects so that the Philharmonia Orchestra and Philharmonia Voices could be added in live. While music is vital to 2001, it's actually used relatively sparingly; think of those scenes where all you can hear is Keir Dullea's breathing within his spacesuit. Conductor André de Ridder had a timecode alongside him to ensure that the cues were all met in timely manner.

Kubrick's widow, Christiane, introduced the evening's event, and noted that Stanley would have been shocked for his wife to have been speaking in public (when she sat down near me, and I realised that I was surrounded by friends and family, I must admit to being quite thrilled). Famously reclusive, it seems uncertain whether he would have attended at all. He might not have been completely taken with the projection. While the picture - I suspect an HD version - was pin-sharp, and perfect technically, he might have been a little annoyed that the orchestra needed any light to work beneath the screen.

Yet, all said and done, it was a wonderful experience, and was given a standing ovation at the end.

It's a long time since I properly watched the film. Although I have an early version of it on DVD, it's not great. So it was interesting to note some of the things Kubrick and Clarke got right about their film. While Pan Am may not have survived, the commercialisation of everything else seems right (the space station is basically a Hilton). Meals on board are "microwaved". On board Discovery One, the two pilots are seen using devices that are staggeringly similar to iPads! (The chap in front of me also noticed this, and was so excited that he had to tell both the person to his left, and right). A news broadcast comes from BBC 12. Sadly Kubrick wouldn't have known that BBC Executive would be reigning in their channels rather than expanding them from the current main 4 TV services.

Anyway - it's unclear if and when this event might be seen again. But I do feel a need to return to Clarke's novel.

Breaking The Code and Alan Turing

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Alan Turing - Blue Plaque

Today, had he lived, would have been Alan Turing's 98th birthday.

Last night at the BFI Southbank, there was a great double bill featuring the excellent TV version of Hugh Whitmore's play about Turing - Breaking the Code. Regular readers will perhaps recall that I saw a theatrical production of this play back in November. But although I'd seen this version before, I was happy to see it afresh and on a big screen.

The cast is powerful led by Derek Jacobi as Turing, but ably supported by Prunella Scales as his mother Sara, and Amanda Root as Pat Green. Alun Armstrong plays the police inspector who feels that it's his duty to investigate Turing's admissions of homosexuality, which leads to an inevitable sad ending. And Harold Pinter has a terrific cameo as a slightly disturbing mandarin for one of the intelligence agencies worried about how Turing lived his life and the authorities concerns about his vetting and the possibility of blackmail.

Sadly, I don't believe this production is available on DVD.

Alan Turing

Next up was a 1992 edition of Horizon produced by Christopher Sykes. It's remarkable how even a documentary made in the 90s still feels like something from a distant age now. The programme was largely based around Andrew Hodge's excellent biography of Turing, as Whitmore's play is. But it was made at the right time, with many of Turing's contemporaries from the war and post-war still alive to tell us about Turing.

Unususally for Horizon, this edition of the series really was much more about the man than the science. Although we had his ideas laid out for us, the casual viewer might still be hard pushed to explainn exactly what he did during the war and post-war period apart from "work on" things.

It was good to see that a slightly uncomfortable NFT2 was packed out last night for this presentation.

(Amusingly, at the end of the Horizon credits, we saw a few frames of the original slide that followed at the end asking us to send cheques for £2 to a Broadcast Services address if we wanted a booklet on that series' Horizon episodes. I'm pretty sure that somewhere buried away, I have that booklet).

The Eerie Silence

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Given where I work, there really is no excuse for me not to go to more of the Royal Society's public lectures. So back in January I attended an interesting sounding lecture entitled "The eerie silence: are we alone in the universe?"

The room where they hold the lectures was absolutely packed, and I was glad that I'd turned up in plenty of time. Attendees that I noticed included Jon Ronson (for reasons which will become clear), and Dallas Campbell of the BBC's Bang Goes The Theory. I expect there were a few scientists there.

This year the Royal Society is celebrating its 350th anniversary, and there's a lot going on, so I will try to do more.

But back to the lecture. Professor Paul Davies works at the University of Arizona and is very involved in SETI which of course, is the organisation that searches for extraterrestrial life in the universe.

Is this a mug's game? What's the likelihood that there is someone else out there. Before this lecture, there'd actually been a formal discussion meeting examining what would happen as a consequence of finding extraterrestrial life.

Davies rattled through a lot of the things that we need to consider when searching for life. In some respects, the chances seem very good, but in others, the odds are disappointingly long.

Frank Drake, who founded SETI, came up with the Drake equation designed to determine the number of civilisations in our galaxy. The problem is that to fill it in, there are quite a few unknown variables. And since they represent a probability between 0 and 1, they fundamentally affect N, the number of life sustatining civilisations.

Davies entertainingly quotes Donald Rumsfield in this matter: "There are known knowns. These are things we know that we know. There are known unknowns. That is to say, there are things that we now know we don't know. But there are also unknown unknowns. These are things we do not know we don't know."

The lecture is available to watch onlineat t he foot of this page.

Davies' book itself digs in significantly greater detail into all aspects of possible extraterrestrials, from the sheer likelihood of them existing, to how we might determine their existance, through to what we should be looking for, where we should be looking, what they might be saying and in what medium. The main problem for all of this is that everywhere is so distant, that communication is rendered nigh on impossible.

Davies even gets into how the news might be broken - basically it's not something that governments have thought about - and what the message might be. He even worries about the effect the existance of life might have on the world's major religions. I'm not sure that the effect would quite be the blow he thinks it would be theologically.

He refers a lot to Carl Sagan's novel Contact, which of course was later made into a pretty decent film. Sagan took plenty of liberties of course, but the basics are pretty decent.

I really enjoyed the book. It's not too long, and its pretty encompassing. The one area Davies doesn't spend a great deal of time, is the idea that the aliens are already here. This question came up to an extent at the lecture, and Davies doesn't waste a great deal of time examining it, since the proof just isn't there.

Overall, well worth reading.

The book is getting a lot of coverage all over the place. The Times' relatively new monthly science magazine devoted the better part of a whole issue to Davies, SETI, and alien life in general. In particular, there's a chunky extract online to be read (or at least until the paywall goes up). And Jon Ronson, who was at the lecture above, writes about meeting Davies in the pages of The Guardian's Weekend magazine.

Science on Trial

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If you're quick, there's still a chance to hear last week's Radio 4 programme Science on Trial.

With enormous topicality, it examined some of the very concerning legal cases that have been brought in British courts surrounding use of libel laws to restrict scientific debate, and effectively silence some of those who otherwise promote remedies for which there are significant questions of efficacy.

This came to a head yesterday when Simon Singh appeared in the High Court in front of three of the most senior appeals judges in the country. He's fighting a libel action brought by the British Chiropractic Association, after he authored a piece in The Guardian nearly two years ago.

If you ever actually visit my site (and aren't just seeing it in an RSS reader), you'll have perhaps noticed the link to Sense About Science. This is an important freedom that we need to fight for.

If you haven't already, you really need to do a few things.

First of all - sign this petition for the reform of this country's unjust libel laws. Even today's Culture, Media and Sport Select Committee report highlights the injustice of this.

Go on - do it now.

For more background on the Simon Singh case, you can do no worse than read the Jack of Kent blog. He has a nice summary of events to date here, and a report on yesterday's procedings here.

Simon Singh had penned a piece in the Daily Telegraph prior to yesterday's appearance, and there was also a good primer in The Times.

Or listen to the programme linked to above.

Naked = Ratings

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When Horizon is good, it's very good. But when it's bad, it's terrible.

And tonight we had possibly the worst Horizon I've seen in quite a while. What's The Problem With Nudity was as blatant an example of ratings grabbing as I've seen in a long time.

Did nobody see that excellent recent Screen Wipe in which Charlie Brooker gave Trinny and Susannah a mauling over their recent programme in which for no reason at all lots of people took off their clothes to titillate a prime time ITV audience. And then there's the various Gok Wan series that always seem to involve people getting their kit off.

According to Horizon this was a "unique study."

No it wasn't. They admitted that everybody who took part knew that the programme was going to be about nudity. They all knew that they'd be taking their clothes off.

Evidently nobody had been watching BBC Three. They've been making the same specious arguments on Naked. Each week, for no obvious reason, a group of people who share only the same occupation spend a week building up the courage to take their clothes off for a photo shoot, or a catwalk or whatever. Apparently it's in some way really important to get your clothes off in public.

Or could it be a cheap way to get a decent sized audience on the otherwise troubled BBC Three. This would be the same channel that a while back also had Dawn Gets... Naked, culminating in an open-top bus load of naked women.

I can understand why a mostly poor channel like BBC Three carries this nonsense. But Horizon? Really?

As I keep banging on, there was once a popular science show called QED for which this nonsense could just about be justified. But for the BBC's flagship science show it's a travesty.

Incidentally - why is there no Horizon website these days? It use to be a good resource for transcripts, additional video and even further reading. This is supposed to be science isn't it?

[I should probably mention that BBC Three has nearly earned the right to its existance by showing Being Human which has been excellent.]

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