Saturn – Farewell Cassini

Farewell Cassini. You have been wonderful!

On Friday, just ahead of Cassini finally burning up in the atmosphere of Saturn as the probe ended its 13 years orbiting the planet, its rings and its moons, the mission’s Twitter feed sent this.

And so, I did.

The picture above was taken in Zakynthos where I was on holiday. I only had my RX100 III “point and shoot” with me, which only has a 70mm zoom lens. That means that I had no chance of seeing the rings of Saturn. So instead I took a photo of the night sky, looking southwest, and relying on mobile apps to point me in the right direction to see Saturn. There was also a little light pollution from streetlights in the village I was staying in.

You can see Saturn in the lower quarter of the picture, just to the right of the Milky Way, which was nicely visible. The photo was taken in the relatively early evening after the sun had set since Saturn was only visible for a few hours before dipping below the horizon.

The picture below makes it clear exactly where in the image Saturn is.

The rings of Saturn are very viewable for the amateur. I still remember the excitement when I was younger, and my mum borrowed a large telescope from the school she taught in that was going unused. We had it at home for a few months, and seeing the rings of Saturn from my suburban back garden, with all the attendant light pollution, was just the most wonderful thing.

Sadly, I don’t have a telescope today – it’s on the wish list – and I certainly didn’t take one on holiday with me.

But looking up and seeing Saturn was a wonderful thing.

BTW NASA has published a wonderful free eBook containing many of the best images of Saturn and its moons, taken by Cassini over the years. It’s definitely worth a download! All the images within have links to the full size images from NASA’s website, so you can download them and make your own prints if you choose.

Also check out both episodes of The Sky at Night and Horizon on the Cassini mission.

Hans Rosling – Forming His World View on Facts; Not Feelings

In my recent RAJAR piece, I made reference to the sad news that Professor Hans Rosling had died.

Rosling was a Swedish professor of global health, and had found fame in a series of videos and programmes – notably beginning with a widely shared TED talk – that elucidated stories behind data in a way that made that data understandable. And he did this remarkably well.

Over the weekend BBC Two repeated Don’t Panic – The Truth About Population, which if you haven’t seen it, is well worth spending some time with. Some of your preconceived notions and worldviews will be shattered.

Then at the start of this week Tim Harford presented a really superb special edition of More or Less on the BBC World Service to remember Hans. It included memories of the man from people who knew him and worked with him, as well as excerpts from some of the programmes he’s made over the years.

I can’t recommend it highly enough.

In particular, I went to watch the live broadcast of a programme Rosling contributed to on the spread of Ebola in west Africa, and the ways in which it was combatted. Extracts appear in the special edition of More or Less.

Towards the end of the episode, there was a very powerful moment when producer Ruth Alexander, recalled visiting him at home at the end of last year. Rosling had appeared a number of times on More or Less, and made other programmes for the BBC. He’d still been keen to do another interview, even though he was very ill at the time with pancreatic cancer.

Alexander: “He said to me, ‘Please will you carry on this in your future work?’ And I think what he meant was, will you carry on looking at the facts, forming your world view and reporting on the state of the world based on facts. Not feelings; not what you think is probably true. But what is demonstrated by the facts and the statistics before you.”

Presenter Tim Harford agreed that this was a challenge to all of us.

Ada Lovelace and the Cosmonauts

Ada Lovelace-1

Come on. Admit it! This sounds like some kind of awesome steampunk mashup – perhaps a graphic novel.

Actually it refers to two different exhibitions currently on display at the Science Museum, and that I’m finally posting about.

Ada Lovelace – the “Enchantress of Number” – was a friend of Charles Babbage and can be regarded as the first computer programmer, having essentially designed the first ever algorithm.

Ada Lovelace-2

The Science Museum in London has a small exhibition on at the moment. Unfortunately it’s not at all clearly signposted since it’s not quite on the blockbuster scale of other exhibits so you may need to hunt a little until you find it on the second floor.

There’s a single room dominated by a portrait of the “Enchantress of Numbers” herself, alongside a model of the analytical engine that Babbage built in the hope of building a full sized machine.

The room also includes some of Lovelace’s letters and even a lock of her hair.

Ada Lovelace-9

I’m not going to be able to do justice to her here, but she was unquestionably a remarkable women, who’s life was sadly cut short.

A few more photos on Flickr here.

The Science Museum’s blockbuster exhibition right now is their celebration of the Soviet space programme. This is massive display with hundreds of items both small and very very large. Anyone with any interest in space should definitely try to get along if they’ve not already.

What I found incredible was just how small those early spacecraft were, and packed in like sardines the cosmonauts were, having to spend many hours or days in incredibly cramped conditions.

It’s also remarkable that, as we watched Tim Peake head to the International Space Station before Christmas, to think that he was getting there onboard a launch vehicle that’s not massively different from what those earlier space pioneers were travelling in. The Soyuz launch vehicles we see today are recognisably based on the earlier craft. Perhaps that’s not surprising since the physics really hasn’t changed a great deal!

The Cosmonauts continue at the Science Museum until 13 March 2016, while you have a couple more weeks to see Ada Lovelace as that exhibit finishes on 31 March 2016.


Horizon Transcripts

This year BBC2 is celebrating its 50th anniversary, and as part of those celebrations, its long running science programme, Horizon, is also celebrating being 50.

I must admit that until the last week or so, and I hadn’t known that Horizon started right at the birth of the channel. To celebrate its half-century, Horizon has got heavily involved with the Longitude Prize 2014 – an attempt to replicate the famous prize won (eventually) by John Harrison when he showed how building a watch would solve the major issue of the day, ships knowing their longitude at sea.

The key part of that prize was that anyone could enter, and there was a big cash reward to encourage new ideas and thoughts.

The new initiative seems to be a two step affair, with members of the public determining which current problem of science should be addressed before a multi-year competition is opened to entrants who can solve that problem. Again, the thought behind the prize is that entrants may not always come from the obvious places.

The shortlisted areas are Antibiotics, Water, Flight, Dementia, Food and Paralysis. All worthy subjects, but I’ll be voting for Antibiotics* in the main part because I fear that in the very short term, a lack of antibiotics is going to kill many more people than anything else.

Alongside the Longitude Prize, the BBC has put up a series of classic episodes from Horizon’s history. Highlights include:

The Pleasure of Finding Things Out with Richard Feynman. I’ve seen it before, and I’m going to watch it again. Utterly wonderful.
Fermat’s Last Theorem. Telling the story of solving of one of mathematics greatest puzzles.
The World of Buckminster Fuller. The very first ever episode, which I’ve never seen before.
Strangeness Minus Three on the discovery of a then new subatomic particle in 1964. Again, I’ve not seen it before.

They’ve also released an interactive ebook in iPad, Android (tablet) and Kindle editions. It’s a nice little addition, although be warned that it does take a while to initially decompress itself – at least with the Android version on a 2013 Nexus 7. Just be patient.

The book includes a list of every Horizon ever made which is a nice touch.

Now I’ve got to admit that at times I’ve been quite down on Horizon. But it can still be quite brilliant. Its biggest recent successes (in terms of reaching the popular consciousness), have surely been in areas of nutrition. There was an edition that effectively kick-started the Five/Two diets – it’s included in the collection on the website. But in overall terms, I think the standard is better than it was back in 2007 when I wrote that piece.

The thing is – I cling to Horizon dearly because I love it. It’s the only really serious science programme the BBC airs on television. I’m delighted that Bang Goes The Theory exists and that it goes out on prime time BBC1, but the range of subjects they cover have to be limited. So we need programmes like Horizon to delve into other areas. Yes radio has excellent science programmes, but sometimes you need visuals to explain a subject.

Equinox on Channel 4 is sadly long gone. And multi-channel hasn’t really helped. While theoretically channels like Discovery could be a boon, they tackle mostly simplistic topics. Oh, and naked people surviving on desert islands. To be honest, the best science I’ve seen outside of BBC One and Two is some of the maths problems on Dave’s School of Hard Sums with Dara O’Briain and Marcus Du Sautoy.

It’s also important that we have some way of communicating current science with the wider public. When there are major scientific breakthroughs that really aren’t easy to get away in a three minute news bulletin, it needs a programme like Horizon to allow a curious public the opportunity to delve deeper into something that for them is quite probably very new. We live in a world where everything is phenomenally specialist compared with our forefathers, and most people probably couldn’t even to begin to explain how some of the things they live their life by – phones, cars, televisions – work. We need “explainers”. These are the programmes that will intrigue future generations into upholding Britain’s strength in science. And at the very least help politicians understand the importance of science, the value of it to the economy (and why we shouldn’t sell our national assets to companies that are only in it for corporate tax advantages at untold cost to the country).

One final thing. As part of Horizon’s birthday, I’d really love them to go back to it’s old theme music – or a modern updating of it. It has been through a few iterations, but I think it could return to a closer approximation of Wilfred Joseph’s composition. Today it doesn’t really have music – just a sound effect. Oh, and like some of the linked YouTube commenters, I really would be happy to pay for high quality versions!

The picture above is of some transcripts that the BBC used to produce for Horizon. You could send away for them after shows aired – I think for a small amount of money. And obviously, I was a regular subscriber. Later transcripts were published online, but these days they aren’t published at all. Externally anyway…

*I will be voting because at time of writing, I’d failed to get the BBC Horizon website to display the voting panel in spite of being logged in with a BBC ID as required. Here’s hoping they get it fixed!

[Update] I did manage to cast my vote the next day.

The Future of The Sky at Night

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

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

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.
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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.


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

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?

2001: A Space Odyssey – Live at the Royal Festival Hall and the See Further Festival

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.