World’s most boring blog

August 28, 2007

OK, straight to the point. Here it is. The Virtual Observatory Status Blog.

Its the creation of my colleague John Taylor. He works like me in the Virtual Observatory (VO) world, a software engineer on the VOTECH and AstroGrid projects. He produced a monitoring service called VOMon for VO services. This is very handy for techies but of zero interest to end-users. He also publishes changes through an RSS feed and an associated blog set up at BlogSpot. The result is a blog but not as we know it Jim. Its maybe the kind of blog educated robots would find titillating gossip. But for 98% of carbon based life forms its less fun than chewing your own foot off.

Of course I need to point out that we all hate John, because not only is he young talented and good looking, he is now leaving us to work for Google.

I could also point out that some VO geeks would claim that there are some real blogs by VO project members that are even more boring. I could. But as a responsible manager of course I won’t.

We tend to think that its easy to make astronomy fun, but John proves it ain’t always so. In similar vein, its worth remembering that the webcam at the James Clerk Maxwell Telescope on Hawaii was once named “World’s most boring Webcam”. It was either pointing out the window .. and the result was kinda .. well, black … or pointing at the observing astronomer, resulting in a still image of an astronomer typing at a computer terminal, refreshed every two minutes with slightly different finger positions. Gripping.

Here is a Guardian Article with some more recent boring webcams.

(There is a slightly better range of JCMT cams now …)

Cows, Quasars, and Cosmic Rays

August 23, 2007

Day-4 at the Joint European National Astronomy Meeting. Much stuff today about Very High Energy Astronomy. This was hot stuff some decades ago, but is now undergoing a revival. Felix Ahoronian showed how TeV astronomy is finally taking off, with HESS, MAGIC, and VERITAS detecting real sources at high S/N. John Carr reviewed neutrino astronomy – under the sea (ANTARES), under lakes (BAIKAL), and under the Antarctic Ice (AMANDA) – which seems just on the brink of becoming real astronomy (roll on ICECUBE). These are maybe the last new windows on the Universe. Meanwhile Vahe Petrosian reviewed particle acceleration in the Universe, and argued that shock acceleration is not the solution to everything as most people have assumed for thre decades ; the answer is stochastic (second order Fermi) acceleration, and the snag is we need to understand turbulence …

Last night we had our excursion to Byurakan Observatory. As ICows and 2.6m at Byurukan explained a few days ago, this is something of a pilgrimage for Active Galaxy and Quasar fans, especially because this is where Markarian and Arakelian undertook their historic objective prism surveys, searching the cosmos for the blue and emission line objects – especially starburst galaxies and active galactic nuclei.

Its a beautiful observatory, spread out over a rural setting on the slopes of Mount Aragatz, and with a stunning view of the enormous Mount Ararat (of Noah’s Ark fame..). There are cows all the over the place (see pic-1). This is is nearly as good as the AAO being overrun with kangaroos. In the dalek-like 2.6M dome, there isYours truly on the BAO 2.6m controls a control system that seems to come from the Ark. As well as analogue dials, there are two computers, but they are Pentium IIIs… Pic-2, taken by Jonathan Tedds, shows yours truly pretending to control the telescope but actually coming out a bit Phantom of the Opera-ish.

Following this there was a lovely outdoor dinner on the longest table I have EVER seen. I tried hard to be rude to various French astronomers but they are just too ready with the timed riposte and le bon mot. Dammn.

Yes Yes I know Google Sky got released today but the network here is so crap I can’t really try it out yet.

Mesrop Mashtots in star naming rip-off

August 22, 2007

Day Three at the Joint European and National Astronomy Meeting here in Yerevan, Armenia. This afternoon there was only the business meeting of the European Astronomical Society. I thought this …… sounded just a tad … well … zzzzzzzzz …….snnnrrrgggghhh ….zzzzzzz….snnrrrgghhhh … zzzz.. snnrgg-uh ! wuh ? Oh, sorry, where was I ? Anyway, so I decided to goof off and do some tourism.

Amongst other things I visited the Madenetaran, a museum housing thousands of ancient books and manuscripts. As well as lots of beautiful illuminated manuscripts, I was stunned to find, proudly displayed in a glass case, a certificate announcing that a new star had been registered with the “International Star Registry”, in honour of Masrop Mashtots, the fifth century bishop who invented the Armenian alphabet. That’s so depressing .. a museum actually fell for this “name a star” scam …. I wonder what they paid ?

The certificate is a masterpiece of deception, implying its all very official. It says that the star is in one of the 88 constellations officially recognised by the IAU (err.. there is one that isn’t ?), and that the name and “telescopic co-ordinates” of the new star are being placed in “Your Place in the Cosmos, Volume V”, and that this volume has been placed in the Library of Congress and the British Museum. Err.. yes… along with every other book ever published.

Then you see the star will also be registered with the “International Star Registry Vault” in Zurich. Wuh ? This lovely certificate is signed by the Richard L Ney, the president of the International Star Registry, 146 Deer Creek Road, Fredonia, Texas.

Oh and people who have also registered a star also include the Queen of ENngland, Bill Clinton, and Boris Yeltsin. Wow.

Francoise Genova will also be pleased, as the certificate clearly states that all new stars are catalogued in Strasbourg.

Almost-live Lecture-blog : Exo-Neptunes

August 21, 2007

Here at JENAM we have been in the middle of a Symposium on Exoplanets, and Michel Mayor (who started that whole game) gave a plenary review. There are two odd problems with the exo-planets we have found : they are usually too big, and we nearly always find them around stars with high metallicity. Why ?

I was looking forward to the talk by Tristan Guillot, as he was billed to talk about Corot, but they are not ready with summary results yet. (There are some beautiful light curves though – Corot works). Instead he reviewed what has come out of the various transit surveys, and he highlighted the size problem. From radial velocity wobbles you can get the mass; then from the size of the transit-dip, you get the radius. Exoplanets, which should be similar to Jupiter, show a wide range of radii for a given mass. People have suggested explanations – extra heating source, different opacities, etc – but really it is an unsolved puzzle.

Michel Mayor described how workers in this area are steadily pushing down the mass range – we are now finding Neptune-mass exoplanets, not just “Hot Jupiters”. The smallest so far is a “Super Earth” with 5.1 Earth masses. Both microlensing and high-precision radial velocity measurements of M-stars hold out the prospect of Earth mass planets. Meanwhile, Mayor and his chums have for the first time measured a transit for a Neptune-mass planet – GJ346 (Gillon et al, A&A in press – see this web page). They made this measurement at a beautiful small observatory in the Alps – the Observatoire St Luc, achieving millimag precision. The result ? Spot on just like Neptune. So no size problem here .. but its only the first one ! Even lovelier, using Spitzer, they measured an IR anti-transit… because the planet is bright in the mid-IR, you get a dip in the 8 micron flux when it goes behind the star. As they already have the radius, this gives them a temperature – 709K.

But now here comes another puzzle. According to Mayor, the Neptune-mass exoplanets, unlike the Jupiters, are NOT found especially in high metallicity stars. Wuh ? So of course Mayor was asked why in the question session and he said something confident I didn’t follow. So at the coffee break I asked a friendly UK exoplanet-nut, Hugh Jones, and basically he said “beats me – should be the other way round shouldn’t it ?”. Gas giants are mostly H and He, whereas Neptune (we think) has a solid core which forms first out of heavy elements. (Not clear whether this is rocky or icy I think, but I am not an expert..)

So. Me am puzzled.

Daleks in Armenia

August 21, 2007

Long time no blog – have been on holiday in an internet free Cornish Cottage. Now I find myself for a week in Yerevan, capital of Armenia, and spiritual heartland for Active Galaxy freaks. How did such a tiny country make such an impact on modern astrophysics ? Since Ambartsumian in the late 1940s, their obsession has been to find unstable and violent things in the Universe – active galaxies, star forming regions, young stellar objects. This is where Markarian and and Arakelian first surveyed the sky for anomalously blue objects, and objects with emission lines; where Khachikian and Weedman first defined two distinct types of Seyfert galaxy; and where Ambartsumian argued that quasars might be “white holes”, spewing matter out into the cosmos. (Nice idea, but you can’t win them all..). Most of this was done at the wonderful Byurakan Observatory, with a dome that looks like a Dalek.

I am here for the 15th annual “Joint European and National Astronomy Meeting” – JENAM-2007, whose tagline this year is “The non-stable Universe”. There is a Symposium on Science with Virtual Observatories, and I am giving a review on Massive Surveys and the VO. But there is also an AGN Symposium, and a visit to Byurakan.. can’t wait.

This is my first time in Armenia, a strange and beautiful place. Its a bizzare mixture of religiosity and intellectuality, of civic pride and crumbling infrastructure, of monasteries and telescopes, with a unique alphabet. Right now I am listening to Guy Monnet tell us about Europe’s plans for a 42m telescope .. more to come.