Hubble versus Peach

November 29, 2009

Last weekend I talked at a special meeting of the British Astronomical Association, celebrating 75 years since Patrick Moore joined. It was a fun day. I’d never been to the Royal Institution before. It has nice looking but horribly uncomfortable seats, and is very atmospheric. Paul Murdin and myself were the token professionals in a vast sea of keen amateurs. Some of them really do wear anoraks, but golly gosh they do some impressive stuff these days. Not only do they use CCD cameras, but they employ what IOA wizard Craig Mackay calls Lucky Imaging; they take thousands of short images, keep the best ones, and re-align them with Regi-Stax software.

The results, from small telescopes in people’s back gardens in the UK, are stunning. Possibly the two best known practitioners are Damian Peach and Nick Szymanek.

So … which of these pictures was taken by the Hubble Space Telescope, and which from Damian Peach’s telescope in Buckinghamshire ? Vote now. Results later.

Translation madness

November 26, 2009

I just came back from Tim Hawarden’s funeral ceremony. Rather splendid affair. Funny stories from his brother and songs from Zululand and Hawaii. The coffin had a wee telescope on. Lots of people. Plenty of tears but even more laughter which was right for Tim.

Meanwhile… just noticed something rather odd. I recently installed Google Toolbar for Firefox. This has all sorts of goodies, including a translation service. (Almost) every time you visit a new web page it offers to translate it for you, into just about any language you want. Its incredibly fast. Meanwhile when you hover over a page, a wee tooltip keeps popping up automatically translating individual words. How does it do that ? Surely it can’t be sending a request to the Mothership for every damned word ??? I was starting to find the tooltips annoying and was on the point of turning off the translation service. But then I clicked through to the ROE staff telephone list, and the top bar said ..

This page is in Danish

Wuh ?? Anyway. No time for mysteries. Off to Tim’s party.

Tim Hawarden

November 19, 2009

We got some bad news a few days back – Tim Hawarden died, rather suddenly. This is a real loss to UK astronomy, as well as to ROE and to UKIRT. There is an obituary on the ROE web page, very nicely put together by Ian Robson. The family requested flowers from family only, but suggested an appropriate charity instead. If any other readers remember Tim, you could also consider this charity :

Pegasus Children’s Trust of South Africa,
c/o Mrs Judy Westwater, 118A Bruce Gardens,
Dalmeigh, Inverness IV3 5BE

Ian Robson has suggested we add anecdotes to the website. This is what I will shortly be sending in :

Some years back, outside a tourist shop in Kyoto, I took a swig from a can of coke, only to be stung by a bee that had just landed inside the can. I spat out the bee, but it still hurt like hell. Tim whipped out his pocket knife, looked me in the eye, and said firmly “Open your mouth wide and keep very still”. He exuded such a bold confidence I did exactly what he said. Tim  gently dug into the soft flesh in the roof of my mouth, then proudly showed me the sting on the blade of his knife. “Wow” I said, “where did you learn to do that ?” There then followed a big jolly Tim-type laugh. “Well…” he said, “I have never done that before. But it seemed better not to mention this until after I’d finished !”

Sunday Time Waster Top Ten

November 15, 2009

I was trying to decide whether to start learning the piano or finish that paper. So of course actually I dipped into Facebook and wasted some time. How else will I know what my kids are doing ? When I got there I found that ex-AstroGridder John Taylor had posted a link to a web site called “AutoComplete Me” collecting amusin’ examples of Google seach-box autocomplete. The web site has some great examples, but you can try it for yourself. Go to Google search, start typing “I like to..” and you get some weird results.

A lovely game. Here are my top ten internet giggle makers :

  1. Fail Blog
  2. I can haz cheezburgr
  3. Man Babies
  4. Barack Obama is your new Bicycle
  5. Google Translator. Well, I tried to turn it into a game
  6. The new entry, Autocompleteme.
  7. Large fish eating duck and its many follow ons
  8. xkcd
  9. Bush or Chimpanzee ?
  10. Getting Globus to work

Feel free to disagree.

Scientists on tap

November 9, 2009

I have been worrying about the Professor Nutt story, for personal reasons. For those who don’t know, this business is about the science adviser fired by the Home Office for criticising the government in public. Of course the gut instinct of most of our scientist colleagues will be to side with the Prof – Science versus the Barbarians ! Man the Barricades ! I am not so sure . Its the Government’s job to govern, and the Adviser’s job to advise. I wouldn’t quite go with the classic Winston Churchill quote – scientists should be on tap, not on top – but a little humility is due. On the other hand, the current government can be a tad brutish, as we know. It all depends what Nutt actually said, which I haven’t found out.

This is on my mind because I am about to take the Kings Shilling. As of next year yours truly is becoming chair of the Astronomy Grants Panel. Early Warning. Do not expect the inside dope. Do not ask. I will still be free to talk of matters Ess-Tee-Eff-ical, but anything connected with my newly privileged position will be off limits. STFC have asked me to help them, and that is what I will do.

Meanwhile, there is a renewed sensitivity to public comment in RCUK-land.  Upstairs of STFC they were very concerned about the Sunday Times story a few weeks back, that reported that STFC were seriously considering leaving CERN. The Sunday Times was able to write a somewhat alarmist story because they got a quote. This actually just stated the obvious – well, we will have to consider every option, Brian – but coming from a senior STFC staff member, whose blushes I shall spare, it sounded like a secret policy had been uncovered.  Sooo…. I understand that as a result new guidelines are being issued. Staff can freely comment on uncontentious things – like their own exciting science – but should refrain from things that might sound like a policy statement. Unless, presumably, it really is a policy statement. Quite right too. If I was in charge of RCUK I would I do much the same thing.

I just hope the baby isn’t thrown out with the bathwater…