Call Off Christmas

May 20, 2013

Some interesting “MOOCs will change everything” stuff on the webby-media today. Although I blogged about this a short while ago, I am tempted to have another go. But while I think about this, here is something much sillier.

The Royal Institution have decided to trademark the phrase “Christmas Lectures”. No really. If you give a lecture at Christmas, and advertise it as a Christmas Lecture, you may be breaking the law. Here is their official statement, and here is a blog post by Ian Gent explaining why it is a very bad idea, as well as an unjustified one. Those of who follow Mike Merrifield on Twitter will know that he is particularly miffed, being already booked to give a series of Christmas Lectures this year… The official statement includes an email address if you’d like to discuss this with the RI…

Well. We understand why they are doing it I suppose. But yea verily, it is an silly idea. Here is Alan Rickman in his classic impersonation of a stressed out RI Director :


Goodbye Wal

October 31, 2012

Sad news for astronomy – Wal Sargent has died.Wal is famous for his work on quasar absorption lines, but was also a pillar of Caltech, producing a stream of stellar grad students such as John  Huchra, Chuck Steidel, and Alex Filippenko. He was a much loved character as well as a world leading scientist. He is survived by his wife Anneila, who is of course an equally famous astronomer. Anneila is from Fife and we were very proud to give her an honorary degree a few years back.

The Caltech announcement is here. Sean Carroll has already written some words at Cosmic Variance, and there are a lot of comments on the Facebook Astronomers group page.

I only met Wal a few times, but I felt as if I knew him before I even met him, as I used to listen to Mike Penston telling Wal stories at lunchtime in the old RGO at Herstmonceux castle. Apparently, some time in the sixties, possibly the same year that Mike and Margaret broke one of the beds at Palomar, Wal and Mike wrote a Pantomime called “The Plate Flaw That Destroyed The Earth”.  Some astronomers notice an annoying flaw on a plate they take at Palomar. Strangely, on another plate the next week the same flaw is there but it has moved. Our heroes calculate the orbit of the plate flaw and conclude that it will hit the Earth on Christmas Day.Very Milligan. Can’t remember what happens next. Perhaps some old timer can enlighten us?

I have heard Wal quoted repeatedly during STFC and PPARC crises. Being an ex-Brit, Wal was often bemused by the strange recurring political lurchings and restucturings of British science and especially astronomy. It is claimed – I don’t know if its really true – that he once said that every few year years the Government pulls the astronomical plant out of the ground, examines the dangling roots to see if its growing, then pushes it back in.


Sky Lovers

January 11, 2010


Galaxy images by Russell Croman. NGC 2903 on the left, NGC 891 on the right. Click for bigger versions.


Hello there 2010. Sorry for the absence of posts : I went into a sort of Christmas wasteland, followed seamlessly by a teaching panic. Strangely, even when there was nothing to read, the blog was being checked out 2-300 times a day. Aint you people got stuff to do ? (The Dec 16 peak was 2794. By the way have no idea what these numbers really mean.)

So later today I will be delighting a hundred and fifty fresh young things with Lecture One in Discovering Astronomy 1G. Before it all gets a bit serious, I shall be going for shameless entertainment, running Andy’s Whirlwind Tour of the Entire Universe. Its a few years since I have done this gig, so I have been roaming the Internut updating my picture collection. The three core websites for pretty pix are I guess Hubblesite , and the public Chandra and ESO sites. However, the most striking and interesting thing I came across is the existence of some amazingly impressive amateur astrophotography sites.

A few weeks back I wrote a post plugging Damian Peach and his amazingly sharp pictures using “lucky” imaging. This only works for very bright objects like planets. But amateurs are taking amazing deep sky pictures too. Some of them have 20inch telescopes as well as good CCD cameras; there are well designed filters, and excellent software. Some of them are lucky enough to live in Arizona, which helps. Finally of course their key weapons are patience and dedication; making excellent images is what they are all about. Of course some of them are professional photographers at the same time as being amateur astronomers.

Above are two galaxy pictures from Russell Croman, and below is a short list of some of my favourite web sites. Do respect the copyrights (I make sure they are properly credited in my lectures.) I note that they nearly all seem to be Americans or Brits. Surely our Euro cousins must be doing this stuff too ?

Jerry Lodriguss
Russell Croman, in Texas
Jonathan Fay at Bear Creek Observatory
Damian Peach, Buckinghamshire
Phillip Perkins, Wiltshire
David Nash, Cambridgeshire
Bob and Janice Fera, California
Jason Ware
George Creaney, Las Vegas
Nick Szymanek, well known tube driver
Akiro Fujii via David Malin

Enjoy !


Make yourself feel good

December 10, 2008

I am at least fourth off the blocks here … but I recommend you go visit http://www.physics.ox.ac.uk/skyphoto , get a piece of history, help a very sick child, and give yourself a nice warm christmassy glow. The basic idea is selling framed prints from old Palomar Sky Survey plates, to raise money for Alexander Thatte, the son of two Oxford astronomers, who is battling leukaemia, and whose last chance may be a new anti-body treatment. I haven’t met Alexander, but his parents are lovely people and they all deserve a break.  Apparently there are even copies signed by Jocelyn Bell Burnell … oooohhh

Old plates really are beautiful …  like a few other locals, I rescued a few glass positives from the non-survey part of the UK Schmidt collection, and a lot more went to the local art school .. but framed prints for charity is a great idea.

Visit the web site and do something.