Monday, September 25, 2006

Giant Ruddy Bangs

Last week I was down in the big smoke of London attending the grand surroundings of the Royal Society. There was a discussion meeting on γ-Ray bursts - GRBs - (intense flashes of γ-rays seen from space), which I was going to. The discussion there was very topical with a lot of talks being about recent results from the Swift satellite, which was specifically designed to spot these GRBs and then quickly slew onto their location and look at the afterglows from the original burst. Observing these afterglows is the key to working out the underlying process which causes the burst. Now I'd heard that bursts where catagorised into two types, short and long duration, depending on how long the initial flash lasted, with short ones lasting ~< a few seconds, and long ones lasting up to a few hundred seconds. I also thought that current knowledge suggested that the short bursts where from the inspirals/merger of a pair of compact objects e.g. neutron star binaries or black hole - neutron star binaries, and long bursts where collapsars e.g. a supernova in which the ejected material can't escape and falls back onto collapsed core in an accretion disk. Turns out that things are far more complicated than this two category system! There are all sorts of differences seen in and between bursts currently catagorised within one or other of the systems - with differences in the energies of the initial bursts, short bursts looking like long bursts, afterglows being mysteriously absent etc. Obviously there's still a lot more to find out about these events, but at the moment there's just a lot of stamp collecting and building up enough events to start making better catagorisations and working out what's really going on. Are these bursts all from the same kind of underlying event but just seen differently (i.e. a viewing angle effect) or are they completely different kinds of things, like white-dwarf mergers rather than collapsars?! There's enough going on in the field to keep the theorists and observationalists happy (or at least scratching their heads) for a while yet. Hopefully us gravitational wave types can detect something to help those guys out.

Thursday, September 14, 2006

Carbon, carbon everywhere

Right, it's time to take action! Now normally I'm a bit apathetic or just plain cynical (or maybe just too lazy) when it comes to petition type things, but I decided I'm going to change my ways for one issue at least. That issue is going to be climate change and the capping of Carbon Dioxide emissions. In the past I have actually been quite dismissive of the whole climate change thing, or at least mankinds contribution to it - I didn't have any doubt that the world has been heating up over the past century. I mean the Earth's climate has fluctuated wildly over its lifetime and the reasons for it were probably solar, or volcanic in origin. But I've come round to the view that mankind is certainly contributing a majority of the current temperature increase, and this could cause us some rather large problems in the not too distant future. There've been many recent climate reports from all sorts of governments and NGOs, all of which give very stark warnings about what will happen, but still governments (which as I just said have commissioned some of these reports) have not put any substantial policy into action - and I don't care about the Kyoto agreement, because it was fairly wishy washy and insubtantial in the first place. After seeing yet another report on these issues on Newsnight tonight I thought I'd write to my MP on these issues i.e. getting a yearly commitment to specific, and tough, CO_2 reduction targets, having a dedicated minister responsible for dealing with these issues and getting all other departments to legislate with these targets as a top priority, and also the need for these issues to be a top priority on a world stage. Now it was mentioned on Newsnight that Friends of the Earth, unsuprisingly, are campaining on these very things, and actually have a letter draft already set up - saving me the bother of writing one myself. This letter will be emailed to your local MP to encourage them to sign a proposed bill addressing the first of my points above. I encourage you to follow the link and send the letter in, or write your own letter and send it to everyone you can think of i.e. Tony Blair, the Queen, etc. Also encourage all your friend to send it in, email and pester them about it, also get your non-British friends to send a similar letter to there government representatives. This is only a first start obviously, but if everyone does this for as a first thing and then keeps sending more emails/letters and the like then thing may get done!!

Now I just have to find a way to justify my flight from Glasgow to London today, rather than walking down and planting trees on my way.

Wednesday, September 06, 2006

A good day for the Brits

This evening many European national teams were playing the second of their qualification matches for the 2008 European Championship. The British teams playing today (Scotland, Northern Ireland and England) all won, which is very good. The England game, which is the only won I saw all of, was however a rather disappointing affair. This was the first England game I've watched in a Scottish pub since seeing us go out of the World Cup (and we all know my last experience), but admittedly there've only been two England games since then and for one of them I was in America. We just didn't play well at all, couldn't pass for anything and just kept losing the ball. Some of the players just didn't be seeming to bother trying to even look where they were passing. We won, which is the main thing, but I'd like the players to at least try a bit harder, as having a 1-0 lead makes it a bit more nervy than it really should be. Scotland did well beating Lithuania away from home (I only saw brief bits of the game, so can't really comment on the performance), so they're now on top of their table on goal difference ahead of France. This should hopefully give them confidence to go on and perform well when they have to play France and Italy. The best, and most shocking result, was Northern Ireland's 3-2 win against Spain. I saw the last 15 mins of this game, and it was far more exciting than the whole of the England game. A brilliant result for them after their disappointing result against Iceland at the weekend. So all in all a nice evening for the home coutries, lets hope it continues.

And the winner is...

...Jodrell Bank. The lovely Lovell radio telescope sitting in the Cheshire countryside has won the BBC unsung landmarks competition. I think it is a very deserved winner and more people should appreciate the beauty of astronomical instrumentation. There are some great telescopes around the world that look fantastic and are truely epic pieces of engineering. You've got things like the Gemini and Keck telescopes, with huge 8-10 m mirrors that had to be transported to altitudes of a few km at the top of mountains - in fact at the Gemini South site in the Chilean Andes they had to blow the top of a mountain to flatten it out! You've got the Arecibo radio telescope which is 305 m across and built in a huge sinkhole in Puerto Rica. These are amazing instruments doing cutting edge science. I suggest visiting their respective websites to check how good these thing look to. Older smaller telescopes also look pretty damn cool and beautiful too and are incredible demonstrations of precision engineering from 100s of years ago - check out the pictures of the Radcliffe and Joynson telescopes which I got to use as an undergraduate at the University of London Observatory.

Update: It's been pointed out to me that I missed our our own beloved GEO600 in my speil about wondorous astronomical instrumentation. This was an oversite on my part. I should also give a nod to our maybe slightly more impressive and larger (well it eats a bit too much ;) ) American cousin LIGO.

Tuesday, September 05, 2006

Roll with it

On Sunday I dusted off (and they really were quite dusty) my roller skates. I've had these since I was 14, so getting on 11-12ish years, when our school (well whole city really) went through a roller skating stage. Now back in the day (aka the mid-90s) many places got in with the new-fangled inline/roller blades style action, but St Albans wasn't like that - oh no, we were old school! We shunned the inline wheels and went for the two wheels side-by-side at the front and back, as nature intended. Everyone had them, from the old women with blue rinses, to the smallest newborn baby. Obviously I had to get with the program and buy a pair. At the time me and my friends would whizz around on our bewheeled feet, oblivious to the many dangers that we faced, i.e. cars on roads and general steep slopes, and we lived to tell the tail. We even went to the occasional roller disco, which aren't proper roller discos unless at least one person break and appendage, in my opinion. A lot of fun was had rolling around in general.

So basically after all these years (well with some uses and wheel/bearing upgrades) I decided to give skating another go. I went down to Kelvingrove Park, which has some flatish surfaces, but also rather too many hilly bits. The last time I'd put the skates on was about 3 years ago (also in Kelvingrove Park), so I was a bit nervous to start with. I can skate okay, but still when I pick up a bit of speed I rather worry about whether I can stop again. After I bit I gained more confidence, but refrained from trying to speed about too much. It has also been raining a bit, so the surfaces were quite slick, which means that you have to be a bit more careful - especially when encountering wet leaves on the ground. I didn't skate for that long as it started to piss it down, but I enjoyed it and will try to go out more regularly from now on. Maybe I'll get back to the stage where I can skate backwards (properly) and do jumps and stuff.

The day of no internet

Today was a long, hard and tedious day. I had to read things off flattened, dried wood pulp and write things using ink rolled from the tip of a thin tube onto said wood pulp. Why was I forced into such backwards, primitive, stoneage style, actions? Because, I'm afraid, my computer at work was slightly buggered. Well, my computer itself was fine, but the server which held our home directories had been upgraded, and unfortunately was having some teething problems, which in general meant I couldn't log into my account and use the thing. This meant I spent a day with no access to the lovely, lovely joys of the internet. Do you know how that feels!? If I'd chosen to take a day offline it wouldn't have been so bad. It would have been a self appointed abstination, which would have left me feeling good about myself. This unwanted internet break, however, left me feeling angry and out of touch with the ebb and flow of the world around me. How does one know what's going on without access to the BBC news I ask you!? Do you know what I was reduced to during this enforced web disconnect? I actually had to try and do some non-computery work! I read some papers which had been sitting on my desk for weeks. I went through some notes I'd been meaning to go over in detail. I tried to finally fathom out the whole covariance matrix/derivatives of the log likelihood thing! It was horrifying I tell you.

Anyway, things are back to normal now. Our sys admin has sorted things and I now have a home directory to call my own. Hoorah! Tomorrow I be able to do it, but today I even missed looking through the arxiv preprints this morning - how sad!