Thursday, April 23, 2009

Twittering NAM

Just as a follow on from my last post...

There was a bit of twittering going on at the meeting to (although it took a while to get going and I didn't contribute much myself), so if you want to see what went on then search for the hashtags #jenam and/or #nam2009, and carolune had extensive coverage of the RAS community discussion at the end of the meeting.

Those of us from Glasgow were taking particular note of the meeting organisation as we're hosting it next year. There's already a basic webpage, a twitter feed to follow and a flickr photostream.

Astronomers in Hatfield

This week I've been attending the RAS National Astronomy Meeting (NAM) - this year held jointly with the European Astronomy Society European Week of Astronomy and Space Science giving the new meeting title of JENAM. Last year the meeting was held in Belfast (see here for my exceptionally meagre coverage of that meeting!), but this year was held at the University of Hertfordshire in Hatfield, making it a perfect opportunity for me to combine a meeting with a trip back to my home town of St. Albans (which is right next to Hatfield, although I did spend the first eighteen months of my life living in Hatfield) - this also reduced my costs as I've been staying at my parents house and they've been giving me lifts to and from the meeting [obviously I got them to drop me off far enough away from the meeting venue, so as not to embarrass me in front of my cool astronomy friends ;-)].

Last year I noticed quite a few people were blogging the meeting, but a google blog search of this year's meeting doesn't throw up much (the usual astronomy blogging force of Chris Lintott wasn't here for one), so I'll summarise a few of the highlights I saw.

As with most major meeting's I got most out of the plenary talks. On Monday we had a great talk from Richard Harrison about the STEREO mission, which involves two spacecraft - one advancing in front of Earth's orbit and one trailing it - that monitor the Sun, and the space in between the Earth and Sun, to give a unique 3D view of solar activity and coronal mass ejections (CMEs). We got some really nice videos of data from the craft showing the two opposite views of a CME heading towards the Earth, although we didn't get to see any of the 3D images of the Sun itself. For the next two sessions of the day I went learn about Supernovae and γ-ray bursts (GRBs). Avishay Gal-Yam gave a nice overview of the different types of core-collapse supernova that happen to stars over the full range of masses. These include electron capture supernova at the lowest mass end (for which there have yet to be any completely convincing observations); accretion induced collapse (AIC) supernova from two white dwarfs ripping each other apart; supernova that don't produce an observable explosion (meaning event rates could actually be higher than observed); and really massive (of hundreds of solar masses) stellar explosions, which may not even lead to a core collapse.

On Tuesday morning there were a couple of really good plenary sessions. The first was from Tim de Zeeuw from the European Southern Observatory (ESO) talking about current and future ESO plans. There were some brilliant photos of the ESO Paranal site in Chile, home of the VLT (and the building that was blown up in Quantum of Solace), and impressive information about the Atacama Large Millimetre Array (ALMA). Most exciting was the part of the talk about the European Extremely Large Telescope (E-ELT), a planned telescope with a 42m diameter mirror(!), which I was surprised to find out has progressed very far in the planning and design and has a fantastic science case. After that we heard from Michel Mayor, one of the original discovers of the first exoplanets, who gave a very nice talk about a load of new planets discovered using radial velocity measurements, including the lowest mass (~2 Earth masses) exoplanet yet found. Later on I found out a bit about the LOFAR radio telescope and dark matter detection experiments, but the stand out talk of the afternoon, was my talk on searching for gravitational waves form pulsars! ;-)

The first plenary talk of Wednesday was given by David Southwood, director of science for ESA. I missed the first half of this talk as I'd decided to walk from my parents house rather than get a lift and I misjudged how long it would take, but arrived to hear about Mars missions. As ever David spoke his mind and didn't hold back his opinions (which is quite refreshing from someone who has to move in the political sphere, but at times verges on just being a bit too open with his views!) Later that day I mainly heard about gravitational lensing, including a talk by John McKean (a former Glasgow graduate) about detection of a water maser at a redshift of ~2.5 - the most distant water even seen - in the lensed image of a quasar. In the afternoon I went to a session on outreach done for the International Year of Astronomy (IYA09). Particularly interesting was the planned astronomy exhibit, and associated events, at the Science museum (they apparently have a massive collection of astronomical instrumentation from over the ages, but it's mainly in storage) and the events happening at the Royal Observatory in Greenwich. There was also a talk about the making of the educational film The Starry Messenger that was made by people in the astronomy group at the University of Hertfordshire - it was premiered at the meeting, but I didn't see it, although if it gets released online I may well give it a watch.

Today's plenary session saw another couple of good talks. Firstly Joseph Lazio gave a nice overview of some of the science that will be possible with the Square Kilometre Array (a future radio telescope). He couldn't touch on all the things it will do, but did give a nice little introduction into it's potential for making a pulsar timing array to detect gravitational waves (something I'm particularly interested in). I then heard the status and results of a selection of ground-based γ-ray observatories. Later I saw an interesting talk by Prof. Sir Arnold Wolfendale (he's a very prominent old astronomer and one of the founders of cosmic ray astronomy, and as he's been around so long he's not afraid to be controversial and speak his mind, although for some reason he does seem to be a global warming denier) who was discussing whether certain cosmic rays sources seen by the Pierre Auger Observatory that had been tentatively identified as correlating with AGNs, are actually extragalactic or not - his opinion, backed up with some evidence, was the latter. The final talk of the week was an invited lecture by George Ellis who was discussing current topics in cosmology. His main talking point was to say that some current trends in cosmology to talk about multiverse theories as if they are a scientifically valid position to take, as opposed to being philosophical speculation - this is due to the fact that you can't think up any experiment, or make predictions, to test these theories, so they don't stand up to a standard scientific definition. He also discussed various cosmological theories that could be tested, for example that the universe could be small and have a closed topology. Finally the meeting ended with the RAS community forum, which had some interesting discussions, but wasn't particularly controversial.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Down the Doon

[Reposted from here]

Yesterday a small group of us (Euan, Nick, Rupert and myself) took a departure from the normal north westerly or easterly river trips and went south of Glasgow into Ayrshire to paddle the River Doon (aka the Ness Glen). This river runs out of the Loch Doon dam through the Ness Glen gorge, straight over a small weir followed by a quick succession of rapid sections for about a mile.

The weather on that day was pretty overcast, but it was reasonably warm (although a bit breezy when standing by the Loch getting changed) and decent paddling weather. On heading down from the road to the river we were told by a nice old couple that the river looked "sporting", which we didn't really know what to make of, but hoped it boded well. After getting in above the weir we decided to give it a miss as there was some nasty looking metal underneath it (which from reading this has apparently taken the end off at least one boat), and started up proper just below it. It didn't take long to reach the first major rapid which we all navigated safely and were quickly onto the next. The next section saw my first swim of the day when I got pinned on a rock (which became a bit of a recurring theme for me) and the water coming over the back of my boat sent me under - I blame this on the low footbridge that I hit with my paddle just beforehand and made me lose control, but the other swims weren't so easy to pass the buck. The river was pretty shallow and narrow all the way down the gorge, so it was easy to make my way out, but my boat and paddle were a bit harder to reach and Euan bravely went in to fetch the paddle. At the next, slightly larger, rapid (I may be getting the ordering mixed up) we got out to have a look for the best route first. Then Rupert showed us the route not to take, before Nick showed a far nicer line and we followed over without any incident. Following that I had a couple more swims and pins (I had to be helped out of one pin by an old man walking by who gave me a shove with his walking stick), one of which was particularly gimpy when I just hit a log and went over, but everyone else made it down fine. This section of the river was great fun as there was always something to do and the rapids were challenging, but not too intimidating. There were a lot of low bridges, branches and obstacles to look out for, although that added a bit of character to the river.

The worst bit of the day was the next half hour (probably far longer than, but I kind of lost track of time) paddling almost flat water to the get out. I'd recommend for future trips to the Doon to get out at the bottom on the Ness Glen section and potentially just walk back to the top along the footpath, that is unless you really enjoy dull paddles, scraping your boat along shallow sections and weaving in and out of overhanging trees and bushes.

Overall it was a great trip and it's definitely a river I recommend again. Swim count: 3 (all me).

Thursday, April 02, 2009

Getting shirty

For some reason today I decided to buy the new England football shirt (if you can tolerate the stupid amounts of flash used on the webpage have a look). On seeing the last couple of England matches I've rather liked the new strip (it was debuted [is that how you spell the past tense of debut? - in fact is that even how you spell debut!] on Saturday's match against Slovakia) - it's nice and simple and looks good. However, the main issue on buying it is that it costs about £50! I knew it was going to be pricey, but that was about 15 quid more than I expected. I bought it anyway and will try and get as much wear out of it as possible despite living in Scotland.

I've nothing really to add about the actual football that took place other than I'm pretty please that we're still on winning form. Saturday's friendly was a good watch despite the opposition being poor and yesterday's qualifier was reasonably dull, occasionally frustrating, but got the job done.