With apologies for slightly mutilating Jhonen Vasquez’s post Comic Con doodle. But honestly, it pretty much sums up how I feel, realising all of the stuff I need to do now I’m home…

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As I write this, I’m sitting in Incheon airport in Korea. I am very tired and, once again, courtesy of the International Date Line I’m slightly confused as to what day it is. The reason for my travelling shenanigans this time was the General Assembly of the IAU – arguably the world’s largest astronomical conference, and a good opportunity for unashamed scientific nerdery, shameless attempts to promote one’s own research and occasional indulgences. And being as this was held in Waikiki, Honolulu, the price of literally everything is rather indulgent, quite frankly.

I can't believe I lost my fan...

Overall, this was a great conference and a good experience. I had some productive conversations, met up with some old friends, made some fantastic new friends, and finally had the chance to visit some of the observatories in Hilo♣︎.

At the same time, however, it wasn’t all sunshine and mai tais. This conference seems to have highlighted a number of concerning things in astronomy right now (this, for example) and left me with quite a lot of food for thought. I have plenty of things to mull over, but gathering my thoughts is probably best left till a time when I’m a little less run down. Unfortunately, I have to be at another conference in Tokyo about 10 hours after my flight lands, so I’m not sure precisely when that may be. No rest for the wicked, I suppose.


People always seem to think that Tokyo is an expensive city. Compared to Honolulu, it’s really not!
♣︎ I didn’t get to visit Mauna Kea, unfortunately. But that’s another story…

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Frosty little world

I’m so happy that humanity has visited Pluto within my lifetime. I mean, just look at it!

We ♥︎ you too, Pluto!

I thought that caramel ice cream would be an appropriate celebration of getting to this butterscotchy-looking little world. Honestly, it’s a fascinating little place. There only look to be a handful of obvious craters on it. That means the material on the surface must be fairly new. The press conference I just watched, while obviously preliminary, threw some fascinating ideas around. For instance, the fact that there may be some time of tectonic activity on Pluto, past or present. The fact that it appears to snow on Pluto. The fact that at present there seem to be no signs of clouds or hazes (despite the fact that I’m pretty sure these things have been detected in the past).

It’ll still be another 5 or 6 hours till transmissions span the 7.5 billion km from Pluto back to Earth. Once we receive the data (which will take quite some time), then we should start to see some very exciting things. Especially, as New Horizons is planned to pass through the shadows of both Pluto and Charon. When it does, then we’ll see for certain if there’s any kind of atmospheric haze there.

This year is full of dwarf planets and excitement!

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Chemicals are bad, m’kay?

So it’s summertime once more. The lotus flowers are in bloom, everyone’s enjoying ice cream and relaxing in shady spots with cold drinks. There’s just one drawback. Mosquitos.


I may be a total pacifist usually, but that does not extend to mosquitos. With good reason, because despite their diminutive nature, mosquitos are the most deadly creature on this planet, infecting 10% of the human population with some kind of disease every year, and consequently being responsible for more human deaths than any other animal. Lovely.

Unfortunately, a couple of minutes with Google to look for information on insect repellents comes out with some gross misinformation. This makes me sad, so I thought I’d try and do what little I can to try and straighten out a few facts.

1. “Chemicals are evil!!!!!1”

No. They’re not. In fact, you’re made of chemicals. Retinal is a chemical. It allows you to see things. Hemoglobin is a chemical. It lets your blood carry oxygen around your body. Fructose is a chemical. It tastes nice.

Yes, I realise that there are some chemicals which you don’t want on your skin (I do have a degree in chemistry, after all), and there are a lot which should have actually been tested more thoroughly before being used widely (I’m looking at you, American farmers with your DDT) – but talking about “chemical-free insect repellent” is just untrue. Yes, citronella oil is natural, but it contains a few chemicals (such as citronellal, geraniol, and limonene) which are actually what keep the bugs away. Please stop using the word “chemical” like it’s some kind of villain.

2. “Natural things don’t work”

These are the overcompensation for those who have the previous approach (weird how the internet is a soapbox for polarised opinions). Frankly, a lot of natural things do work. Citronellal and geraniol genuinely do repel insects quite effectively. That’s precisely why plants evolved with them. In fact, some of these function in very similar ways to synthetic insecticides we’re all more familiar with. At least a few industrial pesticides (and medicines) are actually based on modified versions of naturally occurring chemical compounds.

Just remember that while natural things can sometimes be no less effective than synthetic things, being “natural” does not mean something is safe. Snake venom is natural. So is the gympie gympie stinging tree*.

In short, try not to be closed minded. Yes, citronella candles do keep mosquitos away. So does DEET. You might not like DEET, but if you’re going to an area prone to malaria and Dengue fever, I can guarantee that you’ll like those even less.


* The gympie gympie stinging tree is a tree which is covered entirely with fine hairs which deliver a potent neurotoxin. This toxin causes agonising pain which can, in particularly unfortunate cases, last for months. Even years, so they say. Oh, and in severe doses, that toxin is potent enough to kill a horse. In case you hadn’t guessed, this plant is found in Australia…

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I should write here more. I seem to have been on an extended accidental hiatus, and intend on remedying this in the near future…

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The interesting thing about the Universe is that it’s big. Really big. With enough space and time, even the rarest events can find time to happen, with bizarre and unusual things happening as a result. And some rather good evidence for one such unusual thing was found earlier this year.

I like explosions...

A Thorne-Żytkow object is a bizarre and seemingly paradoxical kind of star. Named after the two astrophysicists who first hypothesised its existence, Kip Thorne and Anna Żytkow, a strange star like one of these is a hybrid, of sorts. It’s believed to be a red giant star with a neutron star hiding at its core.

Earlier this year, the star HV 2112 was found to behave… not quite as expected. It didn’t quite match with models made to predict its behaviour, suggesting that there was something odd about it. While the astronomers involved stress that their idea is a cautious one, a possible explanation is that this star is precisely one of these curious stellar cocktails.

Red giants are astonishingly large. A typical sized red giant star could engulf our entire inner solar system without much difficulty. The largest known star, VY Canis Majoris, is a red giant – and it’s large enough to be difficult to fully appreciate. The human brain wasn’t engineered to encompass the immense scales which we encounter in astronomy. Neutron stars, on the other hand, are stellar corpses. The still-hot cinders from once mighty stars long ago burned out. Neutron stars are quite mindbending little things in their own right. The core of a massive star, containing more material than the Sun, compressed down to the size of a large city here on Earth, neutron stars are so unimaginably dense that their gravity can bend light and warp the fabric of spacetime.

So if you have a densely populated region of space, such as a globular cluster, there are enough stars in such a tight space, that every so often, a couple of them may crash into each other. If the two stars colliding with each other happen to be a neutron star and a red giant, the end result is a Thorne-Żytkow object. After colliding, the neutron star spirals inwards, sinking to the core of the ill-fated red giant. Once there, it proceeds to violently consume the larger star. As material from the red giant crashes onto the surface of the neutron star, it makes things incredibly hot. Hotter than the cores of most normal stars. Huge gravitational forces compress and heat up anything which lands on the neutron star, eventually mashing together individual atoms and driving nuclear fusion at hugely accelerated rates. Unusual chemical isotopes may form, driven by the high temperatures, and this bizarre type of fusion.

Stars like these may at first appear to us as red supergiants, or possibly as more violent Wolf-Rayet stars. Eventually though, one of two things will happen. The most extreme outcome is if the neutron star can accrete enough mass to collapse into a black hole. If this happens, the energy released will result in a supernova, blowing away any outer layers of stellar material not yet accreted. Otherwise, the two will eventually merge into a single object, resulting in one massive neutron star. Leftover stellar material will most likely end up as a massive accretion disk surrounding the neutron star. Interestingly enough, this disk works in the same way as the disks around young stars. It may even be massive enough to form additional companion stars of its own…

Whether or not HV 2112 is actually one of these objects remains to be confirmed. But it’ll be very interesting if it is. I haven’t read the actual study yet, but it’s available on arXiv if you’re curious.

Image credit:
European Space Agency and Justyn R. Maund (University of Cambridge)

You just won’t believe how vastly, hugely, mindbogglingly big it is. I mean, you may think it’s a long way down the road to the chemist’s, but that’s just peanuts to space…

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In other news, here is a selfie taken by a robot on the surface of another planet.

I hope you’re having a nice Monday!

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Rules to Live By

I found this on tumblr a few days ago, and really liked it. 11 rules of a scientist’s life. I liked it because it does a good job of summarising the rules which I genuinely try to live by. As Carl Sagan once said, “Science is a way of thinking much more than it is a body of knowledge.”

They're pretty good rules for anyone, really...

In fact, I liked it so much, that I wrote out the 11 rules on the first page of my new notebook. Taking care to think in the right way is probably the biggest difference between being a scientist and simply working in science. While I understand that not everyone may share my opinion, I consider this more than simply a job. To me, it’s a lifestyle. I like to try and apply this way of thinking to the rest of my life too. Granted, I may not always succeed; I am, after all, only human.

The source for this list is benchfly, where you can also find a pdf download if you feel like printing it out for whatever reason.

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Ring Ring

Asteroids are just boring hunks of space rock, right? Well, you might have thought so. But you would be wrong. Well… Mostly wrong. Some of them are rather interesting.

This particular interesting hunk of space rock is 10199 Chariklo, and it’s an asteroid with a ring system! Chariklo is a Centaur – that is, an asteroid which dwells amid the orbits of the gas giants. This one has an orbit which is very close to the orbit of Uranus. It has a diameter of roughly 232 km, it’s listed as a “possible dwarf planet”, and it may have water ice on its surface.


The ring system is a surprise though. It was discovered just a few days ago, as the asteroid passed in front of background stars. As stars are covered and uncovered by a planetary ring system, their light dims briefly as they’re occulted by the dusty material which makes up the ring. As all four of our solar system’s gas giants have rings of their own, this is a pretty well known technique. Saturn’s faint outer rings have been observed this way before. But finding two rings – named Oiapoque and Chuí for two of Brazil’s most well known rivers – orbiting an asteroid? Actually, that raises a few interesting questions.

There’s a lot about planetary rings which we’re not really certain about. How exactly do they form? How long do they last? What kinds of ring systems are possible? From our solar system, we can assume that they must form quite readily around gas giants, and we’ve detected a vast ring system around one exoplanet. Apparently, size is not a prerequisite though. If tiny Chariklo can hold on to a ring system, then it’s likely that any of the objects in the solar system could.

Suddenly, those pretty images of what Earth’s scenery might look like if our planet had rings don’t seem quite so far fetched. Then again, for all we know, maybe Earth did once have rings – at least, before they formed into the Moon.

Image credit: Lucie Maquet

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❝ I know nothing with any certainty, but the sight of the stars makes me dream.❞

Vincent Van Gogh

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