Words matter

This gifset has been going around Tumblr awhile now (1,408,824 notes while I’m writing this!), and I think it’s a very important message.









Gender is irrelevant really. Kids all like science. I know I did, and I think the same is true of everyone I know who ended up in science, no matter what their gender may be. The unfortunate thing is that we tell kids that science is for boys, while discouraging girls. Science toys are marketed at boys because it’s ok for boys to play with chemistry sets or catch bugs or break rocks in two to look for fossils. The idea that girls shouldn’t do these things is ridiculously old fashioned.

Conversely, I wish people would stop having “brilliant” ideas of making science appeal to girls by making it girly. What’s so bad about just, you know, encouraging girls to like something as it is? After a conversation I had with @girlandkat a few weeks ago, I find myself thinking along the same lines more and more. Gender is only an issue because we make it an issue. We should stop making things for children which are so needlessly gender defined, and stop pushing children down such narrow gender-based avenues. I’m quite certain the increased diversity will benefit everyone.

In the meantime, for anyone reading this with children or younger family members, I’d ask you to please keep one thing in mind. Push interests not gender roles. If a kid is interested in something, you should encourage them. Not tell them to stop it because outdated values claim that it’s not appropriate for someone with their anatomy.

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Twilight on Pluto

It turns out, Pluto has blue skies. And water ice on its surface. Which, at a cursory glance might make it seem a little bit like home. But only a little bit.

Some notable experts were a little puzzled to find that at first, Pluto appeared to have no haze. One of the most knowledgeable people to listen to about hazes on small worlds is Sarah Hörst, an expert on Titan, who seemed rather puzzled at the idea that Pluto may be haze-free. From its night side though, Pluto reveals its hazy goodness.

Die himmel ist blau...

This image is about as close to true colour as you can get. The glow comes from a deep layer of haze which swathes all of Pluto, and yes, it’s a lovely indigo blue colour. It looks strikingly like the haze in the upper atmosphere of Titan, and is quite probably made the same way. Hazes form when nitrogen molecules and small hydrocarbons are bombarded by ultraviolet in a planet’s upper atmosphere. They form into carbonaceous particles made of tarry material called tholin which then proceeds to fall back down to the planet’s surface. Here on Earth, the same thing happens over cities to form smog.

Look closely at the images of Pluto’s atmosphere and you’ll even see striations in the haze, showing different atmospheric layers. It’s really rather fascinating!

The air's full of smoggy haze and there's no liquid water. Sounds a little bit like Southern California...

Haze on Pluto means that the tiny world has a rich, active chemistry going on, which is something I’d very much like to know more about. Hopefully we’ll learn more as New Horizons continues sending back data.

For the record though, the blue colour is due to the fact that tholins tend to be an orangey red colour (which is why Titan’s clouds are that beautiful orange colour). As a result the tholin particles in the atmosphere scatter red/orange light away. It’s the reason for the reddish colour of the little planet’s surface. While Pluto’s atmosphere is too thin to see this normally, when seen in silhouette, the sunlight passing though the atmosphere has very few red photons left in it so you see blue haze. The fact that martian dust does something similar is why sunsets are blue on Mars.

In other words, Pluto may seem to have blue skies, but it doesn’t. And the blue you see in that picture up there shows skies which are not actually blue like Earth. Actually, they’re blue like Mars!

Actually, given how little sunlight makes it out that far, Pluto is permanently a twilight world...

This twilight Pluto image has been colourised by myself. The original was gorgeous but grayscale. There’s another version out there, but I think mine’s slightly more accurate…

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Snowball Moon

Enceladus is, without question, one of the most interesting locations in our solar system, and for a lot of reasons. Quite simply, this tiny Cronian moon is a mystery. We know what we see, but we have utterly no idea what makes it tick!

Oh, and that yellow glow in this picture? That's saturnshine. Sunlight reflected off the yellowy cloudtops of saturn.

What we see, as it happens, is geysers of pure water spraying out of four fissures in Enceladus’ surface. They spray so high and with such force that much of the water escapes the moon’s feeble gravitational pull and actually create one of Saturn’s rings! (The rest eventually falls back down as snow, giving Enceladus a ratheryouthful appearance). The thing is, a diminutive object like Enceladus shouldn’t, by rights, be active at all. It’s so small that it’s likely only just large enough to even be spherical. Smaller objects cool faster, so while a reasonably sized planet like Earth still has a molten core, our planet’s own moon is mostly solid by now.

Small but mighty

Enceladus, however, contains a lot of internal heat and it’s still not entirely clear where it all comes from. Because when I say it’s tiny, I’m really not exaggerating. The image above shows a handful of tiny worlds recently visited by humanity, compared with Earth’s moon. As you can see, Enceladus is so small that it could easily become a moon for an object the size of our moon (which would make it a moon moon, I suppose).

There are hotspots near it’s south side, resulting in a series of fissures nicknamed “tiger stripes”, and it certainly receives tidal heating due to Saturn’s considerable gravity pulling and squeezing it as it orbits. But it’s still difficult to explain why this little moon is so warm. Or why it seems to contain liquid water. Or why it sprays that water so high into Saturn’s orbit the way it does. Studies have suggested that tidal heating alone can account for about 1.1 gigawatts of power being supplied to Enceladus. But the Cassini probe’s observations suggest that there are about 4.7 gigawatts powering Enceladus’ hotspot. There’s a lot of heat which is still going unaccounted for…

While it’s been accepted for some time that there must be a subsurface ocean under Enceladus’ south pole, the latest suggestions are that this ocean may actually be global (just like Europa!). Actually, the evidence is fairly compelling. Essentially, as it orbits, Enceladus shows a slight wobble. It’s not very pronounced, but it appears to be more apparent than it would be if Enceladus was mostly rigid. This suggests that its surface is actually detached from its core, as it would be if its icy crust was floating on a global ocean of liquid. Given that an ocean of water would be a good place to look for signs of extraterrestrial life, many consider Enceladus to be a priority target in space exploration.

So excitingly enough, NASA planetary scientists have schemed something quite fun. Cassini’s taken a few close passes of Enceladus lately, giving us some more detailed views. Following up on this, on October 28th (that’s this Wednesday), they’re going to plough Cassini straight through the plume of icy water being sprayed out of Enceladus. Cassini is, to date, one of the most successful robotic probes ever launched. It’s been orbiting Saturn for over a decade now. As a result, I guess its pilots aren’t afraid to take a few risks (it’s always fun when spacecraft pilots aren’t afraid to be a little gung-ho). After all, there surely can’t be that much more data it can usefully collect. I’m quite excited to see what they might find out…

What secrets are you hiding, little moon...?

And as we all know, 1.1 gigawatts isn’t even enough power to travel into the future

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Meteor Chemistry

Have you ever noticed that not all meteors you see falling are the same colour? Growing up in the dark countryside away from city lights, I saw them sometimes, and their colour occasionally seemed to be an unusual and striking shade. Other times entire meteor showers tend to be a certain colour (the Quadrantids, for instance, tend to be blue). The reason for this is all down to what chemical elements are found in the meteors.

I stumbled across this image from AccuWeather.com somewhere on the internet and thought it seemed pretty cool. It’s a handy little chart for determining what’s in a meteor based on its colour.

The purple ones are pretty rare.

These look accurate to me. Incidentally, a flame test for Calcium shows a rich red colour, but in this case I’d assume that you don’t find Calcium without Magnesium, so you’d get purple. As for the oxygen/nitrogen meteors, I’d guess the colour is due to chemical compounds in the meteor breaking down. Atomic oxygen emits red light when it’s excited. Which is actually why aurorae are red after heavy solar storms, when charged particles from the sun are energetic enough to reach Earth’s inner atmosphere. There, they fragment oxygen atoms and make a red glow.

So now you can know a little bit more about what you’re seeing if ever you watch a meteor shower. Adds an extra dimension, I think…

I always love seeing a bright blue one. This one looks like it has a tinge or purple too...

Image is “Fireball over Banff Rundle Mountain” © Brett Abernethy. His photos are spectacular and make me wish I had a better camera!

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How to write a proposal – part I

A friend of mine contacted me recently to ask for help on writing a research proposal, and I said I’d send her an e-mail about it… But after thinking about this carefully, it might be better to make this advice publicly available. Writing a proposal is a vital skill for anyone planning on working in academia, and it’s one which seemingly takes a while to master.

proposal-writing-2I ought to say upfront – I am no expert. While I must have been reasonably successful to win a postdoc fellowship, I’m sure there will be areas where my advice is lacking. I would welcome any advice from those more experienced on the matter, as I most definitely have a lot to learn. On the flipside, given that I’m, once again, applying for postdoc fellowships and hopefully soon to start attempting to apply for large grants as a principal investigator, consolidating my knowledge this way might help me out too. This is a selection of things which I’ve considered, things I’ve found out, and advice I’ve been given.

So, in no particular order, here are several tips for any early career researcher trying to write a research proposal…

Know Your Aims

Consider what research topic you want to look into. Take a look at what you enjoy (and don’t enjoy) and ask yourself where you’d like to go next. If you really enjoy the subject you’ve been working on previously, you may way to focus more closely on something you’ve looked at before. You may want to take a step to one side and examine something but from a different angle. You may choose to take a step forward and use something from your existing work to progress and look at whatever topic you think should come next.

Alternatively, you may have decided that for whatever reason, this subject isn’t for you. And that’s ok too. Examine what tricks and techniques you’ve learned and see how they may apply to another topic. Look at how to bridge the gap and progress from where you are to where you’d like to end up. For example, if you’ve been using spectroscopic techniques to look at interstellar matter, it’s not too much of a jump to use the same kind of techniques to look at planet formation. The trick is to see somewhere you can use your own skillset, and consider how you might be able to work on that method.

Additionally, go and read the literature. Any good idea has probably been had before. But that doesn’t mean that it’s been published. And if it has been published, it doesn’t mean it’s been explored fully. Go and look to see if anyone else has had your idea. If they haven’t, cool, you can move in and make it yours (reviewers like words such as “novel” and “innovative”). If they have, not to worry. Read anything published and see if you can find an interesting side to it which hasn’t been fully investigated.

Know Your Research Field and Connect

It really pays to know who does what in your field. Who’s connected to whom, and who has research interests which match your own. This is where any conferences and research visits you may have been to will come in handy. Hopefully, you met some people or were introduced to some people, and you can contact them to ask if they’d be interested in working with you as a postdoc.

Alternatively, if you don’t know anyone working in that area, all is not lost. Finding someone who’s working on your chosen topic shouldn’t be too hard. Look at the names in author lists on papers. Check the department staff pages on University websites. Look at the listed contributors (especially invited speakers) in conference attendance lists and proceedings. Then write a simple e-mail. It doesn’t need to be exceptionally well thought out or eloquent. Just be polite, and explain yourself. You’ll be surprised how often people will get back to you.

proposal-writing-3And remember, most university faculty are unlikely to say no to an additional researcher. Particularly if you’ll be applying for a fellowship and therefore hope to arrive with your own source of funding. It’s likely that everyone will benefit from this. In an ideal case, an academic will be quite happy to send you copies of their recent publications and/or review articles which you can use to try and find a research idea which fits with what they work on. Then you can work together to develop the idea further.

Of course, there is one reason for them to say no and that’s if your research interests are too far mismatched with theirs – in which case you’d be better off finding someone else to work with anyway. You can always ask if they know anyone who’d be interested.

Find Your Topic

Remember. You are a unique scientist with a unique set of skills, ideas, and abilities. Even if a subject has been covered before, it won’t have been covered in the same way you might cover it. Think back to those aims I was talking about before, and those papers you read while investigating your idea. Here’s where they become extra useful, and you try and graduate your idea into a full hypothesis.

Any well written paper should make its findings clear. It should draw conclusions, and possibly make references to future work. Here’s where you need to think laterally, and if you don’t worry too much about it, it can be the fun part. Look at the conclusions and consider how they could be applied elsewhere. Consider how you could use another example and further test their hypothesis to see if it works.

As an example, my Fellowship here in Tokyo was based on the results of a single paper from over 10 years ago, and another one from 3 years ago. They were good results, but they only covered a single planetary nebula and hadn’t been followed up much by anyone else. My proposal simply took that idea and applied it to a whole catalogue of archived data. It was a good idea, based on solid, published material, and it’s been quite successful as a result.

Make a Xanatos Gambit

A Xanatos Gambit is actually a plot device used in movies and comic books, but it applies pretty well to proposal writing. The gambit works because whoever plays it has considered everything carefully and chosen to take an action where every possible outcome benefits them. If you can plan your proposal the right way, you should try to do the same. You have one main aim, and proving this aim is your primary objective. But what if you can’t prove it? What if you disprove it? What if something else happens? What if you can’t get the data you need?

You need to ideally have a contingency plan for these outcomes. With a scientific research proposal, this means that any outcome should give you a result which you can either learn from, or publish. This is why you construct a null hypothesis in case you disprove your idea. Why you should establish potential upper and lower limits in case your data is insufficient to prove your idea. Why you should consider other possible hypotheses, in case you get an unexpected result.

In short, if you can win even when you fail, you have a solid proposal.

Choose your Working Environment

proposal-writing-1These things require you to stretch your brain into all kinds of shapes. Sometimes you may find that sitting at a desk and staring at a screen isn’t the best way to go about it. If you find yourself failing to make headway, try a change of environment. Take your laptop to a café or find a sunny park bench. Maybe curl up on a sofa with some music in the background. See if that helps. If you’re anything like me, you probably find yourself getting easily distracted or restless while you’re writing something like this, so try and make yourself comfortable and you’ll be less inclined to try and find somewhere else to get away to.

Proposal Construction

Remember that whoever reads this proposal will also have a stack of similar ones to read through, so try and make your proposal stand out in some way. I’ve been advised before that a well chosen figure on your front page will make it a lot more memorable. Remember to pay attention to your abstract. Some people like to split their abstract into short sub-sections for things like Context, Aims and Methods, and Expected Outcomes.

State clearly what it is you intend to do with your proposal. You could try stating a few questions which you specifically aim to address with your work. Then go on to elaborate on how you intend to do this.

Finally, be certain to read the instructions. Sometimes you’ll be allowed a 10 page limit to your proposal. Other times, you’ll only be allowed 3. This varies depending on who exactly is awarding your funding. Remember to stay within the limit. Also, if you’re asked to discuss specific sections, such as including a researcher profile describing yourself and your host researcher, or details on how your work fits with a research institute’s goals, be certain to do so. Otherwise, you’ll only be proving that you didn’t read the instructions properly.

I think I’ve written plenty for now, but this post is likely to be a work in progress as I get advice from other people and learn more about how to make things work. In the meantime, I hope this helps someone…

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What’s your favourite kind of rain…?

Water water, but not everywhere...

Cosmic Funnies is an adorable little comic made by Jaqueline Moliner, and this one caught my eye in particular. Planetary Rain. All about the different kinds of rain that falls on different planets. There are even a couple of exoplanets in there. If you like your science overflowing with cuteness, you should go and take a look!

Neptune is so bling.

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Welcome to the Future

It’s finally here!!


In 1989, goofy sci fi movie Back to the Future 2 saw hapless protagonists travel to the distant faraway time of… 2015! Regrettably hoverboards, Mr Fusion machines, and holographic cinemas haven’t happened yet. Though a few things did actually come true, like tablet computers, wearable tech, and video phone calls. Maybe that movie was pretty insightful after all. Don’t forget, in 1989 most people didn’t know what the internet was. Right now, there’s a good chance you’re reading this on a touchscreen pocket-sized computer. The world has… changed somewhat.

In the meantime, here’s a little message (found on Tumblr) from Doc Brown for all of you kids at home.







Thanks Doc.

The original video is here, if you’d like to see it…

Happy Back to the Future Day!

Well ok, there is a kind of hoverboard actually being worked on. But You’re not going to see one on the street anytime soon.

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10 Planets

Humanity has accomplished an impressive amount of solar system exploration. Especially given that it wasn’t too long ago that we knew next to nothing about the other planets in orbit around the Sun, we now have high resolution images and maps of our neighbouring worlds. This year has finally given us closeup views of both Ceres and Pluto, meaning that I can make this:

The worlds of our solar system

These are slices of 10 of the planets (yes, and dwarf planets) in orbit around the Sun. What a time to be alive.

I also made one in Japanese. また、日本語で。




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Martian Sunset

Martian sunset

Carrying on with the sunrise/sunset theme, here is a gorgeous sunset on Mars over the Gale crater, captured by Curiosity’s mastcam on sol 956 (April 15th, 2015) of its mission on the surface of our neighbouring world. Curious about why sunsets are blue on Mars? I wrote a little something about that a while back.

I’d love to see a blue sunset on Mars someday. It’s probably not going to happen but hey, I can dream, right?

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The Star in the Sky

Discovered courtesy of Tumblr once more, are a set of pretty amazing visualisations originally from Halcyon Maps showing how drastically the sizes of stars can vary. These show how the view would appear from Earth if you replaced the Sun with a different star. As it happens, it varies a lot!

Everyone loves a good sunset, right?

Tiny, tiny Barnard's Star. Maybe too dim to give you a good sunset.

Earth is actually a lot further from the Sun than any of the planets known to orbit Gliese 581 are from their parent star.

Tau Ceti looks rather like it might make a good home for humanity someday. Assuming no one lives there already. It has at least 5 planets too, so we think!

And now I have the Star Wars music in my head again...

Sirius is younger than the Sun and about twice as massive. Remember to wear sunscreen when you visit!


There are some more on Halcyon Maps, where you can also buy prints!

Interestingly, while this shows the difference between star sizes, it’s not so accurate if you wanted the planet to be habitable. Halcyon Maps point out that this is just a concept because liquid water would never exist on planets with views like most of these. A Bit More Detail picks up on this too. The funny thing about habitable zones is that larger stars are brighter and put out more radiation, so habitable planets would be further away.

Interestingly, if an actual habitable planet were in orbit around a red giant star like Arcturus, the star would appear much smaller than the Sun, but much brighter. A little point of light so intensely bright that it can illuminate the whole sky. It’s a little difficult to imagine how it might look. The habitable zone is just that much further away from the star itself.

Conversely, in the habitable zone of a red dwarf, the star would loom, huge overhead. A dim but dramatic presence in the sky. It may seem disconcerting to creatures like us, but a planet under a red dwarf sun would likely also be tidally locked, meaning the Sun would never move from its position in the sky. It would hang eternally in the same spot. No sunrises and no sunsets.

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