Twinkle Twinkle Stormy Star

The weather here on our little blue world has, of late, been somewhat turbulent. Storms lash my hometown on the UK’s Southern coast, Australia slowly bakes under oppressive heat, North America is deep frozen by the errant polar vortex, and here in Tokyo we’ve seen the heaviest snow in over a decade. At this point, I think it would require some degree of active ignorance to still be denying climate change on our world. Though while it may be little comfort to those of us plagued by violent weather, Earth isn’t the only place in the galaxy which has chaotic weather systems…

I'm genuinely curious about what a brown dwarf may look like from up close.WISE J104915.57-531906.1B (mercifully nicknamed Luhman 16B) is a tiny brown dwarf star. A failed stellar ember which never caught aflame. At just 6 light years distance, this tiny gas-ball is right on our galactic doorstep, the closest brown dwarf to us. Close enough that astronomers using the VLT (Very Large Telescope) in Chile can actually see weather systems on its surface!

If you could sit and watch Luhman 16B through a telescope for a few hours, you’d see that its brightness varies a lot. It gets dimmer and brighter as the hours go by. Regular stars don’t work this way – stars which vary in brightness typically do so fairly predictably, and not nearly as quickly. The reason is that brown dwarfs have active weather systems, and the variations in brightness are because of clouds in the star’s atmosphere – not entirely unlike those here on Earth.

Well, I say not entirely unlike. They follow similar patterns, but the rains and snows on brown dwarfs are nothing like those on a planet like Earth. Instead of water, these clouds are made of hot silicates, salt, and molten iron. The snow on a brown dwarf is technically made of sand. And using infrared telescopes like the VLT, we can actually watch these curious clouds forming, growing, and dissipating. This was the principle used by a group of astronomers led by the Max Planck Institute’s Ian Crossfield to create a weather map for a brown dwarf star! Yes, you read that correctly!


And there it is! Ok, so it isn’t as detailed as the weather maps you might find on Weather Underground, but that’s still pretty amazing. Those three pictures you see there are maps showing the varying luminosity across the surface of Luhman 16B (there’s a video you can watch too). You’re looking at clouds in the skies of a star. Personally, I think that’s pretty amazing.

Apparently, using Crossfield’s techniques, you can even watch clouds and weather patterns move over the star’s surface. Astrometeorology could even become a new scientific field, as we learn how to predict weather patterns on these stars. This would tell us a huge amount about how things work on brown dwarfs, and younger gas giants (which appear to work in much the same way). After all, while we understand fairly well, the things which drive weather patterns here on Earth, weather patterns in a place so different as a brown dwarf must have entirely different mechanisms behind them.

It’s been known for quite a while now, that brown dwarfs have weather systems. Some are even expected to have one or more vast storms in their atmospheres, much like Jupiter’s great red spot. In fact, a study performed with the Spitzer space telescope, poetically entitled “Weather on Other Worlds” suggests that most, if not all, brown dwarfs are stormy little stars.

I’ve long been amazed by exactly how much detail modern technology can see at such huge distances. Amazed and excited. It looks like it won’t be too long before these mysterious objects elsewhere in the galaxy won’t be quite so mysterious anymore…

Better stay indoors today. It looks like rain...

The Crossfield et al paper was published in Nature at the end of last month.

Top – Brown Dwarf artist’s impression. Created by yours truly.
Middle – Stellar weather maps, created by Crossfield et al.
Bottom – Artist’s impression of a stormy brown dwarf atmosphere, by NASA-JPL/Caltech.

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❝ The scientist does not study nature because it is useful; they study it because they delight in it, and they delight in it because it is beautiful. If nature were not beautiful, it would not be worth knowing, and if nature were not worth knowing, life would not be worth living. ❞

Jules Henri Poincare

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Science Penguin

Science penguin gives helpful advice on how to go about applying for your next postdoc position!

Welcome to the internet, where "science" may be freely used as a verb.

Hope everyone’s having a nice Monday…


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Tea Pharmacology

I always enjoy good tea. This seems perfectly logical when you consider than I’m a British person living in Japan (apparently ocean island nations have a predisposition towards drinking tea). Interestingly though, it seems that tea is good for your brain…

I'm compiling a list of favourite molecules, aren't I?This lovely little molecule is theanine. It was first isolated at the tea laboratory of Kyoto back in 1950, from a high grade type of Japanese tea called gyokuro♣︎. In fact, aside from a certain species of mushroom and an Amazon rainforest plant, this little molecule is only known to be found in tea (where it provides the nice rich umami flavour of many tea varieties).

Theanine does more than simply provide flavour, however. It can cross the blood-brain barrier and has mild psychoactive properties, being considered by many to be a nootropic – i.e., a chemical which improves brain function. Nootropics are compounds which can not only assist cognitive ability, but also act as protective agents for brain neurons. In humans, theanine has been implicated in alleviating physical and mental stress, boosting mood, and improving cognitive performance. While I don’t believe any proper large scale studies have been carried out yet, a number of smaller ones have evidently shown some success in proving this.

Theanine also acts synergistically with caffeine (arguably the most widely used nootropic in the world). The two together are apparently great for alertness and focus, which may explain why monks out here in East Asia have been using tea for centuries to aid their meditations. It may also have something to do with that old myth that tea contains more caffeine than coffee – for the record, a typically brewed cup of coffee most certainly contains more caffeine, but also contains no theanine at all (tea also contains a caffeine-like molecule called theophylline, but in such small quantities as to be practically non-existent).

Gyokuro is one of the loveliest teas I've ever tasted!Interestingly too, there seem to be no ill effects from theanine consumption. In fact, quite the opposite. While it acts synergistically with caffeine, it also serves to take the jittery edge off excessive caffeine consumption. Studies have even supported that it may have neuroprotective effects, helping to prevent memory impairment. Additionally, it can increase your dopamine levels, and promotes production of alpha waves.

A good reason to drink more tea, right? Well… The thing is, in most tea there isn’t a huge amount of theanine present. Most teas, both green and black, are relatively low in theanine, meaning that you’d need to drink an awful lot to see much effect♥︎. However, certain teas are particularly rich in theanine. In particular, the finer varieties of Japanese tea are shade-grown. Gyokuro (玉露) and matcha (抹茶) are shaded prior to harvesting, causing the leaves to develop a deeper colour. The tea bushes produce a greater amount of chlorophyll in their leaves, and start to produce a much higher concentration of amino acids. This gives these teas their unique flavour and aroma. It also yields a much higher level of theanine (itself a variety of amino acid). Those monks I was saying about before? In Japan, they were particularly fond of brewing matcha.

Matcha is something quintessentially Japanese, and it’s quite deeply ingrained into the culture over here. It’s used to give both flavour and a bright green colour to all sorts of things, from chocolate, to sweets, to ice cream. It’s also, since moving here, rapidly becoming my favourite beverage. I didn’t think anything could top coffee as my morning drink of choice, but I think matcha just might. Needless to say, discovering that it’s apparently good for my brain is certainly another point in its favour…

Yes, Kyoto has a tea laboratory. This makes me happy.
♣︎ The somewhat poetic literal translation of the name is “jade dew”. This is widely regarded as the finest tea in Japan. And very tasty it is too!
♥︎ I errr… should probably confess to the fact that I do drink an awful lot of tea…

This was a particularly nice tea shop in 表参道, which I really must go back to sometime...

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Mars Doughnut

So the Mars rover drivers are apparently slightly perplexed over a bizarre rock which seems to have appeared on the surface of our planet’s little brother.


This funny-looking white rock has been likened to a jelly doughnut by the folks at NASA. Personally, I don’t really see it, but maybe I don’t eat enough doughnuts. In any case, where this rock came from exactly is still something of a puzzle. It seems to have appeared in that spot sometime between December 26th and January 8th. The most likely explanation (put forward by Steve Squyres, Curiosity mission lead scientist) is that the rock must’ve been kicked up by one of the rover’s wheels.

It gets more interesting with the finding that this rock is seemingly unlike any of the others examined so far on Mars, containing a lot more Magnesium and Sulfur than the others around it. Curiouser and curiouser…

Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Cornell Univ./Arizona State Univ.

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In UR bibliography checking UR citations

As everyone knows, Saturday is Caturday. And todays amusing feline fact relates to a paper published in Physical Review Letters back in 1975. The paper’s title was “Two-, Three-, and Four-Atom Exchange Effects in bcc ³He”, which is already pretty cool. So what was odd about this paper? Well you see, one of the authors was a cat.

Physicist Jack Hetherington had prepared his manuscript using the typical formal writing style used in many papers. He used active voice but avoided singular personal pronouns. Unfortunately, at the time, using plural pronouns in a single author paper was grounds for rejection from Phys. Rev. Lett. (apparently, they disapprove of people using “the royal we”). In those days, Hetherington had used a typewriter to compose his manuscript, so changing all the pronouns in the paper would have been immensely troublesome♠︎. Instead, as ever-pragmatic as many physicists are, he simply decided to include his siamese cat Chester as a co-author.

Reviewer comments? Kitteh casts a scornful eye over your reviewer comments.Because a single name would never suffice, and doubtless to prevent colleagues from recognising who this extra author really was, Chester was given the full name of F.D.C. Willard, Short for Felis Domesticus Chester Willard (Willard having been the name of the cat’s father).

The paper, Hetherington & Willard (1975), was published and does indeed have Chester the cat listed as Hetherington’s co-author! He’s therefore the only cat to have ever published anything in the field of low temperature phsics. Amusingly, this also means that this Cat has an Erdös number of 7, which I’m pretty sure is lower than mine. He probably has a lot more citations too.

There are a couple of stories as to how the fact became known that F.D.C. Willard was actually a cat. Rumour goes that a professor visiting Hetherington’s University asked to see Willard. Another says it was because of telephone enquiries asking to speak to the coauthor when Hetherington was absent. A third says it happened at a 1978 conference on low temperature physics in Grenoble. Either way, Willard was evidently a talented cat. Shortly after that conference an essay was published in the French publication La Recherche, entitled “L’hélium 3 solide. Un antiferromagnétique nucléaire.” with Willard as the solo author!

Lower Erdös number, awesome research topic, higher citation count and better at speaking French. This cat was clearly a better scientist than I am.

Hetherington himself had this to say on the matter:

“Why was I willing to do such an irreverent thing? Against it was the fact that most of us are paid partly by how many papers we publish, and there is some dilution of the effect of the paper on one’s reputation when it is shared by another author. On the other hand, I did not ignore completely the publicity value, either. If it eventually proved to be correct, people would remember the paper more if the anomalous authorship were known. In any case I went ahead and did it and have generally not been sorry. Most people are amused by the concept, only editors, for some reason, seem to find little humour in the story.”

Sadly, following his debut in France, F.D.C. Willard retired from the academic world. However, if you know where to look in the scientific literature, you might occasionally see F.D.C. Willard, private communication pop up in the bibliographies of some journal papers. Occasionally you might also see his name in the acknowledgements, thanking him for “helpful discussions.”

I hope I can get a cat autograph someday...Click the image to see a scan of the entire first page

 Because solid helium is a cool thing to study. No pun intended.
♠︎ Somedays, we really don’t appreciate how difficult life would be without being able to use find and replace. Or ctrl-z.

Image credits:
Upper – Sadly not an actual picture of Chester. Credit: stefan_fotos/Wikimedia Commons
Lower – Source unknown, a scan of one of 10 printed copies of Hetherington & Willard (1975) signed by both authors.

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Pseudonymity versus Anonymity

Let’s talk about pseudonyms, shall we? Because interestingly, the recent debacle concerning Dr Isis has highlighted something. Most people out there have no idea what the word “pseudonym” means, and how it differs from being anonymous. Because I find this rather jarring, I’m going to ask you all very nicely: please learn the difference between using a pseudonym and being anonymous.

Pseudonymous commentary and anonymous commentary do share one thing in common. In both cases, you do not know the real name of the person making the comments. Therein, the similarity ends.

Homer Simpson: Unexpected role model.Anonymous comments let people feel like they can get away with saying ridiculous (and frankly horrifying) things. While not all anonymous comments are bad, per se, some of the most insidious, bile-ridden, festering carcasses of statements come from anonymous authors. On the other hand, anonymous comments allow people to speak freely without fear of comeuppance, because there’s nothing to tie them personally to the comment that was made. And that’s just the point. An anonymous comment, by definition, gives no connection whatsoever to the author.

Pseudonymous comments are different. A pseudonym is an entire persona. Like a pen name or a stage name, an internet pseudonym can be (and frequently is) someone’s entire online personality. Please let me be clear – writing under a pseudonym is not working “without allowing your own record to be transparently assessed” as a friend of mine so eloquently, albeit misguidedly, put it. It’s just that it’s taking irrelevant parts of your record out of the equation.

To use myself as a fairly obvious example here, I’ve been using this pseudonym for a long time now. Long enough that quite a few people now know who I really am. It’s only a mask, not a suit of armour. All the same, my record as a blogger under this name is perfectly transparent. Just ask Google and you can see all of my (alarmingly plentiful) internet activities laid out plain as day. In fact, my pseudonym is one of Google’s suggestions! I guess that’s some vague and tenuous form of internet fame right there:

I literally found this out as I was writing this post. Genuinely not sure how I feel about it, TBH...

To clarify, pseudonyms have existed for a long time before the internet. They define the persona you operate under, without allowing people to pass judgement on you based on irrelevant matters such as race, gender identity, professional status, etc, etc. People have many reasons to adopt a persona in this way, and staging hate campaigns or verbal assaults is not one of them. Whatever the reason, for pseudonym users who take things seriously, to all intents and purposes it is their name. Mark Twain was Mark Twain. Freddie Mercury was Freddie Mercury. George Elliott was George Elliott. Malcolm X was Malcolm X. Coco Chanel was Coco Chanel. Beyoncé is Beyoncé. Dr Isis is Dr Isis. I am Invader Xan. Pleased to meet you. I hope you’re getting the point here.

Now, working under a pseudonym takes effort. It takes time to build up a reputation and an audience, just as it does with anything else. It’s added to with a pseudonym, because you need to start from scratch.You might be a tenured professor in the real world, but on the internet you’re just a name. You need to prove that you know what you’re talking about. As a result, in my experience, no one drags their pseudonym through the mud. Well, not unless they happen to be a blithering incompetent.

Yes, this is a bathroom selfie. Yes, it's also the closest you'll ever get to an actual picture of me on here.Pseudonymous bloggers are accountable for our internet activities. You think we just take the mask off and pretend it all isn’t real? No. The pseudonym is a big part of our personalities. Just as people representing large organisations in a professional capacity must care about their reputations (and not make unsavoury comments about people with whom they work), so must we. Righteous indignation is one thing, but if you genuinely make an ass of yourself, you won’t be taken seriously anymore. If that happens, you may as well simply quit.

Internet pseudonyms are important because the world in which we live has an ever decreasing number of whistleblowers. People in positions of power are intimidating, especially when they have the potential to derail your entire career if they so choose. And we’ve all seen what happens when whistleblowers use their real names. A pseudonym gives enough protection that, when those powerful individuals are misbehaving in one way or another, people feel they can actually speak out rather than remain silent.

Which brings us back to Dr Isis who, in her inimitable style, is one person who is never afraid to come forward and tell people bluntly when they’re being jerks. I’ve always respected that. If not for the pseudonym, I doubt she’d be able to get away with being the person she is online. And if she was, I wonder if people would pay as much attention. Honestly, I think the world (or at least the internet) needs more people like Isis, in order to keep things in check. Long may there be pseudonymous bloggers!

EDIT –– I just stumbled across a brilliant post all about the importance of pseudonyms, by Neurobonkers at Big Think. Far more eloquently written than mine here and well worth a read!

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❝ A principle of induction would be a statement with the help of which we could put inductive inferences into a logically acceptable form. In the eyes of the upholders of inductive logic, a principle of induction is of supreme importance for scientific method: “… this principle”, says Reichenbach, “determines the truth of scientific theories. To eliminate it from science would mean nothing less than to deprive science of the power to decide the truth or falsity of its theories. Without it, clearly, science would no longer have the right to distinguish its theories from the fanciful and arbitrary creations of the poet’s mind.”

Now this principle of induction cannot be a purely logical truth like a tautology or an analytic statement. Indeed, if there were such a thing as a purely logical principle of induction, there would be no problem of induction; for in this case, all inductive inferences would have to be regarded as purely logical or tautological transformations, just like inferences in inductive logic. Thus the principle of induction must be a synthetic statement; that is, a statement whose negation is not self-contradictory but logically possible. So the question arises why such a principle should be accepted at all, and how we can justify its acceptance on rational grounds.❞

Karl Popper

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Supernova! Supernova! Supernova!

I do love a good supernova, don’t you? This latest one has just recently burst into existence in the galaxy M82. Check out this flashy little gif animation, blinking between a usual picture of the galaxy and a recent one. That bright spot on the outskirts of the galaxy marks the death of a massive, luminous star.


Well… I say recently. Actually, given the distance to M82, this star actually died around 11.5 million years ago. Which was during the Miocene epoch here on Earth. So in actual fact, this supernova exploded before humans had even evolved, and the light from its explosion is only just reaching us here on Earth. Humbling stuff.

But this supernova is exciting, because even though supernovae happen all the time, one near enough to see like this is a rare event. A typical galaxy like our own may yield perhaps 3 or 4 supernovae every 100 years. Only a fraction of those will be visible to us though, because galaxies are dusty things. Thick, swirling interstellar clouds line most galaxies, and many are dense and vast enough to completely block the light from a supernova. Which, is really saying something, when you consider that a supernova can shine with the light of one hundred million suns.

Most of the supernovae we see exploding in the sky are in distant galaxies. They’re too faint to be observed without a powerful telescope, and too distant for us to pick out much detail in what we see. M82 (also known as the Cigar galaxy), on the other hand, is pretty close. 11.5 million light years is a long distance, certainly, but that’s just peanuts compared to space. In other words, this supernova is pretty nearby as astronomical distances go. So it’ll be interesting to see what we can learn as we watch the explosion occurring…

Anyway, I don’t have much time to write about this now, but I’d feel remiss if I didn’t at least mention it. Better and more detailed analyses can be had by going to visit Discovery Space, Universe Today, or the Bad Astronomer

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Astrotropes: Ocean Planets

Ocean Planets

Ah, astrotropes. It’s been a while. So I’ve decided to delve back into the world of science fiction to see what truth may lie hidden between the laser blasts and epic space battles. The topic I’m examining this time? Ocean planets.

The basic idea is simple. A planet covered entirely, or almost entirely in ocean (essentially the diametric opposite of the desert planet trope). In fiction, worlds like these may often contain some kind of gargantuan sea creatures (such as on the planet Atlantis in The Reality Dysfunction). They may have a few small islands, or they may be completely watery like the planet Kamino from Star Wars episode II.

Some examples, such as the planet Droplet in the Star Trek: Titan books are exceptionally well thought out. Droplet uses some actual science to try and explain how life could thrive on such a world, using the idea of plankton transporting nutrients up from the planet’s deep ocean, providing enough nutrition to support a whole ecosystem.  Another interesting example is the planet Yamm from the beautifully detailed Mass Effect universe. In the game, Yamm has a hot climate which fuels powerful global hurricanes, and its predominant form of life is a type of algae which is harvested for fuel.

A blue worldInterestingly enough though, as science fiction tropes go, the concept of the ocean world is actually somewhat underused. This may have something to do with the fact that most writers are terrestrial creatures. The upshot is that fiction writers, to my knowledge at least, have barely scratched the surface of the ocean planet trope. While the idea is doubtless featured in many books, it hasn’t seen much time on TV or cinema screens. And no, I’m not including that awful Kevin Costner film which, frankly, is probably best forgotten. All the same, the ocean planet is a concept which almost any sci fi fan will be familiar with. Something about the idea, I don’t quite know what, is evidently quite endearing to us all.

We may be happy to know then, that just like the desert planets trope, there’s quite a good chance of actual ocean planets existing in our galaxy. When you consider it, any planet is a sphere of solid material, wrapped in a thin layer of volatile chemicals. Water is the third most abundant molecule in the Universe, so the probability of a planet forming with copious amounts of water in its atmosphere is really very high. In fact, our solar system contains one very good example of such a world – Jupiter’s moon Europa. It may be deep frozen, but it contains more water than all of Earth’s oceans combined.

In fact, this seems to be another trope where the fiction writers are lagging behind a little. Astronomers have already identified several planets which they believe to be candidate ocean worlds. For example, some theories have long held that super-earths – planets with a mass greater than that of Earth, but not high enough to become gas giants – may be able to retain large quantities of water. This is a perfectly logical assertion, given that higher mass enables a planet to hold on to a lot more volatiles (like water). More mass means more light molecules, which is why the Moon doesn’t have oceans. It isn’t massive enough to retain surface water.

Interestingly, if these worlds do contain huge amounts of water, then the pressures at the bottoms of their oceans will be immense. Strange things happen to regular matter at different pressures and temperatures. At high pressures, water will remain liquid even if it’s heated substantially higher than what we consider to be “boiling point”. Compress water enough and you can end up with unusual solid forms. These exotic forms of “ice” can only exist under such high pressures that they tend to remain solid no matter what. Ice-XI, for instance, will happily stay solid at several hundred degrees. Oceanic super-earths then, may have any number of these high pressure ices forming part of their crusts.

Of course, not everyone agrees on all of this. It is certainly possible, given those exotic high pressure ices, that water may become subducted and trapped in the planet’s mantle. If the water ends up mostly in the planet’s interior, then these ocean worlds may not be quite so oceanny after all. However, if it does turn out that super-earths tend to be ocean worlds, there’s a logical conclusion to draw – super-earths are fairly plentiful in the galaxy, so if a certain fraction of them are ocean planets, there may be quite a number of watery worlds out there waiting to be found.

A handful of planets are currently suspected to be ocean worlds, including GJ 1214b, Kepler-22b, and two planets in the Kepler-62 system – Kepler-62e and Kepler-62f. Unfortunately, until our telescopes improve vastly or we discover some means to actually go there, it’s going to be impossible to tell what they’re really like.

Whatever the reality of the situation, I’d wager that there are planets out there in the galaxy with immense oceans of liquid water. Though somehow, I have my doubts they’ll be even remotely like that Kevin Costner movie…

Actually, while ocean worlds may be cloudy, they would probably not make good holiday destinations. Not least due to immensely high humidity and raging storms.

trope is a recurring theme in any narrative which conveys information to the audience. These are snippets of information which have somehow ended up in our collective subconscious as ways in which storytellers have gotten their points across. Overused tropes end up as clichés.

Image credits:
Banner – “Yamm”, Mass Effect screenshot
Upper – Screenshot from Google Earth. Our own planet is already rather watery.
Lower – Clouds over the Atlantic Ocean, Tiago Fioreze

Posted in astrotropes, Sci Fi | Tagged | 4 Comments