So here’s an interesting little fact. In Chinese and Japanese, Jupiter is known as 木星 which means “wood star” – and I think that’s a wonderful name for it!


Interestingly, the name is pure coincidence. Just as our name for the planet originated in Ancient Rome, in East Asia the name originated in Ancient China.

Chinese mythology contains the Wu Xing (五行) or five elements – wood (木), fire (火), earth (土), metal (金), and water (水). Because the ancient Chinese Astronomers could see five planets moving through the sky, they named them after these elements.

Mercury is 水星, the water star,
Venus is 金星, the metal star,
Mars is 火星, the fire star,
Jupiter is 木星, the wood star, and
Saturn is 土星, the earth star.

So rooted are the five elements in East Asian culture that together with the sun and moon (日 and 月) the days of the week are still named after them.

half-a-JupiterExactly why they were named this way, I don’t know. Logically, Mercury is fast like running water, and Mars looks fiery red to the naked eye. Venus shines brightest like polished metal, Jupiter has a faint wooden orange hue, and Saturn is the slowest and most stable, like earth. But that’s speculation on my part, and I should really read more about it.

All the same, by accident or by design, Jupiter is the wooden star. Which is just so incredibly fitting because that’s exactly how it looks. I love the gorgeous swirling clouds this planet has, and I’m looking forward to some breathtaking high resolution images from Juno soon.

But whenever I look at Jupiter I still get a first impression of polished wood.


See what I mean?

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Why Michael Gove is a reprehensible spam faced tool bag

The internet is such a fickle beast. After staying up well past my bedtime yesterday to live tweet Juno being inserted into Jupiter’s orbit, I achieved a thin slice of tinned internet fame for tweeting at UK politician Michael Gove to call him a reprehensible spam faced tool bag.

Thanks, Huffpost! Yeah, hurling internet insults at politicians is a cherished British pastime (in Scotland I’m fairly certain it’s an olympic sport), and my insult wasn’t even particularly bad compared to some of the others.

But honestly though? Michael Gove is, without question, a reprehensible spam faced tool bag. This has been my opinion of him for a long time before all of the recent idiocy about the UK leaving the EU. I’m going to explain here why this is – and, wherever possible, I’m going to try very hard not to get angry and swear like a trojan.

I have always been a staunch opponent of University tuition fees, irrespective of whether or not I’ve been paying them myself at the time. I believe that anyone who qualifies for a university education should receive a university education if they want it. It is my firm opinion that pursuit of knowledge is something which all people should have a right to, irrespective of gender, race, mental and physical condition, religion, social background, or anything else. In my opinion, forcing students to be burdened with massive amounts of debt is hugely unfair to them and their families. This results in people being discouraged from further study, leading to a lower level of education and qualification in the entire country, which is ultimately damaging to our entire society. And no, I don’t just mean damaging economically, even though money is the only language most politicians seem to understand.

There are many who disagree with my stance. Among them, Michael Gove, aka spam face. Formerly the UK’s Secretary of State for Education, I might add. Pork-luncheon-lips Gove has long been pro-fees, stating his case in an article he wrote for The Times back in 2003. The article is now hidden behind a paywall, but conveniently The Guardian has an excerpt reproduced here.

To quote directly:

“Do you want to run up a debt of £21,000 in order to go to the best British universities? Some people will, apparently, be put off applying to our elite institutions by the prospect of taking on a debt of this size. Which, as far as I’m concerned, is all to the good.”

When I was 18 and first starting University, I was not wealthy. I’m still not. The prospect of taking on a huge debt will always be daunting to someone in my situation. People like fetid-spam-nugget Gove think it’s a good thing that scum like me should be discouraged from pursuing an education.

He continues:

“The first point that needs to be made about the so-called deterrent effect of a £21,000 loan is that anyone put off from attending a good university by fear of that debt doesn’t deserve to be at any university in the first place. Incurring such a relatively small debt to pay for the huge economic benefit conferred by proper higher education is a fantastic deal.”

So, I don’t deserve an education at all apparently. Because education isn’t really about knowledge. It’s all about money. Obviously. Thanks Gove, you repugnant meat byproduct.

For the record, £21,000 is quite a lot by many people’s standards. Particularly to those of us who choose to continue in higher education and pursue postdoctoral studies. The sum has increased somewhat since Gove wrote that too. Universities in England currently charge up to £9000 a year in tuition. Considering loans to cover tuition and maintenance, if I was 18 this year and planning on studying, I very likely wouldn’t be able to afford it.

I could go into detail on putrescent-hamjelly-breath Gove’s revolting reasoning and why I think he’s an obnoxious macerated snout, but I can’t really be bothered. Ultimately the end result is that attitudes like this put off the disadvantaged and turn education into a playground for the financial elite. It becomes not about knowledge and learning, and instead becomes all about money – and this is opposed to my entire philosophy on higher education. Gove’s comments embody that. And no matter how much of a flaccid, ineffectual waste of oxygen this shoddy excuse for a man may be, his comments on this matter exemplify everything that’s wrong with our society’s attitude towards education. Being as my career path is in research and higher education, I’m entirely qualified to say this.

These supercilious attitudes which compacted-pork-waste Gove trots about are what you might expect from someone who went to a private school which requires you to pay for the privilege. Not that this malodorous rancid reformed meat product of a man actually paid for his private education, having been given a scholarship for it.

I often find myself wondering not when the next Einstein might appear in our world, but exactly how many Einsteins have been ignored by our species because they happened to have the wrong social status, and were discouraged from shouldering a huge burden of debt. You should never confuse “uneducated” with “unintelligent.” Someone may not have a degree, but there’s a good chance they may be smarter than you are.

Oh, and while I normally like to furnish my blog posts with an image or two, I don’t want to put a picture of Gove on my blog. So here’s a picture of some actual spam. Honestly, it bears a striking resemblance.


(image source)

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Ludicrous Speed

So Juno is now safely in orbit around Jupiter, and NASA scientists are triumphant, celebrating it as the “hardest thing NASA’s ever done.” They may not be wrong. No spacecraft has ever passed so close to Jupiter before. Jupiter’s radiation belts can deliver a dose of 200,000 Grays, which is enough radiation to kill any life and almost any electronics on Earth. Getting a spacecraft to pass through and survive is really very impressive!

But a thing which I’m always impressed by with spacecraft is slightly simpler. Their speeds. While I was watching the live simulation, the highest speed I saw Juno make on its closest approach to Jupiter (perijovion?) was a blistering 208400 km/h.

Speeds used in interplanetary travel are difficult to fully comprehend because we don’t really have any reference for comparison. NASA made this helpful little graphic to try and show it…

Ridiculous speed

…but I think this image doesn’t quite show it correctly. So I made one with the speeds actually to scale.

Ludicrous speed

Note that this isn’t the same speed which I saw for Juno. I’m going by NASA’s graphic here, and I’m assuming they have accurate values. For most of us, being in an airliner travelling long haul is probably the fastest speed we’ll ever travel at. And that’s just a tiny blip compared to the speeds which Juno reached.

Puts things into perspective, doesn’t it?

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Like shooting womp rats

It’s pretty late in my currnet part of the world. But all the same, I’m debating whether or not I should sleep at a sensible time. Mostly because it’s not every day that humanity sends robots to other planets. It’s even less common that those planets are actually in the outer solar system!

Ladies and robots, fasten your seatbelts.

NASA’s Juno spacecraft is presently undergoing an insertion into Jovian orbit. The above image is the last one it took before switching its instruments off to prepare for orbital insertion.

As I write this, it’s travelling at 90400 km/h and should be settling comfortably into orbit around Earth’s largest sibling in about three and a half hours. To put that into some perspective, travelling at that velocity you could circle the Earth in half an hour and have time to spare. Or you could hop over the Atlantic ocean in a couple of minutes.

This means there’s probably a room full of slightly anxious, coffee fuelled scientists and engineers huddled into a NASA control room somewhere, feverishly checking screens and ensuring that everything is looking ok.

Not that there’s much they can actively do if anything goes wrong, given that Jupiter is presently about 48 light minutes from Earth. Anything we see happening right now would have happened 48 minutes ago, and any corrections we send to the craft will take another 48 minutes to arrive. At this point, it’s all down to the probe’s own software, and all the careful trajectory calculations which are guiding it.

There’s some reassurance in the fact that NASA’s other recent spacecraft have been able to, essentially, thread a needle at 4.9 billion km. But when approaching the second biggest gravity well in the solar system, this is probably only a moderate amount of comfort.

Good luck, Juno!

Just like shootin' womp rats, eh kid?

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Apparently, I’m a terrible and negligent blogger who’s barely written a thing in ages, despite the number of times I’ve talked about and intended to do precisely that. This time, I really should try and make more effort. I think I could do with it, to be honest…

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Schrödinger’s Racist: On Safety and Pins

You’re not a racist. Of course you’re not. Nor are you a xenophobe. I’m sure you’d never dream of speaking ill of anyone purely based on their skin colour or country of origin. No, you’re a decent and wholesome member of a forward thinking society who speaks out against discrimination and prejudice at every opportunity. You know that. But the thing is, until you tell me so, I do not. And neither does that anxious looking Romanian woman who just got onto the bus and is now having to stand uncomfortably close to you in the crowd.

Handful of pinsAs everyone no doubt already knows, the UK voted in a referendum to leave the EU last week by the narrow margin of 52%. There is going to be a lot of fallout over this in a huge number of ways. One of these, sadly, is the ugliest face of the Great British public – racism and xenophobia. Reports of these things have risen to five times the usual level in the days since the referendum. Of course, racism is not new, by any means. I’ve had my fair share of it directed at me. But the leave vote really does seem to have empowered the racists out there to try and tell people togo home.” Even those of us to whom this is supposed to be home.

Being as both of my parents moved to this rainy little island from South East Asia shortly before I was born this is, needless to say, concerning.

One interesting idea proposed by a twitter user by the name of @cheeahs is to wear a safety pin.

I think the idea has a lot of merit. A #safetypin is just a small and simple thing you can wear, so that you can non-verbally let someone know that, no, you’re not going to start yelling abuse at them in public.

Unfortunately, cynics are as cynics do, and there seems to have been a lot of heavy criticism over this. I think the majority of the criticism I’ve seen is coming from the sort of people who’ve never had to deal with racism or xenophobia.

For example, here’s a middle aged white man:

Yeah, shut up Piers Morgan. No one cares what you think.

A few of the more intelligent comments on the matter do, however, have a point. Which is what I’m trying to address here.

The thing is, quite simply, we have no idea that you’re not a racist. You could be second only to the Dalai Lama in compassion and tolerance, but if I don’t know you, then to me you’re just a face in the crowd. That’s a fact, no matter how many things you’ve tweeted to the tag #dontbearacistdick.

And casually asking strangers whether they’re racist tends to be frowned upon, in my experience. I don’t want to assume that people are racist until they prove otherwise. I don’t like having to wonder if that guy who’s staying quiet is every bit as racist as the woman who’s loudly using offensive slurs. I don’t like the fact that until I know one way or another, everyone out there is potentially another hatemonger. They may or may not be, but it’s impossible to be certain. I’m sorry, but if you’re not interacting with me at all, I may need to assume that you’re Schrödinger’s racist.

It’s not personal. It’s survival.

Well of course. No matter how nice that would be, we’re not going to end racism or xenophobia overnight. But a show of support can mean a great deal.

Of course, it would be ideal if everyone were to read this little piece in The Guardian and try and follow the advice in it. To quote it directly:

“…in many cases, when harassment happens it is met with silence from nervous onlookers and there are no repercussions for the attacker.”

It is noteworthy that the kind of people who’re willing to threaten others in public are equally likely to threaten anyone who stands up for them. This can and does happen, and it scares people away from intervening as a result – particularly those who are vulnerable themselves. There’s plenty of information available on how to intervene if you see these things happening.

One of the biggest criticisms made is that wearing a safety pin is nothing more than a symbolic act. Something akin to changing your picture on Facebook or posting to a hashtag on Twitter. That simply wearing a pin does not change how likely or otherwise someone is to intervene.

I’m not sure that’s all there is to it. For a start, posting crap to the internet does not help me in the real world, or my perception of you. Wearing something does.

Honestly, if I have somewhere I need to be or something I need to do, often what I want more than anything else is simply to be left alone so I can get on with it. I’m not asking for people to be superheroes or save the day or single-handedly end racism or any of that. Honestly, if you’d rather not put yourself in harm’s way, that’s your business. Wearing a safety pin does not transform you into a knight in shining armour. It doesn’t mean that you’re automatically willing to get into a fight for me. It doesn’t mean that I’m guaranteed chirpy and socially correct conversation on the situation in Syria. I know that.

It's about safety, really.What it does do is reassure me that you’re probably not going to be the one who starts doing the shouting. That you’re not going to start hassling me or telling me to “go home” (wherever that’s supposed to be). Hopefully, wearing a safety pin means that you’re just going to leave me the hell alone. Just like anyone else who has no business interacting with me.

It means I don’t have to worry about you. You’re one who I don’t need to add to my long list of potentially abusive xenophobes. You are no longer Schrödinger’s racist.

Ultimately, it’s a valuable reassurance for me when I’m in a public space. And for my elderly mother, living in the heart of one of the UK’s most xenophobic regions. Perhaps I might not let my guard down, per se. Obviously, as with anything else, this kind of thing can and probably will be abused. But at least I don’t need to be constantly anxious around you. Chances are, you’re safe. The two of us can happily not interact with each other the same way any other two people normally do. Or… don’t, as the case may be.

Of course, it’s important to remember that you should do a little more than just wear a pin, and no one’s going to give you a cookie for simply being a decent human being. But again, that shouldn’t be the point. If you’re wearing it just as a weird form of self-validation, well, maybe you need to rethink your life a bit…

Of course, this is just my own opinion on the matter. I’d be very interested to discuss this further with anyone who wants to. Particularly those who disagree with me.

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Lurking Giant

Well this is quite interesting. There’s some latest news about the possibility of a giant planet lurking on the outskirts of our solar system. The near mythological “planet X” which astronomers have been hunting for for decades. This latest study come from Konstantin Batygin and Mike Brown, and I must say, their actual work seems a lot more cautious than many of the news headlines being thrown about. But that’s no shock. So let’s break this down, because it’s really quite interesting.

People have been hunting for planets beyond Neptune for a long time. Neptune was officially discovered in 1821, after it was noticed that Uranus had some perturbations in its orbit. The theory was that a previously unknown large planet was tugging on it gravitationally. Neptune was found to be the culprit, validating the hypothesis. But Neptune also has perturbations in its orbit, and so planet hunters continued their toil, eventually confirming the existence of Pluto in 1930. Pluto, however, is too small to have much effect on something the size of Neptune. The hunt continued awhile for the so-called Planet X♠︎ until the idea eventually fell from favour. Turns out, after more closely examining Neptune, it behaves exactly as it’s supposed to. But there are still a few things unaccounted for in the outer solar system.

Sedna‘s ludicrously eccentric orbit, for instance, can only be explained feasibly in 3 ways. It was captured from somewhere outside the solar system, it was yanked into a bizarre orbit by a passing star, or it was flung out that way by a large planet. Even if it’s simply that Sedna’s adopted, there are other unexplained phenomena in the mix.

All alone in the dark

The idea is not new. The wraithworld which was discussed in 2011 met with some staunch opposition, for instance. But Batygin and Brown are actually rather cautious in their paper (which is freely downloadable if you’d like to take a look yourself). They aren’t claiming the existence of any such planet, but simply presenting a hypothesis. Their ideas all seem perfectly sound to me.

I'm quite fond of eccentric things. Can't imagine why...One of the things which their hypothesis aims to explain is the orbits of several highly eccentric solar system objects. Notably, these objects all have a perihelion (the point at which they’re closest to the Sun) at a very similar distance. This clustering of perihelia is quite unlikely, with only a 0.007% likelihood of having happened by chance. No good scientist likes to explain things away with coincidences. Even if Sedna is adopted, it wouldn’t explain this.

Some detailed modelling suggests that this, together with a few other features of Kuiper belt objects, can be explained by the presence of a large planet in a highly eccentric distant orbit. “Large” in this case, means about 10 Earth masses, though a planet as small as 5 Earth masses may suffice. Perhaps our solar system does have a super-Earth planet in it after all. So that’s nice. Overall the hypothesis is consistent with observations, explains a number of different phenomena by only postulating a single entity, and fits with existing knowledge. A rather promising hypothesis then. There’s more info directly available from Mike Brown himself, who will no doubt do a much better job of explaining it than I would.

So the only thing remaining to prove this hypothesis is to find the smoking gun – if this planet exists, no one knows where it is, though we know roughly where to look. I have my suspicions that if it’s out there, we’ve probably already seen it in one or more of the many sky surveys that astronomers are constantly doing. Unfortunately, given how slowly it would appear to move at such a huge orbital radius, we may not have realised what it was and not known what we were seeing♣︎. An obvious thought is to search for it by looking for stars which move between the different survey dates. But all stars and other objects move. Some of them quite fast. It’s going to be a long search, probably with many more computer simulations to work out all of the details.

Actually, it’s quite likely that Neptune was first spotted by Galileo in 1612, who didn’t realise that he was looking at a planet. It was seemingly in the background of some of the sketches he made while his attention was focussed on Jupiter.

♠︎ That was originally a roman numeral, by the way. Planet X = Planet number 10.

♣︎ Just like Galileo.

Image credits:
Upper – Artists impression created by myself. Starfield background freely downloaded under a CC0 license.
Lower – ©2016, The American Astronomical Society. Taken from figure 2 of Batygin & Brown (2016) and reproduced here in accordance with fair use policies for the purposes of research, criticism, review, and news reporting.

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❝ Our doubts are traitors,
and make us lose the good we oft might win,
by fearing to attempt. ❞

William Shakespeare, Measure for Measure

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How to write a proposal – part II

A few months ago, I wrote a little about how to put together a research proposal. At the time, I acknowledged that I was no expert and had a lot still to learn. I still acknowledge this, perhaps now even more so. Winning grants is a pretty big part of how science works in our modern world, and so I forsee my learning on this subject to be ongoing for a long time. If I’m good enough to succeed in my chosen career path, I expect it will be ongoing indefinitely.

This post offers no advice itself. It’s a collection of links to articles written by people far more experienced than myself. Standing on the shoulders of giants, as they say.

This isn’t even all the pages I found, but it seemed like a nice collection of them. Needless to say, I’m not the only person trying to claw my way to the top of this. If you’re reading this, maybe you’re in a similar boat.

Now… I have some more reading to do…

Proposal writing and rainy days...

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“She is an astronomer”

Today marks the 100th anniversary of women being allowed membership into the Royal Astronomical Society (RAS) in the UK. While this is most certainly a thing to celebrate, one thing about this still gives me pause. It’s only been 100 years.

100 years is not a very long time in one of the world’s oldest fields of study, in which we routinely talk about billions of years as if that were nothing at all. I find this to be another reminder that some of the people who I consider to be personal heroes would not have been able to join the RAS when they were making their discoveries. Back then, women were indeed rejected from membership purely because of their gender. The fact that they persevered should be a source of great admiration. The optimist in me wonders if the work which these scientists tenaciously undertook may have been one of the deciding factors, while the pessimist in me wonders how much further we could be if societies like these hadn’t closed out half the human population for so long.

A very close friend of mine recently said something which feels relevant here. She told me that she sometimes felt like she wasn’t proud of her achievements for their own sake, but because she made them while being a woman. The idea of this upset her, and she’s definitely not the only one. The sad thing is that often, certain people are noted for their achievements not because of their inherent merit, but because they made those achievements while not being white middle-class men.

Quicquid Nitet Notandum

The RAS is one of the world’s highest profile astronomical societies, and the driving force behind one of the largest scientific journals in astronomy – the Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society (or MNRAS for short). Before it was a journal, it was actually the society’s newsletter. It’s no longer monthly, no longer contains notices, and is now open to researchers from anywhere in the world, but I guess they thought the title was quaint. Originally founded as the Astronomical Society of London in 1820. Of course in those rather more misogynistic times, astronomy was a pursuit considered purely for “gentlemen,” despite the many contributions of women. Needless to say, astronomy wasn’t the only field in which this was true.

Mind you, it’s quite interesting to realise that the RAS allowed women membership in 1916, when you consider that women in the UK weren’t even allowed to vote at the time. Women over the age of 30 who met “certain property qualifications” were given the right to vote two years later in 1918 – a right which wouldn’t be extended to all women over 21 for another 10 years.

In light of this week’s latest sexual harrassment turmoils in astronomy, this seems to be a poigniant reminder. For over half of its existence, the RAS was a boys club. This is thankfully no longer true, but the fact remains that very often women are treated as second class in science (and elsewhere). To some extent, this may still be a hangover from the misogynistic origins of modern science. This needs to be fixed. We should be better than that by now. I was angry about this before and I’m still angry now. We’re improving, but we have a long way to go.

I don’t wish to dampen this celebration, by any means. The fact that our society now is less bigoted and segregated is definitely a thing to be celebrated. But be careful to which message you listen. The @RAS_Outreach twitter feed has been celebrating women in astronomy all day. It’s inspiring. But remember to give them respect as scientists in their own right, and not just as “women who are scientists.” And consider what good role models they’ll be for all those little girls out there who aspire to work in STEM fields when they grow up. Find out more about them, and tell your daughter/niece/little sister/cousin all about it.

Stars in science

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