Wednesday, 8 December 2010

"Public" Reviews of Science: Arsenic and Old Congressmen

Are there enough jokes that can be made with arsenic? No.
Two topics in the news recently have really caught my attention. The first being the "discovery" of the microbe that utilises arsenic in it's development instead of phosphorous. The second being a project called "YouCut" being run by Republican Majority Leader Eric Cantor which is currently soliciting a public review of NSF grants. When is it appropriate for the public to comment on scientific findings? Obvious answer: if you are a scientist. That's the summary... discussion below.

Unless you happen to be a bacteria living in an arsenic-riddled lake in California, it is unlikely that you missed this. There are fantastic responses and discussions going on that have certainly stolen my attention span over the last few days.

The first being the eloquent and professional (as professional as a blog can get) rebuttal by Rosie Redfield at her blog RRResearch. Though my knowledge of micro-biology stops at the freshmen university level, anyone with an understanding of the scientific method and research practises will find her comments interesting and insightful.

Alex Bradley added an interesting scientific contribution about arsenic compounds' propensity to fall apart when immersed in water. He guest-posted on the Science Blog "We, Beasties" with an interesting, well-presented argument.

I read Carl Zimmer's rebuttal posted on Slate and also found it to be well-written, insightful and worth reading.

There is discussion and speculation about the hype that NASA concocted in the lead-up to the publication. I, personally, felt mislead by the lauding as an astrobiological find. Frankly, this has nothing to do with astrobiology, but instead has implications on the field. This is all very interesting and I really cannot add anything any more eloquent than what has already been stated.

NASA refuses to comment on the web-based criticisms and says that this sort of critique should be conducted in professional publications. No one is arguing with that, and Dr Redfield is forming her blog post into a formal letter for Science.

This arsenic debacle has showed that opening up research to the "public" can lead to thoughtful criticisms and critiques of scientific practices. However, the "public" who are insightfully leading the charge against the "finding" of microbes hopped up on arsenic happen to be well-educated scientists. These people may not be an expert in this particular field, but they understand the basics as well as the importance of good research practices. Through their experiences in laboratories, they are able to spot flawed findings and isolate issues.

This, however, ties to the new project in the US Congress where Eric Cantor (R) is launching his new "YouCut" Campaign. The first objective of this project is to review National Science Foundation grants and isolate projects deemed to be "wasteful". Oh, wait, here's the catch, anyone can take part in this project. Anyone. Go there yourself; you can submit the grant numbers of projects you think are a waste of time.

There is a gigantic smear campaign against science in America. Scientists are lauded as the "bad guys" because we give evidence for scary things, like climate change, solar flares, asteroids, diseases. There is also a (unsurprising) correlation between atheists and scientists due to our need for evidence and rational thought. The conservatives christians do not like that. No sir.

This just opens the floodgates for the conservative anti-scientists to have a voice in a field where they do not belong. They do not conduct scientific research and are unlikely to see the broader impact that projects may have.

There is no form for people like me to go and say which projects should get more money. Probably right, too, as that would turn into an all out war between research groups, PhD students, post-docs and departments trying to flood the interwebs to get more money. Projects like this are a waste of internet space (if such a thing is possible) and definitely a waste of congress.

Leave science to the scientists.

Tuesday, 7 December 2010

Sex and math: You can integrate my curves any day

I just read an article on the Guardian CiF titled "Sexing up mathematics does not compute" and it made me irrationally angry. Okay, now maybe I should not take stuff like this so seriously, and one man's opinion is fair enough, but I am tired of generalisations made about an entire field of study. I'm going to pick apart some specifics then get to my general response. Let's start with this paragraph:
In truth, graduate students in mathematics are more concerned with prime numbers than they are with primal instincts. I did not even kiss a girl until a full two years after I got my doctorate... Mathematics, though a predominantly male endeavour for whatever reason – is definitely not testosterone-fuelled.
Let's break this apart, bottom to top. Can't the last sentence read "is definitely not hormone-fuelled" or something of the like? True, it is predominately male, but that's not to say that the sex drive of mathematicians has to be driven by testosterone. Women have just as much of a right to be crazy sex-monkeys as men and initiate whatever the hell they want. 

I am sorry, but "did not kiss a girl until a full two years after I got my doctorate"?! Please do not associate the fact that you are a mathematician with that. You just possibly destroyed a whole future generation of potentially brilliant mathematicians who now think that if they study mathematics, they will not kiss a girl until their late-20s. Not really selling the whole "Math is cool" concept, now are we? We want to encourage young, hormonal teenagers into studying mathematics, not scaring the hell out of them.

The line "...graduate students in mathematics are more concerned with prime numbers than they are with primal instincts" really drives me nuts. Okay, now I am not a graduate student in mathematics (astrophysics is my master!); my degree in mathematics may only be at a Bachelor's level, but man, did I live up the title of "Bachelor degree". My primal instincts ruled most of my decisions during those years and yes, I found complex analysis and the male persuasion equally sexy (though that would fluctuate depending on the time of day). Let me tell you, the day I learned about Cauchy's Integral Theorem, I went straight home and showed my boyfriend exactly how to integrate my curves! 

Right, let us discuss this bit:
There is a noble lineage of brilliant mathematicians who probably never dated and who never married... 
Fair enough, but here is a logical statement: Some brilliant mathematicians hated sex and never married. This does not imply that all mathematicians hate sex, nor that if you hate sex you will be a brilliant mathematician. Imagine some young, impressionable, intelligent boy or girl read this and think to themselves, "Oh no! I am attracted to that hot, young thing in my English class, that must mean that I will never be a brilliant mathematician." That is not the impression we want to be giving. 

True, mathematical brilliance may not necessitate an understanding of passion or love, in the same way lyrical brilliance might, but that does not mean it is mutually exclusive. I would argue that to see the beauty in mathematical proofs and concepts, it helps to see the beauty in the world around us. I remember first learning about Green's Theorem and suddenly realising that math was indeed beautiful. In fact, that was the same day I decided to pursue mathematics as a separate degree; I wanted to learn as much as I could about how mathematics describes the world. 

I am not an expert on sex drive, nor by any means am I a mathematical genius, but one should never exclude the other. I never dated until I was out of high school, but I do not think that had anything to do with my skills in mathematics, that was just because I did not feel a desire to. I certainly had a sex drive, but just was not ready to pursue it. It came in time, and never once along the way did anyone tell me that my skills in math came in exchange for a sex drive, like this article is implying. 

Sex is distracting, no one can argue that. When you are in the middle of writing a thesis or doing top research, sex is a bit of a deterrent, one need only use my last 6 months of my undergraduate degree as an example. So, okay, maybe when you are working on the next Maxwell's Equations, or simply trying to finish a proof for your linear algebra class, it may not necessarily be the best idea to have a naked person in the room with you. I don't know about you, but for me I found it easier to walk away from my Abstract Algebra assignments for said naked person, then say, my Complex Analysis, therefore clarifying in my mind where my priorities lay that's what she said

No one should ever imply that mathematicians are not and can never be sexy. Mathematicians may be the only people in the world who find math itself sexy, but believe me, we are capable of also finding people sexy and frankly, I think it makes us much more fun. 

Wednesday, 3 November 2010

My chat with the Secretary of Energy

Yesterday I went to LASERFest at the Glasgow Science Centre. This symposium was put together to celebrate 50 years of the LASER and featured some big names in the LASER community (although all capitals is technically correct, typing it that way is irritating me, so I'm going to "laser", sorry pendants) including three Nobel Prize winners. The opening, keynote speaker was the United States Secretary of Energy, Dr Steven Chu. This guy:
He just looks cool, doesn't he? Anyway, he is pretty much a genius and gave a great talk on his research with lasers with applications for physics as well as biology. He is an engaging speaker as well. After an intense talk, he posed the question, "Why would someone like me leave science to be the director of a DOE lab or a government position?" Answer: Climate change. He gave a brief discussion on why he thinks climate change needs to be discussed and some talking points on how to sell the concept to the public.

It is less of a hard sell in the UK, but in America, it still takes a lot of convincing to get people to even trust a scientist. Scientists are generally seen as heathen, non-believer know-it-alls who are telling god's children how to live their lives, and god wouldn't like that, would he? Even someone as awesome as this:
can't manage to convince the public, then it is a pretty hard sell!

Anyway, Dr Chu made some interesting comments, like how he is not 100% sure of the cause or the effect of climate change, but he is well more than 50% sure, and that should be enough to at least want to try something. He also commented that in response to people who say that we should "wait and see" when it comes to climate change do not understand that it takes approximately 100 years for the deep oceans to come to equilibrium with the surface. This means that whatever we have done on the surface will not have an effect on the world-wide environs for 10 decades.

Dr Chu said that the Department of Energy is funding a new initiative called ARPA-E which invests in short-term cockamamie ventures to solve the energy crisis. Dr Chu made the point of saying that most will fail, but if one in 30 is "okay" and one in 50 is a success, then it is a worthwhile investment. I think that this is a good investment, particularly for short-term and honestly, we need more support for "cockamamie" theories as the best scientific discoveries have come from this.

After his talk, I got a chance to speak with him in person. I asked him what the DoE is doing to make their current investments sustainable (see how I used that word there?) to last beyond one 2-year government (one that has just ended today). What frightens me is that there are some great things that are being done in this government, but as soon as a new one takes over (at any level) they can begin reversing great ideas (Kyoto Protocol anyone?)

To be fair, this was not a very polite question to ask him, as it was not the reason he was there, but I was curious and I had a chance to ask. Why not? He answered in a politicians sort of way, with an answer that I accept, but am not happy about. He said that he believes to make the future sustainable we need to educate children; that children are the ones who got their parents to wear seatbelts and children got their parents to quit smoking, so children have the power to teach their parents to be responsible to the environment. Logically, I asked if the DoE was funding any outreach projects or working towards communicating with children. Dr Chu responded with a polite, but conversation-ending "No." Fair enough. 

We need to be investing in communicating with children. I spent the next talk trying to imagine ways to implement this myself, and making a pledge to my own future that I would be more proactive in trying to communicate science to children. The rhetoric surrounding climate change needs to be modified. Some people are sick of hearing about it, but maybe that is because we see little progress. Anti-progressives rudely comment on science and the people behind the science. The thing that irritates me the most about the Bush Administration is that it touted being ignorant as being acceptable. That the intelligent people in the world were the elite snobs who are trying to tell you how to live your life. I could devote an entire post to my frustration, but here is not the place. I will save that for another day. Instead, I will simply do this:

I appreciate Dr Chu taking his time to speak with me and I hope he tries to do what he can to educate the children of not just America, but the world.

Dr Chu ended his talk with this Native American saying and I will, too, cliché and repeated advice aside: "Treat the Earth well. It was not given to you by your parents; it was loaned to you by your children"

Tuesday, 26 October 2010

That time of year...

I'm going to go a bit non-science on you now, so bear with me.

I love autumn. I love it so much. The smell in the air, the colours of the trees, the cold slowly sneaking in, it's all a wonderful experience. Also, it's Halloween season! Since I was a kid, I loved dressing up as all the people I wish I was or thought I would be. If you look at my costumes of choice as a child, you'd find a pretty weird kid. The one's with the highest frequency were Princess Leia and Cruella DeVil. There was also one disastrous occasion when I was twelve and thought I was cool and bad-ass enough to pull of Dana Scully. Also, an award-winning (at the University of New Mexico) costume as Winnie from Hocus Pocus that brought back some nostalgia for my peers:

(yes, that's my own hair. I don't think my hair ever forgave me)

During my teenage and university years, I was always the one hosting (and sometimes forcing) Halloween parties on people, finally giving up when no one would get into it and I was the only damned fool sitting around in a stupid costume. Now I finally live somewhere where my friends host their own parties and everyone does get dressed up. I do love it, except for that awkward first hour where no one has had enough alcohol to feel comfortable to wander around wearing a box or some elaborate facepaint.

This year, the theme is Muppets and this is my character:

I'll see how the costume turns out before I post any pictures. My brother suggested I just get really high and then I'll magically transform. I'm going to attempt the legal approach, which may back-fire, but we'll see. Last year I was in a very bad mood for the party, so hopefully this year it will be better.

On to notes of a more personal nature, though you are welcome to read as this is nothing I wouldn't say to anyone sitting with me in a pub. Thanks to events transpiring a few years ago now, I also am doomed to feel a bit melancholy this time of year. I am holding out hope that this does not last the rest of my life, but that may be a bit out of my hands. Last year, one of my best friends and I performed in the CU drag show:
Yes, that is me. Anyway, it was a great night, but through my friend (the one on the right, who is actually a man) I met someone who ended up changing my life forever. I really wanted to make it work, but timing was against us; a PhD opportunity came up and our own lives prevented us from staying together. I fought long and hard to keep us together and through some surprising turn of events and some misleading behaviour, I ended up getting kicked to the kerb, quite surprisingly and violently.

I still feel like I am down there, trying to desperately climb out, but the walls are high and slippery. Friends help, but ultimately it will only be the feeling of love that will get me back out of there. Every once in a while, an opportunity arises, but I think these men quickly realise that it takes some effort to help me out and feel that I am not worth the time or the risk, only making it harder for me to climb out myself. I hold out hope that one day someone will want to take the risk. I feel like the culture I am in is not a risky one, where people stay with someone or something because it is safe. I am not a safe person and that scares people, it seems like. I stand up for myself, let my personality shine and am not afraid to be myself. It is working against me. People, however, are not afraid to say that I am too much work, that it would be easier for them to stay with their routine (be it a former or current relationship, or their single life) even though it may not be as great as they wish, instead of taking the risk with me. Oh well, it will happen one day.

I know this is fairly personal, but there is not much of an outlet for me. People also need to know to stop telling me that "I'm young and I have plenty of time to meet someone." I'm sorry, but fuck off. I do not care how old I am; all I know is that I was in love, was loved and helped care for a kid. That matured me way beyond most people I know. That's all I want to have again. The bottom line is, though, that he did not see me as "worth fighting for" through my PhD, and I have to keep reminding myself of that. I hope him and his daughter are well, though I still cannot handle hearing about how he is doing and he made it pretty clear he did not want to hear from me. He is a non-entity to preserve my sanity.

So goes life, I guess, but this is kick-starting a holiday season that will be a pretty painful one. Hopefully the presence of one of my best friends will help. I am planning lots of alcohol.

All that being said, bring on the pain, for it is what makes us human. Thanks for reading!

Science next time, I promise... ;-)

Tuesday, 19 October 2010

Faces of Science - A Call to Action

Thank you all for the amazing support and encouragement with this project. I have received some fantastic emails and comments in the last few days. It is a great feeling to see a project come to fruition.

After some thought, I believe I will take this project in two directions. First, a sort of mini-expose on young scientists that can be shared on this blog. Every so often, I will highlight a young (or young-at-heart) scientist at whatever point in their career with what their life is like. So this is a solicitation to all you amazing and interesting people to share your story with me. Please comment, twitter, email or send up smoke signals letting me know you would be happy to put a mini-bio of yourself on the website. We can do a questionnaire, get some photos and some good stories and share your life and experience as a scientist to the world. We want the rest of society to know we are real people with awesome hobbies, families, adventures and personalities.

I particularly want this to be as real as possible, so even if you think you don't qualify because you are not a professional hockey player on the side (I'm not sure how that would work) or if your blog on heavy metal music only reaches 2-3 people a week, tell me about it! Tell me about wanting to be a scientist as a kid (or if you didn't, how did you end up here?). Who did you idolise? Did you have a poster of Uhura up in your bedroom until you were 28? Is your significant other a scientist? How did you meet? What do you listen to while you do research? Do the lyrics from Paradise City somehow find their way into your code? (Oh, just me then? Okay.) You get the idea. So please, get in touch!

Now, the second aspect to this project is a bit more ambitious, but there seems to be a lot of support and resources for this. I would like to do a photography exhibition along the same lines. I would like to show the faces behind the science, from the past to the present (and twirling...twirling into the future!). This is obviously much more long term, but I would also like opinions and suggestions for this. I think it would be interesting to have some non-science information about famous figures; what were their spouses like? Did they go to social events? Did they like music? Obviously, the further back we go, the harder this information is to obtain, but it could be a journey through history, showing the diverse backgrounds of scientists. It is important to convey to the public that us scientists come from all sorts of histories and specialities, through time. It would be especially effective if through the exhibit, the stories and the diversity exploded as we got closer to 'modern' times. It could have great potential to really inspire kids that anyone could be a scientist.

You know how parents sometimes tell their kids that "Einstein wasn't very good at maths at school either" [which isn't true, but you know what I mean] to try to encourage them to stick with it? Well, wouldn't it be much more effective if there was a widely-held belief that, actually, most scientists struggle at first, and it does not come easy to all of us, but if you like it and you want to do it, you should be able to. Kids want to be rock stars and presidents, why can't being a scientist seem just as cool and easy? After all, it's the motivation that got us all started, right?

Scientists would have much more of a priority in politics and government if funding was not seen as a burdensome obligation, but instead as an easy way to secure the future of the country and the prospects of future generations. Imagine if, instead of the one geeky kid (probably you or me or whoever else is reading this) who sheepishly says they kind of want to be a scientist when they grow up, most kids were able to say this proudly and without hesitation. If it was given the same regard and respect as politicians or musicians, we could really change the world.

Bring it on!
New website for The Faces of Science: Enjoy!

Saturday, 16 October 2010

Time Travel or Universe Travel?

Lately my mind has been drifting to the thoughts of time travel. In this week alone, I went and saw Back to the Future in the cinema and I got the majority of my new tattoo finished.

Now, one can only hope that when we discover the time vortex, it is that pretty and colourful and shiny.

So, thinking about time travel, in my opinion, it goes something along the lines of having billions and billions of parallel universes. Time travel is not so much the travel along a linear time path, but a jump into a timeline of a different universe. For example, in Back to the Future when Marty goes into 1955 and ploughs down one of the "Twin Pines" with his Delorean, he changes the future of the shopping mall to "Lone Pine". However, he has entered a new universe. The universe where Marty left continues on, with two pines and a wimp of a father, but without Marty. The parallel universe that the Marty we are following enters, has previously been occupied with a different Marty who disappeared to a new universe when he took off in the Delorean the same way our Marty did. Okay, this gets a bit confusing. Let's try a new one.

So, take Star Trek. Now aside from the brilliant, innovative science behind "red matter" (ha ha) the time travel is quite interesting. We have all happily followed along the adventures of Kirk, Spock, Uhura, Scotty and the other members of The Enterprise with (occasionally) silent devotion. As the timeline continued, with the stories we knew, at one point the Romulan planet gets annihilated in a supernova. Spock and the Romulans travel through a black hole "back in time" (i.e. to another universe) and pop out at the location of the USS Kelvin, starting off the plot of the new Star Trek world. We are now in a new universe where new adventures with the usual gang can take place. The original stories that we all know are still in tact, but in a different universe.

One last example, in The Big Bang Theory Sheldon postulates that if he invents a time machine, he will go back to himself and inform him of the invention, thus relieving Sheldon of ever having to invent it. However, the Sheldon in that universe would have to still invent the time machine; it is the Sheldon in the new universe that will be spared the invention.

These are the things I ponder when trying to fall asleep. It isn't perfect, but it is sure fun to think about. What are your thoughts? How do you think of time travel? Bring it on!

On a side note, Back to the Future was AWESOME in the theatre!

Monday, 11 October 2010

The Faces of Science - A new project

Yes, I know it has been ages. Yes, you can stop telling me now. No, I haven't died nor have I (really) given it up. I have been spending some time thinking about what I would like to do and where I would like to take my career, having been asked it (randomly) by a few people recently. Ideally, I would love to do outreach and communicate science to the general public, as this blog was initially started, but I have found that journalism is not necessarily the route I want. I desire communication through media apart from blogs as in television, photography or public speaking. So one question remains, what is stopping me? Well, I'll tell you:
1. my PhD research, for now. It is just difficult enough to maintain the motivation and drive for a PhD without worrying about too many side projects.
2. making the contacts and developing the resources for projects I want to do. I am just simply too early in my career for the necessary access to the wider community
3. A lack of creativity. Every once in a while I get inspired, but then 1 and 2 stop me in my tracks... I find it difficult to pursue certain ideas
4. laziness. Yes, I can admit it. 1 and 2 should not really stop me.
5. Fear of mockery and intimidation from the wider scientific field. I am a lowly PhD student; how do I know what I am talking about?

All of that being said, here is where I see the gap in scientific outreach. There are many highly skilled individuals successfully communicating complex scientific concepts to the general public, but there is still not a face to these scientists. I was pondering the success of the show,The Big Bang Theory. Most of my science friends are astonished that our non-science partners, friends and family find the show as entertaining as we do. We laugh because we are those people, but there's a certain appeal, I believe, from the wider public to glimpse into the life of the ever-elusive scientist. What do we do? What do we talk about? Do we date? What is dating like? What are our friendships like? Do we have a soul? This has resonated with the public through a fictional situation comedy. So why can't we tell those stories ourselves? Why can't the public see that scientists are just as unique, creative and passionate as the rest of the world?

Is it possible that if the rest of the world had a more human face to the work of scientists, we would be more successful in procuring government funding and public support?

As a PhD student who has moved from America to work in the UK, funding and support from government is vital in me wanting to live where I want and being able to do the work I want. Science already has an international community, but when governments do not support this venture, it becomes difficult for us to do the work necessary to maintain these ties.

Two thoughts popped into my mind for this project, both ambitious and currently suffering a severe lack of resources. First, I thought a photography campaign showing the lives of scientists, their individuality, the dynamics of a research group would be interesting. This could be shown to the public via magazine, photography exhibits or other means (I am clearly not a photographer). Another would be a documentary of sorts, with interviews and stories of real scientists, young and old, and the way they see the world, through their personal life, not just through their research.

What do you think? Is this a feasible project? Do you have any ideas? Would you like to work with me?

Thursday, 19 August 2010

* sigh *

So, yes, I know it's been a while, and I have sort of dropped the ball on this, but I am sick of writing about science. I see it every day, I talk about it every day, I think about it every day, I don't want to write about it every day. Such is the life I guess. I have found much more entertaining ways to spend my evenings and my artistic ability.

I am currently working in Germany for a few weeks to run my project past people here. Here are some things I've discovered:

1. I am a crap programmer, but I have potential, but that criticism and process makes me stressed out.

2. I get very stressed out when I do not speak a language

3. I am a stress-eater. I eat when I am stressed. A lot. Apparently I have not been stressed out for a long time. Last night, when I discovered that I was eating obsessively, did I recall the last time I must have been this level of stressed, during exams at CU when I did not have a boyfriend with whom I could ahem "work the stress out" or at the very least, bitch at for an hour and then play poker over drinks... you know, company helps stress. So we're talking a few years here. However, that came back last night. I ate all the food I bought for a week. All the food. In 2 days. I am sticking with the multiple cheap takeaways for the rest of my time here. It was absurd. I knew I was full, but all I wanted to do was eat. At least I know I am not an eater for loneliness or depression... just stress. And company (for me) takes the stress away. Ah well, it shall be solved.

4. When I am stressed I am very tired. When I am very tired, I still make myself get up at my usual time. When I am tired and up at my usual time I forget to wash the conditioner out of my hair in the shower.... .... .... yeah.

* sigh *

I wish I owned Dr Who DVDs. I am going to buy them when I get home. Maybe I'll try to find them here. The Doctor fills my lack-of-companion void. Which as I said before, hasn't usually been a problem, but it very much is a problem when I am stressed out.

Oh and my face is breaking out for the following reasons:
1. I am stressed about not speaking the language

2. I do not know how to ask if things have dairy in them and if I did know, I really really don't want to be that annoying, particular, American tourist who doesn't speak the language, can barely try and needs all these little things taken care of. So I have been eating a lot (read: any) dairy resulting in my face erupting like Krakatoa and my skin feeling like it's on fire. I am sticking with sausages and Chinese take-away.

Somehow I think it's easier for non-Americans to not speak German. I feel like there is this international stigma against American tourists. I've been met with it my whole life and spent my whole life trying to work away from it. However, no matter how polite I am or how soft-spoken I am (or try to be) as soon as I open my mouth, people's brains go "AHHH AMERICAN!!" and mentally run away screaming, reliving the horror they have had in the past with Hawaiian-shirt-wearing, loud, ignorant, picky, whiny Americans. It is very very very difficult to work yourself out of this box. I feel like I have only just begun to do that in Scotland, but I am set back well over a year being here. It feels terrible. I really hate that box and I hate being thrown in that box when I open my mouth. That box has high, slippery walls.

Thursday, 22 July 2010

Your R136a1 is so fat...

Any regular news readers would have been hard-pressed to miss the news that the largest star to date has been discovered, our new friend, R136a1. Using the ESO Very Large Telescope and archival Hubble data, researchers at the University of Sheffield isolated a star that is 265 times the mass of the Sun, a million times brighter and a birthweight about 320 times the Sun's.

Paul Crowther, Professor of Astrophysics at the University of Sheffield studied two young clusters of stars, NGC 3603 and RMC 136a, both clusters of young, hot, massive stars. The interesting thing about this is that this discovery completely dwarfs previous knowledge that stars were limited in their mass by about 150 times the mass of the Sun. Within R136, only four stars weighed more than 150 solar masses at birth, yet they account for nearly half of the wind and radiation power of the entire cluster, comprising approximately 100 000 stars in total.

Comparing R1361a to the Sun, the brightness is about the difference between the Sun and the full moon. Imagine now that we simply replaced the Sun with R136a1, “Its high mass would reduce the length of the Earth's year to three weeks, and it would bathe the Earth in incredibly intense ultraviolet radiation, rendering life on our planet impossible,” says team-member Raphael Hirschi from Keele University.The relative sizes of different stellar classifications are shown below:

The important thing to take away from this discovery is that this is simply the dynamics of scientific research. In the same way the Kuiper Belt forced us to redefine our Solar System and Pluto's classification, this forces us to redefine our understanding of stellar evolution and dynamics. I am inclined to agree with astronomer royal Martin Rees (who can't? With such stellar *ahem* eyes and a devil-may-care smirk...) in his assessment that this is a cool discovery and it's great that it involves UK science and advanced telescopes, but it is not Earth-shattering. It just makes us appreciate the ever-changing understanding of the universe around us.

Tuesday, 20 July 2010

Choose your own adventure: The infinite washing loop

It's 10pm. You have a load of laundry in the washer. It is taking a disturbingly long time. Instead of ignoring it, you start to listen. *click* bzzzz *click* bzzzz *click* bzzzz... Running over to investigate, you discover that instead of the high-speed cycle where the machine centrifuges most of the water away, it is starting over! Do you: A Leave it alone to see if it finishes itself? or B. Ctrl-C the infinite loop?


If you chose A: The cycle continues for another hour. Go back to the beginning.

If you chose B: You Ctrl-C the process any way you know how. Cutting off the power. Forcing it to the end of the cycle. Nothing works. The hatch won't unlock. The cycle begins again. Now you can A. Let it continue. or B. Force quit with kill -9 and live with the consequences.


If you chose A: The cycle continues again. Your clothes are ruined. The End.

If you chose B: You force open the hatch with a series of power cuts, cycle adjustments and button-unlocking; a sequence no monkey can repeat, you've tried. The hatch eventually opens and you are faced with a pile of sopping, dripping wet, half-ruined clothes. You can: A. Close the door, lock it, start a cycle and become deeply religious. Or B. Take out the clothes, dashed be the results!


If you chose A: The washer explodes and you die in a fireball of wet clothes (I'm betting...didn't want to risk it) The End.

If you chose B: You hang up the clothes, put a towel underneath them. Try to sleep to the sound of dripping water and hope the humidity does not result in an infestation of midges in your room. The End.

Erin's cycle: ABBB. Come over and see how your clothes end up! See if you can translate kill -9 to washer-speak in the same way I managed!

In the infinite words of Professor Farnsworth: 'She's stuck in an infinite loop and he's an idiot!' ... now to sleep, perchance to dream.

Why the Sb exodus brought me here

ScienceBlogs is suffering a mass exodus. This is being widely covered in the blogosphere, from Bora Zivkovic just announcing his exit and PZ Myers dutifully covering the exodus as well. It really is a shame to see and a perfect example of Bion's Effect as pointed out in Bora's post. It is very much a load of people at an awesome, rockin' science party (because we all know what those are like...seriously... no seriously. Have you been? They're awesome. Drinking and discussions of FTL drives) who have decided that it's no longer that fun and every one is getting their coats to leave. That is precisely what is happening.

Now, most of the blogs out there being written on this exodus are written by renowned, long-lasting science writers. I have decided to throw my opinion into the ring because, as opposed to most out there, instead of looking for a change of venue, or a new perspective, I have decided to start out, fresh and new in the world of Science Blogging. I kept a blog to cover my first year living overseas, so I am no stranger to the blogosphere. However, the coverage of ScienceBlogs forced me to seriously look at this field as a viable and interesting world for me to enter.

I am a physicist, which is already pretty rare in the world. Not only that, but I am also a female physicist; which is even more rare, though the situation is improving. I am a PhD student, so I am starting out in this career path, seeing the world of academia as well as my own field, with fresh eyes. I feel like this leaves me with something to share with the world. Female physicists are also not usually heavily tattooed...hmm...I should work out my statistical position in the world. Maybe this weekend.

The point is, folks, there are a lot of incredibly intelligent people out there who have had enough of one science party and are floating down the streets, trying to hail a cab and find a rockin' after-party. I will continue to link to their own personal blogs, wherever they decide to end up. It seems like it would have been a fun party, and I hope they continue on.

I have not been blogging for as long as others, and I certainly am not experienced in the world of science blogging. I hope that this community can keep the raucous discourse going to encourage more people to step on board. There are some pretty talented people out there, and I may or may not be one of them, but I would like to give it a try. I encourage you to do so as well. Let us learn together!

See? It's not all bad. This has brought me, and probably more, to the world of science blogging, knowing that the doors are open and the bouncers have left!

Gravity's Whispers -- A story

Here is a quick link to a story published in Nature: Enjoy!

Gravity's Whispers

Heffington Post

Right, so I have disappeared for a while. I was in desperate need to get away from the city, away from work and away from people. What better than a 3-day weekend? Thank you, Glasgow, for treating me to such an event! A day in Glencoe, a day riding horses on the Scottish coastline and a day in front of the telly; mind is back on track.

However, I did get into work this morning and see a post on Pharyngula about a new candidate for Governor for Kansas, Joan Farr Heffington It causes me much distress to link to her page, and I warn you, her picture will haunt your eyeballs. Though I no longer live in America, I am a little tied to it, and I really would like my friends and family to lead a happy existence. This is not going to be achieved by sending a theocratic politician like Heffington to such a high level of power. She even lays out her goals on her website bulleted by crosses. Really? Have some semblance of conformity to the whole 'separation of church and state'. There are four references to Christianity on her one and only page. I am respectfully (though not deservedly) ignoring each little bullet point cross.

I know the people who read this have little or no connection to Kansas, but be afraid, be very afraid. We do not want her near policy. I am tired of people letting their neighbouring states do as they please, not thinking it is going to affect their lifestyle. A good example of this is the infamous Texas Board of Education Curriculum. (Holy Cuchulain! They have a link to 'Bible Literacy'! *slams forehead on desk*) When the discussion began, a lot of people rolled their eyes and went 'Oh, Texas' until they realised the little details, like how California buys a lot of their textbooks from Texas. See? It's this whole thing called a nation. We cannot escape it.

The point is, folks, we need to keep science in schools, moderated GM produce, funding for scientific research (yes, even the controversial stuff) and other knowns and unknowns that will advance our society. Heffington wants to "Require that a Biblical and Constitutional reason exist for the passage of any new laws" -- yikes. Think about that for a second. Yeah, so you agree with me, right? That's correct, bye bye science.

I hope she is not a serious candidate. She is currently running in the Republican primary to be held on 3 August. I am pretty sure her face is as contrived as her respect for the United States. Do not elect that face. Do not let this plague spread through to Washington.

Friday, 16 July 2010

Star Wars Subway Car

This is not always going to be exactly science, but science-like things. Who out there doesn't love "Star Wars"? This is an absolutely epic enactment and worth a watch for a laugh. Makes me want to dig out my Leia costume and go ride the subway for a while, evading the Imperial Troopers. That's not weird, right?

Wednesday, 14 July 2010

Ode to a lost Futurama

Oh, Futurama, what has happened to you?
You used to be clever, honest and true
After years of our begging we got you back
Just to see scripts that seriously lacked

MomCo as Apple? Really, give me a break
Bender and Amy? Please man, I just ate
Where is the science? The nerd jokes? The fun?
Did all of your writers suddenly run?

Jokes about photons, wire drawers and Trek
Have now been replaced with nothing but sex

Zapp was awesome when he was just Kirk
But now he's just gross and your everyday jerk
Kif and Amy once gave hope to the scrawny
Now she's not pleased unless he is brawny

It was a great balance, catered to every man
"Bite my shiny metal ass" while drinking Olde Fortran

I want Bender again to be frightened of twos
And Fry to want Leela, though he knows he will lose
We loved the quantum finish and the Aleph-null-plex
And what about Gore, Nichelle, Hawking and Gygax?

Nibbler and Zoidberg, Hermes and Scruffy
Your characters were epic and terribly funny
Who didn't love Flexo with Star Trek to mock?
You gave us back Nimoy, who was more than just Spock

Maybe the writers want this time to stay
So they're changing the humour, leaving nerds in dismay
Without nerd support, you wouldn't be here
We cried out for more but you've left us in tears

I know we are few but we do still exist
Desperately wanting more than just pish
I know it's a risk to leave us in the dust
The general public might find it a must

I'm saddened and sick by your lack of tact
Maybe it's true; we can never go back
Time to say goodbye to the lads in 3k
Maybe when we're there, it'll all be okay.

SHOCK! Particle rumour denied

*Gasp* Sit down, this one is really going to blow your mind. A blogger made something up?! Say it ain't so!! My faith in the webertubes is shattered!

Apparently some Italian particle physicist started a rumour on his blog that the Tevatron accelerator discovered evidence for the ever-elusive Higgs Boson.

Fermilab denied the rumours on their twitter page (also a trustworthy source) that the rumours are just from a fame-seeking blogger. Shame he got a news article as well. But really, people, this is what happens in the future world made up of a "series of tubes". We get things like rumours and the massive, impressive ability to link to lots of places!

I do love the fact that a rumour like this can spread though; much better than the rumours than take hold like Jeff Goldblum falling off a cliff. It shows that the general public are actually interested in the Higgs Boson, or have at least been convinced that they should be. Just add "God" to the start of anything and the American public will jump on it. If Americans jump on it, then surely it is newsworthy, right? Don't get me wrong, I think the media fascination with this subject has taught the public a very important lesson in the world of science which is it takes a freaking long time. There is *gasp* DATA to analyse. Funny that. Sounds like scientists are not keen to just jump on a discovery. We have been well-trained since the days of Joseph Weber to not jump on a possible detection, straight for a claim like a submarine bomber looking for a radar signal (if you know the story of Weber, I promise that is a very clever simile!)... maybe a little too well-trained in hesitancy, but hesitant nonetheless. What can I say? We just like checking and double-checking our numbers before making a claim. It is going to take some time. If we don't, I promise scientists are going to look more foolish than they will if they just make the public wait.

Guide to patching a git

Right, I do not know if any of you out there are programmers, but here is a little tip I have picked up today as it was very difficult to glean from the massive amounts of online tips. This is the problem when you venture into the world of 'advanced' programming, people fail to write simple solutions when there are so many fancy options out there.

In my field, we use Git to share and update files. If I update a file in our group that is on our git repository, I have to submit patches for review before pushing. This post is how to edit and create a patch for review. I am assuming that you already have a git repository cloned and you are editing from there on your 'master' branch. Now, I am not a great user of git, nor is this elegant or even possibly correct. This is just what I do and it seems to not break things. You have been warned...

STOP! Do not edit on your master branch. It is scary and people yell at you and the general order of things descends into chaos. Instead, execute the following (don't type the '$', that's just to show it's on a command line)

$ git branch -b editbranch

This will create and switch to a new branch called editbranch that you can play with and destroy at your freedom and leisure. Feel free to call it whatever you please, such as filebin, trashsector, development (non-exciting choice that I went with...with the sequel, development2 when I screwed up the development branch...shut up! I'm not creative when the possibility of breaking a computer is in front of me) or xwing or tiefighter (those'll be my next ones).

You can switch between branches by doing
$ git checkout master #this is your default branch
$ git checkout tiefighter #this is where you edit things

Now edit your file with your preferred text-editor of the day. I prefer a large helping of emacs with a touch of vim if I'm feeling saucy.

$ emacs filename.c

play play, compile, break, delete, play, edit, compile, break, fix, compile, delete, fix, compile, success! (You know the game of which I speak)

Now that you have a new version of a file on your git repository, it is time to do the scary scary sin of COMMITTING. All you commitment-phobes out there better suck it up and get ready to take the plunge. Type

$ git branch

to make sure you're in your development branch. Type

$ git branch

again, just to make sure... you should see a return like this:

$ git branch
tiefighter *

the asterix means that's your working branch. This is correct. If the asterix is instead next to your master branch, you are monkey-screwed up a wall of fleas. You have edited in your master branch.At this point, a point where I have been many times, I copy over my changed file to somewhere safe, reload git or copy a clean, unedited file into that directory, then switch to git using

$ git checkout tiefighter
and paste the edited copy back onto that
$ cp /home/safedirectory/changedfiles/filename.c .

It's not clean or happy, but it happens a lot and that's the best way I have found to fix it.
Now that you are sure you have made the changes in your editing branch, execute:

$ git commit -m "This is where I briefly describe the changes" filename.c

You will see lots of help files where $ git commit -a is suggested, this means you commit all your files that could be changed. I stay away from this because I like more control on the situation.

Now you want to create a patch file. This is basically a text file that clearly lays out all the insertions and deletions you made to the file. It is really handy, especially if you want a record of what you have done, or if you want someone else to look at your changes. This is created by doing

$ git format-patch origin

where origin calls back to the original committed files and compares the two. This creates a patch in your directory called "0001-This-is-where-I-briefly-describe-the-changes.patch". Now you look at the patch with something as simple as

$ more 0001-This-is-where-I-briefly-describe-the-changes.patch

Oops! You will inevitably see a mistake...maybe you'll see a changed line where it is now a comment; something you meant to delete before you committed. This happens to me far too much to be dignified. So you go back to the file:

$ emacs filename.c
edit, delete, compile, hooray!

Now if you execute the same commands from above

$ git commit -m "This is where I briefly describe the changes" filename.c
$ git format-patch origin

it will result in a second file, 0002-This-is-where-I-briefly-describe-the-changes.patch with only the minimal deletion or change. I prefer to have all my edits and changes in one single .patch file. This is how that is done. Execute:

$ git log filename.c

This will show you all the recent committed changes, including your past 2+ ones. It will look something like this:
commit #x####xxx###x#x#x##xxx###x#x#x##xxxx##
Author: His Holiness
Date: Wed Jan 14 04:27:17 2110 +0100

This is where I briefly describe the changes

commit #x####xxx####x#x##xxx###x#x###xxxx####
Author: His Holiness
Date: Wed Jan 14 04:25:17 2110 +0100

This is where I briefly describe the changes

commit #x##x#xxxx#x#x####xxx#x##x#x###xxxx####
Author: Someone smarter than me
Date: Tue Dec 25 08:30:05 1013 +0100

This is where I did AMAZING things to this file

And you want to create a patch from the last change (not yours, you Holiness) where someone smarter than you made some really amazing changes. Here is what you do so you don't have multiple patches:

$ git diff -p #x##x#xxxx#x#x####xxx#x##x#x###xxxx####[the number from commit on the smarter one] filename.c > 0001_new-patch-whatever-I-want-to-call-it.patch

There you go! There is a new patch with all your amazing (hopefully, pending review) changes that you can email to others for checking. Good luck!

Next time, in the world of Git: We look at how to do the dreaded push. Stay tuned for whenever my new patch is approved and I have to figure this all out again! (I really need to start writing stuff down)

Monday, 12 July 2010

Gravity in HD!

Check out this sweet, new, glorious map of the Earth!:

Yes, that is correct, you are seeing GRAVITY! When I go to explain my PhD to people, it usually results in them just saying 'So you're trying to find gravity, right?' Well, sort of. But in a wavy, gravy sort of form. This GOCE satellite from the European Space Agency has mapped out the gravitational field of the Earth. This is a little tricky of a map to figure out, especially as there are positive values on the scale. This does NOT mean that when you go to Papua New Guinea, this happens (copyright Bill Watterson):

Instead, the way they describe it on the satellite homepage is that GOCE acts like a spirit level, you know, those ones you have in your house that you played with as a kid to watch bubbles float around? You didn't do that? Oh, okay. Anyway, I am sure you have seen or used these before. The last time I used one properly was trying to install a dishwasher at my ex-boyfriend's house. Try installing a dishwasher without one. Just try it. And then... put it on SUPERWASH and see how many dishes you can break. I bet it makes one hell of a racket. Probably more impressive than my washing machine on hi-spin. Sounds like a rocket engine taking off.
Anecdotes aside, you know what I am talking about. This thing:

This satellite is basically a giant one of these. They have sensitive balls (tee hee) along the satellite that respond to gravitational pull, marking high points and low points. The satellite apparently was supersensitive to any moving parts, so the whole thing is a measuring device. The balls in the machine had to be in effective free-fall to get the readings as well, which is obtained by orbiting Earth (think about it... throw a ball really fast, straight away from you, now since the Earth curves, the ball falls to the ground like normal, but then the ground has fallen away so the ball just keeps falling as it keeps moving horizontally at that speed...crazy, I know) So...yeah, that is how this works.

I am not quite sure of the scientific uses for this. They say that it will be useful information for lots of geological sciences, which I can sort of see, precision is always nice. Plus, this epic map was only two months worth of data, so it is pretty impressive in it's efficiency. They also use the age-old academic reasoning that lots of people in the *ahem* gravitational world use and that is "but it's the TECHNOLOGY! Look at all the cool, supersensitive technology we have developed!" This is valid and widely used reasoning for high-precision science that may not have super-exciting applications just yet. Seriously, you never know when you will need the technology or when the data will be applicable. Pretty picture though, right? Yay, gravity.

Edit: As was pointed out by my esteemed friend, DAstronomer, where the bloody hell are the units on that thing? I assumed the 'level' plot was just a scaled factor, made-up unit thingy. Okay, but seriously, latitude and longitude people! Maybe geophysicists have their own secret unit language.


The European Space Agency has revealed images from their Rosetta mission of Asteroid Lutitia. Badass. They got as close as 3162 km, which is just under 2000 miles, which thanks to The Pretenders, we know is very far in the snow, where he's gone. The Pretenders aside, this is pretty cool. Here is the image of the asteroid:

There is also a great simulation video at the ESA Rosetta website to watch.

So, what does this all mean? How is this science? What do we learn? Is this just a futile competition between space agencies saying 'My spaceship did cooler things than your spaceship!'? NO! There are many things we can learn, and plus, as is ever the study of space, it is pretty freaking cool. Here, you can see how close they actually get:

This image shows what seems like a landslide. Pretty epic, eh? The camera they used for these pictures has a 60m resolution at it's closest point to the asteroid. This means that if two objects are more than 60m apart, the camera can tell the difference. Kind of when you see a speck of dust and you get really close, but it turns out it's actually TWO sneaky specks of dust. Do you not spend your time investigating the spectral resolution of dust on your desk? Fine. But, now you will. Or you will at least now see a speck of dust and say 'The resolution of my eyes can only say it is one piece of dust'. You will. Trust me.

The scientists working on this object say that they think it is very old. Seeing all the craters on the surface is a good indication that it has been around for a while. It also does not have the visual characteristics of a young, iron-rich surface which would indicate a different source. This asteroid has been known for a while and has been studied from the ground, but the evidence from these studies has not given a clear picture.

That means that further study of the asteroid can again give clues towards it's source and the evolution of the Solar System. Rosetta has many instruments on it to collect data. One, for example, can collect dust floating around the asteroid and bring it back for study. If that was successful, we will not know until the instrument returns, but it'd be pretty sweet, no?

Rosetta is not done yet, oh no. ESA is going to stretch this instrument like a nice piece of Taffy. This is not even it's main mission, oh no, this was just a pit-stop on the road of scientific discovery. Rosetta is flying on to rendez-vous with the comet Churyumov-Gerasimenko. It is going to fly alongside the comet for a timescale of months, saying 'Please be my friend. Please give me cool things to take home and show my mum! Please? Please? Please?' It is even sending a probe in 2014 (when it meets up) to land on the main part of the comet (the 'nucleus'). We shall all have to wait with baited breath for the next, um, 4-ish years, and see what Rosetta will have to brag about.

Friday, 9 July 2010

Al Gore speaks out

Al Gore just posted in his blog about the Politicisation of Science. He very rightly condemns the witch hunt going on in politics towards climate scientists. Worth a read.

"Psychic" Cephalopod

Okay, this story is getting ridiculous. It went from a cute anecdote to people calling "Paul" psychic to actual analysis of it. That is ridiculous. Okay, octopi are living beings, but no one and nothing is psychic. Maybe he has a penchant for certain colours depending on how hungry he is. Maybe he picks flags based on which way he feels like floating that day.

I focused on statistics for my mathematics degree, so I love numbers. However, any one with a basic knowledge of flipping a coin would know that "Paul" has a 50% chance of getting the correct answer. It is called luck.

Michael Specter: The danger of science denial | Video on

As this blog is meant to discuss many things, not just astronomy and me lecturing you from my lectern of my Mac in my pyjamas, I thought I would share this video with you. For those of you who do not know about TED talks, they are worth a look. They are lectures given by some of the greatest minds of the world (not always, but generally) and you can spend a day, at least, perusing them and learning about anything and everything. Lucky I am telling you about these on a Friday, right? Now you have all weekend to watch TED talks as so many nerds before you have done. I am passing along this video which details societies growing denial of science and reason. From herbal remedies (the dangerous sort, where people really should be on real medicine) to anti-vaccinations and many more. This video mostly focuses on medicine and the environment. Have a look.

Michael Specter: The danger of science denial | Video on

He makes interesting points. He believes that we can 'innovate' our way out of the declining state of the Earth, but the main problem is that society has a growing trend against science. He states that the battle against science is something not seen since pre-Enlightenment. He makes a great point that the outspoken haters tend to be sort-of educated people who have just been presented with evidence that science can be bad. We can all think of examples. The problem is that now there is a culture of fear towards science. A horrible, terrifying example linked Autism to measles vaccines. This sent people through the roof, against further scientific evidence that there is no connection. Now the amount of people who get measles vaccines are going down. There is a lack of 'causation and correlation'.

He even criticises societies turn towards herbal remedies. There is a lot of evidence that none of these work, but he does not blame society for this, he blames the health care system of America. There is, indeed, a problem when people turn to herbal remedies to cure their cancers or other serious problems. I tend to agree with this, but there is a bigger problem with this. Herbal remedies have turned people's minds against pharmaceutical research.

Big Pharma is evil. We all agree on that, but that does not mean that the outcomes of their research are always bad. Okay, so Big Pharma has a big problem with over-medicating stupid people by literally selling problems to people, then selling them the cure. So how do we respond to this? Educate yourselves! Do not blindly trust and do not blindly deny what people tell you. Scientists follow a strict code of progress with scepticism and you should as well. It is okay to be sceptical of scientists, because if they are worth half-a-salt, you will be able to follow their research just as carefully and see exactly what they did. That is what we need people to do.

You can read Michael Specter's articles in the New Yorker here.

Word of the Week: Perigalacticon!

I have decided to make the inaugural Word of the Week the very same word after which I named this blog. Cool name, right? I like to think it is the name of a super-villain or the name of a pet koala, Peri. In fact, I discovered this word when I was looking for names for cyber-pets when I was growing up. My parents did not think me capable of handling a real pet so I went to technology. Remember those things? Our generation will be plagued with the shame of having tiny keychain pets taken away in school. Former generations, I don't know, walkmans, slide-rules or something and the subsequent generations, blackberries and blueteeth. We, we had mini, pretend pets.

Yes, so I wanted a name for this pet. What did my 8-year-old self turn to? An encyclopaedia titled "Astronomy". I spent about an hour, curled up on my parents floor looking for cool words. I came across a doozie: perigalacticon. It sounds like the name of a star ship.

In fact, it is a little less interesting than an intergalactic star ship, or an evil over-lord, or a cute koala or cheeky monkey (these are the pets I want), but only a little less interesting. So, you have a galaxy, filled with stars and the stars orbit around the centre of the galaxy. The orbit is not a perfect circle and there is one point where the star is the closest to the middle. That point is the 'perigalacticon' of the star's orbit. Cool, right?

Now find a way to work that in to your dialogue today. Good luck!

Thursday, 8 July 2010

Japan probe sees asteroid dust - a teaser

No spoilers ahead, no worries. And it is also maybe possibly unlikely that this dust was kicked up by Bruce Willis landing a mining vessel on this, possibly. Intrigued? See, the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) released a two-sentence teaser on their website. The HAYABUSA probe has just returned. Joy all around!

The HAYABUSA probe was meant to go take dust from an asteroid and bring it back to Earth. Then scientists are planning on studying the dust to see what kind of minerals are present. This will teach us about the distribution of certain elements in our Solar System, giving clues towards it's evolution.

The Solar System is a tricky beast. The whole 'Pluto=dwarf planet' scandal is evidence of such trickiness. As we learn more, we have to reconsider our view and change our definitions. This is how science works. Things like asteroids are like little messengers from far away that can expand our view and teach us new things, forcing us to look at the Solar System differently or confirming what we had already thought. Science is a beautiful thing.

What is not so beautiful, however, is the world of science. Sometimes. The Japanese have just released a wee teaser of their research. The probe is back, they are in the process of opening it up and looking inside. All we know now is they 'may' have found particles from the ITOKAWA astroid. Maybe. Possibly. The waiting! AH! The waiting!! This is how science works. It's back! Hooray! We found particles! Hooray!! Now, wait. Where are they from? ...tedium ensues.

Rest assured though, that when we have to send Bruce Willis to an asteroid to drill inside and annihilate it, we will know what minerals we are dealing with. That should make the drilling easier, right?

Planck sees the microwave sky

As I promised you science-y things, I have decided to begin with the new release of data from the Planck telescope. Here's how this science stuff is going to work. I am picking a topic and going to give you the basic background of it. Sorry, unavoidable, but don't you think it makes the news much cooler? Any background that would be too tedious to go over, I will just put a link to some basic info on it. Feel free to click the link and learn even more! With that all out of the way, it is time for some learning! Here is the press release that this is about. It has appeared in the BBC, NYTimes and countless other sources, so you may have seen it by now. What is it about you may ask? Here we go!

The Planck telescope is a project launched last year by the European Space Agency (ESA). It was launched in May of last year to survey the Cosmic Microwave Background. What is this "Cosmic Microwave Background" you ask? Well, it's nickname is the CMB. You may have heard this before as it is a famous discovery that presents evidence of the Big Bang. It is, in fact, one of the more elegant discoveries of the 20th century. This is a funny story, so pay attention. The CMB was predicted when cosmologists. No, not people who put on makeup, those are cosmetologists, this means people who study the cosmos. Your confusion is acceptable. It's the same derivation: cosmos comes from Greek for 'beauty', or, the antithesis of chaos. Cool, right?

Okay, back to the funny story of the CMB. So, these cosmologists said that if there was a big explosion that started the universe, we should still be able to see it. This may sound weird to you, and it's even weirder to explain. Stick with me. Skip below if you want to remain ignorant of cool science, or you know it already. So, remember that the Big Bang says we all started at one point which rapidly expanded, like an explosion. Given how much stuff had to be in that single point, it must have been very very hot. Same concept as when you rub your hands together quickly and heat begins to build up. Now imagine hundreds of hands all practically in the same place rubbing against each other very fast. Lots of heat, right? Same thing happens when you have lots of particles in a tiny spot, they vibrate against each other and generate heat. Sexy, I know. We have all this heat and then it expands. The 'hands' are not touching each other anymore so the heat begins to cool off, but it does not disappear. Keeping numbers out of the story, it has been a long time since the universe started to expand. That heat, which remains in the universe, has cooled off a lot. It is predicted, given how big the universe is now, that that heat is only about 3 degrees above absolute zero. Early cosmologists gave predictions for what this temperature would be, but had not made an exact estimate.

So, the discovery. Two guys named Arno Penzias and Robert Wilson were working for Bell Labs in New Jersey. They had a supersensitive radio detector to detect extremely faint radio waves. They got rid of all the interference possible, including heat from the receiver itself. There was noise that did not go away; it was everywhere in the sky, at all times of the day and night. Their conclusion? Pigeon poop. In the dignified scientist way, they cleaned off all the excrement, but the noise remained. Penzias heard about research going on at Princeton to discover some radiation left over from the Big Bang that was suspiciously at the same wavelength as the noise they were fighting. Penzias suddenly realised what a big discovery this was and published their discovery jointly in Astrophysical Journals. The Nobel Prize for this discovery was given to them in 1978 for this discovery as it was the first definitive evidence of the Big Bang.

Right, so where are we now? PLANCK. Planck was a cool guy. He will feature this weekend here on this blog, so stay tuned for that. Until then, let us talk about his namesake, the Planck Telescope. The aforementioned heat is not perfectly uniform. Imagine a flat sheet of paper; if you were to zoom in on the paper, it would go from this:

to this:

Well, it is the same thing with the CMB. A non-sensitive telescope, similar to our eye, would just see the CMB as flat and unchanging. If we get a supersensitive telescope, we can measure all the differences. Why is this important you ask? Well, as it is in fact left over from the Big Bang, the tiny differences give hints to the exact structure of that tiny space when the universe began expanding. So, we need these supersensitive telescopes to see the differences. The Planck telescope was preceded by telescopes such as the WMAP and COBE.

Now, the first images have been released by Planck. Here it is, in all it's glory:

This image includes our own galaxy (the stripe across the middle) and some interstellar dust, which you can probably see yourself. They are going to remove the extra stuff, like the galaxy and the dust. The resulting image will look a little like this (courtesy of WMAP):

This image from WMAP shows extremely tiny changes in the CMB. Like looking really close at a piece of paper, this level of sensitivity gives clues towards the beginning of the universe. As science tends to work, we have predictions on how this should look as well as what that means. Bring it on!

Did you have fun? That's science! There will definitely be updates on this, so keep a wary eye out.

Why I am here

Hello cyber-world! I decided to start this blog to share my pithy ramblings that are the result of hours spent perusing the web-er-tubes. I do not know where this blog will lead, who will choose to follow or whether anyone will, in fact, read it. I do know, however, what motivated me to start this. Let me share with you... are you settled? Okay.

First of all, I am an avid reader of the ScienceBlogs writer, PZ Myers (not to be confused with his scary alter-ego of misspellings, PZ Meyers) and his blog, Pharyngula. Recently, there was an interesting discussion on why there are a lack of prominent female sceptics. Now, the term 'sceptic' can be applied to many things, whether it is a sceptic of religion, a sceptic of faith, a sceptic of the world, a sceptic of miracles, or any other possible thing you want to be sceptical of, the current societal infatuation with Twilight included. I like to think that the world of science is the ultimate haven for sceptics. We were generally led to science by a certain curiosity of how the world around us actually works. And I mean, ACTUALLY works. None of this religion-mumbo-jumbo. I do not know about you, but I find the concept of quark-gluon plasmas much more fascinating than a big man with a great beard pointing his finger and saying 'Me want Universe!' (and you want to know something even better? There's this thing called EVIDENCE for plasmas! Shhhh). So I am here to lend my voice to the world of female sceptics. Indeed, there are few women in my field and I imagine even fewer who want to risk exposing themselves to the cruel world of the blogosphere, but I can take it. If I can be tattooed 15 times I can certainly take on the world of the interwebs.

My personal journey with science has led to me researching the existence of gravitational waves, with a dollop of astrophysics and a soupçon of statistics. This was not a journey of enlightenment, of bright lights and shiny epiphanies, but a tiring one that consisted of fits of anger, holes in my wall the size of physics textbooks, morbid cartoons of Cauchy being eaten by a T-Rex, sweat-laced homework assignments, tears, rage, frustration and many other horrible things. However, it also resulted in some amazing bonding moments with fellow students, the beauty of Cauchy's Integral Theorem, the shininess of finally solving the Schrödinger equation, more science fiction marathons than one would think possible and the amazing feeling of finally being handed the diplomas by the same professors who made my life miserable (but very educated) for four years. Four years, it flies by. So that is me and that is why you should trust me. Also, there are not enough female, tattooed, scientists out there to show other girls who may not fit the stereotype that we do, actually exist and would open them with welcome arms to this world!

I am here to share my thoughts with you, oh Reader. We are going to have a wild adventure together analysing and tearing apart the world around us, with occasional rants on my behalf of my research (all fellow mourners welcome). I may also attempt to teach you some cool things, if you want to learn. Want to join? It should be fun! So pull up a browser, pour yourself some coffee and let the discussion ensue. To emulate the immortal words of The Doctor, I am most definitely a mad woman with an internet account. Let's have an adventure!