Bad Astrologers III

Tonight, BBC Radio 4's The World Tonight mentioned some new research into astrology by researchers in Germany and Denmark. The story has also been covered by the ABC, the Sydney Morning Herald and The Mirror.

The study apparently (I don't have a subscription so haven't been able to read it) grouped over 15,000 people by sun-sign and then compared the personality types of the 12 resulting groups. The total sample was drawn from two sources: the first was a group of 4,000 Vietnam veterans (who the researchers state could be a biased sample due to the experience of traumatic events) and the second was a group of 12,000 from the US National Longitudinal Study of Youth (NLS). The veterans were tested for psychoticism, extraversion, neuroticism and social desirability, but the researchers found no statistically significant difference between the different sun-signs groups or time of birth for that matter. They did find a tiny difference in IQ between those born between July and December compared to the other half of the year but this was actually reversed for the NLS sample.

After talking to one of the researchers, The World Tonight interviewed Jonathan Cainer - perhaps the UK's best known and best paid astrologer - for his view on the matter. I have typed it up here so that there is a record of it.

Jonathan Cainer: Well I'm absolutely horrified, because I read the study very carefully and the report you've just given is an example of deep disingenouity on behalf of scientists. Contrary to how you've reported this, it is not the case that they studied 11,000 young people and compared their personality traits to the expected characteristics of the zodiac signs. They didn't have access to the personality data for those 11,000. The only people they did personality research on were 4,000 Vietnam veterans; all male, all middle-aged. In other words, the reason they managed to tie the two subjects together was because they also investigated intelligence, about which astrology makes no claim. So, where it comes to actual personality research, very naughtily they've sort of said "Oh, there's nothing in this" but then they haven't actually looked at - their data didn't contain that resource and basic material.
Roger Hearing: Well if you discount the data which you say doesn't work, which was related to the young people, nevertheless they did look at these tens of thousands...
Jonathan Cainer: No it was 4,000 Vietnam veterans, which is a relatively small scale and they were all male ermm and they were all American, and you know that now takes us into a little wider area because I'm not, I'm not going to put my hand up and say that sun sign astrology is a perfect science. It is true that there are about approximately 6 billion people on the planet and we've a roughly equal distribution of birth signs that means that there's half a billion people born under each sign and no of course all Geminis aren't the same but that's the whole point; they [the researchers] were looking for extroversion and introversion. Now, you get extroverted Leos and you get introverted Leos.
Roger Hearing: So what does it mean then if it doesn't predict characteristics or behaviour?
Jonathan Cainer: Oh it does but it predicts them at a somewhat subtler level. Each one of us is ultimately unique and astrology is a much more subtle subject which deserves, and eventually will get, a much more subtle understanding.
Roger Hearing: Well some people might read subtle as being perhaps vague. I mean let me quote what you've written about me. Virgo, err today that is, Thursday April 27th. "Do you want to attain a great victory? Would you like to change something deep-seated and fundamental? Change it forever - it's possible. I mean that's pretty vague isn't it?
Jonathan Cainer: I venture to suggest it's very accurate for what you're currently going through. Interestingly enough you're not the only Virgo in the news at the moment because Charles Clarke [Home Secretary] is also a Virgo, and I'm not suggesting for one moment that the two of you have something very strong in common, but you will in one respect; you'll both have the ability to pay attention to detail. You'll both be methodical in your own way. You'll both be very clever people because Virgo's have ability to ... I mean ... I said astrology doesn't deal with intelligence it does deal with the ability to notice detail and to have perspicacity.
Roger Hearing: But how on Earth does it work. I mean how being born under a particular star or sun sign - how can that possibly make any difference to you?
Jonathan Cainer: Well the answer is: it does. And as for how it works, I only drive the car; I don't know how to operate the engine. I make no claims.

Now, I would like to take issue with a few things that Jonathan Cainer says there. Firstly, a sample of even 4,000 people, rather than being "small scale", is pretty huge. Normally pollsters sample 1,000 people and have to take into account biases (e.g. age, parents, income, profession etc.) that make different parts of the population vote or think differently. However, as astrology only depends on your date, time and location of birth, most of these biases should be totally irrelevant. Also, despite Jonathan Cainer's complaints that the veterans were all male and middle-aged, I would have thought that having a pretty uniform sample, with similar life experiences, would be ideal. After all, there are then less factors that need to be taken into account to explain any differences. Thirdly, Jonathan says that astrology "isn't a perfect science". Well, I'm afraid it isn't a science at all. Although astrologers do make many predictions, they don't tend to stick around to test them to see if they were correct. Jonathan, like other astrologers, likes to dress up astrology as a science by using complicated jargon and talking about precise calculations. When you try to find out what these precise calculations are they start telling you that it is too subtle to study.

Of course, other astrologers have been quick to distance themselves from the uncomfortable scrutiny caused by actual evidence. The Mirror's astrologer Debbie Frank said "astrology should not be treated as a science" and Marlene Houghton was quoted by a very pro-astrology Independent as saying "astrology is a metaphysical doctrine, not a science, and cannot

be easily judged by the narrow instrument that is science." Russell Grant seemed to think that because something has been used for thousands of years it must be correct and added that "proper" astrology was valid. Does that include his own horoscopes?

As I see it, astronomers want to share the knowlege they have found out through hard work

whilst astrologers want to maintain their power by claiming special ways to hidden knowledge. So, it has been quite funny to see all the astrologers out in force to defend their current accounts profession from such a terrible thing as scrutiny, evidence and proper research. Long may the scrutiny continue.

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Posted in astro blog by Stuart on Friday 28th Apr 2006 (01:50 UTC) | 3 Comments | Permalink

London Planetarium

The London Planetarium is about to close its doors and start showing shows about a different type of star; the Posh & Becks variety. Apparently, as a parting gift, the London Planetarium is offering free entry until it closes its doors this Sunday 30th April. After that it will be closed for six weeks so that the changes can be made. Rather bizarrely, the article that I linked to (via Peter) claims that the planetarium is "one of London’s most popular attractions", happily contradicting the claim by the planetarium's managers who said that the closure was "the result of falling visitor numbers". For more on the closure see the BBC video report which interviews the aptly named Diane Moon.

If you live in London this may be your last chance to visit a planetarium until the new Peter Harrison Planetarium is opened at Royal Observatory, Greenwich in spring next year.

Posted in astro blog by Stuart on Wednesday 26th Apr 2006 (22:11 UTC) | Add a comment | Permalink

What happened to solar minimum?

Although we are supposed to be near the lull in the 11 year solar cycle, the Sun constantly surprises us. I just had an AuroraWatch alert appear in my inbox stating that there has been a large increase in local activity ("Possible Sudden Storm Commencement"), suggesting the possibility of seeing the aurora if you are on a part of the planet where it is currently dark. A quick check of SpaceWeather.com shows that there is a fairly large sunspot coming into view - sunspot 875 - which could produce X-class flares.

On a related point, both services are currently under review by their respective funding agencies and look as though they may have their funding reduced or even stopped. Both are asking for supportive comments from people who use the services to watch aurora.

Update (27/4/2006): It would appear that the AuroraAlert turned out to be a false alarm, but as Ian has pointed out in the comments, there have been some large ejections from the two sunspots that are currently visible.

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Posted in astro blog by Stuart on Wednesday 26th Apr 2006 (14:42 UTC) | 1 Comment | Permalink

Comet 73P-B

I was just about to write about the new image of comet 73P-B from the Very Large Telescope (VLT) when I spotted that Ian has written about it already.

In case you didn't know, the comet is in the process of breaking up, but without the need for a washing machine-sized chunk of NASA spacecraft. The new VLT image was created from a series of exposures, using three different coloured filters, and shows the state of the B fragment as it was a couple of days ago. An interesting side effect is that the background star in the image is thus turned into a string of coloured blobs rather than a normal star trail. The ESO press release has all the details.

Comet P73-B
Mini-Comets coming off Comet SW-3 CREDIT: FORS/VLT/ESO

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Posted in astro blog by Stuart on Wednesday 26th Apr 2006 (00:16 UTC) | 8 Comments | Permalink

Torchwood Observatory

Torchwood House
The fictional Torchwood House and Observatory from the BBC's Doctor Who CREDIT: Torchwood Estate (BBC)
Although I have been a fan of the new series of Doctor Who, I was a

little disappointed that the special effects people fell for the "telescope sticking out of the observatory" myth in last Saturday's episode. For those that haven't seen it, I'll try not to spoil the plot, but here is an image of Torchwood House complete with observatory and telescope. I cringed when I saw it, because this isn't how telescopes and observatories look, except in comic strips.

However, thinking about it a bit more, there is a precedent for this type of design from the period in which the episode was set. I'm thinking of the very distinctive "Leviathan of Parsonstown" or Birr Telescope. The Birr Telescope had been constructed by William Parsons, the 3rd Lord of Rosse, and was completed in early 1845. The mirror was a massive 72 inches, mounted in a gigantic 17 metre long tube and supported by 15 m high walls. You can see why it got the name Leviathan. Over the years that the telescope was operational it helped to identify the spiral nature in some objects then known as nebula. We now know that these are galaxies in their own right, but the Leviathan helped with the first steps of working that out. So, perhaps Doctor Who's computer graphics people didn't slip up after all. Perhaps they even incorporated a tip of the hat to an historical astronomical observatory.

Having said that, the sudden cessation of the beam of moonlight at the episode's climax appeared to have no reason other than it was no longer needed. Ah well.

Posted in astro blog by Stuart on Tuesday 25th Apr 2006 (02:34 UTC) | 2 Comments | Permalink

Astronomy podcasting

In the late summer of 2005 a couple of people seeded in me the idea of creating an astronomy podcast to sit alongside the handful that then existed (including the excellent and now one year old Slacker Astronomy). I was busy at that time but by late October myself and a friend at Jodrell Bank Observatory got to thinking seriously about making one of our own. So, after roping in a few more people, the Jodcast (can you see what we did there?) was finally born. I haven't mentioned it before because I thought it would be terribly self referential and biased of me. But, hey, this is my blog after all so it can have one quick plug ;-)

We released our first (monthly) show back in January and now have four episodes out in the wild under a Creative Commons license. Amongst other things, the April show contained a sound tour I made with Alan Gilmore during my trip to Mount John Observatory in New Zealand. The Jodcast site has some pictures from that trip which I didn't post here. Oh, and if you catch the upcoming May show you should hear the voice of a certain Australian astronomy blogger talking about the southern skies.

If you haven't heard it before, please have a listen and let me know what you think of it. We don't have the galaxy of listeners that SA have, but I hope we are getting better as we go along. Comments and suggestions about content, style and format are very welcome (post them here) especially if they help us to make it better.

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Posted in astro blog by Stuart on Saturday 22nd Apr 2006 (16:45 UTC) | 12 Comments | Permalink

Hydrated Mars

ESA's Mars Express has just published a new global map of Mars, showing the location of hydrated minerals, in the journal Science (press release). This follows the publication in Nature last November of the initial findings (press release) suggesting that Mars may have had liquid water in the dim, distant past.

OMEGA instrument
The OMEGA spectrometer onboard ESA's Mars Express CREDIT: Institut d'Astrophysique Spatiale/ESA
The results come from the Observatoire pour la Mineralogie, l’Eau, les Glaces et l’Activité (OMEGA) instrument onboard Mars Express. This little spectrometer observes Mars in the visible to infra-red part of the electromagnetic spectrum (350 to 5,200 nanometres) and can study both the ground and the atmosphere. So far it has mapped over 90% of the Martian surface with a spatial resolution between about 0.5 to 5 kilometres. The team have released a global map showing the location of various hydrated minerals superimposed on a MOLA elevation map.

Hydrated Mars
The global distribution of hydrated minerals. Click for the full-sized version. CREDIT: IAS/OMEGA/ESA
Hydrated minerals come in two forms: phyllosilicates (the red areas on the map) and hydrated sulphates (yellow). The phyllosilicates - an example of which is clay - are composed of thin layers and can form when igneous rocks get altered by contact with water or carbonic acid (H2CO3). The result is that water (H2O) molecules end up within the crystal structure of the mineral. On the other hand a hydrated sulphate forms as deposits from acidic water, but does not need a long-term presence of liquid water to produce it. The authors have put the sites where these two types of hydrated minerals are found into a geological (should that be areological?) context and along with crater counting techniques they have estimated their ages. The results suggest that the two types come from two different periods in Martian history.

In fact, the authors suggest that Mars has had three geological periods. The first, the "phyllosian", occurred just after the planet formed - 4.5–4.2 billion years ago - and may have been warm and moist. The second, the "theiikian", lasted until about 3.8 billion years ago and is characterised by lots of volcanic activity pumping sulphur into the atmosphere and thus producing acid rain. The last period, the "siderikian", has lasted until the present day and seems to have been dry with slow weathering by the atmosphere. Obviously, going from a moist Mars to a dry one means that the water has either gone underground or was lost into space from Mars's rather thin atmosphere.

Posted in astro blog by Stuart on Friday 21st Apr 2006 (16:37 UTC) | 19 Comments | Permalink

Solar Eclipse Revisited

If you were in Europe or Africa on 29th March 2006 you may very well have seen the total solar eclipse. If you weren't - or just didn't get a good view - have a look at some of the fantastic images that Will Gater took on his trip to Turkey with The Sky At Night (online edition due soon).

Posted in astro blog by Stuart on Wednesday 19th Apr 2006 (22:39 UTC) | 1 Comment | Permalink

Empty Space?

The European Southern Observatory (ESO) has just released a 300 million pixel image of a one square degree patch of 'empty sky' that is actually teeming with stars and galaxies. The region of sky that has been imaged is in the southern constellation of the Crater between Virgo, Corvus and Hydra. The image was created from 714 frames taken with the Wide Field Imager on the MPG/ESO 2.2-m telescope at La Silla in Chile as part of the ESO Deep Public Survey. ESO have provided a pretty neat zoom feature so that you can explore the full image. It is really quite impressive and I have included a small portion of it below.

Empty Field
A small section of colour image of the Deep 3 empty field observed with the Wide-Field Camera on the MPG/ESO 2.2-m telescope at La Silla. The image is the combination of 714 frames for a total exposure time of 64.5 hours obtained through four different filters (B, V, R, and I). CREDIT: MPG/ESO 2.2-m + WFI
However, looking at the brighter stars in the image, I can't help but feel that the optics of the instrument are producing images of the secondary mirror with its support legs.

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Posted in astro blog by Stuart on Friday 14th Apr 2006 (15:33 UTC) | 3 Comments | Permalink

Better lighting

Want to help improve the environment by reducing carbon emissions while reducing your electricity bill and getting a better night's sleep? Who wouldn't?

Each year in the UK we spend a lot of money illuminating the night sky rather than the areas on the ground where we actually need the light. We also dazzle drivers and homeowners with badly directed lights, ironically making it harder for them to see. By turning off unwanted lights and making more appropriate using of lighting, power usage can be reduced, electricity bills can be lowered, we will probably be safer and we get to see the amazing free show of the night sky (weather depending). Despite a win-win senario, it seems to be very difficult to acheive in practice as some people seem determined to make night into day.

For many people lighting is a serious nuisance much as noise can be; imagine having stadium floodlights shining through your bedroom window. On 6th April the Clean Neighbourhoods and Environment Act (see commentary from CfDS) came into effect in the UK. This Act makes it possible to do something about poor lighting by reporting it to your local Environmental Health Office. Local councils have issued some advice on what you should do if you feel that poor lighting is affecting you. Of course it is always much better to have a friendly word with the owners of poor lighting first.

A conference discussing the new legislation will be held on 20th April at De Montford University in Leicester. The fee is GBP 30 if you are interested in going.

Posted in astro blog by Stuart on Friday 14th Apr 2006 (14:45 UTC) | 13 Comments | Permalink

Venus Express

After all the success of the Mars Express spacecraft, ESA's Venus Express - created from the 'spare parts' for Mars Express - has entered orbit around the planet Venus. It has already taken some images in UV and infra-red light which look quite interesting. Emily Lakdawalla over at the Planetary Society has been following the events at ESA's European Space Operations Centre in Darmstadt. Her blog makes great reading so scoot over there and have a look.

Posted in astro blog by Stuart on Friday 14th Apr 2006 (14:11 UTC) | 3 Comments | Permalink

Roving Mars

Cue deep rumbling, a full orchestra and that American guy who seems to do all the film voiceovers: "For centuries mankind has dreamed of the day we would unlock the secrets of another planet. That day has arrived...."

With financing from Lockheed Martin, Disney have produced a new IMAX film named Roving Mars (spotted via Will Gater). Rather than be a rather dodgy sci-fi flick, this is more of a big-budget documentary that follows the recent exploration of Mars by the Spirit and Opportunity rovers. Going by the trailer (which needs Quicktime 7), there are interviews with real scientists such as the rover's principal investigator, Steve Squires. Although Roving Mars has been released since January 27th, it may take some time for my nearest IMAX cinema to get a hold of it. Of course, until then, I will have to get by with the images that are still coming from the rovers (Opportunity has just clocked 7km total distance) as well as the great images coming from Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter. I am feeling pretty spoiled.

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Posted in astro blog by Stuart on Friday 14th Apr 2006 (13:48 UTC) | 8 Comments | Permalink

Back home

OK, so my extended holiday is now over and I am back home in the UK. I had a great time visiting friends and relatives in several different countries thanks to a fairly cheap 'round the world' ticket and the generosity of the people that put me up.

I had a lot of fun in the southern hemisphere and got many great views of the southern skies. I am still amazed at how often I could see the Milky Way, even from cities such as Wellington and Adelaide. The northern hemisphere, with more people, land, and less opacity is not so lucky; in Tokyo I found it difficult to see more than a couple of stars and UK cities don't fare much better.

Posted in astro blog by Stuart on Thursday 13th Apr 2006 (09:22 UTC) | 13 Comments | Permalink

Sony Planetarium

While in Tokyo, on my way back home, I stumbled across a Sony science centre (top floor of the Sony Style centre in Odaiba) that contained a digital planetarium. Having never been in a digital planetarium I jumped at the chance to see what it was like.

It turned out to be a fairly small dome - seating 28 - with a ball containing what looked like 8-10 projector lenses in it. The image it produced was really excellent with good contrast that made the Milky Way really stand out. The only trouble for me was that as I don't speak Japanese (apart from the very basics) I couldn't understand the commentary. Having said that, there wasn't much commentary anyway, so I guess it was supposed to be more of a visual experience than a learning one. Still, for people in the middle of a huge city like Tokyo, it may be the only chance they get to see any stars.

The dome showed a view of the night sky from Japan before heading south towards the south pole. This let us see the large and small Magellanic clouds and the centre of the Milky Way. We were then treated to a pretty good full-dome movie of the southern lights. After that we travelled back up to Japan and had an impressive meteor shower before a rather sudden dawn and the end of the show (about 20 minutes I think).

The planetarium was obviously a showcase for Sony digital projector technology and did have some good animations. I couldn't quite tell, but I think the stars and animations were somehow projected with different resolutions, as the stars didn't look pixelated at all. It was certainly worth the admission fee, especially as you get entry to the rest of the science centre that Sony have hidden away at the top of their store.

Posted in astro blog by Stuart on Saturday 08th Apr 2006 (00:02 JST) | 2 Comments | Permalink